More a teaser than a trailer, really, but this first look at the Coen Brothers’ “True Grit” is enough to get me excited. The Coens dabbled with some classic Western themes in “No Country for Old Men” and even “Fargo,” but it should be fascinating to watch them tackle the genre head-on in a revisionist treatment of the John Wayne classic. The original “True Grit” (1969) could probably be classified as the last of the great ‘traditional’ Westerns, pushed aside by the revolutionary works of filmmakers like Sam Peckinpah, Sergio Leone and Robert Altman. As always, the Coens will assuredly do their own thing, but it certainly looks like their film will be stamped with the influence of those masters of the 1970’s.
The Western is a much derided, and, in my humble opinion, much misunderstood genre. Yes, John Wayne was hardly a paragon of great acting. Yes, the number of crappy B-movie Westerns from the studio era floating around out there is overwhelming. Yes, the studios have a lot to answer for after the highly offensive portrayal of Native Americans in many Westerns. But, the Western is undoubtedly the most American of genres, and perfectly designed to tackle themes of American exceptionalism, xenophobia, community, entrepreneurship and the ever-expanding bounds of modernity, concepts that resonate to this day.
So, in honor of “True Grit” and “Meek’s Cutoff” (this year’s other revisionist Western and already a smash hit among critics, offered up by “Wendy and Lucy” director Kelly Reichardt), I offer up my personal top 10 Westerns. If you’re interested in seeing “True Grit,” I strongly suggest treating this list as a primer of sorts, and trying to see as many of these before Christmas as possible.
10. Little Big Man (1970)
3 years after re-crafting the gangster flick (and flipping the film world on its end in the process) with “Bonnie and Clyde,” director Arthur Penn set out to bring the same touches of revisionist history, subversive humor and flipped perspective to the Western. Though the results were not as revolutionary (how could they be?) as “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Little Big Man” remains an incredibly unique piece of cinema history, shifting tone from crude silliness to devastating tragedy in the blink of an eye. Because it tells the Western from the Native American side, “Little Big Man” is inevitably listed in the same breath as “Dances with Wolves,” but Penn’s effort is far more textured. Dustin Hoffman is fantastic as Jack Grabb (or ‘Little Big Man’), the white man adopted by the Cheyenne tribe but later swaps sides and ends up, rather improbably, as the sole survivor at Little Bighorn.
9. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
While it may be lacking in cowboys and saloons, John Huston’s “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” remains every bit the classic Western with its depiction of ambition and madness on the frontier. As Humphrey Bogart and his cohorts are consumed by greed and paranoia, the viewer is left with a timeless warning regarding the dangers of relentlessly pursuing material wealth.
8. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
Akira Kurosawa was famously enamored with the work of legendary Western director John Ford, and indeed his work in samurai films can be viewed as a sort of adaptation of the Western genre to the specific culture and history of Japan. But the influence may have gone both ways; twelve years after Kurosawa’s “Rashomon” rocked the cinematic world, Ford produced “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” a film that heavily relied on perception and multiple view points on the same event. After years of helping to romanticize the image of the glorious Wild West through his films, Ford made a sly and provocative commentary on the crafting of folk legends with “Liberty Valance.” It was this film that gave us the brilliant line, “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
7. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
Andrew Dominik’s modern masterpiece takes the idealized version of the noble Western outlaw and smashes it to bits, revealing Jesse James as an arrogant, unpredictable (though hardly unsympathetic) bully. Crucially, the audience shares its disillusionment with the film’s central figure, Robert Ford (perfectly played by Casey Affleck), turning “The Assassination of Jesse James” into a profound rumination on the effects of celebrity and the glorification of crime.
6. My Darling Clementine (1946)
Film #2 on this list from the old master. Ford’s take on Wyatt Earp and the infamous ‘gunfight at the O.K. Corral’ is surely as factually incorrect as it is beautifully shot, but we’ll forgive a few, *ahem*, liberties in return for this delicate portrait of a man standing up against the chaos of the West, constantly paving the way for a society in which he will never truly belong. One of Henry Fonda’s finest performances.
5. The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1968)
In a genre that rewards bold heroes and daring action, Sergio Leone was perhaps the most audacious of filmmakers. “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” is a engrossing exercise in style, flaunting a visual look unlike anything that had come before it (heavily assisted by the fact the film was shot in the deserts of Spain, so alien compared to the Monument Valley locations of Ford’s films). Leone’s brash tale of three treasure-hunters in Civil War-era Texas culminates in possibly the most famous Mexican standoff of all time, an almost unbearably long sequence that stretches the inherent tension further than one would think possible. It’s not to be missed.
4. High Noon (1952)
Shot almost in real-time (it packs about 100 minutes of actual time into 85 minutes of screen time), “High Noon” feels in some ways ahead of its time. Suspense builds naturally and swiftly as the clock ticks inexorably toward noon, when a train carrying four outlaws hell-bent on murdering Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) will arrive in the town of Hadleyville. Though about to retire with his new bride (Grace Kelly), Kane feels it is his duty to stay and stand up to the thugs; the resounding silence that meets him from the townsfolk when he requests assistance is meant to symbolize those in Hollywood who stood by while their peers were blacklisted and persecuted by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Politically provocative and a thrilling entertainment, to boot.
3. The Searchers (1956)
Ford’s masterpiece about an uncle fiercely determined to rescue his orphaned niece, kidnapped by Native Americans, deserves to be seen if only for possibly the most brilliant closing shot in all of cinema. Having finally accomplished his task, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne, packing more emotion into one expression in this shot than he conjured up in the rest of his career combined) stands hesitantly in the door frame, unable or unwilling to join the civilized world inside that he does not understand. And so he turns and rides away into the wilderness, a Man of the West to the end.
2. McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)
Don’t let the film’s Pacific Northwest location fool you – “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” is every bit a frontier tale. But unlike Ford’s majestic, clear vistas, the world of Warren Beatty’s McCabe is cramped, dark and dirty. Like Wyatt Earp, McCabe forges civilization out of confusion (this being a revisionist Western and all, he of course starts with the whores and gambling), but he meets his match in Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie), an indepedent, unshakeable madam who exposes McCabe’s true nature as nothing but a big softie. Unfortunately for him, the frontier is no place for a poet. Robert Altman’s depiction of an all-consuming wilderness is terrifyingly pitch-perfect.
1. The Wild Bunch (1969)
The Wild Bunch are a bunch of relics, a group of principled outlaws faced with a world where principles and integrity mean nothing. Sam Peckinpah’s explosive, violent depiction of the West in 1913, standing on the eve of World War I and the mass butchery of the 20th century, brilliantly subverts expectations by having its heroes pushed aside, not by the civilizing influence of society (as is the case with Ford’s Wyatt Earp or Ethan Edwards), but rather the overwhelming cruelty made possible by the march of “progress.” But the Wild Bunch will not go down without making their mark, and the film’s infamous ultra-violent climax at the ‘Battle of Bloody Porch’ stands as a sort of uncomfortable, conflicted last hurrah for every Western hero of the cinema, doomed to pass into obscurity and oblivion.
Missed the cut: “Unforgiven,” “Stagecoach,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “3:10 to Yuma,” “The Magnificent Seven”
Note: I have not seen several films that would probably be strong candidates for this list, including “Once Upon a Time in the West,” “Shane,” “Cat Ballou,” “The Professionals,” “The Gunfighter,” and “Man of the West.”