The 1970s was a decade of reinvention for the film industry. The emergence of some of today’s most prominent filmmakers began to make their mark in cinema. Martin Scorsese dazzled us with Taxi Driver and Mean Streets. Steven Spielberg terrified us with Jaws and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. Coppola gave us two Godfathers, The Conversation and Apocalypse Now. The list goes on and on with countless dramas, comedies, and science fiction.
The Western was no exception. What all these films had in common was a new kind of realism. The acting. The dialogue. Audiences could escape even deeper into a story because it felt all the more genuine. And the wild west would take one leap into a more authentic world.
1. The Beguiled (1971)
Clint Eastwood has been synonymous with Westerns for his entire career. From his start in the 60’s television series, Rawhide, to his most recent film, Cry Macho, he has played a cowboy numerous times. Here he plays something different, a Union Soldier in the Civil War. And unlike any other character at the beginning of Eastwood’s films, this one is severely injured. But he’s not thrown into action scenarios where he shoots a bunch of bad guys. Instead, he’s taken to a school for young women and nursed back to health. Problems arise when he flirts with all the women. Soon jealousy and deception fill the house.
Not everyone considers Eastwood a great actor, but this is the performance where he shows the most depth and vulnerability. The headmistress of the school is played by the masterly Geraldine Page who dominates every role she’s in, especially this one. Directed by the underrated Don Siegel who was a frequent collaborator of Eastwood’s, this goes down as one of Eastwood’s darkest films.
2. Jeremiah Johnson (1972)
One actor who’s never thought of as associated with Westerns is the legendary Robert Redford. While a great actor, he’s always thought of as the romantic lead in The Way We Were or in thrillers like Three Days Of The Condor. In Jeremiah Johnson, he plays the title role who happens to be a mountain man. His life is unpredictable as he never knows who or what he’ll run into on a day-to-day basis.
The man at the helm directing this film is one of the great directors of our time, Sydney Pollack. Known for such versatile projects as They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Tootsie, Out Of Africa and The Firm, each film is worlds apart from the last. A drama that’s top notch would be followed by a hilarious comedy. Hold-onto-your-seat suspense gets succeeded by an amazing documentary. A director himself, Redford chose to work with Pollack on seven different films. Their collaboration lasted over three decades and together created some great films including Jeremiah Johnson.
3. Joe Kidd (1972)
As the second Clint Eastwood film on this list, this one is more what you expect from the legendary movie star. Bringing his usual badassery and cool squint, this role is practically like the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns where he played the man with no name. Co-starring with Eastwood is an actor who’s considered one of the greats – Robert Duvall.
The director of this film is John Sturges who happened to direct two of the greatest films of the 1960’s: The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape. Apparently, Sturges and Eastwood didn’t get along on set, but the movie turned out surprisingly well considering. Eastwood had directed his first film, Play Misty For Me, prior to this one. After Joe Kidd, he went on to direct the majority of his filmography. One has to think that the issues they had on set might have inspired Eastwood to direct himself in films from them on because there’d be no issues. That being said, with the talent in this film, it is indeed a must see.
4. Westworld (1973)
Many people know the television series of the same name which gained popularity since it debuted in 2016 on HBO. However, over 40 years prior the film written and directed by Michael Crichton was released. If that name sounds familiar it’s because he wrote the novels Jurassic Park, Disclosure, Congo, Sphere and The Lost World which were all adapted into major films throughout the 1990’s.
A prolific writer since the 60s, he was also the creator of the long-running TV series, ER, which was originally set as a film. Crichton became a household name when Jurassic Park became the highest-grossing film in the worldwide box office at that time. Twenty years earlier, another story about an amusement park hit the big screen. This one didn’t feature dinosaurs. It featured an android that begins to malfunction and causes havoc. The android that malfunctions is played by Yul Brynner best known for playing the King in The King And I (1956).
Westworld is a cautionary tale against corporate greed that happens to be one wild ride much like the films adapted from Chrichton’s novels. Though it’s important to note that Westworld was an original screenplay by Chrichton which goes to show how creative he could be. Novels and screenplays are two different crafts that are hard to master by a single writer. Not only was this something Chrichton could handle, he did it well and very early in his career.
5. The Shootist (1976)
The second Don Siegel directed film on this list stars the greatest western star of all-time – John Wayne. In a career that lasted 50 years, Wayne would appear in almost 170 films. Almost half of these were westerns which he continued to make until the end of his career. This was Wayne’s last film before he died three years after it was released.
While he won an Oscar for True Grit seven years earlier, The Shootist would be a memorable performance. Wayne shows why he was one of the most famous movie stars of his time through a honest portrayal of a gunslinger. The supporting cast for Wayne’s swan song was quite the accomplishment. Jimmy Stewart, Lauren Bacall and Ron Howard just to name a few. Not every movie star gets to end their cinematic career with something worthwhile, but here Wayne goes out exactly as he should.