When you hear the term “Western” for a film or mini-series, you might think lone cowboys riding the line, cattle treks, a lawman protecting his town, or even the classic rags-to-riches story of a cattleman trying to build an empire then pass it on to his family. But there are many sub-genres of “Western” films that are more interesting and exciting than the predictable cowboy movie.
Most of the Westerns I favor fall into what are usually considered the sub-genres, with some of them not even taking place in the American West, for example, but containing the iconic character motifs and themes present in Western films. Sometimes called “Spaghetti Westerns” and sometimes classified as “Action & Adventure,” all these films still resonate with elements that make the Western iconic in Hollywood, and imitated worldwide.
My top five Western films and mini-series are sometimes set in the American West; often they are not. But their characters, storylines, and themes make them powerful films that I watch over and over. They don’t always end happily, lest you think I’m some kind of HEA-girl, but even if they don’t end happily, 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.
And, yes, Deadwood — the series — is one of my favorite Westerns of all times, and can read about it in detail in No One Gets Out Alive, but it’s a series, and I’ve dealt with it in detail elsewhere. This group of five westerns originally appeared in a post about my top 10 Westerns, but I shortened that post to update it, including trailers and availability, and dividing it into two posts so that people might have a chance to explore the films without feeling overwhelmed. The original films #10-6 are now in I’m Your Huckleberry: 5 More Top Westerns. Here are my top Westerns.
The Wild Bunch
Sam Pekinpah’s epic 1969 Western The Wild Bunch deals with an aging gang of gunfighters, on the Texas-Mexico border, trying to cope with the “modern” world (of 1913), in which they have become obsolete. The Wild Bunch has a stellar cast, including William Holden, Robert Ryan, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, and Ernest Borgnine, all giving outstanding performances.
Controversial because of its graphic violence and its morally dubious characters, the film has nevertheless secured its place among top Westerns, and is considered “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant” by the National Film Registry and the American Film Institute. It was also nominated for many awards, winning several.
Its famous portrayal of obsolete icons attempting to survive, by any means possible, reflects all aspects of any culture that gets overtaken by progress and technology. Since many settlers in this country went West to escape the culture and “laws” of the East, The Wild Bunch is a brilliantly ironic commentary on when the West itself became overrun by “civilization.”
Based on the best-selling Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name by Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove is not a film but a mini-series, and when it came out in 1989, it was considered an incredibly ambitious project. It garnered praise, high viewership, and was credited with “reviving” the mini-series genre.
Filled with big-name stars like Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, Danny Glover, Ricky Schroeder, Diane Lane, Anjelica Huston, Chris Cooper, Barry Corbin, Frederick Forrest, and Robert Urich, the story covers partners’ Gus (Duvall) and Call (Jones) cattle-drive from the virtually deserted Texas town of Lonesome Dove to an “Eden-like” Montana (where none of them has been), encountering many hardships and disasters along the way.
A coming-of-age story involving the younger characters, which contains the Archetypes of the Journey as well as the “Wise Old Man” passing on his knowledge to the worthy younger hero(es), this Western classic also has what few others have: strong female characters.
Though the roles of Clara (Huston) and Lorie (Lane) are subordinate to those of most of the minor male characters, they’re still essential to the storyline. Their characters force the males to become more than cowboys, and add depth and richness to this powerful exploration of the American West and its familiar themes in Westerns.
Lonesome Dove is available for purchase from Amazon (4 part mini-series, $2.99 each episode or $9.99 for all 4 episodes) and for streaming with Hulu. Free for Starz subscribers. (Note: This trailer is for the 20th anniversary of the award-winning series.)
Son of the Morning Star
Based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Evan S. Connell, this is one of the best treatments (book & two-part mini-series) of the morally ambiguous George Armstrong Custer (Gary Cole) during the Plains Indian Wars, ending with the Battle of Little Big Horn.
Unique because it tells the story from two perspectives, that of the whites and of the Native Americans, it is narrated by Custer’s wife Libbie (Rosanna Arquette) as well as by Kate Bighead (voice of Buffy Saint-Marie), the mini-series also stars Rodney Grant as Crazy Horse, and Floyd Red Crow Westerman as Sitting Bull.
Closely following the original book in one of the most balanced portrayals of the Indian Wars, the Fetterman Massacre, and the Battle of Little Big Horn, where Custer’s defeat increased the US government’s determination to eliminate all Indians who were not “imprisoned” on reservations, Son of the Morning Star — despite its title’s allusion to Lucifer and his rebellion against God — is an excellent example of Hollywood’s ability to honestly evaluate and portray its subjugation of America’s native peoples, its confiscation of their lands, and their justified outrage and retaliation.
