Traditionally, the Hollywood Western was one of the most preeminent and stirring of genres. Set in the late 19th century, attentive to Old West myth-making, folk heroes, and morality tales, it was an altogether American invention.
In Hollywood’s Golden Age the Western was exceedingly popular, nothing else was as rootin’, tootin’, and crowd pleasin’. Directors like John Ford and Howard Hawks made some of the finest horse operas of the day, and turned stars like Gene Autry, Tom Mix, and John Wayne into household names.
While these early films were great escapist entertainment, the ethics and criteria were definite and distinguished in black and white, by the early 1960’s a Revisionist subgenre cropped up, looking to ornament a moral grey area.”My heroes have always been cowboys,” espoused Country singer Willie Nelson, but it’s debatable as to whether he was envisioning the salt-of-the-earth Lone Ranger type or the more questionable and equivocal Man with No Name.
This new brand of Western, reworked for modern audiences, upturned shopworn Hollywood conventions. The context of Native Americans, for instance, was given a more somber, and therefore realistic backdrop. Frontier justice, hypermasculinity, the early women’s movement, the ravages of alcohol, shocking violence, rampant racism (including government sanctioned genocide), colonialist expansion, and the inception of the Industrial Revolution were all subtly and/or brazenly critiqued and reconsidered in this neoteric update.
As audiences grew more sophisticated and understanding of cinematic language, maverick filmmakers like Sam Peckinpah and Robert Altman sought to capture the zeitgeist and integrate the counterculture and other radical tenets. The Revisionist Western functions like an inoculation against passivity, while making the best kind of entertainment, the kind that unsettles, enlightens, and persists.
25. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)
Ana Lily Amirpour’s directorial debut, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is, at a cursory glance, a moody, misty vampire film set in a fictional Iranian borough called Bad City. But a closer eye reveals a Beckett-like conception, recognizable in its dark shadows are the shapes and styles of a Spaghetti Western, a feminist revenge fantasy, and much more.Sheila Vand stars as the unnamed madam protagonist, a distant relation to Sergio Leone’s and Akira Kurosawa’s rōnin heroes.
Clad in a destined-to-be-iconic ebony chador—a traditional, body-length garment worn by Iranian women—Vand, like an avenging angel, protects Bad City from black marketeers, violent pimps, and wannabe tough guys. There’s also a nimble gender-reversal love interest angle, and an adorable cat, in this familiar yet fresh arthouse astonishment.
24. The Long Riders (1980)
The Long Riders seems a strange follow-up to Walter Hill’s most celebrated film, The Warriors. Revisionist in portraying outlaws as sympathetic and stouthearted, The Long Riders relies heavily on its key artifice, the casting coup of four sets of brothers: the Carradines (David, Keith, and Robert), the Guests (Christopher and Nicholas), the Keaches (James and Stacy), and the Quaids (Dennis and Randy).
To further reinforce the gimmick, the actors portray the famed family outlaw ring led by Jesse James and Cole Younger, in the late 1800s. It’s an interesting conceit, and some of the surplus comic book violence of The Warriors hobbles over (a slo-mo robbery sequence is stunning), as does humor and the requisite savagery and strange family dynamics.
The Long Riders is worth watching for the Ry Cooder score alone, but the ready cast and unconventional Western emblems make it something of a standout.
23. The Proposition (2005)
This Australian Western, set in the vivid, volatile outback, comes from excellent pedigree: a cultivated, adjy script by seminal rock star Nick Cave, stunning cinematography from Benoît Delhomme, the assured direction of John Hillcoat, and an A-list cast, led by Ray Winstone, Emily Watson, and Guy Pearce.Set in the late 1880s as Captain Morris Stanley (Winstone) makes the titular proffer with Charlie Burns (Pearce), the younger brother in a familial gang of bloodthirsty outlaws that only he can reign in.
The Proposition is a violent, uncompromising, and challenging film. More than just an allegory about revenge, Cave’s imperious script disparages colonialism, racism, chauvinism, authority, and virtue, all with equal parts pathos and swagger.
