Saturday, November 29, 2008

Film List - the greatest Westerns

Here we go with the first instalment of the review of my favourite films that I threatened yesterday.

Even here, within one narrow genre, I couldn't keep it down to less than 20! Across the whole spectrum of my film-watching, I imagine my 'best of....' list might run to a few hundred.

My Favourite Westerns

(Dir. John Ford, 1939)

Destry Rides Again
(Dir. George Marshall, 1939)

Jesse James
(Dir. Henry King, 1939)

My Darling Clementine
(Dir. John Ford, 1946)

3 Godfathers
(Dir. John Ford, 1948)

She Wore A Yellow Ribbon
(Dir. John Ford, 1949)

(Dir. George Stevens, 1953)

The Searchers
(Dir. John Ford, 1956)

3.10 To Yuma
(Dir. Delmer Daves, 1957)

The Left-Handed Gun
(Dir. Arthur Penn, 1958)

Rio Bravo/El Dorado
(Dir. Howard Hawks, 1959, 1966)
[Hard to choose between them, since they are virtually identical. I think I have a sneaking preference for El Dorado - although I'm sure the purists, including Quentin Tarantino, would insist that the original must be considered the superior one - mainly because James Caan is a better actor in the 'kid' role than Ricky Nelson.]

The Magnificent Seven
(Dir. John Sturges, 1960)

One-Eyed Jacks
(Dir. Marlon Brando, 1961)

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
(Dir. John Ford, 1962)

For A Few Dollars More
(Dir. Sergio Leone, 1965)
[Much the best of the Dollars westerns, I think.]

Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid
(Dir. George Roy Hill, 1969)

True Grit
(Dir. Henry Hathaway, 1969)

McCabe & Mrs Miller
(Dir. Robert Altman, 1971)

The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid
(Dir. Philip Kaufman, 1972)

Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid
(Dir. Sam Peckinpah, 1973)

I found that - after some bonce-scratching - I was able to place almost every one of the directors (Delmer Daves, anyone??). And, even more amazingly, with a solitary exception, I got the chronological order exactly right (I had thought 3 Godfathers might be a little later because it's in colour).

If I had to choose just one, I think I'd have to plump for My Darling Clementine - the young Henry Fonda is superb in it, and the black & white photography is absolutely ravishing (it's one of those films where just looking at stills from it can enrapture you).

I daresay there are some controversial omissions: no High Noon (I love Coop and Grace Kelly, but I find the story just too melodramatic), no The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly or Once Upon A Time In The West (both too overblown for my taste), no The Wild Bunch (good, though basically similar in tone, but much inferior to, Pat Garrett), no Dances With Wolves (worthy but dull; and I'd like it better without Costner in it!), no Unforgiven (an intelligent 'demythologising' script, but rather plodding direction from Eastwood; I found that it didn't really hold up all that well on a recent re-watching).

There are several of the grittier, more 'realistic' westerns from the early '70s that I have fond but indistinct memories of - Dirty Little Billy, Soldier Blue, The Culpepper Cattle Co.; in most cases I've seen them only once, more than 30 years ago, and so am not confident they should be numbered among the greats. Amongst the later Eastwoods, I rather like Pale Rider; like, but not love. Of the more recent contributions to the genre, Ang Lee's Ride With The Devil is the only one I could think of that merited consideration for this list. I did also think about including The Long Riders, which is a decent Jesse James film from the '80s, but not as good, I think, as Northfield. I haven't yet seen the recent The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, but I suspect that might make it into the list one day. However, I rather like the sense of completeness of this list as it is: those final few selections were pretty much "the last word" on the western genre, and I can't readily imagine anything surpassing them or having anything new to say.

Your comments, fellow film buffs?


Anonymous said...

I haven't seen three of those on your list but mine would be almost the same except for the slow and mawkish True Grit.

(Any film would be better without Kevin Costner.)

Froog said...

Wonderfully autumnal, though, True Grit. It's the visual impact of a film - especially with a Western - that usually catches me up, rather than the plot or dialogue.

Froog said...

Which are the three you've missed, Tony?

Anonymous said...

I missed 3 Godfathers, McCabe & Mrs Miller and The Great Northfield...

Whatever Beaverbrook may have said about Dietrich in Destry Rides Again , there used to be a YouTube clip of Eartha Kitt belting out SWTBITBRWH with even more brio, until the swine deleted it (for copyright reasons).

I would put Dmytryk's Warlock in my top ten, if only for Fonda's peerless grace and the fact that you get to see the gunslinger practising. Apart from Cat Ballou I don't remember this happening elsewhere.

Froog said...

