Wednesday, July 13, 2011
The Ten Best Westerns
The Westerner. Not on the list. Proof that the list is too short.
FLASH-FORWARD. An explanatory prelude. 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 icons.
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 attention.
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 retirement.
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 role ever.
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 Queen 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 spoofy.
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 me. I know you know how wrong I am even before I post this absolutely perfect definitive list.
P.S. My 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 Oates:
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.