The Federalist recently published a popular article that did not deliver what it advertised. “The Top 10 Westerns Ever Made, Plus 10 More Deep Cuts” was deeply disappointing to this film buff. So here’s a deeper, better, alternative list of westerns.
1. ‘My Darling Clementine’
This is John Ford’s greatest western. “The Searchers” is extremely overrated, and “Stagecoach” is very, very boring. “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” is a truly great film, but not much of a western. It’s a political drama with western trappings. No, “My Darling Clementine” is probably Ford’s greatest film and easily his best western.
Henry Fonda plays Wyatt Earp and Walter Brennan is Old Man Clanton. Brennan is one of the greatest actors of all time, but his most iconic roles are as likable doofs in Howard Hawks films. Here he plays one of the great screen villains of all time.
The film vacillates between tension and heartwarming Americana with an amazing buildup to the climatic shootout at the OK Corral. Fonda is at his naive everyman best throughout. Of course, “Tombstone” is the definitive Earps versus Clantons adaptation if you’re looking for authenticity, but if you’re looking for the Earp myth, “Clementine” is the definitive telling. This is the print-the-legend version. And a good legend it is.
2. ‘Man of the West’
“High Noon” is in the top ten, even top five greatest films ever made. It’s a perfect film and almost certainly the greatest western ever made. So “Man of the West” is merely an alternative excellent western starring Gary Cooper. It’s also one of the less respected Anthony Mann westerns. It’s a great film and deserves a much wider audience.
3. ‘The Naked Spur’
“The Naked Spur” should be front and center when excellent films are discussed, let alone excellent westerns. This is Mann’s greatest western and one of Jimmy Stewart’s best performances. He’s cast as a bit of an antihero. The spaghetti westerns are almost always the place where reviewers tend to say the revision of the western myth vis a vis nihilism came into play. But it was actually much earlier, with films like this.
Mann’s westerns in particular are often known as psychological westerns because of the existential darkness that pervades them. They are all worth checking out, but this one is the best of that bunch by a long shot.
The truth is, “Shane” stinks. It’s very boring, and nothing happens. It had resonance at one time, but that time is long gone. Thankfully, now that we have “Logan” no one ever has to watch “Shane” again. It’s not because “Logan” remade “Shane,” but because “Logan” used “Shane” as a simple but profound semiotic frame.
“Logan” is most definitely a western. If you want to argue that point, then you simply don’t know what a western is. It has the trappings of science fiction and superheros, but its bones and muscles came from Zane Grey. The character “Shane” takes the violence of the world upon himself as a Christ figure when he defeats Jack Palance’s villain then leaves the valley.
Midway through the film, Laura watches “Shane” with Professor X. At the end, Laura uses Shane’s words to lay Logan to rest: “A man has to be what he is, Joey. Can’t break the mold. There’s no living with the killing. There’s no going back. Right or wrong, it’s a brand. A brand that sticks. Now you run on home to your mother…you tell her everything’s alright. There are no more guns in the valley.”
Logan was a man made for violence. But he tried to use his violence to defend the innocent, like a knight errant, which is exactly what Shane was supposed to be. Logan absorbed the evil of this world, and embraced his horrible, lonely destiny to protect the innocent from evil and ultimately lay down his life.
The most moving part of this film is just after the speech. Laura begins to walk away, but then she turns back. There is a cross on top of Logan’s grave. But Logan wasn’t a Christian, he was an X-Man, right? She turns the cross on its side, making it an X, actually making it more Christological. The Greek word for Christ is Christos. In Greek, it’s spelled with an X: Xristos.
Then, best of all: as the credits begin to roll, Johnny Cash’s eschatological “Man Comes Around” plays. The good news shows up in some weird places, in this case some weird western places.
5. ‘The Great Silence’
Three Sergios defined the Italian Western genre: Corbucci, Leone, and Sollima. Leone is by far the greatest of them. But Sergio Corbucci is solidly in second place, mostly because of this odd film. It is almost impossible to find. But my single viewing was absolutely perfect.
