Favorite Westerns (Some Guilty, Some Otherwise)

  • High Noon
  • Shane
  • The Searchers
  • Red River
  • Rio Bravo
  • The Wild Bunch
  • Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (Director's Cut)
  • Silverado
  • Outlaw Josie Wales
  • Shootout at the OK Corral
  • Tombstone
  • Unforgiven
  • Once Upon a Time in the West
  • The Manificent Seven
Author Comments: 

While the genre itself is currently out of vogue (and some would claim politically incorrect) I still manage to catch one of these gems on the cable at least every other month. If these are guilty pleasures then I must throw myself on the mercy of the court of public opinion. I love them and probably always will. Some films listed are truly classics that just happen to be westerns (see High Noon). Some are just good stories, and some are just pure and simple escapism. Ok so I bowed to pressure.

How 'bout Unforgiven?

Yes, sk, how about UNFORGIVEN? Apart from its other qualities, it has one of the best screenplays ever written for a western. On the surface is the story of William Munny, but underneath is a fascinating moral/political sub-text. I'd be happy to give you and/or Jim my interpretation of it, if either of you are interested.

Unforgiven was a great film. For the reasons Bertie mentioned (and of course I would be interested in your interpretaion of the film) and because the weaponry and clothing were authentic. I don't know why I didn't like it as well as the films listed, but I didn't. Having said that I find myself watching the film every time one of the cable channels shows it. Since both of you liked UNFORGIVEN so much let me direct you to a momentous film that has a similar theme, THE WILD BUNCH. This is Sam Peckinpaugh's best work. His use of slow motion, stylized violence set the standard for all action adventure films that followed. Also a word about the SEARCHERS. This film boasts a youngish John Wayne before he became a social icon. The recurring theme of hate, revenge, and determination to "save" a captured settler girl is outstanding in all aspects. Perhaps some current film makers could benefit by watching it.

Okay, you asked for it.

UNFORGIVEN has two main themes: (1) the moral question of when, if ever, it is right to kill a human being, and (2) the political question of how the state (= the thing run by government) ought to be structured. These themes are best illustrated by sorting the characters in the movie into three groups (a) the gunmen, (b) the women, and (c) the writer.

(1) The Moral Dimension

(a) The Gunmen

'English Bob' [Richard Harris] is a professional assassin: the railroad pays him to kill its enemies, mainly indians.

'Little Bill' [Gene Hackman] is a sadistic bully who ultimately depends on his henchmen to justify his sadism with a sense of his worth to the community. He tortures and kills Ned Logan [Morgan Freeman] in the line of his 'duty' as sheriff of Big Whisky. He really believes this justification: his last words are, "I don't deserve to die like this."

'William Munney' [Clint Eastwood] is a reformed killer. It is his role as father of motherless children that draws him into a one-off paid assassination of the cowboys who mutilated the whore. Ultimately he kills Little Bill and his henchmen, and Skinny the whoremaster, out of a sense of moral outrage over the death of his friend, Ned Logan.

'The Schofield Kid' - is enthusiastic about killing, until he actually does it. He suffers the pangs of guilt, and agonises over his justification for killing: "I guess he had it coming." Munney's reply, "We've all got it coming," is disturbingly ambiguous.

'Ned Logan' - finds that, despite the bonds of friendship, he no longer has the stomach for killing. Is his fate deserved? Another difficult moral question.

(b) The Women

Are the whores justified in putting a price on the heads of the two cowboys? Little Bill, in his role as upholder of the law, frowns on their action. Ironically, the whore who was mutilated is the least enthusiastic about having them killed.

Munney's dead wife represents moral reform. The movie begins and ends with narration about her reforming influence on him, and her moral insight into his character.

Sally, Ned Logan's Indian wife, represents stoical acceptance of the harshness of life.

(c) The Writer

Is the writer telling the story? We see him switch allegiance from English Bob to Little Bill; does he finally switch allegiance to William Munney?

The moral of the story is that character (or virtue, or the disposition to act in certain ways in certain situations) will out. Munney happens to be good at killing in gunfights, that's his virtue. This time he kills someone who did deserve to "die like this".

(2) The Political Dimension

(a) The Gunmen

English Bob represents the elitist form of statism known as monarchism. (Statism is the general position that we should live under a state rather than not. The 'not' position is anarchism.) He suggests to the Americans that they would have no problem with political assassins if their state was headed by a king or queen. "One isn't that quick to shoot a king...[but] why not shoot a president?"

