Twenty Greatest American Westerns
Are you gonna pull those pistols or whistle Dixie?— Josey Wales
I’ve always been a fan of Westerns, particularly American Westerns, so you won’t find any so-called Spaghetti Westerns on this list. This sub-genre, if you will, is about Americans, native or otherwise, who helped tame the Old West, a wild and sometimes lawless land, the likes of which will never be seen again. Please enjoy this list of the Twenty Greatest American Westerns:
20. Ride the High Country (1962)
Ride the High Country was Sam Peckinpah’s first Western, though he had directed numerous TV Westerns. Starring Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea, two mainstays of the genre for decades, the movie is about two worn out cowboys hired to take a gold shipment to a mining town. McCrea wants to do what’s right, but Scott wants to steal the gold so he can retire with a few bucks in his saddle bags. But at the obligatory gunfight at the end, Scott does what is right. Filmed in the early 1960s and starring such famous craggy cowpokes, the movie feels like an elegy to the “oater.”
19. Lonely Are the Brave (1962)
Lonely Are the Brave is about a cowboy drifter named Jack Burns, played by Kirk Douglas, who can’t adjust to the modern world of the early 1960s. Refusing to carrying identity cards, Burns says, “I don’t need cards to figure out who I am, I already know.” When Burns’ friend is put in jail, Burns gets himself arrested so he can break him out. Unfortunately, the friend has a family to protect and refuses to go. So Burns breaks out of jail by himself, then hops on his trusty horse, Whiskey, and flees to the mountains, hoping to make it to Mexico. The sheriff, played by Walter Matthau, chases Burns, but doesn’t really want to catch him. Finally, just feet from Mexico, a trucker hits Burns while he crosses the highway, killing Whiskey, a very sad moment in the film. Now apprehended, Burns will almost certainly be sent back to jail. Interestingly, Kirk Douglas said, of the movies he's made, this one is his favorite.
18. Ride with the Devil (1999)
Ride with the Devil is director Ang Lee’s take on the American Civil War, particularly the part fought in Missouri involving Union forces and northern Jayhawkers fighting guerrilla armies such as Quantrill's Raiders and the Bushwhackers, that is, Southern irregulars who wanted no part of the Southern Army. The movie stars Tobey Maguire, who plays Jake “Dutchy” Roedel, a German immigrant, who fights with the Bushwhackers. A teenager throughout the conflict, Roedel doesn’t start out as a leader but eventually becomes one. Opposite Roedel is Daniel Holt, a former slave played by Jeffery Wright. They form a potent duo, and one with obvious irony. Ride with the Devil does poorly at the box office, even though it’s a very good film about the Civil War.
17. Stagecoach (1939)
Stagecoach was released during Hollywood’s greatest year – 1939. One of many Westerns directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne, Stagecoach became a template for Westerns to follow. Wayne plays the Ringo Kid, who, after busting out of jail, meets up with a stagecoach filled with fascinating characters. However, before reaching their destinations, a band of Apaches led by Geronimo attacks the stage on a flat stretch of desert, precipitating one of the most memorable and iconic cowboys-and-Indians battle scenes ever made. (I’ve often thought that all the Indians had to do was shoot one of the horses leading the stagecoach, and then they could have won!) This movie made “the Duke” a star.
16. A Man Called Horse (1970)
A Man Called Horse stars Richard Harris who portrays Lord John Morgan, a British aristocrat who in 1825 is captured by the Sioux Indians, then made a slave called Horse, until he proves his bravery, honor and worthiness by undergoing the Sun Vow Initiation, in which he is suspended from the ground by hooks piercing his pectoral muscles, a truly mesmerizing scene! Now a member of the tribe, Morgan, using English battle tactics, helps his tribe fight off a rival tribe, but his pregnant Indian wife dies in the conflict. The movie spawns two sequels.
