The 10 Greatest Western Films of All-Time

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.
true-grit-movie-poster-1969-1020167547Everything 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.

10 Literary Masterpieces

Really the Blues by Mezz Mezzrow and Bernard Wolfe

Can anyone explain why this book never won any awards or even had a film adaptation, considering it’s the greatest work on the origins of the counterculture that gave birth to blues, jazz and rock’n’roll? The answer, of course, is that Mezzrow had the audacity to marry a black woman at a time when it was illegal in most states for whites and blacks to mix. Mezzrow goes into great detail on the use of sacramental substances for enhancing ceremonies (jam sessions), and concludes that marijuana is the best and safest. Mezz was one of the first three inductees into the High Times Counterculture Hall of Fame and his only child (Milton) attended the ceremony and accepted a Cup on his father’s behalf.

Fat City by Leonard Gardner

You may be familiar with the John Huston film of the same name (also scripted by Gardner), but the book is even more powerful. Set at the crossroads of harsh migrant labor versus even harsher boxing realities, this short, tightly-constructed novel is impossible to put down once started. It also takes the reader on a voyage to some of the deeper parts of the human soul. Born in Stockton, CA, (where the book is set) Gardner now lives in Marin and has become something of a recluse. In my opinion, his masterpiece is a far more mature artistic statement than say, the more popular The Catcher in the Rye.

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

The book that kick-started the hippie movement, a deeply spiritual prose-poem that took the improvisational energy of jazz and transformed it into literature. No one understood the importance of untampered improvisational energy better than Jack and this book also introduced the concept of marijuana as a spiritual tool that could lead one towards enlightenment. A generation hit the road, many traveling to Mexico to find marijuana, after reading this masterpiece, which was actually inspired by a long letter from Neal Cassady. If you can’t appreciate the book’s wild improvisational nature, try Dharma Bums or Big Sur.

It Looks Like Up to Me by Richard Farina

Farina and Bob Dylan were two titans of the early folk scene. They collaborated at first and eventually battled it out for supremacy at one point. But Farina certainly took the crown on fiction. After On the Road, this was probably the most influential book for intelligent teens in the sixties and it really opened some major doors revealing secrets, including the hidden hand of intelligence agents in the worlds of drugs and revolutions, and the dark side of unrestricted behaviors.

Angels by Denis Johnson

It’s ok this was written under the influence of Fat City (I know because Denis told me) because everybody has to be influenced by somebody and you might as well pick the best. This amazing novel, however, goes to even darker dimensions than Gardner’s masterpiece and is truly a walk on the wild side of life where morality becomes distorted almost beyond recognition. Just writing this book may have helped Denis get off junk forever and should serve as a warning to anyone wanting to travel down that road. And yes, I have a signed original edition.

Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs

And speaking of traveling down that junky road, no one ever put more people on that path than Burroughs, who remains, after all, “The Man,” as Hunter S. Thompson always referred to him. Burroughs was simply the greatest literary stylist and most original thinker of all counterculture literary icons. You probably need to read this book several times during the course of a lifetime just to fully absorb the contents.

Journey to the End of the Night by Celine

In a way, this book got it all started in the first place. Written in 1932, Louis-Ferdinand Celine’s Bardamu was the original counterculture hero, dripping with cynicism and black humor. Naturally, it took years for anyone to recognize the genius of this book, and Celine never achieved anything close to the respect he deserved, mostly because of his unfortunate support for the Nazis. Politics, however, were really never an important issue in his work, since he viewed the world as a corrupt place run by idiots.

The Risk of Being Ridiculous by Guy Maynard

Maynard grew up in Urbana, Illinois, a year ahead of me, and was one of the leading figures in the garage-band movement that started around 1966. His book takes place in 1969 and really captures the intensity of the times. I gave it a rave review in High Times and it inspired me to dig up my own archives.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre by B. Traven

Is there a more mysterious figure in the history of counterculture literature than B. Traven, whose history and background have long been in dispute? Most of Traven’s books are set in Mexico and involve the conflicts between the Native population and the Spanish invaders who took over their lands. This book exposes the darkness of human greed better than any book in history. The film was great, but the book is even better.

The Manchurian Candidate by Richard Condon

I promised to keep this list to ten, so I have to sign off on this one, even though there are lots of little-known masterpieces left to discuss. This book revealed many secrets from the intelligence community regarding brainwashing, only instead of ascribing the nasty business to our own CIA’s MK/ULTRA program, it placed all the blame on the North Koreans, Chinese and Russians. The world will never be the same after you read this book and you’ll suddenly know why F. Scott Fitzgerald said the rich were nothing like the rest of us.

Special shout-outs to: The Ginger Man by J.P. Dunleavy, The Rachel Papers by Martin Amis, and Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone.