The Part-Time Critic

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Greatest Westerns of All-Time: Overview

12:34 PM 0
Greatest Westerns of All-Time: Overview

You can find films 25-11 in the first part of my Top 25 Western Films of All-time HERE
You can find the Top Ten in the second part of my Top 25 Western Films of All-time HERE
You can find my Greatest Western Actions Scenes of All-time list HERE

To keep my Top 25 Westerns list to something manageable and readable, I excluded a lot of other possible lists I wanted to create. For instance, how would I rank the Eastwood films I've seen? What Western "classics" do I think are the most overrated? How would I rank the best musical scores from Westerns? That's what this post is for. Scroll through the following overview of the Western genre and remember that while I was able to watch well over fifty of the most talked about Westerns, I didn't watch everything in the genre. There is a lot I missed - this isn't meant to be comprehensive. Feel free to comment and share your thoughts. Is there a glaring omission here?

  • Brutal Reality of Life on the Plains: The Homesman
  • Nihilism Behind the Moralist Veneer of the West: The Wild Bunch
  • Gunfighter Myth vs. Reality: Unforgiven
  • Cattle Drive / Settling the West: Red River
  • Fur Trapping / Wilderness Survival: The Revenant
  • Life of the Upper Plains Indians: Dances with Wolves
  • Mountain Man Living: Jeremiah Johnson
  • The Gold Rush: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (hon. Ment. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs)
  • Civilization vs. Barbarism: The Proposition
  • River Rapids Sequence: How the West Was Won
  • Buffalo Hunt: Dances with Wolves
  • Train Robbery: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
  • Best “Wyatt Earp” Movie: Tombstone
  • Best Western Character: Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday in Tombstone
  • Western Musical: Oklahoma!
  • Western Collage of Stories: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

  • 1990's Dances with Wolves - Romantic Western Score LINK
  • 1960's Dollars Trilogy - Stylized Western Score LINK
  • 2014's The Homesman  - Contempoary Western Score LINK
  • 1980's The Long Riders - Traditional / Folk Wester Score LINK
  • 1960's The Magnificent Seven - Classic Western Score LINK

  • Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: Despite the pleasant chemistry and jokes between the two titular leads, this Western feels rather aimless, rambling, and unable to justify glorifying thieves that end up taking the lives of many. There are a handful of fun moments and some nice dialogue, but everything feels rather pointless since there’s never any genuine goal or obstacle to overcome other than don’t get caught. I don't get the "classic" status this film gets.
  • The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: A grossly overrated Western that never comes close to justifying its three-hour runtime. Like Sergio’s Once Upon a Time in the West, this film is drenched in memorable style (spaghetti Western art direction and that iconic Morricone score) but lacks genuine substance. I don’t think there’s a single thing this film does better than the two previous entries. If anything it doubles down on all the worst parts of the first two. This is the Pirates of the Caribbean: At Worlds End of the “Dollars Trilogy” – tons of ambition, drenched in the style of the first two, but it never feels substantive or clicks like the earlier ones. The plot is a cat and mouse chase for confederate gold with the Civil War in the backdrop. The narrative always feels like a continual wheel spinning to me and I never remember it long after watching. The shootouts are dramatic and iconic (but not shot as ‘action’ scenes), and like the previously mentioned style, are the saving grace of this three bore fest.
  • Once Upon a Time in the West: My thoughts on this one are similar The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. The opening standoff sequence might be the most famous one in the entire film & it's a good bellwether for how you will like the rest of the film...I'm not a fan. I concede the great cinematography, art direction, & concept behind it, but I think it's ultimately just too indulgent. For more, check out my live tweeting during my recent viewing.

*For commentary on these three films, see the Top 25 List
  • The Homesman
  • Open Range
  • The Proposition

*That I've seen
  1. Unforgiven
  2. High Plains Drifter
  3. Pale Rider
  4. A Fistful of Dollars
  5. The Outlaw Josey Wales
  6. For a Few Dollars More
  7. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

*That I've seen
  1. Red River
  2. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
  3. The Shootist
  4. The Searchers
  5. Rio Bravo
  6. Stagecoach
  7. Fort Apache
  8. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
  9. Rio Grande
  10. True Grit

  1. Unforgiven (A) 1992
  2. The Revenant (A)  2015
  3. The Homesman (A-) 2014
  4. The Wild Bunch (A-) 1969
  5. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (A-) 1948
  6. Red River (B+) 1948
  7. The Ox-Bow Incident (B+) 1943
  8. Dances with Wolves (B+) 1990
  9. Django Unchained (B+) 2012
  10. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (B+) 1962
  11. High Noon (B+) 1952
  12. Jeremiah Johnson (B+) 1972
  13. The Proposition (B+) 2005
  14. Hostiles (B) 2017
  15. Open Range (B) 2003
  16. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (B) 2018
  17. Lonesome Dove (B) 1989
  18. High Plains Drifter (B) 1973
  19. Shane (B) 1953
  20. True Grit (B) 2010
  21. 3:10 to Yuma (B) 2007
  22. Pale Rider (B-) 1985
  23. A Fistful of Dollars (B-) 1964
  24. The Shootist (B-) 1976
  25. News of the World (B-) 2020
  26. Tombstone (B-) 1993
  27. The Magnificent Seven (B-) 1960
  28. The Outlaw Josey Wales (B-) 1976
  29. The Searchers (B-) 1956
  30. How the West Was Won (B-) 1962
  31. Bone Tomahawk (B-) 2015
  32. For a Few Dollars More (B-) 1965
  33. The Long Riders (B-) 1980
  34. Pat Garret & Billy the Kid (B-) 1973
  35. Rio Bravo (B-) 1959
  36. 3:10 to Yuma (B-) 1957
  37. The Hateful Eight (B-) 2015
  38. Stagecoach (B-) 1939
  39. The Quick and the Dead (B-) 1995
  40. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (C+) 2007
  41. The Magnificent Seven (C+) 2016
  42. Fort Apache (C+) 1948
  43. Geronimo: An American Legend (C+) 1993
  44. My Darling Clementine (C+) 1946
  45. Wyatt Earp (C+) 1994
  46. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (C+) 1949
  47. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (C) 1969
  48. Silverado (C) 1985
  49. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (C) 1966
  50. Heaven’s Gate (C) 1980
  51. Appaloosa (C) 2008
  52. True Grit (C) 1969 
  53. McCabe & Mrs. Miller (C) 1971 
  54. Once Upon a Time in the West (C) 1968
  55. The Lone Ranger (C-) 2013
  56. Young Guns (C-) 1988
  57. Rio Grande (C-) 1950
  58. Cimarron (C-) 1931

Saturday, February 6, 2021

Greatest Westerns of All-Time: Top Ten

8:43 PM 0
Greatest Westerns of All-Time: Top Ten

You can find films 25-11 in the first part of my Top 25 Western Films of All-time HERE
You can find my Greatest Western Actions Scenes of All-time list HERE 

I think this top ten of films represents a diverse collection of Westerns that when put together, offer an educative and entertaining window not only into that slice of history, but into human nature as well. If you are looking for a list of best gunslinger movies, this probably isn't for you. However, if you are looking to better grasp the sheer scope of the Old West, then this is for you.

10. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) - Trailer
- My favorite John Ford Western is oddly one that wasn’t shot in his favorite location of Monument Valley, instead it was shot mostly on sets. I really like the cynical and pessimistic story here that highlights the false nature of Western legends and the real world ramifications on the people and societies that believe them. The film is well anchored by James Stewart, Vera Miles, Lee Marvin, and John Wayne, but I feel like the film is held back by the conventions of its time. A story like this would have benefitted by the commitment to verisimilitude from the 1970s as Andy Devine's cowardly Sheriff and other stock figures, sets, and cliches of Hollywood Westerns weigh the film down from the lofty heights it reaches.
9. Django Unchained (2012) Trailer
- The first act is nearly a perfect self-contained film. Dr. King Shultz (the scene stealing Christoph Waltz) retrieves Django in a instantly iconic sequence followed by an equally great sequence (that manages to organically provide exposition while being incredibly engaging and building character) that sees Dr. Shultz shoot a Sheriff in the middle of the street and get away with it. With Django alongside, they chase down the Brittle Brothers in another harrowing sequence on a plantation with Don Johnson. From there, the movie follows the bounty hunters in a great montage with homages to many Western films. The problem with this film (a common issue in Westerns) is that it just doesn’t stick the landing. I’m a firm believer that the film should’ve ended with Shultz going out and Django making it out of the films main shootout. That Django doesn't get out is a big deal to me because it leads to the entirely unneeded sequence of Django almost losing his nether parts and the ridiculous Australian slavers sequence. All of these are deleted scene material that drags the film out. It’s a real misstep that holds this film back from near perfection.
8. Dances with Wolves (1990) - Trailer
- An excellent revisionist Western that works so well for most of its running time. After becoming an accidental hero in the Civil War (beginning the revisionist theme of the film), John Dunbar is able to choose his future military posting. After a memorable stop-off with his insane superior officer, another hint that this film is set to demystify the era, Dunbar heads across the American West with his provisions to his post in South Dakota. The following sequences of an isolated Dunbar embracing his new solitary life at the outpost are the best sequences of the entire film to me. I loved watching him repair Fort Sedgewick, making friends with local wildlife (where the name Dances with Wolves comes from), and starting relationships with the territory Lakota Sioux Indians. The highlight of his relationship with the Sioux is the incredible buffalo hunt sequence. As the relationship grows with the Indians, the biggest revisionist aspirations take shape – the Sioux Indians are primarily peaceful and friendly. There's no problem with this in concept, but for a film that takes the history seriously, portraying the Sioux this one sided is an odd choice. There is some complexity given to them, but it’s clear they are the good guys. By the time the end of the film comes into view, the revisionism becomes too heavy handed for me. For instance, the Pawnee Indians and US Cavalry are painted as unthinking villains (with practically zero shades) while the Sioux and Dunbar are the only enlightened ones to see the peace. For a movie that gets so many details right, this oversimplification is really jarring and tough to take. This film works so well for about two thirds of its runtime, gets so much of the details correct (a sweeping romantic score, beautiful real life locations, taking seriously the Indian roles, etc), that the comically villainous US Cavalry in the final act of the film and the revisionist axe begin to overshadow it.
7. The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) - Trailer
- This unconventional (and refreshingly short) Western feels closer in spirit to 12 Angry Men than the usual tone of a 1940’s Western. When news of the robbery and murder of a respected local man gets to town, a posse immediately forms with a bloodlust to lynch. As the posse forms without the Sheriff in town, different characters begin asking serious questions about the morality of their quest. On their quest they come across a group of three men sleeping in the Ox-Bow valley with a story that sounds a bit suspicious – at least not good enough to satisfy the mob. What happens next I won’t divulge except to say that as a parable or moral tale, it’s a satisfying and challenging conclusion. A thoughtful story with well-drawn characters and a challenging theme. Good stuff.
6. Red River (1948) - Trailer
- Despite a shoehorned love story (that's glaringly dated) and an oddly anti-climactic final moment with the love interest trying to torpedo the film, Red River is a majestic and layered classic Western that manages to live up to the critical hype. John Wayne, Walter Brennan, and the always welcome Montgomery Clift are fantastic (this is perhaps my favorite John Wayne performance), but it's the dramatic story about manhood, the settling of the west, the shady ethics of it all, set against the ups and downs of a large cattle drive that ultimately steal the show here. Well worth a viewing! "Get a shovel and my Bible. I'll read over him."
5. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) - Trailer
- “I know what gold does to men's souls” - One of the most fascinating stories about the “Old West” that you don’t see covered by many modern films is the gold rush. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre follows a couple of down on their luck Americans, one played by Humphrey Bogart in a career best performance, in Tampico, Mexico who team up with an old prospector played by Walter Huston to search the Sierra Madres for gold. When their exploration strikes it big, the men begin to change - especially Bogart's Dobbs. Despite the setup, this isn’t a fun adventure film. It’s an expertly written and executed morality tale that illustrates the nature of greed; how easily it can change a man and what he’s willing to do to keep it. Once they strike gold, each successive scene cranks up the stakes and tension. The moral situation gets dire when a stranger shows up to their camp, when bandits arrive, when local Indians approach them, and finally when they have to get the gold back to civilization. Walter Huston’s old prospector in this film did more than win the Oscar for his supporting role in this film, he crafted the archetype and stamped this role forever in his image – he’s that good in this.
4. The Wild Bunch (1969) - Trailer
- 1969's controversial and violent (not so much by today's standards) western is a "classic" that lives up to all the hype. The film features three strong action set pieces, that still stand up to this day, but it's the film's depiction of "the West" as a place of brutal nihilism under the veneer of moralism (from all sides) that will stick with you the most. It's not a perfect film, it's a little too long, and there are still some dated elements (the entire bathhouse, Mexican army sequence is skippable) despite many of its universal qualities. This is easily one of the best Westerns about outlaws ever made.
3. The Homesman (2014) - Trailer
- What is sanity in a world as perilous and trying as the Old West? I know this is an unconventional pick as a top five Western, but it’s one of the few films in the genre that has continued to occupy space in my mind forcing me to reflect on its story and characters. How the weariness and heaviness of life’s trials can traumatize us differently sits on this film and the viewer like few I've seen. Usually, with such a theme comes a mind-numbing crawl of a plot, but this two-hour film moves along briskly from sequence to sequence. Beautiful sweeping prairies open the film up with Marco Beltrami’s melancholy score playing above it. We are introduced to Mary Bee Cuddy (played by Hilary Swank) working hard in the Nebraska territory on her property. It’s clear she is productive, plowing, cooking, and taking care of her property. She’s alone, unmarried, and is visited by a town bachelor, where she wines and dines him. After dinner she sings a song (which the man falls asleep for a moment) and then she proposes a match between them. He is offended and calls her “too plain.” It’s a sad moment – she’s done everything she can it seems to be an attractive pairing and yet she remains alone and by herself. This sequence is followed by a montage of three wives who have each gone insane for different reasons, driven that way by a wearisome life on the prairie. The women need to be taken back East to Iowa to be taken care of, but when none of the men are willing to do it, Mary Bee steps up. She is joined by an untrustworthy claim jumper named George Briggs (played by Tommy Lee Jones). 

The rest of the film is about the journey and the obstacles they encounter along the way. The film is also directed by Tommy Lee Jones and I’ve never felt more connected to the positives of the “Old West” embodied in the natural landscapes and the goodness/perseverance seen in the character of Mary Bee Cuddy. However, behind that is the ugliness of the “Old West” – the harsh life of the plain, the thin veneer of religion hiding the fact that everyone is scared, and the swirling vultures of humanity looking to sweep down selfishly on any prey that shows weakness. Yes, the plot is about ferrying three women whose minds have been broken by life back to the East, but the movie argues that we’ve all been traumatized by life’s trials and not everyone handles the burdens equally. The entire film is affected by the trauma of life that ripples through every character; we all feel ashamed by it, we all try to hide it, but we are all affected by it. I think the thing that makes this theme sting so greatly is a kind of surprise turning point the film takes (I won’t spoil it here) with about thirty minutes left in its runtime. There are things we are just not able to bear and I’ve never felt that heaviness like I have in this film – especially given the film’s narrative twist. What moral compromise and what level of selfishness is necessary to remain sane in a world with this much random and purposeful suffering? In a way, this film does a better job at revising the myths of the “rugged individual” West than most explicitly revisionist ones. It’s a healthy antidote to the romanticizing of the Old West and I think it’s one of the most essential Westerns ever produced.
2. The Revenant (2015) - Trailer
- This part brutal survival story, part revenge tale, & part insightful spiritual mediation really connected with me. It felt to me like a perfect mix of Michael Mann's eye for visceral action, the historical verisimilitude of The Last of The Mohicans, Terrance Malick's visual/spiritual meditations in Tree of Life, the fever dream pyschology of Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, and the complex moral dialogues of Inarritu's own Biutiful
In other words, it has a lot going for it beyond being just a superbly crafted tale of surviving the elements (in a standout performance from Leonardo DiCaprio) of the wilderness and getting revenge. In the final moments of the film (in the picture seen above), DiCaprio's Hugh Glass ponders and reflects on his journey to revenge. The final taunts of his nemesis John Fitzgerald (played by Tom Hardy) take hold of Glass and took hold of me as well, "You came all this way just for your revenge, huh? Did you enjoy it, Glass?... 'Cause there ain't nothin' gon' bring your boy back."

