By John H. Foote
“The British have their Shakespeare; we have the American western” said actor Robert Duvall to me in 2000 while discussing his work in the superb television series Lonesome Dove.
“They have their Hamlets and Macbeths” he went on, “but I played Gus McCrae, so I can die a happy man” he said of portraying the rascally former Texas Ranger in the TV epic Lonesome Dove.
The western is truly the most American of the cinematic genres, one that is owned entirely by the Americans, one that explores the history of a relatively short time in America, a time which has taken on a mythical status.
The western was once the most popular film genre in American cinema, outshooting every other genre by a ratio of 6:1. In 1959, the genre had conquered the small screen as well with 26 western dramas running on prime time television. The forties and fifties were a heyday in American westerns, with John Ford recognized as the finest director of the genre and John Wayne becoming synonymous with the genre. As the top box office star through the late forties and fifties, Wayne ruled Hollywood, though his acting accomplishments were not truly appreciated until after his passing in 1979.
The western was set in the late 19th century, spanning about 35 years, a relatively short time in American history. The common elements usually included a wandering gunfighter or cowboy, bounty hunters, town marshals, Native Americans, gamblers, saloons, small frontier towns, homesteads, Mexicans and bandits. Women were poorly represented as either prostitutes or wives, with focus given to the men.
Themes of the western included man vs. man, man vs. himself and man vs. the wilderness. The best ones included all three. Society was built around a code of honour, with frontier justice dealt with the pistols on the hips of the men in the film. Often the plots were deceptive in their simplicity, saying a great deal more underneath the main narrative than one might expect.
The western cinema went through a stunning revolution when John Ford moved his staff to Monument Valley and Death Valley to tell his stories, displaying the enormous scope of the wilderness these men and women conquered in taming the west. Mountain ranges, deserts, small frontier towns, a main street, saloons, the marshal’s office, railroads and locomotives, ranches, forts and the plains all became secondary characters in the westerns as the themes became much darker in the fifties.
The American western continues , often some very good films but the box office is never as good as the other mainstream films in release. They are widely appreciated critically and by a small portion of the audience, but do not enjoy the success they once did.
The box office disaster that was Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980) made the western genre box office poison and through the eighties, other than a handful of them, the western cinema seemed dead. Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves (1990) and Clint Eastwood’s dark Unforgiven (1992) helped bring the genre back to life with Academy Award winning Best Pictures. The Coen Brothers stunned audiences and critics with their superb remake of True Grit (2010), and Quentin Tarantino chimed in with Django Unchained (2012) and The Hateful 8 (2016).
Here are the finest 15.
15. TRUE GRIT (1969)
The difference between this western romp and the Coen Brothers remake is that director Henry Hathaway shot John Wayne as a larger than life, mythical hero, bringing the actor his only Academy Award. As Rooster Cogburn, the one eyed, over the hill, hard drinking Marshall, Wayne had the role of a lifetime and he knew it, digging in and giving a bawdy, grand performance that in many ways parodied his previous work. I am not sure a better moment of raw courage is on film as when he faces down four dangerous outlaws in a meadow. Outnumbered four to one, knowing they want him dead, knowing they are younger, he does not back away as he could, but twirls his rifle and marches forward to do battle like an aging knight from Arthurs roundtable. It culminates with Rooster putting the reins of his horse in his teeth and charging forward, a gun in one hand a rifle in the other, blazing away at full speed. He later bounds down a pit with rattlesnakes to save young Mattie (Kim Darby) and then rides through the night to get her to a doctor before escorting her home. Wayne is tremendous in the lead, but everyone around him, Glen Campbell and especially Kim Darby are dreary and just not up to his level. The vistas of the locations are spectacular, the film has a grand musical score, and towering above it all, John Wayne. It is a shame no single actor other than Robert Duvall as Lucky Ned Pepper is up to challenging Wayne. That said, the film soars whenever Wayne is onscreen.
