The Western has been with us for as long as Cinema has existed. Some of the earliest silent films were Westerns, and their popularity endures to this day. I have tried to avoid the John Ford classics, as well as others, like ‘High Noon’, on the grounds that they are very well known, hence too familiar; with the same criterion excluding John Wayne, and there are far too many to choose from, given his long career. Despite this, at least two of my choices are very obvious, and repeatedly shown on TV. I will attempt to justify their inclusion, and to introduce the other three to some new viewers.
Open Range. Directed by, and co-starring Kevin Costner, this 2003 film treads familiar ground. Cattle herders, clinging to the long-held right to graze their animals on the open range of the title, come up against an unscrupulous rancher and landowner, who controls the nearby small town. This sounds like the same old story, and it is, to some degree. There is a magic in the mix somewhere, that takes it up a notch, and raises it well above the crowd of similar offerings that we have seen before. Robert Duvall, as the boss of the small group of herders, gives yet another superb performance, as a man who can see that his time is coming to an end, and he must adapt, or fade away. His one last act of defiance, is not to give in to the vicious landowner, and his gang of thugs. Kevin Costner, returning to the screen after disastrous performances many years earlier, shows that he acts best when he says less. The script is good, and the characters make you want to follow their stories, and to see the outcome. There are nice performances by Annette Bening, as an over-the-hill love interest, and Michael Jeter, in a great character role, as the livery stable man Percy, who throws in on the side of the underdogs. Period feel is good, and the climactic gunfight is totally believable, edge of the seat stuff. Here is the complete film-in widescreen, as it should be seen.
Bad Company. Perhaps not strictly a Western, as it is set much earlier than most, during the Civil War, in 1863. We have to go all the way back to 1972, to see a young Jeff Bridges steal every scene he is in, as the immoral young bandit. A little known film, deserving of a much greater reputation, there is so much to enjoy in this meandering tale of misspent youth. Young Drew (Barry Brown) is a well-brought up Northern boy, trying to avoid conscription into the Union Army. He heads West. and soon falls in with a band of youngsters, some little more than children, and joins them on their journey along the wrong path in life. On the way, they learn harsh lessons, and encounter all kinds of diverse characters. In addition to well-observed performances from the leads, every tiny part, every cameo, is played to perfection by some wonderful, almost unknown actors. A real gem, unfortunately hard to track down these days. Here is a short clip, that gives a flavour of the film.
Tombstone. One of the more familiar choices, I grant you. Arguably the better of the two films portraying the life and times of Wyatt Earp and his entourage, released within a year of each other, in 1993 and 1994. This is the earlier version, with Kurt Russell as Wyatt, (the other version starred Kevin Costner in the role) and the intense Stephen Lang, as his arch-enemy, Ike Clanton. There is the familiar build-up, with the Earp clan slowly taking control of gambling and saloons, before branching out into law enforcement, to safeguard their interests. The famous real event, The Gunfight at the OK Corral, is featured of course, but it is a long story, and spans most of Earp’s life. There are two things that make it special though, and they really do make a difference; not only deciding who made the best ‘Wyatt Earp’ film, but giving this one a place in the Western Hall of Fame. The first is obvious really, the casting. Everyone is completely right for their part, down to the smallest extra, and the list reads like a ‘who’s who’ of anyone good, that was around at the time. Sam Elliot, Bill Paxton, Michael Biehn, Powers Boothe, Billy Bob Thornton, Charlton Heston, Jason Priestly; and I could go on. Even Robert Mitchum is there, though unseen, as a narrator. The other thing that makes this film an instant classic, is the standout performance from Val Kilmer, as Doc Holliday. I am not normally a huge fan of Mr. Kilmer, but he proves himself in this film, beyond any doubt. He crams it all in, humour, pathos, style, and class. When he is on screen, you cannot take your eyes off him. You may well have seen it. If so, watch it again. Here is the trailer, from the American release.
The Long Riders. This is a marvellous film from director Water Hill, made in 1980. It tells the story of the Jessie James gang, with their compatriots the Younger brothers, Miller brothers, and the Ford brothers. This is familiar stuff, again well-trodden in film history. What makes this one different, is an unusual casting decision. They chose real acting brothers, to play the parts of brothers on screen. Stacy and James Keach play the James boys, with all three Carradines as the Youngers, and Randy Quaid and his brother Dennis, are the Millers. The Guest brothers, Christopher and Nicholas, complete the set, as the Fords. This idea works so well, with the interplay between the characters completely believable, as well as some physical similarities adding to authenticity. There is obvious sympathy for the gang. Treated unfairly after being on the losing side during the Civil War, they seem to have little option other than to embark on a life of crime. The disastrous bank raid at Northfield Minnesota, contributing to the demise of the gang, is a brilliantly staged set piece. This is a hugely enjoyable, ‘modern’ western, with a feel for the characters that goes beyond the normal ‘man with a gun’ storyline. This clip shows the shootout during the bank raid in Northfield. Amazing stuff, at least at that time.
The Outlaw Josey Wales. It couldn’t be ‘Westerns’ without a Clint Eastwood, or could it? I might easily have decided not to include anything he has done. I never liked any of the ‘Spaghetti Westerns’ that he was so famous for, and the later films, such as the Oscar-winner ‘Unforgiven’, are, in my humble opinion, overrated. This one is different, in every way, yet still familiar Eastwood territory, and directed by him, as is often the case too. Made in 1976, this deals with a vengeful man, whose wife has been killed by border raiders during the Civil War. He joins the Confederate militia, and becomes a ruthless killer, searching for those responsible for his wife’s death. Betrayed after the end of the war, he heads off to start a new life. On the way, he meets an Indian squaw, a displaced old lady and her daughter, a wily Indian Chief, (a fantastic part for Chief Dan George) and he also reluctantly adopts a mangy stray dog. This unlikely group band together with the few inhabitants of a Ghost Town, and go off to settle on a farm, left to the old lady by her dead son. Once there, they have to fight off warlike Indians, and then agree an uneasy truce, when Josey’s old nemesis from the Civil War finally tracks him down. This is a film that has everything, and unusually, a film where everything works. And works very well. Here is the trailer.
I hope you find something new here, or are inspired to revisit old ground. Either way, I think you will be pleased with most, if not all, of this selection. If you are not a fan of Western films, then you may never explore any of them. I would just ask that you look beyond the saddles and six-shooters for once, and you will discover some legendary performances.