Submitted by JohnnyW on Mon, 03/12/2001 - 07:13
- The Wild Bunch (1969). Sam Peckinpah brutally depicts the end of the "Old West" in all its (non)glory, but not before he punctures its ideals by showing Pike and the rest deliberately leaving one of their "bunch" to die while they make their getaway from yet another small-time robbery. General Mapache's war machines, from cars to a Gatling Gun capable of firing off several hundred more rounds per minute than a Colt Six-Gun, annihilate all the myths and legends of the earlier time in perhaps the most horrific bloodbath in the history of film.
- Red River (1948). Red River moves from Tom Dunson's self-sufficiency being a virtue to the point when that same individualism becomes a liability. John Wayne instills Dunson with complexity, avoiding making him a caricature of the stodgy old-timer, but also driving home the futility of expecting the world to never change. Appropriately, Red River is the final film shown at the dying town's movie house in The Last Picture Show.
- The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (1962). Foreshadowing the later Revisionist Westerns' interest in deconstructing the myths of "The West," especially the links between violence and character, Valence also contains a rarity among classic-era Westerns, an African-American character, John Wayne's servant Pompey. Even rarer: the short scene in the bar where Wayne's Tom Doniphon insists on Pompey being served alongside all the whites. John Ford's comment on Civil Rights?
- Shane (1953). Alan Ladd's Shane may have the capacity for violence that ultimately saves the homesteading Starretts from the ranchers, but it is his quiet determination to contribute to the family--symbolized by the stump finally uprooted by Joe Starrett with Shane's help--that makes little Joey's final pleas so devestating.
- The Far Country (1954). The best of the Anthony Mann/James Stewart Westerns, Country features one of Stewart's darker, post-WWII roles and another memorable supporting role for Walter Brennan. The Yukon gold-rush setting, with its glaciers and freezing streams, reminds us that lawless frontiers were up north too.
- The Searchers (1956). John Ford's unflattering portrait of what today might be termed a sociopath, The Searchers follows Ethan Edwards, a man whose years-long quest to find his nieces, kidnapped by Indians, alienates him emotionally from everyone he once loved and eventually destroys his very humanity.
- McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971). I've always found the "Mrs. Miller" part of the film the more fascinating one, as Julie Christie gives a heartbreaking performance, culminating in scenes of her opiating herself into oblivion as she knows McCabe has gone off to his death.
- Jeremiah Johnson (1972). The last third of the film, with Robert Redford's Johnson becoming the vengeful "Crow Killer," has always left me a little cold, but the first two-thirds is a small, quiet drama of a disillusioned man slowly healed by his new family among some of the most beautiful scenery I've seen in a film. When someone mentions this movie, my first thoughts are always of a small cabin nestled in the snow-covered Rockies.
- Stagecoach (1939). Stagecoach is much more optimistic than most later Westerns, implying that even the outcasts can find community with one another, but I tend to believe that hope here, as John Wayne, like his Ringo Kid, is so fresh-faced and good-hearted. Neither he nor John Ford knew what tough stories would need to be told in the years ahead.
- The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1967). The best of the "Man With No Name" trilogy, Clint Eastwood's pragmatist is as much a delight to our cynical age as it must have been a shock to those of an earlier time. The Man With No Name apparently learned his disregard for codes and morals during his experiences in the Civil War, laying waste to that other hotbed of cherished, chivalric myth as an added bonus.
- The Man from Laramie (1955). Another Anthony Mann/James Stewart film, Laramie anticipates by a year The Searchers' unflinching exploration of what a violent obsession with pride and retribution can do a person's character, even if Mann's film ends on a much less nihilistic note.
- Unforgiven (1992). Clint Eastwood's film is often cited as an elegy and apology for the gunfighter, maybe for the Western genre as a whole, and this tone of knowing sadness gives Unforgiven a softer, more compassionate feel than the Revisionist Westerns of the early seventies, which were at times too eager to mercilessly rip into the mythology of the West. Eastwood's grizzled Bill Munny seems so much like The Ringo Kid fifty years and too much death later.
