Top 25 Western Movies
Below, you will find a frivolous list of “my” top 25 favorite Western Movies — all of which provided inspiration while writing my novel. Each entry in the list includes a comprehensive commentary/summary — but feel free to just scan all that. You’re welcome to add your own opinions, suggestions — or even your own list in the comments box at the bottom of the post.
#1 The Searchers (1956)
Based upon the 1954 novel of the same name by Alan Le May, The Searchers is the story of an over the hill Civil War vet who spends several years searching for his niece who has been abducted by Native Americans. The plot successfully examines racism toward the American Indian while also utilizing the Vista Vision camera to breathtaking effect. (My only complaint would be that opening shot in Monument Valley, which we are told is Texas!)
The American Film Institute named this one The Greatest American Western of all time in 2008. I can’t argue with that. It’s also #12 on the AFI’s list of the 100 Greatest Movies of All Time, and it was voted into the National Film Registry in 1989.
The story is similar enough to an actual 1836 historical incident (almost identical in fact,) that it is probable that the novelist derived much of his inspiration from it.
David Lean watched this film several times while prepping Lawrence of Arabia, and Steven Spielberg has stated that The Searchers is always one of the films he watches before he begins work on his next film.
#2 Stagecoach (1939)
John Ford’s first sound film after making uncountable silents and serials, is still a textbook example of economic storytelling. The first of several productions Ford would shoot in Monument Valley, Stagecoach was based upon a 1937 short story by Ernest Haycox called “The Stage to Lordsburg.” (Although there were reportedly other fiction sources which served as inspiration as well.)
The story centers on a group of stereotypical strangers who board a stagecoach headed through dangerous territory, inhabited by angry American Natives. Escorted through much of the story by the U.S. Calvary, they are joined early on by a fugitive known as The Ringo Kid, embodied by now legendary actor John Wayne. And this is pretty much where that legend started. In fact, the shot that introduces Wayne was so iconic, it literally skyrocketed him to superstar status overnight. Although this was not his first role, Stagecoach was thereafter referred to by the press as the movie that formally introduced John Wayne to the public.
The film uses the same dynamic of multiple character examination used by the equally successful Grand Hotel, in 1932. And it additionally exhibits many of the techniques and “isms” that Ford invented during his silent years making serials. All of which only add to a tight plot that moves at a brisk pace.
The famous stunt performed by Yakima Canutt, involving a man run over by a Stagecoach in a very dangerous manner, was repeated with rousing success by stuntman Terry Leonard in the film, Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Ford had made numerous films before this — so many in fact, that many are lost. And John Ford is today considered by many to be the most prolific director in cinema history.
Stagecoach was a massive success with the moviegoers and critics, and was nominated for several prestigious awards. Orson Welles admitted to watching it approximately 40 times while making Citizen Kane. And both Alfred Hitchcock and Akira Kurosawa each named Stagecoach as one of the films they greatly admired for it’s economic storytelling, and technical virtuoso.
#3 High Noon(1952)
So many writers have cited this film as a truly great example of perfect character examination in film, I wouldn’t know where to start. The film’s story is told in real time, hence the use of the clock. And its story centers on a town Marshall fated to face a group of killers he previously defended the town against, who got off on a legal technicality and are now gunning for revenge. The catch ? Due to the cowardliness of local residents, he’s on his own.
If you haven’t seen it, and it sounds a bit familiar, that’s because the story was regenerated in 1981 by writer/director Peter Hyams for his film, Outland. High Noon is also that film John McClane and Hans Gruber discuss via walkie talkies in the movie Die Hard.
“…well this time John Wayne does not walk off into the sunset with Grace Kelley!”
“That was Gary Cooper, asshole.”
Carl (The Guns of Navarone) Foreman wrote it while under scrutiny by (HUAC) The House Un-American Activities Committee, and channeled much of his frustration over their witch-hunt into his screenplay. Many have pointed out the allegory of people afraid to stand up for what they believe in, and for a long time, the film divided many people. Self-proclaimed anti-communists (typically conservatives) shunned it for many years. As late as 1971 John Wayne even labeled it, “The most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life,” in an infamous interview with Playboy magazine.
But as time passed and people began to question the utterly bizarre and misdirected grilling by HUAC and the blacklist in general — High Noon lost its controversial status. In time, several American Presidents found the film prescient enough to screen at The White House, including Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton.
The film won numerous Academy Awards but in a major upset, lost Best Picture to The Greatest Show on Earth. High Noon was selected for the National Film Registry in 1989, and the AFI ranked it #2 in their list of the ten greatest westerns ever made.
#4 The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
More compelling character study. This time with the unique twist of a wraparound narrative that involves an elderly U.S. Senator (James Stewart,) known for being the man who shot a notorious gunfighter named Liberty Valance. Upon returning to a small town for the funeral of an old friend (John Wayne,) Stewart is met by a reporter eager for an interview. And the newsman gets more than he expects when Stewart begins relating his remembrance of how he knew Wayne’s character, and all which that entails.
This is the film that originated the phrase, print the legend. It all started with the following line of dialogue: “This is the West, Sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” And in accordance, much of the film’s substructure is built on the notion that much of what we believe about “The West,” is nothing more than hearsay.
A few who worked on the film stated in interviews that it was a miserable experience due to director John Ford’s behavior. Sergio Leone named The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance as his favorite Ford film. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for best costume design. And the film was placed into the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 2007.
#5 My Darling Clementine (1946)
Henry Fonda plays Wyatt Earp in a dramatized study of the man, his family’s battles with criminals and corruption, and his relationship with the love of his life; here renamed Clementine, to further facilitate the purpose of the song in the movie.
It was based very loosely on the story of the street fight in Tombstone, Arizona, known popularly as The Gunfight at the OK Corral. But like so many other films, it has practically no connective tissue with the documented facts of that gunfight. And although it drew material from the book “Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshall, by Stuart Lake — a book publicized as being written “with” Wyatt Earp himself — it should be noted that Lake fictionalized most of Wyatt Earp’s life in his writing. This was also not the first film to use Lake’s material. There were entire scenes repeated from another previous incarnation, titled, Frontier Marshall. In fact, it doesn’t work to watch the film for only it’s historical accuracy, so don’t even try. A Fact Checker would get stressed out in ten minutes watching this thing.
But that’s not really why you’re watching. Featuring some of the most striking photographic compositions Ford would achieve in his entire career — with any Cinematographer — My Darling Clementine stands out as one of John Ford’s more distinctive works of pure cinema. Thanks partly to cinematographer Joseph MacDonald. It plays like Blade Runner in the old west meets a Terence Malick film. The pacing, the tone, the mood, the quality and purpose of the visuals, everything shouts cinema. And loudly.
Now for the bad news. When the film was screened the head of 20 Century Fox felt it was too long, and hired another director to shoot coverage so that Fox could cut it down to 97 minutes. The original version has since been lost, ala The Magnificent Ambersons, but Ford kept a pre-release cut of 103 minutes, that contained a few large chunks of his cut footage, as well as the original score. The version now available on DVD is unfortunately the 97 minute version. My hope is for a “restored” version on Blu-ray, soon.
Director Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch, Pat Garret and Billy the Kid) considered My Darling Clementine his favorite western.
#6 Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
Stylistically epic. A lot goes on in this movie, and yet it’s all at the service of the film’s style, it’s mojo. Leone had no intention of making another western after finishing The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, in fact, he was planning Once Upon a Time in America, but could not get independent financing or a greenlight from the Hollywood Studios on anything other than a western. When Paramount offered him a sizable budget and the chance to work with his favorite actor, Henry Fonda — Leone relented. He then spent several months watching classic Hollywood westerns and constructing a film filled with references to them.
