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22 Classic Westerns We Love

by The Playlist Staff
December 22, 2010 6:01 AM
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“Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid” (1973)
Sam Peckinpah’s glorious return to the western, his first since “The Wild Bunch” (OK, there was “The Ballad of Cable Hogue” which was atypical), was not so glorious. Plagued by production woes, reshoots, battles with studio honchos, and finally, having the final cut taken away from him, it’s only thanks to the DVD era that we can see what Peckinpah originally intended, and while it’s certainly not a perfect film, it’s definitely one-of-a-kind. The plot, what little of it there is, has newly hired lawman Pat Garrett (James Coburn) tasked with taking out Billy the Kid (Kris Kristofferson) on behalf of a bunch of cattle barons. And then a two-hour, meandering chase ensues. There is no surprise that the film ran over budget and schedule as Peckinpah seems to have been making it up as he went along and really doesn’t have much to show for it. Yet, despite its rough-hewn composition, there is a lot be charmed by. Kristofferson gives one of his career best turns here as the undeniably affecting Billy and though he’s relegated to few lines and largely a lot of window dressing, Bob Dylan is surprisingly solid as the mysterious, enigmatic knife wielder Alias who mutters lines just as cryptic as Dylan’s lyrics. And oh yeah, that great score? By Bob Dylan as well. There are flashes of brilliance through the picture, and lord knows Peckinpah can shoot the shit out of a landscape, but it’s not quite the lost masterpiece some would claim in latter day reassessments of the film. That said, it still stands as a unique genre picture, one marked with enough quirks and left field moments to make it a must see for any Peckinpah fan. [B-]

“Johnny Guitar” (1954)
Of all the great Nicholas Ray works -- "On Dangerous Ground," "They Live By Night," "In a Lonely Place," “Bigger Than Life” and a little film called, “Rebel Without a Cause” -- the director’s second foray into the world of westerns with 1954’s, semi-campy and technicolor (actually “Trucolor”) “Johnny Guitar,” is not his best. It’s pretty damn strange in tone for a western, with its bright reds and lustful, romantic innuendos (of course the French loved it and Truffaut, a devout Ray fan called it the “Beauty & The Beast” of westerns). But with the twosome of Joan Crawford and Sterling Hayden in the leads, it is mostly watchable and entertaining. Crawford plays a strong-willed western woman-type (it could only really have been her or Barbara Stanwyck) who builds a saloon outside of an Arizona town, hoping to expand when the railroad comes through. But she is not welcome, especially with bullish rancher Emma (Mercedes McCambridge), when along comes the guitar-strumming drifter (Hayden)... if it sounds like the ingredients for a soupy melodrama, well, that’s kind of what it is. Apparently McCambridge and Crawford’s onscreen animosity boiled over into real life which adds a nice level of antagonism to the proceedings, adding to the heady brew that is this curious and unusual mix of woman’s picture and genre western. [B]

“Rio Bravo” (1959)
The great Howard Hawks may have been the Steven Soderbergh of his day; a master technician adept in any genre, in any field, known for his immense versatility in any setting. He made classic films noir (“The Big Sleep”), rapid-fire whipsmart screwball comedies (“His Girl Friday,” “Bringing Up Baby”), comedic musicals (“Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”), sturdy war films (“Sergeant York”) and of course, westerns (the brilliant “Red River” deserves its own entry as well). Featuring an all-star cast of John Wayne, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson, and Angie Dickinson, it’s hard to go wrong with this somewhat innocuous -- shot in a lot of toothless master shots -- but still ever-entertaining western about a lawman (Wayne) and his disgraced, drunkard ex-partner (Martin) trying to hold onto a worthless but well-connected prisoner (Claude Atkins). Wayne looks to be facing his foe all alone until his drunken deputy pulls his act together and a young, arrogant gunslinger (Nelson) joins the fray and helps even the odds for the inevitable final showdown, making this as much a buddy picture as it is a western. One of the lightest entries on this list, the violence never threatens to reach a level where you think anyone is at risk of dying, but it’s still enjoyable, and it’s amusing to watch Hawks shoehorn musical numbers into the film because Nelson was a young pop sensation hearthrob at the time. [B]

“Stagecoach” (1939)
Known as one of the greatest westerns of all time in the year that yielded some of the greatest films of all time (1939; "The Wizard of Oz," "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," "Ninotchka") John Ford's "Stagecoach," follows in the long line tradition of disparate motley crew travelers on the road towards adventure archetype. Nine travelers board a stagecoach on the road to Lordsburg, New Mexico. It might be one of the kookiest groups ever assembled since Frodo went on his quest. There's the Marshall (George Bancroft), his whiny idiot stagedriver (Andy Devine), the wimpy wuss whiskey salesman (Donald Meek), the Republican asshole banker (Berton Churchill), the philosophical drunk doctor (a wonderful Thomas Mitchell), the prissy lady (Louise Platt), the unctuous Southern gentleman gambler vying for her affections (John Carradine), the town whore (Claire Trevor) and Ringo, a good-hearted fugitive they find on the road forced to join the gang with the full knowledge he'll be heading to jail afterwards (John Wayne). The problem is they're in Apache country, the U.S. Army is nowhere to be found and they have no choice but to forge on making for one of the most thrilling sequences in cinema ever made when the stagecoach tries to cross the desert and is attacked by those crazy Injuns. The fellowship dissolves as they reach their destination and after flirting with the idea throughout, "Stagecoach" blossoms into a romance between Wayne and the street hussy only he will love. It's pitch perfect, economic and flies by. In case you think westerns are dull (you twee-film-loving dummy), this one is not only in the National Film Registry and an AFI top 10 western, it's Criterion approved. Cranky old Ford wouldn't give a shit either way. [A-]

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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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