My Favorite Western Movies

August 21, 2008 – Lighthearted explanation of what appeals to me about this movie genre, a review of a couple of my favorite western movies, and a list of all my favorite western movies, including the year of release and the principal actors.

By The Cerebral Aesthetic Vagabond

I’ve always loved American western movies. Of course, I grew up during their heyday, the 1950s through the 1970s. During that era western films frequently appeared in theaters and often several western television shows aired concurrently. Westerns have largely died out as a movie and television genre, although once in a while even today a good movie will come along.

While recognizing that movies are just fictional films, westerns depict the very moral values that are dear to me: honesty, trustworthiness, bravery, honor, integrity, justice, loyalty, property rights and personal liberty. Unlike many of today’s movies and television shows, western films seldom glorify despicable behavior and moral relativism.

I also love the freedom portrayed in these films, which frequently depict the lone rider on his, or sometimes her horse, making their way across the empty landscape. Man, horse, nature: what could be more carefree and natural? It’s refreshing to see the splendor of unadulterated nature, devoid of highways, cars, overpopulation and overdevelopment.

Owing to the fact that most western movies, at least the ones I favor, were made decades ago when people harbored different values, many of the “bad guys” are actually rather appealing. I’d rather hang out with some of the bad guys in these old westerns than pretty much any of the people we refer to as our “leaders” today. The bad guys in these films exhibit more humanity and stronger moral values than our present day leaders do.

The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

Last night I watched the epic, The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly, unquestionably my favorite western film. Surprisingly, although I love John Wayne and have dozens of his western movies, I actually have more movies starring Clint Eastwood!

As many people know, the omnipresent backdrop for the movie is the American Civil War, and the movie does a good job of depicting the callousness and pointlessness of war, especially that one. (I recently ran across a well-researched essay that persuasively argues that Abraham Lincoln, who is often credited with ending the Civil War, had a large hand in starting it!)

As good as this American western is, and as well as it treats the history of the American Civil War, the movie was written, directed and mostly acted by Italians and filmed in Spain! The only thing about it that’s of American origin is its three principal actors.

This movie has undergone steady improvement in the more than four decades since it was filmed. I first saw it on television, where it was hacked to bits to make room for commercials, resulting in a choppy, almost incoherent movie that was about two and a half hours long, including commercials. Years later I acquired the movie on video tape and it was still about two and a half hours long, but without commercials, resulting in a much more fluid and coherent movie, but which still contained a few abrupt transitions. Some more years later I acquired it on DVD and it was about two and three-quarters of an hour long, the extra fifteen minutes or so helping to fill in some gaps in the story. Finally a few years ago I acquired yet another version of the film on DVD that’s about three hours long and fills in still more blanks. At last, the movie doesn’t feel as if something is missing. In order to fill in the remaining few minutes the producers had to dig out some old film that was evidently dubbed in Italian and re-dub it in English, getting the original actors to do the voice overs (thank goodness they were still alive forty years later). So while watching the movie the voices of the young actors occasionally give way to the voices of the same actors as old men! It’s a bit distracting and amusing, but worth suffering for the extra footage that in most cases really does help fill in gaps in the story.

In my favorite scene Blondie and Tuco come across a Union regiment fighting to gain control of an insignificant bridge, described as a “flyspeck” by the captain; the “other side” is seeking to do the same thing. To the childlike astonishment of Tuco, who would never engage in any action that was not directly beneficial to himself, the captain informs the two rogues that the combatants engage in two battles daily, seemingly scheduled like clockwork. The captain makes the treasonous admission that he’d like to destroy the bridge, if only he had the courage to defy his orders, and thereby “save many thousands of lives.” He doesn’t say he’d merely save thousands of his own men; he seems to want to save the men on both sides. But the jaded, cynical, drunken soldier dutifully carries on with the twice daily carnage. Observing the bloody scene, Blondie succinctly sums up the lunacy of war, saying, “I’ve never seen so many men wasted so badly.” In an act of self-serving nobility, the two rogues blow up the bridge just as the captain envisioned and thus save the lives of the men fighting to control it.

