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Sunday, August 12, 2012

My 10 Favorite Westerns of all Time

Fueled by my growing re-interest in the Old West in general I’ve been either watching for the first time or re-watching many Westerns. My dad is a big fan of them and I watched quite a few in my youth/teens with him and then drifted away to other pursuits. As I noted in my post about Boot Hill I never played it since we were so focused on D and D. With my reawakening of Westerns my thoughts
have turned to western themed RPGs and my favorite westerns of all time

My list is not going to be to everyone’s taste and since I was born in a decade where they were decidedly on the decline (the 70s), my list will reflect my age. If I were to ask my Dad I’m sure his will be different with some being the same; some are timeless. So without further delay, this time in reverse order, my top 10 favorite Westerns of all time. 

#10 Open Range- This will surprise many people I think, but it’s actually quite a good movie. Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall are great in this movie as is Annette Benning. In a few places the movie wanders off script in terms of logic and consistency, but for the most part tells a very good story of the end of the open range and the rise of the cattle barons. In fact the end of the open range was one of the defining moments of the Old West.

Costner’s character Charlie is not an anti-hero per say, but a man troubled by his past. When it comes to gun fighting however Charlie is more akin to an Old West version of Liam Neeson’s character in Taken. He just goes to town and obliterates everything in sight.

While some might see it as contrite the budding romance between Costner and Benning’s characters is a good representation of how people approached courtship in the 1800s: stilted, awkward but well meaning.

#9 Silverado- This is my guilty pleasure movie as far as Westerns, but you can’t go wrong with the cast, it’s damn impressive: Kevin Kline, Brian Dennehy, Jeff Goldbloom, Scott Glen, Kevin Costner, Danny Glover, Rosanna Arquette, John Cleese and many more. It seems that ensemble cats work well in westerns and Silverado certainly has the right actors. 

Silverado is a throwback to the traditional western tales after the revisionist’s westerns of the late 60’s and 70s. The tale is fun; you care about the good guys and actually want them to win. The fact that the movie is well shot, directed and done well in terms of cinematography just add to it. The final gun battle at the end has so many great scenes it’s hard to not like this movie.

#8 A Fist Full of Dollars- “My mule don’t like people laughing at him, gets the funny feeling they’re laughing at him” and “My mistake…. four coffins.” Those two lines are some of the best lines ever uttered in a movie, let alone a Western. Fist Full of Dollars is awesome! Oh yes, “The Man with no Name”, is a pretty cool moniker.

 #7 True Grit- If I had to pick just one John Wayne film it would be this one. His portrayal of Rooster is great! Some might not like it because its John Wayne, playing John Wayne, but I liked it well enough.

#6 Dances with Wolves- Surprisingly Costner makes the list again, but this movie is impossible to ignore in the Western genre. It’s telling that it’s a great story that has nothing really in common with other westerns, mainly focusing on Indians and Lt. John Dunbar’s interactions with them. In other words it’s a story that happens to take place in the west.

Dances is a visual and auditory masterpiece with sweeping vistas and scenery and magnificent soundtrack to accompany it. The majesty of Dunbar’s first ride through the plains with the “John Dunbar theme” playing is cinematic gold.

The movie and its characters span the range of human emotion: despair, loneliness, hope, friendship, love, hate, madness, pragmatism, and laughter.

Perhaps my favorite scene of the movie is the one where the old Indian chief pulls forth a Spanish conquistador helmet when he and Dunbar are talking about the coming of the white-man. The chief says this was from the time of his grandfather’s grandfather; implying that the Indians would survive this too. The viewer gets a great sense of sadness knowing that the Chief doesn’t know the tidal wave of settlers that is coming. Costner (the director too) side steps this by having the Indians leave their winter camp before the Army arrives. He then wisely ends the movie then and there, but sadly tells the story of the end of the Indian way of life as the end credits roll.

In short Dances with Wolves is nothing short of breathtaking.

#5 HighPlains Drifter- A Clint Eastwood western with a touch of supernatural? Yes please. High Plains Drifter is a great story because the real villains in the movie are the townspeople themselves that the Drifter is there to defend. They are villains because the townsfolk murdered the Sheriff. Time goes by and the mysterious Drifter appears in town. It is alluded to (but never said definitively) that the mysterious Drifter is the sheriff having returned from the grave. Drifter is one of those movies that makes you think, especially at the very end when the Drifter rides away from Lago at the very end with the midget working on a tombstone that you can’t see what is inscribed on it. The midget says he doesn’t know the Drifter, to which the Drifter replies, “Yes, you do” and it shows the tombstone of Joe Morgan, the murdered sheriff.  

#4 The Searchers- This is widely regarded as the greatest western of all time and was registered as culturally significant by the Library of Congress in 1989. That alone says something. Additionally the American Film Institute named it as the greatest Western of all time in 2008. Directed by John Ford, starring John Wayne, and Natalie Woods the Searchers is THE Western for the older demographic. My own memories of it are hazy as I think I may have watched it one time only. It’s already at the top of my list to rewatch. Because my recollections are dim I’m looking forward to this one, as it will be like watching it for first time.

