17. Tombstone (1993)
One of the unexpected pleasures in George Cosmatos’ Western redaction, is Val Kilmer’s supporting turn as an enervated yet altogether dangerous Doc Holliday. “I’m your huckleberry,” he ripostes, trying to veneer his exhausted, TB-racked frame. Doc, along with Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell) and his brothers Morgan (Bill Paxton), and Virgil (Sam Elliott) take on the Clanton gang, bringing justice and decorum to the off-course town of Tombstone.
Riding the renewed wave in Westerns during the 1990s, Tombstone’s untraditional genre reshaping renounced historical accuracy, narratively speaking, in favor of, amongst other things, feminist philosophy—the women in Tombstone, particularly Josephine (Dana Delaney) is lax, liberated, and impossibly contemporary—and flashy window-dressing. Its swagger is trivial for all the fist-pumping action sequences and indelible one-liners it delivers.
16. The Hired Hand (1971)
By virtue of Easy Rider’s success, Peter Fonda’s The Hired Hand—also his directorial debut—was unfairly dismissed by critics as a “hippie-western.”
The truth is, as retrospection has substantiated, it’s a morose, haunting, and somber affair about revenge. Alan Sharp’s screenplay isn’t overly adorned or convoluted, but the poetic imagery, including dactylic slow motion sequences, unhurried dissolves, and gorgeous photography from Vilmos Zsigmond, elegantly evoke an atmosphere of undoing and tragic disdain.
Fonda stars as Harry Collings, who, along with his loyal friend, Arch Harris (Warren Oates), get involved in a measure-for-measure morality tale. Another forcible facet of this haunting actioner is Bruce Langhorne’s pensive score, which adds a nostalgic furrow to this often overlooked film.
15. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
Andrew Dominik’s erratic The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, is an intensely self-conscious and artful study of Old West legend. With the ingenious, magic-hour blush we’d expect from Terrence Malick, Dominik’s is a movie without clearly defined heroes or villains, but with uncertainty and symmetry in spades.
Brad Pitt’s Jesse James is a walking contradiction; cold killer, loving husband, attentive father, self-conscious legend. Jesse is stalked by Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), an excusably naïve, starstruck easy mark. As the spoiler containing title suggests, Robert will take the life of Jesse, his hero, a graven image of Western tradition. It’s a fascinating fool’s paradise of a film.
Lifted by Roger Deakins’ lens and buoyed by Nick Cave’s augural score (Cave also makes a quick cameo), it’s a riveting, musing, and formal period piece with a modern caveat on celebrity culture.
14. Django Unchained (2012)
Matter-of-course for Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained is a miscellany of cinematic genres, dressed in blood-soaked Western regalia. Sure, it’s spaghetti Western, it’s also blaxploitation, action-comedy, and coolly calculated satire.
Jamie Foxx is Django, an African-American ex-slave, who, with the assistance of German bounty hunter King Schultz (Christoph Waltz, in an Oscar-winning performance), set out to free Django’s bride, Hildi (Kerry Washington) from the plantation where she’s still a slave, owned by the villainous Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
By creating a sardonic, at times burlesque narrative that plainly confronts the racist underpinnings of American history, the film offers catharsis, reexamination, and wish-fulfilment restitution. As stylish as anything in Tarantino’s oeuvre, Django Unchained is a showy, violent, and ferocious tour de force.
13. Blazing Saddles (1974)
Simultaneously a bad-mannered spoof of the Western and a satirical meta-cult film, Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles is a comedy classic, and, smartly, a critique of contemporary American culture. It would be a mistake to write-off Saddles as a vulgar string of lowbrow humor—which it partially is, sure—without considering its taboo-smashing exuberance.Bart (Cleavon Little), is a mistreated railway worker who winds up becoming the first black sheriff of the doomed frontier whistle-stop of Rock Ridge.
The cast includes some of the finest comedians of the day; Gene Wilder, Madeline Kahn, and Harvey Korman amongst them, and a side-splitting script from Mel Brooks, Andrew Bergman, Richard Pryor, Norman Steinberg, and Alan Uger (which received a Writer’s Guild of America Award).
Blazing Saddles prides itself as much with its fart jokes as with its commentary and take down of xenophobia and puritanism, so razor-sharp that it was preserved in the National Film Registry. Mainstream comedy is seldom this subversive.