15. Duel at Diablo (1966)
Duel at Diablo, released in 1966, features Sidney Poitier as the Westerns’ first black man playing a leading role. Poitier plays a slick-dressed ex-army man who breaks horses for a living. James Garner plays an army scout who is trying to find the murderer of his wife, a Comanche Indian. Poitier and Garner help deliver needed supplies, ammunition and recruits to Fort Conchos. Dennis Weaver plays a freight driver, who, as it turns out, is the man who murdered Garner’s wife. The Apache Indians, hoping to get their hands on the supplies and ammo, attack the soldiers and civilians in a box canyon. The besieged folks hold on until the U. S. Calvary comes to the rescue. (The scene where Weaver’s character is tortured by the Indians still gives me the creeps!) And the poppy, melodious theme music is some of the best ever for a cowboy flick.
14. Nevada Smith (1966)
Nevada Smith is perhaps the greatest revenge film of the genre. Steve McQueen plays the title role of a man, his real name Max Sand, who crosses the West to avenge the murder of his white father and Indian mother. The murderers are played by Carl Malden, Arthur Kennedy and Martin Landau. Smith finds and kills the characters played by Kennedy, and then Landau in a spectacular knife fight, but he has to join a gang of outlaws to get atMalden’s character, Tom Fitch. Finally Smith chases down Fitch but, in the end, can’t kill the man after putting two bullets in his legs, even after Fitch repeatedly screams, “Finish me!” Then Max says, “You’re just not worth killing,” and tosses away his pistol. This ending is certainly one of the most emotionally stirring in the history of American Westerns.
13. Viva Zapata! (1952)
Viva Zapata! is a biopic about Mexican revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata, who leads a peasant revolt in the early 1900s. Marlon Brando plays the lead in this tale of good intentions gone awry because of greed and the quest for power. John Steinbeck wrote the screenplay, which contains some historical inaccuracies – nothing new in the movies, of course. Produced by Darryl F. Zanuck and directed by Elia Kazan, this movie is definitely a product of the Hollywood movie mill. (I can still see in my mind’s eye Brando’s Zapata, his hard, stoic features and tough as nails demeanor, projecting one of his greatest performances.)
12. Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957)
Gunfight at the OK Corral depicts perhaps the Old West’s most famous gunfight, when Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday battle the Clantons and Johnny Ringo back in Tombstone, Arizona in 1881. An all-star cast – one of the best ever for a Western - led by Burt Lancaster as Earp and Kirk Douglas as Holliday, this film has as much explosive drama and exciting gunplay as most fans could want, especially when, at the beginning of the movie, legendary bad guy Lee Van Cleef rides into town, oozing malevolence, until Holliday impales him with a knife. And the title gunfight which erupts at the climax is, of course, one of the best, though not historically accurate – but who gives a bucket of mule spit?
11. The Magnificent Seven (1960)
The Magnificent Seven is another Western with an ensemble cast – Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Eli Wallach and Charles Bronson, et al, and the musical score by Elmer Bernstein is definitely the most memorable of any American Western – so good Marlboro cigarettes snatched it a few years later. Though paid a paltry wage, these seven gunslingers ride out to help a village of Mexican farmers harassed by a passel of Mexican bandits with Calvera (Wallach) calling the shots. Even though vastly outnumbered, the Seven eventually defeat the bandits, displaying incredible bravery, boldness and marksmanship. This is the quintessential Old West “shoot ‘em up” and must have sold millions of tons of buttered popcorn in the theatres. The movie has a moral too: Gunfighters always lose. (Naturally, we know better.)
10. Hang 'Em High (1968)
Hang ‘Em High has a plot line similar to that in The Ox-Bow Incident. An ex-lawman turned rancher, played by Clint Eastwood, pushes a small herd of cattle when he confronts nine men, who promptly accuse him of stealing the cattle and killing the man who owned them. They then lynch this man named Jed Cooper, who’s then rescued by a U.S. Marshal (Ben Johnson) who just happens by minutes later. Then Cooper becomes a marshal again, so he can – legally - hunt down the men who hanged him, which he does, of course. Along the way, Cooper apprehends three men guilty of cattle rustling and murder, two of whom are only 16 years old. Cooper tries to save these youngsters from hanging, but the local judge (Pat Hingle) insists on “hanging ‘em high.”
9. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a heavily stylized tale about the aforementioned legendary bank and train robbers in the early 1900s. Written by Oscar-winner William Goldman, the leading characters played by Paul Newman and Robert Redford, are likeable guys, with plenty of wisecracks coming from Newman’s Butch Cassidy and lots of gunplay from Redford’s Sundance. In the middle of the film, as the characters relax between robberies, they and their girlfriend played by Katharine Ross, frolic about a ranch as B.J. Thomas sings “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.” Whoever heard of such a thing in a Western? Then, when matters get too hot for Butch and Sundance, they flee to Bolivia, where the army finally catches up with them.
8. True Grit (1969)
True Grit – the original version, mind you - is so good that even Glen Campbell’s terrible acting can’t ruin it. John Wayne plays Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn, an aging, whiskey-swilling, flinty, one-eyed U.S. Marshall who helps a young woman find the killer of her father, while Campbell looks for another desperado with a large price on his head. The journey takes the trio deep into Indian territory, where they encounter “Lucky” Ned Pepper (Robert Duvall) and his dastardly gang. At one point, Rooster squares off with the gang in a clearing, shouting “Fill your hand, you son-of-a-bitch!” (All Western fans love this line, of course.) On horseback, with the reins clenched firmly between his teeth, Rooster charges his adversaries, guns ablazing. Wayne wins an Oscar for his leading role.
7. Blazing Saddles (1974)
Blazing Saddles is the one and only Western parody on this list. Written and directed by Mel Brooks, who also plays many roles in it, including that of Governor, this movie is without peer. The story goes thusly: in order to clear out the town of Rock Ridge, where the railroad will be coming through, the underhanded attorney general played by Harvey Korman, persuades the dim-witted Governor to hire a black sheriff, hoping the people of the town will either lynch the sheriff or get out of Dodge so Korman can grab all the land. Outrageous, vulgar comedy punctuates this film, with liberal use of the n-word and scatological humor, such as the scene in which Slim Pickens and other cowboys, after eating liberal amounts of beans, pass wind hilariously and with absurd abandon. The film climaxes with a brawl that spills over into adjoining studio sets at Warner Bros.
6. High Plains Drifter (1973)
High Plains Drifter opens as a lone man rides from within the high desert thermals, looking spectral and ominous, seemingly a spawn of the arid bleakness around him. This dust-blown drifter is Clint Eastwood, of course, playing a stranger who guns down three men and rapes a woman (who asks for it) almost as soon as he arrives in the town of Lago, Arizona. But the stranger is troubled; he has nightmares about being whipped to death by three men. Then, frightened by the imminent return of three convicts, the townspeople hire the stranger to protect them. Eastwood then paints the town red, changes its name to Hell and hires a dwarf, his only friend, as sheriff. At the end we find out that the stranger was in fact the ghost of Marshal Duncan, exacting revenge for his murder. For fun, the grave of Sergio Leone is shown in the cemetery at the end, as well as Marshal Duncan’s unmarked grave.
5. The Searchers (1956)
The Searchers is a story about Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) who goes searching for his niece (Debbie) after she’s abducted by the Comanche Indians. Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) and Brad Jorgensen (Harry Carey Jr.), whose fiancé was also taken, join Edwards. They soon find Carey’s fiancé defiled and murdered, and then Carey, incensed, gets himself killed by the Indians. After years of searching high and low through places such as Texas and New Mexico, Edwards and Pawley finally find Debbie. Edwards wants to kill her because he thinks the Indians must have made a mess of her, but she looks surprisingly good. (It’s a wonder what makeup can do on Natalie Wood, who hardly needed it.) They take Debbie home, walking into a darkened ranch house, as Edwards strolls out into the sunlight, certainly one of the most striking endings in the history of Westerns - and quite a tear-jerker, I might add.
4. Little Big Man (1970)
Little Big Man is the tale of Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman), now 121 years old, who claims to be the sole white survivor of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Crabb tells the story of being abducted by the Cheyenne Indians (and later adopted by them because of his bravery), and also becoming the sidekick to Wild Bill Hickok and working as a scout for the vainglorious General George Armstrong Custer, who leads the massacre of Indians at the Battle of Washita River, about which Crabb plots revenge. Filmed in 1970 during the Vietnam War, the movie paints the U.S. Army as villains and the Indians as their victims. Using parody, satire, comedy and drama, the film exposes prejudice, stereotypes and particularly the inhuman treatment of the American Indians, a popular theme at the time. In 1967, Eric Burdon of the Animals sang that “the American dream includes Indians too.”
