Throughout the month of July, Turner Classic Movies is spotlighting what they call the oldest genre of film (most likely referring specifically to the 1903 film The Great Train Robbery as the first western; see TCM’s introduction to their western spotlight here). Here is my list of the best westerns I have seen.
10. Red River (1948)
Before the revisionist westerns of Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood, Howard Hawks’ Red River challenged the simplistic notions of the good guy in the white hat and the bad guy in the black hat that have marred the reputation of the western genre. John Wayne plays Tom Dunson, a character who is equal parts hero and villain, much like the role in which he gave his greatest performance: Ethan Edwards in The Searchers.
TCM: Watch Red River Wed. July 20, at 8:00PM EST.
9. Cat Ballou (1964)
It could also be said of Lee Marvin that he plays equal parts hero and villain in Cat Ballou, but in a much different way than John Wayne in Red River. Marvin won an Academy Award as Best Lead Actor of 1965 for his double-performance, playing both the heroic (though drunk, blind, and confused) Kid Sheleen and the despicable Tim Strawn (pictured above). Marvin is the main reason that Cat Ballou is the funniest western ever made. It is also one of the best, largely because of Jane Fonda’s character. The male hero archetype of the traditional western is abandoned completely as Cat Ballou (Fonda) is the true hero of the movie.
8. Django Unchained (2012)
Quentin Tarantino is known for his genre-bending, but in Django Unchained he stays faithful to the foundations of the western genre while updating it with a better understanding of history, a more racially tolerant attitude, and of course far more graphic violence than is found in the older, more traditional examples of the genre. The images of American slavery are horrendously disturbing, and by using the conventions of the genre Tarantino takes his audience on an uncompromisingly harrowing journey that is nonetheless enormously entertaining.
7. Hondo (1953)
TCM’s month-long celebration of westerns is called “Shane Plus 100 More Great Westerns.” While Shane is undoubtedly an inspiring and beautiful film, John Farrow’s Hondo from the same year accomplishes much of the same greatness narratively, cinematically, and emotionally. During the course of his travels, Hondo Lane (played by John Wayne) stumbles upon a widowed mother and her young son. He becomes a father-figure to her son, and a believable, tender romance develops between Hondo and the boy’s mother Angie (Geraldine Page). Along with being a great western, Hondo is also one of the most inspiring movies and one of the most romantic movies ever made.
6. Unforgiven (1992)
Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven not only transcended the western genre but also created a sub-genre that has been popular in the years since. It was the first romantic movie to be set entirely after the death of one of the lovers. Like the lead characters in the films it inspired (Up, The Imitation Game, and Eastwood’s own Gran Torino), Bill Munny (played by Eastwood) is both haunted and inspired by his past with the love of his life. Everything he does throughout the course of the film is done in relationship with her, despite the fact that she is gone. In addition to directing and starring in Unforgiven, Eastwood also wrote “Claudia’s Theme,” the part of the film score that is played to indicate Bill is about to do something for or in memory of his wife Claudia.
5. The Searchers (1956)
John Ford’s The Searchers is a common entry on lists of the greatest movies of all time. Like the other films on my list, it is a great western yet transcends the genre in many ways. Most significantly, The Searchers challenges the racist ideology found in many earlier westerns. Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) is a racist character who finds himself in situations that requires him to re-evaluate his views of Native Americans. In the titular search for his niece, he finds much more about himself than he planned.
Watch: The Searchers airs on TCM Tuesday, Sept. 6 at 3:30AM EST.
4. Stagecoach (1939)
John Wayne’s first starring role and John Ford’s first great western, Stagecoach is the beginning of all that is great about the genre. The titular stagecoach is occupied by people who have no prior knowledge of each other and come from very different backgrounds. They are in many ways culturally predisposed to how they will relate to their fellow travelers and how they will handle the dangers and difficulties present in their journey. While very much a western, Stagecoach is a talkative movie; the action and adventure only serve to develop the characters and their interaction with one another and their surroundings. It is one of the great character studies in film.
Watch: Stagecoach airs on TCM Sat. Sept. 3 at 12:00PM EST.
William A. Wellman’s The Ox-Bow Incident is a courtroom drama without the courtroom. Set in the old west, a divided posse accuses three men of murder and debates how to handle the situation. A system is created that, although unrelated to any formal courtroom, attempts to uphold justice. Following the conventions of both genres completely, the movie is able to ask important questions about justice, revenge, and the American judicial system without offering any simplistic answers. It allows viewers to process the problems related to these issues and think for themselves, making up their own mind as to the best way to handle such a situation.
Watch: The Ox-Bow Incident airs on TCM Tuesday July 26 at 10:15PM EST.
2. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966)
The greatest revisionist western of all time, Sergio Leone’s epic is a film that builds so quietly and so slowly that the story is built through the sights and sounds of the old west presented long before we can comprehend the main story being told. Every shot of nature, every sound, every footstep has major significance for the effectiveness of that main story. This building process was highly influential for such later masterpieces as The Godfather and There Will Be Blood.
Watch: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly airs on TCM Wednesday, July 20 at 12:00AM EST.
1. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
It may seem disappointing to have a list of the greatest western movies where the #1 film does not star John Wayne, but John Wayne does star in four of the top 10 movies. John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre uses western conventions to take viewers on a dark journey of greed and madness. Howard (played by Walter Huston) is ready to begin prospecting with his two newfound partners Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) and Curtain (Tim Holt), but he gives them a stark warning before they embark. He tells them that the search for gold changes people, brings out immoral aspects of their nature, and turns people against each other. The rest of the film shows this process but leaves the viewer in constant suspense regarding who is changing and who is remaining true to the moral standards they appeared to hold before setting out. With only three people to wonder about and suspect, the writing and direction of this film required great finesse to keep this suspense for two hours, and it does so without fail.
Watch: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre airs on TCM Tuesday, August 9 at 8:00PM EST.