12. Heaven’s Gate (1980)
Unfairly designated a disaster on its initial 1980 release, Michael Cimino’s epic, albeit bloated, Heaven’s Gate, has, in recent years, been reappraised a masterpiece. Effectively demolishing the myth of the American west, Cimino’s film focusses on class struggle in Wyoming, specifically the Johnson County War (1890-1892), pitting wealthy landowners against marginalized immigrants.
“I never want people to feel they’ve just seen a movie,” said Cimino during the original press junket, “I want them to believe they’ve been somewhere.”Heaven’s Gate is a journey all right, it carries the audience along, unfolding with a languid grace, unhurried, it dervishes, engrossing as it goes, telling stories of workaday life in a strenuous, terrible time.
This circuitous route is a motif, like the covered-wagon train circle synonymous with the Wild West (and re-created here, too), it’s a dance that denotes luxury, lifestyle, the journey, and, ultimately, annihilation.
11. Shane (1953)
On the one hand, George Stevens’ film about the stickling gunslinger Shane (Alan Ladd), and his mediation on a land dispute between a gracious homesteader and a grisly cattleman, represents the time-honored classical Western, but, since the forsaken protagonist is such an ambiguous anti-hero, the film also screams iconoclast.Shane represents one of Hollywood’s earliest attempts to portray violence in the Old West as something more than tableau, as something terrible and with a wide fallout.
Shane’s revisionist view of frontier ferocity is effectively imparted, partially, by its modernistic approach to sound design. Never before had gunfire been so crashing, startling, and authentic. For all it’s famous lines, distinguished characters, and vintage vistas, Shane is a seditious Western, that led the way for the deconstructionist narratives to follow.”There aren’t any more guns in the valley,” Shane imparts, after all the thunder, sending audiences crawling from the theater, head’s reeling, and heart’s racing.
10. A Fistful of Dollars (1964)
Sergio Leone’s linchpin spaghetti Western—a sub-genre originating in the mid-1960s, filmed in Italy, largely made by Italians—A Fistful of Dollars reintroduced Clint Eastwood to audiences with surety and aplomb.
As “The Man with No Name” Eastwood became an iconic anti-hero as well as a second generation cowboy to Ladd’s Shane. Eastwood is a stranger in desolate bordertown, San Miguel, also a free agent, he kneels to no God, honors no bonnie lass, and gladly takes money from unpleasant Peters to kill poisonous Pauls.
If the blood-splashed plot of A Fistful of Dollars feels familiar, that’s because it’s based off of Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 novel, Red Harvest (Akira Kurosawa’s samurai staple Yojimbo was derived here, too).Reinvigorating the Western and accruing two celebrated sequels, dubbed The Dollars Trilogy, Leone’s showpiece also brought Ennio Morricone’s music to the world, in what Tarantino at Cannes 2015 called “the greatest achievement in the history of Cinema.” That statement may be grandiose, but it opens a great debate.
9. High Noon (1952)
Today High Noon is considered a seminal Western with hardly a revisionist notion in sight. This wasn’t the case in 1951 when it was being filmed. It’s writer, Carl Foreman, was targeted by the House un-American Activities Committee, but refused to be bullied by their irascible mindset.
And though the film’s star, Gary Cooper, and many of the producers were against Foreman, too, director Fred Zinnemann stood by his friend, even in the face of rival John Wayne’s boycott of the picture (and subsequent “anti-High Noon movie” Rio Bravo), making what would become a quintessential Wild West undertaking.
As a response to McCarthy era witch hunts, High Noon deliberately dusted itself with political and moral implications while slyly suggesting that self-interest, opportunism and easy outs could miscarry in any number of awful ways. Cooper, as Marshall Will Kane (in an Oscar-winning role) has just married the stunning Amy Foster (Grace Kelly) when he hears that outlaw Frank Miller (Ian McDonald) is due back in town at noon, via train, to settle a deadly score.
Will’s first instinct it to take Amy and run, but that won’t happen, no way, no how. The progression of the story is one upheaval after another, escalating to a climactic showdown that unfolds in real time. It’s a daring coup d’état, one that pays off exponentially, and includes a gender reversal ending ahead of it’s time.