14. TOMBSTONE (1995)
Hugely enjoyable, popular western that had a troubled production, leaving actor Kurt Russell to ghost direct the film, though that is something hardly known. Val Kilmer speaks of it in his autobiography, and other actors have expressed gratitude to Russell for picking up the gauntlet when the film was in trouble. Wyatt Earp (Russell) and his friend Doc Holliday (Kilmer), racked with tuberculosis wage a war against the red scarfed cowboys, a gang of outlaws who have terrorized the countryside doing whatever they please. Though Holliday is deathly ill, he is still deadly with a gun, and unafraid to use it. Both Russell and Kilmer give towering performances in the enjoyable film that explores the myth of the gunfight at the OK Corral, and Earp’s war against the cowboy’s reign of terror. The showdown at the Corral is stunning and that gunfight between Holliday and Ringo is a thing of beauty. Though the film did reasonably well at the box office, on home video and then DVD it became a sensation and one of the most beloved films of its time. “I am your Huckleberry” rang in the ears of everyone who saw the film.
13. DANCES WITH WOLVES (1990)
Kevin Costner acts in, directed and produced this grand sweeping epic that everyone thought was going to fail, in fact wags in the press had started referring to the film as Kevin’s Gate, comparing the failure to Heaven’s Gate (1980). Costner bought the rights to the book written by his good friend, Jim Blake, then hired him to write the screenplay, and then decided he would direct the massive film. Further, it would be just over three hours long, and more than one third would be spoken in the Native American Lakota language. Sensing a flop, Orion stubbornly stood by Costner and let the film go out as he envisioned. Audiences and critics were stunned by the sheer beauty of the film, the sweeping grandeur, and the intimacy of the narrative, as John Dunbar (Costner), after a suicide attempt during the war, survives and is given any post he wishes, choosing the prairie, which he wants to see before it is gone. There he encounters some Native Americans, whom he befriends and is eventually adopted by the tribe as Dances with Wolves, when they witness him playing with a stray wolf he has taken in as a pet. Dunbar forges a strong friendship with Kicking Bird (Graham Green) the holy man of the tribe and has an uneasy alliance with the warrior Wind in His Hair (Rodney Grant) the two Natives eventually becoming his best friends. When the army discovers Dunbar has “gone Indian” they search the land for him, forcing him to say goodbye to his tribe and his close friends. The evolution of the friendship between Dunbar and Kicking Bird is a thing of beauty, superbly acted by Costner and Canadian actor Graham Green. I loved watching Costner’s realization that these people were one with the land, had such deep respect for it, and were not like the whites had described them at all, savages. In fact, the only savages in this film are the whites. Nominated for 12 Academy Awards, the film won seven, including Best Picture and Best Director. Well earned.
12. SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON (1949)
The second of John Ford’s calvary westerns, and by far the finest, this gorgeously shot epic deals with a career Calvary man about to retire but feeling pulled back into duty by an event that has left him shocked. John Wayne, again portraying a difficult role brilliantly, is Captain Nathan Brittles, a good and decent man who is given one last job before retiring, to escort his superior’s wife and niece to a stagecoach outpost so they may travel out of the area. Before reaching the stagecoach station, they find a young man badly injured and upon arriving at the station they find it destroyed by the Natives. Brittles takes the ladies back to the fort but is forbidden to go back to fight as he is about to retire. Taking matters into his own hands he makes the decision to defy his superior officer and appearing to head off to California, instead visits his Indian friend to gain information and thwarts their plans, saving the station. John Wayne often said aside from Ethan Edwards, Nathan Brittles was his favourite character, and it is easy to see why. Brittles is a heroic figure, who has dedicated his life to the military and when offered one last chance to do his job of course he takes it. Wayne was superb in the film, and though nominated that year for Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) perhaps the Academy nominated him for the wrong film. Again, one of John Fords very best films, and visually stunning.