3. The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)
The Outlaw Josey Wales depicts the tale of Josey Wales, a peaceful farmer living in Missouri during the Civil War. Union Jayhawkers and “Red-leggers” attack Wales’ farm, shoot Wales, rape his wife and then murder her and Wales’ son. Wales then joins the Confederate Missouri guerrillas until the end of the Civil War. Refusing to surrender after the war, Wales gets into a fray with the U.S. Army, mowing down bluecoats with a Gatling gun, and then becomes an outlaw with a big price on his head. His Colt Walker .44-caliber revolvers spewing lead, and while spitting tobacco juice on just about everything, Wales fights Yankee soldiers every time he runs into them, hoping to kill any of them connected to his family’s demise, particularly their leader, Captain Terrill, whom Wales finally kills with a saber through the gut. Then, while bloodied and leaving town after killing Terrill, Wales sees Fletcher, his old Confederate captain, who tells him the war is over. Wales nods and says, “I guess we all died a little in that damn war,” and then rides into the sunset.
2. Dances with Wolves (1990)
Dances with Wolves presents the tale of reluctant Civil War hero Lieutenant John J. Dunbar (Kevin Costner), who, after the end of the war, wants to see the West before it’s gone forever. Dunbar, now assigned to a frontier post, journeys to Fort Sedgwick and becomes its only occupant, and there he befriends a wolf. Dunbar becomes a member of the nearby Lakota Sioux tribe and, and with the help of surplus army firearms, helps them fight off a Pawnee raiding party. Eventually, the army shows up, sees that Dunbar has “turned Injun,” and arrests him. Soon, the Lakota free Dunbar and go on the run with him, disappearing in the mountains. The movie has numerous moving scenes, particularly when Dunbar and the Indians find a herd of buffalo butchered by white hunters who only kept the hides, leaving the rest to rot on the ground. Disgusted and ashamed, Dunbar leaves the tribe for the night.
1. The Wild Bunch (1969)
The Wild Bunch takes place in the waning days of the Old West – perhaps this movie eulogizes it - during the Mexican Revolution around 1914. Directed by “Bloody” Sam Peckinpah, who also helped write the script, the movie opens when a gang of outlaws led by Pike Bishop (William Holden) robs a bank supposedly filled with silver. A ferocious gun battle erupts with blood flying everywhere. (This was when movie techs began using explosive charges to make gunshots look more realistic – or at least gory). The surviving five robbers later discover that their silver coins are nothing but washers. The gang members promptly laugh at themselves. Chased by Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan) who was let out of prison to chase Bishop, the Wild Bunch then heads for Mexico, where they join forces with a corrupt Mexican warlord named General Mapache. But they get off on the wrong foot with the General when one gang member, Angel, a Mexican, kills Mapache’s girlfriend out of jealousy. Nevertheless, the General hires the Wild Bunch to rob a U.S. Army train filled with guns and ammo.
When the gang returns with the guns, the General discovers that one box of rifles is missing. He quickly discovers that Angel gave the rifles to the people of his village, so the General grabs Angel. When the Wild Bunch finds out that the General’s been torturing Angel, they confront the General, demanding Angel’s release. The General then cuts Angel’s throat. Another “shit-kicking” gun battle ensues, this time with the Wild Bunch using hand grenades, pump action shotguns, semi-automatic pistols and one Browning M1917, tripod-mounted heavy machine gun captured from the General, which mows down waves of Mexican soldiers. This incredibly exciting gun battle is like nothing seen before or since in American Westerns. Of course, if this movie only displayed rousing gunplay, it would simply be considered good. But since the characterizations are so engrossing, you really grow to care about these tough guys. Therefore, The Wild Bunch is definitely the best.
If you haven’t seen The Wild Bunch, by all means see the uncut version.
© 2009 Kelley Marks