Apr 4 2014 8:30pm

From Henry Fonda to Jeff Bridges: A Wild West Primer

I can’t count the number of times people have said to me that they won't watch a Western because they just can’t sit through one of “those boring movies.” Not another stale plot of cowboys vs. Indians mêlée or range war standoff, they say. And I agree with them … I can’t sit through those either. Then I tell them there are many great Western films and shows that offer so much more. This prompted me to come up with a list that represents something better than the preconceived notion of the dusty, old genre. You know, a primer of sorts for beginners, or hardened vets. So, stand back, here’s a shot of eleven films and two TV series (in no particular order) that should ignite a powder keg of enthusiasm under any Western newbie.


Tombstone (1993): I’ve yet to find an ornery, anti-Western hombre who wasn’t converted by this retelling of the Wyatt Earp legend. All the actors own their roles, but Val Kilmer steals the show as the lawman's faithful friend, Doc Holliday. My favorite scene is when Doc diffuses a potentially deadly gunfight with nothing more than a shot glass.


A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966): The Sergio Leone/Clint Eastwood “Dollars” trilogy is still influencing the way Westerns are filmed today. No wonder. The music, close-ups, and operatic storytelling are all brilliantly executed. The series has become known for establishing the Spaghetti Western. Interestingly, Fistful was based on Akira Kurosawa's 1961 film Yojimbo starring Toshiro Mifune.


The Wild Bunch (1969) A bloody, action-packed, poignant tale of the last days of several gunfighters and the honor that binds them. Each actor involved turns in a role of a lifetime playing men who have outlived their times and are painfully aware of their mortality. Directed by Sam Peckinpah who also stamped the genre with the equally fine Ride the High Country (1962) and The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970).


Jeremiah Johnson (1972): Robert Redford’s Jeremiah is soured by civilization and decides to be a mountain man in remote Utah. Based in part on Robert Bunker's book Crow Killer: The Saga of Liver-Eating Johnson and Vardis Fisher’s Mountain Man. I recently watched Jeremiah back to back with Redford’s current survival film 'All Is Lost' where he is adrift at sea. Similar themes of man versus nature and enjoyable to compare the distinguished actor at different stages of age tackling the elements.


True Grit (2010): Much has been made of which is better: Wayne’s iconic (and Academy Award winning role) 1969 version or the Coen brothers retelling. I’ll place my chips on the newer version with Hailee Steinfield’s portrayal of Mattie Ross tipping the scale between these fine films.



Once Upon a Time in the West (1968): Arguably Leone’s finest film. Henry Fonda is one bad-ass, razor-cold villain playing wonderfully against type. Charles Bronson is the man with long-simmering revenge on his mind. It is the first in Leone's “Once Upon a Time” trilogy. The other two are Once Upon a Time... the Revolution (Duck, You Sucker) and Once Upon a Time in America.


The Gunfighter (1950): A thought-provoking Western that I first discovered through the Bob Dylan song, “Brownsville Girl.” Gregory Peck plays a weary gunslinger who has grown tired of his fame and just wants to see his son. The film plays out in real time as the gunfighter hard-eyes a clock throughout the film as his past quickly catches up with him.



The Ox-Bow Incident (1943): Gang mentality and what happens to good folks who get caught up in the frenzy of a lynching. Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan play two cowboys who are dismayed by the breakdown of humanity around them and stand up against the mob. The film was adapted from the 1940 novel written by Walter Van Tilburg Clark. A sobering, topical film that was far ahead of its time.


Wanted: Dead or Alive (1958-1961): A TV series starring Steve McQueen. The King of Cool's gritty performance as bounty hunter, Josh Randall, endures. One of the few shows from the old days that is still highly watchable to discriminating younger viewers.




The Shootist (1976): Though John Wayne films are now considered your great-grandpa's Westerns, the Duke's final film where he plays a gunfighter dying of cancer (which he was in real life) is moving and a testament to why he remained a cultural icon for five decades. The opening collage of older clips pays due respect to the legendary actor.


Firefly (2002-2003): A space-Western TV series (14 episodes) that is still attracting new fans. Forget Castle, Nathan Fillion will always be Captain Mac Reynolds to me. His tongue-in-cheek performance is a cross between Eastwood’s Man with No Name and Han Solo. The movie, Serenity, followed the series a couple of years in response to the clamoring of its devoted followers.




Quigley Down Under (1990): Tom Selleck is my favorite Western actor of the past twenty-five years. Check out my earlier review of Quigley, or better yet, watch it for yourself to see why.




