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22 Classic Westerns We Love

by The Playlist Staff
December 22, 2010 6:01 AM
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“Unforgiven” (1992)
It seems that one’s appreciation for “Unforgiven” largely depends on when you saw it. The hype surrounding the film will serve to disappoint anyone who catches up with it later, but it doesn’t diminish the fact that the film is a contemporary oater and revenge flick of the highest order. The film follows aged, widowed outlaw William Munny, a notorious gunslinger who is now spending his autumn years raising his two kids on a pig farm. One day he receives an offer from a young whippersnapper, The Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett; whatever happened to that guy?) to join him to collect on a bounty put up by a group of prostitutes after one of their own was cut up by a cowboy. Munny initially turns him down, but then reconsiders, locates his old partner Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) and together with the trigger happy Schofield Kid, set out do the job. But the gang soon run afoul of Sheriff Little Bill (Gene Hackman) who doesn’t allow guns or assassins in his town. The brilliance of “Unforgiven” lies in the script by David Webb Peoples, who puts his hero at a moral crossroads: engaging in the same reckless, wanton violence of his youth that he now regrets, but doing so because it’s the only way to set things right. This is a western that lingers on the consequences of pulling the trigger and taking a man's life (a sequence set in a canyon where Munny and Logan grow disgusted while watching one of their targets suffer is an eye-opener). And while the moral complexity is wiped away thanks to a guns blazing climax that doesn’t quite jibe with the film’s undertones, Eastwood has created a contemporary classic, rich in character and atmosphere with an almost Sam Peckinpah-esque grim consideration that sometimes violence is the only answer a man has. [B+]

“The Quick & the Dead” (1995)
Sam Raimi took an “all killer, no filler” approach to his lone western, the streamlined tale of an annual gun-slinging competition in the ominously named town of Redemption, and the lone woman (a badly miscast Sharon Stone) brave enough to enter. The movie is high on sizzle, both with its who’s-who line-up of character actors in supporting roles (including Keith David and Lance Henriksen, as well as soon-to-be superstars Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe) and its emphasis on visual style over narrative coherence. That said, it’s all really, really fucking cool, especially when Gene Hackman is on screen, devouring scenery as the corrupt sheriff who, many years prior, killed Stone’s father (played in a fleeting cameo by Lt. Dan himself, Gary Sinise). [B]

“El Topo” (1970)
Alejandro Jodorowsky wrote, directed and starred in this trippy western (reportedly John Lennon’s favorite movie), as a gunslinger in a quest to become the west’s finest killer. In the process, he guns down a series of memorable avatars of violence, only to be betrayed by his own lust for power, reborn in a small town as a pacifist circus performer, unaware that his now-grown son seeks revenge for his abandonment. “El Topo” is a surrealist spaghetti western that takes aim at the hypocrisies of violence and religion, with unforgettable sequences that showcase a filmmaker in Jodorowsky that, with his second picture, was definitely one to watch. A must-see for anyone who likes their westerns experimental and off the beaten path. [A]

“Forty Guns” (1957)
Beloved by the French New Wave much like Nicholas Ray, Sam Fuller is best known for Criterion-approved works about damaged freaks like “Shock Corridor,” “Naked Kiss” and “Pickup on South Street,” but his 1957 CinemaScope-shot western starring Barbara Stanwyck, Barry Sullivan and Gene Barry is not too shabby either. While it’s his second western after “I Shot Jesse James” (“Baron of Arizona”is technically more of a land-owning drama), we still prefer this picture, which chronicles the life of a tyrannical rancher (the great Barbara Stanwyck, natch) who rules an Arizona county with her private posse of hired guns. An avowedly peaceful U.S. Marshall (Sullivan) who has never fired his gun arrives to restore order to the local town, but while he’s setting things straight and messing things up for the despotic queen, she starts falling for him. Things get ugly and complicated later on (a bride actually gets shot in the head during a wedding ceremony for christ’s sake!), so while slightly uneventful in its first half, “Forty Guns” becomes more engaging as the film progresses. And Fuller makes the most of his widescreen format, shooting wonderful close-ups and impressing every auteur in France with one of the longest tracking shots in history up until that point. [B]

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  • Brian | July 4, 2013 12:38 PMReply

    Jeremiah Johnson. No list is complete without it.

  • Tuco | March 1, 2013 3:06 PMReply

    The man with no name trilogy and Django (1966). These are the top 4 westerns. period.

  • Perry | December 23, 2010 5:39 AMReply

    I really don't get your logic. You say you want to avoid the usual suspects so that's why we don't see any of Leone's pictures on here. But High Noon, Rio Bravo, Stagecoach, Unforgiven, these aren't usual suspects? And I love The Quick and the Dead, but there is no way it should be on a list of classic westerns over Once Upon A Time in the West or any of the Man With No Name flicks.

  • cirkusfolk | December 23, 2010 4:03 AMReply

    Wow, suddenly I'm being called out for being too hip. Guess my mention of Dead Man outweighed my opinion on Shanghai Noon. At least I got accused of watching too much PTA instead of Edgar Wright. You guys are just too cool for school.

  • Nathan | December 23, 2010 4:03 AMReply

    I'm not usually one to nitpick on these lists, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly?? Nor Once Upon a Time in the West?

