The movie Western has been in decline for so long that no one film is going to pull it from its commercial doldrums.
Yet the success of the Coen brothers’ “True Grit” — $36 million in ticket sales over its first five days in theaters — offers a glimmer of hope that a once-beloved genre may yet retain a bit of life in those stiff bowed legs.
Expect “Grit” to surpass the Coens’ previous box office record of $74 million for 2007’s “No Country for Old Men.”
Paramount Pictures reports that 70 percent of the opening weekend audience was older than 25 — but that still means “True Grit” was seen by thousands of young people who had never before watched an oater on the big screen. For them the sight of tiny horsemen galloping across a vast landscape and enacting a classic tale of murder, pursuit and revenge must have been a wake-up call.
Now, perhaps, they begin to understand why Grandpa rhapsodizes about the Duke and Jimmy Stewart, about gunfights and barn dances, about the thrill of a cavalry column riding through the spectacular buttes of Monument Valley.
And maybe, just maybe, a few of those young people will be moved to further explore the genre, to see what pleasures they’ve been missing.
But where to begin?
Glad you asked.
Here’s my list of 10 essential Westerns. Now, all fans of cowboy movies have their own criteria for greatness. Mine is probably a bit more rigorous than most.
The following are not just great Westerns. They’re great movies that happen to be Westerns. In many cases, these films stand a bit outside the mainstream of Western movie tradition by commenting on the very notion of what a Western entails.
So while you’ll get cowboys and Indians and gun battles here, you’ll also find a deep vein of revisionism as various filmmakers — and there are some great ones represented here — not only celebrate the genre but pick it apart to see what makes it tick.
Let’s start with a couple of traditional classics, both directed by John Ford, Hollywood’s greatest maker of Westerns:
In “Stagecoach” (1939), passengers take a cross-country trek during an Apache uprising. There’s some terrific action (stunts by the great Yakima Canutt), but the real thrill is in the interplay of the characters. There’s a banker making a getaway with embezzled funds, a boozy physician and a mousy liquor salesman. Especially there’s a prostitute (Claire Trevor), who’s been driven out of town by the bluenoses, and a cowboy (John Wayne) on the run from the law.
The film is hugely enjoyable, and it made Wayne a full-fledged movie star (after a decade of kicking around in B movies).
Ford’s “My Darling Clementine” (1946) re-creates the friendship of Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) and Doc Holliday (Victor Mature) and the famous shootout at the O.K. Corral. In addition to having the best Mature performance ever, the film is a visually ravishing poem about the taming of the West. Just as Earp brings law to the frontier, the title character (Cathy Downs) offers a civilizing influence — she’s a teacher.
“Shane” (1953) offers a template that has been recycled through countless subsequent Westerns. A former gunfighter (Alan Ladd) puts away his six-shooters and hires on as a farm hand for a sod-busting couple (Van Heflin, Jean Arthur) and their little boy (Brandon DeWilde). When local farmers are persecuted by a ruthless cattle baron, Shane must once again strap on his weapons. George Stevens’ film gains extra poignancy and mythos by being seen through the child’s eyes.
But in the mid-‘50s, something changed. Most of the Western tropes had been worn out, and filmmakers began re-examining the genre.
Ford’s “The Searchers” (1956) is one of his darkest films. Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, an Indian hater who mounts a years-long search to find the tribe who killed his brother’s family and kidnapped a young girl.
This was Ford’s letter of apology to American Indians. For decades he’d made Indians the faceless heavies of his films. Here Wayne is a racist whose goal is not to rescue his niece but to kill her, since she has undoubtedly been “ruined” by her life as a warrior’s squaw.
Heavy stuff for the Eisenhower era. But it was just the beginning.
Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” (1969) is almost as shocking today as it was 40 years ago, with hypnotic “blood ballets” that were meant to show audiences the awfulness of violence but instead elevated mayhem to poetry.
Running out of lawless frontier, a bank-robbing gang (William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Ben Johnson, Warren Oates) flees to Mexico and gets involved in the 1917 revolution on behalf of a despicable general with the federales.
Thematically it may be the richest Western ever. It also features three of the greatest action sequences to be captured on film.
In “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” (1971), from Robert Altman, a bumbling gambler (Warren Beatty) decides to build a sporting house in a Northwest mining town. With a professional madame (Julie Christie) he creates such a going enterprise that soon thugs representing big business show up to take over.
The acting is low-key and engaging. It’s fascinating to watch the town being built board by board. And in creating a tale of carnivorous corporate capitalism, Altman was 30 years ahead of his time.
Kevin Costner’s “Dances With Wolves” (1990) is one of two great films to examine the West through American Indian eyes (the other is 1950’s “Broken Arrow”). In the last days of the Civil War, a Union officer (Costner) is sent to a remote post on the prairie and is adopted by a Lakota tribe.
Winner of seven Oscars (including best picture and director) “Wolves” works as a great escapist fantasy (we vicariously get to play Indian), as a celebration of noble primitivism and as a eulogy for a vanishing way of life.
Clint Eastwood became famous playing tight-lipped, cigar-chewing gunfighters, murderous machines who specialized in high body counts. In his Oscar-winning “Unforgiven” (1992), he toyed with that man-with-no-name image by portraying an apparently irredeemable bad man who comes out of retirement to collect a reward offered by a maimed prostitute for the murder of her attackers.
The movie works both as a brooding Western and as a meditation on the mythologizing process that turns evil men into heroes.
“Open Range” (2003), also directed by and starring Costner, is a throwback to a less cynical time. He and Robert Duvall are cattle drovers who run into trouble when they try to graze on ground claimed (illegally) by a powerful landowner.
The film has an amazing extended shootout in a muddy frontier town, but the real thrill here is the relationship between Duvall and Costner as men who have ridden together for years but only really learn about one another in what may be their last minutes of life.
Finally there’s “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (2007), a visually splendid and morally vexing yarn that depicts Jesse (Brad Pitt) as an increasingly paranoid killer who’s a danger to everyone. It was directed by New Zealander Andrew Dominik, making it the only Western on this list not helmed by an American-born filmmaker.
Here’s a dreamy blend of art-film sensibilities, familiar Western elements and an almost documentary immediacy. The movie turns upside down our ideas of Western heroism — both the scary Jesse and his back-shooting killer (Casey Affleck) are creeps, yet the film has an almost tragic inevitability that keeps us glued. It’s almost not a Western.