AS SOME Newsviners know, I am a minor movie buff, with a penchant for writing up Top Ten lists. They're almost always subjective as hell, but they are a great opportunity for a (largely) non-political discussion, and I always find some new gems to keep an eye out for.
I have resisted tackling the subject of the western, however, for one reason. Every time I compiled a list, I felt it was non-value-added. So many of my picks would be everyone else's also. The usual suspects: Unforgiven, The Searchers, blah, blah blah.
Today, though, I was browsing the American Film Institute's Top 100 list, and the answer came to me in a flash: don't re-invent the wheel, use their list as the basis for discussion! This notion had the twin benefits of being both reasonably authoritative, as well as easing the research requirements somewhat. (No small feature when you're trying to write a fluff piece as a break from weightier topics!)
So, here's the drill. The poll accompanying this article lists the AFI's pick for the all-time Top Ten Western flicks. Select your favourite from the list, and voila! We will emerge with a Newsvine consensus on the best duster ever made.....
Surely, a Nobel-worthy accomplishment if there ever was one.
For those whose memory regarding some of these selections might be foggy (and given that four out of the 10 were released between '65 and '71, that might be a lot of you), I am providing a thumbnail sketch of each.
Lastly, if there are glaring exceptions to the list (I can think of a few *cough* The Good, the Bad and the Ugly *cough*), or if you think there's a truly unworthy choice on the list, please share your comments.
You gonna do something? Or just stand there and bleed....?
1. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) - Arguably the first great buddy movie, starring possibly the most outstanding American film duo since Laurel and Hardy, Butch and Sundance romp lightfooted across the landscapes of Utah and Bolivia in this George Roy Hill directed masterpiece, penned by William Goldman. The soundtrack grates a bit on the modern ear, but the scope is impressive, and you just can't help but enjoy the Redford-Newman relationship.
2. Cat Ballou (1965) - The sight of drunken gunfighter Kid Shelleen's horse leaning against a wall, also drunk, is branded into my memory from this 1965 spoof. Playing on the immense popularity of the Western genre of the late 50s and early 60s to become one of the first of the genre's comedies. No mere laff-fest, though, it was nominated for 10 Oscars, and landed Lee Marvin a Best Actor nod. Oh - and it's also considered the film that really launched the acting career of somebody named Jane Fonda.
3. High Noon (1952) - They don't come much more rock-ribbed than Gary Cooper's Marshal Will Kane, left by frightened townsfolk to fend for himself against a vengeance-seeking badman and his gang on the day of his retirement/wedding. Fred Zinneman's directing is jaw-dropping with crane shots that make Cooper simultaneously a giant and a man dwarfed by the burden of his responsibilities. Yet, it's the message about collective community responsibility in the midst of the McCarthy era that makes this film a giant of the genre in its own right.
4. McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971) - I don't get it. I love director Robert Altman, and the amazing cast in this film includes many of my fave performers, including Shelley Duvall, Keith Carradine, Julie Christie, Rene Auberjonois (and of course, Warren Beatty). But for some reason, I've never been able to sit through this film. That's OK, though, since for the purposes of this article, I don't need to pretend to have seen it anyway. It's enough that the AFI considers it in the top ten. And, if I needed one, maybe that's enough reason for me to give McCabe and Miller another chance.
5. Red River (1948) - The contrast between the acting styles of John Wayne and Montgomery Clift are used by director Howard Hawks to remarkable effect here, as Wayne's domineering cattle baron Thomas Dunson finds himself in conflict with his adopted son, Matt. It's a coming-of-age saga well suited to the era, with Matt's redemption in his father's eyes coming via a climactic contest which will seem overly Oedipal and harsh to the modern viewer, but was by no means inappropriate to the time in which the film is set - or in the post-war milieu in which it was made.
6. The Searchers (1956) - Complicated by themes including racism and incest interspersed with almost maudlin scenes of home and hearth, The Searchers is considered by many to be simultaneously John Wayne's most compelling acting and the greatest Western ever made. The epic tale of Ethan Edwards' dogged multi-year quest to recover his daughter, kidnapped by hostile Apache, single-handedly exemplifies the rugged individualist motif that lies at the heart of both the Hollywood Western and possibly, the myth of America as a whole.
7. Shane (1953) - Another of the strongest contenders for favourite (if not greatest) Western ever, this George Stevens-helmed classic brought to a new apex many of the conventions that have come to typify the genre: the benevolent but deadly stranger, the cattlemen versus homesteaders conflict and, well, Jack Palance. Most critics agree that Palance's hired gun, Wilson, is one of the most memorable of Western screen villains, and ensured that Palance continued to work with regularity as a classic heavy for nearly 30 years, from Shane's debut until his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role in City Slickers.
8. Stagecoach (1939) - "Danger holds the reins as the devil cracks the whip ! Desperate men ! Frontier women ! Rising above their pasts in a West corrupted by violence and gun-fire !" (I couldn't resist the tag-line they included at imdb). John Wayne's portrayal of The Ringo Kid was his breakthrough part, elevating him beyond the ranks of other contract bit players at Fox. Similarly, director John Ford's use of location elevated the movie beyond sound stage efforts of the day, and Stagecoach became a financial and critical smash, as well as the first of more than 20 Ford-Wayne partnerships.
9. Unforgiven (1992) - Honed by Eastwood's grizzled performance, both as director and as aging gunfighter William Munny, Unforgiven features possibly the most nuanced portrayal of a conflicted protagonist in Western movie history, edging out even The Searchers' Ethan Edwards. Supported by stellar talents like Gene Hackman, Richard Harris and Morgan Freeman, Unforgiven marked a fitting capstone to the career of a star who exemplifies the Western hero more than anyone on our list excepting possibly John Wayne. Still, with this film, Eastwood puts the final bullet into the White Hat iconography that characterized almost all previous Westerns: "Deserve's got nothing to do with it..."
10. The Wild Bunch (1969) - Anchored by an outstanding cast that mixed the best actors of the era (William Holden, Warren Oates) with some of the great Western/character actors of the day (Ben Johnson, Strother Martin), The Wild Bunch is still even more noteworthy for being the film that made Sam Peckinpah's career, and introduced the slow-motion, blood-spurting bullet-impact effect to the director's palette. "Pouring new wine into the bottle of the Western, Peckinpah explodes the bottle" Pauline Kael said at the time, and she should know, given the degree to which she was instrumental in the critical success of the equally bloody Bonnie and Clyde of two years earlier. Operatic, bloody and full of anti-heroes, The Wild Bunch is a film on the edge of eras. For 'The Bunch' it involved wrestling with the end of the frontier era. For Peckinpah and Hollywood at large, the movie marked the tipping point between the square-jawed hero of the John Wayne era and the more complicated 70s anti-hero role Clint Eastwood slipped into with the ease of a dusty poncho.
Coming Soon to this column: The Top Ten Westerns You've (Probably) Never Seen.