Little Bill represents the democratic form of statism known as republicanism. Republicans and monarchists are enemies. Little Bill beats and humiliates English Bob in public and runs him out of town. But note that LB is a poor builder: the roof of his house leaks. No doubt this is symbolic.

Munney, Logan, and The Schofield Kid represent individualism bordering on anarchism: they don't live in towns and so tend to make their own law, when they think about law at all. They depend on themselves and their tried and true friends. Anarchists and statists are enemies.

So does the movie argue for anarchism - since the statists are defeated? Perhaps, but the town, and the whores, and the corrupting power of money, remain.

So there it is. Heaps of food for thought. Not just another western.

By the way, sk, I approve of all the movies on your list. SHANE and THE SEARCHERS, especially, are real works of cinematic art.

One of my favorite themes in the film is the study of forgiveness. Is Clint's character doomed to the film's ending because of his failure to find forgiveness, either from an other source or himself?


Shalom, y'all!

L. Bangs

OK, I asked for it. I didn't really see the political implications of the film and to be honest with you I'm not sure I agree with your conclusions although they were admirably argued. The introduction of the English Bob character was developed to serve as a paradox to Eastwood's Munny. After all English Bob & Munny had reputations as desporados of the first order, "assasins" as Hackman termed them. English Bob turned out to be a coward (witness the jailhouse scene) while Munny was anything but. Little Bill represented order and acted as though his decision was in fact law. He was outraged with the idea that Munny "shot an unarmed man" even though he had just beaten one to death. Therefore his line about "not deserving to die like this" was directed to the concept that anything he did was to preserve order and could not be concieved as wrong.
The morality issue is more convoluted, but basically hinges on three human fralities as old as Greek Tragedy. 1. The futility of Revenge. The whores hired an assasin to kill the cowboys and brought down ruin on the whole town. Likewise Eastwood's Munny reverted to his violent ways to revenge his friend Ned. 2. The struggle of aging men to escape their violent youth. Ned was able to do this but ultimately Munny was not. 3. The degree to which men can devalue human life and the personal consequences they must suffer for it.
I felt that one simple change in the ending of the film would have made it much more effective. Rather than a post-script slide indicating Munny lived to a ripe old age, I would have preferred to read that he had died in a hold-up attempt (or better yet hanged for murder)a few years later. I agree that SHANE is a classic. It may have the best ending of any western I have ever seen.

You've given me additional insights into the movie. Much thanks. From what you've said, I don't think we have any major disagreements about it. I won't press you to add it to your list, since it is a list of favorites and favorites are personal.

Btw, I hope you're hard at work on that list of favorite sf stories - I look forward to telling you what you should add to it :-D

You are right. Both of us (and of course, jim) think very highly of UNFORGIVEN. I always try to list favorites as opposed to best lists. My motivation for this lies in my libertarian nature. I am uncomfortable pretending my tastes are any thing but my tastes. I am still considering the sf ss list.

Be careful using philosophical terms like 'libertarian' around me; I'm likely to try and drag you into a discussion about it. Have you heard of the libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick? His famous book on the subject is ANARCHY, STATE, AND UTOPIA.

Although I enjoy our discussions I refuse to rise to that bait. But neither you nor jim commented on THE WILD BUNCH. I was surprised.

<CRINGE>I haven't seen The Wild Bunch.</CRINGE>

I have seen TWB, but it was a long time ago. I should probably see it again. I recall that it set a fashion for slo-mo violence in movies that quickly became a cliche, and that it was very long. No doubt that's not all it should be remembered for. My favorite Peckinpah movie is THE GETAWAY - which, come to think of it, I should probably add to my "Guilty Pleasures" list.

The firebrand in me offers up this link. :)

Ah...Jim...you don't expect either sk or myself to actually wade through that mega-page, do you? And shame on you for trying to provoke sk that way;-) As for me, I neither confirm nor deny that I'm a libertarian.

Sorry for not offering up my own analysis until now. In the face of such thorough and intelligent deconstruction, I am embarrassed by the simplicity of my appreciation for Unforgiven. In short, I thought it was a marvelous depiction of the darkness inherent to violence. In the world of Unforgiven there is no instance of heroic or glorified violence. And those that indulge in violence and murder are obviously tainted by it. I found it refreshing, if depressing. While being a tiny minority, there have been plenty of movies that depict violence without glorifying it, but none (that I can think of) that have so well depicted the damage that violence does to oneself.

