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22 Classic Westerns We Love

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist December 22, 2010 at 6:01AM

There are two genres that every filmmaker wants to tackle: the musical and the western. Having flirted with the latter a number of times, the Coen Brothers, undoubtedly one of the foremost filmmaking teams of their generation, have finally delivered their first full-flung oater with "True Grit," a second adaptation of the Charles Portis novel made famous for winning John Wayne his only Oscar the first time around.
23

“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-]

This article is related to: Films, Feature, True Grit


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