Not long after blowing up the bridge, Blondie encounters a suffering young soldier, left behind by his regiment, alone and near death. Blondie comforts the dying soldier during his few remaining seconds of life, covering the young man with his coat to keep him warm and offering him a final drag on his cigar.

Shortly after that humanitarian act comes the climax of the movie, the unparalleled and superbly done three-way gunfight between Tuco, Blondie and Angel Eyes, which symbolically takes place in the center of a massive circular cemetery “populated” with thousands and thousands of graves, a testament to the waste of life associated with war. It’s sobering – even though this is a fictional film – to realize that under each one of those mounds is a body, a formerly living, thriving human being. Although the scene in this movie is fictional, I have been to actual military cemeteries that looked like this and it’s even more sobering in real life. One walks around such a cemetery noting grave marker after marker reading, “Born 1924, Died 1944”; “Born 1923, Died 1942”; and so on and so on; hundreds, thousands of such graves. What a waste of young lives, for nothing, absolutely nothing.

Tuco, standing before the cemetery where the gold is buried
Tuco, standing before the cemetery where the gold is buried

War is nothing but a macabre and bloody chess game played by bombastic, egotistical, avaricious, stone-hearted old men (and sometimes old women – Madeleine Albright comes to mind), wherein the chess pieces are real live human beings, kids, to be snuffed out in the prime of their lives. In my opinion there has never been a “good war” in all of human history, and I find it ironic that some religions countenance such a concept. Here I am, a heathen, devoutly opposed to war, violence and senseless destruction on moral grounds, while the devoutly religious endorse the notion that there is such a thing as a “good war.” (End of sermon.)

The only thing I find slightly objectionable in this movie is at the very end, where after the climactic gunfight and digging up the fortune in gold, Blondie needlessly inflicts a parting cruel joke on the affable Tuco.

Rooster Cogburn (... and the Lady)

This movie is superior to its excellent predecessor, True Grit, and features some spectacular scenery of the Pacific Northwest. It is filmed in the Deschutes National Forest and Rogue River area in Oregon, a part of the country I’m slightly familiar with. Although I live in Kentucky now, the truth is that I’m a westerner and feel most at home among the mountains and forests of the west.

Beautiful scene from the movie
Beautiful scene from the movie

Rooster Cogburn stars the beloved, larger-than-life John Wayne in one of the very last films of his career. I happen to think this is his most endearing role, thanks to the warm rapport between him and Katharine Hepburn, who I think is generally an awful actor but is outstanding in this role as a spirited, outspoken, judgmental, bible-thumping minister.

Rooster Cogburn and Miss. Goodnight
Rooster Cogburn and Miss. Goodnight

For an example of the rapport between the two characters, here’s a snippet of dialog toward the end of the movie.

Miss Goodnight: “Will we get back Reuben? What are our chances?”
Rooster Cogburn: “The odds are the same, sister. They ain’t in our favor.”
Miss Goodnight: “When you drop us off, at Webber’s Falls ... and go out after them, you will be careful, won’t you, Reuben? Wolf and I care about you, very much.”
Rooster Cogburn: “Well, ma’am ... I don’t know much ... about thoroughbreds, horses or women. Them that I did know, I never liked. They’re too nervous and spooky. They scare me. But you’re one highbred filly that don’t. ‘Course I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about half the time, but that don’t matter. Bein’ around you pleases me.”
Miss Goodnight: “Those are about the nicest words I ever heard said to me. Thank you, Reuben.”

The dialog throughout the rest of the movie is equally warm but it’s not nauseating thanks to the frequent humorous relief in the film and the stunning scenery that’s expertly captured on film.

My Favorite Western Movies

I readily admit that John Wayne is one of my favorite actors of all time, especially in western movies, which explains why his name is prominent in the list below. Many people have disparaged his acting abilities, but so what. He was an icon not only on the screen but in American culture, a claim that eludes many award winning actors. In addition, he had a good character, another quality in scarce supply today.

