Sixteen of the Best Westerns Ever Made
_ The Hatfields & McCoys **** **miniseries is coming to the History Channel on Memorial Day. **by Hal Herring****_ Every American knows exactly what you mean when you say, "It's like the Hatfields and McCoys." It means the situation is a deadlock, no way to see or ever concede to the position of the opposing side, a war to the knife, and to the end. And so it was. From the first killing of returning wounded Union soldier Harmon McCoy on January 7th, 1865, through the final feud trial of Johnse Hatfield in 1901, it was war, outright and guerilla, between the Hatfield family of Mingo County, West Virginia, and the McCoy family of Pike County, Kentucky. At its hottest, during the 1880's, the fighting and murdering claimed more than a dozen lives, with more family members wounded and others becoming fugitives for their crimes. Cruelty and no-quarter vengeance was the norm. The Tug Fork of the Big Sandy River (a tributary of the Ohio River) was the borderline, and a grim border it was. Nothing quite like the Hatfield-McCoy Feud can be found in all the rest of America's violent history. Beginning this Memorial Day, the History Channel will run a three part series on the feud, starring Kevin Costner as William Anderson "Devil Anse" Hatfield, and Bill Paxton as Randall "Ol' Ran'll" McCoy, the leaders of the warring factions. It's a rowdy, gunpowder and blood-soaked story, and the series promises to be a rollicking ride. To get you in the mood, the editors at F&S online asked me to put together a short list of my favorite western flicks. Click through and let us know what your Top Ten Westerns are in the comments section.
Stagecoach (1939) – directed by John Ford, from a short story by Ernest Haycox Stagecoach featured a 32-year-old John Wayne as the Ringo Kid. An epic film of firsts- John Ford’s first “talkie” western movie, the first Western to be filmed in the surreal landscape of Arizona and Utah’s Monument Valley and the first major role for John Wayne. A stagecoach sets out across the menacing desert, carrying all the ingredients for a high-pressure, trapped-together morality play: a banker on the run with the money he has embezzled, a pregnant young wife and her husband, a missing and crucial stage guard, a beautiful prostitute with a strong and loyal heart, a doctor who hasn’t been sober in a long, long time and the captured Ringo Kid. The US Cavalry is supposed to be there, helping to protect the stage. They aren’t. Geronimo and his fearsome warriors are supposed to be out there somewhere, thirsty for blood vengeance. They are.
The Oxbow Incident (1943) – directed by William Wellman, starring Henry Fonda. Nevada, 1885: an isolated region plagued by cattle rustling, rife with paranoia and distrust. All strangers are suspects. Even locals who don’t seem quite right are suspects. When word of a new rustling incident hits town, the saloons empty, and a posse rides forth, determined to catch the thieves. In Ox-Bow Canyon, they come upon three strangers. What follows is one of the best one-act plays in literature or film. No one escapes intact. One of literature’s most famous short stories, Frank O’Conner’s “Guests of the Nation,” ends with the sentence, “And anything that happened to me afterwards, I never felt the same about again.” The same could be said of the well-meaning cowboys and ne’er-do-well vigilantes in the Ox-Bow Incident. From the classic novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark, who said he wrote it as an exercise to learn how to write better dialogue.
** (1953)** _- directed by George Stevens Shane
Alan Ladd plays Shane, a calmly mysterious drifter and farmhand who seems extraordinarily handy with a Colt revolver. An antagonist soon appears in the form of a no-holds-barred cattle baron who wants to get rid of the homesteaders, once and for all. Filmed against the backdrop of the mighty Teton Range, this is one of the most beautiful Westerns of all times. The screenplay was written by none other than A.B. “Bud” Guthrie, author of the second greatest western novel, The Big Sky (my vote for number one goes to McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove) Bud Guthrie grew up in Montana, and knew exactly what a western movie should be. One of the finest quotes in all of movie history comes from Shane: “A gun is a tool, Marian; no better or no worse than any other tool: an axe, a shovel or anything. A gun is as good or as bad as the man using it. Remember that.”