11. HOSTILES (2017)
Darkly magnificent and deserving of Academy Award attention that did not come, this revisionist western was among the finest films of 2017. Christian Bale is a military lifer, Blocker, a man who has killed too many people, saw far too much on the fields of battle, and carries many ghosts with him which haunt the man. Still he is capable of extraordinary violence which he is not afraid to unleash when necessary. For his last action he is ordered to take a Native family to the elders’ homeland so he may die in peace, having been diagnosed with cancer. On their way they encounter a young widow who has the day before, watched her entire family viciously slaughtered by a marauding group of Natives on a murder raid. Her husband, two daughters and infant child are killed in the raid, leaving her alone and broken. Blocker takes her under his protection and though initially terrified of the Natives he is taking home, she comes to like them, even admire them. Blocker does too, when they take arms against the murderers, and go to war against their own. His racism ends, and he admires the natives, finally understanding them. Filled with action and blood, we see Blocker in action, but deeper we see the kind of man he is and could still be. Rosamund Pike is perfection as the young widow who cannot be far from him, feeling safe under his protection. In him she sees what no one else does, a decent, kind man she could love. The ending is perfect, just perfect.
10. RIO BRAVO (1959)
After being horrified by High Noon (1952), deciding Will Kane exhibits cowardice, John Wayne wanted to make a film where the local Marshall makes a stand against the killers coming to town. Did we see a different movie because I thought Kane made a stand? Anyway, as directed by the great Howard Hawks, Rio Bravo is a perfect studio western, which became the standard for the great westerns of the sixties, which followed its template nearly to the letter. Wayne is John Chance, the no nonsense, hard bitten Marshall, Dean Martin is Dude, his alcoholic friend and Deputy, Walter Brennan is Stumpy, the crippled old timer who does not know fear, but sure knows people, and young Rick Nelson is Colorado, a young guy fast on the draw and willing to fight for what is good. The film is all about heroism, fighting for what is right, and redemption as well as being a profound study of friendship. After jailing the brother of a wealthy man, Chance knows that the brother will send hired guns to break his brother out, so he plans to defend the jail with his small band of friends. But are the Marshall, a drunk, an old man and a kid any match for hired killers? Turns out they are. Much of Rio Bravo will leave you with a big satisfied smile on your face as this is Hollywood filmmaking at its finest. Did Hawks ever direct a greater film? Personally I do not think so. Watching Dude climb out of the gutter is something very special, Dean Martin was never better, bolstered enormously by Wayne’s Chance and Brennan’s comic relief, Stumpy.
9. THE SHOOTIST (1976)
John Wayne was dying of cancer when he took the role of former gunfighter J.B. Books, who in this film is also dying of cancer. The old warrior rides into a developing western town with electricity already (!) to meet with a doctor he once knew years before, played with folksy charm by James Stewart, who delivers the harsh news as gentle as he can. He tells Books the pain will be unbearable and at some point he will scream for the end, a death Books does not want to experience. The film has an autumnal feel to it, especially the lovely relationship between Books and the widow Rogers, who owns the boarding house where Books stays. Wayne gave his last performance in this film, and it is one of his best, a role that allowed the great actor to be vulnerable and afraid, something John Wayne rarely was on screen. He tells Mrs. Rogers (Lauren Bacall) he is a dying man afraid of the dark in trying to relate the terror he feels about might be coming. Men come for him in the night and he kills them, which gives him an idea, and a good one. He sends messages to the three best shots and nastiest characters in the town and the four of them meet in the local saloon to shoot it out. Books kills all three of them but is then ambushed from behind, ending his life, but not before watching young Gillom (Ron Howard) throw away the gun he picks up in disgust. Directed by Don Siegel, this was one of the last great American westerns made before Heaven’s Gate in 1980. In a cruel snub, Wayne was ignored for a nomination as Best Actor, which he absolutely should have had. A haunting conclusion to an impressive career.
