Steve McQueen: The King of Cool Westerns

Steve McQueen (1930-1980) built a legendary acting career playing anti-establishment characters in memorable films like Bullitt, The Thomas Crown Affair, and The Getaway. In 1974 he finally passed a personal goal by becoming the highest paid Hollywood star (and top billing against friendly rival Paul Newman) with his turn in The Towering Inferno. But, at the beginning, The King of Cool rose to fame playing Western heroes like Josh Randall on television and his breakout movie role as Vin in The Magnificent Seven. Here are seven spur-wearing parts that span his notable acting career:

Trackdown: The Bounty Hunter (TV, 1958)

Robert Culp starred in Trackdown (1957-1959) as Texas Ranger Hoby Gilman who worked out of a small town in West Texas solving an assortment of trouble that passed through his region. A spin-off series was created from Trackdown (which itself was a spin-off of Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theater) featuring McQueen as bounty hunter Josh Randall who wanders the American Old West bringing in wanted felons with the leverage of a sawed off shotgun he fondly calls his Mare’s leg. In this first outing aptly titled “The Bounty Hunter,” he helps Hoby locate a less than savory husband. Trivia: Culp claims credit for landing McQueen the part of Randall. According to bonus material on the DVD releases of the classic Wanted: Dead or Alive series, he taught McQueen the “art of the fast-draw,” adding that on the second day of filming McQueen easily won.

Wanted: Dead or Alive (TV series, 1958-1961)

Josh Randall, an amiable confederate veteran carries a shortened Winchester Model 1892 carbine (anachronistic detail since the series is set in the 1870s) and search for the bounty paid on wanted criminals. The producers initially had a tough time selling the show because bounty killers were generally considered bad guys by the public so quite often Randall shows a soft heart and turns the monetary reward, or part of it, over to folks who were harmed by the men and women he brings to justice. Steve McQueen built his hard-to-work-with status on this hit television series by throwing out scripts if he didn’t feel they were right and arguing with directors to better a scene. Allegedly he even punched a horse that was giving him trouble. Of the show he is quoted as saying, “Three hard mother-grabbin' years, but I learned my trade and it gave me discipline.” Trivia: In 1960 Randall had a brief sidekick named Jason Nichols (Wright King) a former deputy sheriff but by the start of the final season, Nichols disappeared altogether without explanation.

The Magnificent Seven (film, 1960)

A beloved movie classic—and according to Wikipedia it is the second most shown film in U.S. television history after The Wizard of Oz—based on the equally renowned Seven Samurai (1954) by Akira Kurosawa. The seven: Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Robert Vaughn, Brad Dexter, and Horst Buchholz are American gunmen hired to protect a small Mexican village from a group of bandits led by the villainous Eli Wallach. The film did moderate success in the US accompanied by bad to tepid reviews (NY Times calling it, “a pallid, pretentious and overlong reflection of the Japanese original”) but became a huge hit nonetheless overseas. It grew in stature stateside as a majority of its stars-to-be came into their own over the ensuing decade. Followed by three sequels and a much later TV series. Trivia: McQueen (who was ‘given the camera’ by director John Sturges) steals the film from Yul Brynner as he shakes a shotgun round before loading it and is constantly fidgeting with his hat while Brynner is speaking. Brynner refused to quick draw in the same scene as McQueen out of the fear of being slower on the draw. Right decision there, Yul.

Nevada Smith (film, 1966)

Max Sand, aka Nevada Smith (McQueen), finds his white father and Indian mother brutally murdered at the hands of three outlaws played by Arthur Kennedy, Martin Landau, and Karl Malden. Nevada begins green (and also a bit of a stretch for the then 35-year-old actor to be playing what’s alluded to as a teenager) but with some guidance from gunsmith Brian Keith, who he tried to rob with an unloaded revolver, comes into his own and tracks down each killer and exacts revenge. When a man of God attempts to steer Nevada Smith away from a life of violence, Nevada eyes a crucifix commenting that forgiving didn’t work out that well for the man on the cross and he’ll stick with an eye for an eye. Sounds like this revenge film should work—all the elements for a good Western revenge film is present—but somehow Nevada Smith  comes across flat and meandering, though, still worthwhile for McQueen fans. Trivia: Nevada Smith was a prequel to 1964’s The Carpetbaggers, in which Alan Ladd had played an older version of Nevada Smith.