Rio Bravo (1959) _- directed by Howard Hawks.
Proof that the old crooner Dean Martin is also an actor, Rio Bravo stars John Wayne as Presidio County Sheriff John T. Chance, and Martin as the drunken deputy who has lost control of the town of Rio Bravo. In control: the sadistic Burdette brothers, Joe and Nathan, who run afoul of Chance almost immediately. The cast is filled out with Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Ricky Nelson as a Colorado gunfighter and Angie Dickinson as Feathers, a card sharp in black tights who distracts just about every gunman in the town–for at least a little while–from his battles. Rio Bravo has an interesting history- it was written as a kind of backlash to the film High Noon, which the very conservative John Wayne considered “un-American.” The writer of High Noon, Carl Foreman, had to leave the U.S. during the blacklist days of McCarthyism. Rio director Howard Hawks would say later that he tried to make a movie that was the opposite of High Noon. Whether he succeeded in that or not, modern mega-film director Quentin Tarantino, over half a century later, says that_ Rio Bravo_ is one of his favorite movies, and one of his major influences. “My Rifle, My Pony, and Me” sung by Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson, from Rio Bravo:
The Searchers (1956) – directed by John Ford Ethan Edwards is, in my opinion, John Wayne’s most interesting and realistic character. Edwards arrives at the homestead of his brother in West Texas in 1868, amid the harsh realities of the wars with the Comanche, the Apaches, and the Kiowa. He’s a Confederate veteran, who has been missing since the end of the war. He has a stash of suspicious gold coins, a medal from a Mexican revolutionary army, and a stubborn refusal to swear allegiance to the Texas Rangers. When his niece is kidnapped by the Comanche, Edwards sets out on a relentless quest to rescue her, a quest that the viewer suspects has as much to do with reclaiming his own soul as saving his niece. Set against the almost unbelievable violence of the late Indian Wars, the movie draws on the real-life story of the kidnapping of Cynthia Ann Parker, and the saga of Brit Johnson, an African-American teamster who spent years in a successful quest to find and ransom his kidnapped wife and daughter from the Comanche, then almost immediately set off again to find and rescue yet another child kidnap victim. Brit Johnson was killed by the Kiowa. Ethan Edwards, his goals achieved through epic violence, does not even get that satisfaction. He just walks away.
The Wild Bunch (1969) – directed by Sam Peckinpah If Rio Bravo was Howard Hawks’ answer to High Noon, The Wild Bunch is director Sam Peckinpah’s answer to the 1968 Summer of Love. There’s no love in this exhausting experience of a movie, with a gang of aging outlaws, led by William Holden, trying to survive in the suffocating modernity of 1913. (One thing they do like about modernity, though, is the Colt 1911 .45 ACP, which they put to extraordinary use). The film opens fast with a botched robbery during which what looks like an entire town’s worth of bystanders–including a temperance parade–are shot to pieces. The gang–those that are not too wounded or too exhausted to ride–hightails it to Mexico, which is in the early throes of revolution. Strangeness and chaos ensues. Everybody in Mexico, from the Federal Army to the local warlords, to a German secret agent, wants modern weaponry, and the gang would certainly like to provide it, for a fee that could let the survivors retire. Think they’ll be able to highjack a shipment of arms from the US Army, sell it, and live happily ever after in the arms of the beautiful senoritas and widowed senoras? Ernest Borgnine’s crazy laugh suggests the answer.