8. OPEN RANGE (2003)
Kevin Costner gave westerns another go thirteen years after his Dances with Wolves won seven Academy Awards including Best Picture and Director. Open Range is a masterpiece, and a much greater film than Dances with Wolves, masterful in its own way. Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall) is the grizzled old leader of a group of free grazers who take their cattle to various grasslands to graze. angering the local corrupt wealthiest man in town. With Spearman is his longtime friend Charlie (Costner) who in a former life before Spearman, was a gunfighter and killer for hire. Deadly with a gun, killing comes easy to him, though he had hoped that life had been left behind, he is forced into battle when one of their young men is beaten to death in the town. When things get worse, it leads to one of the screens greatest gunfights, with bullets whizzing everywhere, the horrific sounds of gunfire smashing through air. Charlie proves to be as dangerous as he said he was, and old Boss Spearman is no slouch with a weapon either. Both Duvall and Costner give fine performances, and Costner’s direction is sublime. There is a gentle love story in the narrative for Costner and Annette Bening that does not look one bit out of place, and the film feels forever like a classic American western. A surprise hit, but criminally underrated by the critics. Costner’s direction far surpassed that of Dances with Wolves which won him an Oscar, and the film is superbly edited.
7. RED RIVER (1948)
Howard Hawks directed this epic western, creating a kind of Mutiny on the Bounty on the cattle drive. Thomas Dunson (John Wayne) has adopted young Matthew Garth (Montgomery Clift) as his son and they combine forces to drive cattle north where there is a need for beef. On the trail, Dunson’s brutality towards the men he has hired disturbs Matt until he can bear no more and takes control of the drive. Told by his adopted father, that “the next time I see you I am going to kill you”, Matt forges on, those words ringing in his ears. And not far behind him, relentless in his pursuit is Dunson fueled by anger, betrayal and rage, hellbent on finding Matt and gunning him down. Wayne is a force of nature in the role of Dunson, the first time he truly displayed any real acting range. He and Clift did not get along on set, which only furthered the chemistry between the two men. The ending feels tacked on, because it was, the studio refusing to allow for a bleak conclusion, so after firing his gun at Matt, who is fast on the draw, the two men fight and hammer away at each other, until Matt’s lover interferes, saying anyone can see as plain as day the two men love one another. UM, ok. Weak, but it does not take away from what has happened in the previous two hours. Beautifully shot in black and white, much of the film was shot on various locations, giving the authenticity the film needed. Shot in 1946, it went through nearly a year of editing before finally being release to excellent reviews though most carped about the ending.
6. THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD (2007)
Haunting in its portrayal of Jess James (Brad Pitt) and his killer Bob Ford (Casey Affleck) this box office failure is the finest of the modern westerns, directed superbly by Andrew Dominick. The infamous outlaw Jesse James has been portrayed many times before by various actors, Tyrone Power, Robert Duvall and Robert Wagner (?) among them, but I am not sure that anyone captured the confidence, deadly menace of Jesse as Pitt does. His forced laughter is like the warning of a rattlesnake, a sign that danger is about to be unleashed. Yet there is kindness in Jesse as well, towards his wife and children and the gang members he favours, one of which was Bob Ford, who idolized him. At one point Jesse says to Bob, that he cannot figure out if Ford wants to be like Jesse, or actually be him. Having long worshipped Jesse, I doubt Ford knew himself. Their strange dance did not end when Ford shot Jesse in the back but continued long after Jesse died as Bob became one of the most reviled men in America, as famous as Jesse, without the love people had for the notorious outlaw. Casey Affleck was stunning as Bob Ford, creating a man who kills his idol and then regrets it because he truly misses Jesse. Beautifully shot, the film is like looking through a window into a time gone by. Pitt is dangerously good as Jesse, Affleck was Oscar nominated, with strong support from Sam Rockwell, Sam Shepard, and Jeremy Renner. Easily the most underappreciated film of the last twenty years and beautifully photographed.
