You might not see yourself as the sort of person who likes Westerns. You might think of them as shallow and even objectionable in their portrayal of cowboys versus Indians. Well there are Westerns out there that are as profound and as brilliant as any cinema you are ever likely to see. Here are my magnificent 5 favourite Westerns, films of incredible depth filled with wisdom, pathos and great beauty. (Sorry for any small plot spoilers):
1. A Fistful of Dynamite a.k.a. Duck, You Sucker a.k.a. Once Upon a Time… the Revolution (Sergio Leone 1971)
I think Leone’s most over looked Western is his greatest and it features my all time favourite movie score, composed by Leone’s regular collaborator, the mighty Ennio Morricone.
In someways it is an odd couple buddy movie where the two main protagonists meet and initially don’t like each other but become friends as the story goes on. It stars James Coburn as John (Sean) an Irish revolutionary and explosives expert in exile and Rod Steiger as Juan the leader of a family of Mexican bandits. It is a story of friendship and betrayal set to the backdrop of the Mexican revolution. It also features flashbacks to the story of John’s past in Ireland, of a love triangle and of another earlier betrayal … but was John the betrayed or the betrayer? It’s in turns funny, brutal and heartbreaking and both of our heroes are deeply flawed characters.
The films I tend to like best and connect with most, with a few notable exceptions, are films that tell you the most important stuff using pictures and music, the dialogue is secondary. Cinema can go way beyond just capturing people talking to each other. Through a creative use of pictures and how they are assembled and the right music it can take you into the hearts, the souls of the characters, beyond anything that could be expressed through smart dialogue. This is one of those films. The exuberant lead performances from Steiger and Coburn (one of the coolest movie stars ever), Leone’s distinctive pure cinematic directing style and Morricone’s soaring score sets this apart from the rest.
All through my adult life I have formed friendships or felt a kinship with certain people and later discovered that this film and its music is also important to them. It really goes way deep.
2. One-Eyed Jacks (Marlon Brando 1961)
The only film Brando ever directed is a Western that is as unique and deeply affecting as he was as a screen presence. The story of a bad man, that we the audience come to sympathise with and care about, could be seen as a forerunner to the theme of many Spaghetti Western classics.
Brando turns in a breathtaking and incredibly human performance as Rio who is out for revenge on an ex-partner in crime Dad Longworth (Karl Malden) who has now set himself up as the sheriff of a town that has a bank that Rio also intends to rob. Things get complicated for Rio when he falls in love with Longworth’s step daughter and has to choose between his hunger for revenge and his love for the girl.
As well as Brando being fabulous, the atypical California coastal setting, Charles Lang’s glorious cinematography and a romantic and emotive score by Hugo Friedhofer make it so unique and special. It’s my favourite Brando movie and one of my favourite westerns.
Currently there is no DVD or Blu-Ray edition available that does this great film justice. The versions that are available have poor picture quality and, I think, some bad panning and scanning.
3. The Searchers (John Ford 1956)
Not only is it probably the most influential Western it is considered one of the most influential and greatest movies of any genre ever made. Central to what makes this film just so great is the unique and magical creative relationship between director (John Ford) and star (John Wayne).
This is Wayne at his very best, Ethan Edwards is a dark character, an anti-hero, both poisoned with and driven by hate. Wayne captures this multi-layered and troubled man with an understated brilliance and wit. When the family of Edwards’ brother are massacred by Comanches, with the exception of the youngest girl who has been abducted, he sets out on a mission to find his niece. He is joined by the adoptive son of the massacred family, the naive and good hearted Martin (Jeffrey Hunter). Martin’s only wish is to rescue the girl and return her to her community but Ethan has darker intentions.
As well as the leads it has an attractive and quirky supporting cast including Ward Bond, Vera Miles and strangest of all Hank Worden (also in One-Eyed Jacks) as the childlike Mose Harper.
This Western odyssey is ultimately a story of redemption and of a deep love conquering hate. It is visually stunning, emotionally complex, witty and, at times, dark and unsettling but ultimately it offers a sense of hope.
The film has had an obvious influence on a wide range of directors including David Lean, Martin Scorsese, Sam Peckinpah, Stephen Spielberg, Wim Wenders and Jean Luc Godard. When commentators raved about Clint Eastwood’s ‘The Unforgiven’ in 1992 noting how dark it was, how deep it was and how it was totally groundbreaking, reinventing the Western I couldn’t help thinking “Have none of these people seen The Searchers?”.
4. The Great Silence (Sergio Corbucci 1968)
In this untypical Spaghetti Western Jean-Louis Trintignant plays Silence, a mute gunslinger who comes to the aid of a group of outlawed Mormons and a woman trying to avenge the death of her husband. These people are under threat from a group of ruthless bounty hunters led by Loco (a brilliantly menacing portrayal from Klaus Kinski).
The film was based on a real life incident and has an unusual snowbound setting, inspired by André de Toth’s noir Western ‘Day of the Outlaw’ (very worth seeing). Ennio Morricone provided the film with one of his most beautiful but saddest sounding themes. It’s very much appropriate as this film has one of the bleakest and most tragic endings that you are likely to see in a Western. It also has a very un-Duglas message at the heart of it, sometimes goodness and love doesn’t win. Sometimes the bad guys win.
5. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford 1963)
My second John Ford western choice again stars John Wayne and Vera Miles, but this time with a villainous Lee Marvin and a good and noble minded James Stewart.
James Stewart plays a famed legendary congressman visiting a small town with his wife to attend the funeral of a friend. The local newspaper want to know why such a great man of such importance would have travelled so far to attend the funeral of an apparent nobody. The congressman tells the story of his rise to power and position and why he had to come back to the town.
This is a much smaller and more intimate type of film than The Searchers but has real emotional impact and a great wisdom at its heart. When I first saw it the final scene really tore me apart in a way that I didn’t see coming.