22 February 2011

So You Want to Start Watching Westerns, an Introduction

So You Want to Start Watching _______is an occasional feature here at Riku Writes. It is a guide to anyone unfamiliar with a particular star, director, genre, or time period in films. After a brief introduction, I will provide a sampling of films to watch. Although I will always strive to include the best possible films for each chapter in the series, I will also look to present representative work. I'll say a little bit about each film, all of which will be provided in chronological order. This is the third of the series. In the first I provided an introduction to the films of Humphrey Bogart the second was an intro to screwball comedies and in the third I introduced films of the 1970s.

Howdy Pardner. Y'all new to this here genre? No need to saddle up or tote your shootin iron, just mosey on over to yer Netflix queue or rustle up a DVD from the local livery stable or saloon.

Westerns, as the following list will help prove, span the entire history of cinema. Like any other genre there are within it classics, stinkers and the utterly average. A Western is generally agreed to be a story set in the area that constitutes the present day U.S. Usually from west of the Appalachians to east of the Sierra Nevadas. Sometimes spilling south into Mexico and north into Canada. The time period depicted is usually between Lewis & Clark (1806) and the end of WWI (1918), though most are in the post Civil War pre 20th century period.

Because there are a seemingly infinite number of Westerns that have basic stories of good guys and bad guys that are plainly told, the Western has gotten a bad rap with many snooty types like yours truly. Except yours truly appreciates movies of all stripes so long as they're good -- and boy howdy they's some Westerns that are doozies.

Westerns make for good cinema in large part because a director can paint his story across a grand canvass. Most good Westerns embody some aspects of the great length and breadth that was the America West of bygone times. While the wildness of the wild west has been greatly exaggerated, there was a fair amount of colorful outlaws (colorful so long as you didn't cross their paths) and heroic figures. And the west really did feature all manner of what we call characters. Odd, quirky, "touched" and sadistic. There was also the added element of the Native tribes who, as you may well know, where there first. For the most part they were done dirty in Westerns for the first 70 or so years of films. Stereotypical "ugh" spouting savages were convenient villains and foils. There has been a corrective to that over the years and depicting Native tribes in a more sympathetic light has added dimension to their stories and thus to the genre. Truly, the West is a setting that practically begs for myth making.

I set myself the ridiculous challenge of coming up with a starter set of only ten. I failed. Here are 12 films to wet your appetite. This is not a compilation of the greatest Westerns ever made nor a list of my favorites. This is designed to give the novice a broad sample of what's out there. I've attempted to  spread the choices out to represent various time periods in film (over 100 years) with a variety of directors and stars. This meant the inclusion of only two John Ford films on the list. He was the grand master of the genre. John Wayne also makes only two appearances.

I list plenty of other choices at the conclusion of this writing.

The Great Train Robbery (1903). Why not start at the beginning with a western made when the west was still wild? It was innovative, influential but only 12 minutes long. Still a fun film, not to mention a relic from the past.

The Big Trail (1930). A fairly early talkie and a much neglected film that finally was masterfully restored on DVD three years ago. Raoul Walsh directed this epic story of a wagon train on the Oregon Trail. It is replete with the requisite good guys, bad guys and romance. It was shot in wide screen well ahead of its time. This is a great Western to start with, containing, as it does, all the classic elements, including John Wayne.

Stagecoach (1939). The film that brought the Western back into fashion and helped revolutionize film making in the process. Orson Welles watched it repeatedly as he prepared to make a little film called Citizen Kane (1941). Ford masterfully contrasts the claustrophobic interiors of the stagecoach and other dwellings, with the wide open spaces.

The Westerner (1940). Yup, Even William Wyler directed a Western. Course it didn't hurt none that he had Gary Cooper and Walter Brennan in the cast, two old and future hands at Cow Poke stories. This is the best of the many cinematic tellings of the story of Jude Roy Bean, with Brennan playing the ole cuss.

Westward the Women (1951). Women as western heroes? Yup. From director William Wellman comes the story about a wagon train of women and one fella (Robert Taylor) making their way west to marry up with some lonely settlers. It's chock full of adventure and human drama. Also features fine performances from a relatively anonymous cast, Taylor aside. If you ain't a seen it, do so, pronto.

