Philip French’s 10 best westerns

I love a western.

The Observer’s soon to be retired film critic, Philip French, himself a renowned scholar of the genre published this on Sunday.

This got me thinking about my response and westerns in general.

There are few things better than an empty afternoon, flicking through channels and coming across an old friend. sometimes the more obscure the better.

This is the heart of geekdom. We all love the classics in any popular culture. Be it great film, theatre, literature, sport; we all know Jaws, Hamlet, Pride and Bloody Prejudice or the World Cup of 1966 with the Russian linesmen and people on the pitch.

How many 30 something’s know who Randolph Scott is, or Joel McRae? How many film buffs know who Ward Bond was, why Ben Johnson was incredible, or even the great Anthony Mann and James Stewart films?

Anyway, I’ve put together my response to the list, my 10, plus a few thoughts. As ever, I’d love to get a response.

1. Bend in the River, Dir Anthony Mann, Starring James Stewart and Arthur Kennedy and the Mann stock company. Great cinematography, not quite as overtly “psychological”, Laramie or Winchester (both of which are virtually Shakespearean), but has a great scene where a near dead Stewart threatens the gang, “you’ll be seeing me”. You care about the characters.

2. She wore a Yellow Ribbon, Dir John Ford, starring John Wayne, and the John Ford stock company. About war, family, remembrance and romanticism. The funeral of the confederate general and the marriage at the end. My favourite of the trilogy, which are all great

3. The Magnificent Seven, Dir John Sturges, starring, Brad Dexter, Horst Bucholz and 5 very famous Hollywood stars. “all I have to do is take off my hat”

4. Open Range, Dir Kevin Costner, starring Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall. Great, minimalist, tough western. Shows Costner’s love for the genre, with hat tips to Ford (landscape), Mann (Costner’s a psyco), Pekinpah (well staged violence) and Hawks (it’s a mission / lost platoon movie)

5. The Outlaw Josey Wales, Dir & Starring Clint Eastwood. I think it’s probably his best. Has a great line about “Dying aint much of a living” and actually has something to say about post conflict national and character development

6. Ride the High Country: Dir Sam Pekinpah, starring Randolf Scott and Joel Mcrae. It’s about the end of the west and what it is to be a man. Aidan will be watching this in a few years with his dad and granddad

7. The Gunfight at the OK Corral. Dir John Sturges, starring Burt and Kirk (no need for surnames, is there?). Total star power, with Kirk’s .45 calibre dimple and Burt’s 500 MW smile. Actually pretty tough for the time. Great entertainment

8. Rio Bravo, Dir Howard Hawks, starring John Wayne, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson, Walter Brennan. One of Hawk’s “embattled platoon” films, this is the one with Deano as the drunk, not Mitchum (who is far better in the role) but I actually prefer this version, because it’s got Walter Brennan in it – who pretty much always plays Walter Brennan, but brilliantly – and Ricky Nelson is a more attractive character than James Caan. The song is actually very good.

9. The Naked Spur. Dir Anthony Mann, Starring James Stewart and Robert Ryan. Again, majestic Rockies cinematography, with serious angst from Stewart as the killer trying to be a decent man. Robert Ryan is a great baddie it’s a really tight little film – small cast, small story, powerful film.

10. The Searchers. I don’t particularly love the film, as it’s long, a bit stagey and quite dated. But it is the template for a revenge western, and John Wayne acts against type. He’s a nasty racist that is prepared to kill the niece he’s searched for for years because she’s been racially defiled. This is a film about the development of America and the difficult birth in a savage environment. Wayne walking out of the civilised doorway for the emptiness of the SW desert is an all time great visual metaphor. This is what serious westerns are for – telling the story of America by Americans. This is their creation myth. The Searchers not in a Western top 10? That’ll be the day.

I then thought about other westerns that I love, or that merited comment, having been in the original list.

• Unforgiven. If Eastwood didn’t have such a clear template for his films: dark interiors; use of shadow to create sombre and oppressive mood, graphic violence that often comes from nowhere; I’d have had this in my top 10. It’s a truly great film, with excellent performances by pretty much everyone. However, for me it is slightly less of a western, and more of a film on a western stage (pardon the pun). Josey Wales is a great film that is also a true western. Unforgiven could just as easily be Mystic River or Million Dollar Baby (which similarly is not a boxing film like Kid Gallahad or Fat City)

• Tombstone. A sentimental personal favourite this. For Mitchum’s eligaic and evocative voiceover to Heston’s great little cameo and Val Klimer showing he could really act doing the ultimate Doc. I love getting the chance to suggest that “my hypocrisy only goes so far”. Powers Boothe is a great mad baddie as well, and even Billy Inzane is pretty good. Not sure about Kurt Russell as Wyat Erp. Think they were going for authenticity. Thought it was actually a bit hammy. Suspect Erp was actually far more like Gene Hackmann in Unforgiven.

• 7th Cavalry. Randolph Scott trying to prove his heroism after being accused of running away from the Little Big Horn. Part courtroom drama, part war film, part western. All great for a wet and windy Saturday afternoon. A Blewer family favourite

• Rancho Notorious. A very silly film with touches of genius. Arthur Kennedy as an embattled simple rancher hunting down his wife’s killers. He’s basically channelling James Stewart. A deeply silly musical recurring motif, “Hate, murder and revenge” that keeps on coming. Finally what the hell is Marlene Dietrich doing in a western. That Fritz Lang directed and it’s basically a noirish melodrama is probably the answer. They should be wearing trilbies not Stetsons, and using automatics not revolvers.

• Night Passage. It was meant to be another Mann-Stewart collaboration, and looks and feels it, but he pulled out due to Audie Murphy’s casting. Murphy actually isn’t too bad, Stewart is great, the film looks brilliant and there are a few great toe tapping songs that me and my Dad loved when we first watched this about 28 years ago.

• The Shootist. Really tight film, elegiac farewell to John Wayne and the old west. Great support from Mrs Bogart-Robards and James Stewart. But it’s not a western. Queen Victoria had died the first day of the story.

• Clint’s “supernatural” westerns. Pale Rider / High Planes’ Drifter are nearly two sides of the same coin. Great films, particularly like the echo of Shane at the end of Pale Rider, full of imagery, good pacing and spare storytelling and as we all know, “there aint nothing like a good piece of hickory”

You can tell this is a life long love affair with the genre. I love noirs, war films, modern action films and more, but I keep coming back to westerns. Or as I called them as a small boy, watching with my dad, “cow boys”.

I’ve already watched a few with Aidan asleep on me. Looking forward to watching more with him as he grows up. I hope I pass on the torch. He’s already got a horse to ride.




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