The Westerner. Not on the list.
Proof that the list is too short.
Someone gaffed me about thinking of myself as
Shane. So I revisited an old post about the ten best gunfights, in
which I promised to come up with a list of ten best westerns, which is
infinitely harder to do. But Brizoni is offline at the moment for
excellent reasons, so I feel an obligation to post for your
entertainment, and when I looked at Drudge this morning, I had to go
throw up. Everything's falling apart and there's no resolution in
sight. Presto. Ten best westerns. A completely arbitrary list, designed
to make you all mad as hornets about stuff that doesn't really matter
all that much. A post that's only a setup for your own memories and
You're welcome. [simpering mock bow, because my list really is the
right one. Only the order is actually up for grabs. Which is why there
is no order. Only the Ten Best.]
I'll begin with a confession of biases. No Howard Hawks. He's
overpraised and John Wayne is always loafing in his movies, as if the
production is just an opportunity for old friends to get together and
drink after the set is struck every day. No High Noon. A ghastly, awful
abominatiobn of a movie, well skewered by Clint Eastwood's High Plains Drifter, which is also
not on the list because it's a remake of, uh, High Noon. You're all free to
disagree, of course. It's just that if you do, you'll be wrong.
There will also be an Honorable Mention list at the end, with brief
explanations of why they're not on the list. Best I can do.
Herewith, the List, in the order in which I initially typed them off
the top of my head. No YouTubes. If you're interested, go find them.
I'm too lazy. I know they're there, but trailers are misleading and if
you care about your favorites, I know there will be abundant links in
the Comments section.
Ah. The young John Wayne and the young John Ford. Completely iconic.
Even the cliches don't matter because they predate the dozens,
hundreds, of imitations that would follow. The drunken doctor, the
pregnant lady, the hooker with a heart of gold, the fugitive outlaw
who's brave and good behind the wanted poster. Amazingly, it's still
engaging in black and white, not just as a taproot of movie western
conventions but as an elemental narrative that enduringly compels your
Before there was an official Hollywood antihero mold, there was John
Wayne in The Searchers. It's
been nominated many times as the greatest western ever, but there's a
lot wrong with the movie that really should deny it that laurel.
Jeffrey Hunter hadn't really learned how to act yet. The reversal at
the end is a bit too sudden. But it's still great. John Wayne commands
the screen as an obsessed and relentless force of nature whose motives
we don't entirely understand or accept, and John Ford the director gets
away with it by filling in a background of frontier life that is as
warm and moving as Wayne is cold and monotonic. Extremes. Meaning life
on the frontier. What it took to survive and prosper in the infant
west. Iron men, strong women, family ties, hard work, love, and the
inevitable tensions and accommodations among them.
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
More John Ford. I'll defend myself with Orson Welles's response to the
question, at the height of his own fame, who were the best three
directors in Hollywood. He said, "John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford."
Here's a precis of this movie's highpoints from a third party:
In an Oscar-calibre performance,
42-year old John Wayne plays sixtyish Cavalry Captain Nathan Brittles.
In his last days before his compulsory retirement, Brittles must face
the possibility of a full-scale attack from the Arapahos, fomented by
the recent defeat of Custer and by double-dealing Indian agents. After
a series of minor victories and major frustrations, Brittles decides to
ride into the Arapaho camp, there to smoke a pipe of peace with his old
friend, Chief Pony That Walks (Chief John Big Tree). Before he leaves,
he is presented with his retirement present by his troops: a gold
pocket watch, with the inscription "Lest We Forget"(Wayne's playing of
this scene, barely holding back tears as he adjusts his spectacles to
read the inscription, is one of his finest moments on film). Brittles
is able to forestall an Indian attack, just in time for his official
Anyone who thinks John Wayne couldn't act either hasn't seen this movie
or should just be shot.
McCabe and Mrs. Miller
Yeah. Robert Altman. An anti-western. Dark, sad, cliche-breaking, and
shockingly memorable from the music to the cinematography to the
masterful direction of ugly murder. Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, and
Keith Carradine in career-high performances. The wild west buried in
snow and blood. And drugs and sex and cold-blooded murder. A haunting
piece that can be watched again and again, but only at great intervals.
Because it is more affecting than it is fun.
The only good recent western. Val Kilmer steals the show, but Kurt
Russell is surprisingly effective as Wyatt Earp, backed by predictably
strong performances from Michael Biehn and Sam Elliott. There is a line between good guys and bad
guys, but it's fuzzier than we'd like to think. Myth and history
intertwine here, and there are subtle references to older classics like
Stagecoach and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
The ending is somehow almost contemporary, a time displacement that
puts the prior theatrics into doubt, as if our entire wild western
memory was simply a dream or hallucination. Kilmer again. His greatest
The Magnificent Seven
The only time I ever understood Yul Brynner's shockingly bald head was
in Taras Bulba (which I saw on the HMS
Elizabeth in 1963). Apart from that, this is a great
movie, despite the fact that it was remake of a Kurosawa film. Flawed
by the performance of the German kid (don't remember his name), but
elevated by the only good acting performance I've ever seen from Robert
Vaughn. The plot is classic, the gunfighters are stars, and it's just
impossible not to put this one on the list. And don't forget the music.
