Film - Top 10-ish Westerns

Tombstone film landscape

Steve Taylor-Bryant discusses cowboy films and, for some reason, favourite children, as he tries to narrow down the best Westerns of the last forty-odd years ...

Every year I get very tired. I can't think about anything. I can’t type. I don’t enjoy new things. I just want comfort, something familiar, so I binge older TV shows I know I enjoyed the first time around or I raid my DVD collection for genre specific movies that I am certain will lift my mood. This year is no different, so I have been re-watching numerous Westerns. I have always loved cowboys. Mornings when I was a kid was Alias Smith & Jones or Bonanza and every Sunday there was a Clint Eastwood or John Wayne movie on. As I grew up, Westerns seemed to grow with me, getting more serious or darker in tone, or maybe they were always the same and I just enjoyed them differently as a grumpy bloke than I did as a wide-eyed boy. Regardless, the Western genre has always pleased me, and I thought I would have a crack at a favourites list.

This is where I got stuck. My initial top 10 was 47 films long. How do you narrow down such greatness? Do I leave off 1939’s Stagecoach or High Noon from 1952? Shall I drop Tombstone [SACRILEGE! – Ed] or Butch Cassidy? But I needed to narrow the list down somehow to have any chance of making a stab at a top 10, however leaving certain films out feels like having to pick a favourite child [isn’t it the one nearest the kettle? – Ed] so I had to get tough with myself and set some perimeters. So, here’s my attempt at a top 10 westerns films released within my lifetime

[Steve was born in the summer of 1975 and will survive until his children realise he doesn’t have a favourite… - Ed]

I’ll have to start with honourable mentions as even with the restrictions I have forced upon myself my list is still in the twenties so…

The Outlaw Josey Wales
Brokeback Mountain
Open Range
There Will Be Blood

Which leaves me with, well twelve so here is my top 12 westerns in release date order because favourites are hard.

Heartland film 1979 poster

Heartland (1979)

“It's kind of hard to sling mud and keep your own hands clean.”

Widowed Elinor Randall and her young daughter Jerrine arrive in a barren stretch of Wyoming in 1910 after Elinor's application for work as a housekeeper is accepted by Clyde Stewart, a rancher. The work is back-breaking and the isolation is brutal, particularly as winter arrives. Elinor begins to think about homesteading her own property near Stewart's ranch, but Stewart tries to dissuade her with explanations about the killing conditions and poor rewards, especially for a woman with no man to help her ranch. Although their temperaments are different and little affection exists, Elinor and Stewart agree to marry and combine homesteads. What lies ahead is the severest test of all.

Steve says - I was in my early teens, maybe 14 when I first saw Heartland and I love it because it was the first Western I had watched at that time that wasn’t a traditional “cowboy” movie like I had grown up with. As a young person it opened my eyes to what other kinds of storytelling there could be within a favoured genre.

Heaven's Gate 1980 film poster

Heaven’s Gate (1980)

“Frank Canton: Mr. Champion, my grandfather was the Secretary of War to Harrison. His brother was the governor of the state of New York. My brother-in-law is Secretary of State. And to you, I represent the full authority of the government of the United States and the President.

Nathan D. Champion: Fuck him too.”

In 1890 Wyoming, James Averill is the Sheriff of Johnson County, which is largely inhabited by foreign immigrants. The wealthy cattle owners view the immigrant farmers as a nuisance and hindrance to them enlarging their own land. The cattlemen's association, the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, effectively declares war on the immigrant farmers and gets the state government's blessing. They assemble an army of guns-for-hire and, backed by the U.S. Cavalry, set out to rid the state of the immigrants. James Averill's heart is with the immigrants, but he doesn't think they have a chance of winning the inevitable war.

Steve says – Despite this film being almost single handily blamed for ending the Western genre in the eyes of Hollywood there is a lot to admire and respect about Heaven’s Gate. Yes it probably still holds the world record for most abuses to chickens in movie history but on the back of that film sets now have to have animal humane representatives so a positive came from that, and despite constant issues with Cimino and his perfectionist ways which rubbed everyone the wrong way, blew up the budget, sank a studio, alienated everybody involved with it, even the heavily edited version is a very good film. It’s difficult to find a copy of the near four hour version but if you can find it, it’s well worth a watch.

Pale Rider 1985 film poster

Pale Rider (1985)

“Megan Wheeler: [Reading from the Book of Revelation] And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the fourth beast said: "Come and see." And I looked and behold a pale horse. And his name that sat on him was Death.

[the Preacher rides up on his pale horse]

Megan Wheeler: And Hell followed with him.”

A gold mining camp in the California foothills is besieged by a neighbouring landowner intent on stealing their claims. A preacher (Clint Eastwood) rides into camp and uses all of his powers of persuasion to convince the landowner to give up his attacks on the miners.