1. Cowboys & Aliens (2011) - Trailer
- An unexpected pick I know, but just here me out...okay, I'm just kidding. Here's the real number one.

1. Unforgiven (1992) - Trailer
- A Western masterpiece directed by and starring Clint Eastwood that acts as about as good an education on both the myth and the reality the "Wild West" as one could possibly expect in two hours. Beyond its ability to educate about the historical period, it is the insight into human nature, violence, and justice that raises the story beyond the genre trappings. Eastwood plays the former gunslinger William Munny (killer of women and children) who was reformed by his wife Claudia and is settled down now as a farmer raising children, despite the untimely death of his wife. When the young Schofield Kid (looking like Emilio Estevez in Young Guns) arrives at Munny's farm to entice him to claim a bounty put up by a group of prostitutes to kill two cowboys who harmed one of the girls, Munny is tempted. The irony of this offer is that it completely subverts the hero's call of the typical film. In this case, our main character's call is to re-enter the world he didn’t want to go back to - of the morally repugnant world of gun slinging. Munny eventually decides to take up the call and bring along his old partner Ned, played by Morgan Freeman. They join up with the young and prideful Schofield Kid and journey to kill the cowboys.

As the film progresses the film unfolds its agenda: the evaluation of the moral and aesthetic value of the common mythical view of the "Old West". This is often achieved through humorous means like Eastwood having trouble getting up on his horse, English Bill (Richard Harris in fine form) playing a perfect archetype of the quirky Old West gunslinger, and the town Sheriff (Gene Hackman in an Oscar winning role) being horrible at construction. More often though, the evaluation plays dramatically and provides a nice gut punch to audience: Ned no longer having the stomach to shoot to kill, Sheriff Little Bill telling author W.W. Beauchamp how shootouts in the West really take place, the Schofield Kid's instant moral regret, and the luck Munny has in the final shootout. 

So why is the film called Unforgiven anyway? Not sure I could explain it better than this quote from a good William Beard essay on the film. Read the whole essay, it's better than my blurb!
“Munny’s wife Claudia, in attempting his regeneration, in pulling him out of the maelstrom of nihilistic compulsive violence and drunken self-obliteration into a world of principle and language and family and human self-recognition, forgives him. The act of forgiveness produces the (feminine) redemptive result of self-forgiveness. In addressing at last the buried consciousness of horror and guilt, the fiery cycle of repression and violence whose first victim is the perpetrator is broken, and the functional person William Munny (the “good”) is dredged up into view. Once established in the social world of human relationships, gainful occupation, the code of civility and “decency,” Munny is happier than before...As the film proceeds Ned develops into Munny’s anchor to the world, his reassurance that he has forsaken the old ways (which Ned also witnessed), and his guarantee that his actions have some foothold in a worthwhile life-pattern, in decency and fellow-feeling. But Munny makes the mistake first of returning to killing (however different his motives this time) and second of pulling Ned with him. When this happens the results are different from what was anticipated (this too is morally instructive). It is Ned who is punished for the transgression, a transgression he did not truly commit; Munny does everything and goes free, and gets paid to boot. It is not just that any notion of a higher system of justice and moral equilibrium is derisorily contradicted by this development. The death of Ned is also Munny’s personal loss of his “good” self, his loss of Claudia’s forgiveness and his own self-forgiveness. When he walks into Greely’s to kill Skinny and Little Bill he is a creature who has lost salvation, a damned soul, “unforgiven.”
Good guys doing bad things and bad guys doing good things, can make this feel look like it's morally grey from afar. However, the film has become such a strong moral evaluation/condemnation of the typical Western that it has become a judge of nearly all other Western films. Take away all of the analysis I've given above and the simplest through-line of the film is that violence breaks not just the victims but the perpetrators and glorifiers as well. William Munny, who could be the aged "Man with No Name" from Eastwoods earlier films, can never truly recover from his violent acts. The prostitutes, despite having their bounty claimed and the cowboys killed, are no better off than before. The Sheriff, who never rights the injustice done to the prostitute (the violence that launches the plot of the film) can't help but use violence on those who take up the charge of justice on their own. He ultimately meets his own death because of his violence. The Schofield Kid is a broken down wreck after his first confirmed kill. In one of the best scenes of the film, Schofield laments how his violence has broken him and Munny responds:
The Schofield Kid: [after killing a man for the first time] It don't seem real... how he ain't gonna never breathe again, ever... how he's dead. And the other one too. All on account of pulling a trigger. 
Will Munny: It's a hell of a thing, killing a man. Take away all he's got and all he's ever gonna have. 
The Schofield Kid: Yeah, well, I guess they had it coming. 
Will Munny: We all got it coming, kid.
There's an endless cycle to violence that sullies us all and brakes a part of us for good. Like Frodo's bearing of the ring of power, there's a pain that time just cannot heal in us. Sitting here in 2021, my generation looks back on the Old West and is still trying to reckon with the violence that took place. Sometimes we've glamorized it and cast it in black and white terms. At other times we have "revised" it, swung the pendulum to the other side - keeping the black and white terms but switching the sides. The harder task is to accept that the reality is much more difficult. The Old West was filled with humans with great ambitions, heavy burdens, tragic imperfections, and all must be understood and judged with as much context and empathy as we can offer. Unforgiven feels is Eastwood's artistic grappling with reality and I think it's the best Western our culture as to offer.

Greatest Westerns of All-Time: 25-11

6:25 PM 0
Greatest Westerns of All-Time: 25-11
Have you ever traveled to a place where few speak your language, you aren't familiar with the layout, and you knew that if you lost your wallet things would be truly desperate? That feeling of a extreme vulnerability is one of my favorite aspects of frontier living in Western films and tt's one of the many diverse themes and settings that you can find in the genre. In my judgment, the "Old West" can legitimately cover ground from the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 until the closing of the West in the late 1800s or early 1900s (The Wild Bunch takes place in the 20th century) - essentially the entire 19th century. While Westerns tend to focus on cowboys and gunslingers, that span of history includes explorers, fur traders, mountain men, gold rushes, boom towns, homesteaders vs cattlemen, the building of the railroads, settlers vs the Indians, the US cavalry vs the Indians, Mexican army vs Americans, outlaws, bandits, bounty hunters, Civil War and reconstruction tensions, and so much more. If a writer or director can't find an interesting conflict (NSFW) in this time period, they just aren't human. For this list, I consider movies that cover these topics in that time period to be a Western.

The Western film genre took off in the 1930's and peaked in the 1950's. According to, between the years 1930 and 1954 approximately 2700 Westerns were made! They continued to be made in the decades that followed though they began to look and feel very different with Sergio Leone's spaghetti Westerns catapulting Clint Eastwood to stardom in the mid-1960s. Into the late 60s and 70s the Western genre would see an increase in violence through the likes of directors like Sam Peckinpah and its mythologies deconstructed and spoofed by the likes of Robert Altman and Mel Brooks

As I stated when I covered the Best Western Action Scenes of All-Time, I was never partial to the Western genre growing up. I mostly enjoyed modern action films, particularly anything with fighting turtles. As I've grown older though, I have become quite fond of the Western genre's penchant for reflecting deeply on violence, justice, morality, civilization, adventure, trauma, and regret. Many Westerns are fantastic moral allegories or parables. I also don't mind the occasional fun shootout and action sequence we get as well. You'll see all of these themes represented in my top 25 list. 