The Professionals (1966): Rancher J.W. Grant (Ralph Bellamy) hires four men (Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, and Woody Strode), all experts in their respective fields, to rescue his kidnapped wife (Claudia Cardinale) from a cowbandit (Jack Palance). The best line is when Grant calls Lancaster’s character a bastard. His reply, “Yes, Sir. In my case an accident of birth. But you, Sir, you're a self-made man.”


So those are my choices. What would you suggest? Let us know your favorite Westerns in the comments below.

Edward A. Grainger, aka David Cranmer, is the author of the Cash Laramie and Gideon Miles series and recently edited BEAT to a PULP: Trails of the Wild.

Read all posts by Edward A. Granger for Criminal Element.

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Terrie Farley Moran
1. Terrie
My top picks: The Virginian, High Noon, Shane and my #1 The Magnificent Seven. I have seen everything on your list except Firefly. Your choices are impeccable, although I was never crazy about the Eastwood films--great music, though. Tombstone was released on Christmas Day and it was at the top of my list for a Christmas present so we went to see it Christmas night. Kilmer was extraordinary. My favorite movies from this list are The Shootist and The Oxbow Incident. I was a kid in 1958 but we saw Wanted Dead or Alive every week, as did all the kids in my class. Great post. Thanks!!
David Cranmer
2. DavidCranmer
Terrie, Shane and The Magnificent Seven are justifiably legendary. And I have seen Tombstone more times than any other Western on this list. 30? Maybe 40 times? I've lost track and Kilmer is Doc Holliday. He will own that role for some time to come.
3. macavityabc
Shane, Ride the High Country, Rio Bravo, The Searchers, and on an on. Too many to list here.
David Cranmer
4. DavidCranmer
Sam Peckinpaw's Ride the High Country. Yeah. Enough said.
5. angrygreycatreads
As much as I loved John Wayne's True Grit, there is a lot to love in the remake. Also, the book True Grit was a GREAT read. I was really surprised by it, I didn't expect it to be that good. It was one of my book club's choices one month.
David Cranmer
6. DavidCranmer
angrygreycatreads, Agreed. The Charles Portis novel is indeed one of the great American novels on par with any literary classic.
Scott Adlerberg
7. ScottAdlerberg
Excellent group of films and series. Among these, my favorites are all the Leones (with ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST number 1), THE WILD BUNCH, and THE PROFESSIONALS.

Among my favorite Westerns: WINCHESTER 73, THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, JOHNNY GUITAR, UNFORGIVEN, THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES, THE TALL T (as a representative of all the superb Budd Boetticher - Randolph Scott Westerns), McCABE AND MRS. MILLER, LITTLE BIG MAN, THE GREAT SILENCE. Among Western TV series, far and away my favorite is DEADWOOD.
David Cranmer
8. DavidCranmer
Scott, McCabe And Mrs. Miller is, hands down, one of the greatest
(if not greatest) revisionist Westerns of all time. And that ending, with Beatty in the snow, remains unforgettable. I've picked Deadwood (elsewhere) as my personal top fave for TV shows. Though I wish they would film just one more episode to top it off, right? Or is that asking too much?
Brian Greene
9. BrianGreene
Great list, David. One other that comes to my mind is Monte Hellman's The Shooting, from 1966. But I just like pretty much everything Hellman has directed. Millie Perkins is great in that one, and it doesn't hurt to have Jack Nicholson around.
David Cranmer
10. DavidCranmer
The Shooting with Warren Oates. What a superb actor who left us way too early. And, to this day, I've missed the other Hellman film from this period called Ride in the Whirlwind that also features Nicholson and Perkins. Thanks for reminding me, Brian.
Brian Greene
11. BrianGreene
Oates in Hellman's moody road movie Two-Lane Blacktop is one of my favorite acting performances. Yep, Whirlwind is good, too. Thanks for the great piece here, David.
12. Prashant C. Trikannad
A very good list, David. I enjoy watching all kinds of westerns and I usually don't form opinions about them. I liked TOMBSTONE a lot. I equate this latter-day western with the latter-day gangster movie THE UNTOUCHABLES, modern versions of historical films revolving around Wyatt Earp-Doc Holliday in one and Eliot Ness-Al Capone in the other. There are a few in your list that I haven't seen yet.
David Cranmer
13. DavidCranmer
You bet, Brian!