He also omitted the humor he had come to rely upon in his previous work. This left a very somber, dead serious tone, which plays well with the story’s deliberately labored pace. Lots of quiet moments here represent reality. And that seems to work for Leone more than any other director.
Seen above is a perfect example of the film’s astonishing use of composition available when using Panavision anamorphic lenses. It was also one of the many aspects of the film that influenced some really notable filmmakers. Today Once Upon a Time in the West is considered Leone’s best film, and one of the “finest” westerns ever made. Many directors have cited this one as one of their favorite films of all-time, including Lucas, Scorsese, and Tarantino. Along with directors John Milius and John Carpenter, both of whom can be heard on the audio commentary for the DVD and Blu-Ray releases.
Leone called Bronson: “The greatest actor I ever worked with.” The film also features yet another in a long list of highly popular scores by legendary composer Ennio Morricone.
#7 Red River (1948)
Just a great story, really — once it gets going, anyway. The first 20 minutes include some rather lame moments which can be blamed on the era they were filmed in. I’ve actually seen Red River many more times than any of the others listed here. The only reason it’s not at the top of the list is because I haven’t learned as much from it. My sensibilities are too close to the meat of it, so it’s like I’m on autopilot when I’m watching it.
The film’s not as cotton candy as Stagecoach. But it has a cut-and-dried quality about it that smells of popcorn like few westerns ever made. Something about it, and I mean every step of the way, just feels constructed to bring pure joy to a kid on a Saturday afternoon. Ray Harryhausen’s long-time producer co-wrote the screenplay, and Howard Hawks directed it, so with a combination like that it was bound to emote some element of “serialized storytelling.” And it does, and often.
The film starts with a young Tom Dunson (John Wayne) dealing with the unexpected death of a woman he just agreed to marry. She was a part of a wagon train attacked by Native Americans. Dunson and his driver separated their wagon from the train earlier in the day. There is a nifty, yet brief night-time attack on Dunson and his driver by Indians, here — the only real bright spot in the initial moments of the film. The following morning Dunson adopts the only survivor, a young boy named Matthew, who’s clearly in shock from the experience, has a gun, and doesn’t want it taken away from him. Kid has a specific kind of personality, right from the start. And yet, while these scenes are very well designed, they are badly executed to the point of being laughable. Their relationship is rather unbelievable at first (like I said, the first 20 minutes are a bit awkward,) but in time, Dunson starts a ranch, and Matthew is there to pull his weight.
Cut to several years later, and the story quickly develops into a tug-of-war between cattle baron Dunson, and his adopted son Matt (now Montgomery Clift,) during a lengthy cattle drive. Wayne has a tyrannical way of dealing with the men on his cattle drive, and Clift is increasingly sympathetic — this is where much of the conflict develops. The original story by Borden Chase, which appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, has Matt kill Dunson at the end. Which truthfully, would have been the better ending. To see this story get really good and dark and conflicted, only to wimp out and the end, is kind of a bummer.
Bits of action and adventure pop up along the way, and just at the right moments. The cinematography shimmers silver (probably the nitrate decomposing,) and it adds to the distinctive feel of Red River, immeasurably. Director John Ford was so impressed by Wayne’s performance that he was reportedly quoted as saying, “I didn’t know the big son-of-a-bitch could act!” Though some sources claim he said “lug” and not s.o.b.
Production took place in 1946, although the film didn’t get a release until ’48. The film was nominated for multiple Academy Awards, and in 1990 was selected by the Library of Congress for the National Film Registry. The AFI has additionally listed Red River as the 5th best western movie of all time. Director John Carpenter, a huge Howard Hawks fan, also lists this as one of his very favorite Hawks films. Like I said, it gets better after the initial 20 minutes. One more thing, you wouldn’t notice by his performance, but this was Montgomery Clift’s first movie.
#8 Rio Bravo (1959)
Here we come to another perennial John Carpenter favorite. He remade it twice. First as Assault on Precinct 13, and then many years later as Ghosts of Mars. Assault was a pretty good low budget action film. Mars, unfortunately, was not. Rio Bravo has the unique distinction of being one of those westerns that have been remade several times. The original director, Howard Hawks, even remade it — Twice ! First as El Dorado, and then as Rio Lobo — with original screenwriter Leigh (The Big Sleep) Brackett redesigning the story each time.
The story takes place in Presidio County, Texas. The town Sheriff, played by John Wayne, is assisted in the arrest of a wanted fugitive by a Sheriff’s Deputy who’s also the town drunk. He’s played perfectly by Dean Martin. Once they get the fugitive in jail, the bad guys arrive and begin a campaign of intimidation to force Wayne to let their brethren go free. The Sheriff knows it’s only a matter of time before the bad guys storm the jail, so he gathers a motley group, deputizes them all, and holds up inside the jail, awaiting the Calvary, so to speak.
On the surface it’s a great American western, with an aura of adventure all around it. But Rio Bravo has dealt with occasional controversy over the years, really as a result of Wayne and Hawks “intentions” with the film from the outset. Both men were insulted by the film High Noon, and admitted frequently that they only made Rio Bravo as a conservative statement on how they felt the story should have been told. Director Howard Hawks had this to say: “I made Rio Bravo because I didn’t like High Noon. Neither did Duke. I didn’t think a good town marshal was going to run around town like a chicken with his head cut off asking everyone to help. And who saves him ? His Quaker wife. That isn’t my idea of a good Western.”
Wayne supported the blacklist during the McCarthy era, and even helped run the screenwriter of High Noon out of the Country as punishment for its bold stance on McCarthyism. Being an ardent supporter of Joseph McCarthy, Wayne naturally hated one specific aspect of High Noon: everyone abandons the local Sheriff — just like everyone abandoned those who were questioned during the hearings. But in the case of High Noon, the everyman stood up for himself and won. Conservatives who mindlessly supported Joseph McCarthy out of fear of the phantom Communist agenda lol were naturally not comfortable with the message sent by High Noon. So Wayne and Hawks designed Rio Bravo so that the Sheriff is instead joined by a motley group of supporters, which itself grows as the story evolves. I guess John Wayne’s logic was supposed to be rat out your friends and you’ll be supported for it, and we’ll all be friends. Or something like that; people who supported Joseph McCarthy were never really clear on their reasons. Many have targeted the fear of fear itself.
In any case, the movie generated a good story with a fresh structure. And like all the others on this list, it was a terrific influence.
#9 The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966)
Fresh and often inventive (as Leone’s films often were,) The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly starts by introducing the three main characters, one at a time, and each with a title card and distinctive musical note, which follows a unique entrance. Stylish fun, really. The film is really a dark comedy from beginning to end. The plot follows Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and Eli Wallach, as they separately search for a cache of Confederate gold. And there’s an epic sense to it all, thanks mainly to Leone’s constant shifting of the narrative and multiple set-pieces. There’s even a statement on war in general, as the characters each navigate the death and destruction of the American Civil War, while searching for the hidden plunder.
Most of the dialogue is out of sync, because many of the actors clearly aren’t really speaking English, and because much like director John (The Tailor of Panama) Boorman, Leone choose not to record dialogue on set. The relationship between Leone and Eastwood was reportedly strained from the beginning, and Leone’s refusal to record dialogue on set didn’t exactly help. But Eastwood was primarily aggravated by Leone’s insistence on shooting multiple takes (ala Kubrick) from multiple angles.
The original script title was The Two Magnificent Tramps. And although the studio wanted to call it The Man With No Name to better capitalize off the success of the previous two films, Leone’s “chosen” title, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, remained. In addition to other problems between Leone and Eastwood, Eastwood was not too happy about sharing screen time with Wallach or Van Cleef. And Wallach complained that director Leone wasn’t too preoccupied with the safety of his actors, and cited numerous instances where he was almost severely injured during shooting. This may sound sadistic on my part, but knowing all of this makes much of what happens even more humorous.