    Rest of the list is solid, but without those two it's missing a big chunk of the genre. Though hey, it's a list of ones that you guys love, not best ever, so to each his/her own.

  • Chris Broderick | December 23, 2010 2:21 AMReply

    "Magnificent Seven" should be on this list -- great story adapted from Seven Samurai, great cast, great music, great fun. Unlike some of these, it holds up well after all these years.
    "Wild Bunch" should be on it too - yes, I think it's overrated by critics but still groundbreaking for its time.
    "Butch Cassidy" - a Western that didn't take itself seriously. "Blazing Saddles" has to be mentioned at least.
    More recently, I liked "Silverado" -- entertaining and fun -- and "3:10 to Yuma" (the remake) was well made and acted despite a dumb ending.
    "Jeremiah Johnson" isn't on here either and it's one of the most authtentic films ever made by Hollywood about the real West in the 1800s. "Dances with Wolves" should be on the list as well. Both these films should be on the list if 'McCabe and Mrs Miller" and the "Misfits" are on it. Those are not Westerns.
    You missed some good ones, particularly anything about Native Americans ...

  • Edward Davis | December 23, 2010 1:47 AMReply

    well, we didn't want to say it, but you nail it on the head. They are the true classics and that's what we've been saying internally for a while now, but the fact of the matter is -- for most young people -- the reverse "cooler" '70s westerns are in fact the usuals suspects and these ones -- the original classics -- are films a lot of people shrug at.

    Ask this circusfolk guy how many of these he has seen? He's probably been too busy watching Cameron Crowe and PTA films like 7 times instead of getting deep into any of these.

  • bonzob | December 23, 2010 1:42 AMReply

    Those two statements are antithetical.

    The early true classics ARE the usual suspects. Search for any "best Westerns" list and try to find one that doesn't mention High Noon, Shane, The Searchers, Stagecoach, or Rio Bravo.

    Nice to see some of that old Playlist condescension toward its readership, though.

  • Katie Walsh | December 23, 2010 1:33 AMReply

    You people don't read. The Headline is "22 Classic Westerns We Love" NOT "The Best Most Unimpeachably Classic Westerns That Are the Only Ones That Matter Ever In The Universe The End."

  • edward davis | December 23, 2010 12:27 AMReply

    Glad no one actually reads. We didn't forget anything, we chose to focus on certain westerns. We figured we'd skip a certain bunch of usual suspects for now in favor of the early true classics that not a lot of people of this generation have actually watched.

  • cirkusfolk | December 23, 2010 12:13 AMReply

    You also forgot one of the wittiest westerns of all time, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and think what you like about Mel Gibson but Maverick is a damn entertaining film.

  • cirkusfolk | December 22, 2010 11:35 AMReply

    The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is flat out the best western of all-time...spaghetti or not. Much better than Leone's own Once Upon a Time in the West. I also liked Jarmusch's Dead Man in a strange way. But then again, I like Shanghai Noon as well. It had all the western cliches but did them on purpose and in a fun way...much the same way Back to the Future 3 did. And no mention of which is better...Tombstone or Wyatt Earp? My vote has always been fopr Wyatt Earp.

  • bobs | December 22, 2010 10:57 AMReply

    "Ride The High Country" would have been the appropriate Peckinpah western to add to this list.

  • Christopher Bell | December 22, 2010 10:52 AMReply

    I do like "The Searchers," but man, that movie really has no sense of time. I don't remember the time frame - a few years, no? - but it feels like a week tops.

  • Tom Voyten | December 22, 2010 10:00 AMReply

    The Shootist has a place here. A slow walk of inevitability.

  • brit | December 22, 2010 9:45 AMReply

    how about The Great Silence? Maybe Johnnie To's Exiled. Perhaps even Sholay...

  • Xian | December 22, 2010 9:04 AMReply

    So glad you mentioned "Open Range"... it is very underrated and much better than "Dances"... one of the best recent Westerns and very entertaining.

  • Paul | December 22, 2010 8:29 AMReply

    Is THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY out because it's a Spaghetti Western?

  • ThePlaylist | December 22, 2010 7:58 AMReply

    While we like some of them, we decided to sort of skip the usual suspects, though we had planned to do the Wild Bunch and it fell through on the sked.

    But Magnificent Seven is not only played out, it's simply not that good, especially compared to a lot of these classics.

  • Rashad | December 22, 2010 7:50 AMReply

    Whoa, no Magnificent Seven?

    I didn't like My Darling Clementine. I wished someone else had played Holliday. Mature was wrong for it. I would have like someone like Mitchum. And the girl was all wrong too

  • bonzob | December 22, 2010 7:13 AMReply

    Not to be grade quibbling guy, but...

    The Quick and The Dead is a guilty pleasure, no doubt, but a B? Really?

    And Unforgiven a B+? I think you mean A+.

  • Gary Berger | December 22, 2010 6:58 AMReply

    I am sad to not see "The Longriders" and "The Outlaw Josey Wales" not on your list. They are certainly better than "Open Range", don't get me wrong still a solid movie, but not close to these two.

  • Kimber Myers | December 22, 2010 6:44 AMReply

    Killer work, guys. I'm going to use this as a primer for all the films I need to see in the genre.

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