*Last Updated: 7/6/2022
You can find my overview of the Western Genre HERE
You can find my Greatest Western Actions Scenes of All-time list HERE
What I've gathered for you here is a list of ten films I feel are essential to understanding the sweep of the American West in film. Think of it as an entire education (while being engaged and entertained) on the subject in just ten viewings. The goal here was to give you the best broad overview of the diverse experiences found in this time period. 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 B-Westerns.com, 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. By the 90's and 00's, Westerns could be anything - from grand revisionist epics (Dances with Wolves, Unforgiven), modern day action (The Quick & the Dead, The Harder They Fall), horror (Bone Tomahawk), and even contemporary existential reflections (No Country for Old Men).
For this top 10, I (re)watched over seventy 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. The films aren't necessarily in order of "best" but all represent 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 just the 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. Enjoy!
THE WESTERN COLLAGE
"Best Collection of Short Stories About the West"
Why It's Essential: This is a tough film to rank relative to other Westerns since, like 1962's How the West Was Won it’s a collection of a short stories rather than one single narrative. That's exactly why I'd like to mention this at the beginning of my list because as a collage of sometimes quirky, humorous, serious, and reflective stories set in various Western settings and clichés (the gunfighter, hangings, gold miner, the wagon train, etc) it's like a Western education all in one. Some stories are more interesting than others (the gold mining story shines brightest to me), but the film is nearly always engaging and thanks to the stellar production values, literary quality, and artistic vision – it’s nearly always insightful about some aspect of "The West" as well. If you are looking for one film that gives you a sampler platter with different topics and tones then there is no better one stop shop than this one.
THE WESTERN COMEDY
"Best Western Set in the Comedy Genre"
Why It's Essential: Near the beginning of the film, on his 39th birthday Billy Crystal tells his station manager, “Have you ever had that feeling that this is the best I'm ever gonna do, this is the best I'm ever gonna feel... and it ain't that great?” He’s in midlife crisis mode. His friends, played by Bruno Kirby and Daniel Stern, are also broken men in different ways. Together they decide to go on a two week vacation to the New Mexico where they can be cowboys and drive a herd – they think it will help them “find their smile” and figure things out. Figuring out the secret of life, dealing with death, these are pretty deep things to deal with for a comedy right? The film is surprisingly able to juggle these hefty themes along with a lot of great comedy. The men arrive at the ranch, meet their tripmates, and trail bosses – the head of which is manly man Curly. Jack Palance’s Curly is an iconic performance as the grizzled cowboy boss who loves the life and doesn’t suffer fools; he has great chemistry with Crystal. In fact, the whole cast really has great chemistry – especially the three leads. City Slickers is one of those movies that is able to wring a lot of comedy out of a genre picture while simultaneously embracing many of the things that make Westerns great. In other words, it doesn’t need to cut the genre down to get most of its laughs. This isn’t the East coast looking down its nose at flyover country – everyone is fair game here. By the time our three leads are guiding a herd across a river to the swelling of the outstanding film score – it’s hard not feel the awe and wonder that would be normal in a movie like Red River. City Slickers isn’t perfect, I’m find the “find what matters most in your life and center yourself around it” secular philosophy to be a dud, but it surprisingly hits powerfully in many other areas – the biggest being genuine and hearty laughs. It's my favorite "Western" comedy.
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- Blazing Saddles (1974): Mel Brooks is a comedic genius to me. While this isn't my favorite comedy from Brooks (that would be Young Frankenstein), it's got more than its fair share of big laughs. I find comedy to be the most wildly subjective genre because much of its humor is often grounded in the zeitgeist of its time. When viewed outside of its cultural milieu, it’s most often diminished for it. Viewing this film near fifty years removed from its time is both fascinating and uncomfortable as its filled with racial humor that would never be acceptable today. By the end, you can tell that while the film is filled with racial humor – the ultimate goal is to cut against racism, not support it. That said, while I find certain sequences, jokes, and moments funny – I don’t really connect to the film and can't give it a full recommend.
- The Three Amigos (1986): Commentary coming soon...
- Almost Heroes (1998): A spoof of Lewis and Clark's journey to explore the Louisiana Territory and find a waterway to the Pacific Ocean. It stars Matthew Perry and Chris Farley alongside a nice comedic supporting cast. It's not a great "film" - but it's a guilty pleasure comedy of mine. There are several gut laugh moments here, but there's also a lot of quirky comedy that you either find funny or you don't.
- Shanghai Noon (2000): For whatever reason American filmmakers wantt Jackie Chan star in buddy movies where he had to always play fish out of water roles. I guess they figured that formula proved true in 1998's Rush Hour and believe it or not, it worked well again in 2000's action comedy Western Shanghai Noon. Jackie Chan essentially plays a Chinese bodyguard who has come to the Wild West to retrieve a kidnapped princess. Along the way he gets connected with Owen Wilson's "too nice for the West" outlaw and together they go through a kind of buddy road trip through all the Western clichés: outlaw double turns, Indians attacks, saloon fights, gun duels, Spanish mission showdowns and more. It's a bit convoluted and some of the jokes don't work, but thanks to the chemistry between Wilson and Chan mixed with good production values there's an earnest wholesomeness that makes this film go down really easily. It's quickly endearing and it has some decent action to boot. It’s a win.