(Apologies: There is no official trailer for Son of the Morning Star and, alas, it does not seem to be available for online viewing. The only copies for purchase at Amazon are VHS and one non-region-1, i.e., non-US, Spanish DVD.)
Duck, You Sucker
Directed by Sergio Leone, this is one of those Westerns that doesn’t have cowboys, horses, or cattle. And it takes place in Mexico during its Revolution rather than in the American West. But there are lots of guns, explosions, and battles; a bang-up score by Ennio Morricone, and stellar performances by James Coburn, as the outlaw Irish Revolutionary Seán (John) Mallory trying to “get it right” in Mexico, and by Rod Steiger as Mexican thief and father to a large family Juan Miranda, who doesn’t want anything to do with the Revolution because he just wants to fulfill his life’s dream of robbing the biggest bank he’s ever heard of: the Mesa Verde National Bank.
Despite the film’s constantly being edited (too politically sensitive, too violent, too much profanity), despite its being marketed variously as a comedy or a satire of westerns (it’s neither), despite its rather strange title, which is apparently a bad translation of the Italian Giù la Testa, and despite the film’s subsequent release under various titles such as A Fistful of Dynamite (Irish John is an explosives expert, and the alternate title is an allusion to Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars), and Once Upon a Time… the Revolution (since it is considered the second film of Leone’s trilogy which contains Once Upon a Time in the West and Once Upon a Time in America), this film — the last Western Leone directed — is one of his best.
Bear in mind that I’m saying that as a huge Clint Eastwood fan, one who grew up more familiar with Clint and Leone’s “Spaghetti Westerns” than with some of the Hollywood classic Westerns.
What makes Duck, You Sucker one of the best is the chemistry between Coburn and Steiger who, as “John and Juan” form a bond that forces each of their characters to change. The experienced intellectual John begins to see the human element in any revolution while the cynical and amoral Juan, who initially cannot be trusted by anyone, stops thinking of himself and his own selfish gain, learning to care about his family as individuals (he doesn’t even know how many sons he has in the beginning of the film), his friend John, and his country.
Despite its setting, Leone claimed he never intended the film to be political, and despite its setting, Leone succeeded, due in large part to the chemistry between its stars. Coburn and Steiger make you believe in their evolving friendship and commitment to each other, not just as voluntary/involuntary revolutionaries, respectively, but as people. No longer physical or emotional loners, they become genuinely attached to each other.
The film’s original reception was lukewarm, but it has gained popularity in recent years. Justifiably so, since its excellent treatment of the themes of the individual vs. society, loyalty to personal codes of conduct and honor, private justice, wandering protagonists, and conquering the Wilderness are all prominent in the Western genre.
One of the darkest Westerns ever made, dealing frankly with the uglier aspects of violence and how, when glamorized, violence makes “myths” and “legends” out of trigger-happy drunkards and bullies, Unforgiven, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, as “retired gunfighter” William Munny, takes the prize for the best Western.
In Unforgiven, the simplistic myths of the Old West are revealed for the complex combination of lies, exaggeration, and terrible truths that they are. Archetypes abound, but in stunning new ways. The “Kid” (Jamz Woolvett) who wants to attain fame by killing some “cowboys who cut up some whore,” recruits master gunfighter William Munny (Eastwood) “who’s killed women and children” and who repeatedly claims that he “ain’t like that no more” to help him track down the “bad guys.” Munny brings along his partner Ned (Morgan Freeman) who, though surprised by the request, thinks the reward money might come in handy keeping his farm solvent.
Nothing goes as expected, because this is a Western that shows the truth about the Old West. In the town of Big Whiskey, the trio meets iron-fisted Sherriff “Little Bill” Daggett (Gene Hackman, in an Oscar-winning performance), who has already beaten, humiliated, and banished one hired gunman, English Bob (Richard Harris, in a minor but memorable role) who came to claim the reward money for getting vengeance for the “cut-up whore.”
Honest about violence, humorous and satirical at times, Unforgiven displays the best that the Western can offer: it is a tribute to the genre even as it illuminates its flaws, a loving and respectful homage that never loses sight of the danger of a life without rules, as well as the moral vacuity of a life ruled by killing others, sometimes for reward money, sometimes for dubious fame, sometimes for no reason at all. Or, as Eastwood’s Munny states, “not for any reason I could remember once I sobered up.”
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:
I’m Your Huckleberry:
5 More Top Westerns
(originally films #6-10)