In 2003’s Monte Walsh, a story about the end days of the Old West cowboy, our protagonist played by Tom Selleck tells another long-time ranch hand that as long as there is one cow and one cowboy, it ain’t over. The film closes with Monte heroically galloping away on horseback, leaping over a car stuck in the mud, to continue on plying his trade. I wonder what became of Monte in what time he had left, and I’d be willing to bet that wherever he took life’s last stand his attitude remained unchanged.
Here are ten cowboys who came along well after the dust settled on the American West but still have the grit that would have made Monte Walsh proud.
Timothy Olyphant as Raylan Givens in Justified (2010-present).
Justified, a neo-Western, is based on Elmore Leonard’s novels Pronto and Ridingthe Rap and his short story “Fire in the Hole.” Deputy U.S. Marshal Givens enforces the law with the shoot-first-ask-questions-(if time permits)-later method which doesn’t sit well with his superiors in Miami, Florida. And so he is banished to Lexington, Kentucky, close to where he grew up in Harlan County. When he isn’t chasing down local villains like Boyd Crowder and Mags Bennett, he has his hands full with his own family members who walk a fine line between legal and illegal activity. Well, mostly illegal. Mr. Olyphant now has two legendary Western TV series to his credit, the other being the renowned Deadwood.
Robert Taylor as Walt Longmire in Longmire (2012-present)
With his chiseled looks, Robert Taylor’s mug should be added to a cowboy ‘Mount Rushmore’ with John Wayne, Gary Cooper, and Clint Eastwood. But, man, doesn’t Longmire have enough troubles for all of them combined plus the ten listed here. Examples: At the end of season two, his best friend Henry Standing Bear is headed to jail on murder charges, his deputy Branch Connally is left for dead on the reservation, and Deputy Victoria “Vic” Moretti is being stalked by an ex. Not to mention he’s still mourning his deceased wife Martha and working to mend his relationship with his daughter Cady. Somehow through it all, we are assured his cowboy code of ethics will see him through. Season 3 begins in June.
Steve McQueen as Junior Bonner in Junior Bonner (1972)
Director Sam Peckinpah went gentle (his nickname was “Bloody Sam” for films like The Wild Bunch) with the story of Junior Bonner, a rodeo champion who returns to Prescott, Arizona, to reunite with his parents and brother. The film bombed at the box office but is now considered a classic with many memorable performances from a veteran cast that included Robert Preston, Ben Johnson, Mary Murphy, and Ida Lupino. Trivia: Preston and Lupino were both born in 1918, making their son McQueen just twelve years younger. Well, I guess anything’s possible.
Nathan Fillion as Mac Reynolds in Firefly (2002-2003).
This short-lived series created by Joss Whedon spawned a 2005 space Western film, Serenity, after fans clamored over the show’s cancellation. Fillion’s tongue-in-cheek performance as Captain Mac Reynolds is a cross between Eastwood’s Man with No Name and Han Solo. Lots of action and humor in this series. In one episode Mal assures a fellow soldier who is afraid to die that they won’t, “Because we are so… very… pretty. We are just too pretty for God to let us die. Huh? Look at that chiseled jaw, huh? Come on!” Not to be missed, and here’s hoping Whedon and crew take Serenity on another voyage.
Clint Eastwood as Walt Coogan in Coogan’s Bluff (1968)
While eyeing NYC, Walt Coogan laments, “Trying to picture it the way it was, just the trees and the river before people came along and fouled it all up.” After years in traditional and Spaghetti Westerns like The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, Clint turned that squinty gaze to playing modern Arizona Deputy Sheriff Coogan who’s sent to The Big Apple to extradite an escaped killer. A stirring segment has Clint on motorcycle chasing his fugitive down in a, thankfully, mostly deserted park. Coogan’s Bluff is saddled with many late ’60s dated film techniques but still is great fun with Clint playing the fish out of water role.
Dennis Weaver as Sam McCloudin McCloud (1970-1977)
Sam McCloud resumes the “cowboy in the big city” in this TV series loosely adapted from Eastwood’s Coogan’s Bluff. Dennis Weaver brings his no-nonsense style and likable charm as McCloud to solving crime as well as some familiar wrongdoings like cattle rustling. One of the great iconic images from this series is McCloud on horseback galloping through the busy metropolitan city. Trivia: The first choice for the role of McCloud was Fess Parker (TV’s Davey Crockett and Daniel Boone) who turned it down, which is good because I can’t imagine anyone else but Weaver in the title role.
Paul Newman as Hud Bannon in Hud (1963)
The screenplay based on Larry McMurtry's 1961 novel Horseman, Pass By stars Newman as the ne’er-do-well, charismatic Hud Bannon. Hud has quite the chip on his shoulder and lashes out at everyone, which dangerously draws the admiration of his impressionable nephew Lonnie played by Brandon De Wilde. One excellent scene, among many, occurs when Hud’s father (Melvyn Douglas) explains after thirty plus years why he despises his son: “You keep no check on your appetites at all.” Trivia: Rocker John Mellencamp who is a big fan of Hud sprinkled many phrases from this film into his albums and songs like “Lonely Ol’ Night.”
Robert Mitchum as Jeff Macloud in The Lusty Men (1952)
A bad title for a thought-provoking film about desperate, nomadic characters like Mitchum’s Jeff Macloud, a washed-up rodeo star who’s befriended by Wes Merritt (Arthur Kennedy), wishing to improve his own rodeo skills. Merritt’s wife Louise (Susan Hayward) is against the idea but travels with them nonetheless as Merritt’s confidence and skill builds. The run-of-the-mill soap opera aspects of the film are more than balanced by this vivid account of the 1950s “saddle tramps” and men and women in search of dough.
Sean Connery as William O’Niel in Outland (1981)
A futuristic High Noon style film with Connery as Federal Marshall William O’Niel (in the role of Will Kane) who finds himself on one of Jupiter’s moons. O’Niel discovers a strong amphetamine is being given to the workers to make them more productive but the drug has lethal consequences. When assassins are sent to kill him, he finds very little help from the community. I review the film in more detail here.
Robert Redford as Norman Steele in The Electric Horseman (1979)
Redford plays Norman “Sonny” Steele, a former championship rodeo rider who’s resorted to hawking breakfast cereal. He’s due to make a promotional appearance by riding a $12 million champion thoroughbred race horse, Rising Star, but Sonny discovers the horse has been drugged and is injured. He decides to ride Rising Star cross country and release the animal in a remote canyon with other free-roaming horses. Jane Fonda plays the wily reporter who wants to get the story and then unexpectedly falls in love with Sonny.
That’s my list for ten modern cowboys who kick ass like it’s 1880. I’m sure you have thought of a few more yourself. Let me know in the comments.