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In 2016, I published a book on western films called The Quick, The Dead and the Revived. It took me six years (on and off) to research and write, and that time I watched almost a thousand western movies. I didn’t grow up watching westerns, so a lot of these were new discoveries for me. Here are a few recommendations that don’t turn up on the usual best-of-the-west lists.
I’m a sucker for the psychological horror films of producer Val Lewton (CAT PEOPLE, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE, THE SEVENTH VICTIM, etc.), so I was thrilled to realize that Lewton and his protégés also dabbled in the western genre. Western fans rightly praise director Robert Wise’s noirish BLOOD ON THE MOON with Robert Mitchum, and director Jacques Tourneur’s law-and-order b-westerns with Joel McCrea (STRANGER ON HORSEBACK and WICHITA). Fewer people seem to know about Wise’s TWO FLAGS WEST (1950) and the Lewton-produced APACHE DRUMS (1951)—which is a shame because they’re damn good. Both offer a variation on the same story: a group of pioneers make a last stand against Apache warriors during a long, dark night of the soul. Like Lewton’s horror films, these westerns effectively conjure an atmosphere of existential dread, making them unique in the genre.
Around the same time Tourneur also made a film called STARS IN MY CROWN (1951), a Reconstruction-era drama about a Southern town plagued by fear. STARS isthematically rich, and surprisingly relevant to America’s current political culture. It’s also as endearingly nostalgic as a Ray Bradbury story, and boasts one of Joel McCrea’s most heartfelt performances.
Anthony Mann is one of the most-revered western directors of all time, but his first two westerns are often overlooked. In the same year he made WINCHESTER ’73, Mann also directed THE FURIES and DEVIL’S DOORWAY. THE FURIES (1950) is one part film noir, one part classicaltragedy, and one part western. The mix doesn’t quite work, but the picture is held together by the always-reliable Barbara Stanwyck. DEVIL’S DOORWAY (1950) is equally bold but more obscure. It’s impossible to accept Robert Taylor as an Indian, but the actor hits the right emotional notes to sell the story. The result is a surprisingly intense film about institutional prejudice. In fact, the film was so intense that the studio initially declined to release it. Then Jimmy Stewart saw it, requested Mann to direct WINCHESTER ’73, and the rest is history.
Sidenote: Taylor went on to make several more underrated westerns, including WESTWARD THE WOMEN, THE LAST HUNT, SADDLE THE WIND, and THE LAW AND JAKE WADE. These are all worth seeking out, for different reasons. And if you only know Anthony Mann for his films with Jimmy Stewart, you should definitely check out THE TIN STAR (starring Henry Fonda) and MAN OF THE WEST (starring Gary Cooper).
John Sturges is another legendary western director whose best films sometimes get overlooked. In addition to GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL and THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, he also made three excellent revenge westerns: BACKLASH with Richard Widmark, THE LAW AND JAKE WADE with Widmark and Robert Taylor, and LAST TRAIN FROM GUN HILL (1959), starring Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn. The latter is one of the gold standards of a particular type of western / action movie that slowly builds tension between two heavyweight actors, leading to an explosive finale. Everyone involved is at the top of their game here.
The same is true for THE HANGING TREE (1959), a high water mark in the careers of director Delmar Davesand star Gary Cooper. In my opinion, Daves is the most unjustly neglected western filmmaker of all time. Most people know him for BROKEN ARROW and 3:10 TO YUMA, and JUBAL and THE LAST WAGON have mustered respectable followings in recent years. But Daves’ work is most impressive when considered as a whole. His westerns represent a consciously chronological journey through American history, from pioneer days to the death of the West, and THE HANGING TREE serves as aculmination. Appropriately, it also features one of Gary Cooper’s best—and last—performances. Forget HIGH NOON. Watch this one back to back with MAN OF THE WEST to see why he was a genre icon.
