Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the Critical List, a quick and handy guide looking at the very best that various genres, series and directors have to offer.
This week, I’ll be turning my attention to one of the oldest and most enduring genres in the history of cinema, the Western. Ever since Edwin S. Porter’s 12 minute movie The Great Train Robbery was released back in 1903, the wild and rugged spirit of adventure encapsulated by the Old West has proved a rich hunting ground for countless filmmakers.
Over the decades the Western has gone through some marked changes. During the genre’s heyday of the 1930’s and 40’s, Western movies all followed a fairly similar pattern, the good guys wore white hats and saved the day whilst upholding a strict moral code, whilst the bad guys wore black hats, sought to exploit and intimidate the ordinary frontiersman and inevitably lost. Meanwhile the Native Americans were nothing but dangerous savages out to destroy the god-fearing white settlers. By the late 1950’s and into the 1960’s, the distinction between good and bad became slightly more blurred as the gun-slinging anti-hero became more popular and the portrayal of Native Americans became far more compassionate. The harsh reality of the American advance west and the terrible hardships endured by both Native American and settler alike were brought further into focus. Finally, by the late 1960’s and onwards there was the rise of the so-called Spaghetti Western (so called of course because many of them were shot in Italy) a grungy low-fi version of the classic Western with increased violence and added bloodshed.
It’s one of the great American art forms and the Western, more than any other genre, set out to capture the spirit of freedom and the concept of ‘manifest destiny’ which America was built on. As the decades wore on, filmmakers were far more critical and objective about how they portrayed the old west and genre conventions were moulded and manipulated somewhat, but the themes and tropes which made the genre so popular in the first place largely remained. It has rugged heroes, despicable villains, a thirst for adventure and an array of captivating landscapes.
Here I’ve sought to highlight the very best that the genre has to offer, taking in a wide range of Western movies from over a century’s worth of offerings.
A true landmark in Western filmmaking, John Ford’s Stagecoach came at a time when the genre was actually in a bit of a slump as the various poverty row studios had been churning them out with such regularity that they were starting to lose their appeal. Ford believed in the project though and also insisted upon giving the lead to a then little known actor called John Wayne for whom Stagecoach would prove a star making role.
The story is a relatively simple one, a motely band of passengers ranging from an apparent Southern Gentleman, a raging alcoholic doctor and an exiled prostitute, board a Stagecoach destined for Lordsburg, a journey which will see them pass through dangerous Apache territory. Wayne is along for the ride as the brilliantly named Ringo Kid, a fugitive gunslinger who is first taken into custody by a Marshall, but who proves his worth by saving the ‘coach from several Apache Indian attacks. This was a movie made at a time when Native American’s were very much seen by filmmakers as bloodthirsty barbarians out to kill any white man they could find. Its politics may be a little dated, but Stagecoach reignited the public’s love of the Western and kick-started the careers of both Ford and Wayne who would both go on to prove pivotal in the genre’s shaping.
Classic Line: “Well, I guess you can’t break out of prison and into society in the same week.”
Gary Cooper stars in this seminal Western which so irked John Wayne that The Duke referred to it as “the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life.” Hans Zimmerman’s movie was in part a thinly veiled allegory for the ongoing House Un-American Activities’ witch-hunt that was engulfing Hollywood at the time. In fact, the film’s screenwriter and producer Carl Foreman was himself hounded by the HUAC committee and ultimately blacklisted. The film features Gary Cooper as Marshal Will Kane, who upon learning that a man he brought to justice was released on a technicality and is returning to the town with his posse to get revenge, begins to scour the town looking for help.
The criminals will arrive in town at high noon (obviously) and the tension mounts as Kane desperately searchers for help and finds none forthcoming as the townspeople turn their backs and bury their heads in the sand while a good man is set to be chased out of town. Wayne and many other pro-blacklisting types were outraged at the un-American attitude the film portrayed and many movie goers at the time were taken aback by the film’s non-traditional Western themes. There was little gun play, action and picturesque vistas and the film’s hero ends the film disgusted with his so called friends. It’s a different type of Western to what Hollywood was used to, but it remains incredibly tense and gripping nonetheless.
Classic line: “People gotta talk themselves into law and order before they do anything about it. Maybe because down deep they don’t care. They just don’t care.”
John Wayne gives arguably the finest performance of his career in this timeless Western which was again directed by John Ford. Seventeen years on from Stagecoach and by now Wayne is one of the biggest movie stars in the world. Typically he played no-nonsense heroes and noble soldiers such as his roles in John Ford’s ‘Cavalry Trilogy’ incorporating Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande. In The Searchers however, Wayne plays an altogether different kind of character and perhaps one of the most conflicted heroes in Western history. Ethan Edwards is a wondering and weather-beaten cowboy who emerges from the barren Texan desert at his brother’s farmhouse. His past is secretive; we know only than he fought for the Confederacy and refused to surrender his arms when the war ended,while some rare gold coins in his possession suggest he has been living on the wrong side of the law.
