The Wild West was certainly a key focus of my youthful imagination, as a cowboy outfit was my first Halloween costume and I had a pair of cap guns before I reached the first grade. Nothing was more exciting than going out to see a Western movie.
Our national psyche was shaped through a Western mythology, first in the tabloid presses and periodicals, and then through film and television. At least it was this way for the boys of my generation.
Even though the first real narrative film made was a Western, the genre was mostly relegated to the B-grade teams. John Ford was the master who elevated it to A-grade, and started that evolution with his first Western with sound, Stagecoach (1939).
There was something truly primal about the story of 9 people cast adrift in a dangerous wilderness and having to shack up in a lonely outpost surrounded by hostile forces. This film was so influential the Beatles drummer took his name from the lead character.
Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), tells the story of two partners, one descending into madness, the other redeemed through good deeds. Part western, part thriller, this is naturalism at its finest, meaning the forces of mother nature dwarf the energies of man.
The Searchers (1956), is John Ford’s greatest masterpiece and a much more mature effort than his trail-blazing Stagecoach. Obsessions collide across an immense wilderness as the complex plot unfolds, investigating some uncomfortable issues involving racism, cultural survival and revenge. This may have put the primary meme into the minds of a generation because in ten years many of us would soon be hitchhiking west in search of cultural meaning.
Gunfight at OK Corral (1957) represents the height of romanticism and an epic gun battle, and is probably best viewed on a giant monitor. I haven’t watched this in a long time, so I don’t know how well it holds up, but I always felt one of its greatest values was its restraint. Although the actual battle in real life lasted only a matter of seconds, John Sturges was able to build up to it with the help of an outstanding musical score, and his version of the fight itself was fairly realistic and little like the gory battles of today.
Everything seems to move in waves, and just like 1939 produced an incredible explosion of amazing films, something special happened with Westerns in 1969. Maybe it was the last gasp of a dying genre, but three of the greatest appeared over the course of a few months. The plastic phony Western of television and early 1960’s films were rejected suddenly and realism returned, or at least more realistic outfits and characters. True Grit (June 11, 1969) was the first of these to appear.
The Wild Bunch (June 18, 1969) was violence unleashed, the good-guy bad-guys go bad then good, then shoot up the place big-time. I’m sure Quentin Tarantino must have loved this film and I know a lot of violence junkies who got off watching it over and over. But it’s truly a classic Western in many ways, shades of a return to the O.K. Corral. And as the Western has evolved, it gets harder and harder to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (October 24, 1969) A final ode to romanticism, and perhaps the first modern woman’s western? Loosely based on the real story, this comic buddy tale involves a seldom-seen female lead in a genre completely dominated by men, although in truth, Butch likely returned to the USA and lived a quite life of quiet anonymity nothing like the end described here, but that’s another Western that didn’t make the list. But if romantic comedies are not your cup of tea and you want something with more of an edge, try McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971).
Little Big Man (1970) was the first post-modern western and a tragicomic masterpiece. Not many Westerns were told from the point of view of a Native perspective and this is one of the few. The film turned the genre upside down because we had to deal with the savagery inflicted upon Native culture from their own perspective. Some may prefer the maudlin Dances With Wolves in this regard, but that film doesn’t even come close to my top ten.
Lonesome Dove (1989), was a return to realism in epic splendor, and shows the value of having a great researcher-writer. This story was actually supposed to be made decades earlier with John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda, which would have been amazing. Thankfully, Larry McMurtry didn’t give up on the project and eventually saw it through to fruition to immense success. Not really a movie, but a miniseries, nonetheless it transformed the genre.
Maybe you thought I was going to pick Django Unchained as my final choice? To be honest, I haven’t even seen it yet, but I much prefer the Coen Brothers to Quentin anyway. I didn’t know what to think when they said they were going to re-make one of my top ten Westerns, but I was impressed with the results, as well as the effort to remain as historically accurate as possible. Released in 2010.