For this top 25, I (re)watched well over fifty of the highest rated Westerns. Given just how many films have been released in this genre, I knew it was impossible to be comprehensive, so I targeted the most publicly loved, critically acclaimed, and well-respected entries. I spent a lot of time looking over other lists to be well-informed and I'm confident I hit nearly all the ones with a significant claim to being on this list. I made the choice to exclude animated Westerns (sorry for another disappointment Fievel!), comedies set in the West and anything that features "Western" themes but takes place in contemporary times (Think Wind River and No Country for Old Men). Maybe I'll make those lists another time. I hope you enjoy the list and discover for yourself some of the better films out there. Let me know what you think!

  • The Searchers (1956) - Trailer: The film featuring an engaging Western premise (a young girl is kidnapped by a Comanche tribe), gorgeous location shooting, and a dynamic bull-headed performance from John Wayne is enough to commend this solid Western. I don’t think it holds up to the masterpiece acclaim it commonly gets, mostly on account of the poor humor (the trading for an Indian wife bit has never worked for comedy) and the pacing that often feels too episodic and padded. For example, the protracted “wedding” sequence where Ethan and Pawley return to goes on for too long, feels ‘written’ vs organic, and the humorous fighting no longer really works. I appreciate the reflection on ethics in the West and the layered performance of Wayne, but most everything this film does has been done much better in later movies.
  • The Magnificent Seven (1960) - Trailer“If God didn’t want them sheared, he shouldn’t have made them sheep” – thus is the stark boldness of the morality in the battle between a group of bandits exploiting a poor rural Mexican village. The film’s morality tale is anchored by the goodness in Yul Brenner’s Chris (who, beyond that goodness, is about as interesting as an anchor). When the three poor and humble Mexican villagers proposition him to come and protect their town, Chris senses their decency and desperate situation. The viewer gets the feeling that for a good man like Chris, he ultimately can’t turn them down. Unlike the 2016 remake there’s no promise of a large payoff for the recruited mercenaries, just a measly payout that isn’t really worth it. This is an essential difference because it hints at the character of the men, their morality, rather than, as in the 2016 remake, their entertainment value. How did this score not win the academy award in its year? It’s got to be on the shortlist of greatest scores of all-time and gives this film a sense of adventure and excitement that few Westerns have. The recruitment process moves quick and entertains, but the film bogs down back in the village waiting for the bad guys to show up, and then eventually comes to a fairly satisfying end. I like the little moments of humanity that pop up in the second act (my favorite being the boys who idolize Charles Bronson’s character), but I don’t think all of the directions the film takes in this act work. One other remark about this film, the musical score is absolutely fantastic. This is a decent film, but I think that music that calls the viewer to adventure has given it a longer life and resonance than it would have had otherwise.
  • How the West Was Won (1962) - Trailer: This is a dated production (the opening narration calls the Indians “primitive man” from which we had to win the West), but I think the desire to tell multiple stories as a kind of collective montage of The West” is a big boon to the film as it means the plot is always moving and keeping busy. One of the worst faults of historical epics during this time period is their indulgence for melodrama and glacial pacing in favor of actors getting big scenes (looking right at you Cleopatra). Thankfully, this movie keeps the sequences going fast, the real locations plenty, and isn’t afraid for its characters and their dreams to be dashed in the West. All those positives aside, not all the episodes are equal in quality and some sections do begin to drag or feel like they are included just for educational purposes. Uneven, decidedly imperialist (at least with a guilty conscience), but a worthy, engaging, and admirable collage of Western stories, nonetheless
  • The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) - Trailer: After Yankees burn down his house and kill his family, Josey Wales joins a band of Confederate marauders during the Civil War. After hostilities end, Josey refuses to swear loyalty to the Union (becoming the titular outlaw) and the movies turns into a kind of road trip movie as Josey makes his way to Mexico, encountering cavalry, Cherokee, Comanche, and bounty hunters. I really wanted to love this Western, but if I’m being honest, the different sequences on his way to Texas/Mexico are uneven, the action is mostly forgettable, and the film ends up being just too long. 
  • Tombstone (1993) - Trailer: This is a tough film to rank because there are so many elements of it that are engaging and enjoyable: the recreation of Tombstone, some of the punchy dialogue, Russell’s aggressive Wyatt, and especially Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday. That said, there’s something about how the plot seems to meander and take on lots of directions and never quite know how to end that makes it feel long and drawn out. Additionally, there never feels like a true awareness or reflection on Wyatt’s morality. It feels like a lost opportunity given that everyone is supremely well cast. I’d say the great irony of this Western is that it’s entertaining in spite of itself and it’s supposedly about Wyatt and the Earp brothers, but it’s completely stolen by Kilmer’s Holliday.
25. News of the World (2020) - Trailer
- This film is the first re-teaming of Tom Hanks and Paul Greengrass since their excellent 2013 collaboration Captain Phillips. The thought of one of my favorite actors and directors tackling the Western genre had me excited. Tom Hanks plays a Civil War veteran Captain Kidd who has taken up traveling town to town to read the news to small gatherings who can’t. In his travels, he comes across an abandoned white girl who has been raised by Kiowa Indians. When authorities don’t step up to return her home, Captain Kidd determines to do it himself. The film does a wonderful job capturing the feel of reconstructionist Texas after the Civil War with the presence of Union soldiers, the anger at the North, and the politics of getting back into the Union all filling in the background and context of the film. The film does take an odd detour for an “action” scene in the hills that feels somewhat unconnected to the rest of the story for such an involved and long sequence. The best scene in the film sees a self-serving town dictator force Hanks to read his personally written news to a town gathering. Hanks subversively reads the story of another town, parable like, encouraging the citizens to stand up. The message that in hearing the news and stories of others struggling and surviving around the world, we can understand they are more like us than not. It’s a comforting message.
24. The Shootist (1976) - Trailer
- John Wayne's final film role see's him play the aging lawman/gunfighter J.B. Books who has just received the news (from Jimmy Stewart no less) that he will die soon due to cancer. For his dying days he rents a room from the widow Bond Rogers (played by Lauren Bacall) in Carson City. Slowly the rest of the town learns of the dying gunslinger and conflicts arise. The screenplay here is well considered and efficient for its hour and a half running time as there isn’t much fluff to be had. I think Wayne gives one his best performances here, showing nuance and layers of pride, confidence, doubt, vulnerability, and sadness. Harry Morgan’s US Marshall is another enjoyable character, boasting freely about his desire for Book’s death and how his city is getting sophisticated and moving beyond the savage old days. I won’t spoil the ending here except to say it feels satisfying and wraps up this short and solid film.
23. A Fistful of Dollars (1964) - Trailer
- The first entry into Eastwood and Leone’s “Man with No Name” trilogy. This series of films were known as "spaghetti westerns" since they were filmed cheaply in Italy instead of Hollywood. The story sees Eastwood’s gunslinger stroll into a Mexican border town in the throes of a battle between two groups looking to rule it. Eastwood uses this battle as an opportunity to con both sides against each other and get rich while doing so. I like some of the tricks the amoral Eastwood pulls off here, even if it requires his marks to be dumber than I’d like. This simple story dynamic, along with Leone’s style and Eastwood’s charisma, combine to make a worthwhile Western.
22. Pale Rider (1985) - Trailer
- The film begins when a small group of gold panners with a claim to Carbon Canyon in California are violently attacked by an area mining outfit wanting to run them off their claim. After a young girl’s prayers for a miracle, Clint Eastwood arrives as a mystery man wearing a preacher’s collar and standing up to the mining outfit. I really like the mythical/mysterious quality to Eastwood’s character here; there are some hints that he’s not just there as an answer to prayer for the panners but as retribution for the mining company’s greed, destruction of the environment, and for the Marshall and deputies he ultimately hires to do his dirty work. Eastwood gets a lot of great lines and moments here. The second act drags quite a bit, but there’s a nice ending as Eastwood gets to have a town shootout that plays more like a mini-run of Jason Vorhees picking off teenagers at a camp one by one. It’s a smart idea since Eastwood’s character is more mythical here than realistic.