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly was voted one of the 100 Greatest Movies of the last Century by Time Magazine. Director Quentin Tarantino has called it the best directed film of all time. And author Stephen King referenced the film, along with Eastwood’s portrayal of The Man With No Name, as the principal inspiration for the character of Roland Deschain in his Dark Tower books.
#10 The Wild Bunch (1969)
The plot of The Wild Bunch concerns an aging group of outlaws facing retirement, who plan and implement one last crime — the robbery of a railroad office, holding a cache of silver coins. But, they’re set up by a former gang member who’s now a railroad detective. Members of the gang are killed, and the survivors escape across the border to a Mexican town, in the grip of a General in the Mexican Federal Army. And everything goes literally South for our central characters from there.
The themes of betrayal, and of outlaws from the Nineteenth Century finding their place in the Twentieth Century is clear by the end of the film. And the later has been copied endlessly since. (Including by this author. There’s even a scene where the Outlaws inspect an automobile. It’s the old world meets the new. Something I had the character of Tom Horn do in the first draft of my novel “Western Legend,” ignorantly believing that it had never been done before. After screening The Wild Bunch, I left the passage in — along with various other passages with similarities to other notable westerns I had yet to watch. It happened again, and again. By the time I had finished the seventh draft, I had found similarities to scenes in at least 11 classic movies, and one TV movie. I chalk it up to homage, but it was really ignorance of the genre and medium that caused such similarities to stack up along the way.)
The film was at the time of its release (and is still today) known for repeated ballets of visual violence, with buckets of blood thrown in for good measure. It was one of the films labeled a “revisionist western” by critics, because it dodged some western cliche’s to the great consternation of many western fans. And in the process, created a great work of cinema, notably appreciated by students of film as art.
The director was reportedly sick of the lack of realism in westerns and given the current state of the world, came to the conclusion that something had to change. Some of the techniques director Sam Peckinpah used involved bizarre editing, eventually acknowledged as revolutionary in film. And in tandem with undercranking and overcranking the camera. (slow motion, speeded up motion) This, at the time, was a technique not often seen by American audiences. And it was partially influenced by a young editor the director had worked with in Television. The editor showed Peckinpah some footage from a one-of-a-kind slow motion sequence he had cut together for TV, portraying a character being shot.
It was visually arresting, and Peckinpah enthusiastically took the technique a step forward once on location in Mexico. He instructed the camera men during the action sequences to adjust the frame rate, sometimes down, sometimes up. What he ended up with were shots of varying speeds. Some slow motion, some slower, some faster. This decision briefly haunted the director once in the editing room. He needed a succession of shots to tell his story, but he hadn’t storyboarded for the excessive time wherein the slow motion would play out. As a result, a gunfight only a few pages long, would be edited together and clock in at 20 minutes. And in some cases, it was impossible to re-cut the sequence without creating confusion. However, when these shots were cut together, it created a very unusual ballet of motion and violence. And all of it would one day become synonymous with Director Peckinpah.
But probably the most quietly revolutionary thing the director did (ironically) was require that new gunshots be created for the soundtrack. A separate sound for each gun.
Warner Bros. and Seven Arts practically rushed the film into production once Peckinpah had agreed to rewrite and shoot the spec script of The Wild Bunch — mainly to beat Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to the screen. The two scripts were reportedly very similar in theme.
The film was nominated and won several awards, and in 1999 was placed in the National Film Registry by Congress. And the AFI ranked it #6 in its list of the best westerns ever made. Film critic Roger Ebert saw the film as a part of a Warner Bros. press junket in 1969 and immediately claimed it a “masterpiece.” In 1993 Warner Bros. resubmitted the film to the ratings board, expecting to get an “R” and got an “NC-17” instead.
#11 Unforgiven (1992)
While The Wild Bunch ended with a statement on aging gunfighters, Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven embodied that statement from beginning to end. The story starts simply and quietly. We are given information and we surmise the rest. Eastwood plays a former outlaw and cold blooded murderer who was turned around by a woman he fell in love with. Now elderly and a widower, he’s not the same person he was when he was younger. He’s a father now. And he’s more mature, thoughtful about his actions, and reluctant to embarrass himself by repeating his past actions or worse, fall back into a dangerous pattern of violence — which we deduce was fueled by a change in his personality when under the influence of alcohol. Never get this guy drunk, that’s the best way to put it.
The script was originally titled The William Muney Killings, and written in the mid 1970’s by David Webb Peoples, the co-writer of Blade Runner. And it is ironic that both films use the conventions associated with noir cinema, to great effect.
Regardless of Eastwood’s feud with Sergio Leone, he dedicated this film to both Leone, and Don (Dirty Harry) Siegel. The film won numerous Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Note that Unforgiven was only the third western to win the prestigious Best Picture Oscar, behind Cimarron and Dances With Wolves.
The film was listed at#4 on the AFI’s list of the top ten western films of all time, and was admitted into the National Film Registry in 2004. And after the film’s release, the poster you see above won an award given out by The Hollywood Reporter, called the “key art” award.
#12 Pat Garret and Billy the Kid (1973) Director’s Cut
Probably the best example of the now typical Corporate response of tampering with anything that resembles high art — and instantaneously cutting the chances the film has at making a profit, by two thirds. (And as icing on the cake, sabotaging their own investment.) Pat Garret and Billy the Kid was pretty much the dawn of that disgusting shit.
Peckinpah sought to make this film the third act of a trilogy that included Ride the High Country, and The Wild Bunch. Thus book-ending a visual novel. And he really put his heart into this. The story, very simply, is loosely based on historical information available concerning Pat Garret’s killing of his friend and fugitive, William “Billy the Kid” Bonney. Peckinpah re-wrote an original script by Rudolph Wurlitzer himself, and turned it into an epic tragedy of two friends, who wind up on opposite sides of the law. (Shades of The Wild Bunch) It’s sounds close to the authentic history, but it’s not intended as an historically accurate film.
People have complained about the casting choices, but those people aren’t really getting the point. Bob Dylan as “Alias” is a wonderful addition to the substance of the film. Yes, in truth, he has no fucking reason for being in there whatsoever. However, this is a Peckinpah film, not a history lesson. So Dylan’s purpose is merely aesthetic. And on that basis alone, his character works wonderfully — in fact, the film has a wonderful cast. And, this is the director’s last truly great film. In my opinion, anyway. An artistic accomplishment as visually disgusting as it is beautiful. Which was precisely what made a Peckinpah film a Peckinpah film.
It’s sad that at the time of its release, the behind the scenes turmoil was more well known than the film itself. Sam Peckinpah unsuccessfully fought interference by the head of Metro Goldwyn-Mayer on this film. I mean that guy just harassed the hell out of Peckinpah; gave him hell. And this was right on top of both technical problems, and much of the crew coming down with Influenza. And what was worse, the more the studio harassed the director, the more heavily he drank. And he was tough. There were no slimy corporate methods of intimidation that worked on him. The studio even spread false rumors about him and the production of his/their film, making it sound much, much worse than it really was.
But Peckinpah persevered, somehow. He managed to just barely complete the picture with the footage he needed, it took almost two million dollars and 21 days more to get him there, due to all the difficulties during shooting, but he got there. And the studio promptly removed him from the picture during final editing, completely re-cutting the film, releasing a very embarrassing movie and actually blaming Peckinpah for it.
Peckinpah had finished his Director’s Cut by 1973, and just before being fired by the studio, screened it for critics. Martin Scorsese was present and called it Peckinpah’s best film since The Wild Bunch. But this version of the film would not be seen by the public for many years. The head of the studio ordered the film cut from 124 minutes to 106 minutes. If you round off those numbers that’s almost 20 minutes of excised footage !
