9) Tombstone – I am sure there will be some people out there who want Tombstone at the top of the list, or at least close to the top. There is no question that Tombstone is probably the “coolest” Western picture out there, full of catchy one-liners and well-choreographed shootouts that are intriguing and get the adrenaline going. But as much as these things work in the film’s favor, they work against it from time to time. Some things are just too polished or cleaned up for Hollywood. I know Westerns are like this sometimes, and Tombstone is still exciting and fun. It just could be grittier. But the picture is elevated first and foremost by the performance of Val Kilmer, channeling great theatrics as Doc Holliday, the poetic outlaw cursed by tuberculosis, alcoholism, and gambling. Kilmer is a revelation.
8) High Noon – Short, simple, black and white in both color and thematic resonance, High Noon is another iconic Western that is more well known for its hero than its story. The great Gary Cooper plays Will Kane, the law in a small town. On his wedding day to Amy – the lovely Grace Kelly – Will learns that a man he sent to prison is coming back to exact his revenge on Will. When he tries to get the townspeople to help him, they turn their back on him, leaving him to face the murderer on his own. High Noon is a story about good versus bad, and the simplicity of the plot is elevated by the cast that includes Cooper, Kelly, Lloyd Bridges as a Deputy, and even a rare non-horror appearance from Lon Chaney Jr.
7) The Magnificent Seven – Most Western stories have been told before, some remade, others retooled for a different time and place. The Magnificent Seven, however, is still a rarity. It is a film remade from a pure classic that is a classic of its own. The source material of The Magnificent Seven, Akira Kurosawa’s masterful Seven Samurai, is a wonderful bit of cinematic history, so it is hard ot imagine any sort of remake coming close. The Magnificent Seven takes these Samurai and makes them gunfighters, defending a Mexican village from a ruthless band of criminals. What makes TMS so special is the assembly of the seven gunfighters. Yul Brynner, Eli Wallach, Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Robert Vaughn, Brad Dexter, and a young Charles Bronson make up the all star cast of vigilantes. A firecracker of a Western.
6) The Wild Bunch – Director Sam Peckinpah’s nihilistic Western adventure took audiences by surprise when it was released in 1969. The violence and the climactic bloody shootout – coming off the heels of something similar in Bonnie and Clyde – was a sign pointing toward the new direction of Hollywood. Starring William Holden as the leader of a band of outlaws looking to get one last big score (sound familiar?) before they ride off into the sunset. The score happens at the beginning of the film, and they spend the rest of the time trying to outrun the law. The whole notion exists in The Wild Bunch too that the Wild West is dying around them and law and order are becoming the way of things. Their way of life is dying off, and so there can be only one fate for these characters. Peckinpah was never one to shy away from controversy or conflict in his working style or in his finished product, and The Wild Bunch was no exception.
5) The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly – This is where the list becomes interchangeable. Well, 5 through 2 become interchangeable; one deserves its spot. This most iconic Clint Eastwood Western, spanning nearly three hours, is rich in texture and mood, sound and delivery. Three different men search for a missing treasure, leading them to a cemetery in the desert where the finest of all cinematic standoffs takes place. The standoff lasts what seems to be an hour, but the great tension is ample payoff for being patient. Director Sergio Leone took great chances with this film, a film that has practically an entire other movie in the middle revolving around Civil War soldiers destroying a bridge. What is so fantastic about Leone’s picture, outside of the morality tale and the entire production, is the unforgettable score by Ennio Morricone. The music is perhaps as iconic as Eastwood’s character, The Man with No Name.
4) Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – Far and away the most lighthearted Western on this list, Butch and Sundance succeeds on the magnetism and the chemistry of the two leads, Robert Redford, and Paul Newman. Newman and Redford play Butch and Sundance, respectively, and are a couple of wisecracking bank robbers from the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang. When the law begins to bear down on them they decide to flee to Bolivia. While the fate of these two outlaws is not necessarily comedic, Butch and Sundance has much more of a fun, adventurous flair than most Westerns. Newman and Redford, of course play off each other marvelously. And from the death-defying jump from a cliff into a river below, to the iconic final shot of them blasting their way out of an impossible situation,Butch and Sundance has more than enough life and vitality for one Western classic.
3) The Proposition – Many of you might be scratching your head here. Not because The Proposition doesn’t deserve the spot – it most certainly does – but because many of you may have never even seen or heard of it. This Australian Western, directed by John Hillcoat (who would go on to direct The Road last year) stars Guy Pearce as one of three murderous brothers. He is captured by a British lawman (Ray Winstone) and given the chance to turn over his older brother, the truly wicked leader of the gang, in order to save his younger simple-minded brother. The Proposition is one of the rare Westerns that develops a more complicated plot, rich with themes of morality and forgiveness and the nature of violence in us all. This is sometimes a shockingly violent picture, other times the beauty of the imagery is almost overwhelming. And the score from Nick Cave is as haunting as the events that unfold.
2) The Searchers – This is the consensus best Western picture from the film community as a whole, John Ford’s biggest and best collaboration with John Wayne. It deserves the praise, but for my money cannot beat out number one here. Even if you haven’t seen The Searchers, you have seen the influence the picture had on the rest of cinema. John Ford’s adventure, about a man searching for his young niece, trying to save her although she may not even want to be saved, is one of the films that influenced Martin Scorsese the most. And you can see the similarities between The Searchers – out of touch man trying to save a woman who isn’t asking to be saved – and Scorsese’s brilliant Taxi Driver. While there is overt racism and Wayne’s character Ethan is despicable at times, there is no denying the power and the scope of Ford’s work.
1) Unforgiven – Clint Eastwood spent so many years playing the gunfighter, the hired assassin, the man looking for revenge, the man with no name and no place; so it is only fitting that his most accomplished work and the best Western film of all time, would be the antithesis of everything he once was in the West. This time, Eastwood plays the ghost of a former killer, Willilam Munny. Munny is coaxed back into killing for cash, traveling to Wyoming to kill two men who cut up a woman. Less concerned with plot devices and more concerned with the notion of the sun setting on lawlessness in society, Unforgiventakes the time to consider what killing another man might do to the man who pulled the trigger. It exists in a grey area, where the heroes have been villains and the villains have a reason for their actions that may make them not so evil. This is out of the ordinary for the genre, and it is what sets Unforgiven apart from the rest.