5. HIGH NOON (1952)
Marshall Will Kane (Gary Cooper) is retiring, getting married and leaving town to live far away from his work as a lawman. But when he learns a dangerous man he put away is headed his way on the noon train to kill the lawman who put him behind bars, he cannot leave. His wife does, angry that her new husband would rather likely die than live a life with her. There are clocks and timepieces all through the film, as director Fred Zinneman builds unbearable tension awaiting the arrival of that noon train. Cooper had the finest role of his career and gave it everything he had, winning a much deserved Academy Award for his superb performance as a Marshall trying to rally the town to help him fight this man who murders without thought, discovering it is only him in the street ready to fight. Incredibly it is his wife, Grace Kelly who stands by him, gun in hand. After doing what he sets out to do he throws his badge into the dust in disgust at the shallow people he fought to defend. Kelly and character actor Lon Chaney deliver strong performances in the film, which at the end belongs to Cooper. Taut, tense and remarkable. Really a brilliant film, superbly acted, directed written, shot and edited.
4. SHANE (1953)
The gunfighter as mythical hero is what George Stevens’ greatest film is all about. We first see Shane (Alan Ladd) riding down the mountain, descending as though from the heavens, onto the homestead of a family at war with the local cattle baron over the location of their land. Sizing Shane up, the cattle baron backs down realizing he is a deadly gunfighter. He brings in another killer, Wilson (Jack Palance) to do battle when Shane stays on as a labourer on the small homestead, taking a liking to Joe (Van Heflin) his son Joey (Brando de Wilde) and Marion (Jean Arthur). But the pressure from the baron continues until Shane finally rides to town to go to war and end the conflict. As little Joey watches under the door of the saloon, Shane kills Wilson, and everyone else in the room, though it is Joey who warns him about the balcony, firing a shot that hits Shane before he kills the man with the rifle. Mortally wounded, Shane rides back up the mountain, leaving Joey calling the infamous lines “Shane! Come back!” as his voice echoes through the valley and into the mountains. Stevens shot the film with meticulous care, achieving so much beauty on so many of his shots. Alan Ladd is superb in the film, suggesting a mysterious quality to his gunfighter, yet a kindness that says killing is not necessarily the way he wants to live anymore. De Wilde gives one of the finest performances ever given by a child and earned one of the films six Academy Award nominations. Palance is lethal as Wilson, Arthur and Heflin excellent as the homesteaders trying to live their lives. A magical quality permeates every frame of this masterpiece.
3. TRUE GRIT (2010)
When the brothers Coen announced they were going to make True Grit, they made it clear it was not going to be a remake of the classic John Wayne film, but rather an adaptation of the book by Charles Portis. Like it or not it was still going to be seen as something of a remake, though there was little doubt it would be much more realistic and grittier than the Wayne film. But who would play the coveted role of Rooster Cogburn, the eye patch wearing, fearless, tough as nails Marshall? John Goodman was mentioned, and would have been terrific, but in the end it was the great Jeff Bridges who got the nod to portray the role and at once felt the pressure to make it his own. In the key role of 14-year-old Mattie Ross, they cast Hailee Stenfeld and on her slender shoulders placed their film. The narrative follows that of the original film almost to the letter, though as we expected this film had greater realism and less myth making than the first. Bridges was superb, making Cogburn very much his own character, free of comparison to Wayne. Hard drinking but fearless, this is a towering performance from the actor, one of the most underrated in film. But Steinfeld, my God, this girl was an absolute revelation giving a stunning performance for the ages. Though nominated for Best Supporting Actress, she was clearly the lead and delivers in every scene, those with Bridges and Matt Damon (as Texas Ranger LaBouef) crackle with energy. The famous showdown is everything we hope it will be, taunted as a “one eyed fatman”, Rooster charges, reins in his teeth, firing a gun in each hand. The sequence gave me goosebumps. The Coens attached an epilogue set some 20 years later, Mattie, having lost an arm to a rattle snake bite, Rooster saving her life, goes looking for her old friend only to discover he has died. She takes his coffin back to her farm and has him interred in the family plot, because for the brief adventure they had together, she was her family. Nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Actor, Director, Supporting Actress, and Cinematography along with five others, this was among the years very finest films.