The film naturally flopped and critics universally panned the hell out of it, calling it “incoherent.” When Roger Ebert reviewed the film, he gave it two stars, and noted that the studio would have been better off releasing Peckinpah’s version. The picture was completely disowned by the cast and crew once they saw the studio’s version of it. And while Peckinpah had in his possession his own director’s cut, which he often screened for friends in his own defense, Pat Garret and Billy the Kid was a massive blow to his career. He practically made this film coming off The Getaway, a massively successful film for Peckinpah. And now … now he was considered a land mine by Hollywood.
In 1988 the director’s cut was finally made available to the public on home video and the response was very enthusiastic. In 2005 the DVD was released, which is when I first saw it. Even though I consider myself a moderate fan of the director’s work, I was amazed by it. There is also a “third” version included on the DVD, which includes various elements of both the theatrical and director’s cuts. It’s worth checking out, as well.
#13 The Professionals (1966)
A wealthy man (Ralph Bellamy) hires a weapons expert (Lee Marvin,) an explosives specialist (Burt Lancaster,) a horse wrangler (Robert Ryan,) and a scout with Apache skills (Woody Strode,) to rescue his wife (Claudia Cardinale) from a Mexican bandit (Jack Palance.)
Not as much an “Oater” as an action/adventure film, The Professionals has been a mainstay of critics lists for many years. I viewed it initially as a study in cinematography, after having watched Visions of Light: The Art of Cinematography on Laserdisc, back in the early 1990’s. (Conrad W. Hall was nominated for an Academy Award for his work on this one.) But I came back to this film when turning my screenplay “Western Legend” into a novel, and I now believe my book greatly benefited from that second round of viewings.
There’s a lot to inspire in this one, just be default. Richard (In Cold Blood, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Blackboard Jungle) Brooks, who wrote and directed the film, imbued it with strong dialogue, creative, yet hard action, great performances by the actors, and a twist ending.
And there’s a lot more going on here than you expect.
Great movie — I highly recommend it !
p.s. Claudia Cardinale has great breasts.
#14 How the West Was Won (1962)
Spectacular All-Star Old-Fashioned Epic Thingee ! This movie is still one of the most anomalous, yet ambitious movies in cinema history, for multiple reasons. I mean there literally is no other western like it. There were only two films made using the Cinerama process. Some people even argue that it was nothing more than a “stunt.” But trust me, seeing it up on a big screen opens your eyes.
Inspired by a series of articles in Life magazine, the film follows four generations of a family on their westward expansion across the Country in the Nineteenth Century. Split into several segments, these sequences were variously directed by John Ford (The Searchers, Stagecoach,) Henry Hathaway (The Sons of Katie Elder, True Grit,) George Marshall (Destry Rides Again, Houdini) and Richard Thorpe (The Prisoner of Zenda, Jailhouse Rock.) The story goes from The Rivers in the 1830’s, to the Plains in the 1850’s, to the Civil War & The Railroad in the 1860’s, to The Outlaws in the 1880’s. And it’s quite a ride. The movie ends with some of the stock footage showing L.A. and San Francisco in the 1960’s, evidencing the molding of a raw Country into a modern civilization. And there are so many celebrity actors who pop along the way, you need a notepad and pen to keep up.
The film was advertised as being shot in the Cinerama process, although some of the Cinerama footage is actually stock footage acquired by the studio. But forget that, this is a film which involves a triple-camera process that spreads across a screen so wide that you feel like you are literally there. And that has a massively visceral effect on the viewer. I saw this thing in a theater in L.A. once and man, you can get drunk watching it, but what an amazing experience ! Kevin Costner cited this as one of his principal influences as a director, and talked repeatedly in interviews about the Cinerama process. For years I wondered if he was just nuts, or what. But seeing the film on a big enough screen, changes anyone’s perspective instantly.
A new Blu-ray transfer was released not long ago, which fairly accurately replicates the curved screen effect and removes the two process lines which strip the screen in-between the three separate camera shots. There’s special feature on the Blu-ray called “Smilebox” which curves the image to replicate the Cinerama experience. I haven’t screened it yet, but I’ve read it approximates the experience. Worth checking out. Here’s a screenshot I got off blu-ray.com:
The film was nominated for several Academy Awards and won a handful.
#15 The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)
Travel this Country, bring up the topic of the movie western, and pull out a stop watch. Twenty-five to thirty seconds — at the most — and you ‘ll hear “The Outlaw Josey Wales“; you can clock it; I shit you not.
Being yet another example of the revisionist western, the film tells the story of a simple farmer, who following the violent murder of his family by pro-Union Jayhawkers during the American Civil War, is initially driven mad, then driven only by revenge. He joins up with Bloody Bill Anderson’s Bushwackers. (Guerrillas on the Confederate side of the war.) And presumably spends many years with them. His name is known by Union Soldiers, and they are hoping for his surrender. Right off the bat, the film does a good job making Josey Wales a mythical character, by elevating his status as a dangerous individual above that of historical blood-letter, William T. “Bloody Bill” Anderson.
As the war comes to a close the Union entices these men into surrendering and giving up their fighting in exchange for amnesty. Several of the men go into a Union camp, but Wales watches from a distance. When he realizes the men will be executed, he sneaks into the camp, and creates a diversion using a Gatling Gun. And in the skirmish that follows, he manages to save some of their lives. But he winds up a fugitive with his face on wanted posters all over the Country.
Now on the run from Union Militia Men and bounty hunters, Wales heads for Texas with the hope that he can make a new life there. Along the way, he has several encounters that test his character and his metal. And he also accumulates a motley group of followers, also looking for a place to plant their feet. Eventually, all of these characters end up barricaded inside a small ranch house built withstand an Indian attack — with those hunting Josey Wales doing the attacking.
Wales survives to face his pursuer in a bar. The man chasing him for the Union essentially gives him a head start and lets him go. Wales rides off.
Here’s the truly NASTY part, so let me get this out of the way. The film was based upon a book written by a man named Asa Earl Carter, who “claimed” to be a Native American Cherokee, and A) who was also a member of the “Klan,” and B) a controversial “anti-Semite” speechwriter for Governor George Wallace. He wrote the book “The Rebel Outlaw: Josey Wales,” also titled, “Gone to Texas,” under the pseudonym Forrest Carter. No shit. The guy who wrote the book Outlaw Josey Wales was based on — was a wacko racist. Weird, man. Almost makes you wanna never watch the fucking movie, again. If his estate got one penny from it, I probably wouldn’t.
The script was worked on by four separate writers, including directors Michael (Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, The Deer Hunter) Camino and Phillip (The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid) Kaufman. The picture actually started with Kaufman as director, but he and Eastwood had a personality conflict that got worse and worse, until Eastwood instructed his co-producer to fire Kaufman. The Director’s Guild of America fined Eastwood $60,000 for it and instituted a new union rule that disallowed a producer from firing a director and replacing him with himself. How much of Kaufman’s footage remains in the film has never been disclosed.
Most critics praised the film on its release and Eastwood has referred to The Outlaw Josey Wales as one of the high points of his western making career. Thematically, Eastwood has referred to it as an anti-war film. In 1996 the film was selected for the National Film Registry, and it was also listed as one of Time magazine’s Top 10 films of the Year in 1976.
#16 The Magnificent Seven (1960)
Mexican villagers are being terrorized by a bully and his company of bandits. Members of the village approach a professional gunfighter, and persuade him to hire six others to help protect the residents from the bully and his men. Very little payment is offered, yet six capable men are recruited. Maybe they’re eager to stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves, maybe they’re eager to test their metal, maybe they’re bored. In any case, all are ready for Action ! You really don’t want me to spoil the rest do ya ? Great action, great exposition between the characters, great music — see it, you’ll like it.