The New Beverly is Quentin Tarantino’s little theater in Los Angeles that simulates a classic “low cinema” environment. In other words, it’s a middle finger to the modern multiplex and its endless parade of stupid, big-budget, boring nonsense. This theater has one screen, and they show double features every night, projected exclusively on 35mm film.
Sadly, almost all the original reels of “The Great Silence” are lost. The 35mm we watched was flown in that night from abroad because it was newly rediscovered. And it was completely worth it. This is one of the rare snow westerns. They paired it that night with Tarantino’s newly released (at that time) “H8.”
“H8” is basically a combination of two of Tarantino’s favorite films: “The Great Silence” and “The Thing.” But “The Great Silence” is unique, even among the oddness that is spaghetti westerns. The main character is mute, and his name is Silence. He carries the iconic Mauser C96 instead of a typical western revolver-style hand-gun. (Incidentally, that is the same gun Han Solo’s DL-44 Blastech Blaster Pistol is built around.)
Silence is beautifully portrayed by the French film director Jean-Louis Trintignant. He’s paired up against the incomparable Klaus Kinski as one of the most despicable villains to ever grace the silver screen. I don’t want to reveal much more than that, but it’s very good. If you have the chance to see this film, just do it. It’s not for everybody, but it’s as close to a real-life unicorn as you’ll ever find.
6. ‘El Dorado’
“Rio Bravo” is a pure delight, and Hawks liked it so much that he remade it twice. But the first remake might be superior to the original, for three simple reasons: take away Angie Dickinson and Ricky Nelson and replace them with Robert Freaking Mitchum!
Angie Dickinson is crazy stupid sexy, but she feels completely out of place in “Rio Bravo.” She isn’t a good example of the Hawksian woman because she’s mostly objectified and basically just a distraction for John Wayne. Lauren Bacall would’ve kicked her butt and put out a cigarette in her hair without blinking. Also, Nelson is just plain awful. It’s amazing that the film is as good as it is.
“El Dorado” doesn’t have any flaws like that. It’s pretty much perfect. Mitchum is great in it, and we actually get to see Wayne deal with a physical disability. He has a bullet in his spine, which sometimes causes him to seize up. The threat of this brings some great tension to the film and uncharacteristic vulnerability to his character. “Red River” and “Rio Bravo” are great, but “El Dorado” is probably superior to both.
7. ‘The Three Amigos’
Of all the U.S. adaptations of Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece “Shichinin No Samurai” (“Seven Samurai”), this one is the best. If ye of little faith doubt me, just compare the stories. But the less said about “The Magnificent Seven,” the better.
“A Bug’s Life” is also a better adaptation of “Seven Samurai” than “The Magnificent Seven” is. It’s the exact same plot, but with the amigos’ comedic twist done with bugs. Skip “The Magnificent Seven” and watch the original epic or its comedic cousins. Kurosawa is essential viewing anyway, but “Seven Samurai” might be the single greatest piece of filmmaking ever.
8. ‘Bone Tomahawk’
This film is brutal. It’s not for everyone. In fact, it’s sort of a crossover between the western and the horror genres. Believe it or not, there’s a name for that: weird west. But if you can stomach some gruesomeness, this film is amazing.
Richard Jenkins channels Walter Brennan beautifully. Kurt Russell is his usual fantastic self. Even Matthew Fox proves he can actually act. Also, it has virtually no score. That sounds terrible, until you realize music tells us how to feel while watching a film. Take away the music, and you don’t know how you’re supposed to feel while watching a scene. The impact is amazingly tense.
I cannot praise this film enough. It’s extremely violent at parts, but the end result is a western for the ages. There’s really nothing else like it.
Anything scripted by Taylor Sheridan, such as “Sicario,” “Hell or High Water,” and “Wind River,” are all fundamentally westerns in contemporary settings and they are all excellent. I am eagerly anticipating the “Sicario” sequel.
Actual Deep Cuts
- “The Bravados”
- “The Gunfighter”
- “The Proposition”
- “Silverado” (not a deep cut, but essential viewing for Western fans)
- “Ulzana’s Raid”
I didn’t include any Sam Peckinpah, because he’s severely overrated.