21. 3:10 to Yuma (2007) - Trailer
- Like the remake of The Magnificent Seven, this feels like a Western that has both benefited and been burdened by the time period it was made. On one hand, it’s always entertaining, anchored by actors trying really hard, and features high production values. On the other hand, it’s trying so hard to be entertaining and “more” that it ends up being exasperating and the finale action sequence so over the top that it becomes a bit much to stomach.
20. True Grit (2010) Trailer
- Improving upon the John Wayne film in every conceivable way, this Coen Brothers Western shines in its language, acting, music and cinematography. I’m not big on the story itself and I think the central hunt for the bad guys ultimately takes a back seat to the dialogue and chemistry between the actors. Combine that with a production that captures the feeling of the West well, and you’ve got a solid film.
19. Shane (1953) - Trailer
- A very watchable Western telling the popular conflict between homesteaders and cattleman in the West. When a cattleman fails to run some homesteaders off their claims through intimidation, he brings in a hired gun to up the temperature. Into this story walks Shane, a weary gunslinger looking to live a quiet life. Inevitably, there’s a showdown and Shane is a central part of it. This is a good film, but it features a child actor that nearly sinks the entire film with his annoying performance. Strangely enough, the kid got a lot of award nominations. What were they thinking (NSFW)?
18. High Plains Drifter (1973) - Trailer
- My first memories of this film are watching it with my Dad as a young kid. I didn’t quite understand the film then and its slowly revealed themes were mostly lost on me. Coming back to it now as an adult I can better appreciate the parable like nature of the story. This isn’t a traditional Western – it’s an allegory about retribution for past violence (a major thread in most Eastwood films) and about just how far people are willing to go to hide their guilt and shame. Eastwood’s Drifter reminded me of Samuel’s warning to the Israelites about electing a king and what the king would take from them. The first act ends with Eastwood’s Drifter essentially being given carte blanche over the town as long as he helps them against some returning outlaws. The second act features Eastwood exploiting the town’s guilt and pushing their boundaries further and further than they ever imagined. The finale act, which I won’t spoil, caps off the allegory in a satisfactory way. Even at an hour and forty-five minutes, the film feels a bit lengthy for what it ultimately covers. This non-traditional Western is worth seeking out and pondering it’s parable like quirky tale.
17. Lonesome Dove (1989) - Trailer
- This television mini-series adapted from Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer prize winning novel is a sprawling epic that covers the story of two old and storied Texas Rangers making a cattle drive from Texas to Montana. Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones’ McRae and Call anchor the film (Rich Schroder and Angelica Houston turn in great performances too) and their chemistry and colorful language combine with the commitment to natural settings and detailed production design to reproduce the time period wonderfully. It’s a genuine draw of the mini-series. Dragging these two rich characters along a torturous and long cattle drive allows the story to cram in a lot of Western tropes and side stories. Unfortunately, there are two things that bring the story down, one of them being the uneven side stories. At their best, they color in and organically enrich the main plot, but at their worst they just never end up feeling connected to the main story and aren’t half as interesting. Every time the side story about an Arkansas sheriff searching for his wife comes on, it feels like a different and lesser movie is being told. The other weakness of the film is that it must confirm to the decency practices of network television. The story here does not shy away from some of the darker sides of the West: the violence, abuse, famine, rape, moral ambiguity, outlaws, prostitution, poverty, and more. Far too often though what visually ends up on the screen feels far too restrained and tamed in a way that feels incongruous with the story/themes. I think this is the kind of story that would have benefited from being filmed today with HBO and given the chance to tell this story unflinchingly. Due to the pedigree and popularity, this is the only television Western I thought about admitting to this list.
16. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018) - Trailer
- This is a tough film to rank relative to other Westerns since, like How the West Was Won. it’s a collection of a short stories rather than a single narrative. Still, as a collage of sometimes quirky, humorous, serious, and reflective stories set in various Western settings and cliches (the gunfighter, hangings, gold miner, the wagon train, etc) – it is quite commendable. Some stories are more interesting than others, but the film is nearly always engaging and thanks to the stellar production values, literary quality, and artistic vision – it’s nearly always insightful as well. The gold mining story shines brightest to me. 
15. Open Range (2003) - Trailer
- A solid Western that plays like the reverse of Shane - free grazers being the good guys and clashing with a town cattle baron who wants to pen in the land. The film is told with a sense of romanticism about the West that is refreshing. At times that romanticism can be a strength (the sweeping vistas, the wholesome dialogue and morality, the score) but it can also be a detriment; none moreso than the stilted and boring romantic relationship between Costner and Benning. In the end, it’s a nice Western, a little long, that stands out mostly for its excellent finale shootout.
14. Hostiles (2017) - Trailer
- Scott Cooper’s 2017 Western has a dream setup for me: Christian Bale plays Capt. Blocker tasked with escorting a former outlaw Indian chief (played by Wes Studi) who is terminally ill to his homeland in the upper Midwest to be buried. Capt. Blocker is a veteran of many US Cavalry campaigns, has seen many slaughtered by Indian foes and by his own hands, he is weary and he doesn’t want the task. The beginning of their journey is like an “Old West” fan’s dream as we start out at a US Fort and travel north across sweeping vistas, glimpse camp life, and encounter an Indian raid. Throughout the journey, Capt. Blocker must confront his hatred for the Indian chief, even after he begins understanding that much of what they did was out of necessity, being backed into a corner, and due to the same warrior spirit he has. As their mutual understanding grows, the story throws more and more obstacles at the traveling group. After about 2/3rds into the film, the obstacles feel less organic to the plot and more straight from the writer’s pen. Ultimately, the final act of the film is a strong let down for me. Although it matches with the themes of the film, it feels too sudden, too arbitrary, and unsatisfying to the story. I wanted to love this film, and quite nearly did, but the last act cannot be ignored. Had it stuck the landing, this could've been much higher on the list.
13. The Proposition (2005) - Trailer
- This Western takes place in the Australian "West" - as British soldiers were looking to tame and civilize the frontier there. Ray Winstone plays Capt. Stanley who is charged with capturing the notorious outlaw Arthur Burns. To get Burns, Stanley captures his two outlaw brothers first, and offers Charlie (played by Guy Pearce) a pardon and freedom for his younger brother Mikey if he betrays his oldest brother Arthur. The cat and mouse game Stanley is playing becomes an affront to the civilized town folk who want all the brothers punished, but Stanley knows its really Arthur who is the ring leader. In one powerfully affecting sequence, the town demands that Mikey be whipped, but when it becomes too bloody and severe, they turn away. This is a solid Australian Western that explores the thin line between our barbaric nature and civilization. 
12. Jeremiah Johnson (1972) - Trailer
- It is glorious to finally see the sequence my all-time favorite gif hails from. This film is the best film about the mountain men of the Old West. Filmed primarily on real stunning locations in Utah and Idaho, this film is a nature fans dream. Following Jeremiah's trails as a trapper, hunter, and keeping alive from the surrounding Indians is quite the education. One of my favorite moments is a scene where he comes across a panicked woman whose family had just been slaughtered by Indians. Johnson notes he is a friend by saying "We have graves to dig." What a subtle but completely disarming (literally) gesture of common humanity. The film is filled with nice moments like that.
11. High Noon (1952) - Trailer
- A Western I admire more than I genuinely enjoy watching. I love the moral tale of the lone righteous man who will stand up and not make excuses to face off with evil. The best element of the story is learning the various reasons and ways men come up with to not join him and seeing what eventually happens. The process, however, can feel a bit slow and a bit repetitious to me. It’s produced well, looks fantastic, is acted well, and features a nice little finale shootout – especially for the time period.

