I love Westerns, though most of the Westerns I favor fall into what are considered the sub-genres, with some of them not even taking place in the American West, for example, but containing iconic character motifs and themes present in Western films. My Top Ten Western films have characters, storylines, and themes make them powerful films that I watch over and over. They don’t always end happily, but they end honestly, with the finale of the movie developing out of the characters’ natures, their conflicts, and the decisions they’ve made previously — either in the film itself or in their lives before the events in the story take place. Here are more of my favorite Westerns, films I can always watch one more time.
The Long Riders
Starring sets of real-life brother actors as historical brother outlaws, The Long Riders explores America’s violent post-Civil War past in a unique way. The most factual of any film about the James-Younger Gang, it covers the activity of Frank and Jesse James (Stacey and James Keach); Ed and Clell Miller (Dennis and Randy Quaid); Cole, Jim, and Bob Younger (David, Keith, and Robert Carradine); and Bob and Charley Ford (Nicholas and Christopher Guest).
Jesse is the titular head of the Gang, but after he disapproves of Ed’s behavior during one of that raids/robberies, rifts begin to form among the Gang members. Pursued by posses and the Pinkertons, the Gang is nevertheless protected by family and neighbors, who consider them local heroes rather than criminals. When hiding out, the brothers court women, and are courted by them in turn, which causes added stress in the Gang. As the Gang’s crimes escalate, so does the Pinkertons’ determination to capture them. After innocent people begin to get hurt and killed, the Gang loses its local support and goes further afield to rob stages, trains, and banks, increasing the Gang’s notoriety and fame, but also increasing its risk.
Even if you know the story of the James-Younger Gang, this film is engaging and worth watching. The cinematography is very effective and powerful, especially as the Gang escalates its violence. The Long Riders is available for rent $3.99 from Amazon (free with a 7-day Starz trial) or free from Starz with a subscription.
Four American “specialists,” i.e., mercenaries (Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan, and Woody Strode), are hired for an extremely dangerous but potentially lucrative, once-in-a-lifetime mission: deliver a $100K-in-gold ransom and rescue the beautiful young wife (Claudia Cardinale) of an older, wealthy rancher (Ralph Bellamy). Because two of the professional soldiers fought in Pancho Villa’s Army during the Mexican Revolution, they’re willing yet wary, if only because they know the ostensible kidnapper Razza (Jack Palance) intimately, and “kidnapping doesn’t seem like his thing.”
Fighting the desert, weather, rogue bandits, self-doubt, and each other, the Professionals use their individual skills — with dynamite, knives, bow-and-arrow, guns — as they head for Razza’s presumed hide-out. When they come upon Razza derailing a train and executing soldiers, they realize their mission may be more dangerous than they’d originally than anticipated because “something’s dicey about this set-up.”
Lancaster as the woman-loving wit is especially entertaining. With surprising (and satisfying) plot-twists, The Professionals is an often-neglected gem of a Western. Available from Amazon available for rent $3.99 (free with a 7-day Starz trial) or free from Starz with a subscription.
Opening with a montage of John Wayne’s film roles as the “history” of gunslinger J. B. Books (Wayne), narrated in Voice-Over by The Boy (Ron Howard) who idolizes him, The Shootist is my favorite role by both of these actors. Diagnosed with advanced cancer, with only about 6 weeks to live, Books settles in for a last stay in the lodging house of Widow Rogers (Lauren Bacall), mother of The Boy. Though Books wants anonymity and privacy, The Boy discovers his identity almost immediately and proudly trumpets that a famous Shootist is staying at his house. Books wants to keep him terminal illness secret, too, but he’s forced to tell people in order to stay quietly in the town till he dies.
When the stories of Books’ impending death begin to spread, other gunslingers who want to improve their own reputations by killing the famed Shootist arrive. Books’ instinct for survival and self-preservation combat with any desire he has to die quietly. Worse, he decides he doesn’t want to be alone, and the Widow Rogers and her son have caught his eye.
The chemistry between Wayne and the impressive line-up of guest stars — James Stewart, Henry Morgan, Richard Boone, Scatman Crothers, John Carradine, Hugh O’Brien, Sheree North — is surpassed only by the chemistry between Wayne and Bacall, and by that between Wayne and Howard. This is the role that should have won Wayne the Oscar: he’s better by far as the fighting-fading Books than as True Grit‘s cantankerous Cogburn. The Shootist is available from Amazon ($3.99 to rent).