The Naked Spur (1953). James Stewart as you've never seen him before. Or rarely anyway. He's one tough, borderline mean hombre, pushed by desperation to extrememe measures. Robert Ryan is the real bad guy here (there's someone who could really play mean) and Stewart wants to bring him in for the reward. He just might get the scrumptious Janet Leigh as a boobie prize (watch it!)

The Searchers (1956). Is this the best Western ever made or is Stagecoach? I'll call it a toss up. John Ford directed both. This is a beautifully told story with many layers. And it includes Wayne's best performance. For more on this masterpiece, see this post of mine from two years ago.

Ride the High Country (1962). Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott were veterans of Westerns when they co-starred in this Sam Peckinpah directed film. It seems at first a rescue story (Mariette Hartley is the damsel in distress) but turns into a morality tale. Gorgeous scenery and two leads at the essentially finishing their careers playing men finishing their careers.

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). Will wonders never cease, Henry Fonda playing a low down dirty snake of a bad guy. In a spagehetti western no less. The director was Sergio Leone who was a master of the Pasta Oater. Fonda was an actor first and so had no trouble convincing audiences he was a rat. Charles Bronson is the hero.

McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971). Yes there's even a Western film with 1970's cinema sensibilities and it was directed by the iconclastic Robert Altman and starred, of all people, Warren Beatty. I told you that Westerns come in all shapes and sizes. Beatty is the McCabe of the title and the delicious Julie Christie is Mrs. Miller. At the very least its an intersesting Western and to many its superb film making.

Dances With Wolves (1990). If it hadn't gone an beaten out the vastly superior Goodfellas for the best picture Oscar, this sprawling Western from Kevin Costner wouldn't suffer the bad rap that plagues it today. It's got action, romance, wide vistas and the "Indians" as good guys. I unashamedly showed it as part of my US History curriculum for the zillion years I taught and the young us loved it. So did I.

True Grit (2010). Hokey smokes even the Coen Brothers made a Western.  And by gum they did a bang up job. It's a classic revenge story. Jeff Bridges is an ideal old west crumudgeon lawman and Haillee Steinfeld adds a twist as the super precocious teen seeking justice for Pa's murder. They didn't make Westerns like they used to it, until of all people, the Coens came along. Let's hope it brings the genre roaring back.

Lookey here for what other Westerns are worth a look or 12. Red River (1948), Shane (1953), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), The Wild Bunch (1969), Little Big Man (1970), The Iron Horse (1924), The Good the Bad and the Ugly (1966), The Man From Laramie (1955), The Ox Bow Incident (1943), My Darling Clementine (1946), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), Dodge City (1939), Destry Rides Again (1939), Winchester 73 (1950),  Unforgiven (1992), High Noon (1952), Fort Apache (1948),The Long Riders (1980) and a bunch of others that I'm sure I'll catch hell for leavin' out.


R. D. Finch said...

A great list--a perfect introductory sampler. I'm not a fan of all of these, but they do present a good overview of the genre in all its variations. It does actually contain some of my very favorite Westerns as well as the one that first opened this reformed snob's eyes to the glories of the genre, "Stagecoach." I especially like the inclusion of "Westward the Women." I saw it a few months ago, not expecting a lot, and loved it.

Risto said...

What, no mention of Rio Bravo? That just makes me angry. I would have also mentioned Johnny Guitar as an example of how different westerns can be.

Abbott Daimler said...

Magnificent Seven? El Dorado? Hang em High? You didn't mention them. Did you just search IMDB for top Westerns?
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Unforgiven are probably the two best Westerns ever made, and you put them in the epilogue?
This is a great list from someone who doesn't watch Westerns.

Richard Hourula said...

Thanks Abbott. Considering the fact that I've never seen a Western in my life I was pretty proud of this list.
And by the way, that was a pretty good comment you made for someone without a hint of class or finesse.

JimZipCode said...

Outlaw Josey Wales is probably the greatest 70s Western, and one of the greatest of all time. Should at least merit an honorable mention.

Another great 70s Western is Jeremiah Johnson, with Robert Redford.

JimZipCode said...

Outlaw Josey Wales is probably the geatest 70s Western, and one of the greatest of all time. Deserves at least an honorably mention.

Another great 70s Western, vastly underrated, is Jeremiah Johnson with Robert Redford.

You mention Naked Spur and Winchester '73. I would probably switch them, but whatever. Another of the Anthony Mann - Jimmy Stewart collaborations might be even better, The Far Country (1954) with the ageless Walter Brennan.