Steve says – If Heaven’s Gate single handily killed the Western then expert in the genre Clint Eastwood revived it with Pale Rider. The film is by far one of Eastwood’s best directed films and an argument could be made that it is better than Unforgiven just purely on its importance in rectifying the stature of the Western.

Young Guns 1988 film poster

Young Guns (1988)

“'Dirty Steve' Stephens: Did you guys see the size of that chicken?”

1878 in New Mexico: John Tunstall picks up young gun men from the road to have them work on his ranch, but also to teach them reading and to civilize them. However he's a thorn in the side of the rich rancher Murphy, as he's a competitor in selling cattle. One day he's shot by Murphy's men. Judge Wilson can't do anything, since Sheriff Brady is one of Murphy's men. But attorney Alex persuades him to constitute Tunstall's young friends to Deputies and give them warrants of arrest for the murderers. Instead of arresting them, William Bonney just shoots them down. Soon the 5 guys become famous, and William gets the name "Billy the Kid" - but they're also chased by dozens of Murphy's men and the army. The people however honour him as fighter for justice.

Steve says – Just because a film is cast with most of the “brat pack” that doesn’t mean it can’t be good. Young Guns stands up as a great cowboy movie but is also ridiculously funny and highly entertaining. There is a reason that after over three decades has passed that we are still demanding more from William H. Bonney.

Dances With Wolves 1990 film poster

Dances with Wolves (1990)

“John Dunbar: Nothing I have been told about these people is correct. They are not thieves or beggars. They are not the bogeymen they are made out to be. On the contrary, they are polite guests and I enjoy their humour.”

Lt. John Dunbar is dubbed a hero after he accidentally leads Union troops to a victory during the Civil War. He requests a position on the western frontier, but finds it deserted. He soon finds out he is not alone, but meets a wolf he dubs "Two-socks" and a curious Indian tribe. Dunbar quickly makes friends with the tribe, and discovers a white woman who was raised by the Indians. He gradually earns the respect of these native people, and sheds his white-man's ways.

Steve says – This film is just stunning. It is beautifully shot, brilliantly acted, and incredibly moving. Most definitely Costner at his best on both sides of the camera.

Unforgiven 1992 film poster

Unforgiven (1992)

“Will Munny: All right, I'm coming out. Any man I see out there, I'm gonna shoot him. Any sumbitch takes a shot at me, I'm not only gonna kill him, but I'm gonna kill his wife, all his friends, and burn his damn house down.”

After escaping death by the skin of her teeth, the horribly disfigured prostitute, Delilah Fitzgerald, and her appalled and equally furious co-workers summon up the courage to seek retribution in 1880s Wyoming's dangerous town of Big Whiskey. With a hefty bounty on the perpetrators' heads, triggered by the tough Sheriff "Little Bill" Daggett's insufficient sense of justice, the infamous former outlaw and now destitute Kansas hog farmer, William Munny, embarks on a murderous last mission to find the men behind the hideous crime. Along with his old partner-in-crime, Ned Logan, and the brash but inexperienced young gunman, the "Schofield Kid", Munny enters a perilous world he has renounced many years ago, knowing that he walks right into a deadly trap; however, he still needs to find a way to raise his motherless children. Now, blood demands blood. Who is the hero, and who is the villain?

Steve says – Unforgiven is undeniably great, very deserving of its critical and fan acclaim and is a modern looking old style Western. It’s very well cast from bottom to top and looks stunning. I still watch Pale Rider more though.

Tombstone 1994 film poster

Tombstone (1993)

“Doc Holliday: It appears my hypocrisy knows no bounds.

Wyatt Earp: Doc you're not a hypocrite, you just like to sound like one.”

After success cleaning up Dodge City, Wyatt Earp moves to Tombstone, Arizona, and wishes to get rich in obscurity. He meets his brothers there, as well as his old friend Doc Holliday. A band of outlaws that call themselves The Cowboys are causing problems in the region with various acts of random violence, and inevitably come into confrontation with Holliday and the Earps, which leads to a shoot-out at the O.K. Corral.

Steve says – Probably everybody’s favourite Western and you can’t blame them. It is a great film with some stellar performances, especially from Val Kilmer, and is incredibly rewatchable. I prefer Costner’s Wyatt Earp as a story about Wyatt Earp, but to bring a Western to a wider audience in such style Tombstone deserves all the praise it gets.

Legends of the Fall 1994 film poster

Legends of the Fall (1994)

“One Stab: I thought Tristan would never live to be an old man. I was wrong about that. I was wrong about many things. It was those who loved him most who died young. He was a rock they broke themselves against however much he tried to protect them.”

In early twentieth century Montana, Colonel William Ludlow (Sir Anthony Hopkins) lives in the wilderness with his sons, Tristan (Brad Pitt), Alfred (Aidan Quinn), and Samuel (Henry Thomas). Eventually, the unconventional, but close-knit, family encounters tragedy when Samuel is killed in World War I. Tristan and Alfred survive their tours of duty, but soon after they return home, both men fall for Samuel's gorgeous fiancée, Susannah (Julia Ormond), and their intense rivalry begins to destroy the family.

