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Notice that I didn’t say that these are the best Westerns. There are thousands of Westerns made by filmmakers over the decades, and I certainly haven’t seen them all. Many, in fact, have been lost forever to the vagaries of time.
Still, I have seen quite a few Westerns, and I have a deep love and appreciation for the genre. Some of the greatest names in cinema history have helped to create masterful, entertaining Westerns. The five films that I have selected for this list come from various eras of film history and include some very different approaches to the style and category.
Robert Altman was known for his penchant for deconstructing film genres and making them seem new again. He certainly succeeded in that with this 1971 Western about a gambler who sets up business in a frontier town. The movie is short on plot but rich with character and a powerful sense of time and place. I’m not sure that any movie better conveyed the sense of what life in the old West was like. It also is filled with doom and sadness as you encounter one tragically destined figure after another. Their lives were harsh and difficult. This is not the idealized, romantic life in the West as depicted in the dime novels. This is life on the edge of humanity as it really was like.
Warren Beatty plays gambler McCabe, and Julie Christie plays his prostitute partner Mrs. Miller. When representatives of a corporation looking to invest in land and businesses try to buy McCabe out and take over the town, McCabe turns them down with an outrageous counter-proposal. His disrespectful attitude seals his fate long before the final credits roll, and Mrs. Miller knows all too well how this story will play out.
In this, the first of two John Ford directed films on my list, we see the political building blocks of the Old West. Here you see how frontier justice slowly but resolutely became the law and order of emerging territories in the United States. The questions surrounding the place of guns and violence in our society, which haven’t gone away in our culture, is the overriding theme of this thoughtful film from 1962.
James Stewart plays Stoddard, a lawyer who believes that the rule of law is more powerful than the frontier law of the gun. He runs into the sadistic Liberty Valance, played by Lee Marvin in one of his most memorable roles. Valance effectively runs a town with fear and intimidation. As the community votes for inclusion into statehood, a farmer played by John Wayne must choose sides between the meek lawyer and the vicious town boss. There are subplots involving racial hatred and a melancholy love triangle, all of which add up to one of the most compelling stories of America’s growth ever told on the screen.
Howard W. Hawkes’ 1948 film of the first cattle drive along the Chisolm Trail is one of the great Westerns ever, with stunning, sprawling shots of cowboys at work and a gripping story of an aging cowboy at odds with his young protégé.
John Wayne plays Tom Dunson, a proud and stubborn rancher who rescues young Matt Garth from an Indian attack. He adopts the boy and sends him off to school. By the time Matt returns, now grown up and played by Montgomery Clift, Dunston is nearly broke and must drive his cattle herd nearly 9000 miles north to Missouri. Wayne plays Dunston as a man slowly losing his mind and his reputation, and it is a great performance by the often-underrated Wayne. Because Clift was such a brilliant, nuanced actor, the contrast between the two movie stars makes this a richly rewarding film in so many ways.
Speaking of John Wayne, this 1956 John Ford film is widely regarded as the best Western of all time. It tells the story of a search for a girl kidnapped during a Comanche raid on a small farm in badlands. Wayne sets out on a five-year quest not to rescue the girl, but to kill her because she is now, “the leavin’s of a Comanche buck.”
It is a gorgeous film to look at, containing some of the most beautiful cinematography on the screen. It is also a deeply complex film. Wayne’s portrayal of Ethan Edwards, a loner driven to madness and violence by what he sees as an honorable quest for justice stands in stunning contrast to his reputation as a film hero. It is a dark and grim reminder of the humanity which was sacrificed to open the West to the white man.
I don’t know if this is a great movie. Certainly, it is completely unlike the other four, which are respected classics. Silverado is, however, great fun. It is the rousing, rip-roaring adventure of gunslinging cowboys, dastardly bad guys in black hats, and the alluring fantasy of the Wild West in all its vast splendor.
Directed in 1985 by Lawrence Kasdan, Silverado is the tale of four hard riding drifters who wander into a Western town and find themselves compelled to take the law into their own hands to save the townsfolk from a greedy and powerful sheriff. It is an adventure which doesn’t take itself too seriously, but clearly loves the history of the films it so entertainingly seems to treasure. Make a bowl of popcorn, sit back, and enjoy the thrills!
Got a favorite Western? I’d love to know about it!
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