And I thought all involved acted the hell out of that movie.

Well put. Maybe I will add the film to my list.

I am quite certain that I fit no philosophical profile, libertarian or otherwise. As I pointed out to Bertie I won't rise to that bait. What I meant by my statement was that while I am perfectly capable of determining what I do and do not like, I would be uncomfortable pretending that I am qualified to select the "best".

Yeah, I usually prefer "favorite" lists over "best" lists as well.

sk, here's a little gift for you.

Thank you Bertie for the review link. I should have made clear that I preferred the directors cut as I did with PAT GARRETT & BTK. For some reason Peckinpah films were over edited. When I first saw TWB (and yes it was at the theater) I thought it was an outstanding film. The director's cut just made it more outstanding. PAT GARRETT on the other hand was good (Dylan's soundtrack is haunting) but was certainly not a classic. When I saw the director's cut several years later I understood Garrett's motivation, and have termed the film classic at least to me.

sk, if you've explored the "mega-page of movie lists" link I posted on the home page (which is where that review link came from), then you'll have seen how many people agree with you that TWB is one of the greats - it's on quite a few of the lists.

Btw, forgive my inquisitiveness, but are you going to become a TL editor?

You are forgiven. Yes, I have agreed to become an editor. Time constraints have kept me from making any postings but I hope to soon.

Excellent news! I look forward to your postings. Next time Jim's away, you and I could try pulling a coup and take over this place...if only [That Devil - delete all between brackets] dear old Jim hadn't cobbled together the "what people are saying" function - now nothing's private around here.

It's true; I see all. You should definitely plan your coup via e-mail. :-)

Why bother. jim is willing to allow to indulge our foolishness

And here's a little gift for me and Jim.

I really like most of those titles, however, 4 of my top 10 would definitely include: My Darling Clementine, Destry Rides Again, Stagecoach, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.


All good choices. I especially liked Liberty Valance. I think it was the first time John Wayne ever referred to anyone as "pilgram". Clementine was a decent (albeit revisionist) treatment of the Earp legend. Stagecoach was a great film and changed westerns (for the better I think) forever. I am not that great a fan of Destry, but I recognize it as a good film. Care to weigh in on the Unforgiven or Wild Bunch discussions?

Wow, are read your discussion with bertie about Unforgiven and I remember liking the movie overall and loving the ending, especially the disposition of Munny throughout the climax and immediately after, but you both have provided additional perspectives so I need to rent the DVD. As for Wild Bunch, this is another film I need to view again. I took a film class in college and the professor had us watch Pat Garrett, so even though I enjoyed both Getaway, Straw Dogs, and Wild Bunch, I always think of Pat Garrett first when Peckinpah is mentioned.

Two of my favorite movies are on this list, Unforgiven and The Wild Bunch. What I cannot understand is what everyone loves about the Searchers. I had a very hard time sitting through it and although it had some beautiful shots I found it totally unenjoyable. Please explain what I'm missing.

I'm not sure I can better the review at this site(compliments of fellow editor bertie). However I would like to point out the film admirably deals with the issue of racial hatred against a backdrop of 1956. This is probably John Ford's best effort and is certainly John Wayne's. The side issue of Jeffrey Hunter's guilt and sense of committment to his adopted family is skillfully underplayed. I consider this film along with High Noon & Shane as the absolute class of the 1950s westerns.

Finally, Once Upon a Time in the West is recognized! My goodness, that film haunts me. Sometimes, I hear that tortured, wailing harmonica and see the flashback of the lone man walking out of focus down that dusty plain, and I just remember how good films can be.

Shalom, y'all!

L. Bangs

OUAT also has the great scene where the gunman says to Charles Bronson, "Looks like we didn't bring enough horses." Bronson replies, "No, you brought two too many."

You shouldn't feel guilty about enjoying westerns. I will have to throw in my vote for One-Eyed Jacks. Marlon Brando took Stanley Kubrick's place as a director and also starred in the movie himself. Nothing too terribly intense about it, but I enjoy it.

I liked it too. Not too many westerns I didn't like. The guilty reference was made solely to differentiate between serious film and escapist film (although the distintion is often blurred).