The 411 Movies Top 5 5.29.14: Top 5 Westerns
Posted by Shawn S. Lealos on 05.30.2014
From Unforgiven and The Searchers to The Wild Bunch, The Magnificent Seven, Rio Bravo and more, the 411 staff counts down the top five westerns of all time!
Welcome to Week 428 of the Movie Zone Top 5. My name is Shawn S. Lealos and you have entered my world.
The 411mania writers were given the following instructions: Westerns - This is pretty easy to describe. A Million Ways to Die in the West comes out, so lets here your five favorite movies with a western theme.
Honorable Mentions: Shane (1953), McLintock! (1963), Rio Conchos (1964), Posse (1993), Arizona Raiders (1965)
5. Oblivion (1994)
Oblivion, directed by Sam Irvin, is a great little sci-fi western from Full Moon Entertainment about a pacifist (Zack Stone, as played by Richard Joseph Paul) that has to become the sheriff of a little town overrun by a super criminal alien lizard man named Red Eye (the great Andrew Divoff under some serious makeup) because the old sheriff, the pacifist's father, is dead (he was killed by Red Eye). The flick is a nifty mash up of the B-western genre and the B-movie sci-fi genre (you've got horses, people wearing period western clothes, and you've got laser guns, aliens, and big ass crab/scorpion monsters) and it has a fabulous cast. Richard Joseph Paul, Divoff, the awesome Meg Foster as a cyborg deputy, Julie Newmar as a whore house owner, Isaac goddamn Hayes, the George Takei, Carel "Lurch" Struycken, and Musetta Vander as the hottest leather clad whip wielding henchwoman in the history of low budget B-movie cinema. You should also check out the sequel, "Oblivion 2: Backlash," which was made at the same time as the first one. It's not as generally good as the first one, but it's still worth checking out
4. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
Directed by Sergio Leone, this classic western has Jason Robards and Chuck Bronson (Cheyenne and Harmonica) joining forces to take on a villainous Henry Fonda in the old west. See, Fonda's Frank is a mean, nasty bastard of an assassin, as we see him wipe out the family of Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) at the behest of railroad baron kingpin scumbag Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti). Once Harmonica arrives (he kills three men as soon as he arrives in town. One of them is Jack freaking Elam, so you know, even if you didn't know at that point, that the shit is about to go down), he joins forces with Cheyenne and goes after Frank. They're doing it for the honor of McBain, basically. "Once Upon a Time in the West" can be a long haul if you're not in the right frame of mind (I guess it all depends on how you feel about three hour movies). The opening scene should hook you, though. It's one of the best opening sequences in the western movie genre. And seeing Hank Fonda as a bad guy, that just didn't happen very often. For that reason alone you should see Once Upon a Time in the West.
3. Westward the Women (1951)
Robert Taylor plays Buck Wyatt, a bad ass trail boss hired by a California land owner to lead a bunch of single women from Chicago to his little California town so they can marry the lonely dudes living there and increase the town's population. The trek across the west is dangerous (they get attacked by Indians, a woman's kid gets shot accidentally, one of the wagons goes over a cliff, etc.) but most of them eventually make it. Taylor is freaking awesome as Wyatt. He doesn't take shit from anyone. Denise Darsel is great as Fifi, the foreign chick that ends up hot for Wyatt (it's so dang cute when they get married at the very end). The female character you're likely to remember most is Patience Hawley as played by Hope Emerson. She's a big tough broad, the kind of woman that you just didn't mess with in the old days (in a modern movie she'd probably be a lesbian). You'll find yourself saying "Smokin' Okum" after watching it (it happens to me every single time I see it. I do it for hours). And you will never forget Henry Nakamura's Ito and his search for "The Grave of Jim Quackenbush." A true classic.
