Published in Issue 21 Craccum Magazine, 2016
We’ve all, I hope, seen a Western or two in our time. The classic American tale of guns and glory, freedom and vengeance, cowboys and outlaws. All set on the open plains and in the dirty streets of the wild (wild) west, of course. Who could ask for more? There’s something about the rawness of the Western that makes it so appealing. These were never intended to be Oscar-worthy films (though many actually were); they were just meant to tell a good tale, show some great action and remind us of a time when things were a whole lot simpler – if a whole lot madder, too. I love Westerns for this reason. They don’t try to be anything other than a good old gun slingin’, horse ridin’, whip crackin’ adventure. And even though the golden age of the Western has long since passed, re-watch these old beauties and you’ll find they’re actually still just as great. If you aren’t sure where to begin, here are a few gems.
The Magnificent Seven
So you’ve probably heard of this one because there’s a remake coming out this month starring Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt and other big names. And while it actually looks pretty good for a remake, the original 1960 film is an absolute classic which everyone needs to watch. It’s got everything a good Western should have: contrasting character’s with their own unique back story, a theme of redemption, lots of shooting and one seriously great musical score. The film is mostly set in a poor Mexican village which hires seven gunmen to protect it from a violent group of bandits. The gunmen, gathered by Chris Edams (Yul Brynner), are all from different walks of life and have never met. Their banter alone makes the film worth watching.
Clint Eastwood’s last Western, Unforgiven, follows retired outlaw-come-gun-for-hire William (Eastwood) as he takes on one final job. With the help of his old partner Ned (Morgan Freeman), William rides to Big Whiskey, Wyoming where corrupt sheriff Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman) rules the roost. It’s grimmer than the usual Western, exploring the violence and lawlessness of the time, but with a solid storyline and strong performances from the lead actors it’s no less entertaining. Still not convinced? The film won four Oscars at the 1992 Academy Awards, and was added to the United States National Film Registry in 2004 for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
One can’t talk about Westerns without mentioning John Wayne. Often viewed as the genre’s Godfather, 83 of the 142 films Wayne starred in throughout his career were Westerns. The 1969 film True Grit, for which Wayne won his only Academy Award, is one of them. Wayne plays aging, grumpy Marshal Rooster Cogburn, who is hired by teenager Mattie to find and kill her father’s murderer (another classic revenge story). The relationship between these two protagonists gives the film a humorous element, and we become invested in their story. The film was remade by the Coen brothers in 2010, and it’s a remake which does the original justice. If you can, see both.
3:10 to Yuma
My absolute favourite Western, ever. 3:10 to Yuma originally screened in 1957, and was later remade in 2007. While the original is definitely a great movie, its actually the more recent version I prefer – possibly because it has Christian Bale in the lead role, who I love dearly. The film follows poor farmer Dan (Bale), a Civil War veteran who lost his leg during the battles and now struggles to survive in the West. Desperate to prevent his land and livelihood from being claimed, Dan makes a deal to get infamous outlaw Ben Wade (Russel Crowe) to the town of Contention and put him on the 3:10 train to Yuma Prison. Joined by several other men, the group begin the journey to Yuma, closely followed by Wade’s gang. This film is just one tight unit. It’s got strong, definitive characters all played powerfully by the actors, a very clever score, a gripping storyline and is shot beautifully. The changing relationship between Dan and Wade is a highlight, culminating in the final shootout.