To complete the trilogy begun by James with horror and sci-fi, and ahead of the holiday season, when they will all doubtless be shown *somewhere* on the glass teat, our man Cillian offers his very own rootin’, tootin’ top ten.
The Western is something of a maligned genre these days, figured as a kind of cinematic relic from a bygone era, just Cowboys and Indians malarkey. There is some truth in this, as anyone who has had to sit through one of the endless parade of Red-menace-and-cavalry-charge oaters that Hollywood churned out since the early days of the silents.
But the genre – maybe the one, true, American genre – can be and has been about much more than simple Boys Own adventure yarns providing, through simple, recurring plots, not just shootouts and cattle stampedes, but occasional moralizing and a glimpse into contemporary America through its attitudes to such thing as the Native Americans (or ‘Injuns’, as they were habitually called in John Ford films) because, as with other genres, the western has changed dramatically over the years. From the early ‘Cowboys and Indians’ antics of the 1930s and 40s, to the tougher, more psychological films of the 1950s and early 60s, to the late 60s and into the 70s, where the Europeans added their own spin on the genre, and US directors like Sam Peckinpah and Arthur Penn took it apart so that it never really recovered, the Western has had a long, evolving role as cinema’s prime storytelling form.
Here, then, is my own top ten, from the traditional to the deconstructionist – in no particular order, apart from chronological.
Although Cimarron had won the Best Picture Oscar in 1931, the Western never really gained respectability until John Ford, aided by members of his stock company John Carradine, Thomas Mitchell, Andy Devine and a little-known B-movie actor called John Wayne. They took on this taught, simple tale of a group of passengers, including a hooker, inebriate doctor and wanted outlaw, taking a trip through inhospitable Monument Valley and facing the ever-present threat of Indian hordes, which is somewhat off-putting for modern sensibilities. The performances, pace and direction make it one of the early standouts of the genre, and it made a star out of Wayne, who is sensationally introduced in one of the Western’s most iconic moments.
My Darling Clementine (1946)
Of all the versions of the famed gunfight at the OK Corral, this is probably the least accurate, but easily the most enjoyable. When the director, John Ford, was working in silents, Wyatt Earp was prone to turning up on movie sets, getting drunk with the extras and spinning a few yarns, all of which were gobbled up by Mr ‘Print The Legend’, who used them as the basis for this classic, which stars Henry Fonda as Earp, the lawman forced out of retirement to rid Tombstone of the grip of the malicious Clanton clan. The acting is superb, from Fonda to Walter Brennan as the Clanton patriarch, a role he would later parody in Support Your Local Sheriff (1969), but both have their thunder stolen by Victor Mature, hitherto not known as a great actor, as the consumptive Doc Holliday.
The Gunfighter (1950)
A miscast Gregory Peck stars as Jimmy Ringo, a man famed as the best gunfighter around but who, when he rides into town, just wants to win back the love of his life and settle down. The only problem is, everyone wants to be the one to can lay claim to being the “man who shot Jimmy Ringo”, and the legendary status that comes with it. Simple, yet gripping.
High Noon (1952)
High Noon is really a film about Hollywood or, more specifically, the Blacklist. Gary Cooper stars as newly married Sheriff Will Kane, who decides to stand tall against notorious outlaw Ben Miller, riding into town on the noon train. Abandoned by the townspeople, Kane must face the threat alone. A bitter film, which portrays society as rotten from top to bottom – screenwriter Carl Foreman, perhaps unsurprisingly, saw himself persecuted by the House of UnAmerican Activities Committee soon after. Interestingly, Cooper later attributed his stoic, heroically solid performance to a bout of piles.
Like Jimmy Ringo in The Gunfighter, the eponymous hero just wants to settle down. As retired gunfighter Shane, Alan Ladd gives his most iconic performance, as the man who stirs sexual tension between the couple who charitably take the itinerant stranger into their home. But when trouble breaks out between the settlers (or ‘sodbusters’) and local big cattle ranchers, Shane must pick up the guns once more. The finale, in which Shane rides out of town to the bewilderment of the couple’s young son, is one of the Western’s most heartbreaking moments.
The Searchers (1956)
When Comanches kidnap young Debbie Edwards her uncle Ethan, burdened with a pathological hatred of Indians and his nephew martin, himself part-Indian, spend years scouring the land to find her. But tensions between the two emerge when Ethan’s true motive is revealed; to him, after being deflowered by a Comanche, she is better off dead. If in Stagecoach John Ford gave John Wayne his most iconic entrance, here he gives him his (and the genre’s) most memorable exits – simply one of the greatest shots in all cinema.
Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
Although having a long association with the genre, Henry Fonda played only one Western baddie, in this, Sergio Leone’s epic, operatic masterpiece. As cold, blue-eyed killer Frank, Fonda excels as the rail magnate who comes into conflict with widow Claudia Cardinale, gunfighter Jason Robards and mysterious harmonica-playing Charles Bronson, who go up against the robber-barons in this examination of the capitalistic underbelly of the ‘civilization’ of the American west.
The Wild Bunch (1969)
Set in 1913 and, like the same year’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, this is all about ‘them days is over’, as William Holden’s gang of outlaws try and stay one ride ahead of the posse, now featuring one of their old crew. Holden is magnificent, playing the archetypal Sam Peckinpah hero, Pike Bishop, the man who slowly comes to realize that his life has been a betrayal of his firmly held principals, and who leads the Bunch to a symbolic death in a hail of Mexican gunfire.
Bad Company (1972)
Screenwriters Robert Benton and David Newman followed up Bonnie and Clyde (1967) with the Western curio There Was a Crooked Man (1970), starring Kirk Douglas and Henry Fonda, which sought to undermine a few narrative conventions. Perhaps owing to the ham-fisted direction of Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Benton himself took the reigns for the pair’s second stab at the Western. Like Robert Aldrich’s Ulzana’s Raid, made the same year, Bad Company is infused with contemporary attitudes and politics, most notably towards the draft, but can be seen as a riff on Oliver Twist, as innocent Barry Brown falls in with a young gang of thieves and vagabonds led by Jeff Bridges. The standout scene, the shootout in the woods, captures all the fear and confusion of the occasion, and stands as an antidote to all those ‘this town ain’t big enough for the both of us’ confrontations that usually occur in the genre.
The Shootist (1976)
John Wayne was dying when he made this film, the tale of a terminally ill, retired gunfighter who, rather than face a drawn-out and painful death, goads an old enemy into a final, fatal shootout. Don Siegel’s film, the credit sequence of which features a montage of old Wayne gunplay, is filled with an overwhelming sense of vanishing time, heightened by the appearances of stars (James Stewart, Lauren Bacall, John Carradine), whose own time seemed to be gone also as Hollywood changed, and the Western with it.