Title Year Noteworthy Actors Comments
Red River 1948 John Wayne
Montgomery Clift
Walter Brennan
Montgomery Clift is such a hottie in this movie.
High Noon 1952 Gary Cooper
Lloyd Bridges
Realistic portrayal of a sheriff standing alone against outlaws, bound by his sense of duty, yet unable to obtain help from any of the townspeople.
Rio Bravo 1959 John Wayne
Dean Martin
Ricky Nelson
Angie Dickinson
Dean Martin is quite good in westerns and starred with John Wayne in several. This movie is not to be confused with a later John Wayne movie titled Rio Lobo.
The Sons of Katie Elder 1965 John Wayne
Dean Martin
Earl Holliman
Dennis Hopper
Earl Holliman later became Angie Dickinson’s boss in the TV show, Police Woman. Both actors thus starred with John Wayne and Dean Martin in a western film.
For A Few Dollars More 1967 Clint Eastwood
Lee Van Cleef
A superior sequel to A Fistful of Dollars. The Indio character is most convincing as a chilling psychopath.
The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly 1967 Eli Wallach
Clint Eastwood
Lee Van Cleef
The best of the so-called spaghetti westerns.
The War Wagon 1967 John Wayne
Kirk Douglas
This movie features an excellent rapport between two big movie stars who apparently didn’t like one another, and their real-life animosity makes the hostility between their on-screen characters more credible.
Hang 'Em High 1968 Clint Eastwood
Pat Hingle
Ben Johnson
Bruce Dern
Satisfying tale of justice to right a wrong. Pat Hingle also appeared with Clint Eastwood in one of the Dirty Harry movies, Sudden Impact.
Support Your Local Sheriff 1968 James Garner
Harry Morgan
Walter Brennan
This is among a small number of western comedy films. It had an inferior sequel titled, Support Your Local Gunfighter. James Garner later starred in the TV show, The Rockford Files. Harry Morgan starred in the TV shows, Dragnet and MASH.
The Wild Bunch 1969 William Holden
Ernest Borgnine
Ben Johnson
Strother Martin
Grim and gritty. It’s hard to picture Ernest Borgnine outside of the sinking S. S. Poseidon, let alone in a western, but he’s pretty good in this one.
True Grit 1969 John Wayne
Glen Campbell
Robert Duvall
Dennis Hopper
Country music singer Glen Campbell is surprisingly natural as a cowboy in this film. The girl, played by Kim Darby, is exquisitely annoying. Seeing her fall into a pit full of rattlesnakes is most satisfying.
Chisum 1970 John Wayne
Forrest Tucker
Ben Johnson
There’s nothing that really stands out about this film, but I still like it.
Joe Kidd 1972 Clint Eastwood
Robert Duvall
John Saxon
I get this movie confused with The Outlaw Josey Wales.
Cahill, United States Marshal 1973 John Wayne
Gary Grimes
Neville Brand
George Kennedy
It’s hard to picture George Kennedy, of Airport fame, in a western.
High Plains Drifter 1973 Clint Eastwood
Mitchell Ryan
Excellent tale of revenge by a mysterious stranger with no name.
Posse 1975 Kirk Douglas
Bruce Dern
A surprisingly good tale starring Kirk Douglas. Bruce Dern starred as a bad guy in quite a few westerns.
Rooster Cogburn
(... and the Lady)
1975 John Wayne
Katharine Hepburn
Anthony Zerbe
Strother Martin
A superior sequel to True Grit. Anthony Zerbe usually appears in modern films like The Omega Man, but he’s pretty good in this western.
The Outlaw Josey Wales 1976 Clint Eastwood
Sondra Locke
John Vernon
Sondra Locke starred in several other films with Clint Eastwood, including one of the Dirty Harry movies, Sudden Impact.
The Shootist 1976 John Wayne
Lauren Bacall
Ron Howard
James Stewart
A movie about a worn out, old gunfighter dying of cancer. The last film John Wayne appeared in before he succumbed to cancer himself.
Here is a warm review of the film and its principal actor.
The Quick and the Dead 1995 Sharon Stone
Gene Hackman
Russell Crowe
Leonardo DiCaprio
The only western I can think of where the heroic gunfighter is a woman. Sharon Stone is so hot in this role. Stars Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio before they hit the big time.

The End