#3 The Good,The Bad, The Ugly- Out of the three in the Dollars Trilogy, the Good, The Bad, and the Ugly is by far the best. That’s not to say that the others a Fistful  of Dollars and a Few Dollars more are bad, its that The Good, The Bad, The Ugly is that good.

The twists and turns of the movie leave you at the edge of your seat as the movie traces Tuco (the Ugly) and Angel Eyes (the Good) pursuit of $200,000 in Confederate gold. The Mexican standoff at the end with the soaring score is likewise impressive as is the ending.

#1B Tombstone- It’s very tough to not list this movie and number 1, so I think of it as 1B. This movie is perhaps the finest retelling of the legendary gunfight at the OK Corral in Tombstone Az, on October 26th, 1881. The previous “standard” was the Battle for the Ok Corral in the 1950s that left a lot to be desired.

The gunfight and the Earp Vendetta ride was THE event of the West, even with the myth that surrounds it so it’s fitting that this movie is at the top of the heap. Tombstone features an ensemble cast of Kurt Russell, Powers Boothe, Val Kilmer, Michael Biehn, Sam Elliot, Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton, Stephen Lang, Jason Priestly and Charleton Heston amongst others. But it is the acting
of Kilmer as Doc Holliday that steals the show. Doc as Wyatt would recollect later “was the deadliest, fastest, nerviest man I ever saw”. The whole movie touches on almost every part of the Earp/Cowboy war and where it takes liberties it does a good job making them plausible and seamless.

The telling also does well in presenting a fairly balanced view of the Earps. The Earps were canonically the “good guys” but their dealings in town says otherwise. The Earps weren’t necessarily the good guys and the cowboys weren’t necessarily the bad guys. The fact that event in the events of 1881 people on both sides were split in their loyalties.

The actors, particularly Russell, do a great job with the dialogue making it seem that you are actually in 1881. With all this in mind Kilmer as a menacing, Latin quoting stone cold killer with a southern drawl did the best acting as Doc Holliday. Closely behind him is Biehn’s portrayal of Johnny Ringo.
Going hand in hand with this is the cinematography since it was actually shot in Arizona.

#1A Unforgiven-  Of all of Clint Eastwood’s westerns, which are considerable, this one stands head and shoulders above the rest. Forget for a moment that this won Academy Awards (earning Eastwood Best Director) think of the script itself. Eastwood sat on it for 25 years so he would be just the right age to play William Munny. Now normally I don’t like anti-heroes who are anti-heroes for the sake of it, but Munny is cut from a different cloth: a man who was a drunken, stone cold killer whose acts include “dynamiting the Rock and Island in ‘69 killing women and children.” Let that sink in for a minute. So when he comes out of retirement for one more job, he’s doing it for the sake of his kids. Of course he’s coming out of retirement to kill two men who cut the face of a prostitute.

The cast of this movie is epic: Eastwood, Gene Hackman, & Morgan Freeman. Those three
alone make it a great. The interplay of William (Eastwood) and Ned (Freeman) is what makes the movie, then it shifts for the final scene where Munning takes it to Little Bill.

From the story side of the tale the best part about it is that the main characters are being contrasted by WW Buechamp’s writings throughout the movie with the mythological west and its events. In other words the how’s and what’s of what really happened and how they were reported or perceived being two different things. Hackman’s Little Bill is menacing without being over the top; a hard man who
utters some immortal lines, but none better then “Hell I even thought I was dead, turned out I was just in Nebraska.”

The final scene is perhaps the finest scene of cinema related to a Western, they don’t get better then this:

Honorable mention goes to the likes of Pale Rider, Hang em High, Little Big Man, Outlaw Josey Wales, Once Upon a time in the West, and Two Mules for Sister Sarah. There are plenty of great westerns and it’s a shame that the current regimes in Hollywood has rendered them as “already been done”. From what I understand the remake of True Grit and the movie Appaloosa are worthy westerns to see.


  1. 1. Once Upon a Time in the West
    2. Unforgiven
    3. Rio Bravo
    4. The Good, The Bad and the Ugly
    5. Ride The High Country
    6. The Searchers
    7. The Magnificent Seven
    8. The Wild Bunch
    9. High Plains Drifter
    10. High Noon

  2. The list changes quite a bit. Ride the High Country didn't jump onto the list until I finally saw it several years ago, it was a hidden gem. Likewise a few have fallen off during the years as now I view them as too dated or cliche(I honestly can't sit through Shane anymore). But yeh there is a solid core of about two dozen westerns you could interchange in a list like this without any complaints!

    1. I don't know man, Shane is western gold. Its practically canon in the western genre.

  3. Ackkkkk, blogpress lite really screwed up those edits. I think I need to stop using Word for typing these out as its grabbing formatting too. blech.

  4. Unforgiven...and particularly that gun"fight"... are the best a Western can get in my smacks of reality like no other movie of this genre that I have seen.

    Whats your take on the new version of True Grit? I'm a huge fan of the Cohen Brothers but have not seen this one yet myself.

    1. I have yet to see the remake of True Grit, but someone I trust who is a huge movie buff says its very good and she's no majorly keen on westerns.