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22 Classic Westerns We Love

by The Playlist Staff
December 22, 2010 6:01 AM
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“The Naked Spur” (1953)
Forget the unlikely-friends-on-a-mission western of the original Henry Hathaway “True Grit” (boring, the Coen Brothers’ version is significantly more awesome), Anthony Mann's “The Naked Spur” is where it’s at for this niche-brand of cowboy film. In fact, it’s not a drastically different story and centers on a bounty hunter (Jimmy Stewart) trying to bring a murderer to justice (an awesomely slimey Robert Ryan) who is forced to accept the help of two less-than-trustworthy strangers -- a grizzled old prospector (Millard Mitchell) and a handsome and younger, but disgraced Union lieutenant (Ralph Meeker). All three men capture the criminal only to find him with a young wayward woman (Janet Leigh). The trio then attempt to bring the cutthroat in, but the oily man tries to turn the unlikely crew against each other with greed-led psychological games. The drama intensifies along the way, building to a savage climax that is worthy of the Coens' violent conclusion to their Charles Portis re-do. Gripping and absorbing, a box-office hit -- screenwriters Sam Rolfe and Harold Jack Bloom were nominated for an Academy Award -- “The Naked Spur” didn’t receive its due as one of the best westerns ever made until recent years. [A]

“The Searchers” (1956)
Dubbed the “Greatest Western of All Time” in 2008 by the AFI, it remains easy to see why fans of this film can make such a definitive claim. Thematically complex, morally ambiguous, set against sprawling widescreen vistas, spanning years and subplots with epic grace, directed by acknowledged western guru John Ford, and starring the genre’s most iconic actor, John Wayne, frankly “The Searchers” just fucking rules. A relatively late entry into his western canon, much of the fascination comes from watching Ford, who is more than anyone responsible for the mythology of the movie western as we understand it, delicately unpick the fabric he had so carefully woven up to that time: “The Searchers,” with its (albeit tentative) exploration of racism and the genocide of the Native American population, is a revisionist western before revisionism happened. And Ford coaxes out what is perhaps John Wayne’s finest performance, where he too subverts the man’s-man hero he had played a million times and embodies Ethan Edwards as a character tortured by his own bigotry and constantly at war with his better nature. This broken and wrongheaded man’s final arrival at a sort of wisdom and, perhaps fleeting, redemption holds more dramatic power than the bloodiest gunfight. Though there are plenty of those too. [A+]

“The Furies” (1950)
The great Anthony Mann (“El Cid”) made a lot of westerns in his day, and next to John Ford and Sergio Leone, he is arguably one of the titans of the genre -- albeit lesser-known than those two. Of his acknowledged classics (starring his go-to cowboy James Stewart) “Winchester '73” “Bend of the River,” “The Far Country,” “The Man from Laramie,” and the aforementioned “The Naked Spur,” none are as acidic and replete with pitch-black-from-the-soul contempt and bitterness as 1950’s aptly titled, “The Furies.” The film starred the inimitable Barbara Stanwyck as a strong-willed firebrand of a woman (when isn’t she?) scorned by her controlling father (Walter Huston in his final role). She disapproves of his empty-headed socialite bride-to-be. He hates her gambling lover. And while the searing domestic melodrama scalds our emotional senses, the two also dispute over land. Their turbulent relationship spirals out of control and out of spite, the father has her lover hanged. The film-noir-charged ugliness curdles into rage and vengeance comes raining down from Stanwyck with a wrath that chills the bones. Martin Scorsese compared it to the dark works of Dostoevsky, and it’s the only Mann-helmed western that Criterion has put out. They should have called this one “Unforgiven.” [A+]

“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962)
You may have heard of a man named John Ford. He won four Oscars for Best Director in his day and made a lot of westerns. This film is one of his best, and therefore one of the best westerns ever made, period. Told in flashback, ‘Valance’ centers on a state senator (Jimmy Stewart) who is famous for killing a notorious outlaw and returns to a small town for a funeral of an old friend (John Wayne). A journalist starts quizzing him which launches a long recollection of his youth, and out comes the real truth of the deed that reveals the titular outlaw Valance’s death and all of the senator’s subsequent fame and success, to be based on a lie. The film is a gut-punchingly bitter pill in the end, full of regret and loss and unrequited love, so heaven knows how Ford manages to make it so compellingly watchable too. The performances are uniformly excellent, with Stewart playing brilliantly off Wayne and a hard-as-nails Lee Marvin as Valance. Certainly one of the crowning achievement of Ford’s illustrious career, this film along with Ford’s other acknowledged masterpiece “The Searchers” could easily form the backbone of any primer on the dizzying possibilities of the film western. [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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