I don't think I've ever seen Warlock, but it sounds good.

Another one I belatedly remembered and was half-tempted to include was The Sons Of Katie Elder.

Interesting point about the shooting practice. I feel as though shooting cans or bottles should be quite a commonplace scene (though more for the young kids aspiring to be shooters than for the established gunfighters), but I can't now recall specifically in which films it happens.

I haven't seen Northfield for yonks, but I recall it as a strange and haunting film. Jesse James (a Bible-crazed Robert Duvall) takes a somewhat secondary role to Cliff Robertson's Cole Younger (who is inspiringly confident in the superstition that he will not die so long as he manages to stand up again each time he's been shot).

3 Godfathers is perhaps a slightly lesser known Ford. Three outlaws - including John Wayne - rescue an orphaned baby in the middle of the desert. I fear you might find it a bit "mawkish", but I am sentimental fool. And the cinematography is gorgeous.

I'm not a big Altman fan, but McCabe is my favourite of his films. It did that deglamourising, demythologising of the West 20-odd years before Unforgiven, and did it a lot better (and with a generous splash of humour too). Beatty's hero is a sharp dealer, but in some ways rather dim and naive; no hero, but obstinately, foolishly determined to stick up for his business interests (he's come to a small mining town to run a card game and a whorehouse); and the respect he initially enjoys in the town comes from rumours of his gunslinging exploits, which are apparently unfounded. It's a bleak and cold (most of it happens in the depths of winter, with feet of snow on the ground) and quietly tragic film.

Anonymous said...

Yep, Assassination Of Jesse James is brilliant.

Fistful of Dollars is a great movie too.

And it may not be quite as 'serious' as your selections but for sheer enjoyability Two Mules For Sister Sara is hard to beat.

Amongst the older ones I kinda like River Of No Return with Bob Mitchum and Marilyn Monroe.

Froog said...

Thanks, Gary. I love those too, but I think they're 'fun' movies, rather than ones that strike deeper chords. Well, except for Fistful - that blew me away when I first saw it. But I'd decided I was only going to have one Leone, and I like Few Dollars More even better (one of the very few occasions when a sequel has arguably surpassed its original).

It looks as though I really must go out to a DVD store and find Assassination.

The British Cowboy said...

Other sequels better than the original...

Empire Strikes Back
Godfather II (I can see it as objectively better, but I still prefer GI)

Froog said...

I just don't buy that G2 better than G1 argument. It has some great moments in it, and that panoramic sweep of trying to stitch together Vito's early days in New York with Michael's disastrous involvement in Cuba, but to me it just feels like offcuts. The first film is self-contained and perfectly structured, with the archetypal story arc of Aristotelian tragedy.

I disdain the Star Wars films as to trivial to be worthy of serious discussion.

You often hear people make the argument for Aliens as against Alien. I tend to think both are a bit overrated. And it's not really comparing like with like anyway, since the second is much more of an action movie.

My - perhaps more left-field? - suggestion in this category is French Connection 2.

The British Cowboy said...

To distain the Star Wars movies in a thread about Westerns is somewhat amusing to me...

Toy Story II is, I feel, a better movie than the first.

Froog said...

Great Westerns transcend the essential triviality - or perhaps I should say simplicity of the genre.

Science fiction (at least in the literature, though perhaps more rarely on the screen) is, to my mind, essentially a very serious and philosophical genre - disastrously trivialised by the Star Wars initiative, which was really little more than a toy-peddling industry.

Praising one Star Wars film as better than the others is a bit like chatting to the old geezers in the park of a Sunday and saying,"Oh, your dog did a really nice poop today!"

The British Cowboy said...

You are missing my point. Star Wars isn't a science fiction movie. It is a Western. Just one that happens in space.

Froog said...

No, I saw that.

I just think it's so uninteresting, it's not worth discussing as a science fiction film or as a Western. It's just a piece of cinematic dog poo.

Froog said...

Outland - a Western/sci-fi crossover that actually worked!

The British Cowboy said...

You just talked yourself out of a Christmas present, you freaking heretic.

Froog said...

What - for thinking Outland was OK? Or for dissing Star Wars??

I think you've missed the last posting date for China anyway.

I am unrepentant.

The British Cowboy said...

Dissing Star Wars.

May 1,000 angry Wookies stab you in the liver throughout the holiday season.

Froog said...

Yeah, yeah, whatever.

Bag of shite!

And did terrible things to the industry.

And stopped people remembering THX 1138, which was actually a fantastic film.

But we're talking about Westerns here.

And the Star Wars films are NOT Westerns - even though they are morally simplistic and have lots of desert scenery.