Sometimes, good stuff happens when you least expect it. Last night, I just happened to come across something worth watching on the magic box. And it just happened to be one of my favorite movies in one of my favorite genres by one of my favorite directors. Of course I’m talking about The Long Riders, Walter Hill’s 1980 Western classic about the James-Younger gang. One of my favorite movies of all time and one of Hill’s best (don’t get me started about Walter Hill movies — I’ll bore you with that later).
One of the most unique things about the movie is that it stars for sets of brothers playing four sets of brothers. The Quaids (Randy and a very young Dennis) play the Millers; The Carradines (David, Robert and Keith, pictured) play the Youngers; The Keaches (Stacy and James) play the Jameses; and the Guests (Nicholas and Christopher) play the Fords. The movie is definitely a neo-Western, or a Revisionist Western, but that’s part of what makes it so good. That and Hill’s natural ability to take the Western and elevate it to a work of art, even if it’s Peckinpah-esque art. As usual, Hill doesn’t shy away from the violence, but he also does it in a way that is always in context. Example: these guys aren’t toting .38s or 9-mils. They’re all Civil War vets, and carry the weapons of the time — big, .45- (or higher) caliber pistols and .50 cal rifles that tend to do a lot of damage. And there are some truly humorous moments, thanks to great dialogue and even better acting.
That, of course, got me to thinking about the best Westerns. And there are plenty to think of, so I put together my own 10 favorites — not necessarily the “best” (that’s always open to debate), but the ones I can’t stop watching.
10. True Grit (original): John Wayne at the top of his game. If you take away Glen Campbell’s truly dreadful acting performance, this is the template for Westerns (at least up until the late 70s or so). Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn is a lot like Wayne himself — larger than life, undeniably likable and the epitome of the American man. One scene proves it: “Fill your hands, you sonsabitches!”
9. The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah’s masterpiece. What’s interesting is that the movie was controversial when it was released (1969) because of its unflinching depiction of violence. Even by today’s standards, it’s still a violent movie. Also, it’s a shame more of today’s moviegoers don’t even know who Peckinpah is, or his influence on directors such as Hill or Quentin Tarantino. Peckinpah’s creative use of angles, editing and slow-motion make this shoot-em-up far more interesting than your usual cowpoke movie.
8. High Plains Drifter: Was he a ghost? An avenging angel? A hired gun? These are the still-debated questions to Clint Eastwood’s eerie, hard-nosed 1973 story about a gutless town and its reckoning with its shameful past. It’s all Eastwood, all the time, doing what he does best — squinting and dealing some justice (in a morality play setting). It’s also his tip of the hat to the director that made him The Western Icon — Sergio Leone.
7. Silverado: Yeah, I know, not exactly a gritty Western. But that’s what makes it so enjoyable. It’s an homage of sorts to the classic Westerns of the 1950s — the good guys are good (and never miss), the bad guys are truly despicable and the only people that get shot had it coming. Silverado had just about every convention of a classic Western: fancy gun-handling, the “girl in trouble” with a golden heart, the adorable saloon keeper, even a showdown duel. But the cast — Kevin Cline, Danny Glover, Kevin Costner, Jeff Goldblum (yep), Brian Dennehy (wearing the largest bearskin coat ever made), and John Cleese pull it all off without so much as a smirk. And the rumor is that Cline and Costner were originally cast in each other’s roles, but switched.
5. True Grit (2010): The Coen Brothers did the impossible — not only did they pay respect to one of the most beloved movies of all time, they made it better. An utterly brilliant remake of the Wayne classic with an outstanding cast. And because they stuck more closely to the original novel, there was enough new material to allow you to enjoy it as a separate movie, not just a remake. When Cogburn mutters, “I’m a foolish old man who’s been drawn into a wild goose chase by a harpie in trousers and a nincompoop,” you can’t help but love him.
3. Tombstone: Probably the most-quoted Western of all time, with an outstanding cast — Kurt Russell, Val Kilmer, Sam Elliot, Michael Biehn, Stephen Lang, Powers Boothe, et. al. The perfect combination of classic and neo- and some pretty good Earp mythology thrown in to boot. This movie is instantly addictive to me. If it comes on, I just throw the remote across the room, because I won’t be needing it for about two hours.
2. Unforgiven: Clint Eastwood at, arguably, the top of his game. The man who helped re-invent the Western, both as an actor and a director, delivers a gut-punch Western with this one. It’s not a pretty story. In fact, there are many uncomfortable moments. And William Munny is the epitome of the anti-hero (like many of Eastwood’s characters). But in the end, you’re ready to take Munny’s side.
1. The Outlaw Josey Wales: In my opinion, Eastwood’s masterpiece. Original, funny, great storytelling and a damn good cast of actors who weren’t particularly well-known (including the late Sam Bottoms, who plays the kid. Bottoms also starred as Lance the surfer in Apocalypse Now). Eastwood directed this powerhouse story of a Missouri guerrilla who won’t let go of the feud (and he’s got pretty good reason to hang onto it). Chief Dan George damn near steals the movie with some of the best lines in the history of Westerns. How much do I love this movie? Well, I named a dog Josey Wales once.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: What? No spaghetti westerns? I have to be honest, while I respect those movies for what they represent to the genre, they aren’t among my favorites. I enjoy The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, but the “Dollars” movies just don’t do it for me. I could do an entirely different list made up of just Eastwood Westerns.
Got a different list? Post it in the Comments section. Fill your hands …