Lawman (1971) – directed by Micheal Winner, starring Burt Lancaster and Robert Duvall. The perils to the soul of having an iron will and steel commitment to the law are explored in this unique movie. Marshal Jered Maddox rides into town to rein-in a group of cowhands in the employ of powerful rancher Vincent Bronson. To say the cowhands are unruly is to say that pure grain alcohol can sometimes make you dizzy if you drink it too fast. They have killed a man by accident outside of town, and Maddox plans to bring them to justice. To do that, though, he must face Bronson, who is not anything like the evil cattle barons of more conventional westerns, and he must fight his way through men who most probably do not deserve to die at his hand. It’s a winner-lose-all game, and Maddox refuses, because of his convictions, not to play it. The result is an extremely sad and very effective movie, which we might expect, given the actors, and the director, who would go on to direct Charles Bronson in the classic urban vigilante movie Deathwish. __
**(1976) ** _- directed by and starring Clint Eastwood _ _ The Outlaw Josey Wales
Lord Have Mercy, the Missouri Border Wars. There never was a crucible so hot or so merciless as the real-life tit-for-tat murder-fiesta of late 1850’s and early 1860’s Missouri and Kansas. The Kansas Redlegs and Jayhawkers raided the Missourians, the Missouri Border Ruffians raided the Kansans, Quantrill slaughtered, almost nobody came away unharmed, or often as not, un-hung, un-shot, or un-plundered. More than likely, there were indeed men like Josey Wales, good farmers and family men who just wanted to be left alone. But who were not. Clint Eastwood carried the role of Josey Wales into myth, and made probably the most quoted, most watched gunfighter movie in the history of film. In 1977, thousands of 12 year old American boys–especially Southerners like myself–took their .177 caliber pellet pistols and some contraband Red Man or Applejack chewing tobacco and spat and shot Mountain Dew cans named Fletcher. We used sign language to talk with Ten Bears, the Comanche chief, and said things like, ‘Dying’s not hard for men like us, it’s livin that’s hard…” It’s a great, enduring movie, and it gave us all a whole new vocabulary. Any movie that can have a grizzled and beaten old Missouri woman, saved by the deadly skill of Josey Wales from the nastiest bunch of Comancheros ever, step up and say to Wales with no fear at all, “Now you’ll kill us, I suppose,” is a keeper of the first order. The film was adapted from a novel called The Rebel Outlaw by the Alabamian, Asa Earl “Forrest” Carter, who was a former Klansman and an undercover speechwriter for Alabama’s Governor George Wallace. After an unsuccessful run for Alabama’s governor on the segregationist ticket in 1970, Carter left Alabama for Texas, reinvented himself by pretending to be a Cherokee Indian, and wrote the hugely successful novel The Education of Little Tree. He also wrote what I consider to be a masterpiece about Geronimo and the Apache Wars, a 1978 novel called Watch for Me on the Mountain. Carter died in 1979.
(1972) The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean – directed by John Huston, written by John Milius I doubt seriously that anybody would try to make a movie out of the life of the real Roy Bean (born-1825, died-1903) because nobody would believe the story. What you might do is to take the very last years of Roy Bean’s life and try to do that justice with one of the best actors in film, at the height of his career, and hire the best writer in Hollywood to do the script. And what you’d get, if you were the hard-living genius director John Huston, might be something like the eccentric movie The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean. There is nothing normal about this movie. Paul Newman inhabits the role so perfectly that he is the old self-proclaimed Judge, the “only law West of the Pecos.” After a long life spent energetically breaking laws and shooting men in duels and breaking out of jails and, above all, pining for British actress Lily Langtry while pursuing every available female within howling distance, Roy Bean is more than fit to make the law, interpret it, and impose the maximum penalty to those who break it (especially if they have run out of money and can no longer buy his whiskey). After all, he has a law book, and nobody else in the Chihuahua Desert does. He also has a Sharp’s 50-90, which he uses to excellent effect in quelling the challenge of the albino mad man, Bad Bob. It’s one of my favorite scenes in all of film:
Ride with the Devil (1999) – directed by Ang Lee, by John McCorkle, is the best) seem pale at best. Tobey McGuire is Jack Roedel, called “Dutchy” by the other Bushwhackers, who associate any German or Dutch parentage as sympathy for the abolition of slavery, and pro-Unionism, and thus worthy of death. But Roedel and his best friend Jack Bull have no choice, really, but to be Bushwhackers. Pro-Union Jayhawkers have invaded Missouri, murdered Bull’s father and burned his home, and are hunting Roedel and any other young man or woman in the region that might oppose them. The power of the movie is realism- how the Missourians survived the winters, who supported them, and at what terrible cost, how life, and love, or some version of it, is conducted in the midst of a black flag guerilla war. And the fighting here is what drew me to the film in the first place: the Missouri Border Wars were the historical highwater mark of handgun combat. Rifles were single shots, shotguns could be fired at most twice, but a Colt 1851 carried six rounds, and with six Colts, carried in special holsters and configurations on the body, a man on a fast and steady war horse could inflict fantastic levels of damage on an enemy that planned to fight a conventional battle.