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Best Action Scenes of All-Time: Western Films Edition

9:15 PM 0
Best Action Scenes of All-Time: Western Films Edition

*To get straight to the list, scroll past all the following paragraphs

I never dreamed of being town Sheriff, the outlaw Jesse James, riding shotgun for the Texas Rangers, or jumping train to train with the Lone Ranger. Unlike John McClane, I was never partial to Roy Rogers over John Wayne or Clint Eastwood - mostly because I didn't really care about any of them. My Dad enjoyed Eastwood films, but they never made that much sense to me. By the time I was a kid, the American Western was on the decline. If you wanted to see "great action" when I was growing up, you turned to James Bond, Indiana Jones, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Jean-Claude Van Damme, or if you were lucky enough to be in the know - Hong Kong cinema!

It hasn't been until I began researching for this particular list in my action scene series that I've come to a greater appreciation of this genre. Still, for an action junkie like me, the Western genre isn't the first (or the second or third) genre I think about when it comes to action. There are three main obstacles that I think create a kind of glass ceiling for action in Western films. 

First, the key "action" found in Western films is the shootout. Whether it is a one on one duel or a small shootout between groups, these affairs are often short. If action was alcohol, Westerns treated their shootouts like shots of liquor, meant for speed and impact; not meant for long and slow sips. These shootouts can be a great cinematic moment, but when it comes to classifying it as action, I don't buy it. For a good example of this, think of the finale shootout in the film Shane.  It's over so quick, does it even qualify as an action sequence? 

Second, the Western genre was at its peak from the 1940's to the 1960's - when the understanding and conception of what action looked like and how it could be filmed wasn't extremely well-developed. It's unfortunate for the genre that it's heyday came well before the revolution in action style brought about in the 1980's through today. I think the best hope for great action to come out of this genre today is to use modern techniques not necessarily on shootouts, but on the sequences that could benefit the most and last the longest - train and wagon chase sequences. Gore Verbinksi's The Lone Ranger showed promise that future blockbusters would go in this direction, but as you'll read below, also made some serious missteps. 

Third, in light of how quick a gunfight took place, the best Western directors adapted to make gunfights more about drama and suspense than action. It just made sense. This is one of the reasons the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone really amped up the style and music of his films – it's how you turn what is essentially a twenty second sequence into a dramatic epic that will satisfy an audience as the conclusion to a film. With Leone, I feel he got more and more indulgent with each outing. Perfect examples of this would be his finales in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West; the latter one he turned into an 8.5 minute sequence! Would you consider that an action scene? Not me. Following Leone's footsteps, Clint Eastwood would go on to film most of his future shootouts not as dynamic action sequences, but mostly as crowning dramatic moments. My favorite Eastwood shootout is from Unforgiven which is memorable not necessarily for the "action" but is a great shootout nonetheless. I love it, but you wont' find it on the list below.

Let's turn now to that list. To ensure my rankings were well informed, I spent hours researching other prominent lists online and created a mandatory watch list from them. Given my day job and the fact that this is just a side hobby for me, I tried to strike a balance between being realistic with my time and being as comprehensive and diverse as I could be. The result is that I viewed over fifty Westerns for this project in a six month or so period and while I know I missed a lot of films in the process, I'm confident I hit nearly all the ones with a significant claim to the list. 

To quality for the list I counted films that took place primarily in the historical West (with some exceptions) and didn't consider any modern "Westerns" that take place in contemporary times (Sicario, Hell or High Water, Wind River, etc.). Also, a quick note about the linked video clips. Watch them at your own risk. As of publishing the article, the links work, but they do contain violence and some contain cursing. Also, some of them are only part of the sequence, fail to show context, or are edited down from the original. It's not perfect, but for those without any access to seeing them, I thought it would be worth it. I hope you enjoy the list. I think that by the time you get to the top five, we are entering "classic" territory. Feel free to share your thoughts and let me know if I missed anything important!

A Few  Honorable Mentions:
  • “Opening: Slumber in a Cabin Interrupted by an Ambush” -Silverado (Clip)
    • A nice opening action sequence to the film sees Scott Glenn’s Emmet ambushed by three mostly unseen assailants as he slumbers in a cabin. The sequence is shot to showcase Emmet’s quick decision making and thinking. By judging the shadows going by his cabin and some tricky gunplay, he’s able to take out a few men. He then opens the cabin door and we get a beautiful vista and the title cards. A nice pop of action to open a movie.
  • “Indians Raid a Couple of Strays from the Wagon Train” -The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Clip in French)
    • Well-staged and shot, the meat of this action sequence lay in how the wagon train leader anticipates the fight as he discusses the possibilities to Ms. Longabaugh and what she needs to do if he fails. Thanks to some groundhog holes and good shooting, the one man is able to fend off the attacking Indians until a tragic ending.

The Best Action Scenes in Western Films

1965's For a Few Dollars More
25.  “Finale Shootout: Bounty Hunters vs Bandits” -For a Few Dollars More (Part 1) (Part 2
This is likely the best "action" driven shootout in the Dollars trilogy. The distinction is due to beginning the finale with a decent little town shootout with Eastwood and Van Cleef each getting a couple nice moments. The sequence is capped off with one of Leone’s iconic dramatic standoffs that thankfully don't push my patience as much as his later 8-9 minute "epic" duels.

"First Meeting and Shootout with the Seven and Calvero" -The Magnificent Seven (1960) (Clip)
- When the outlaw Calvero strolls into town with his bandits he is surprised that the lowly farmers have hired seven mercenaries to protect them. Their war of words turns to shooting and the bandits look to escape. The gunwork is decent here but the standout element is the commitment to stunts. For most movies, guys fall off their horses when shot - in this movie, you really feel those falls. 

23. "Johnson Single-Handedly Takes Revenge on Crow Indians" -Jeremiah Johnson (Clip)
- After the murder of his family, Jeremiah Johnson locates a group of Crow Indians he believes responsible for the deed. Walking up on them slowly at their camp, he blasts away with his long rifles, attacks a few others, then takes out his pistol to finish the job. 

22. “Comanche Raiding Party Strikes the Cavalry/Cheyenne Travelers” -Hostiles (Clip)
- Quick and packs a punch. Great demonstration of the suddenness of an Indian raiding party and the “rally” method used by a small caravan. 

21. “Blue Duck's Posse Attacks Gus on the Plain” -Lonesome Dove
- I like to think this sequence would have been shown as a training video to any aspiring cowboys during their job training. It perfectly depicts how a person on horseback could fend off an attack of Indians, or in this case a posse of outlaws. Duvall’s Gus is attacked on a grassy plain by a group of about six or so outlaws on horseback. There’s a short chase with rifle fire going back and forth and as soon as Duvall hits a bit of a ditch he knifes his horse and brings it down to the ground to use it as a defilade and gun platform. Using his rifle, he picks off a few outlaws and causes them to halt and retreat. It’s a great primer on how a single person could have possibly withstood a sudden Indian or outlaw raid.


1993's Tombstone
21. “Home Shootout: Garrett & Sherriff Baker Take On Harris” -Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (Clip)
- Pat Garrett enlists Sherriff Baker and his female companion to help in the hunt for Billy the Kid. When they approach the hideout of Harris to question him about Billy, fire is opened up. The sequence swift, well shot, has impact thanks to some key blood impact, and ends with a beautiful dramatic moment as Sherriff Baker walks to the river to die set to Bob Dylan's "Knocking on Heaven's Door." This isn't the last action sequence directed by the great Sam Peckinpah to be found on this list.

