5 Classic Westerns
The Western genre is one that has generally faded away in the last few decades. Many consider it to be a tried and tested genre with nothing much more to offer. I guess they have a point, considering its limited timescale (roughly 1850s to 1910s), there’s really not much to work with. You take science fiction for example and you have an unlimited resource where anything is possible, you can set films or novels in any time, place or even universe; The Western has never had that luxury and very few films have diverted from the original Western form – most notably the remake of The Proposition. It is part of the bygone age of the old Hollywood production system but has created some of the most influential films in cinema history. It’s still a brilliant father-son ritual to sit with ol’ pop and watch John Wayne riddle holes into those no do-gooders that steal cattle and rob rich people. Bastards! Even in this age of special effects and slow-mo actions shots, a la The Matrix, many of the best Westerns still have the same impact they did 50 years ago. The five Westerns I have picked made waves when they were first released but ultimately the choice was made on how well these films have stood against the test of time.
Once Upon a Time in the West
Arguably the most complete and iconic Westerns of them all is Sergio Leone’s masterpiece Once Upon a Time in the West. It’s not clear when the film is set but it’s safe to assume that it is between the late 19th and early 20th century when major companies began to industrialise America and rail companies ventured ever deeper into heart of the country. The story follows a widow Jill whose new husband and family are murdered by bandits and she is left with an entire farm. When a large rail company offers her a huge sum to surrender the house for a new rail line to be built she suspects some dodgy motives behind her husband’s death and refuses to move. Cue a gruff Charles Bronson known simply as ‘harmonica’…because he plays a harmonica… who decides to help rid Jill of the criminals who threaten her farm, but we eventually realise he has alterior motives. It features all the great iconography of the classic western but is a truly epic film in style as well as length. Sergio Leone said ‘Once upon a Time in the West is a dance of death: all of the characters, except Claudia Cardinale, are conscious of the fact they will not arrive at the end alive’. Almost operatic in style One upon a Time in the West dramatically pounds your senses with some of the most tense showdowns in film history and some of the most iconic images that remain synonymous with the Western genre.
The Good, The Bad and the Ugly
It’s Leone again with another of his classic Westerns with the only man who can stand up to John Wayne as a true icon of the genre – Clint Eastwood as the lone gunman (The Good). It also features another Western heavyweight Lee Van Cleef as the ultimate badass ‘Angel Eyes’ (The Bad) and Eli Wallach as America’s most wanted Tuco (The Ugly). Basic story is that $200 thousand in confederate gold is hidden in an old war graveyard; Eastwood and Tuco catch wind of this with Eastwood being the only man who knows the exact grave where the gold is hidden. Both are stuck together in their quest for the gold. Van Cleef is also on the case and he tries everything in his power to stop the other two from getting there first. Combined with Ennio Morricone’s score the result is possibly the most epic of Mexican shootouts. It could have done with losing a few scenes but it is easily a huge classic that can’t be missed – mainly for Eastwood’s one-liners!
This film is not a classic Western in the sense that it was made much later than the others but its influence in the genre has been so huge that it truly deserves to be called a classic. It was proof that the Western still has a bit of life in it even today if done properly, and boy was it done properly. Only Eastwood could pull off a fantastic comeback like this and revitalize the genre briefly with a remake of an old classic western. Directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, Unforgiven tells the story of a retired gunslinger who turned his back on his old violent ways after meeting his future wife. When his wife dies however, and his violent past catches up with him he is forced back into his old ways for fear of poverty and embarrassment. Eastwood is a little rusty at first but soon realizes that killing is like riding a bike for him. This very poignant and gritty Western also stars an excellent Morgan Freeman as Eastwood’s sidekick and Gene Hackman as the gruesomely evil Sheriff of ‘Big Whiskey’. Eastwood and Hackman give performances worthy of their academy awards. This film is one to watch even if you’re not a fan of Westerns, a really is a true classic.
I’m not a big John Wayne fan but it would be a crime to leave this film out of the list purely because of John Ford and John Wayne’s influence in Hollywood cinema and the fact they actually made some good movies. This was one of the first John Ford/ John Wayne collaborations and it is easily the best. This film still stands as one of the great film achievements 70 years on. It is a very basic story about a group of strangers on a stagecoach journey right across dangerous apache territory. This is why you have to plan your journey folks!! It’s a bit of an excuse for John Wayne to be all tough and obnoxious while he guns down apaches with his eyes closed but is a very exciting film with lots of outrageous stunts – I’d like to see Tom ‘I do all my own stunts’ Cruise try and pull off some of the Stagecoach moves!
The Wild Bunch
This is probably my favourite on the list. Peckinpah was a massive Western fan but he was angered with the lack of real violence and gore in Westerns. It was also made during the Vietnam War when people were obviously angry with the government and feeling the effects of war. Peckinpah felt people would no longer like the overly dramatic deaths and no blood seen in so many Westerns. I’m looking at you Mr. Wayne! So knowing that the Western genre was pretty much limping by this point and national love for the all-American Western was flailing Peckinpah went all out with his own hyper-real and brutal send-off for the classic Western. The Wild Bunch follows an anti-hero gang of crack outlaws who, pretty early on in the 20th Century, are still robbing banks and military stocks old-school style as well as partying hard and marrying the odd prostitute or two. Pretty soon however, a major railroad company hires an ex-member of the squad to hunt them down for robbing one of their stations. With the army and big businesses hunting them down they are forced across the Mexican border where these men, who are already out of their time, are forced to fend for themselves in an increasingly changing world. With new technologies and WW1 barely years away the Wild Bunch find themselves being squeezed into oblivion, so they fight back –hard! With some truly harrowing scenes and intense, fast-paced action scenes this is not for everyone but it is a truly glorious style in which to end the classic Western genre. Yes, Once Upon a time in the West came after, as did Unforgiven but Peckinpah’s film is the true send off that the genre deserved. I would also consider this film as having one of the greatest endings in film history – watch this space for future articles on that subject.
There are so many other films I would love to mention and probably deserve to be on the list. High Noon, Fistful of Dollars etc are obvious choices but I wanted to span most areas of the Western genre. Personally I think they are all eclipsed by Blazing Saddles but what can you do eh? We like to hear your opinions here at TheTwenty so feel free to comment.