22. Dances With Wolves (1990)
A huge hit in 1990, Kevin Costner made his directorial debut with Dances With Wolves (it won several Oscars, including Best Picture), a return, in some respects, to the immense John Ford-like vistas of classic Westerns, but with a more modern grasp on colonialist history.
Despite utilizing a number of stereotypes (the “noble savage” being a main offender), Costner does manage a mostly commendable examination of Native American culture, specifically the Sioux nation, in addition to disparaging many disastrous maneuvers utilized during the American Civil War.
Determinately, Dances With Wolves is a mealy-mouthed affair, populist and pastiche, it’s empathy for Native Americans could have been more substantiated. Still, Costner’s bankable epic kicked open the gate for a Western renaissance throughout the 1990s.
21. Walker (1987)
Firebrand filmmaker Alex Cox explains on his website that “Walker was made in the middle of the US-sponsored terrorist war against the Nicaraguan people. We made it with the intention of spending as many American dollars as possible in Nicaragua, in solidarity with the Nicaraguans against the yanks’ outrageous aggression against a sovereign nation.
Then, as now, this was not a popular position with certain people in power. But it was the right one.”Cox, along with screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer, imagined a biopic about William Walker (Ed Harris), a filibuster from Tennessee, who controlled Nicaragua from 1855 to 1857.
As a comical social commentary on the Reagan administration and the contra war it waged, Walker is an offbeat Western—helicopters and other modern day technologies exist in an unconventional cosmology—which scores extra cool points for having a Joe Strummer a musical score (and cameo). A surreal experience from a celebrated cult director.
20. Unforgiven (1992)
Debunking the classical Western is one part of Clint Eastwood’s monumental eulogy to the Old West, 1992’s Unforgiven. Eastwood, who also directed, stars as William Munny, an aging pariah, now a father and a pig farmer, who reluctantly returns to his murderous ways for one last job.
Stuffed with superfluous peripheral characters, Unforgiven is a flawed showpiece that received four Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Best Director), and any indiscretions are forgivable in light of its complexity in meditation and high entertainment value.Perceptions of morality, revenge, justice, and Frontier mythos are closely inspected, as well as heroism and responsibility.
As Munny returns to his killin’, the film aptly examines the spiritual dictum that results, showing a complex and ferocious man worthy of both contempt and sensitivity. Rarely has a film focussing on vengeance and moral balance, been so shrewd and pronounced.
19. 3:10 to Yuma (1957)
Set in the simmering badlands during a drought, a war of wills unfurls between cold-blooded killer Ben Wade (Glenn Ford) and ill-fated rancher Dan Evans (Van Heflin) in director Delmer Daves tour de force, 3:10 to Yuma. Based off the short story by Elmore Leonard, this subjectively labyrinthine film eschews many clichés of the genre for a rarefied and analytical treatise on heroism, cowardice, and restitution.
If Ingmar Bergman had visited the Wild West, Yuma would have been the deep-seated consequence.A suspenseful enterprise with barefaced impudence (casting a character actor like Helfin in a non-flattering lead role was a huge contingency at the time), Yuma resonates and inspires, and the action sequences are edge-of-your-seat awesome. The 2007 James Mangold remake with Russell Crowe and Christian Bale is a worthy tribute to this lasting objet d’art.
18. Little Big Man (1970)
A digressive, shaggy-dog tale, Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man is a conquering black comedy that, for once, pays certain eulogy to the American Indians, so often vilified and disparaged in traditional WIld West narratives.
Dustin Hoffman is sublime as Jack Crabb, a caucasian raised by the Cheyenne nation—during the course of the film Hoffman plays Crabb between the ages of 17 to 121 years old—who colorfully recalls his savoir-faire with the likes of General Custer (Richard Mulligan), and “Wild Bill” Hickok (Jeff Corey) amongst others.
Also outstanding is Chief Dan George’s high-flown yet pitiable turn as Old Lodge Skins.It’s no small feat that Little Big Man’s satirical slant and tone-shifting sweep grant it such allegorical powers. It’s a very singular film, with bold assurances, catharsis for America’s often ignored genocide, and an unexpected anti-hero. A hugely entertaining film that’s also startlingly subversive, it’s something of a jewel.