Clint Eastwood made his reputation playing the strong silent type, the cowboy-without-a-name type, the mysterious stranger who rides alone and never misses type. With Unforgiven, Eastwood showed us the reality behind the myth. Even an outlaw can fall in love, settle down and get old. Bill Munny is all of us when we look back to an earlier period in our life as if we were looking at another person.
9. The Man from Laramie
Jimmy Stewart acted in a lot of westerns but it was only Anthony Mann who could show him as a killer and make it believable. In The Man from Laramie he plays a stranger in town who’s presence is less than welcome. It’s a great story about how towns existed like bubbles in the Wild West and what happened when someone popped them.
8. Rio Bravo
High Noon was an artistic protest of the McCarthy era blacklists in Hollywood. Rio Bravo was Howard Hawks’ protest of High Noon. John Wayne plays a sheriff who assembles a rag tag team to keep a prisoner behind bars, a difficult task with his brother and his gang on their way and ready for violence. This movie is gritty and intense and captures everything beautiful about the genre, mainly, that the west was a young region that had to deal with growing pains before it could really blossom.
7. 3:10 to Yuma (2007)
By 2007 the western genre had all but disappeared. When 3:10 to Yuma was released, it showed audiences what we were missing. The wild was not that different from gangster infested urban centers. The characters in Goodfellas have a lot in common with horse riding outlaws. The only difference is that in the desert, no one can hear you scream. This movie shows us how scary it is to be desperate in the middle of nowhere. Dan Evans, played by Christian Bale, needs to save his farm because he has nothing else.
Options are not just limited in the west, they’re non-existent. He can’t just start driving a cab to help ends meet. A person can’t just pick up and find new housing in the cheaper part of town. When he agrees to transfer Ben Wade, the prisoner played by Russell Crowe, to the train station, he agrees to risk his life to secure his family’s future. This movie is a portrayal of the lengths individuals in the region had to go to in order just to survive. They also wouldn’t have it any other way because the reward was a piece of land and that meant everything in the world.
6. The Searchers
The Searchers is about hate and obsession and one of the greatest epics to take place in the west. The movie follows Ethan Edwards, played by John Wayne as a vicious Civil War veteran masquerading a vendetta against the Comanche as a rescue mission for his niece, kidnapped as a child by the tribe. He’s not looking to save his niece, he’s looking to kill his enemy and his enemy is looking to kill him. In the end there’s just a lot of loss and that was, unfortunately, a reality in the region.
5. True Grit (2010)
The Coen brothers tell a story about a girl looking to avenge her father’s murder, and an aging U.S. Marshal living to die. Jeff Bridges plays Rooster Cogburn and creates a character that will forever stay in your mind. While Mattie Ross, the young girl played by Hailee Steinfeld, is dead set on what she wants in life, Cogburn it seems has long retired from “wanting” anything. He simply lives on repeat. The combination of the two is a sad reminder of how hard life can be and how it can beat so much out of a person. Cogburn isn’t loathsome, he’s sad.
The one that started it all. When John Ford made Stagecoach he established the genre as important and worthy of artistic interpretation. The story of a stagecoach, filled with a collection of people that for the first and last time will be that close to each other, travelling through dangerous territory, defines everything that made the wild west unique from say, New York City. The excitement doesn’t just lie in whether or not they’ll all make it to their destination in one piece, but where is it they actually want to go in life and is it feasible considering their flaws. It’s an exciting movie and sheds light on the type of people who fled the big cities as the country first expanded. If not the reality, than at least the fantastic myth of it all.
3. The Wild Bunch
Sam Peckinpah showed us the Wild West we often described when watching other westerns. Violent, ruthless, and bloody. The difference is, those words took on a different meaning when The Wild Bunch came out, making everything before it a tame caricature. Outlaws live outside of the law and in the west, the law’s power was questionable. As towns developed and populations grew, the culture was sure to change and this movie captures a group of murdering thieves as they try to hold on to a quickly dying way of life. Shall We Gather at the River will never be the same.
2. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
It took an Italian director and supporting cast of Spaniards to show us what a western should look and feel like. Sergio Leone created a masterpiece, an epic of how America grew up in spite of the greed and the violence that fueled it. This movie is a story about three individuals who are all after the same buried gold and need to navigate each other, the wild west, and the Civil War to get it. It captures desperation and how that emotion mixed with a region where opportunity existed if you were willing to break the law and at times commit murder.
1. McCabe and Mrs. Miller
The Wild West is an outcome of Manifest Destiny. The driving force behind the latter, much like the driving force behind most of what happens in this world, was money. McCabe and Mrs. Miller perfectly captures how America gave regular people, uncomplicated people, the chance to make something of themselves. It also showed how freedom spawns new obstacles, at times just as finite as those found in a totalitarian regime. John McCabe, played by Warren Beatty, builds an empire. He does this in partnership with Constance Miller, a madam and prostitute played by Julie Christie. I don’t know if it was by design, but it’s interesting to see the dynamic of the native with the idea in McCabe and the immigrant with the knowhow in Miller. Together they build an empire, and quickly learn what a real empire is when they come up against it.
Watch for The Dirty Kind
from Executive Producer Michael Madsen
coming in 2019