Sometimes “Hollywood” movies can be a bad thing. We all know that. But sometimes, they can be a GREAT thing. And The Magnificent Seven remains one of those great occasions. Sequels were made, none this good. The Elmer Bernstein score was so good, it was nominated by the Academy. And it was instantaneously so memorable, many over the years chose to license it and reference it. Commercials, TV Shows — a bit of it can even be heard in the 1979 James Bond film, Moonraker.
And the referencing didn’t end with just the music. Michael Crichton wrote and directed a film called Westworld, which utilized Yul Brynner in the role of a highly advanced robot made to interact with tourists in a futuristic theme park. The robot was based on the character he played in The Magnificent Seven. If you’ve seen Jurassic Park, then you know the plot — things go wrong, robots start attacking people. (Crichton admitted he pretty much recycled the structure and plot of Westworld, for Jurassic Park. As a side note, there has been some suggestion that Jurassic Park originally started as a sequel Crichton offered to MGM as a follow-up to Westworld. However, this was never confirmed to be anything other than rumor.)
The Magnificent Seven also inspired (along with The Seven Samurai before it) a low-budget Roger Corman produced Sci-Fi film, called Battle Beyond the Stars. The film’s structure and plot are essentially identical to the two films that came before, and actor Robert Vaughn more or less repeats his character here, in a more Sci-Fi incarnation.
Brynner complained that McQueen spent most of the film not merely “trying,” but successfully upstaging him every time the two were on camera together. McQueen quit his own TV show Wanted: Dead or Alive, as a direct result of the success of The Magnificent Seven.
#17 Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
William (Harper, Maverick) Goldman’s screenplay was based on the story of Robert Leroy Parker (alias Butch Cassidy) and Harry Longabaugh (alias the Sundance Kid) and the numerous train robberies committed by their “Hole in the Wall Gang,” before the Pinkerton Detective Agency literally chased them out of the Country. Eventually realizing they have no where left to run, Butch and Sundance take off for South America with Sundance’s girlfriend initially accompanying them. She leaves, they start robbing payroll carriers all over Bolivia, and eventually, the two outlaws are cornered by an entire garrison of South American troops. And I’m sure you know the rest.
My principal interest in this one was the centerpiece of the film — a very long pursuit, wherein Butch and Sundance evade a Pinkerton Detective named Joe Lefors, and his Native American tracker, Lord Baltimore. This sequence is completely original in it’s simplicity and overall integrity of economical storytelling. There’s so little dialogue, I’m sure the studio people were wondering why the hell this was done and if they should try and force the director to reshoot it. But it works its magic, so it’s a good thing they didn’t cause a ruckus over it.
Goldman was initially a novelist, who researched Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid for eight years, before he decided he didn’t really want to write the book. So he turned it into his first screenplay and sold it for a record $400,000.00: his asking price. He felt the years of research and the potential the script had, justified his asking price. It was bold and cocksure, I’ll give him that.
The pairing of Newman and Redford was magic and resulted in some truly great comedic moments on film. At the time of its release, it got good reviews, it got bad reviews, but it quickly became a phenomenon, regardless of any of that. And Newman and Redford and their chemistry together, were cited by many as the reason. For this reason, they repeated their unique pairing in the film, The Sting.
Steve McQueen, Jack Lemmon, Warren Beatty, and Marlon Brando were all offered one of the two parts in the film, and turned it down before Robert Redford accepted. The actual name of Butch Cassidy’s Gang was “The Wild Bunch.” This was changed to “The Hole in the Wall Gang,” to avoid confusion with Sam Peckinpah’s film, The Wild Bunch. Financially, the film’s gross is wedged in between Goldfinger and Thunderball. Not a bad balance sheet for a western to be hanging out on. A prequel called Butch and Sundance The Early Days was released in 1979, directed by Richard Lester, and starring Tom Berenger and William Katt. It cost $15 Million and made only $5 Million. William Goldman did not write it, in fact the film was written by a writer of television sitcoms. But nonetheless, noted author and film critic Harlan Ellison has voiced his opinion that the prequel film is a vast improvement over its predecessor.
The film was nominated and won a handful of Academy Awards, it also won a handful of British awards, and the Writer’s Guild of America awarded William Goldman their Best Original Screenplay of the year award. In 2003 the film was placed into the National Film Registry, and it sits at #7 on the AFI’s list of the top 10 Best Westerns ever made.
#18 Lonesome Dove (1989) TV Mini-Series
The production was derived from two sources. The first was the best-selling novel which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1986. The other was the original screenplay which the book was based on. Writer Larry McMurty had originally drafted the script in the early 70’s, as a starring vehicle for actors John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, and Henry Fonda. That “original” version of this film was proceeding when John Wayne backed out, and the entire project fell apart. Wayne had apparently been advised by director John Ford not to take the role. After the novel was published in the early 80’s and won the coveted Pulitzer Prize, directors John Milius and John Houston each attempted to get it made, but were unsuccessful. Finally, McMurty partnered with a television writer and turned the material into a mini-series.
The story is a lengthy, ever-changing soapy drama about a group of retired Texas Rangers driving cattle across Country, and everything that happens along the way. (I will not give away any turns in the plot, that’s half the joy of this one.) It really doesn’t sound all that enticing when you sum it up so simply, but the way it plays out is really grand, and with great atmosphere. It was shot entirely on location and gets by with enough authenticity to suspend your disbelief throughout its entire run time.
Just about everybody who ever watched it, enjoyed it. And almost everybody watched it when it premiered in February of 1989 on CBS. I eventually saw it in a re-run; I was in boot camp in the U.S. Marine Corps. when the series originally aired. But when I finally got a chance to catch up, I was thoroughly absorbed by it; just like everyone else. It was a fresh take on the western, and a welcome one. The show was even credited with once again regenerating the western genre. And industry accolades rained on this thing so heavy, I refuse to redundantly list them here — that just isn’t necessary when everyone knows how good it is.
Some have claimed that the friendship between the two main characters, is based on a similar friendship between real life ranchers Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving. Writer McMurtry has disputed this. It runs just over six hours, but if you have the opportunity to do some “power watching” one weekend, I would highly recommend Lonesome Dove.
#19 Tombstone (1993), Wyatt Earp (1994)
I was very entertained by many elements of each of these films when I initially saw them. However, I was also massively disappointed that the infamous gunfight in Tombstone was not portrayed as accurate as I felt it could have been. And it took some time for me to get over that. Time enough for me to write up a screenplay treatment, eleven full drafts of a screenplay, (originally titled “American Western,” and eventually changed to “Western Legend,”) and almost as many drafts of the novel which followed.
Since then, I’ve viewed each of these films multiple times, and am happy to say I can now enjoy them for what they are, without condemning them for what they are not. Mainly because any contempt on my part ended with the publication of my book; the centerpiece of which is a much more accurate retelling of the street fight in Tombstone. Therefore, I guess you could say the influence these film had on me was rather profound.
Tombstone (released during the 1993 holiday season) comes off as more of a theme-park attraction, with heavy doses of in-your-face machismo. Very much 1950’s Hollywood High-Adventure, intentionally contaminated by coarse language, and slight touches that resemble the work of Sergio Leone. It’s story centers on the subject of its title: the events surrounding the Earps adversarial relationship with the Cow-boys Gang while in Tombstone, Arizona.
It has a cast list that reads like a guest list for an industry event of some kind: Sam Elliot, Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton, Powers Boothe, Michael Biehn, Charlton Heston, Jason Priestley, Stephen Lang, Thomas Haden Church, Dana Delaney, Billy Zane, Michael Rooker, John Corbett. And that cute chick from Fletch — she’s in there somewhere, too.