Prashant C. Trikannad, I never looked at it through those eyes, comparing it to latter-day gangster movies. Though (off subject a little) I have actually argued some of the finer points about Tombstone. There was a fire that morning that distracted town folks from witnessing the gunfight and if you time the film it comes in at around 30 seconds (or so) which was closer to accuracy than some films that go on for two or more minutes. Geez, I may have an itch to watch it again this weekend!
14. Barry Ergang
All of the Randolph Scott westerns written by Burt Kennedy and directed by Budd Boetticher, but especially Ride Lonesome. And, hokey though some might think them, a few years ago I rediscovered from my childhood the Hopalong Cassidy films starring William Boyd, which are the best of the best B-westerns aimed primarily at younger viewers. Hoppy rocks, especially in Hopalong Cassidy Returns.
15. Ron Scheer
No question about your choices, David. For a generation that grew up on TV, the generic western is pretty much fixed in their minds as tiresome and cliched. Either noisy B-westerns from the dusty vault or the often dull family-friendly series (Bonanza, The Virginian) that ran in the 60s and early 70s. My son-in-law loves Gunsmoke, but he's an exception.

If I picked just one of your list that would challenge someone's opinion of westerns, it would be The Wild Bunch.
16. Jim Wilsky

Now hold on there pardner. You've got a great list but I just have to add three more;
*Lonesome Dove - To me, probably the best western I've ever seen and that's covering a helluva lot of ground. Jones and Duvall were brilliant.
*Open Range - Again, the duo of Costner and Duvall was top notch and the long gun fight was by far the best I've ever watched. Great bad guy in Michael Gambon.
*Broken Trail - Not well known but a dandy. A superb story line. Duvall pulls Thomas Hayden Church right on up on his level, as great actors do - and talk about a bad guy, how about that Chris Mulkey.
Yes, Duvall is the constant but he's so damn any part. Enjoyed your post! - Jim
Scott Adlerberg
17. ScottAdlerberg
Edward, YES, if only Deadwood could be wrapped up. The one thing missing in a great series.

Brian, I like those Monte Hellman films also. Introspective, thoughtful sort of Westerns. Quite unusual. As of course is Two Lane Blacktop.
David Cranmer
18. DavidCranmer
Barry, I admit I came to the Randolph Scott round-up a bit late save Ride the High Country. And I’m only now delving deeper into the Boetticher films and what a treasured find!

Ron, I grew up on the end of Gunsmoke’s twenty year television run and am still a huge admirer. I particularly like the Matt light episodes where the story would highlight another member of the Dodge City community. Then Matt would usually show up toward the end of the episode and correct any dangling moral issues.

All fine films, Jim. Lonesome Dove is poetry on film. And I’m with you on Duvall. He brings a legitimacy to his roles. Yes, that Open Range gunfight is an explosive and well choreographed
corker and it reminds me that Costner deserves much credit to that film’s success.

Scott, Maybe fans need to do a Kickstarter for Deadwood. Hell, if they can get Veronica Mars into theaters then Deadwood should be a cinch.
David Cranmer
19. DavidCranmer
Noted Western (and Fantasy, Horror, etc) writer Charles Gramlich was having some difficulty leaving a comment and sent me the following:

Definitely some good stuff here. I just saw Jeremiah Johnson again a bit ago. Very strong movie. Butch Cassidy could probably fit here as well. Unforgiven. Boring westerns? I don't even understand how those words can go together. :)

I agree on Butch Cassidy, Charles. Hard for film goers to dislike that movie though critics really slammed it in the day.
20. Barry Ergang
I forgot to mention my all-time-favorite TV western: the original "Maverick" starring James Garner and Jack Kelly.
David Cranmer
21. DavidCranmer
Maverick is so much damn fun and I enjoyed Garner's turn in the feature film of the 90's. But, yeah, that original show would fit nicely on this list. And just looking at Wikipedia I didn't realize there were three different attempts to reboot the franchise in the 70's and 80's. I may have to take a look at these continuations.
Randy Johnson
22. Randal120
I'm the Randal120. Insists Randy Johnson is already in use.
Randy Johnson
23. Randal120
It seems to have dropped my comment as well.

