Back then it was the action that held my attention. It still does, but today I have a greater appreciation for the cinematography, the score, the script, the direction, and the acting. Here are my favorites. A baker's dozen of beautiful films to get you longing for the Old West. If not also among most critics' lists of greatest Westerns, they should be, darn it. The first five are solid, but don't ask me to list them in any order. Depends on the mood. (If interested in my full review of some, click on the titles)
The Five Greatest Westerns:
Shane (1953) -- George Stevens
A perfect film. For me, Stevens best work. Gorgeous cinematography of the Tetons, a menacing villain, a great cast--even Brandon De Wilde as Joey--and what seems to me, just about the most authentic setting for the old West. Lots of dirt and mud to depict the hard-scrabble life. It's also a story of a family, and captures one of the signature themes of the genre: progress in the form of sod-busters against the free-range cattlemen who settled the land. Joe Starrett and the farmers may be the good guys here with Shane, but I sympathize a little for Rufus Ryker.
The Searchers (1956) -- John Ford
Wayne and Ford's best collaboration. Monument Valley in splendid reds, golds, and slate blue. Stunning shot after stunning shot and don't tell me Wayne can't act. The most dense of Westerns with Ethan Edwards an extraordinarily complicated character. The quiet moment between Edwards and his sister-in-law, with Ward Bond looking awkward in the foreground, is a Ford triumph.
The Wild Bunch (1969) -- Sam Peckinpah
I wish I had seen this film upon it's initial release. The impact must have been wonderful. William Holden gives maybe the finest performance of his career, and Peckinpah's script is my favorite of any Western, capturing the end of an era with beauty and poignancy. Three magnificent action sequences. Yes, it's bloody as hell, but big bullets will do that to a body. People say The Godfather was a film about family, but The Wild Bunch beat the Corleone's to the punch. And cheers for Lucien Ballard's camera and Jerry Fielding's score.
Unforgiven (1992) -- Clint Eastwood
The last great Western. Eastwood's best film. Again, spectacular cinematography and music, and a script with one of my favorite passages:
The Schofield Kid: [after killing a man for the first time] It don't seem real... how he ain't gonna never breathe again, ever... how he's dead. And the other one too. All on account of pulling a trigger.
Will Munny: It's a hell of a thing, killing a man. Take away all he's got and all he's ever gonna have.
The Kid: Yeah, well, I guess they had it coming.
Munny: We all got it coming, kid."
You'd be hard pressed to find a better anti-hero than Will Munny. A man alleged to be a cold, brutal killer of women and children. Maybe, but I rooted for him anyway.
Stagecoach (1939) -- John Ford
Ford and Wayne in Monument Valley for the first time. A splendid ensemble cast and magnificent stunt work in the classic chase scene. There's a lot to admire here: Thomas Mitchell, the score of American folk standards, and the superb direction. It's easy to understand its iconic status. Ford's deft touch of lightness at the end is perfect.
Best of the Rest:
The Naked Spur (1953) -- Anthony Mann
My favorite of the five Mann/Stewart collaborations. Gorgeous cinematography of the rugged Rockies with Stewart plumbing his dark side. I like a tight story that focuses on a few characters. Here we only see five. Robert Ryan is a mean SOB and a young Janet Leigh her prettiest. The confrontation at the rapids is great.
Hombre (1967) -- Martin Ritt
The Big Country (1958) -- William Wyler
Maybe the best opening of any Western with the stage moving across the sweeping landscape and Jerome Moross' rousing theme. Almost gives you chills. A terrific story of two stubborn families at logger-heads. The fist-fight, Peck training the horse, and beautiful Jean Simmons. Peck picks the right girl.
The Good, The Bad, The Ugly (1967) -- Sergio Leone
This film is just flat out fun all the way through. Three protagonists are after gold during the Civil War. For me, easily the best of the "Man with No Name" films. Eli Wallach steals the show as Tuco and the last ten minutes or so are wonderfully hectic. Spaghetti never looked so good.
Once Upon a Time in the West (1969) -- Sergio Leone
Leone's masterpiece. A beautiful homage to the American Western with Morricone's haunting score, awesome vistas of Monument Valley, Henry Fonda as a cold-blooded bastard, the riveting opening shootout, and of course, Claudia Cardinale. You didn't see women like her on the Ponderosa. A terrific story of revenge and the onset of progress in the West as represented by the railroad.
My Darling Clementine (1946) -- John Ford
Lovely cinematography in this mythologized tale of the shoot-out at the OK Corral. If Tombstone and Wyatt Earp weren't exactly like this, it doesn't matter; this film is poetry. Though the famous line "when the legend becomes fact, print the legend" didn't appear until 18 years later with The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, it suits this film perfectly. Ford knew how to tell a story without relying on dialog.
The Ox Bow Incident (1943) - William Wellman
The most moving statement on mob justice ever put to film. Dana Andrews gives an inspired performance as one of the victims and the ensemble cast is uniformly excellent, including Frank Conroy as the out-of-control Major Tetley; Harry Davenport as the voice of reason, Mr. Davies; and Jane Darwell as one of the blood-thirsty lynchers. Thank Wellman and cinematographer Arthur Miller for the beautiful shot above, showing that even good men lose themselves and their conscious in a mob.
Ride The High Country (1960) -- Sam Peckinpah
A sublime paring of Joel McCray and Randolph Scott, two terrific actors at the end of their respective careers. Their canons included plenty of fine Westerns. This has probably my favorite final scene of any Western -- McCray sinking out of the frame. Beautifully shot in California. They are great and it would have been just as fine had they traded places as originally conceived. After watching this, all you can want is to enter your house justified.
What'd I leave off?
I'd never argue against the inclusion of any of Ford's Cavalry Trilogy and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance; Howard Hawks' Red River and Rio Bravo, Carl Zinnemann's High Noon; Wyler's The Westerner; or Mann's Winchester 77. Great Westerns all.