19. “Homesteaders vs. Cattleman Posse” -Heaven’s Gate (Part 1) (Part 2)
- An impressively staged sequence featuring a group of homesteaders encircling and attacking a large posse of assassins who have come to kill them. It leads to a standoff that is more about drama and tragedy than the actual action. Done on real locations with lots of horses, people, and props, it looks really impressive. It’s not staged terribly great though and as a result is as engaging as you would think given the circumstances and effort put in. A bit of a lost opportunity here.

18. “The Group Takes the Town Back After a Stand-Off” -The Magnificent Seven (2016) (Clip)
- The newly assembled group of seven magnificent hit men take back the town from twenty or so bad guys. It starts off with a long stare down and turns into a decently staged shootout throughout the town. It’s essentially a chance for each member of the group to demonstrate their specialty: an Indian wields a bow and arrow, a mountain man wrestles people to the ground, a Mexican gun-slinger has two holsters and fires away, a Chinese fighter uses throwing knives, etc. It’s a bit cheesy, but it’s also effective.

17. “Finale: The Preacher Stalks the Marshall and His Men” -Pale Rider (Part 1) (Part 2)
- This is an untraditional finale to an Eastwood Western in that it eschews the quick shootout for something more thematic. Who would have thought the theme would be "supernatural slasher villain"? The final town shootout plays like a mini-run of Jason Vorhees picking off teenagers at a camp one by one – except he is taking out the Marshall and his deputies instead. None of the gags are super clever, but Eastwood’s ‘The Preacher’ feels like he vanishes out of sight unnaturally (but there’s always a sense a real person might be able to pull it off) to hide and take out the searching deputies one by one. It’s a smart idea since Eastwood’s character is more mythical in this story than ultra-realistic. It’s not a traditionally satisfying shootout, but it does satisfy.

16. “Gunfight at the OK Corral” -Tombstone (Clip)
- This is likely the shootout that many people expected to see at least in the top ten of a list like this. What can I say? In short, it's a famous historical moment, but just a decently edited shootout. While it might rank in the top 25 of a Western shootouts list, it wouldn't even sniff a list of best shootouts in general. Nostalgia aside, TV shows do shootouts like this in their sleep now. What this scene lacks in sheer action dynamism though it does makes up for it in tension and character. It comes at the end of a long runup of increasing showdowns between “The Cowboys” and the Wyatt family. After the Cowboys arrive in town without giving up their guns, the Wyatt’s along with Doc Holliday decide to walk over and disarm them. The tension is great and the actual shootout is fairly quick but unspectacular. Like most movie shootouts, someone points and fires then there is a cut of who they are shooting at. It’s mostly plain, but it’s workable. What elevates the sequence beyond the tension is the character work, most notably that of  Doc Holliday and Ike Clanton.


1962's How the West Was Won
15. “Finale: Shootout with Frank Miller's Gang” -High Noon (Clip)
- Playing out almost like a silent movie, Marshall Kane methodically faces off against outlaw Frank Miller’s gang. Abandoned and isolated, the shootouts are played out strategically rather than dynamically. Kane engages, retreats, and adapts to circumstances – including a clever idea on how to get out of a burning stable. In the end, the dramatic turn happens when Kane’s wife decides to shoot one of the gang members to help her pinned down husband.

14. “Saloon Knife Fight Over a Prostitute” -The Long Riders (Clip)
- I quite liked this knife fight between David Carradine and Christopher Lambert. To keep themselves within arms reach they each are required to bite on the end of a fabric. The fight goes through a couple of phases and though it’s not the most dynamic knife fight (Donnie Yen wouldn’t quite approve) it has a reality and length to it that feels substantive.
13. “Finale: Agua Verde Machine Gun Massacre Over Angel” -The Wild Bunch (Clip)
- The most famous action sequence from The Wild Bunch is pretty good, but it’s not even the best one in the film. The iconic bunch marches down to Mapache's men and sheer carnage breaks out. Compared to today's standards (or even a sequence later on this list) it's still a bit surprising, but not out of place. Still, in highlighting the sheer carnage, nihilism, and tragedy of this ending bloody massacre - it accomplished its mission.

12. “Finale: The Town Fights Off an Army of Men” -The Magnificent Seven (2016) (Clip - edited down)
- As this big battle between the villain’s army and the town and their seven mercenaries unfolds, it feels a bit like the final sequence from Saving Private Ryan where the Germans are bottled onto the main street, a chapel bell tower becomes a pivotal junction, and explosions are used to surprise the bad guys. Unfortunately, that's where the comparisons end. Running for essentially the last 30 minutes of the film, the scene wildly overstays its welcome, becoming too over the top and ridiculous for its own good. By the time the villain's Gatling gun is used on the town for a third time, you wonder how it’s possible that anyone is left alive at all. Yet, there are still many townspeople, heroes, and dozens of villains still left to kill! Seriously, there must be something like 200-300 nameless cowboys that attack this town and are dispatched like storm troopers. It's unfortunate because there’s enough clever and fun action moments to warrant a higher placement, but they are just drowned out by its lengthy runtime and outrageous body count.

11. “Cherokee Attack the Wagon Train for Stock” -How the West Was Won (Clip)
- This was a wonderful surprise to find in an era not known for its action set pieces; at least for Western films anyways. If you can get past a couple of dated rear-projection moments, there is a stellar large-scale wagon ambush sequence here. So much of the scene is set on a real location with fascinating rock formations and lots of wagons, horses, and Indians – it’s a crowded sequence over a wide landscape. What most surprises here is the penchant for putting the camera right into the action, rather than the industry standard set by John Ford of just doing fast dollies following the action from the side. Instead, this sequence will often right into the fray at times and isn’t afraid to throw in several big stunts and carnage shots. There's one stunt in particular where a wagon flips over on its side and the camera spins around the inside to show everyone being thrown around. It wouldn't be abnormal to see something like that in modern action sequences, but what a breath of fresh air for something from the 1960s!

10. “Wade's Men Ambush a Gatling Equipped Pinkerton Coach” -3:10 to Yuma (Clip)
- A solid and workman like sequence. Russell Crowe’s gang rides up on the stagecoach, but they are surprised when the coach is clearly prepared for them, sporting iron armor and a gatling gun in the rear. The gang rides at them head on as shots are fired, but the gatling gun opens up impressively as they near the rear. Thanks though to a sharpshooter in the hills and Crowe’s decision to get a heard of cows in its path, the coach is turned up on its end in an impressive practical stunt. The sequence is mostly shot practically (though a couple “green screen” moments do stand out) and the location is perfect. Solid.

9. “Finale: Double Train Chase Extraordinaire” -The Lone Ranger (Clip - edited in Hindi)
- This is one of the toughest action scenes I’ve ever had to rate. Most of the time, I know how I feel immediately after the sequence. Similar to the film's opening train sequence (and the rest of the movie for that matter), there’s a level of genuine scale, polish, wonder, creativity, and physicality to this sequence that normally earns rave reviews from me. However, that is countered by a level of ridiculous clowning around that is so off-putting that I don't know how to take it. I can see the tone they are trying to strike here, but I feel like they’ve spent the entire film undercutting the Lone Ranger’s character as a legitimate action hero that by the time he is called upon for action heroics in this finale, I don’t really believe it. Which is a shame, because there are some great looking set pieces here. In a way, this reminds me of Verbinski and Depp’s island sword fight set piece near the end of Pirate’s of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest that tried to mix several storylines, ambitions, and tones. It’s hard to explain why one is successful and the other is not, but there it is. This is one of the grandest train sequences ever filmed and yet never fully hits the viewer like it should.

8. “Finale: Glass & Fitzgerald Faceoff in the Snow” -The Revenant (Part 2 Only)
- The search/chase for Fitzgerald in the wilderness begins with a clever surprise by Glass. When the shot only wounds Fitzgerald a chase ensues that ultimately leads to a brutal hand to hand fight next to a snow lined creek. It’s intense and intimate. Thanks to the decision to tell the final struggle section of the fight in a "single" well-choreographed shot, it's bruising, beast like, and still easy to follow as well. My love for amazing choreography put aside, this is a tiring fight and it’s brutal nature only serves to highlight the Pyrrhic victory of Glass at the end, "You came all this way just for your revenge, huh? Did you enjoy it, Glass?... 'Cause there ain't nothin' gon' bring your boy back." Like the opening war sequence of the film, this is an action sequence you not only feel present for (as if you are watching a genuine fight), but you feel like you are part of it too.