A minor piece, but great music is written in both major and minor keys.
It continually surprised me that Jimmy Stewart appeared in almost as
many fine westerns as John Wayne, and his performances did not vary
nearly as much from great to awful as Wayne's did. This movie has
always stuck with me, because it's not a story of frontier heroism.
It's the opposite. What happened to the families who couldn;'t
withstand the privations of the wagon train, the ones who gave up and
settled for less? Fire Creek. Jimmy Stewart makes a heroic last stand
in this movie, but only because there's no place left to run to, and
he's at the very end of his illusions about hope, faith, and duty.
Jacqueline Scott, Inger Stevens, and Henry Fonda are also on hand.
(More shades of Liberty Valance as well).
Destry Rides Again
A rollicking romp that can't be described but has to be seen. Marlene
Dietrich in her finest role. Jimmy Stewart young, insouciant, and
incredibly charming. Bar fights with all the wild haymakers anyone
could want, and maybe the first of many attempts to introduce pacifist
ideas westerns. Doesn't work, of course, At the end, Destry has to open
the trunk and pull out his sixguns. Hurray.
Speaking of trunks containing sixguns... that would be Shane. If I were ordering this
list, Shane would probably be
number one. Lyrical, visually beautiful, cunningly written, elegantly
crafted and acted, stunningly complete in its climax, there's nothing
more to say about it.
The Good, The Bad & The Ugly
No. Not necessarily best because last. Just too huge to be anything but
the final word. Operatic. Viscerally cinematic and memorable. Maybe one
of the most repeat-watched movies ever, along with the Godfather and
Gone with the Wind. The Man with No Name. Which is to say an archetype
with no filters or screens. He just is. Walking Nemesis. Sergio Leone
really did rip away all the dross and show us the God of the Gun. As we
always wanted him to be. A movie that will never die.
There you have it. The List. If you disagree, as I promised, you're
just wrong. Now for my Honorable Mentions. Red River is on a lot of lists, but
Montgomery Clift was never a fit antagonist for John Wayne. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is
mentioned several times above, but it's hardly the best work of
John Ford, John Wayne, or Jimmy Stewart. Stewart was 50 playing 25.
Doesn't work. Unforgiven,
also an Honorable Mention, did a much better job of contrasting reality
with legend, so much so that it makes Ford seem self-serving late in
his career, as if he were saying, I could have filmed the truth but the
legend sells more tickets. But Unforgiven
was just a boring overlong movie with a slambang finish. Clint
Eastwood's other western directorial efforts -- High Plains Drifter, Pale Rider,
and The Outlaw Josie Wales --
are also only Honorable Mentions because they're mostly remakes,
critical homages but homages nonethess. Not Josie Wales! you say. Yes.
It's the one that goes aaaallll the way back. To Stagecoach (with more than a nod to Yellow Ribbon). Others? Silverado? Too Hollywood, too
Oh. The Westerner. Gary
Cooper and Walter Brennan. Brilliant. Ambiguous. Subtle. Before Robert
Altman was born. No excuses. As I said, the list is too short.
I dunno. Maybe I'll go back later and stick in some YouTubes. Got my
feet up on the desk, don't you know. But you can get started without
know you know how wrong I am even before I post this absolutely
perfect definitive list.
thanks to Bud and Bill, who ante'd up more than I did. Brizoni still
needs some time, so let's argue heatedly about these trifles in the
interim. (I was going to do a post a la Criminal Minds, the best bad TV
show on the air, in which I finally delivered my "profile" of Obama,
but when I got to my first criterion, "white male, age 35 to 55," I got
cold feet. Discuss.) Anyhow. A few Youtube videos to bring your
competitive juices to a boil.
Bill likes The Wild Bunch
because it has William Holden, Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine, and Warren
And Bud wants to nominate Once Upon
a Time in the West for best film score (embedding disabled). The link also reminds us that the movie had Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Jason Robards, Jack Elam, and Woody Strode. AND Claudia Cardinale. Not too shabby. As I conceded, the list is too short. So, keep fighting for your favorites.
And since they've gone to that trouble, I'll proffer two Youtubes of my
own. McCabe and Mrs. Miller:
And from Stagecoach, the
grand entrance of John Wayne onto the stage of superstardom..
Keep pushing and I'll respond in kind. I think Bud has a right idea.
Nominations for particular aspects of westerns. For example, I know
somebody could come up with a unique laurel for Quigley Down Under. Discuss.
Tuesday, July 12, 2011
into it initially because of Lance Armstrong, but
now we're hooked, even though Americans aren't a factor. But why? There
are so many strikes against it. A single sporting event that takes
three weeks to complete is even worse than the most boring of all
British sports, cricket. Worse even than that, you can think of it as
soccer on wheels, incredibly long stretches of incredibly boring
absolutely nothing happening involving guys with unpronounceable names
in short pants. All of whom are being continuously investigated for use
of performance-enhancing drugs.
