Best Action Scenes of All-Time: Western Films Edition - The Part-Time Critic

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

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
(25-21)

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.

24.
"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.

(20-16)

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.

(15-11)

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!


THE TOP TEN
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.

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