2. Rio Bravo (1958)
Rio Bravo is one of those movies that damn near every director lists as an inspiration for his or her career (well, it seems that way). Directed by the great Howard Hawks, Rio Bravo has John Wayne teaming up with a drunk Dean Martin, an annoying Ricky Nelson, and a hilarious Walter Brennan in order to keep a murderer from being broken out of jail. Excellent performances from everyone (easily one of Wayne's best movies), but what really gets you is how the movie is almost completely devoid of close ups. You basically see everything from a distance from beginning to end. And yet you somehow manage to get to know everyone. And the flick's dialogue free sequences are a must see. I think I just figured out why so many directors look to this movie for inspiration. Again, it's filled with terrific performances, but it's also technically brilliant. How many movies, in any genre, get made that are that polished?
1. The Wild Bunch (1969)
Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch is a brilliant, violent masterpiece about the end of the west, or at least what the west was at one time. At least I think that's what it's about. There's a chance that it's about something else entirely (that's one of the reasons it's such a great movie, it's open to so many different interpretations). But when I think about that last sequence, where William Holden's Pike gathers up his gang (Ernie Borgnine, Warren Oates, and Ben Johnson as Dutch and the Gorch brothers, Lyle and Tector) to make one last stand rescuing their captured comrade Angel (Jaime Sanchez), it really is the end of them all. They all go down shooting, destroying everything in their path. Pike's motto, "We're not gonna get rid of anybody! We're gonna stick together, just like it used to be! When you side with a man, you stay with him! And if you can't do that, you're like some animal, you're finished! We're finished! All of us!" is all right there at the end. Pike stuck with his gang, his men. It's the only way they, anyone, could survive in a violent world full of killers.
5. A Fistful of Dollars
The movie series that shot Clint Eastwood to stardom, this was the second part of the "Man With No Name" trilogy and showcases why Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns remain so revered. In an adaptation of Kurosawa's Yojimbo, Eastwood is a bounty hunter who rides into a town where two gangs battle for control. Playing each off the other, the Stranger engages in wild gun battles and Eastwood sells him as a force of nature who will not give in and gives little insight to why he does this. The final showdown has been mimicked numerous times but Leone's gritty style makes it feel fresh as ever and Eastwood shows the charisma that would make him a film icon and why this entire movie stands as a classic.
4. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
A film that both celebrates as well as pokes fun at the Western, William Goldman's script fictionalizes the pair of famous outlaws as a great bickering couple of friends. It's packed with wonderful humor and classic lines ("Next time I say we should go somewhere like Bolivia, let's go somewhere like Bolivia!") and mocks some of the conventions of the genre like Sundance's relationship with schoolteacher Katherine Ross. There's action of heists, a train robbery and chases but what makes it all work is the fantastic chemistry of Paul Newman and Robert Redford as the title characters. They way they bicker, fighter and yet keep working together is wonderful and elevates the entire film to the heights of classic American movies. Plus, that final sequence stands as true movie-making at its best and leaves open their final fate, letting us remember these guys as great anti-heroes with amazing charm that makes this a true masterpiece.
In 1992, the Western was considered dead and buried as a genre. Then Clint Eastwood came along and revived it big time with this stunning classic. Eastwood directs himself as a retired gunslinger who's pulled into a bounty on a gang of men who deformed a young prostitute. Morgan Freeman is well-cast as his old buddy who reluctantly goes along with Eastwood and an arrogant young gun to get the money. It's a terrific story that tackles the brutality of the West and how so much "legend" has darker sides. Gene Hackman deservedly won an Oscar for his role as the brutal town sheriff Eastwood clashes with, setting up its amazing finale. The movie won Oscars for Best Picture and Director, one of the most honored Westerns ever and shines two decades later as a testament by a master filmmaker to how the Western speaks to the American spirit.
2. Rio Bravo
I know, if you're talking great John Wayne westerns, you could pick The Searchers or Red River. But this 1959 movie, directed by the great Howard Hawks, really stands as one of the best of Wayne's long filmography and it's a great film too. Wayne is the rough and tumble sheriff of a small town with Walter Brennan as his deputy and Dean Martin as the local drunk who sobers up as a fighter when a gang comes to town, ready to break a fellow member out of jail. Ricky Nelson may be a bit out of it as the young drifter but Hawks keeps the action going and Angie Dickinson is great as the lady with a deep secret also in town. The film's pace is terrific to move things along en route to the brilliantly shot final showdown that's literally explosive. The star power of Wayne is on full display, reminding you how well he dominated the Western vibe and with a great cast and director with him, it's a showcase for a great Western and action film as well.