For me, one of the most indelible westerns of the 1950s is Andre De Toth’s DAY OF THE OUTLAW (1959), an austere and brutal film set in an appropriately wintry landscape. Robert Ryan, a supremely underrated actor, is a deeply sympathetic hero. Burl Ives is an equally compelling villain. Today, the film has to be regarded as aforerunner of bleaker westerns like WILL PENNY, THE GREAT SILENCE, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and THE HATEFUL EIGHT. It’s like the missing link between the elegiac American westerns of the 1950s and cynical Italian westerns.
The late 60s and early 70s were hard times for the western genre. Spaghetti westerns and American “anti-westerns” dominated the scene; filmmakers had to embrace nostalgia or anarchy. That’s the only explanation for a film like WELCOME TO HARD TIMES (1967), a surreal horror-western about an old sheriff (Henry Fonda) pitted against a supernaturally-evil gunslinger. It’s not a great film—probably because director Burt Kennedy wasn’t quite about to commit to the subversion of his favorite genre (his subsequent film HANNIE CAULDER suffers from the same uncertainty), but it remains a fascinating example of the genre’s flexibility, with its perverse and feverish metamorphosis of familiar tropes.
I won’t delve too deep into “spaghetti western” recommendations, because that’s a special arena, but I will say that I was pleasantly surprised to discover so many intelligent, politically-charged Italian westerns—especially the “Zapata westerns” starring Tomas Milian, who might be the western genre’s most overlooked icon. Milian plays a reluctant revolutionary in THE BIG GUNDOWN, FACE TO FACE, RUN MAN RUN and COMPANEROS, but the film that really surprised me was TEPEPA (1968), where he tangles with a corrupt police chief played by Orson Welles. TEPEPA is not as well known because it’s not as overtly violent as the others, but it is a rewardingly complex and challenging explosion of traditional western myths.
Since the late 60s, the biggest star in the western sky has been Clint Eastwood. Viewers know most of his big westerns, but some might not be as familiar with THE BEGUILED (1971), which is sort of a gothic western set in the Reconstruction-era South. Under the direction of his friend and mentor Don Siegel, Eastwood plays a woundedYankee soldier who is taken in by a seminary full of Southern belles. What follows is a compelling amalgamation of Eastwood’s western persona and his directorial debut PLAY MISTY FOR ME. It’s dark, dark, dark.
Some people say that the western was dead by 1972, either because audiences no longer wanted traditional western movies or because Hollywood filmmakers refused to make them the way they used to. Within this context, Peter Fonda’s directorial debut THE HIRED HAND (1971) is a fascinating study. In a way, it’s the kind of simple, dignified western that his father used to make. At the same time, it’s character-based and melancholy in a way that studio-era westerns rarely were. At the very least, it shows that the younger Fonda had some real chops as a filmmaker. Unfortunately THE HIRED HAND was a commercial failure, ending his career as a director before it even started. Years later, THE HIRED HAND deserves to be rediscovered.
If the western died in 1972, then CHINA 9, LIBERTY 37 (1978) is a postmortem gasp before the full-on resurrection of the early 1990s. In some ways it is comparable to THE HIRED HAND, but—because it’s directed by Monte (who made the offbeat westerns THE SHOOTING and RIDE THE WHIRLWIND for Roger Corman)—it’s unlike any other film in the genre. I mean, how many westerns do you know that feature a cocaine-fueled encounter with a circus midget? Somehow, Hellman pulls together a lot of abstract threads together in a genuinely startling finale. It’s probably too eccentric for most viewers… and the countless public domain copies won’t help to convince anyone of the film’s worthiness… but this rich-and-strange tribute to the wild West has a soft place in my heart.
Ditto THE FRISCO KID (1979), which I avoided for a long time because it doesn’t really have much of a cult following. And I figured that any movie starring Gene Wilder and Harrison Ford that didn’t have a cult following must be pretty bad. Here’s the thing: This is funnier than BLAZING SADDLES. Happy trails!