“There’s guns across the river aimin’ at ya
Lawman on your trail, he’d like to catch ya
Bounty hunters too, they’d like to get ya
Billy they don’t like you to be so free.”
—Bob Dylan, “Billy 1” from Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid
As of late, I have been on a Western Odyssey. I can’t quite recall when it started, but I know that I have watched nearly as many Westerns in the last six months than I have in the last 31 and a half years of my life. These have been of diverse stock: classic John Wayne pictures, brutal revisionist Westerns from the likes of Sam Peckinpah, the supremely stylish and iconic Sergio Leone movies and many, many Jimmy Stewart Westerns. The seed of my Western Odyssey stretches back in time, eight years ago, prior to the release of Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption, when I first explored the genre. Now in 2018, as we await the release of the sequel to that brilliant, bold and beautiful game, I have ventured deeper into the genre in search of better understanding and appreciating it. Through my efforts, which I will detail here, I hope to introduce you all to some wonderful, audacious and genre-defining (as well as genre-destroying) outings.
The Western is a genre that is no longer as all-encompassing or as prevalent as it once was. This cannot be disputed. In the 1940s and 1950s, it seemed like there was a new Western out every other week. While, for many people, Sergio Leone is the quintessential Western director, it is fair to say that for as great as Leone’s filmography is, the Western was the home of some incredible talent and artistry long before—and indeed long after—he made his mark with the Dollars Trilogy. John Ford, Howard Hawks and John Huston to name just a few, all operated at the top echelon of artistry and proved that one didn’t need to be revisionist to allow the Western to show us the beauty and terror in a man’s heart. It would be fair to say that John Ford probably did more to push the genre in its early to middle years than anyone else. Some consider Ford to be the Steven Spielberg of the genre—both in its positive and negative meanings—and the comparison is quite accurate. He has a mastery of the form which is undeniable, even while he mostly produces big, mainstream pictures.
John Ford’s greatest work that I have seen—and while I’ve seen more than a few, he has a ridiculous amount of Westerns to get through—is The Searchers starring John Wayne. While Wayne would win his Oscar for the brilliant and thoroughly entertaining True Grit in 1969, The Searchers is a more complex role—the vision of a man of the old ways that are becoming extinct. The Searchers is the movie I always think of when I encounter people making the argument that the only decent Westerns are those that are revisionist in nature. It is easy to see why such a belief takes hold. The abhorrent treatment of the Native Americans, the unforgivable crimes of slavery, and the casual bigotry directed towards Mexican neighbours make us uncomfortable with considering history through a lens that does not acknowledge it. The Searchers remains, however, a landmark achievement in the Western, even while it doesn’t have as explicitly enlightened a view of Native Americans as something like Broken Arrow (more on that later). While it can’t really be argued that Ford’s picture is revisionist it does, however, take account of the movement towards a genre that doesn’t ignore hundreds of years of shameful history.
John Wayne’s character is a bigot, who fought against the emancipation of African slaves in the Civil War and mocks the “half-breed” nature of his companion, but there is something good in him. There is something that drives him to rescue a kidnapped girl, long after most men would have given up and gone home. The details in the performance and in the character raise the picture up, and instead of seeing it simply as a traditional Western where the Indians are the bad guys, the viewer is taken on a journey through America’s sordid past. The brutality of the Indians is in response to years of betrayal, murder and persecution at the hands of men like Wayne. There is a shame and guilt that is evident in Wayne’s performance that is more subtle than most consider him capable of, even as his bluster and big man noise attempt to cover that up. I am reminded of Booker DeWitt from Irrational Games’ BioShock Infinite here, and it wouldn’t surprise me if John Wayne’s performance and character were an influence on that game. Wayne is a killer and a brute, but he is also the only man capable of doing the job.
The Searchers is evidence of the potential of the Western that is not outright revisionist. To understand and appreciate the great revisionist Westerns, as well as early influential pictures that made strides towards fair representation and artistic reparations, it is key to be well-versed in those Westerns that weren’t so gentle or careful in their representations. We can appreciate the artistry and the surprising emotional complexity to be found in John Wayne’s filmography while acknowledging that they don’t morally align with our current understanding of social justice. Yes, these are opportunities for better understanding moving forward, but they are also, on their own terms, still often staggering achievements in cinema. Take a look at Rio Bravo, another John Wayne picture directed by Howard Hawks—remade twice with El Dorado and Rio Lobo by Hawks and Wayne—and see a picture about the simple story of good vs evil, of good men trying to overcome their inherent weakness and the struggle that comes from that battle. Interestingly, Rio Bravo was made in response to the classic Gary Cooper-led High Noon, which John Wayne saw as being, ahem, “Un-American”. Just because Wayne was on the wrong side of history doesn’t diminish the power and positivity of Rio Bravo. We must be careful in exclusively pursuing art that affirms our politics or sense of morality—that we do not cut off our nose to spite our face. To only hear that our views are the right ones, is to live in an insular and artistically barren world. Rio Bravo is a life-affirming and brilliant work, even though its origins are unfortunate.