Why It's Essential: If you are looking for a Western with exciting shootouts and heists than you've got to pick Sam Peckinpah's Wild Bunch. It's the rare controversial and violent (not so much by today's standards) film hailed as a "classic" that actually lives up to all the hype. It follows a gang of bank robbers and the grizzled man hired to put a team together to stop them. The film features three strong action set pieces that still stand up to this day: an opening bank robbery, a mid-film train heist, and a closing shootout. I couldn't imagine what it must have been like to see the shootouts in this film for the first time - the intensity, clarity, and power of guns come across in ways your typical Western of the time just couldn't sell. This was all part of the purpose though, as the film meant to depict "the West" as a place of brutal nihilism under the veneer of moralism (from the good guys and the bad guys). Yes, the action scenes are great, but it's the emptiness of moral justification 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 sequence and some of the Mexican army moments are skippable) despite many of its universal qualities. This is easily one of the best Western action films about outlaws ever made.
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- The Magnificent Seven (1960): “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 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.
- Tombstone (1993): 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 knows how to end that makes it feel a little 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.
- Open Range (2003): 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.
- 3:10 to Yuma (2007): Christian Bale's everyman character gets wrapped up into having to escort the West's most notorious gunslinger, played by Russell Crowe, to catch the 3:10 train to Yuma. 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.
THE LAW & ORDER WESTERN
"Best Western Exploring the Themes of Civilization Coming to the Wild and Anarchic Frontier"
Why It's Essential: You'll notice that while I'm trying to cover 10 "different" topics on the Western spectrum with this list - there's a lot of overlap. Most of the films in the top ten could be seen as morality tales of civilization vs. anarchy, but The Ox-Bow Incident is one of those films that doesn't just include it among many other themes, it's central to it. 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.
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- The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962): My favorite John Ford Western is oddly one that wasn’t shot in his favorite location of Monument Valley, but mostly on Hollywood sets. That's perhaps ironic considering this, among all his films, explores the idea of the myth of the west vs the reality of the west. 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 clichés of Hollywood Westerns weigh the film down from the lofty heights it reaches.
- High Plains Drifter (1973): 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.
- The Power of the Dog (2021): The Power of the Dog is a challenging viewing, but this slow, atmospheric, and layered Western tale bears a lot of fruit upon inspection. The story is about a small restaurant owner named Rose (Kirsten Dunst) who has a son named Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), marrying a mild-mannered rancher named George (Jesse Plemens) and moving into his home and lifestyle. The major conflict of the film arrives with George's brother Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) who represents a stereotypical herd-driving, men-leading, hard-working Cowboy sees Rose as a gold digger and her son Peter as a nancy boy. The catch is that Phil is a complicated man, as it is heavily implied that Phil's great manly cowboy mentor was likely as a lover to him. A lesser film would have stopped there and just made Phil an oppressed and closeted homosexual living in times he couldn't express it. Thankfully, there's more here to the film than that. Phil isn't just an old hat struggling with his feelings - he's skillful, intelligent, can play instruments, lead men, and driven by a pride in his work and tradition. Phil wants his brother to converse with him, join him in leading the men, and be an open ear to talk. I think many miss this aspect - George struggles to be that kind of male companion for Phil and this leads Phil to many of his frustrations. George is quieter, desirous of more white collar work, and wants to settle into domestic bliss - all of this George never communicates to his brother in a healthy way. In the end, there's a lot more here to the relational layers, especially Phil's relationship to Peter, and a lot more to the plot but I won't spoil it here. It's a thoughtful exploration of what it means to be a man and how society, our relationships, and experiences can push us into healthy or unhealthy expressions of it. I'm not sure I think the film takes a strong stance in the end on what exactly a healthy expression would look like, or that I agree with every aspect of it it explores, but I do think the main goal here is to explore and reflect. In that sense - I could talk about this film with others for hours.
THE COWBOY WESTERN
"Best Western Centered Around Cowboys Driving Cattle"
Why It's Essential: If you think about cowboys you think about driving cattle. Although the high point of cattle driving in the West only lasted a couple of decades, it has become a defining image of the West. I think the best Western film with a cattle drive at its center is the 1948 Howard Hawks film Red River. 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."
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- Lonesome Dove (1989): 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.
THE SLAVERY WESTERN
"Best Western Exploring the Themes of Slavery and the South"
Why It's Essential: The history of the "Wild Wild West" is inextricably tied to the Civil War and the institution of slavery. I think one can't get an education on the West in film without viewing at least one film influenced by that institution. Of course films like 12 Years a Slave and Amistad are more directly about slavery, but they aren't Westerns. For my money, the best Western that focused on slavery is Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained. 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. My major gripe with film (a common issue in Westerns) is that it just doesn’t stick the landing as well as I'd like. 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.