7. “Candyland Shootout” -Django Unchained (Clip)
- Like the film itself, this is a botched ending away from being genuinely great. As it stands, this sequence begins with a surprising and tragic start then turns into a blood-soaked spectacle that provides a revenge catharsis for the all the considerable pent up frustration and hate the movie’s villains generate. There is a verve and dynamism to the action, with blood spurts that would make Sam Peckinpah envious. However, I think the scene is ultimately let down with a lame ending and the decision to not make this the ending moment of the film. Had this become the film’s finale and been combined with the final shootout of the film, this could have been a masterpiece of revenge cinema.

6. “Opening: Heist Turns into a Massacre in the Streets” -The Wild Bunch (Clip)
- A band of “troops” come into town during a parade and reveal they are actually “The Wild Bunch” making a score. Unbeknownst to them, a band of bounty hunters lay in wait across the street on the rooftops. The sequence takes its time setting the table, establishing the stakes, the main figures, and ramps the tension up with a passing “temperance” parade full of innocence bystanders. Once the shooting begins, it is lengthy, brutal, and chaotic. It's an incredible opener that certainly gets across the point that neither the outlaws or their hunters have many scruples or are particularly heroic.

5. “Finale: Geronimo Attacks the Stagecoach” -Stagecoach (Clip)
- The lasting reason, to me, to watch Stagecoach is this big wagon chase set piece. John Ford filmed many chases after this and none of them come close to the length and level of effort he put into this one. I think this sequence must have been the equivalent of the D-Day sequence from Saving Private Ryan for its time. For the era and compared to what other films were doing, this sequence is more intricate, better staged, and better shot than anything else like it. All the classic Western stunts are here but two stunts in particular stand out here. First, there’s the Indian who is shot while hanging onto the lead horses of a six horse carriage and hits the ground as the horses and stage run right over him (narrowly missing him). It’s harrowing and seeing the Indian (stuntman) stand up clear after the stunt is welcoming. Second, there’s the moment when John Wayne’s character (his stunt man anyways) has to get ahold of the six-horse team and he jumps from the carriage to each successive team. Another separating feature here is that this sequence is a story within itself, advancing in stages and giving us a moment when hope is lost as the team runs out of bullets. They are ultimately saved by the cavalry in a bit of an underwhelming ending (since its through nothing the characters actually do).

4. “Opening: Arikara Indians Ambush a Fur Trading Camp” -The Revenant (Clip)
- This sequence is a perfect balancing act. How do you create an “Indians ambush the Fur-Traders” scene that feels fresh and new without being overly artsy; a scene that captures the immediate intensity and chaos of a surprise attack without being confusing and choppy; a scene that shows the scale and geography of the natural setting without being too distant and formal? Remarkably, this sequence pulls it all off. It does a good job stitching together different takes to feel continuous and real-time – giving the viewer a real feeling of urgency and immediacy. I’ve seen a lot of historical action sequences and the natural setting, production values, and creative decisions here makes me feel like I was not only present for the battle, watching what one looked like, but ALSO what one felt like. My only wish is that it lasted a bit longer.

3. “The Northfield Bank Robbery” -The Long Riders (Clip)
- This bank robbery (the best one of the Western genre) took me by complete surprise and it's likely that you've never even heard of it; I hadn't until I did research making sure I caught as many key films for this project as possible. The film is directed by Walter Hill who takes inspiration here from Sam Peckinpah (not a bad place for action inspiration), in particular the opening bank robbery sequence of Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch. Like that sequence, this one takes its time to setup the geography of the city and the layout of the gang during the robbery. Once the robbery goes surprisingly and violently sideways we discover, along with the outlaws, that the town was ready and waiting for them. The streets clear and out pop men all around town looking to gun down any member of the gang on horseback. What follows is a shootout that is a bit chaotic, alternating between each side shooting back and forth, but is punctuated by four key things: violent blood squibs to emphasize impact, a handful of gorgeously composed shots, a nice bit of strategy as the town barricade the exits, and a few incredible horse stunts. At the end of the sequence there is a jaw-dropping stunt where the gang must jump their horses through some plate glass windows. The scene is so well shot it momentarily took my breathe away.  It’s one of the most beautiful stunt shots in all of cinema to my mind. Walter Hill claims it took two months of practicing with the horses to pull off the stunt. 

2. “Train Robbery: Stealing a US Arms Shipment & Blowing a Bridge” -The Wild Bunch
- This has to be the most underrated and least talked about action sequence in the history of the Western genre! The opening and closing action sequences of The Wild Bunch easily get the spotlight from most writers, but I think this one easily outshines them both. This exemplary train robbery sequence stands out for two reasons- First, for the authenticity that comes with filming on location with real trains, horses, and explosives. There is a real patience in unveiling the robbery step by step; it feels like a procedural heist. The real locations, props, and patient storytelling make this action sequence just feel genuine. Second, the motivations of three central groups (the Wild Bunch, the train bounty hunters, and the U.S. army) are interwoven dramatically and mysteriously here in a way that really cranks up the drama. Since the viewer isn't told the full plan ahead of time, we are left to try and figure out just how the bunch is going to pull this stunt off. With the posse and the US army both looking out for them, their is a engaging the cat and mouse game unfolding over the whole scene. This game ultimately plays out in a well-filmed sequence that ends in a very satisfying bridge explosion. Want to put the cherry on top of a scene? Blow something up in a big way!

1. "Finale: Harmonville Shootout" -Open Range (Clip - only part one)
- What sets this sequence from 2003's Open Range a cut above all the others is the sheer scale and execution; this sequence isn't content being a single dish, it wants to be a three course meal. It is a lengthy sequence that goes through multiple stages and provides a sense of the scale and geography of the shootout while not forgetting the intimacy and intensity of a gunfight. There’s a full three act structure to this sequence and we even get a delightful little prelude before the shootout as Duvall and Costner talk through their strategy before the big gunfight. This does a fantastic job of giving us a mental image of how the fight might go down and further heighten the anticipation of the scene - “Will it turn out just like he says?” 

The beginning of the fight might feel too "Hollywood" if the film hadn't already set us up with the logic - most men are not "killers" and don't have the stones to just start shooting. Betting on this principle, Costner says he will take out the one hired gun the group has and the rest will mostly scatter.  As the two sides walk up to each other and have their initial stare and stand, Costner's character asks, "Are you the one who killed my friend?" and then coldly opens fire. The first phase begins, the classic two side shootout. This phase begins suddenly and takes the viewer by surprise - the interweaving between wide shot and close-up here does a great job keeping you oriented while also feeling the chaos. After the initial burst of energy the two sides scatter and had the sequence ended here, it would still stand above most movie shootout. However, this is where the second act kicks in. After the opening salvo, the two sides disintegrate into open shooting and some great back and forth within the town. What this shootout gets so right that so many others get wrong, is that you get to see lots of shots that show the shooter and the result of the shot…in the same exact shot without cutting. Seeing the cause and effect in the same shot, multiple times, gives a sense of realism and dynamism that doesn’t happen when you just cut back and forth between each moment. There's a really fun moment where Costner chases down the villain in  somewhat continuous cut that sees him firing a rifle and hitting things around the villain, all in the same shot. It's so simple, yet so rarely done. This second act finishes in a nice dramatic moment where Costner is held back from going too far with his violence. The third act then kicks in as it wraps up the dramatic themes of the film, seeing the town join the fight and Costner taking out a hostage taker without any hesitation. I think there’s an inherent ceiling to the genre of an Old West gunfight when it comes to an action sequence, but I think this comes to as close to perfect as it can possibly get.