Great Westerns

November 16, 2012 at 10:00 pm (adventure, blogging, cinema, drama, film, Jim D, United States)

In my experience, most lefties dislike Westerns, and it’s not difficult to understand why. Almost by definition, the genre is a celebration of white settlers in confrontation with native peoples. Sometimes the portrayal of the natives is condescending and/or downright racist. It’s also the most macho of cinematic genres, with women rarely playing significant roles except as home-makers and/or romantic ideals (I leave aside, of course, the bordello girls). Westerns also tend to be morally simplistic, good-against-evil stories that leave little room for nuance, socio-economic background or understanding of the “other.”

Well, that’s what a lot of people on the left tend to think. Actually, the best Westerns explore the human condition and individual weakness in the face of hostile, relentless forces, as few other film genres do (the ‘noir’ detective films also do it, but they’re really just updated Westerns anyway). Some Westerns (and not just recent ones) even explore the position of women (Johnny Guitar) and Native Americans (The Searchers). It’s been suggested, also, that High Noon is, at least in part, about McCarthyism.

Anyway, what’s brought this on is ol’ Prof Norm’s latest poll, open until the end of this month: vote for your favourite Westerns. The Prof has provided his list:

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill, 1969)
Duel at Diablo (Ralph Nelson, 1966)
Gunfight at the OK Corral (John Sturges, 1957)
Man of the West (Anthony Mann, 1958)
My Darling Clementine (John Ford, 1946)
One-Eyed Jacks (Marlon Brando, 1960)
Rio Bravo (Howard Hawks, 1959)
Shane (George Stevens, 1953)
Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood, 1992)
The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah, 1969)

…but has been (imho) quite rightly denounced for not including the film that many of us consider The Greatest Western Of All Time..

My list would probably include High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952),  The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford, 1962), Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, 1954), Red River (Howard Hawks, 1948), The Ox-Bow Incident (William Wellman, 1943), Shane (George Stevens, 1953), Bad Day at Black Rock (John Sturges, 1955), Stagecoach (John Ford, 1939), and Rio Bravo (Howard Hawks, 1959).

But, as I said, this is the best of them all:

20 Comments

  1. just saying said,

    I seen the Searchers as a young lad and enjoyed it,however,I seen it again some months back and found it to be extreme to the point of offensive myopic and xenophobic.

    See one that is not on the list and maybe should be is, Open Range.

  2. Norman Geras said,

    That is not my list of 10 best or favourite Westerns. It’s just an old list I made of Westerns I like.

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  3. Roger McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

    My list would have to include Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Tombstone as well as The Searchers, Shane and UIzana’s Raid.

    And always thought Unforgiven the most overrated Clint Eastwood movie (and there’s any number to choose from) – give me The Outlaw Josie Wales, Hang Em High or any of the Leone’s any day.

    Such lists do tend to be significantly generational though – my formative years were the 70s so I tend to be fixated of that last great wave of violent technicolor Westerns from the late 60s and 70s as I watched these first at an impressionable age when they blew me away.

    If it wasn’t midnight and I didn’t need the sound of that final bloody Gotterdammerung cranked up really loud I’d be watching the Wild Bunch again right now…..

  4. Will said,

    I’m pretty lefty and I like westerns, and war movies

  5. Rosie said,

    The only Western I really like is Blazing Saddles.

  6. Jim Denham said,

    I thought of including The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre in my list, but for some reason it’s never struck me as really being a Western. I’m not sure why. A great film, of course, and based on a book by the mysterious B Traven. I seem to remember reading somewhere that an unknown man turned up and watched the filming for a while, and one of the crew took a picture of him. Was it Traven himself?

    http://libcom.org/library/b-traven-anti-biography

    Thanks for the clarification, Norman. Please treat my list (headed, of course, by The Searchers), as my vote in your poll.

    • Roger McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

      Well it is set in 1925 (although the Wild Bunch is set no more than ten years earlier as are several well known Spaghetti Westerns) but it has the very archetypes of bandidos and of the Stinky Pete prospector.

      I am therefore inclined to keep it as a reminder of how flexible the concept of the Western can or at least should be – as well as possibly the most explicitly socialist contribution to the genre (Traven being an anarchist and the whole plot being a fable about capitalism).

    • Pinkie said,

      I don’t really see ‘Bad Day at Black Rock’ as a ‘Western’, much I I like it. Apart from the geography it doesn’t share many of the many and varied features of a ‘Western’, and it is set post-WWII.

      Anyone like ‘Destry Rides Again’?

  7. Matt said,

    I haven’t seen it but Soldier Blue, made in 1970 about a massacre of Native Americans by the US Army in the 1860’s but with clear echoes of Vietnam, is supposed to be very good.

