Have you ever seen “Tombstone,” that 1993, Kurt Russell-starring depiction of the events that led to the gunfight at the O.K. Corral? The movie, a box office smash, was the first of two films released within six months to introduce us to legendary marshal Wyatt Earp, his loyal brothers, and his sickly, but loyal, pal, Doc Holliday. It wasn’t taken seriously by critics, but I rewatched the western recently, and deem the general critical panning as unfair, especially considering that “Tombstone” is not only less boring but also more historically accurate than the Kevin Costner-starring “Wyatt Earp” that premiered six months later and that offered a different take on the events. And Russell, joined by a strong cast that included Val Kilmer (a scene-stealing Holliday), Sam Elliott, and Bill Paxton, turned out to be a natural for the genre.
After rediscovering “Tombstone” a few weeks ago, I followed up my recent viewing of that with one of “Bone Tomahawk,” a little-seen, 2015 indie that also starred Russell, and that combined the western and horror genres to gruesome and mostly good effect. While neither film was what one would consider high art, I enjoyed both of them more than Russell’s other 2015 western, the Quentin Tarantino-directed “The Hateful Eight.” And while the average film critic might cringe at that statement, I found Tarantino’s overlong oater to have better production values than story values.
As for Tarantino, he fared better in the genre with 2012’s “Django Unchained,” and I can’t help but think what a terrific film that would have been with better discipline and less of the director’s usual tendency for dialogue scenes to overstay their welcome. Do “Tombstone” or “Django Unchained” crack the genre’s top ten list? Not quite, though they might make the top 20. Before I talk about films 11-20, however, I must start with 1-10. Here, then, are my picks for the top ten screen westerns:
1) Unforgiven (1992): Producer-director-star Clint Eastwood’s 1992 western sparked a career rebirth of sorts for the taciturn screen cowboy and five-time “Dirty Harry.” He deservedly won Best Director, and his film, Best Picture. Eastwood easily could have taken home Best Actor honors as well for his portrayal of William Munny, a recovering alcoholic and reformed gunman of such fearsome renown that he draws the attention of the Scofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett), a wannabe gunslinger who solicits Munny’s help in collecting a bounty offered by a harem of prostitutes for the deaths of two unfortunate cowboys who mutilated one of the women in the corrupt town of Big Whiskey, Wyoming. Munny, the Kid, and Munny’s pal Ned (Morgan Freeman) ride into town and immediately provoke the wrath of Sheriff “Little” Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman, another Oscar winner), who only just beat within an inch of life the amiable, gun-toting English Bob (Richard Harris, nine years before Dumbledore and “Harry Potter”). Sound bleak? It is…and it also something of a cinematic miracle: a critical and box office smash that revitalized a tired genre, invoked a strong anti-violence message, and aged like a fine wine; more than 25 years later, this is still Eastwood’s best film as both director and star.
2) High Noon (1952): Is there any kind of movie more thrilling than the real-time serial? My answer is an emphatic “no,” and Exhibit A is this superlative showdown-at-high-noon western starring Gary Cooper as the noble town marshal, Ian MacDonald as the newly-paroled outlaw seeking revenge, and Grace Kelly as Cooper’s girl. The plot is simple enough, and grounded in reality as Cooper’s marshal, Will Kane, tries and fails to recruit men willing to stand up to MacDonald’s Frank Miller, only for them to rally behind him in the third act, as Old West cowards are wont to do. Kane must face not only Miller and Miller’s gang (including frequent Western baddie Lee Van Cleef), but also the disapproval of his new Quaker bride, Amy (an excellent Grace Kelly). Did you know that Cooper, who won his second Best Actor Oscar for the role, was not the first choice for the part? Producers wanted John Wayne, who turned down the project, thinking it was an allegory about McCarthyism. I like “the Duke” as much as the next guy, but looking back, I can’t see anyone but Cooper in the role.
3) The Searchers (1956): Speaking of “the Duke,” John Wayne made more westerns than perhaps any other actor, and few cinephiles would dispute today that the Technicolor, VistaVision production of “The Searchers,” with its panoramic shots of Monument Valley and its harsh portrayal of frontier life, is the actor’s best film. Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, a haunted Civil War veteran who returns home to West Texas, only to find his brother’s family murdered and his niece (a pre-“West Side Story” Natalie Wood) abducted by Comanche Indians. Ethan spends five years searching for her, and the script pulls no punches in depicting Ethan as an embittered racist. Although “The Searchers” is as gripping as ever, it may be slightly overrated in general (the updated 2007 AFI Top 100 movies list ranked it as #12, which seems a bit high). Still, it’s a genre high water mark, and the best John Ford-John Wayne collaboration.
4) Shane (1953): Yet another entry from the best decade for the western genre, the Technicolor triumph “Shane” is a masterpiece of pacing and character development. Sure, the secondary villain, played by Jack Palance, doesn’t get much screen time devoted to himself, but we don’t need it. We learn more about Palance’s character with a sneer than we would from pages of dialogue; few movies have characters powerful enough to have this effect. (For his efforts, Palance earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nod for his efforts, as did 10-year-old Brandon DeWilde, who played the impressionable Joey, a rancher’s son who wonders what life would be like as a gunslinger.) Shane himself (Alan Ladd) is the classic antihero, a decent man with a dark past, and he gets a twist on the genre’s standard riding-off-into-the-sunset ending, with DeWilde’s final line “Shane, come back!” being one of cinema’s most oft-misquoted.