The Reivers (film, 1969)

OK, not really a Western, The Reivers is a Southern period piece based on William Faulkner’s final novel, though fans of the Western genre won’t complain it’s included in the round-up. The story takes place in 1905, following the likable but free-spirited Boon Hoggenbeck (Steve McQueen) who becomes fascinated by a stylish new car, a Winton Flyer, that is the property of a man named Boss (Will Geer). Along with his young friend Lucius (Mitch Vogel) and buddy Ned (Rupert Crosse) they decide to take the vehicle from Mississippi to Memphis to visit Boon’s friend Corrie (Sharon Farrell) and along the way get in all kinds of mischief. Once they get to their destination, Ned trades the car for a horse, and they find themselves involved with a race to win the Flyer back. My favorite scene, among many, is the horse that loves sardines and runs like a winner when properly motivated. A fun and rewarding movie not to be missed. The narrator (Burgess Meredith) explains the title by saying, “And so we were three, three reivers high-tailing it for Memphis. Oh, ‘reivers.’ That's an old-fashioned word from my childhood. In plain English, I'm afraid it meant “thieves.”

Junior Bonner (film, 1972)

McQueen plays a modern Western cowboy (click here for my Ten Modern Cowboys post) as a rodeo champion Junior ”JR“ Bonner who returns to Prescott, Arizona, to reunite with his parents and brother and ride the unruly bull, Sunshine. Junior turns down a job from his arrogant salesman brother Curly by saying, “I gotta go down my own road.” “What road?” Curly replies, “I mean, I'm workin' on my first million, and you're still workin' on eight seconds.”It’s a quiet film and more amazingly so since it was directed by Sam Peckinpah known for volatile films like The Wild Bunch (1969) and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974). The film bombed at the box office—Peckinpah remarked, ”I made a film where nobody got shot and nobody went to see it.”—but it’s now considered a film classic. A rousing crowded bar-room scene where the entire Bonner family and friends end up brawling but nobody is seriously injured is a hoot. Trivia: Both McQueen and Peckinpah ‘rebounded’ the same year with the hugely successful The Getaway.

Tom Horn (film, 1980)

In his last two films McQueen returned to the type of roles that made him famous—playing a cowboy in Tom Horn and a man for hire in The Hunter. Sadly, both were pale imitations of what came before, though Tom Horn is one of the better films of McQueen’s final period. Plot: Tom Horn was a legend in his own time for riding with Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders and helping to capture Geronimo. He wanders into a small town, in 1901, where he is offered $200 for every rustler he brings in alive or dead. It’s heavily implied by any means necessary and that he has the backing of the cattle association. Horn soon becomes too effective at his job and the same folks who hired him become weary of their association and plan his demise. Trivia: The troubled production went through at least four directors including Don Siegel who left and James William Guerico who was fired by McQueen after only a few days. And it was during the making of this movie that McQueen had trouble breathing and later found to have malignant mesothelioma, a rare form of lung cancer, which he would die from in 1980.

I know there are a lot of Steve McQueen fans out there. What’s your favorite Western, action, or drama movie from The King of Cool?

Edward A. Grainger aka David Cranmer is the editor/publisher of the BEAT to a PULP webzine and books and the recent anthology collection, The Lizard’s Ardent Uniform and Other Stories.

Read all of Edward A. Grainger's posts for Criminal Element.


  1. Scott Adlerberg

    Papillon. I like McQueen in a number of things (The Cincinatti Kid for one) but Papillon by far is my favorite of his films. I think it’s his best performance also.

  2. David Cranmer

    Have to agree Papillon is a favorite of mine as well. Read somewhere that Dustin Hoffman starved himself for the role but McQueen continued to gain weight and they needed to provide him with baggy clothes to look like a starving prisoner.

  3. stitchkat

    The Thomas Crown Affair – lots of fun.

  4. David Cranmer

    stitchkat, And I still prefer the original ending to the remake.

  5. Terrie Farley Moran

    Excellent piece. Steve McQueen was fabulous in every film he made. I will never forget the motorcycle ride in The Great Escape.

  6. Prashant C. Trikannad

    David, thanks for this excellent article on Steve McQueen. He has always been a bit of an enigma for me. It’s like you see his films but you don’t know him very well as an actor. I haven’t seen some of the films you analysed although I thought his part in THE TOWERING INFERNO looked like he was acting in a documentary on firefighting. In contrast, Newman was more animated. I guess that was McQueen’s persona, sort of deadpan to all appearances but a great actor nonetheless. I liked the way he stole the show from the rest of the equally formidable cast in THE GREAT ESCAPE. I think he laid down the rules before agreeing to be a part of the film.

  7. david hartzog

    Excellent post. Among many fine films, my favorite McQueen is Bullitt, followed by The Cincinnati Kid, Junior Bonner, and The Getaway. In fact, I just rewatched Junior last week for the umpteenth time, terrific cast, story that never ages.