- My Darling Clementine (1946)/Tombstone (1993). The more I think about these two films, the more I am convinced they belong together. Henry Fonda and Kurt Russell are both the right type of actor to portray the stoic-until-pushed-too-far Wyatt Earp, and Victor Mature and Val Kilmer both tear into Doc Holiday with relish. Clementine may be more thoughtful, with the wonderful dance scene commenting on the desirability of community, but Tombstone is a throwback to the classic age of Westerns: it is a "B" movie whose economy and passion made it stand out in a sea of lumbering, mostly sub-par Revisionist "Revisionist Westerns."
- Bad Day at Black Rock (1955).
- Once Upon a Time in the West (1968).
- High Noon (1952). I know High Noon is seen as a commentary on the "Red Scare" of the 1950s, but it is about more than just the cowardice of the townspeople to stand up and do the right thing; like 1941's Sergeant York (another Gary Cooper role), it asks tough questions about the right use of violence in and by a nation whose culture is often torn between the seductions of power and security, and the ideals of Christianity. Does Grace Kelly's Quaker wife pose valid objections, just as her sect has traditionally been a conscience for our nation? Does the need for protection and stability justify the deaths of the outlaws? Can Cooper ever feel at peace in his attempts at a balance? Is this film more relevant than ever?
- The Ox Bow Incident (1942). I may be way off base here, but in the midst of the intense lynching scenes and Henry Fonda's conflicts over what to do, is there a subtext of closeted homosexuality in Col. Tetley and his son--"Are you afraid people will find a weakness in you they'll whisper about"?
- Wild Bill (1995). Walter Hill is a somewhat overlooked director; he probably would have fit in better during the studio system days, as his movies are lean and tough. Wild Bill at first seems to glory in the mythmaking that newer Westerns had left behind, but when Jeff Bridges' Hickock is shot in the back as he's trying to straighten out all the exagerated stories his friends are telling about him, it becomes clear what Hill was saying: the myths didn't begin after the closing of the frontier; they were poisoning the West even at the time.
- The Magnificent Seven (1960).
- The Missouri Breaks (1976). Infamous for the way in which Marlon Brando turned his character into an absurd and distracting sideshow, foreshadowing his behavior on Apocalypse Now, Breaks still manages to overcome the spectacle of Brando in a dress and bonnet and to examine the way the veneer of civilization is so easily worn away on the frontier. The film opens with cattle baron Braxton presiding over the lynching of a rustler while the people of the nearby town--men, women, and children boisterously singing "Oh Susanna"--come out to picnic and watch; Braxton then heads home to settle in with his volume of Tristam Shandy and explains to his daughter that it is precisely his respect for law and order that causes him to take it into his own hands. Enter Brando's Lee Clayton, a "regulator" hired by Braxton to track down and kill the rest of the rustlers. Clayton may be bizarre, what with his dress and bonnet, Scottish burr, improvised throwing stars, and bird-watching book, but the cold, mechanical way he kills men--from long range, staring through a powerful scope attached to his rifle--still chills, echoing the disturbing detachment of the sniper in Bogdanovish's Targets. Jack Nicholson's Tom Logan, the head of the rustlers, embodies the opposite; rather than distance, he embraces closeness, both physical (he uses a knife rather than rifle) and emotional (his affair with Braxton's daughter is the only true human connection the film gives us). Logan and Clayton's conflict, with the specter of Braxton ever present, raises the unsettling question: who is law and who is outlaw?
- Major Dundee (1965). Peckinpah’s third film, and a precursor to The Wild Bunch, Dundee follows a ragtag bunch of soldiers and irregulars, led by disgraced Civil War officer Dundee, crossing the Mexican border, getting involved with the corrupt and European-dominated Mexican government, and finding kinship with the oppressed peasants. Charlton Heston, reined in to good effect as Dundee, and Richard Harris, a powerhouse as a POW Confederate cavalryman, carry Peckinpah’s odd yet strangely optimistic vision of America as this group of Union men, “Southerners, criminals, and Negroes” overcome distrust and unease to become a formidable foe for the polished French lancers who try to cut off their escape back to the U.S.