When we think of Westerns, cowboys often come to mind. A showdown in the street. Tumbleweeds blow by as everyone from a little stretch of town stares to see who walks away. Truth is Westerns aren’t about who’s in it. It’s about where it’s located. As long as it takes place in the American West, you got yourself a Western. Here are ten that are worth checking out.
1. Bad Day At Black Rock (1955)
Westerns always star a tough guy like Clint Eastwood or John Wayne – the type of men who never back down. However, in this film the lead is Spencer Tracy. Yes, the guy who co-starred in all those comedies with Katherine Hepburn who were together in real life too. He’s short, in his mid-50s and to make matters more complicated, he only has one arm. So how the hell is he going to stand up to a group of bullies who don’t want him in their town?
In a durable performance, Tracy shows machismo in a way you wouldn’t expect. At first, he does everything to avoid a dilemma and gets physical only when he must. In a fight scene against the versatile Ernest Borgnine, Tracy gets pushed to the brink and retaliates with a few moves that knock him down harder than any single punch. Borgnine gave an Oscar-Winning performance in Marty which was released three months later to show he could play a nice, shy character in addition to this rugged fellow.
Filling out the cast are the great Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan and Walter Brennan as some of the town folk. With all the remakes made in recent decades, this film certainly deserves one. The themes hold up very well today and there would definitely be an actor or actress who could fill the role that Tracy does so masterfully.
2. Seraphim Falls (2006)
Good guys and bad guys make up just about every movie out there. But in this film, which is which? It stars Liam Neeson and Pierce Brosnan. Two great actors who famously played good guys. Liam Neeson was Oscar Schindler for Pete’s sake! In the past fifteen years, he’s often been the good guy in a string of action movies like Taken. Pierce Brosnan was freakin’ James Bond! And while he was the bad guy to Robin Williams’ Mrs. Doubtfire, he was a still good guy in the end.
The filmmakers do something very interesting here. They neither tell us who the good guy nor the bad guy is. We’re left to make that decision for ourselves. It’s done through fantastic storytelling that is rarely seen in film, but has been seen in a few television series like Breaking Bad and Mad Men. The reason why it’s a rarity is audiences like to know who to root for and who to root against. Once in a while, a story needs to mix things up to test moviegoers. Here audiences are certainly tested and at the end, the film is a satisfying experience.
3. Maverick (1994)
Based on the television series of the same name, the film is directed by the legendary Richard Donner. With a screenplay written by the great William Goldman (Marathon Man and The Princess Bride), the film reaches a silliness often not seen in this genre. Heading the cast is Mel Gibson who has never been funnier. Jodie Foster shows her comedic side which she doesn’t show enough in films. And popping up from time to time is the accomplished James Garner who played Maverick in the series.
There’s no shortage of great talent in the supporting cast which is filled to the brim – Alfred Molina, James Coburn and Graham Greene. Keep on the lookout for a hilarious cameo by Gibson’s partner from Lethal Weapon, Danny Glover. At times, the movie is so absurd that it feels like a parody of westerns, but there’s enough gunplay and ethos to ground it in the genre. It’s entertaining all the way thorough with a rewarding finale that is absolutely earned.
4. Quigley Down Under (1990)
More the traditional western, this selection has a star you wouldn’t expect to see in one – Tom Selleck. Why he never took off as a movie star should bewilder people. Great on Magnum P.I. and Blue Bloods, he was just as great on the big screen. Whether it was comedy in Three Men And A Baby or drama in An Innocent Man, he delivered in spades.
Just as he did in this enjoyable western that co-stars Alan Rickman as the evil to Selleck’s righteousness. This would be part of a trilogy of bad guy roles for Rickman aside from Die Hard and Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves. This the lesser-known villain doesn’t pale in comparison to Hans Gruber or the Sheriff Of Nottingham. All three are equally wicked and amusing to watch. Also to be mentioned is the heart of the film, Laura San Giacomo who rounds out the cast. With a solid cast, this is a damn good western that gives you what you’d expect and then some.
5. Little Big Man (1970)
How many films can take place over one man’s life that lasts 121 years? Benjamin Button only had 85 with the benefit of aging backwards. This story is about Jack Crabb which starts when he’s ten years old and takes us through many aspects of the West. Crabb even meets some famous people along the way including Wild Bill Hickok and George Custer.
It’s the Forrest Gump of the West, but instead of a bench, he’s telling his story from a wheelchair in a hospice. And instead of telling whoever was sitting beside him, Crabb tells an interested historian played by the one-of-a-kind character actor William Hickey. Crabb is played by Dustin Hoffman who was only 33 when the movie was made. His performance as the 121 year old Jack Crabb is more convincing than the usual young actor with old age make-up. This was very early in Hoffman’s career so it says a lot that he can successfully play a character in many different eras of his life. It shows why he’s one of the greats.