  8. David Cranmer

    [b]Terrie[/b], I remember as a kid trying to jump my bicycle over ditches like Hilts, “the Cooler King,” and taking one helluva spill.
    [b]Prashant[/b], I read that director Sturges attempted to make James Garner the center of the film during production but McQueen still steals the show and I think a big part of that is his outsider status in the movie, his cool persona, and that incredible motorcycle jump.
    [b]dlhartzog[/b], JUNIOR BONNER has remained a favorite of mine for a very long time and the appeal is that outstanding ensemble cast that works together like a finely tuned machine. A fun fact is Steve was only about twelve years younger than his parents played by Preston and Lupino.

  9. Heath Lowrance

    Great retrospective. TOM HORN is a personal favorite. And did you notice that, in NEVADA SMITH, he’s never referred to by that name except (if I remember correctly) in the last couple of minutes of the movie? I remember wondering the whole time why the movie was called NEVADA SMITH.

  10. David Cranmer

    Heath, yeah, his character is named Max Sand through the film until the ending and, even funnier, he’s suppose to be a young man just starting out though McQueen was like 35 at the time. And his last Western, Tom Horn, has aged quite well though it was originally knocked by critics and performed poor at the box office.

  11. Mates

    I will always remember Steve McQueen as being a star of escape films like The Getaway and Papillon.

  12. David Cranmer

    Mates, It did seem like he was always escaping, right? The Great Escape, The Getaway, and Papillon. And being chased in The Thomas Crown Affair. Damn fine movies.

  13. Brian Greene

    More excellent coverage, David. I feel somewhat predictable saying this but have to say my favorite McQueen role is in Bullitt. I now want to see a few of these titles, particualrly The Reivers.

  14. David Cranmer

    The Reivers is timeless fun, Brian. Not to be missed. Bullitt has long been my go to McQueen film though The Thomas Crown Affair and Junior Bonner are close seconds.

  15. Oscar Case

    As you say, damn fine movies!

  16. Oscar Case

    McQueen was also “famous” for the invention of the bucket seat as an offshoot of his racing endeavors, according to Useless Knowledge which popped up on my blog today.

  17. RonScheer

    McQueen is a favorite of mine. He is so cool and relaxed on screen –almost still, though you can see his character is all the time thinking. Of his western films, TOM HORN is one I like. I also like Brian Keith in NEVADA SMITH.

    WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE is fun because you never know what well-known actor early in his career will show up as a villain.

  18. David Cranmer

    [b]Oscar[/b], I’m a follower of Useless Knowledge, friend. A regular Cliff Clavin.
    [b]Ron[/b], I’ve felt that Wanted: Dead Or Alive has aged better than a lot of the 50’s Westerns and the reason is McQueen’s movement on screen. His action is swift and to the point. He leaps from horses, is second to none in handling various weapons, and is just plain believable in every scene.

  19. John M. Whalen

    Here’s an excerpt from a Stirling Silliphant interview talking about the problems he had writing Towering Inferno for both McQueen and Paul Newman. Interesting to learn McQueen had some kind of speech impediment. I never noticed it.

  20. David Cranmer

    Enjoyed that, John. Thanks. I chuckled over McQueen saying there can be too much blue eyes in a film.

  21. Steve Hockensmith

    Yet another fun roundup that has me heading to Netflix to add more movies to my queue! (Specifically: The Reivers and Junior Bonner.) Just by coincidence, I watched Nevada Smith for the first time within the last month. I have to agree with the comments here: It’s pretty weak. The story’s O.K., the cinematography is gorgeous and there’s a strong cast, but something just doesn’t click. And I found it really weird how everyone keeps referring to McQueen’s character as “a kid” and “a boy” when he was clearly 30-something years old. It seemed to me that McQueen’s way of acting young was just to play the character as a bit thick: Max Sand/Nevada Smith struck me as something of a lunkhead. But hey — you can’t win ’em all, even when you’re the King of Cool.

  22. David Cranmer

    Steve, Nevada Smith was a good idea but like my dad use to say needed a little more time at the drawing board. I could see a remake being far superior. Still, Western and McQueen fans should take a look.

  23. A Cuban In London

    Coolest guy in town, only surpassed by Paul Newman, in my humble opinion. 🙂

    Greetings from London.

  24. David Cranmer

    A Cuban In London, It would be hard for many to disagree with that assessment.

  25. Patrick Reischmann

    The Sand Pebbles was his best.

  26. Nicholas Yannuzzi

    Tom Horn & The Reivers I think we’re his best movies!

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