The so-called sportscasters (employed by Versus, uh, VS) are even
worse, mostly Brit-Aussie-New Zealanders who -- like all Commonwealth
sports announcers -- would rather die than explain anything they think
you should have known before displaying the brazen temerity to up and watch. So
all their commentary starts somewhere in the middle of something or
other (VS couldn't be bothered to show the beginning of the race this
year) and degenerates from there into personal reminiscences, naked
rooting for Brit-accented or rent-boy fantasy favorites, and a striking
lack of interest in such matters as who's ahead in the, you know, whole
A race which covers more than 2000 miles in 21 (or so) stages.
In most stages, the overwhelming majority of the 200 riders get exactly
the same time (elapsed time being the measure of victory) because they
travel together like a school of fish in a mass called the Peloton.
Every day, a few cyclists try to escape from the Peloton and make a
dash for victory. But every day, the Peloton hunts them down like a
posse so they can all finish together, like always. Is this a sporting
Well, yes, actually. It is. It took us years to figure out and we know
there's no chance of convincing you to watch, but that's why I'm
finally willing to write this post. I don't care anymore. The Tour de
France is a lovely thing and I don't mind if you've already clicked to
the results of a better sporting event like, say, the Homerun Derby (yawn).
First and foremost, it takes place in France and since the only way to
cover a competition that averages between 100 and 150 miles a day is
with helicopters, you get to see a LOT of France. Which is every bit as
beautiful as it's reputed to be. This week, for example, I got to see a
chateau I hadn't seen in person for 48 years.
But it's the same every day. A lovely travelogue with a bike race
attached. The grand finale is in Paris, of course, on the most
beautiful street in the world, the Champs Elysee.
And then there's the bike race itself. Which is absolutely astounding.
Forget the rotten announcers. Forget the fact that all the competitors
look exactly alike. What they do is just breathtaking. They're
organized into teams of nine or so riders, who are all committed to
promoting the achievements of just one or two riders intending to win
the overall race or outpoint the opposition in sprints or mountain
climbing. You see, they may all look alike -- 6 feet tall, 160 pounds,
bodies with zero fat, faces like skulls -- but they're not the same,
except that most of them are champions -- Olympic, national, various
other tours, etc -- and some of them are fast, able to accelerate
stupendously after 100 miles of slogging, some of them are superhuman strong, able
to run away from the Peloton in mountain stages that break your will
just watching them pedal, and some of them are just plain
indestructible, with a reserve of energy that's somehow still there
after 2000 miles of fatigue. When the whole race is on the line, these
are the ones who leap from the Peloton like tigers and bury everyone.
That's who Lance Armstrong was.
I admit I was scornful at first. Europeans being weird, as usual. Who
cares? I have always loved Grand Prix racing, and how could this
possibly measure up? It does. What I hate to admit is that it's like --
God, I hate to admit this -- like, gasp, baseball. The longer you
watch, the more subtleties you see. There is layer upon layer of
complication in what the teams are doing. Specialists abound. There are
domestiques whose job it is to stuff water bottles and food packets into
their jerseys and deliver them to team members en route. Because (Have
I pointed out?) they never stop for meals or water breaks or simple
rest during any stage. They go. There are lead-out riders whose job it
is to set up the conditions for a sprinter to win a stage. There are,
well, drones, whose job it is to protect the team's overall contender
from the mishaps of the road. And there are team skills as well,
formations of riders who lead the Peloton or don't, taking turns at the
lead and rearranging themselves like fighter planes or, say, the Blue
Over the top with the Blue Angels reference? No. The Peloton is like
the world's biggest mobile formation. They are packed so closely
together that any one rider can bring down dozens around him. And it
happens all the time, not because they don't how to ride but because
they're riding for days, day after day, through wet and dry and woods
and blind corners, and at any moment they can get killed by falling off
a mountain or seriously injured by careening into woods. Here are some
of the mishaps this year:
The race isn't even half over yet. It takes more than talent to win. It
takes luck. Not being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Last year's
winner and this year's favorite is already in trouble because of delays
caused by wrecks.
And did I tell you about the last American whose luck ran out in a wreck?
He's 39. He got knocked cold in the big crash shown above. His team
managers woke him up, put him back on the bike, and somehow got him to
finish another 50 or so kilometers to the end of the stage. By then, he
didn't even know he was in the Tour de France. But that's not why he
"retired" the next day. He had a hematoma on his leg that made it
impossible for him to walk. That's how tough these guys are.
And why I'm telling you about the Tour de France. It's not a bunch of
Euro-sissies pedaling their way through tourist destinations. It's a
bunch of men who are stronger, more durable, and more committed than
most of what you can find in the NFL. It's mesmerizing. If you can meet
the challenge of figuring out what's going in spite of the
rip-roaringly awful announcers.