It’s the Missouri Bushwhackers against the Kansas Jayhawkers again, but this time with a radical twist- this is a movie that holds tight to historical fact, while whipping up a concoction of fiction and real-seeming characters that make all the historical narratives (_Three Years with Quantrill Ride with the Devil contains some of the best renditions of 1860’s era combat in any film. With Jewel as a beautiful and fickle young widow, in a land where blood, filth, and suffering is the order of the day. The movie is adapted from the book Woe to Live On, by Missourian Daniel Woodrell, who also wrote the great book (made into a recent award-winning film) Winter’s Bone.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) – directed by John Ford Why are big-shot Senator “Rance” Stoddard (James Stewart) and his beautiful wife back getting off the train in the backwater town of Shinbone to attend the funeral of a man that no one ever heard of? The answer lies buried in the past, in a time when politics was as much about the fist, the boot and the Colt as it was about rational argument and the vote. Rancher Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) has died, a hardworking, honest cowman of no other apparent distinction. But those qualities were more than enough, in the way-back mists of another time, to save a badly flawed young greenhorn named Rance Stoddard’s life and, maybe, to have rid the world of a bully and murderer named Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin, in his best bad-guy role). To act with conviction and honor- to not be able to act otherwise- is sometimes to lose that which you value the most. Who really shot Liberty Valance? Senator Rance Stoddard is back where he began, to set the record straight, and to save his own soul. A Shakespearian tale, told in flashback, profound and moving. Script was made from a short story by Dorothy M. Johnson, who was a reporter in the 1930’s in the Flathead Valley of Montana. Johnson also wrote the classic A Man Called Horse.
McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)_ – directed by Robert Altman_ “We’re just up here to hunt bear…” answers the leader of the assassins, to anyone who questions his presence in the stagnant little mining town of Presbyterian Church, high in the Cascade Mountains of the northwest. McCabe (Warren Beatty) is a big fish in this dried-up pond of a town, a gambler, flashy dresser, entrepreneur and big talker. He lets the townspeople think he was once a gunfighter known as “Pudgy” McCabe, with at least one prominent notch on his pistol. Among his business ventures, three down-on-their luck prostitutes, with whom he attempts to start a bawdy house. The three young women are so unmanageable that he must enlist the help of Mrs. Miller, a professional in these matters, but an unmanageable sort herself, with a life of bad luck behind her, and a an opium addiction that rules her. Presbyterian Church is on the brink of a mining boom. More hardened entrepreneurs from the neighboring town of Bearpaw want to corner the markets before the boom hits. They see McCabe as a buffoon who is standing in the way, and they know, oh so very well, how to deal with that obstacle. The assassins are a truly vicious bunch, dedicated to goading their targets into a “fair fight” before dispatching them. So is Pudgy McCabe destined to die as a big-talking buffoon? Are the gunfighter stories real? How afraid is he, really? A blizzard provides the backdrop to the answering of all the questions. Brooding soundtrack by poet-songwriter Leonard Cohen makes it all seem like fate. This is a movie that could only be made by Robert Altman, the master of slowly developing, interlocking stories. It’s as different a movie from Shane as a painting by Jackson Pollock is from one by Winslow Homer. Robert Altman brings the culture of America, the 60’s, the quirky, the unexpected, the challenging of the norms, to the standard western movie, with spectacular results.