We soon find that Ethan harbours some intensely racist and bigoted views on Native Americans and ‘half-breeds’ like his brother’s adopted son Martin. He also appears to hold a candle for his brother’s wife as the two share an embrace which seems to ooze longing and past regret. As I said, he’s definitely not your archetypal Western hero. When an Indian raiding party kills his family and kidnaps his two nieces, Ethan and Martin scour the Western frontier in search of them. Ethan’s motives are not as noble as first one may think however as he reveals he intends to find and rescue his young niece Debbie, only so he can kill her and spare her the indignity of living as a Native American. Ethan’s views do change over time, but he is meant to be a character out of step with the world around him. He is a man of the wilderness, at one with the unwelcoming desert rather than a comfy family homestead. It’s truly one of the greatest movies, let alone westerns, ever made and is the pinnacle of Wayne and Ford’s collaborations.
Classic line: “I figure a man’s only good for one oath at a time, and I took my oath to the Confederate States of America.”
In response to High Noon, Wayne and old buddy, director Howard Hawks made Rio Bravo. Much like in Hans Zimmerman’s movie, Rio Bravo revolves around the threat of an outlaw gang set to descend upon a town and wreak havoc. Wayne is Sheriff John T. Chance, and along with his alcoholic deputy Dude (Dean Martin), a young gunslinger called Colorado Ryan (Rick Nelson) and a crippled older deputy called Stumpy (Walter Brennan), they guard a dangerous prisoner and protect the townspeople from the violent gang en route to bust him out. Unlike in High Noon, here the sheriff can count on his closest allies to get the job done and doesn’t decide to roam around the town seeking to recruit allies, he sees it as his job to protect them and not vice versa. It’s a far more conventional Western story than High Noon, but Wayne is on fine form, Dean Martin was never better and Howard Hawks delivers a typically compelling action packed story.
Classic line: “Sorry don’t get it done, Dude. That’s the second time you hit me. Don’t ever do it again.”
The third and final instalment of Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy is arguably the finest example of the Spaghetti Western genre. Clint Eastwood’s Blondie, Lee Van Cleef’s Angel Eyes and Eli Wallach’s Tuco are the titular three gunmen who each try to double-cross and out wit the other two in order to obtain a fabled hoard of buried gold. Leone fills his movie with simmering heat, sweat-soaked banditos and excessively bloody violence. The legendary director would achieve greatness again with the magnificent Once Upon A Time in the West, but it was with The Good, the Bad and The Ugly that he really honed his craft.
Eastwood was really at his peak as the iconic quick-on-the-draw loner bedecked in his trademark poncho with a cheroot pinched tightly between his teeth. With Ennio Morricone’s unforgettable score playing in the background, it’s a film bursting with memorable scenes such as the legendary three-way Mexican standoff in a cemetery at the film’s end. Leone breathed new life into the Western with his hyper-violent movies which focused on the rougher and grimier side to frontier life and the outlaws who helped shape it.
Classic line: “You see, in this world there’s two kinds of people, my friend: Those with loaded guns and those who dig. You dig.”
The Old West has never been as fun as when it involves Paul Newman and Robert Redford bantering their way across America with the law hot on their tails. As the infamous outlaws, Butch and Sundance, Newman and Redford brought their effortless charm and easy charisma to great effect in George Roy Hill’s romping adventure. After a hold-up goes badly wrong and the duo find themselves chased across the West by a team of expert trackers, they eventually make for Bolivia and try to begin a new life there. Inevitably, they seem unable to outrun their past and eventually it seems unavoidable that the law is going to catch up with them. Full of classic lines (“who are those guys?”), and that ill-advised bicycle/Burt Bacharach’s ‘Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on my Head’ aside, the thrilling adventure barely lets up for a second. It may not be as gritty or authentic as many other Westerns, but it is definitely one of the most delightfully entertaining movies you can hope to see.
Classic line: “You just keep thinkin’, Butch. That’s what you’re good at.”
In the dark and starkly violent Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood offered his own reappraisal of Western folklore and perhaps sought to draw a line under his own career in the genre by looking at what becomes of the ageing cowboy once the West becomes more civilized and men like him are seemingly no longer needed. Eastwood plays William Munny, a former cold-blooded killer who instilled fear in men across States’ before he decided to settle down and raise a family. When times get tough and he is offered one final payday, Munny is dragged back into the life of violence and seems unable to escape his former life.
Eastwood was on directorial duties as well as taking the lead role and he painted a grimly violent picture of the real Old West and delivered a truly revisionist take on the myth of the noble frontier towns. In Unforgiven, the law and order is corrupt, the gunfighters popularised in folktales are all talk and boozing and whoring are part of the daily routine. Dealing with issues of age, heroism and real courage, it has been described in some circles as Eastwood’s eulogy for the Western, a fitting description for a film which is bathed in a gloomy bleak atmosphere and populated with morally ambiguous characters.
My Darling Clementine (1946),
Red River (1948)
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
The Wild Bunch (1969)
High Plains Drifter (1973)
True Grit (2010)