    • Roger McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

      It’s one of a flurry of such movies from the end of the sixties early seventies – Little Big Man featured the same massacre (as did the 1976 TV series Centennial) and is to my mind a much better film.

      Vietnam was too raw and divisive to make commercial movies about directly until Apocalypse Now and The Deerhunter – so we got Vietnam-proxy films (other examples being M*A*S*H, Catch-22 and Pontecorvo’s under-rated anti-imperialist epic Queimada).

  8. comradeNosaj said,

    The Assassination of Jessie James by the coward Robert Ford is simply beautiful and amazing, modern masterpiece

  9. Peter Burton said,

    The trilogy of Westerns from the early 70’s Eastwood made , High Plains Drifter, Pale Rider and The Outlaw Josey Whales about the importance of people collectively fighting back are also worth watching. Peckinpah made other good Westerns-Pat Garret and Billy the Kid about maintaiing integrity by being outside the law -the price paid for selling out etc and the very different Ballad of Cable Hogue. Ride the High country also deals with moral choices and positions – the young guy eventually drawn to the less likeable but more strong willed and principled Joel Mcrea Then there’s the Spaghettis- The Good, the Bad and the Ugly about different human behaviour and motivations amongst ostensibly similar characters-and with the best musical score i’ve ever heard. Once upon a time in the West -about the early development of America- the thin line between the Capitalists and the Criminals- their use of each other -and great cinematography and music also. A Fistul of Dynamite is also a very entertaining film questioning the nature /outcome of Revolutions. Pete

    Date: Fri, 16 Nov 2012 22:00:28 +0000- To: pburton300@live.co.uk

    • Tom said,

      A lot of the less celebrated westerns are pretty viciously anti capitalist, (The sons of Katie Elder, starring John Wayne, is practically an anarchist tract.) The treatment of bankers and financiers in particular and capitalists in general in the low budget westerns is usually quite good, sadly the solutions offered are either simplistically petit-bourgeois Kill them one at a time and take their money or sugar coated and unbelievable president or good General puts pressure on bad guys to support underdogs and create a happy ending

      I too think the Treasure of Sierra Madre was a good film but it stretches the definition of a western to include it. But if that is in let’s consider Viva Maria as a western too.a feminine Butch and Sundance with a scene that created more teenage revolutionaries than lifetimes of selling papers. While we are looking for women as leading characters, why has nobody mentioned Cat Balou. Women leads did not always make for good films. (Annie Oakley-a showbiz film in western clothes, Calamity Jane-a Mills and Boone type romance dressed up as a western )

      The other genre in the 50s and early 60s that matched the Western for feelgood moral fables was the pirate film.The two had everything in common (except the costumes.) The most honourable men where outside the law but super-humanly decent.Even the most complex issues can be solved by a bit of brute force and ignorance.

      The sanitised Saturday matinee (later children’s TV) westerns have to some extent given the genre a bad name but there is no doubt that some of the best films ever made were westerns. But as western as a genre includes such a wide range and many of the early ones fell foul of the rule that criminals can’t win and so produced a long list of heroic martyrs who went happily to their deaths for the greater good.

  10. Jim Denham said,

    Pinkie: yes, I take the point that ‘Bad Day at Black Rock’ isn’t really a Western in the strict sense, and as I’d ruled out ‘The Treasure Of The Sierra Madra’ on those grounds I suppose I should delete it from my list.

    I agree that ‘Destry Rides Again’ probably deserves a place in the list of Great Westerns, if only because of the fabulous Marlene Dietrich.

    Anyone care to come up with a definition of what *is* a Western and why (for instance) ‘The Treasure Of The Sierra Madra’ and ‘Bad Day at Black Rock’ though excellent films, are not really Westerns?

    • Pinkie said,

      Definition of a ‘Western’. Not sure but, I think it has something to do with the ‘American Frontier’, the movement West from the original settlements in the East.

      Most Westerns seem to involve people ‘doing the right (or maybe wrong) thing’ where there is no effective state power. Justice is achieved by individual action.

  11. Clive said,

    Red River. If only for the bit where John Ireland and Montgomery Clift compare guns. “That’s an awful nice gun you got there. Can I see it? Maybe you’d like to see mine. Nice, awful nice.” You can’t beat a homoerotic subtext, I always say.

  12. Jim Denham said,

    Far be it for me to suggest that you have a none-track mind, Clive…

  13. SteveH said,

    I would have the Good, the Bad and the Ugly at number one and Once Upon a Time in the West at number 2.

    Django is also a contender, certainly anti racist and progressive.

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