The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Americans have always been obsessed with the idea of the Old West. Rife with myth, it’s analogous to Europe’s age of chivalry or Japan’s feudal samurai period, just with more spittoons and gunplay. Undoubtedly, the genre has given us some of the toughest hombres ever to grace the big screen. John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Gary Cooper and others have taught generations of guys what it means to be a stoic, emotionally stunted man who lives by a code and won’t shy away from violence when necessary. Below are 15 of the most indispensible examples of the form. Far from exhaustive, it’s merely a survey course in Western appreciation, but it’s as good a place to start (or restart) as any.
The Outlaw Josey Wales
THE EASTWOOD SANCTION
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)
Clint Eastwood made an assload of Westerns in his early days, perhaps none as well known as this 1966 Sergio Leone epic. Its enduring popularity is due partly to an iconic theme song, but perhaps equally important is the climactic four-minute long Mexican standoff. It rivals Roddy Piper and Keith David’s back-alley rumble in They Live and John Wayne’s tussle in The Quiet Man for the most superfluously long fight scene in cinematic history. Eastwood’s character is pretty quiet himself, but when he talks, it’s best to listen: “You see, my friend, there’s two kinds of people in this world,” he tells Eli Wallach. “Those with loaded guns, and those who dig. You dig.”
The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)
The first probably three-quarters of Josey Wales is my favorite stretch in all Eastwooddom. There’s a lot of useful, folksy wisdom in here. There are lessons for overcoming adversity. There are tips for dealing with silver-tongued politicians. And there are cautionary tales about the dangers of a slow economy.
Widely considered to be one of the greatest Westerns of all time, this cowboy version of Wild Hogs was written by and starred Eastwood. It really is an incredible film, though, and it concludes with one of the more cathartic showdowns of all time. When Eastwood walks out of the rain and into the saloon, lowers his shotgun and growls at the mob, the tension is palpable. One man against dozens might seem like long odds, but this is a old school-style reckoning, and Eastwood has plenty of bullets for everybody.
THE FORD SUPREMACY
The Searchers (1956)
This is probably the closest John Wayne ever did to actual acting, and it’s the undisputed high point of his long and fruitful collaboration with John Ford. When Duke’s semi-estranged family is attacked by Comanches and his young niece is carried off and adopted into the tribe, it sends him on a years-long odyssey that might be rescue or might be revenge. The Searchers forgoes the usual black-and-white morality of traditional Westerns. Wayne’s character—a retired Confederate soldier—isn’t particularly sympathetic, and his real motivations are a mystery even to himself. The whole thing is near-perfect, and the wonderfully quiet final scene is pretty much how I try to model my exit from any social function.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (1962)
Hollywood tough guy Lee Marvin goes up against Hollywood tougher-guy John Wayne, with Jimmy Stewart stuck in the middle.
Destry Rides Again
MR. SMITH GOES WEST
Destry Rides Again (1939)
It’s weird to think about James Stewart as a Western hero, but he starred in plenty during his career. Destry Rides Again, the story of a lawman who doesn’t carry a gun, is—with apologies to the more serious but equally excellent Winchester ‘73—his best. Stewart isn’t a classic tough guy like Wayne or Eastwood. He’s not even a Henry Fonda. You can understand why the townsfolk of Bottle-Neck might confuse his slight frame and reticence to engage in gun violence as weakness. That’s their mistake.
The Ballad of Cable Hogue
YOU’D DO IT FOR RANDALL SCOTT (Or Sam Peckinpah)
The Wild Bunch (1969)
Nothing says “wild” like Ernest Borgnine in chaps.
Ride the High Country (1962)
Randolph Scott’s last film sees him play Gil Westrum, an aging cowboy who has lost his way. He accompanies an old friend, named Steve Judd, to transport some gold but intends to rob him when the opportunity presents itself. Westrum’s plan fails and the friendship dissolves, but when the chips are down and the Hammond brothers are out for Judd’s blood, Westrum’s true quality shines through, and he goes out a hero.
The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970)
There is no better chronicler of the Old West’s twilight period than Peckinpah, and The Ballad of Cable Hogue is one of his best and strangest. Hogue is double-crossed by his no-good business partners and is left to die. He survives and discovers a valuable source of water that he then uses to make his fortune. He spends a good deal of the water money on prostitutes. The movie’s abrupt ending leaves no doubt as to Peckinpah’s feeling on the passing of an era.
If I didn’t know better and you told me that one of the best Westerns of all time would involve Kurt Russell, Val Kilmer, Bill Paxton, Jason Priestley, Thomas Haden Church and Michael Biehn (Corporal Hicks from Aliens, who also recently did voice work for this incredible video game homage to ‘80s action films), I’d say take it easy on the peyote.
Imagine what would’ve happened to the social fabric if AMC ended Breaking Bad before Walter White’s story was finished. That’s exactly how I feel about Deadwood, which HBO sent to early cancellation hell in 2006. Even without a proper resolution, it’s the finest Western of the 2000s.
High Noon (1952)
Shot in real time, Gary Cooper’s iconic cowboy masterpiece is the showdown of showdowns.
Alan Ladd plays the reluctant warrior Shane, but it’s a young, whipcord-thin Jack Palance, playing the part of an unscrupulous gunfighter, who nearly steals the show. The Skin Braced man who would be Curly is completely terrifying!
Starring Franco Nero, this one doesn’t have a whole lot in common with Quentin Tarantino’s loose adaptation, Django Unchained. In the original, Django shows up in town one day, dragging a coffin behind him for no apparent reason. But nobody really hassles him about it because the man is obviously a total badass who drags a coffin behind him. Promising premise and a stellar theme song aside, the movie ends up being kind of terrible (in a mostly good way).
The Magnificent Seven
The Magnificent Seven (1960)
Never has such an incredible cast of characters been assembled to save one small village. Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn and some other less sweet guys team up to rescue a town suffering under the oppressive yolk of Eli Wallach and his band of cutthroats. It’s adapted from Kurusawa’s classic Seven Samurai, and Wallach, who plays “The Ugly” in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, is himself the inspiration for the bad guy in The Three Amigos. (Naturally, he’s referred to as El Guapo.)