1. The Magnificent Seven
Akira Kurosawa always said his works were influenced by the American western. So it makes sense to have a western adaptation of Kurosawa's most famous work, Seven Samurai. Eli Wallach is the wild leader of a bandit gang attacking a village regularly. The villagers seek help from a gunslinger (Yul Brynner) who soon gains several allies from the always cool Steve McQueen to the gruff Charles Bronson and veteran James Coburn. Together, they soon win the villagers over while preparing for the showdown with Wallach's gang, ending in a wild gunfight and a fatalistic ending but one that makes sense. Packed with great star power and its intriguing story (not to mention Elmer Bernstein's beautiful score), it's a great showcase for how the Western works and a great piece of filmmaking in its own right.
Shawn S. Lealos
5. The Searchers
Many consider it the finest western ever made, and it might be. When it comes to personal favorites, it is on my list here but I am keeping it at five for personal preference. John Wayne stars as Ethan Edwards in a story that takes place during the Texas-Indian Wars. He is an extremely racist man who hates Native Americans of all kinds. While on the trail of Natives with the Rangers, their homes are attacked. Ethan returns to find his brother, sister-in-law and nephew dead and his two nieces missing. When Ethan finds his niece Debbie and realizes she was given as a wife to a Comanche, he wants to kill her because it's better to be dead than an Indian. It is a very disturbing role by Wayne, who refuses to give up his hatred and even shuts out everyone he loves because of his racist beliefs.
4. High Noon
Gary Cooper is fantastic in this western that takes on a very different feel. Cooper plays longtime marshal Will Kane, someone who has decided to retire and live with his wife in peace. When an outlaw that he put away named Frank Miller is pardoned for a technicality, he sets off to seek vengeance on Kane and his loved ones. When Kane hears about this, he takes his badge back and stays on to stop Frank from hurting anyone in his town. However, his wife says she will leave without him and the judge who sentenced Frank to begin with leaves and encourages Kane to do the same. The entire town then turns on Kane, believing he is putting them in danger by staying to fight. Kane is then left to fight alone as no one in town will help their once proud marshal.
3. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
I have honestly never been a big fan of John Wayne. However, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was great because Wayne was playing the same character he always played in a movie that showed that his time was over with. It is Jimmy Stewart who played the future in this world, a politician named Stoddard moving to make the Wild West a little less wild. He faced a lot of road blocks, including an outlaw who wanted him dead (Lee Martin). By the end, John Wayne was still the hero. He took the blame for shooting Liberty Valance, even telling Stoddard that he was the one who made the killing shot since Stoddard missed. He did this so that Stoddard could win the girl, win in politics, and make positive changes. Once again, Wayne gave up his own happiness for the happiness of others.
2. Near Dark
This is the vampire movie from 1987 that a lot of people have forgotten about. In the same year that Lost Boys came out and blew away audiences, this movie seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow two decades before she became the first woman to win an Oscar for directing, the movie has a group of vampires traveling through the Midwest country towns. Lance Henriksen and Bill Paxton lead the cast as two vampires who just left dead bodies in their wake. Honestly, this is the movie that made me a HUGE fan of Paxton, who was just all kinds of psychotic in the film. It follows the western outlaw pattern perfectly and is one of the best vampire movies of all time.
There is no better choice to send the westerns into the sunset than Clint Eastwood, the man who was the last great western action hero. While he directed a number of movies before Unforgiven, including a handful of westerns, he really proved to be one of the best directors in the world with Unforgiven. Eastwood played an outlaw towards the end of the Wild West. He wanted to retire and then he wanted to die after losing his wife. When a young hotshot bandit comes along wanting to be trained, he ends up drawn out and sees a target on his chest from a sheriff played perfectly by Gene Hackman. Honestly, this has everything that makes western movies great while at the same time being a perfect send off to the once great genre.