Westerns is one of the oldest genres in cinematic history, yet some people forget how versatile it can be. From classical westerns like The Searchers and Red River, to Spaghetti westerns like Django and They Call Me Trinity, to even “anti-westerns” such as McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Little Big Man.
Much like its subgenres, westerns can also be quite flexible on which viewing experience you want. Many have the bloody shootouts and music fuelled showdowns you crave. Some have deeper meanings and rely on breath-taking performances. This list explores 10 great classics westerns that everybody should see, yet maybe have been over looked in the past.
1. Sacred Ground (Charles B. Pierce, 1983)
In 1861 Oregon, a mountain man and his Native American wife come across a half-built cabin and decided to make it their home. With some work, they finish the cabin, without realizing that it sits on a scared Paiute burial ground. After a burial party violently collides with the couple, the wife is left wounded whilst in the middle of childbirth. The mountain man decided to take action by stealing a Paiute woman (who had recently lost a baby) to help him with his new born baby.
Written and directed by Charles B. Pierce, the film battles with cultural heritage, land rights and the argument of modernization versus traditional values. Charles B. Pierce shoots the film beautifully, using the vast Oregon landscape as his film set. At times, the film has such spectacular shots, that one can easily put it up with any of John Ford’s spectacular frames. The film holds many familiar faces within its casting, such as Tim Mclntire and L.Q Jones. The film definitely leaves you with a lot to think about in terms of how westerns have changed and the different routes the genre has gone through, but the original Native American revenge type storyline is what keeps the film memorable.
2. Rustler’s Rhapsody (Hugh Wilson, 1985)
Tom Berenger stars as the fast drawing, guitar playing, singing cowboy hero, Rex O’Herlihan. His character is quite obviously and deliberately based on the Hopalong Cassidy cowboy character and many of Roy Rodger’s too. Rex is a character who has lived and starred in many serial matinee films, he just doesn’t know it…Yet. When he begins to learn that somehow, he always wins every gun fight, he saves every town he rides into, and always rides off into the sunset with victory, he begins to understand somethings up.
The film is written and directed by Hugh Wilson. After the success of Police Academy, Wilson was given the green light to make whatever he wanted, and a heavily meta, slightly spoof of 40’s westerns was exactly what he wanted. The film also has a stellar supporting cast with Andy Griffith as the corrupt Colonel, G. W. Bailey as his drunk sidekick, Sela Ward as the Colonel’s daughter and Marilu Henner as the saloon girl. The film is very much a comedy, with similar humour reminiscent of Police Academy, but its parody elements are where the film excels. The film doesn’t just parody westerns for laughs, it understands them so much to the point that it uses the parody to move the story forward. The film loves and respects westerns, from the serial matiness of the 40’s, to Spaghetti Westerns.
3. Man of the West (Anthony Mann, 1958)
Gary Cooper stars as Link Jones, a former outlaw who finds himself abroad a train that gets assaulted by his old gang. In order to protect civilian’s lives he agrees to go along with the criminals for one last job. The film is written by Will C. Brown and Reginald Rose, being directed by legendary director, Anthony Mann.
Man of the West delivers one of Gary Cooper’s greatest westerns performances. Cooper charms us throughout the film, as well as humouring us with his comedic skills, yet we’re also dragged into his dark side through his criminal backstory haunting him. The film received great reviews in France, especially by a young (at the time) critic, named Jean Luc Goddard. The film has a stellar supporting cast including Lee J. Cobb, Julie London and Arthur O’Connell. The film is surprisingly sad and violent. Mann focuses on each death and its murderer as Cooper’s inner demons torture him throughout the film.
Man of the West isn’t the greatest western ever made, nor is it Mann’s best. Some may consider Mann’s Winchester ’73, or Cimarron higher in their “Mann Western” list, but Man of the West is definitely one that lingers in your mind after viewing it. Whether it be the extraordinary wide shots of the west, or Cooper and Cobb’s performances, it’s definitely a western to remember.
4. Ulzana’s Raid (Robert Aldrich, 1972)
Upon receiving news that the Apache warrior Ulzana (Joaquín Martínez) has gathered a group for war and departed the reservation, the American army assigns veteran tracker Mclntosh (Burt Lancaster) and Apache Ke-Ni-Tay (Jorge Luke) to guide a young, naive and biased lieutenant (Bruce Davidson) and his men in pursuit to find Ulzana. Challenged by the foreign terrain, the cavalry faces a difficulty from stopping the angered Apaches from causing havoc in thoughtless acts of violence, reflecting years of mistreatment and agony.
Written by Alan Sharp, the film has a strong exciting set up that doesn’t disappoint throughout. With the help of the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Gene Siskel, the film has now been regarded as one of the best and underrated westerns. The film has an anarchic and lawless view which is obvious in almost every frame and facial expression by the characters. Lancaster’s character is worn out, he’s jaded, tired and Lancaster excels in projecting this throughout.
The film’s subtle (or not so subtle) subtext of America’s involvement in the Vietnam war gets clearer as the film moves on. As the men in the film head out to find Ulzana, one can’t help but think of the American soldiers treading through Vietnam fighting the Viet Cong. Like most of his films, Ulzana’s Raid promises great performances by equally great actors, thrilling scenes and leaves you with something to think about.
5. The Tin Star (Anthony Mann, 1957)
Henry Fonda stars in yet another great Anthony Mann western, as the tough gunslinger, Morgan Hickman. Morgan is a tough, yet responsible gunslinger, but even that is put on the line when he wanders into a small town where the local lawman has been murdered. That’s where he finds the temporary Sherriff, Ben Owens (Anthony Perkins) who seems to be struggling in the role. Morgan decides to toughen Ben up and teach him his exceptional gun skills in hoping to make him an effective Sherriff the town can respect.
The real jewel of the film is the relationship between the Henry Fonda and Anthony Perkins. The contrast between the two characters: Fonda being a strong yet weary gunslinger and Perkins a fresh minded yet naïve young man, is perfect. The film was written by Barney Slater, Joel Kane and Dudley Nichols, and quite surprisingly (at the time) received an Oscar nomination for its screenplay. The film is also exceptionally shot by the great cinematographer Loyal Griggs who shot certain magnificent looking classics such as White Christmas, The Ten Commandments, The Greatest Story Ever Told and In Harm’s Way.