Jeremiah Johnson (1972) – directed by Sydney Pollack Most movies that try to sanitize the books that inspire them are failures. It is hard to read Raymond Thorp and Robert Bunker’s Crow Killer: the Saga of Liver Eating Johnson, or even Vardis Fisher’s excellent Mountain Man, and see Johnson as a heroic, benevolent, (albeit ferocious) human being. It is hard to see Johnson as Robert Redford, or vice versa, too. But Jeremiah Johnson is proof that art can sometimes transcend real life and the sometimes crude attempts by writers (Crow Killer is written in dialect, which seemed pretty cool to me when I was fourteen years old, but irritates me so much now I can’t read the book) to render history. Redford’s character is extremely likable, even while he is massacring the Crows- after all, he has a reason- they killed his wife and child. But not until he violated his own rules and led the white soldiers through the Crow burial grounds….ahh, the complexities that make up a REAL MOVIE. To watch Jeremiah Johnson is to see storytelling by a master- look at how fast it all happens, and how much is packed in here, from the first winter alone and starving to his final existence as a kind of mountain spirit. Every scene speaks in volumes (ie. Hatchet Jack, lying frozen in the snow, both legs broken by a grizz, holding the .50 Hawken that Johnson needs in his hands like an offering). And tell the truth, just by reading this, some part of your brain is now singing the song from the soundtrack, isn’t it? Jeremiah Johnson is the story that every outdoorsman would like to live, or try to live, at least once in his or her life. It’s also an epic about loss, and how change will take from us everything we love, but that there are, indeed, things that endure. Some people thinks it’s the greatest outdoor adventure movie ever made. I’m one of them. And the real Liver Eatin’ Johnson? He spent his older years as Marshal of Red Lodge, Montana, and was a decent, well-liked sort of man. He still wore the extra heavy boot on his right foot, and was known to lead with a bone-crushing kick when miscreants required punishing. His actual life was a tad beyond the capacity of imagination, from where we are now. He died in 1900.
_- directed by and starring Kevin Costner Dances with Wolves (1990)
Setting out to make an epic film must be a terrifying vision. The field of battle is littered with failed attempts: ever tried to watch Heaven’s Gate at one sitting? What is takes is determination and self-confidence, and above all, a hell-raising story. Kevin Costner had all of these in place before he began this phenomenal $22 million dollar effort. The result is a wild roller-coaster of a movie- and again- even for all the suffering, all the pain- wouldn’t any adventurer or outdoorsman change places with Lt. John J. Dunbar? To see the plains when the Lakota still ruled them, hunt buffalo, dodge raiders, make your soul’s home, and your own stand, beneath no roof but the ever stretching skies of the West? Because, beyond all the morality tales told, the psychology illuminated, the power struggles and genocidal impulses revealed, what Dances with Wolves is, at its essence is a magnificent adventure story, richer than Shackleton’s Endurance, of much more historical power than any of the narratives or dramatizations of, say the journals of Lewis and Clark. It’s a grand tale of the individual transcending the collective culture. The overall nations- the Lakota and the European-Americans, are hopelessly, mortally, at odds. But within that death struggle, individuals can become friends and hunting partners. We all know how the story ends, both the movie, and the real history of the Plains Indians. That knowledge makes the movie, with all its exuberance and adventure, also unbearably sad. Yes, for the critic, there’s plenty to attack here. Buffalo were not slain by lances that are thrown- the lance is thrust, from horseback. Dunbar’s woman, Stands-with a Fist, must be the only white woman for a thousand miles, and yet he stumbles upon her, and love ensues. Everybody’s hair is bit too clean, and too fly-away late 80’s style. But the critic of this movie, missing the whole song because the guitar player is wearing a distracting frilly shirt, is just cheating him- or- herself of a grand experience.
