Top 10 westerns you haven’t seen, and should
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The western died decades ago. So critical thinking has it, anyway. Once the staple of the studios, the genre slowly ran itself ragged on a never-ending factory line of bandana-ed bandits, silver-starred sheriffs and heart-of-gold hookers.
There’s been a gazillion westerns over the years, and you’ve no doubt seen most of them on a Saturday afternoon waiting for the rain delay to finish. But there are always those that get lost amid the dust and gun smoke – particularly in more recent years when some boob has tried his hand at reviving the genre.
So TheVine would like to present ten westerns you haven’t seen. Some of these were long ago trampled under the stampede of their own genre. Others are misunderstood gems. All, though, are flicks worthy of your time.
10. Silverado (1985)
Westerns usually make for pretty high-concept filmmaking: deliver a bad guy, defend a town, avenge a partner, etc. So it’s backhandedly refreshing to witness an oater that approaches its own story like a drunken cowboy with a chamber full of buckshot. Silverado should have been a disaster: it’s got enough plot (and shootouts) for five films, meaning the four (yeah, four) central players barely have any celluloid left between them to develop any character. But then it’s from the gleeful mind’s eye of Lawrence Kasdan so is always a gas, even as it splays itself across the screen. Call your buds, buy some beer, enjoy.
9. They Call Me Trinity (1970)
I umm-ed and ahh-ed about including They Call Me Trinity. Surely everyone’s seen this? But apparently not, the fagioli western a minor hit in cinemas and on VHS, but flying under the radar in the DVD era (indeed, if you’ve never heard of Terence Hill and Bud Spencer, head straight to Amazon and buy the biggest box set you can). On the face of it, this is pretty straightforward: a couple of lawmen aid a defenceless group of people threatened by a corrupt landowner and his henchman. The only difference is that the Trinity brothers are lazy, unreliable, small-time scumbags. Hilarity ensues.
8. Open Range (2003)
The second film on this list to feature Kevin Costner after 1985’s Silverado, Open Range finds ol’ orange face on the other side of the deep trough in his career. I’m not sure what kind of madman was giving Costner money to make westerns in 2003, but the decision was ultimately vindicated: not only was Open Range a critical success, but it also made its money back at the box office. It’s way too long for what it is (such is life when your actor is your director is your producer), but the final shootout is one of the greatest you’re likely to witness. Check it out.
7. Westworld (1973)
Futuristic theme park forgets to update virus software, goes bananas. That’s the setup for Westworld, writer-director Michael Crichton’s 1973 dress rehearsal for Jurassic Park in which Yul Brynner plays himself – as a robot! If all this is starting to sound too good to be true, it kinda is. Westworld’s plot overflows with possibilities but unfortunately everything turns to shit a touch too late. Still, it’s never not watchable, and packs some spookily prescient ideas when it comes to the technology it portrays.
6. The Good, the Bad, the Weird (2008)
One of the major touchstones in modern Korean cinema, The Good, the Bad, the Weird might be short on story, but makes up for it by being long on spectacular set pieces. There’s little in the way of computer generated effects or green screening here, either – just the explosive, systematic destruction of 1930s Korea by three ambitious loners (the ‘Good’ – Jung Woo-Sung, the ‘Bad’ – Lee Byung-hun, the ‘Weird’ – Song Kang-ho ) and the Japanese army that’s pursuing them. All you really need to know is that it features Song Kang-ho wearing a diving bell helmet to a gunfight. It’s as funny as it sounds.
5. Ulzana’s Raid (1972)
I’m yet to encounter anyone who’s heard of Ulzana’s Raid. Which is a shame, because this is fantastic Vietnam-era filmmaking, full of moral confusion and ghastly violence. There’s little in the way of off-hand racism or mighty-whitey patronisation that’s a hallmark of the genre when dealing with American indigenous culture; just an effective treatise on the righteous ignorance of US governments and military institutions. Also, it’s directed by Robert Aldrich, so the action scenes are the greatest.
4. Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
The story of a one-armed Spencer Tracy arriving in a godforsaken town to visit the father of a fallen war buddy, Bad Day at Black Rock is essentially a western in disguise. Tracy’s comrade was half-Japanese, and racist rent-an-asshole Robert Ryan eliminated the father long ago. Ernest Borgnine described his first ever scene with the film’s star as “two Academy Awards walking straight towards me”, and Tracy does indeed bring all of his intimidating charisma to bear as he slowly straightens out Ryan and his malevolent gang of no-goods. Essential.
3. One-Eyed Jacks (1961)
“Go fuck yourself, Marlon.” With that, Stanley Kubrick walked off One-Eyed Jacks – or so the story goes, anyway. Brando would end up directing the film himself, creating a flawed but exceptionally watchable revenge story. Girls will want to see Brando, but dudes should be there for co-star Karl Malden, who is positively frightening as a turncoat, antagonistic lawman. 141 minutes is perhaps twenty too many, but One-Eyed Jacks looks a million bucks and plays beautifully. Also, it’s Scorsese’s favourite western – what else do you need to know?
2. 3:10 to Yuma (2007)
This muscular remake sunk upon its local release a couple of years ago, mostly because of the confused billing. Those who arrived to watch Russell Crowe punch some cowboys in the face were left confused and disappointed. This is in fact Christian Bale’s rancher’s film, and once the audience understands that, everything else tends to fall into place. Yuma is a mite too long, but Ben Foster’s scabrous performance as Rusty’s henchman keeps you engaged and everything pays off handsomely with one of the classiest final setups in recent cinema history. The best dad movie this side of the new millennium.
1. Pursued (1947)
Almost more a psychological film noir than a western, Pursued packs enough complexity to carry three films. Written by Niven Busch partially as a riposte to the gaudy adaptation of his bestselling novel, Duel in the Sun, Pursued turned out to be everything that film was not: subtle, expertly paced, crisply shot and full of unsettling portent. Plus, it stars Robert Mitchum, the baddest motherfucker to ever pull on a pair of chaps.
- Matt Shea (@mrmatches)
Lead image credit: Trinity via tumblr.