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  The Big Roundup: Top 10 Westerns

TOP 10 LIST: The Big Roundup - Ten Best Westerns by Richard Bowden

I have tried to pick films by different directors, but in Ford's case this proved impossible. So many left out, too, by reasons of space, which arguably should be in: High Noon, Red River, Gun Fight At The OK Coral, and My Darling Clementine for a start... Most people associate a conservative genre like the Western with a certain look, treatment, time and place, and I have tried to reflect this, although it would be intriguing to compile an alternative list of revisionist, avant garde, silent or Z-grade productions. But, in no particular order...
Stagecoach (1939) director: John Ford
After a decade languishing in series and B-productions, John Wayne finally broke into the big time with this, a genre landmark as unmistakable as Monument Valley. Ford showed that the Western can be profound, beautiful and exciting, at the same time establishing a major star with an on-screen flourish. The social microcosm of the travellers in danger has been done again as a concept, but never as so well or as fresh.
The Magnificent Seven (1960) director: John Sturges
Sturges directed many fine Westerns (my personal favourite is the magnificent and less well-known Hour Of The Gun, 1967). The present film created a classic from a classic, established several major careers, premiered a superb score and set a new pattern for the genre all in one successful sweep. And so what did happen to Brad Dexter?
The Naked Spur (1953) director: Anthony Mann
Anthony Mann's work with James Stewart (Winchester '73 [1950] The Man From Laramie [1955], Bend Of The River [1952], & etc.) established a creative partnership which provided a high watermark of the 1950s Western. On balance, this film perhaps edges in front, as Mann's psychological presentation of landscape and Stewart's edgy performance provide an exemplary genre experience. Astonishingly, Stewart was making another series of great appearances for Hitchcock at the same time. Mann went onto revitalise the epic with El Cid (1961) and the wintery Fall Of The Roman Empire (1964).
Johnny Guitar (1954) director: Nicholas Ray
Nicholas Ray's masterpiece has been described as 'giddy' and 'baroque', and there's no denying the achievement of a work which combines political comment, genre play, control of screen space, with a glorious use of colour. Joan Crawford faces persecution from Mercedes Cambridge, while Sterling Haydn strums his stoicism in her doomed saloon. Peggy Lee sings the haunting title ballad.
Rio Bravo (1959) director: Howard Hawks
Neglected upon its release, now seen as perhaps Hawks' best Western outing (although Red River [1948] runs it very close). An 'old man' (Walter Brennan), 'a barfly' (Dean Martin) 'and a cripple' (John Wayne) hold the jail out against the bad guys, standing firm in a professional's reposte to the politics of High Noon (1952). Wayne plays with Angie Dickinson's red bloomers in an interesting subplot, enrichment missing from the almost-as-good remake El Dorado.
The Tall T (1957) director: Budd Boetticher
One of a small-scale series of films (Commanche Station [1960], Ride Lonesome [1959], etc), made by director Boetticher for the same producer with a lean and leathery Randolph Scott. They make fair claim to being the best B-Westerns ever made. The ageing Scott had a dignity and austerity, and worked with a series of taut scripts (this story by Elmore Leonard), which allowed him to cap a famous career with a run of great films. Each of them involve an unwilling journey, feature a superb range of heavies (Lee Marvin, Richard Boon, Claude Akins) and invoke a firm moral universe in which there are "some things a man just can't ride around."
The Searchers (1956) director: John Ford
"What makes a man wander? What leads a man to roam?" Ford's greatest film, in which everything he had to say in the genre appears with an intensity and poetry rare in 1950s cinema. Originally ignored by critics, then championed by the French, and now by such luminaries as Scorcese. Unlike some of his other films, Ford's broad humour seems all of apiece here, while the subplot echoes a concern with civilisation, memory and loss, taken up elsewhere. The final scene, as Ethan (John Wayne) steps back into the wilderness, is a tribute to his late mentor Harry Carey, and is one of the most affecting moments in his career.
The Wild Bunch (1969) director: Sam Peckinpah
More influential than Ride The High Country (1962) but less moving, The Wild Bunch revitalised the Western while creating a timely parable on America's brutal involvement in Vietnam. Best seen in the director's cut, which restored motivation and character depth, Peckinpah's elegiac view of the old West combines with magisterial technique, to create a controversial masterpiece.
Once Upon A Time in The West (1969) director: Sergio Leone
The greatest and most ambitious of all spaghetti Westerns, an operatic epic which still astonishes the viewer through its mixture of genre homage, music, image, and the artistic confidence to take its time. (Finding the best Italian Western isn't so easy as one might think, there were over 400 made in less than five years!). Henry Fonda gets to play a blue eyed killer, Woody Strode catches water in his hat and, in his best film, a brooding Charles Bronson plays his harmonica. The 'only at the point of death' sequence caps a daringly extended flashback structure. Leone's film adds to the increasing depth and complexities of his preceeding 'Dollars' trilogy, but enriches his universe with a new nostalgia and yearning for the past, all meticulously researched.
Unforgiven (1992) director: Clint Eastwood
Along with Eastwood's The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), perhaps the last great Western to date. Clint has grown old, and vengeance has grown cold. The moral effects of violence have never been worked out so persuasively as here, and Eastwood's feminist concerns shine as brightly as Hackman's star as the prostitutes are victimised.

previously published online at VideoVista #29 - August 2001

DOWSE Guide to the Movies is compiled by Tony Lee editor of Pigasus Press
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