– Unforgiven (1992) directed by and starring Clint Eastwood “I’ve killed women and children. I’ve killed everything that walks or crawls at one time or another. And I’m here to kill you, Little Bill, for what you done to Ned.” William Munny to Sheriff Little Bill Daggett Killing is the theme here, as one might guess, and there is plenty of it, though nothing near the body count of less profound exercises like Young Guns, or The Long Riders, or any such more conventional films. Clint Eastwood is going for depth here, and he attains it, never meeting any of our expectations of what a western movie should do next. When two cowboys sadistically disfigure a young prostitute, all the settled notions of what should be are thrown open to re-interpretation. No justice is forthcoming from the law, so the women seek to hire a killer to take revenge. Order erodes, and chaos can be seen approaching in the form of the hired murderers who drift in to try and take the prize money. Men are afraid, and for good reason. Munny and Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) have killed enough men for any dozen lifetimes, and they are tired and old. Little Bill Dagget (Gene Hackman) is old, too, and almost insane in his demand for order in his town, a demand he makes in a friendly, forced way that reveals the murderous rage lurking just behind the reasonable and tolerant smile. Little Bill is trying to build a crazy-quilt house in a tranquil spot on the river outside town, and he’s man of violence, not a carpenter–the measurements and careful attention to angles required are far, far beyond him. His real skills come into play when he meets hired-gun English Bob (Richard Harris) and stomps him flat with cold, practiced fury. These are collisions set in motion on a grand scale that remain extremely human and comprehensible. There has never been a set of characters so believable, yet so extreme, and, even with all of the cruelty, so likable. You never know, exactly, who to root for. Which is one reason why the movie makes the list here. Eastwood dedicated Unforgiven, in part, to Sergio Leone, the Italian maker of so-called “spaghetti westerns”- some of which would definitely make the list of all-time movie greats, and many of which starred Clint Eastwood.
_- directed by George P. Cosmatos Tombstone (1993)
The gunfight at the OK Corral on October 6th, 1881, has fascinated western history buffs for decades, even though, in reality, it was a relatively minor, or at least small scale (no battle is minor if you are in it), event. But since it was brought to the national attention in 1931, in a sensationalized biography of Wyatt Earp, the OK Corral has taken on mythical dimensions as the iconic gunfight of an iconic time and place. In my opinion, it deserves the hype, and so does Tombstone, the definitive movie-myth about it. The Earp brothers were authentic western heroes, all myth-making aside. They had worked together to quell bad men and gang violence in mining and cattle towns across the West, always on the lookout for opportunity, be it in the form of a gambling house, a house of prostitution, or any of dozen more mainstream investments and businesses. By the time the brothers arrived in Tombstone, hired as U.S. Marshals in a wild and wooly mining boom town, they were in their 30s, men of the world who knew their place in it. The role of peace officer and boom town opportunists seems never to be at odds– Wyatt’s long-term friendship with gambler and killer Doc Holliday, for instance, seems not to have been questioned. And the gang called the Cowboys, led in the movie by Powers Booth as Curly Bill Brocius, was real, too, allied with Sheriff Johnny Behan. The story is ancient: strong newcomers run up against entrenched economic interests that are a part of the legal and extra-legal power structure of the new place. The enforcers of the entrenched order resist the newcomers. Violence results. The arc of the story in Tombstone follows that model almost perfectly. But any American watching tis movie brings to it a wealth of assumptions, and knowledge about mythical figures like the Earps, Holliday, or to a lesser extent, the adversaries like, Ike Clanton and Curly Bill. The power of Tombstone is that it does not challenge, ever, what we think we know. The Earps are hard, fair men. Holliday (and Val Kilmer will be forever associated with the role) is the hard drinking tubercular card sharp of myth, played huge on the stage. By the time the fight actually comes, we know everybody so well that we are utterly invested in the outcome–every shot, every misstep, is of grave concern. Tombstone is actually not too far from accurate in a historical sense. But if it were not, the movie is so powerful that we wouldn’t care one whit what the real history was.