If you are a “movie-a-holic” as I am, you can’t escape the western. Let’s face it, the western movie is an iconic American treasure. When I was stationed overseas, I was constantly asked questions by the locals, “are there still cowboys in America? Do Arizona and Texas really look like they do in the movies? Do all Americans wear cowboy hats?”
Even in foreign countries, the western has made an indelible impression which continues today. In many ways, the western movie captures the spirit of our country and the rugged individualism that made America the great nation it is today.
Here is my list of the ten best Hollywood westerns that have graced the silver screen:
10. Big Jake (1971). It’s fitting this list should start with a John Wayne film. The Duke is in his element as a grandfather dealing with low-life kidnappers for the safe return of his grandson. John Wayne’s real life son and grandson are part of this cast. Good all-around flick.
9. The Long Riders (1980). At least four sets of real life brothers play historical brothers in this action-packed story of the James-Younger Gang in the 1870s. David Carradine does a particularly good job as Cole Younger and his constant friction with gang leader Jesse James (James Keach). The final shootout in Northfield, Minnesota is well done in slow motion with sound effects heralding impending bullet hits on the outlaws. I highly recommend this little known gem.
8. Quigley Down Under (1990). Tom Selleck is stellar as the quiet American sharpshooter in Australia hired, unbeknownst to him, to kill Aboriginal natives. Alan Rickman is perfect as the amoral land baron who hires him. This is a classic “good guy” versus “bad guy” film-pure and simple-but with an Aussie spin on it. Throughout this film, I found myself saying “American cowboys are so cool.”
7. Blazing Saddles (1974). Yes, it’s unconventional. Yes, it’s a comedy. But let’s face it, Mel Brooks’ western starring Cleavon Little and Gene Wilder belongs on this list. Be warned, this film doesn’t hold back with regard to racial epithets or raunchiness. Nevertheless, this film is hilarious. If you’ve ever been camping and are eating around a campfire, THAT scene will always come up.
6. The Cowboys (1972). John Wayne plays a rancher who is forced to hire a group of young boys to help drive his cattle across New Mexico. While John Wayne is good in this film, the ensemble cast of young boys makes this film memorable, which includes a young A. Martinez and Robert Carradine. Bruce Dern is also great as the weaselly villain bent on rustling The Duke’s herd. One of my favorite scenes is when the smallest boy’s classmates lower the chalkboard so he’s tall enough for the drive.
5. Tombstone (1993). It’s my understanding this film detailing the life of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday in Tombstone, Arizona plays a little loose with the facts. However, the plot and action sequences make this movie and must-see. Powers Booth portrayal of “Curly” Bill Brocius is superb, but nothing compares to Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday. This is Kilmer’s masterpiece role, and he played it to perfection.
4. Silverado (1985). This film is an homage to the westerns of old and it truly lives up to that standard. You’ll notice a young Kevin Costner playing the role of the energetic, feisty Jake. Good locations, good shootout scenes, and the iconic duel at the climax of the movie make this one of the better westerns ever made.
3. High Noon (1952). Gary Cooper stars as the courageous, honest lawman looking for help to face down bad guys returning to town bent on revenge. The movie basically proceeds in real time, so you get to see and feel time elapse as the characters in the movie do. Who hasn’t felt the sting of rejection by those around us because of fear? Gary Cooper richly deserves the Academy Award he received for this role, and Grace Kelly’s portrayal of his new Quaker bride is also superb. Don’t miss this Hollywood classic. Trivia alert: Gary Cooper was suffering from bleeding ulcers throughout filming, giving him that gaunt, wearied look he had in the movie.
2. Dances with Wolves (1990). From beginning to end, this movie delivers. The acting, costumes, and script are nothing short of phenomenal. Kevin Costner’s direction and acting make this a western of the first order. On a side note, Wes Studi plays a great Indian villain (Last of the Mohicans), and I like him as the Chief in AMC’s “Hell on Wheels,” but I sure wish he could find a good movie role as a Native American protagonist.
1. True Grit (1969). This list began with John Wayne and it’s appropriate that it should end with John Wayne in his only Oscar winning role. Don’t get me wrong, I know Jeff Bridges’ recent role as Rooster Cogburn was closer to the book and got rave reviews, but nothing can beat The Duke’s best performance. Watching John Wayne shoot and cock his lever-action Winchester as he’s riding his horse-it’s pure American western cinema! Supporting cast members Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper, and Glen Campbell put this film at the top of all western movies.
Honorable Mentions go to “The Outlaw Josey Wales” and “High Plains Drifter.” This has been the most difficult movie genre to write about, only because there are so may to choose from. Check these recommendations out if you haven’t already seen them. If you have, watch them again-they’re as American as cowboys and apple pie!