Steve says – Not sure whether this qualifies as a Western or not but I wrote a list and you didn’t so I am including it. I haven’t actually rewatched this one recently but it is on the list because even after nearly thirty years I remember it, I am still affected by it. It’s just a really good film.

Wyatt Earp 1994 film poster

Wyatt Earp (1994)

“Wyatt Earp: Mr. Clements, your men respect you and I don't want to do anything to take away from that. I'm sure you've earned it. So, you and your boys are welcome in Dodge City, so long as you obey the law. But if you don't want to cooperate, I'm gonna open you up right now with this shotgun so wide, your whole crew is gonna see what you had for breakfast. After that, it won't matter much what happens next, will it.”

From Wichita to Dodge City, to the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, a man becomes a myth in this thrilling journey of romance, adventure, and desperate heroic action.

Steve says – I get why people always name Tombstone before this Costner epic, Tombstone is very entertaining, however as a story told well about a significant historical figure it is very hard to find anything that touches Wyatt Earp for interest and scope.

The Quick and the Dead film poster

The Quick and the Dead (1995)

“Kid: I'm so damned fast I can wake up at the crack of dawn, rob two banks, a train and a stagecoach, shoot the tail feathers off a duck's ass at 300 feet, and still be back in bed before you wake up next to me.”

Ellen, an unknown female gunslinger rides into a small, dingy and depressing prairie town with a secret as to her reason for showing up. Shortly after her arrival, a local preacher, Cort, is thrown through the saloon doors while townsfolk are signing up for a gun competition. The pot is a huge sum of money and the only rule: that you follow the rules of the man that set up the contest, Herod. Herod is also the owner, leader, and "ruler" of the town. Seems he's arranged this little gun-show-off so that the preacher (who use to be an outlaw and rode with Herod) will have to fight again. Cort refuses to ever use a gun to kill again and Herod, acknowledging Cort as one of the best, is determined to alter this line of thinking ... even if it gets someone killed.

Steve says – The Quick and the Dead is a very enjoyable film that deserves a bit more love and perhaps another chance by those who have long left the film to one side.

The Hateful Eight 2015 film poster

The Hateful Eight (2015)

“Oswaldo Mobray: The man who pulls the lever that breaks your neck will be a dispassionate man. And that dispassion is the very essence of justice. For justice delivered without dispassion is always in danger of not being justice.”

Sometime after the Civil War, a stagecoach hurtles through the wintry Wyoming landscape. Bounty hunter John Ruth and his fugitive captive Daisy Domergue race towards the town of Red Rock, where Ruth will bring Daisy to justice. Along the road, they encounter Major Marquis Warren (an infamous bounty hunter) and Chris Mannix (a man who claims to be Red Rock's new sheriff). Lost in a blizzard, the bunch seeks refuge at Minnie's Haberdashery. When they arrive they are greeted by unfamiliar faces: Bob, who claims to be taking care of the place while Minnie is gone; Oswaldo Mobray, the hangman of Red Rock; Joe Gage, a cow puncher; and confederate general Sanford Smithers. As the storm overtakes the mountainside, the eight travellers come to learn that they might not make it to Red Rock after all.

Steve says – Tarantino is an acquired taste and not for everyone, I tend to like his films, especially Death Proof, but maybe not with as much vigour as other fans. However, The Hateful Eight is a glorious orgy of visuals and great storytelling, perfect casting and doing something unique and yet familiar with an often unloved genre.

The Ballad of Lefty Brown 2017 film poster

The ballad of Lefty Brown (2017)

“Lefty Brown: Well, stick with Mrs. Johnson, kid. She'll learn you better than I ever could. You'll be on your own soon enough... Wild bill.”

When cowboy Lefty Brown witnesses the murder of his long-time partner, the newly-elected Senator Edward Johnson, he strikes out to find the killers and avenge his friend's cold-blooded murder. Tracking the outlaws across the vast and desolate Montana plains, Lefty stumbles across a young wannabe gunslinger, Jeremiah, and an old friend, a former hard-drinking pal turned U.S. Marshal, to help deliver the men to justice. After a gunfight with the outlaws leaves Jeremiah wounded, Lefty returns home with the names of Johnson's killers only to find that he is being accused of his friend's murder by the governor. With the tables turned Lefty must evade the law, get the Marshal to stop drinking again, and prove his innocence by exposing the powerful men ultimately responsible for Johnson's death.

Steve says – The Ballad of Lefty Brown was not just a brilliant Western in its own right with some top notch performances, it gave me hope that perhaps the genre will make a comeback in the cinematic landscape despite years of not being taken seriously and the tragic events on the set of Rust.

Images/synopsis/quotes - IMDb

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