The film has over time become a mainstay with western fans, due to it’s action sequences, it’s use of Robert Mitchum’s voice at the open and the close of the film, and several iconic moments in the film surrounding actor Val Kilmer’s portrayal of John Henry “Doc” Holliday. Additionally, the film is very clearly inspired by a number of films that came before it. Along with the work of Sergio Leone, others include: Gunfight at the OK Corral, Hour of the Gun, and even The Magnificent Seven.
Tombstone was one of those movies that defied the odds to fall under the category of, “lucky it got made.” According to a great interview with Kurt Russell in True West magazine, he was told about the original script in 1989 by his former agent, whom he still had a relationship with. And at that time, writer Kevin Jarre was going to do the picture with Kevin Costner. But Costner left, preferring to redevelop the idea into a sprawling bio pic, broadening the scope to refocus on not merely events in Tombstone in 1881, but rather on Earp’s entire life. And he was keen on working with Lawrence Kasdan, whom he had worked with on Silverado. So Costner left to develop his own movie. But, once off the project, he managed to shut down all avenues of Tombstone getting released. No studio in town would touch the film — except Disney. This from Russell: “He (Costner) was powerful enough at the time, which I always respected. I thought it was good hardball.”
With Costner gone, Russell moved into the Earp role, and he and Jarre brought in Willem Defoe to play Holliday. Russell described Defoe’s version of the character: “(he was) absolutely brilliant in his conceptualization of it.” But Disney didn’t want Defoe. Various sources claim this was due to his part in the controversial Last Temptation of Christ. So Russell and Jarre brought in Val Kilmer. Then, two weeks before filming, Russell was called into the office of the mogul who financed the film. According to Russell, he was asked if he would step aside and play Doc Holliday, and allow Richard Gere to play Wyatt Earp. Russell said no, stating that he and Jarre were happy with the situation they currently had.
Filming began, but there were problems with Jarre’s inability to recognize the limitations of their budget. According to Russell, the script needed to loose 20 pages and Jarre never would loose those 20 pages. Russell warned Jarre that those in charge of financing and distribution had the legal right to fire him for his stubbornness, but Jarre wouldn’t listen. Quickly thereafter, Jarre was fired. And to make matters worse, there was fallout. According to Val Kilmer over 100 people quit or got fired after Jarre left. “(and) that’s gotta be some kind of a record.”
Soon after, Kurt sat down to somehow remove 20 pages, from what he termed a Western-Godfather. He knew he wanted a talented cast, and they would want and deserve more screen time, so Russell made the drastic decision to cut his own part (that of Wyatt Earp) way down, and make it, in his words, “more of an ‘aura’ character.” Meaning you meet and see Earp, he’s your subject of interest, but other characters fill in the details. Either while he’s off screen, or in the third person right in front of him. Russell: “But it wasn’t fun to do that. It wasn’t fun to cut out eight of the reasons you wanted to do the movie.”
From there, the film needed a director. Those in power actually offered the reins to Kurt Russell, even though he had never directed a film before. Russell turned it down. He has since stated that he didn’t want his name on it. And though he hasn’t stated why, it’s a good bet that industry politics are to blame. So he called Sylvester Stallone and said, “I need a guy.” Stallone recommended Geroge P. Cosmatos, director of Rambo: First Blood Part II, Cobra, and Leviathan. Stallone had used him as a surrogate, or “ghost” director twice.
So Russell met with Cosmatos, and laid down the law. He would come to his room every night and give him a shot list, and Cosmatos could not deviate from it. And no one on the production could know. “George and I had a sign language going on,” Russell explained. And though a few of the actors and crew did catch on, there were apparently no problems for the remainder of the shoot. But under a tight budget, it was grueling. Russell has stated that it was the hardest work of his life, and that he only got 4 hours of sleep a night. Which to those who’ve seen the film, explains that look in Wyatt’s eyes through most of the movie.
Once the film was completed, Russell’s role was diminished. Possibly by union rules. “I didn’t get a chance to edit the movie, which I thought was unfortunate because it would have been once of the greatest westerns ever, ever, ever made. And it’s pretty damn good. We had a great cast. A phenomenal script.” He was, however, allowed access to video of all footage shot, and maintains that he intends to someday edit together the longer version of Tombstone.
Although the film cost $25 Million and made only $56.5 Million, it was deemed a success by Disney Executives. Actor Robert Mitchum, who narrates the film, was originally brought in to play Old Man Clanton. But he was in a horse riding accident. Instead of recasting, the role was cut from the film. Actor Glenn Ford was originally cast to play Marshall White, but dropped out of the project. Critical reaction was mixed, though True West Magazine called it one of the 5 greatest westerns ever made.
Wyatt Earp (released June of 1994) is stylistically different in every way from Tombstone. While Tombstone is garish, Wyatt Earp is conservative. While Tombstone is abrupt, Wyatt Earp is meditative. The two films are as different as night and day. Personally, I’ve never been able to decide which one I like better. Both films have their charms, and their faults. Therefore, it’s a tie !
Written by Dan (Passenger 57) Gordon and Lawrence (Raiders of the Lost Ark) Kasdan (who also co-directed with an “uncredited” Costner,) the film is pretty much what Costner wanted it to be: a sprawling bio pic, spanning the life of one of the most legendary lawmen of the American West, Wyatt Earp.
And on the surface, it seems like it would be closer to historical fact than Tombstone. But do your research and you’ll find it isn’t. At least not enough to brag about. There are a few interesting variances which slightly angle this picture toward historical accuracy. But almost all are aesthetic. A few of the set pieces, such as the size of the lot where the street fight in Tombstone took place, are drastically more accurate than anything you’ve seen before. There are also some well researched wardrobe choices, bits and pieces of dialogue here and there, and the incorporation of a legendary supposed incident involving “Tommy Behind the Deuce” — which like that Tyrannosaur in Jurassic Park, pops up just before the movie ends, just when you want it to.
But make no mistake about it, Wyatt Earp uses as much of the Earp mythos as anything else ever has, and the filmmakers have made it clear that they have no intention of apologizing for that. They set out to make a bio pic and a big event movie, at the same time. And while they claim they succeeded, audiences and critics begged to differ. There are some pretty boring moments in this movie. Rather prosaic moments in fact, that only the elderly truly appreciate. And that is sad, given that there is so much great stuff to love here.
On a personal note, I really wish Warner Bros. would see fit to re-edit the deleted scenes available only as a special feature on home video, back into the movie. They are great scenes and help balance everything out, nicely.
Much like Tombstone, Wyatt Earp benefits from a great supporting cast. The credits boast the likes of Gene Hackman, Mark Harmon, Jeff Fahey, Isabella Rossellini, Michael Madsen, Jobeth Williams, Bill Pullman, James Gammon, Jim Caviezel, Tea Leoni. And Costner is great here as Earp; in fact this is one of his very best performances. You can feel the cold, burning anger when he looks at people, suspiciously. And Dennis Quad literally gives the performance of his career. How he didn’t get nominated for a single award is one those great mysteries I’ve discussed with others, many, many times. Makes no fucking sense whatsoever.
Wyatt Earp also joins the club of being yet another western nominated for an Academy Award for Best Cinematography.
#20 The Shootist (1976)
Directed by Clint Eastwood’s friend, mentor, and frequent collaborator Don (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Killers ) Siegel, The Shootist was Wayne’s final film. Boasting a really great story and concept, the film nevertheless suffered a lukewarm reception from audiences, due mainly to its pat, television-like sensibility — which was growing stale with the public. Critics on the other hand gave it mostly positive reviews. The Shootist was named one of the 10 best films of the year, along with All the President’s Men and Network by the National Board of Review. And was additionally nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe.