If John Wayne is the face of the traditional Western, it may be argued that Clint Eastwood is the face of the modern Western. From Sergio Leone’s gloriously stylish, epic and overpowering Dollars Trilogy to the ridiculous wealth of riches to be found in Eastwood’s own directing efforts, Clint Eastwood is, in my opinion, even more iconic than John Wayne. I recently wrote about the surreal and subversive picture, High Plains Drifter, so let me focus on a couple of Clint’s other Westerns. Everybody knows how good 1992’s Unforgiven is (at least I hope you all do!), but a closer eye reveals a work that is even better than that. Unforgiven is on the shortlist for the greatest Western ever made with three towering performances from Clint, Morgan Freeman and the never to be replicated Gene Hackman, and a story that hits hard as hell. It is a thrilling picture with devastating violence. Clint Eastwood has never been better than he is here. Unlike John Wayne, Clint didn’t need to be seen as the hero. One of my Twitter friends said a while back that he was the first guy in the Western who could get away with shooting someone in the back. Clint is a retired outlaw who gets pulled back into a life of violence. The interesting thing is that Gene Hackman isn’t exactly the bad guy here, and is the kind of role that John Wayne could have played, except in his version he would have been victorious. If for some reason you haven’t seen Unforgiven, do so immediately!
The Outlaw Josey Wales is a ridiculously good movie. Released in 1976, it is a movie for which the tag “revisionist” seems made. The Native American characters are fleshed out, compelling and non-stereotypical. It is a concentrated effort not just to set the scales right, but to show that in doing so, one should not have to abandon all of the great elements of the Western. The story drives hard. After his wife and child are killed by a renegade band of Union soldiers, Josey Wales joins in the fight against them on the side of the Confederates. Nowhere is it suggested that Clint’s character is a racist or had an issue with the emancipation of slaves. He is seeking revenge for the murder of his family, and he will do anything to see that through. While I do hold that one need not be revisionist to have worth, The Outlaw Josey Wales is the evidence that counters The Searchers. Here you have all of the excitement and deeply resonant elements that you have in Ford’s picture, but instead of trying to paint the Indians as the villains, the far more complex truth is offered.
I can’t write an article on my Western Odyssey and indeed mention Clint Eastwood without acknowledging the genius of Sergio Leone. Once Upon a Time in the West, mentioned less frequently than his Dollars Trilogy, is very close to being the greatest thing he ever did, and thus one of the greatest things anyone has ever done in the genre. Charles Bronson as the kind of hero, Jason Robards as a charismatic and chuckle-inducing bandit, and of course the great Henry Fonda as the villain of the piece, somehow, through some miracle, manage to compare with the trio of Leone’s more famous epic, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Fonda is just plain evil. When he finally gets it, I imagine that the cheers and whoops must have gone up with some fair volume. Once Upon a Time in the West is truly epic, and is as beautiful a meditation on good vs evil and the sometimes blurred line between the two as any of the movies Leone had a hand in.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is possibly the most celebrated and imitated Western of all-time for a damn good reason: it is unbelievably stylish, tightly focused even with a running time approaching three hours, features a sweeping, dizzying story, cinematography that is nearly unrivalled in the genre, and of course three characters and performances that are just as unique and brilliant. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is then in many ways the cinematic equivalent of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band: way ahead of its time, incredibly influential and while perhaps not being quite as good as its formidable reputation, still has few true peers. This is the movie that solidified Clint Eastwood as the anti-John Wayne, and the greatest icon the genre has ever produced. Shout out to Lee Van Cleef as a character almost as bad as Henry Fonda’s character in Once Upon a Time…but most of all to Eli Wallach for Tuco! I love Tuco! He is so damn funny and the combative friendship of sorts between he and Blondie, aka The Man with No Name, is probably my favourite part of the movie. Again, this is an essential Western and while it is not the first or last word in the genre, it is still an incredible achievement.
Along with Sergio Leone, the other great Western director of the ’60s and ’70s is Sam Peckinpah. Peckinpah made his name on The Wild Bunch, a savage, merciless exploration of the outlaw life and the capacity of men to be sadistic monsters. Here there are no heroes—a huge influence on Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption—only bad men. Even in a group of villains, though, there are codes of conduct. There is a certain honour among thieves. The opening shots of the picture where children torture ants and scorpions tell you all you need to know about the dark hearts of men. The scenes late in the picture with the machine gun are as iconic as any Western. Peckinpah made several Westerns in his career. If you want to see an interesting early picture of his, have a look at Ride the High Country, which is in some ways a prototype for the push and pull of bad men trying to good and vice versa as seen in The Wild Bunch. It isn’t as gloriously violent as The Wild Bunch, but its heart is pitch black and you can tell the same man directed both.
Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is, at least in its director’s cut, just as brilliant a picture as The Wild Bunch, featuring a soundtrack by Bob Dylan (who also stars in a smallish part) and two devastating, profound performances from Kris Kristofferson as The Kid and James Coburn as reformed outlaw Garrett. Again, there are so many comparisons to be made between this movie and Red Dead Redemption. The story of the former outlaw tracking down his former gangmates (also seen in The Wild Bunch) and the harsh, unforgiving world with explosive, brutal violence had a huge impact on Rockstar’s vision of the Western. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is a movie about how time moves on and leaves people behind. The age of outlaws has ended. These free men and women must submit to civilization or perish. This movie is the story of one such outlaw refusing to let go of a free life. While the theatrical cut isn’t terrible, it isn’t all that good either. There is so much more to Peckinpah’s original cut. If you want to see the movie, see his cut.
Along with John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, Jimmy Stewart must get a mention as one of the greatest leads in Westerns. Shamefully, I never knew quite how many Westerns Stewart made. I currently have seven of his movies in my iTunes, and there are a bunch more to go. Let me start with Broken Arrow, mentioned near the top of the article. I saw this for the first time the other night and it, no-foolin’, blew me away. It is one of the first Westerns to adequately tackle the horrific, shameful treatment of the Native Americans. First, a caveat: most of the Native American characters are played by white actors. This is unfortunate, but please, please don’t let that put you off because apart from this irritating sign of the times, Broken Arrow is way ahead of its time in philosophy and content. The characters who are Native American are shown to be composed of more than the stereotypes, especially Cochise played by Jeff Chandler. His understanding of peace and war are close to reality and he is shown to be just as instrumental in the reaching of that peace as Jimmy Stewart’s character is. It is a shame that we couldn’t have gotten a perfectly executed picture and had an honest to goodness relationship between Jimmy Stewart and a Native American woman. I mean we get one in theory, but the woman is clearly white. Broken Arrow is a brilliant bit of subversion of the traditional Western. It led the way for The Outlaw Josey Wales and of course Dances with Wolves. The other Jimmy Stewart picture I’d recommend checking out as soon as possible is Winchester ’73, a tale of two brothers at war over family history and a very nice gun.
Let me close by talking about two of my favourite Westerns that are unusual examples of the genre. Some argue that they shouldn’t be considered Westerns, but that definition of the genre is much too narrow. Both are about the wealth of the land, and how that wealth can taint the souls of men. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, directed by the legendary John Huston and starring my favourite actor of all-time, Humphrey Bogart, is in many ways the precursor to Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterpiece, There Will Be Blood. Both are unusual Westerns, throwing aside many of the standard components to tell stories of the corrosive power of greed. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is one of Bogart’s greatest performances, up there with In a Lonely Place. His madness catches to the viewer, and the image we see reflected in the mirror is one that makes one profoundly uncomfortable. Would we be consumed by the evil of money in his place? I imagine many would. Huston has a powerful hold of the viewer and, from start to finish, there is no thought but the question, “What will happen next?”
There Will Be Blood is one of the most celebrated pictures of the 21st century, so I don’t really need to explain to you why it’s so good, but here is why I believe that it deserves to be called a Western. The Western is a genre that examines the place of women and men in relation to the natural world. There is a deep reverence, and often fear, of the earth. Following The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, There Will Be Blood examines how the riches of the ground can poison the soul of men. The myth of The West as a land of endless opportunity, and of a person being able to make his own destiny, is exactly what Paul Thomas Anderson takes apart brick by brick in this…the greatest movie of his storied career. The Western is not simply a tale of Cowboys and Indians as we have seen, and so we should not define it as such. The Western is The American Dream, a paean to the self-made man on one hand, and a condemnation of the lies of the meritocracy on the other. The Western is a belief that the earth will provide, one way or another.
I include a list of 30 Westerns below, in no particular order, that you should see as soon as you are able.
- The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
- The Wild Bunch
- Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid
- The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
- There Will Be Blood
- Once Upon a Time in the West
- True Grit (both versions)
- 3:10 To Yuma (remake)
- The Searchers
- The Outlaw Josey Wales
- High Plains Drifter
- Broken Arrow
- The Homesman
- High Noon
- Django Unchained
- Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
- The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
- The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
- The Proposition
- Slow West
- The Revenant
- The Quick and the Dead
- Rio Bravo
- The Salvation
- The Magnificent Seven (original)
- No Country for Old Men
- Dances with Wolves
- Dead Man
Special thanks to Paul Crowson for his great taste and recommendations.