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- The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976): 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.
- News of the World (2020): 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.
THE GOLD RUSH WESTERN
"Best Western Centered on the Rush to Find Gold"
Why It's Essential: “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.
If You Liked This Topic Then Check Out: There's really no other great films like this one! It's not a Western, but a similar themed one would be something like 1998's A Simple Plan.
THE HARD LIFE WESTERN
"Best Western Centered on the Difficulties of Living in the West"
Why It's Essential: What is sanity in a world as perilous and trying as the Old West? I know this is an unconventional pick as a top ten Western, but it’s one of the few films in the genre that has continues to force me to reflect on its story and characters - in other words, I couldn't get it out of my head. 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.
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- Dances with Wolves (1990): 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.
- Hostiles (2017): 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.
THE WILDERNESS WESTERN
"Best Western Centered on the Lives of Traders/Wilderness Men"
Why It's Essential: We often forget the role of the explorers and traders in opening up and settling the west. From that group of people come a load of crazy survival stories, none as crazy as the story of Hugh Glass which The Revenant is loosely based on. The explorer and frontiersman Glass was mauled by a bear and left by his group for dead. He struggled over 200 miles on his own back to civilization. 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 psychology 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."
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- Jeremiah Johnson (1972): 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.
THE CONTEMPORARY WESTERN
"Best Western Set in a Contemporary Setting"
The basic premise is that Josh Brolin, playing the kind of everyman of the film, as he's hunting some deer comes across a drug deal gone bad. He happens to find a suitcase filled with money and decides to go ahead and take it. The sheriff, played by Tommy Lee Jones, later examines the scene and is on the chase for Brolin's character. The bad guys, who lost the money, hire the hitman Anton Chigurh (in an Oscar winning performance by Javier Bardem) to chase Brolin's character down as well. On the surface, it plays out as a pretty straightforward cops and bad guys procedural chase. On this level, it's a technical masterpiece. The cinematography, editing, and shootout sequences are top notch stuff with great atmosphere and suspense. The technical stuff is all on point (expect no less from the Coens), but the real triumph of this film is how they allow the themes of the story to continually bubble up from underneath that chase plotline, quirky characters, and folksy southern dialogue. The stark Western landscapes and simple plot provide a fantastic vehicle for one of my favorite explorations of how evil, chance, and human action play out in our world.
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- Sicario (2015): Written by Taylor Sheridan and directed by Denis Villeneuve, Sicario engages the viewer from the first shot to the last. It’s one of those movies that kicks protected, middle-class, suburban people (like me) in their gut and forces them to see unpleasant things we’d like to forget exists outside our bubble. The lawless frontier space of the usual Western is replaced here with the lawless border area and the drug trade. Sheridan's screenplay explores the question of how civilized, protected, and sophisticated people should react to the seemingly purposeless violence that comes with the drug trade. Does turning a cheek work? What happens when the wolves are able to bypass the fence and the laws? Are you willing to turn into a wolf yourself? Incredible stuff here.
- Wind River (2017): The film opens with a wolf stalking a group of sheep only to have Jeremy Renner's wildlife/game guardian take a few wolves out. It's not subtle, but the opening scene tells you everything about the tone of what's going to happen next. Wind River is more evidence that no one in film is currently exploring the realities of how we deal with suffering and violence better than Taylor Sheridan. The plot of a small-scale murder mystery on a snow-blown Indian reservation (taking the place of the usual Western's open plains) allows Sheridan the space to explore how humans handle violence and isolation. The engaging murder procedural story is interrupted with bursts of shocking violence and mournful reflection. Remember that melancholic scene in No Country for Old Men where the isolated old-timer Ellis tells Tommy Lee Jones the violent story of Uncle Mac’s murder by Indians? It’s as if Sheridan made an entire film around the tone of that sequence and it turned out to be the best film of 2017.
THE OUTLAW WESTERN
"Best Western Centered on the Lives of Outlaws & Gunslingers"
1. Unforgiven (1992) IMDB - Trailer
Why It's Essential: The gunslinging outlaw is, for better or worse, inextricably tied to the American frontier. As far as I'm concerned, there's never been a better movie about "the gunslinger" than 1992's Oscar winning Unforgiven. A Western masterpiece directed by and starring Clint Eastwood that acts as about as good an education on both the myth and the reality of 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 heroically left - the world of the morally repugnant gun slinger. 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 its agenda unfolds: a re-evaluation of the moral and aesthetic 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!
“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 is 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:
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 2022, 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 is Eastwood's artistic grappling with reality and I think it's the best Western our culture as to offer.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.
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- High Noon (1952): 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.
- Shane (1953): 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?
- The Proposition (2005): 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.
- True Grit (2010): 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.