This was the movie that really caught me by surprise. And I don’t mean that in a nice way. Here’s how it happened. In ’77 or ’78 when I was 6 or 7 years old, this film aired on CBS. It didn’t do well at the box office, so I guess they sold it to TV fast. Anyway, my Dad pleaded with me to watch it, and I respectfully declined. Well … maybe not “respectfully.” I remember my words being something along the lines of, “Does a man ride a horse through a spaceport?” And my Dad responding, “Jimmy … nevermind … just nevermind.” Yep, I was a Star Wars kid.
Cut to many years later. I was on the seventh draft of my book when I finally sat down to watch it. I got through around a half an hour of it, when I began to spot similarities between the substructure of the plot of The Shootist, and my book, Western Legend. I felt like I’d been decked like the Ace of Spades. After agonizing over it, I decided to embrace the similarities. Screw it, anyone asks I call it homage. Now ‘ya know. Eventually, after repeated viewings, I fell in love with it. But is was a terrible first date, lemme tell ya.
The film, based on a 1975 book by Glendon Swarthout, begins with a very exciting montage of footage of John Wayne, as other characters in older movies. Including several on this list, and all narrated by then actor Ron Howard. The function of this is to introduce these separate characters as a single individual — a real historical person — who is about to exist before our very eyes. That type of thing. And it works, initially. But the film quickly falls into the mentality of using many traditional production methods to tell its story. “And.” there’s no action in this movie. There’s a shooting at the end, but it’s not much of a gunfight. On the positive side, THAT’S EXACTLY THE POINT ! The film’s message is that a real gunfight in the West was never what it was thereafter cracked up to be. Nor was a day in the life of a real gunfighter.
Wayne’s character arrives in Carson City, Nevada in 1901 to see an old friend of his. A doctor played by Jimmy Stewart. (An obvious play on their relationship in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.) Wayne’s character has come for his diagnosis — and sadly, it is cancer. Soon after, a young man played by Ron Howard recognizes Wayne as a legendary gunfighter he idolizes. It doesn’t take long before word gets out, and it’s just a matter of time before The Shootist is forced into one last confrontation. It ends with an anti-gun message.
Wayne found out about the movie after it went into development and campaigned for the role, winning out over George C. Scott. Wayne had his personal horse “Dollar” written into the script (it was the young horse seen at the end of the film True Grit in 1969,) and he also had the ending changed. In the original ending his character unexpectedly shoots a man in the back. The Shootist shared certain story elements and themes with The Gunfighter, a 1950 film that Wayne had wanted desperately to star in. The project had circled Hollywood for a bit before it landed at Columbia, and Wayne refused to work for Columbia due to a grudge against the head of the studio. So Gregory Peck got the role.
There was an erroneous belief that Wayne actually had cancer when he made this film. He was known to have been ill before the film went into production, and many just made the leap of assumption that it was cancer. It was not. Wayne had had cancer a decade before and had beat it. Three years after this film came out, his cancer returned and he died soon after diagnosis. His death in 1979 ended a career that began in 1926, in silent film. He was one of the few actors in the silent era to have the chance to meet the legendary Wyatt Earp. Spielberg had begged him to play one last role as General Stillwell, in his film 1941. But Wayne turned him down.
#21 Dances With Wolves (1990)
Dances With Wolves started out as a “spec script” written by author Michael Blake. In 1986, Kevin (Silverado) Costner suggested to Blake that he turn the material into a novel, thereby increasing it’s chances of getting it made as a film. The book was published in paperback in ’88, and Costner immediately optioned the rights, with the intention of directing the film himself. Somehow Costner used clout in Hollywood gathered from his successes as a bankable star, to get the movie into development. And he got a budget of $15 Million to make it. But due to complications during filming, the weather, and a few accidents, the film went over budget and Costner had to add $3 Million out of his own pocket to cover the expenses. Many in Hollywood began terming the production, “Kevin’s Gate.” A satirical play on the Michael Cimino film Heaven’s Gate; which cost a fortune, went way over schedule, and completely bombed at the box office. Costner was in fact already being discussed in Hollywood as a failure. The most difficult obstacles a director faces are as follows: being a first time director, working with children, working with animals, making a 3-hour epic as a first film, making a film with subtitles, making a film on location, and making a film in a genre that is considered a risky investment — i.e. a western. And Costner had it all to contend with.
The story, which gradually becomes epic in scope, concerns a Union Lieutenant during the American Civil War, who boldly attempts suicide on the battlefield, fails, and later gets assigned to a post somewhere out on the frontier by a Senior Officer who’s himself suicidal.
Once reaching his post, Lieutenant Dunbar finds it abandoned and sets about to clean the place up. It isn’t long before he garners a curious visitor in the character of a wild wolf. And soon after, Dunbar is surprised by another visitor: a Lakota Indian. The two men frighten the hell out of each other, and quickly part ways. Afterward, Dunbar realizes that the Native American meant no harm, and boldly initiates further contact.
Over several months, the Lakota teach him their language, name him “Dances With Wolves,” introduce him to a “white woman” who’s family was murdered by another warring Indian Tribe and adopted by the Lakota, take him buffalo hunting, etc. etc. And all of it happens beautifully, thanks to some wonderful cinematography and truly grand music by John Barry. And the score greatly contributes to the adventurously romantic feel of the movie.
Eventually, things get much more dramatic. I won’t spoil the plot from there, but let’s just say Dunbar can only have his head stuck in the sand for so long, before someone comes looking for him. And this results in the viewer getting a fly-on-the-wall perspective of what what it is to have your basic human rights violated by an invading force.
Costner was vindicated when this film was released like no other put-upon director in history. It made a literal fortune, in comparison with it’s total budget. And it won numerous Academy Awards, including Best Director, and a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture — Drama. In 2007 the film was placed in the National Film Registry. Dances With Wolves quickly became yet another film credited with revitalizing the western genre, and thus, is termed a revisionist western.
An “Extended Director’s Cut” has been available on DVD for several years and is now available on Blu-ray. Costner claims no involvement with the extended cut, and maintains that the theatrical version is the only cut he prefers people see.
#22 Silverado (1985)
Silverado has always been a unique western. Co-written and directed by Larry (Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Wyatt Earp) Kasdan, the film was intended by Kasdan and his brother Mark (who co-wrote) to be a loving homage to the type of western they grew up with as kids. A western the whole family could enjoy. A western that embraced and honored certain cliche’s. And with the exception of a brief moment or two, which I’m sure many would agree would be inappropriate for smaller children, they essentially achieved their goal.
The film was released weeks after Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider, and the same weekend as Back to the Future. Ouch. The film cost $23 Million to make, and although it only made just over $32 Million, Columbia considered the film a success. Perhaps they got a better deal than the theater chains on the revenue stream, I don’t know. Doesn’t make sense to me, their claim doesn’t add up when you break it down, mathematically. But I love the movie, so let ’em lie forever as long as they’ll keep it active.
The story centers on a group of four strangers who band together to fight a corrupt Sheriff and his Rancher business partner, in the town of Silverado. It’s one of the only westerns I’ve seen that features a black man as character in a role of equal standing. It’s kind of fun to see something different for a change. And it was Costner’s first visible role. (He had played ‘Alex’ the friend who committed suicide in The Big Chill, but Kasdan cut him out.) The movie was entirely shot on location, and the atmosphere that results is really awesome. Truly one of those great outdoor adventure movies, thanks in part to some great cinematography. And it really feels like as much of a fantastic adventure film, as as it is a western. I used to read Starlog magazine religiously when I was a kid, and I noted several times that the magazine staff remarked that based upon the mail they were getting, Silverado was clearly the favorite western of Science Fiction fans.
