I’ve never liked Westerns.
If you know me, you know what a movie buff I am. When I find a film I like, I want to know everything about it: the director, the screenwriter, some background on the making of the film, who wrote the score, etc. And this has led me to explore many different genres, reaching back to the advent of the moving picture itself. I enjoy silents, talkies, dramas, ro-coms, thrillers, auteurs, indies, sci-fi, musicals, French, British, German, Chinese, Russian, Indian cinema, comedies, documentaries, cartoons – I love ‘em all. But one category I’ve never fully embraced was the Western.
I grew up in Denver, have traveled throughout the American Southwest, and for most of my life I have not sought out these clearly artificial cowboy stories that never seemed to be grounded in reality. What I realize now was that by looking for reality I was completely missing the point. The American Western is, in fact, not about the West at all, but instead about America’s romance with itself, about the feeling of adventure, expansion, and the wild frontier. The Western is the ultimate American archetype, and the wide open spaces of the American West provide an ideal empty vessel for a good story.
Even our friends across the Atlantic know that the Western makes for a good story: Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti” Westerns include A Fistful of Dollars, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, and, my favorite, Once Upon A Time in the West. Romantic era composer Giaccamo Puccini even created a Western opera – The Girl of the Golden West.
When I watch a Western now, I no longer think about trying to find “The West.” The horses, saloons, and sagebrush are merely soundstage props. Instead, I immediately start looking for the director’s agenda – what metaphor is he grafting onto this western tale? What is he really trying to tell us with these costumes, this backdrop?
Just last night, I finally got around to seeing The Shootist (1976), John Wayne’s last film. What I saw astonished me. I was aware of The Duke’s battle with cancer (Wayne had his cancerous left lung removed in 1964, and he would die of stomach cancer in 1979), but to see him play an aging gunfighter, losing his last battle to cancer, involved me on many levels at once. The themes of this story, set in 1901 at the death of the true Old West, centered around the fin de siecle, the passing of an age, and the importance of maintaining dignity in the face of one’s own demise.
Wayne’s performance was breathtaking – he was dying, his way of life had disappeared, and in this, his last film, he was surrounded with an amazing supporting cast, some of whom he had worked with a number of times over the previous 40 years: Lauren Bacall, John Carradine, Jimmy Stewart; and others, including Harry Morgan, Scatman Cruthers, and Ron Howard. The Shootist instantly became one of my favorite Westerns, and as I thought about other westerns I liked, I realized that I can add “western” to my list of favorite movie genres. I’ve seen a number of “classic” westerns: Shane, The Searchers, Red River, Stagecoach, etc. and I admire them all, each in their own way, but my favorites are the ones that speak to me.
1) Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) The thrill here is in seeing Hollywood’s beloved Henry Fonda play a villain for the first time in his career. And he does so with gusto, with relish, stealing the film. Jason Robards, Charles Bronson, Jack Elam, Keenan Wynn and Claudia Cardinale join Fonda in this parable, a warning that those who try to stop progress (the railroad, in this case) will fail. Haunting music by the legendary Ennio Morricone.
2) Unforgiven (1992) I’m a big fan of Clint Eastwood, director. Here he crafts a pitch-perfect tale for himself, starring as a hired gun bringing justice to a small town. This tale, interestingly enough, is not set at the end of the Age of the West, as were many westerns of the 60s and 70s, when the Western itself was dying. Unforgiven is set smack dab in the middle of the age, and is more about good and evil, right and wrong. It is, rather, an homage to the classic western, and is such a well-crafted fully-formed film that it won Eastwood Best Director and Best Picture Oscars. It also stars Morgan Freeman as Eastwood’s sidekick, Gene Hackman as a deliciously evil sheriff, and Richard Harris as, well, as an aging English gunfighter.
3) The Wild Bunch (1969) Director Sam Pekinpah’s bloodbath. The carnage actually becomes an important co-star of this film, a cinema landmark. The Wild Bunch (along with 1967′s Bonnie and Clyde) influenced the style of action filmmakers throughout the 70s and 80s, and probably even today. Aging 1950s matinee idol William Holden’s character masterminds the heist that leads to all the mess, and, like Bonnie and Clyde, he dies an orgiastic death by bullets in the final reel. Set just before WWI, the theme here as in other westerns of the 60s is the death of the West. And not at all a quiet, peaceful death, mind you. With Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates.
4) The Shootist (1976) The Duke. Cancer. But it takes four men to finally bring him down, and he kills three of them.
5) High Noon (1952) The 24 of its day, this 85-minute film progresses in real time, meaning its story starts at 10:45 am and finishes at 12:10 pm of the same day, moments after Gary Cooper’s climactic shootout at, well, um High Noon. With Lloyd Bridges and Grace Kelly.
6) A Fistful of Dollars (1964) Clint Eastwood’s breakout role as a poncho-clad cigarillo-chomping man with no name in this Sergio Leone spaghetti western. A remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, this movie about the American West was actually filmed in Spain by an Italian director inspired by a Japanese samurai movie. Uh, yeah. And it’s brilliant.
7) Silverado (1985) Not a great film, but a very good one – a fun movie that’s very comfortable with being a Western and getting on with it. Significant in that I’m pretty sure it was the first commercially successful Western following the “death” of the Western in the 70s. Kevin Kline, Scott Glenn, Kevin Costner, Danny Glover, John Cleese(!), Rosanna Arquette, Brian Dennehy, Jeff Goldblum, Linda Hunt costar.
Oh, and one more that probably doesn’t deserve to be on this august list, but I can’t help myself…
8) Blazing Saddles (1974) It’s 1974. The Western is dead. Mel Brooks kicks its lifeless corpse a few times by poking fun at every Western cliche he can think of. Oh, but that’s not all: he adds a Gucci-wearing black sheriff, a pro football player (Alex Karras), Gene Wilder(!), a Cadillac riding off into the sunset, and tuxedoed Busby Berkeley dancing queens. Slim Pickins in the Warner Brothers cafeteria yelling, “Piss on you – I’m workin’ for Mel Brooks!” before he slugs a dancer is one of my all-time favorite lines.