5) Blazing Saddles (1974): Do western comedies count? Do outright genre lampoons count? Or movies in which supporting actors (Harvey Korman, in this case) break the fourth wall to declare that they should earn Oscar nominations for their work? “Blazing Saddles,” which is possibly the funniest movie ever made, has all of these things in spades. On the surface, it seems serious enough: a corrupt governor signs legislation to expand the railroad westward, passing through a dusty town whose residents (seemingly all of whom are named “Johnson”) don’t want to sell. Why not appoint a black mayor? The very notion would so enrage them that they’d flee en masse. But countless racist jokes (it’s a satire, relax!), enough campfire farts to generate an “R” rating, and 15 schnitzengrubens later, the tables are turned for mustache-twirling villain Hedy Lamarr (“That’s Hedley!”). Mel Brooks directs and costars (he plays three roles) alongside a terrific cast that includes Cleavon Little, Gene Wilder, Harvey Korman, Slim Pickens, and a never-better Madeline Kahn. “Blazing Saddles” contains roughly four jokes per minute, and, for better or for worse, could never be made today.
6) Dances with Wolves (1990): Ah, yes. The movie so hated by cinephiles simply because it beat “Goodfellas” for Best Picture in 1991. The tale of a Civil War hero (Kevin Costner, who also directed) who, given his choice of postings anywhere, chose the great frontier, in Indian country, only to peacefully assimilate into Sioux society around the same time that westward expansion threatens that very land, “Dances with Wolves” is an elegiac and thoughtful film, an anti-western in many ways. Bonus points to composer John Barry, cinematographer Dean Semler, and Best Supporting Actor Graham Greene, a Canadian-born First Nations Native American who plays medicine man Kicking Bird. As for validating the criticisms of the film’s detractors, I would agree that a few too many shots of Costner being Costner could have been replaced with any of the scenes left on the cutting room floor; the four-hour Director’s Cut is actually a better product for those additional scenes (few of which include Costner himself, as it happens). If “Dances with Wolves” doesn’t have the pop culture renown of “Goodfellas,” nor that film’s adrenaline-shot-to-the-heart pacing, it at the very least treats its Native American characters with respect.
7) Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969): This timeless classic, light as a feather, with music – and the song “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” by Burt Bacharach and Hal David – that won the duo two Oscars apiece, is about another duo, Butch and Sundance, played by yet another duo, Paul Newman and Robert Redford, respectively. Butch and Sundance are bank robbers, and leaders of Wyoming’s notorious Hole in the Wall gang, although they seem to generally abhor violence and get more of a humorous kick out of robbery than anything else. Too bad, then, that the Union Pacific train company, whose payroll train they robbed in each direction, was accompanied by a posse of shoot-to-kill lawmen who vowed to pursue them to the ends of the earth – or to Bolivia, at least. Interestingly enough, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” opened to mixed reviews. Some critics found the shifts in tone to be jarring, and while the violence in the third act does seem in contrast to the humor in the first two, the chemistry between Newman and Redford (with Katharine Ross pitching in as Redford’s girlfriend) was so natural that the pair, along with director George Roy Hill, would later re-team for “The Sting.”
8) The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948): “Badges? We ain’t got no badges! We don’t need no badges! I don’t have to show you any stinking badges!” The above quote, often misspoken by amateur cinephiles, remains one of the great throwaway lines in film history. The film for which that line was written, John Huston’s “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” is a thrilling tale of greed, desperation, and paranoia. The Sierra Madre Mountains are in central Mexico, and that’s where we meet Fred Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart), the antihero and main character, down on his luck and little more than a dried-up gringo until he learns, courtesy of the scene-stealing Walter Huston (Huston’s dad, who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor), that the country’s most rugged peaks hide its biggest reserves of gold. Accompanied by fellow American Tim Holt, Bogey and Huston make a go of it, mining a small fortune from a scraggly mountainside, but find the biggest challenge to be not in finding the gold but in keeping it…from bandidos, from fellow opportunists, and from each other.
9) The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007): Pensive, beautiful, and almost as long as its title, “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” spells out its plot on the title card, so no worries about spoiler alerts. The assassination itself is quick and almost an afterthought, as Bob (as he’s called) shoots Jesse in the back while Jesse straightens a picture that hangs crookedly on the wall of his house, a house where Bob has been invited in as a friend. Although there is much build-up to the events of that fateful morning, most of it surrounding Jesse’s increasing paranoia following his latest train robbery, the most interesting elements of the story involve what took place afterwards, when Bob traveled around the country to reenact the events as an actor. The strength of writer-director Andrew Dominik’s artsy western is three-fold: 1) It is one of the most beautifully-photographed westerns (by the legendary Roger Deakins) that I’ve seen, 2) Much is said about the concept of idol worship, and 3) As Jesse and Bob, Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck are at the top of their respective games.
10) The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966): Rarely is the third film in a trilogy the best, but such is unarguably the case in director Sergio Leone’s “Man without a Name” trilogy. It is still unclear to me, after re-watching “A Fistful of Dollars,” “For a Few Dollars More,” and “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” whether Clint Eastwood’s character is the same in each film. He is addressed by nicknames, which change with each film, and in some films he is more talkative than in others. Of course, none of this matters. These spaghetti westerns – named in part for the fact that their supporting casts were (like director Leone and composer Ennio Morricone) Italian, and in part for the bloodbaths of violence that occurred in each film – are, if you can abide the gore, a good time at the movies. The three-hour coda, in which Eastwood plays the “Good,” Lee Van Cleef the “Bad,” and Eli Wallach the “Ugly,” – each in pursuit of a treasure of pre-Civil War gold and outsmarting each other along the way – is a funny and thrilling adventure, one of the best in the genre.
What about you, Loyal Reader? Are you a Clint Eastwood guy or a John Wayne guy? Do you prefer something inward-looking, like “Unforgiven,” or something action-packed, like “High Noon?” Let us know!