Fine stuff all and great for western neophytes to start.
david hartzog
24. dlhartzog
Your list is excellent! I would also list Hour of the Gun, Forty Guns, Ambush at Tomahawk Gap, Chuka, Return of the Gunfighter, Rio Conchos, The Law and Jake Wade, Alvarez Kelly, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, 7 Men From Now, Major Dundee, Man of the West, Yellow Sky, Only the Valiant, among others.
David Cranmer
25. DavidCranmer
Thanks for stopping by, Randy. Sorry to read you had some issues signing in. The Saturday cyber gremlins must be having a field day. I do appreciate your affirmative praise for my article. I know you are a well read and well viewed Western aficionado. Your opinion means a great deal, amigo. Thanks.

dlhartzog, Carumba! You listed a few (like Chuka) I haven't thought of in a long time and some favorites like 7 Men From Now, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and Hour of the Gun. You know I have never watched Yellow Sky and that's staggering for me because my Cash Laramie and Gideon Miles noir Western series is influenced partly by the superb work of director William Wellman.
26. Larry D. Sweazy
The bad thing about lists is that everybody has thier own picks. Yours is a great primer. I would add Shane, my all time favorite, and The Searchers, as much for the ground-breaking technique as anything. Speilberg paid homage to John Ford with a doorway shot of his own in Saving Private Ryan. Some people will always have an aversion to specific genres, which is a shame, because they miss out on some great stories.
David Cranmer
27. DavidCranmer
Larry, For many, many years Shane was the Western film (and book) for me. I especially like Alan Ladd's weary intrepretation of Jack Schaefer's character. I had a VHS copy that I played until the tape itself busted. I used scotch tape to mend it and kept trucking. I now appreciate Schaefer's Monte Walsh a wee bit more though I haven't read that book but saw the excellent Tom Selleck film.
28. Steve Hockensmith
Great list! Most of the movies and shows I'd add have already been tossed into the mix, but I don't think I saw anyone mention the Anthony Mann Westerns The Naked Spur and Man of the West. They're both basically psychological thrillers transplanted into colorful Western settings. In fact, a lot of great Westerns are really crime stories that just happen to take place on the frontier. I wish more people would give them a chance.
29. Oscar Case
I don't see much western comedy in there, David. I would add Blazing Saddles and the Destry movies.
David Cranmer
30. DavidCranmer
Yes to Anthony Mann and James Stewart Westerns, Steve. And I wish more viewers would see that the hardboiled 1940s antihero was the son and grandson of the Old West loner. Something I've tried to connect with my Cash Laramie and Jack Laramie (The Drifter Detective) series.

Oscar, If Blazing Saddles is on I can't switch the channel. Still cracks me up.
david hartzog
31. dlhartzog
Interesting comment on Yellow Sky. You mention Monte Walsh, fine Selleck version, but imho. Lee Marvin's version the best. And how could I overlook Shane and The Searchers, both of which I recently viewed, or Rough Night in Jericho, or ........ Jeez, they used to make some fine westerns.
David Cranmer
32. DavidCranmer
dlhartzog, I very much like Marvin's Monte and most Western fans would probably agree with your preference but I've been stuck on Selleck westerns for a few years now. And I enjoy his rapport with Isabella Rossellini playing the countess.
david hartzog
33. dlhartzog
Yes, and props to Tom Selleck and Sam Elliott for keeping the western alive at least on the small screen.
34. Chris Leek
I can’t argue with anything on your list David, all fine choices. And the subsequent comments have covered pretty much all of my favorites. I would however like to offer up one more movie for discussion, Silverado. While it might not rate alongside the all time greats, I feel it is worthy of a mention for breathing new life into the genre at a time when the western was all but dead and buried as far as Hollywood was concerned.
David Cranmer
35. DavidCranmer
dlhartzog, I hope the two of them find the time (and support) to film another six-shooter. But if not, they sure did plenty. The Shadow Riders is about the most fun you can have watching a Western on the small screen.

Chris, Good point. Silverado came directly in the middle of the 1980's and infused necessary juice into a past expired genre. And it did quite well at the box office going up against Back to the Future if I remember correctly.
david hartzog
36. dlhartzog
Good points, gentlemen! I liked Silverado as well.
37. Larry Coven
Silverado for sure--if for no other reason than it's a Western with John Cleese in it.
David Cranmer
38. DavidCranmer
Ha! Good point, Larry. Not many Westerns have a cast member from Monty Python's Flying Circus.
kevin greenstreet
39. rudeboy99
All the picks are great, there have been so many quality western themed films that it's nigh impossible to select a mere handfull. One thing I didn't see commented on was the pervasiveness of basic western storylines and ideals lapping over to all types of screenplays. The western ideal is evident in films from Blade Runner to Zero Dark Thirty. The idea that personal honor, fairness and courage spill over to every aspect of the entertainment business. Truthfully, we owe a huge debt to the pioneers of the genre.
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