But the film got mixed reviews. Critics either loved or hated it. Didn’t seem to be an in-between at all. Roger Ebert commented that due to the film being made by the writer of Raiders of the Lost Ark, “it has some of the same reckless brilliance about it.” In fact many critics cited the film’s resemblance to several old Hollywood westerns, and added that here the filmmakers have managed to bring a new sense of energy and fun into the mix. One critic added that while many westerns tend to take a revisionist view of their material, Silverado fully embraces the old conventions with open arms. Thereby making it one of the most original westerns in many, many years. Ironically.
Many of the critics mused that if you did not enjoy the kind of adventure abundant in Raiders of the Lost Ark, along with small doses of the character relationships on display in Kasdan’s The Big Chill — then you probably would not enjoy Silverado. The Big Chill ?? I actually read that on Wikipedia, and went, “huh ??” But eventually my memory returned, and I remembered reading those same reviews back in ’85. Several critics did contrast and compare the film this way. I find that funny now. Just the idea of a writer standing in a pitch meeting at a studio: “Just imagine, it’s Raiders of the Lost Ark … meets The Big Chill.” Critics are sometimes so stupid, it’s palpable. The only reason they were bringing up The Big Chill was because Kevin Kline was in the goddamn movie. Other critics panned it, just calling the development of the character relationships the sinking of the ship. They really didn’t get it at all. Of course most of those people didn’t take their families to see the movie, either.
But there’s a reason why Raiders just keep popping up. That film’s unique style of action and adventure is sampled in Silverado, and quite often. And it works really well, actually. I always preferred the film over Pale Rider — and as inferred above, so did most fans of the 1981 Spielberg/Lucas collaboration. Too bad the studio didn’t (or couldn’t) use that to their advantage in the marketing of this film. Raiders style adventure in the old west. That’s half of what the film is.
The film was nominated for Academy Awards in Best Original Score and Best Sound Effects Editing. By the way, the film features a very interesting cameo by Monty Python comedian John Cleese, that many still believe is one of the best performances of his career.
#23 Open Range (2003)
Kevin Costner not only keeps popping up in my own list of favorite westerns, but if he maintains his occasional involvement in the western genre, he could someday catch up with to Clint Eastwood’s own track record. Seems to be his intention.
I saw this one and thought it was not merely a good western, but a very good film. And I had high hopes that the astonishing use of actual gunshots in digital surround sound would create a word of mouth that would generate a renewed interest in the western genre. What the hell, something’s gotta work eventually, right ? Didn’t really work out that way.
Based on the novel, “The Open Range Men” by prolific author Lauran Paine, the story focuses on an isolated incident during the “range wars” in Montana in 1882. Yet another common man against a wealthy bully and his hired thugs kind of a deal. There are all kinds of relationship themes and realistic character in evidence here. Some nice throw away moments, like Costner going after the dog in the rain. LOL And some really nice jarring moments, like the incident in the bar and the gunfight in the third act. I really like everything about this one, including the late Michael Kamen’s score. Just a great movie.
The film won several awards and got a really good response from critics. The film cost $22 Million and made close to $70. It broke even and made a profit — Hey ! Nice change of pace.
#24 The Long Riders (1980)
The Long Riders, director Hill’s first western, isn’t all that accurate, historically. Although four writers are credited (including the Keaches,) on imdb.com, Hill is also unofficially credited. And it’s probable that he completely revised the script to his liking. And Hill picks and chooses his historical accuracy, as he likes it. Very much like a salad bar.
But it still makes for a very distinctive movie about the James-Younger Gang. And the centerpiece is the Gang’s attempted raid of the First National Bank of Northfield, Minnesota in September of 1876. A unique historical incident, wherein the Gang was in the process of robbing the local bank, when the town citizens unexpectedly fought back, and won.
As stated, much of what is shown to transpire isn’t quite the way the bank raid happened. If the newspaper accounts had been followed by Hill more closely, this sequence could have been so much more of what Hill clearly intended. The true nature of what happened step by step, was material tailor made for a Walter Hill film. But this wasn’t the first film to portray the incident inaccurately, either. The same can be said for director Phillip Kaufman’s earlier The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, in 1972, and before it, Nicholas Ray’s The True Story of Jesse James, in 1957. To this day, this incident still hasn’t been translated to the screen accurately. It’s only been generalized. Which is why I did the research myself and wrote a more accurate version in Western Legend.
All of that aside, the film is a terrific example of Walter Hill’s distinctive and ultra-dynamic filming style. And a great inspiration to any writer or filmmaker. Like it or leave it, this is indeed one of those “auteur” films you hear about. Yet another case where you’re reminded that true cinema is a director’s medium. And not a medium that functions on the basis of a committee.
The director also made the unusual decision during pre-production of casting 4 separate sets of brothers, to play the actual brothers portrayed in the film. The Keach brothers, the Carradine brothers, the Quade brothers, and the Guest brothers. And the gimmick was used quite effectively in the film’s marketing. View the trailer below to see what I mean.
The music score by Ry Cooder won the 1980 Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for best music. The Long Riders cost $10 Million, and only made just over $15 Million.
#25 Tom Horn (1980)
Tom Horn was directed by a veteran television director named William Wiard, who may have stood in on-set only, as a surrogate for McQueen himself. This was a project McQueen had been developing for years, along with his motorcycle in the jungle, gold hunting adventure Yucatan; which never got made. And he had used actual journals kept by Tom Horn while he was in prison, awaiting his execution. Like so many other westerns before it, McQueen designed Horn as a character of the old world, attempting to acclimate to the new.
It’s not really an action film, or a thriller, or even a drama, really. It’s a story told in great little character moments. But it’s central character isn’t just an aesthetic prop. He’s the real deal, not a phony. And that’s a very interesting element here.
I initially took a look at the Wikipedia article on the film, and something jumped out at me immediately that convinced me to stay away from it. Tom Horn is listed as a gunfighter on Wikipedia. Something he never was, by literal, and even metaphorical definition and illustration. And that’s one of the things this film gets very, very accurate. McQueen may not look anything like Tom Horn, much of what is portrayed may involve composite characters and stray from the facts. But McQueen made sure to get his authentic impression of the authentic man, right. And those who’ve done the research will tell you, it’s pretty damn close. There have been others, here and there, but this is a studied, measured performance of the man’s psyche. And it’s often very haunting.
The film manipulates information to composite the last few years of Horn’s life. Including his arrest and hanging for the death of a teenager named Willie Nickell. It gets really complicated from there, so I’ll just say that if Horn did kill young Willie, most historians agree that he only did, because he mistook the younger Nickell for the elder father. Historically, rustling allegations had nothing to do with this incident. In the film, though, Horn is hired to assassinate the father, who has been accused of rustling. Horn does the job, only discovering in the immediate aftermath that he has shot a young boy and not his father.
The movie has great cinematography, and almost all westerns do, but it’s also very much in its tone and pacing, a 70’s film. And that’s sad, really, given that audiences were done with that and the time, and so eager to move on to the 80’s. Tom Horn cost $3 Million and made $9 Million, thereby recovering its cost and making a profit. Not a large one, but the film was financially solvent. McQueen had one other film released after this one: The Hunter. It was sort of a modern-day western, where he played a real life bounty hunter. It had its moments, but it wasn’t the final bow McQueen deserved. Tom Horn is.
Well, that’s my list. A number of films got pushed off, to make room for honesty. Such as Mark Rydell’s terrific film with John Wayne, The Cowboys, Quigley Down Under, the HBO TV Series Deadwood (mainly because I’ve still haven’t had a chance to watch beyond the initial 3 episodes,) Buffalo Bill and the Indians, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Pale Rider, High Plains Drifter, Hang ‘Em High, A Fistful of Dollar & For a Few Dollars More, Mustang Country … and I still haven’t seen either Shane, or Little Big Man for that matter.