2. THE SEARCHERS (1956)
Often regarded as the greatest western of all time, I have relegated The Searchers to the number two position, but make no mistake, it is still a monumental achievement from John Ford, and actor John Wayne. Cast very much against type as a racist, dangerous warrior, Wayne found his greatest role as Ethan Edwards, who, when his brothers’ family is massacred, his two nieces taken by the Commanche, he embarks on a quest to bring the girls home. The search will take him more than five years, Ford finding brilliant ways to suggest the passing of the time, as Edwards relentlessly searches for the girls. He finds one, the eldest, raped and murdered in a canyon and buries her. The sight of whatever he saw has left a deep scar on his soul and he refuses to talk about it. Finally, after years, they find Debbie (Natalie Wood) just a little girl when taken, but now grown, a teenager and one of the wives of the renegade Chief Scar. What has become clearer to us as the quest unfolds is that Ethan no longer wants to bring Debbie home, he has every intention of killing her when he finds she has been defiled by “a buck”. Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) who has been with Ethan for the entire search, knows what he plans and vows to stop him but finds he cannot. Finally face to face with the terrified Debbie, Ethan scoops her up in his arms lifting her high over his head as he did at the beginning, and then in a loving embrace takes her in his arms and whispers tenderly, “let’s go home Debbie”. And they do. What changed him? Was it the sight of his last remaining kin? As it is clear he loved his brother’s wife, Martha, could Debbie be his child? Or did he find his humanity, the last thing he expected to find on this quest, and simply could not kill her? Whatever it was, Wayne brilliantly portrays this conflicted, merciless character. Ford uses superb close ups to capture the rolling storm within Ethan, very much the eye of this hurricane of a film. Monument Valley never looked so beautiful or grand, the harsh outdoors a secondary character in the majestic film. Hunter and Wood are very good in the film, but some of the John Ford stock company now look foolish and the films attempts at comedy fall flat, wounded by the age of the film. Towering above it all is John Wayne, brilliant as Ethan, and deserving of an Oscar for his work. The film, revered in the years to come was popular but not nominated for a single Academy Award, which is simply shameful. Easily the best film of 1956 and one of the finest of the decade. For John Ford and John Wayne, their finest achievement.
1. UNFORGIVEN (1992)
“It’s a helluva thing, killin’ a man. You take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have” says WIlliam Munney (Clint Eastwood) in this masterpiece, defining what it truly is to kill a man in cold blood. A vicious killer, who has killed men, women, and children in his lifetime, Munney is now a failing pig farmer, a widower, trying to raise two young children on his own. When a young man comes asking for his help in bringing a couple of cowboys to justice for cutting up a whore, he decides for the bounty to go and kill them and come back with the cash to give his kids a chance. Teaming up with the kid and his old friend Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), Munney descends upon the town of Big Whiskey with murder in mind. What he does not count on is Little Bill (Gene Hackman), a psychopathic marshal who rules the town with an iron fist, bull whip and his gun. He beats Munney within an inch of his life, and kills Ned, setting him outside the saloon in a coffin for the town to see. When Munney walks into that saloon, he brings hell with him, and kills the saloon owner without batting an eye. He then shockingly kills the rest of the men in the saloon, including Little Bill, who he murders with a shotgun blast to the head. And then shouting a threat to all who can hear him, he leaves, going back to his kids, taking them away from the pig farm and prospering in dry goods. Eastwood first read the screenplay in 1981, putting it away until he felt old enough to do it justice. He did more than do it justice, he created the most profoundly powerful western film ever made, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture, along with Best Director (Eastwood), Supporting Actor (Gene Hackman) and Film Editing. Critics bestowed many awards on the film, and in his acceptance speech for Best Director, Eastwood publicly thanked the critics for getting behind the film and supporting it in the manner they had. The director also turned in the finest performance of his career as the world weary, tired of killing Munney, who when called to kill, finds he can still do without mercy. Gene Hackman is truly chilling as the sadistic Little Bill, who relishes his job just a bit too much, enjoying the beatings and killings he delivers. Easily the most stark depiction of the west, Unforgiven is an absolute masterpiece, Eastwood’s greatest film.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.