3:10 to Yuma
Based on an Elmore Leonard short story, and a remake of the 1951 film of the same name, 3:10 to Yuma packs powerful Western icons with clever dialogue and strong performances. Civil War hero Dan (Christian Bale, in one of his best roles) is about to lose his ranch because he didn’t have enough money to pay the mortgage and to buy feed for his cattle, purchase water during the drought, and to obtain the drugs for his consumptive youngest son.
When attempting to retrieve some of his cattle scattered by ne’er-do-wells, Dan and his sons run into escaped Bad Guy Ben Wade (Russell Crowe, below R) and his Gang, who have just ambushed the Pinkertons to rescue one of their Gang members. After rescuing the wounded Pinkerton McElroy (Peter Fonda), Dan, who is determined to save his ranch, offers to help escort the proverb-quoting escaped convict Wade to Detention so he can be put on the 3:10 to Yuma Prison.
The treacherous journey turns into a contest of wills between idealistic Dan, whose oldest son idolizes the criminal, and the notorious Bed Wade. As Ben’s Gang attempts to rescue its leader, Dan tries to earn his own son’s respect by completing the job he was hired to do. 3:10 to Yuma is filled with excellent writing, rousing action, and memorable characters. The scenes between Bale and Crowe are exquisite. Available from Amazon ($9.99SD-$12.99HD to purchase, or free with a 7-day Showtime trial), or free with a subscription from Showtime or DirecTV.
(sometimes translated as The Salvation)
Salvation, sometimes translated as The Salvation, is the Danish tribute to Sergio Leone’s classic Spaghetti Westerns, exploring some of the genre’s classic icons: The Man with No Name, The Town Besieged, The Cowardly Townspeople, The Man Seeking Vengeance. Jon (Mads Mikkelsen, below R) has come the the American West, from Denmark, with his brother Peter (Mikael Persbrandt, below L) after the disastrous War of 1864.
Seven years later, Jon has enough money to bring over his wife and 10-year-old son. Though these two characters are not developed — existing only as a reason for Jon to seek revenge for the heinous crimes against them, the film doesn’t suffer from that weakness. Instead, it plunges into Jon’s story as he and his brother seek revenge against the Bad Guys, led by DeLaRue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan).
Terrorizing a town where no one is willing to stand up to the villains but where everyone wants a Saviour, DeLaRue and his Gang rule the populace with the aid of a corrupt Mayor (Jonathan Pryce) and a milque-toast Preacher-Sheriff (Douglas Henshaw). Eventually joined by “The Princess” (Eva Green), who appears to have been the captive “wife” of one of the rapists/murderers and who had her tongue cut out by Indians when she was kidnapped as a young girl, Jon fights for justice.
The addition of the mystery-suspense sub-plot makes this Revenge Tale one of the more interesting Westerns. Everyone in the film is more realistic than iconic, as they are in some of the classic Spaghetti Westerns: it usually takes Jon several shots to put down an assailant. Moody and atmospheric, with artistic cinematography, Salvation is available from Amazon ($4.99 to rent, or free with a 7-day trial from Showtime), is available for purchase for $14.99 from iTunes, or for $12.99 from GooglePlay, and YouTube, and is available free with a subscription from Showtime, IFC, or DirecTV.
If you know of any other classic Westerns that I might enjoy, please feel free to tell me about them in comments.
My original Top 10 Westerns post
If You’re Going to Shoot,
Shoot: Don’t Talk
is now divided into two posts,
updated with official trailers and film availability:
We All Have It Coming:
Top 5 Westerns
I’m Your Huckleberry:
5 More Top Westerns
(originally films #6-10)
It Ain’t How You’re Buried That’s Important:
3 Western Coming-of-Age Films
I Ain’t Never Been No Hero:
More Great Westerns
No One Gets Out Alive:
Why You Need to Watch HBO’s Deadwood
Deadwood Strikes Gold!
The Sutherlands’ Forsaken Is No Unforgiven,
Though It Tries to Be
My Favorite Film & TV Villains