I’ve said this before, I’ll say it again; I really, really dislike Westerns.
For starters, I hate the West (never mind that I live there; that’s a different post); it’s the most ugly and unphotogenic region captured on film. I see no reason to revel in a landscape that’s mostly barren and dead.
But more importantly, the movies themselves are generally repugnant; they mostly celebrate the ugly side of American history while ignoring the complexity of Manifest Destiny. Indians are always pure evil, and Americans are always the victims of violence, and the historical whitewashing only serves to piss me off.
I can already hear the counter-arguments (different age, different morals, blah blah blah), but it doesn’t make me like these films anymore. I don’t want to see that, and I’ve largely been successful in that goal.
But my quest to see the most lauded films of history does happen to include some Westerns, and well, I’m no quitter. In that masochistic spirit, I watched “The Shootist” and “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” the former I thought was OK but with a weak ending, and the later I thought was god-awful.
So I’m going to spare you more Western hate by not writing about those two; instead, I’m going to write about the Westerns that I find exceptional.
Yes, it does happen; even a jaded and cynical critic can find value in a genre she loathes.
My top five Westerns, in descending order.
5: “The Ox-Bow Incident” (1943)
Directed by William A. Wellman and starring Henry Fonda, the film examines the dark side of the Wild Wild West, and what happens when lynch mobs, rather than good ol’ law and order, are allowed to implement ‘justice.’ The sets are obviously sets, it’s more talk than action, but the message is never preachy or too on-the-nose. It’s an old fashioned Western, and the best one of the period.
4: “Dances with Wolves” (1990)
Call me a sucker if you want to, but I just love Kevin Costner’s romantic look at the frontier days. It’s a love letter to a bygone era, and while historically inaccurate, the intentions and the message of acceptance are pure. It’s a modern movie made in an old-timey spirit, and I just love it. (Yep. Sucker.)
3: “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969)
More of a buddy movie than a straight-up Western, it’s also damn funny, with a great cast, sizzling dialogue and larger than life characters. It’s not the greatest movie ever, but I can’t really think of anything that needs improvement here, which is the highest praise I can offer any film.
2: “Once Upon a Time in the West” (1968)
I did not expect to like it, but when I first popped this film into my DVD player, I immediately was gripped by Sergio Leone’s complex and compelling murder mystery disguised as a Western. The characters, from the supposed heroes to the sympathetic villains, are all well written and well performed, and I will always love a movie where both sides of the conflict are created with such care.
1: “Unforgiven” (1992)
Clint Eastwood’s 1992 offering if not a great Western; it’s a great movie that takes all the conventions of the genre and twists and turns them into an unforgettable piece of art. “Unforgiven” challenges the viewer to take sides, to question the roles of the hero and the villain, which are so often clear cut and lame in ‘traditional’ Westerns. It also is a brilliant meditation on the never-ending consequences of vengeance. I cannot say enough good things about “Unforgiven,” and it’s one movie that keeps me willing to come back to this genre.