Classic Western Films

John Pecoraro
Assistant Director
Manhattan Public Library

What are the ten best Western films of all time? Well, that depends on who you ask. You can find many lists of top Western films on the Web, but Classic Western Films no two lists will include the same films.,,,, the American Film Institute, the Internet Movie Database, Rotten Tomatoes, and many other websites have their own opinions on which are the best Westerns. Since there doesn’t seem to be any consensus among the experts, I’ve come up with my own list of favorite Westerns. My own top ten, in no particular order, are:

“The Magnificent Seven,” 1960, directed by John Sturges. In this western remake of Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai,” seven American gunmen take on the job of defending a Mexican village against marauding bandits. Elmer Bernstein composed the film’s iconic theme music, later used in commercials for Marlboro cigarettes. The film stars Steve McQueen, Yul Brynner, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, and Eli Wallach to name a few.

“The Searchers,” 1956, directed by John Ford. Based on the novel by Alan Le May, the film stars John Wayne as a middle-aged Civil War veteran who spends years looking for his niece (Natalie Wood), who has been abducted by Comanches. Major themes running through the film are the issues of racism and genocide towards Native Americans.

“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” 1969, directed by George Roy Hill. Loosely based on actual events, the film tells the story of outlaws Robert Leroy Parker, aka Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman), and the Henry Longabaugh, the Sundance Kid (Robert Redford).

“The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” 1966, directed by Sergio Leone. One of the “Spaghetti Westerns,” filmed in Italy and Spain, the plot revolves around three gunslingers competing to find a fortune in buried Confederate gold: Blondie, The Good (Clint Eastwood); Angel Eyes, The Bad (Lee Van Cleef); and Tuco, The Ugly (Eli Wallach). Ennio Morricone composed the recognizable and haunting film score.

“The Oxbow Incident,” 1943, directed by William Wellman, and starring Henry Fonda. Based on the novel of the same name by Walter Van Tilburg Clark, the film explores the theme of mob justice and vigilante law as two drifters are drawn into a lynch mob to find and hang three men presumed to be rustlers and the killers of a local man.

“Shane,” 1953, directed by George Stevens. Based on the novel by Jack Shaefer, with a screenplay by Western author A.B. Guthrie, the film tells the story of Shane, a drifter and reluctant gunslinger. Shane (Alan Ladd) stumbles into an isolated valley in Wyoming and becomes embroiled in a land conflict between a homesteader and a ruthless cattle boss.

“True Grit,” 2010, directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. A remake of another classic Western from 1969, “True Grit” directed by Henry Hathaway, and based on the novel by Charles Portis. Fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross hires Deputy U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn (John Wayne in the original; Jeff Bridges in the remake) to bring her father’s murderer to justice.

“Unforgiven,”1992, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood. A dark Western that deals frankly with the uglier aspects of violence and the myth of the Old West. The film tells the story of William Munny, an aging outlaw and killer who takes on one more job years after he had hung up his guns and turned to farming.

“Little Big Man,” 1970, directed by Arthur Penn, and based on the novel by Thomas Berger. At age 121, Jack Crabb (played by Dustin Hoffman) recounts the story of his life, including capture by the Cheyennes and participation in the Little Bighorn fight against George Armstrong Custer.

index (9)And last but not least, “Blazing Saddles,” 1974, directed by Mel Brooks, because it’s always fun to spoof the things you love. The campfire scene alone qualifies this film as “classic.” This film satirizes the racism obscured by myth-making Hollywood accounts of the American West, with the hero being a black sheriff in an all-white town.

All of my top ten appear on one or more lists of best Westerns. Most of these titles are available in DVD format at Manhattan Public Library.

Posted in: For Adults, Mercury Column

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