The Western genre may have, by and large, fallen out of favor with moviegoing audiences quite some time ago, but filmmakers keep trying to bring it back. With a new remake of ‘The Magnificent Seven’ in theaters this week, let’s look back at some of our favorite Westerns.
Clint Eastwood’s 1992 “anti-Western” (also frequently called his “revisionist Western”) ‘Unforgiven‘ was awarded with four Oscars, including a well-deserved first Best Director win for Eastwood. However, am I the only one who DIDN’T like ‘Unforgiven’ upon the first viewing? I confess that I didn’t get the film at all way back in 1992. I saw it on opening weekend, and I got the general consensus that audiences felt the same way. (Heck, even the great Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel panned the movie – although Ebert, in a rare occurrence, went back later and updated his original 2 1/2 star review to 4 stars, claiming he was wrong and placing it on his “Great Movies” list). I think the reason is that Eastwood had a history of Western movies and it’s hard to go into ‘Unforgiven’ without certain expectations, all of which the film defies.
Today, Eastwood is considered one of our best filmmakers, but even though ‘Unforgiven’ wasn’t the first movie he helmed, his work was never taken all that seriously by his Hollywood peers beforehand. This is the film that helped put him on the map as notable director, and it remains perhaps his best work.
When I was much younger, I actually despised Westerns, so much so that whenever my parents watched one on TV, I made some excuse to leave the room. However, as I got older, I started to appreciate the genre a little more. I’d say this was largely due to one film in particular: ‘Quigley Down Under‘.
Tom Selleck stars as an American sharpshooter who takes on a mustache-twirling Alan Rickman and his entire army of henchmen in Australia. Yes, parts of the movie are pretty cheesy at times, but between the engaging action scenes, the energetic music, the beautiful scenery, and the performances by its two main stars (Selleck makes a wonderful hero and Rickman gleefully hams it up), this movie is just pure 100% entertainment for me.
Honorable mention goes to ‘Tombstone‘, a slicker Western featuring Kurt Russell and an in-his-prime Val Kilmer as the legendary Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. This is another great film. It’s well-acted, well-paced, and it explodes with the infamous shootout at the O.K. Corral. That’s definitely one of my all-time favorites, too.
I think I could turn up a dozen Westerns that I think are top shelf, and that’s without turning to other genre films that are really just thinly veiled Westerns (like ‘Outland’). For this Roundtable, I’m tapping into ‘The Cowboys‘ from 1972, starring a 65-year-old John Wayne.
As is the Western tradition, the plot is very simple, and it’s pretty clear who’s right (John Wayne, Roscoe Lee Brown, and the kids trying to be capable cow herders) and who’s evil (Bruce Dern, who in spite of evilness manages a great wolf in sheep’s clothing introduction). Frankly, despite being macho, violent, and not terribly progressive, I think this is one of the few Westerns that ought to appeal to all ages in a memorable and entertaining way.
When I was growing up, the Western genre was pretty much dead. ‘Tombstone’ and ‘Unforgiven’ ultimately came around, but I was too young to see them when they were new. My parents didn’t watch many, so my love for Westerns didn’t really start until I was a young adult and sought them out on my own. It took a great new Western for me to realize how awesome the genre can be.
Just months after getting married, my wife and I went to a press screening of James Mangold’s ‘3:10 to Yuma‘ remake. Russell Crowe and Christian Bale were pretty hot at the time, so the movie had a lot of potential. I expected it to be good, but not as good as it was. I walked out of the theater with my jaw on the floor. It completely swept me up. From the father-son/good-vs.-evil punch-packing story, to the gorgeous cinematography and score. I absolutely loved it. Immediately following that screening, I started jumping into classics like ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’ and ‘The Good, The Bad and the Ugly’. I even got into newer Westerns like ‘Open Range’. Until the ‘3:10 to Yuma’ remake, I was indifferent to the genre, but now it’s one of my very favorites.
Adam Tyner (DVDTalk)
‘The Searchers‘ isn’t just my favorite Western. John Ford’s 1956 classic easily ranks among my favorite films of any genre. Much of its strength is owed to a daringly unconventional performance by John Wayne. His Ethan Edwards is hardly some gallant hero. He’s a man consumed – propelled by an obsessive quest and overwhelmed by his violent hatred of an entire people. Ethan isn’t content to just kill a Comanche warrior, for instance. Preying on the dead man’s beliefs, he shoots out his eyes so that the warrior’s spirit will never find peace.
Though Ethan walks among the living, any sort of lasting peace eludes him as well. His refusal to let go of his fury or past decisions irrevocably prove to be hopelessly isolating. Having witnessed the smoldering remains of what was once his brother’s family, he’s devotes many years of his life to an obsessive, seemingly futile quest to find his niece that the rampaging Comanche took with them. He doesn’t seek out Debbie to rescue her, at least not in any traditional way. Having been tainted by the Comanche, Debbie is no longer his blood. Maybe Ethan sees it as a mercy killing as opposed to the vengeance he craves for those who butchered his family, but if he has his way, she’ll be dead just the same.
The substitute families encountered throughout the course of his journey are almost immediately disregarded. Ethan is too obsessed with the past to look forward to any sort of future. He doesn’t see the Comanche warrior Scar as the reflection of himself that he truly is. The romantic imagery of the Cavalry is shattered when we see them as bloodthirsty and merciless as the Comanche that slaughtered the Edwards. He barely tolerates the presence of Martin, a young man who’s only one-eighth Native American but one-eighth too much for Ethan.
Although Ethan isn’t the same man at the end of the film as he is at the outset, he remains every bit as alone, symbolized in one of the most iconic shots in cinema.
For many years of my life, I had a great disdain for musicals and Westerns. Of the musicals, I could never wrap my mind around the unreality of people suddenly bursting into song. (Meanwhile, movies with alien spaceships or caped men in spandex tights flying through the air were totally plausible in my worldview.) Westerns just seemed like a stale and dead genre, something only suitable for old people to watch. My only real experience with them was the boredom of sitting in the room while my grandpa watched reruns of ‘Gunsmoke’ or hokey John Wayne movies on TV. It took a very long time for me to overcome these prejudices, and I’m still woefully ignorant of the classics of either genre.
One of the first Westerns I remembered actually liking was Lawrence Kasdan’s ‘Silverado‘. The movie was something of a throwback when it was released in 1985, and played as if it were ticking off genre elements from a checklist: a jailbreak, a wagon train, a stampede, a square dance, a saloon brawl, dirty rustlers, a crooked sheriff, gunfights and a showdown in the center of town. But it had a great cast, an irreverent attitude, and a focus on being a purely fun adventure. It also has a real star-making performance from a young Kevin Costner, whose turn as a rambunctious gunslinger is still one of his best roles.
I’ll also stand up to defend Kasdan’s flawed but underrated ‘Wyatt Earp‘. The film had the misfortunate of being overshadowed by the (admittedly, more action-packed and entertaining) ‘Tombstone’, which was released a few months earlier. It’s over-long and overly-earnest, and feels like a drag when directly compared to the rowdy fun of the other Wyatt Earp picture. Critics at the time tore into it and the movie was a big box office flop. However, on its own terms and with a little patience, it’s a finely-crafted, classical Western, and didn’t deserve the bum rap it got.
What are some of your favorite Westerns? Tell us in the Comments.