Top Ten… Westerns

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Westerns have been a constant presence in cinemas since the dawn of celluloid. Their enduring appeal is easy to understand, transporting audiences to a lawless time unrecognisable from our own, where the fate of every individual was in their own hands. The vast prairies, mountain ranges, and dense forests of the American Old West are always a sumptuous backdrop for cinematic adventures, even if they are often filmed in a Spanish desert or an Italian studio. Indeed, despite the thoroughly North American setting, westerns have been made across the world and taken innumerable forms. To limit my scope for this list, I’ve adopted a fairly strict definition of “western” – that is, films set during the time of the Old West and featuring gunslingers. That leaves out neo-westerns like the Coens’ No Country For Old Men (2007), space westerns like Star Wars (1977) and Outland (1981), or period dramas with a western setting, like Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007).

The final form of my top ten still may not satisfy purists, and I’ve even surprised myself in places. While Italian spaghetti western pioneer Sergio Leone makes four appearances on the list and Australian auteur Andrew Dominik enters the top five, American masters John Ford and Howard Hawks failed to make the grade at all. As such, I’d like to give honourable mentions to Ford’s The Searchers (1956) and Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959), both classic westerns which helped to shape the Hollywood golden age of the genre.

As Eli Wallach’s Tuco says in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, “When you have to shoot, shoot, don’t talk.” In the spirit of being quick on the draw, here are my top ten western films:

10) High Noon (1952)

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Dir. Fred  Zimerman

Often interpreted as a leftist parable on the injustices of the Hollywood blacklist, High Noon is a timeless story of singular moral courage in the face of popular cowardice. The archetypal tough guy of classic Hollywood, Gary Cooper, delivers an Oscar-winning performance as Marshal Will Kane, a small-town sheriff shunned by his community and forced to stand alone against a marauding gang of gunslingers. This story is given a deeper resonance by the fact that the film’s screenwriter, Carl Foreman, was subsequently chased from the United States and blacklisted by the House Un-American Affairs Committee for prior membership of the Communist Party. And yet, the redoubtable Marshal Kane has often been quoted as a hero by reactionary and conservative figures, from Ronald Reagan to Tony Soprano. Perhaps therein lies the secret to the High Noon‘s enduring appeal. Whether Communist or Republican, all of us like to imagine ourselves with Kane’s fortitude, standing for what’s right against all the odds and the sneers of lesser men.

9) The Wild Bunch (1969)

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Dir. Sam Peckinpah

Hollywood’s answer to the spaghetti westerns of Italian cinema, The Wild Bunch is a blood-drenched odyssey through the dying days of the Wild West. Morally ambiguous and shockingly violent, Sam Peckinpah’s revisionist western was perfectly pitched for the counter-culture generation. It stands alongside Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Easy Rider (1969) as a film which heralded a new era in American film-making, eschewing the moralistic conventions and sanitised bloodshed of classic westerns. It’s influence would be felt far outside the western genre, as Peckinpah’s radical use of slow-motion and montage editing techniques had a pervasive impact on action cinema.

8) Unforgiven (1992)

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Dir. Clint Eastwood

Clint Eastwood’s swansong to the genre which made him a star, Unforgiven is a melancholy story of a faded gunslinger and the violent past which haunts him. David Webb Peoples’ haunting screenplay deconstructs the glamorous ideal of the gunslinger, delving into the physical and mental scars wrought by a life of violence. It depicts a ruthless Old West totally divorced from the glories of John Ford pictures and Lone Ranger comics, where survival has more to do with luck than the speed of your draw and outlaws are executed ingloriously in an outhouse rather than in a blaze of glory. As Eastwood’s William Munny tells a young bandit, “It’s a hell of a thing killing a man. You take away all he’s got, and all he’s ever gonna have.”

7) Duck, You Sucker! (1971)

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Dir. Sergio Leone

Also known as A Fistful of Dynamite, this was the final western from maverick Italian director Sergio Leone, and I have already explained at length why it is his most cruelly overlooked masterpiece. The film follows an uncouth bandito Juan (Rod Steiger) and exiled Irish revolutionary John (James Coburn) as they are thrown together during the bloody days of Mexico’s Revolution. Shot with Leone’s trademark verve and accompanied by a zippy score from maestro Ennio Morricone, the film is a cynical and often brutal study of popular revolution and its consequences. More than this, however, it is a reflection on the director’s own career and the violent revolution he had inflicted upon the western genre.

6) Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

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Dir. George Roy Hill

In the same year that Sam Peckinpah was deconstructing the myths of Old West with The Wild Bunch, director George Roy Hill reminded audiences why those myths had proved so persistent. Based loosely on fact, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a classic tale of two lovable outlaws on the run from the law after a botched train job. William Goldman’s sharp screenplay, his debut effort, won a well-deserved Oscar and made the young writer one of the most sought after in Hollywood. Goldman was lucky, however, that his two leading parts fell to actors with such irresistible chemistry. As the eponymous Butch and Sundance, Paul Newman and Robert Redford assumed a place among cinema’s most scintillating double acts. They would be reunited with George Roy Hill for the glorious 1973 crime caper, The Sting.

5) For a Few Dollars More (1965)

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Dir. Sergio Leone

Film critic Roger Ebert once said that a film is only as good as its villain, and For a Few Dollars More is an excellent demonstration of this principle. Gian Maria Volonté’s performance as the psychopathic gang leader El Indio makes for one of the most enthralling antagonists in any western. He is a repulsive yet charismatic presence, and the perfect quarry for Clint Eastwood’s enigmatic bounty hunter, Manco. Eastwood is joined by Lee Van Cleef as Colonel Douglas Mortimer, another bounty hunter with a hidden personal agenda in the pursuit of El Indio. The film is full of brilliantly staged shootouts, bank robberies, and prison breaks, each one outstripping the last until culminating with a fantastically tense duel in the final reel.

4) Shane (1953)

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Dir. George Stevens

The mysterious gunfighter with a fast draw and a heart of gold is a well-worn trope of western movies, but no film interrogates this notion like George Stevens’ Shane. The eponymous gunman, played with career-best subtlety by Alan Ladd, is a drifting frontiersman who stumbles into a conflict between besieged homesteads and a greedy cattle baron. For much of the film, events are witnessed from the perspective of Joe, a young boy he befriends, and there are mere hints of Shane’s skill with a pistol and history of violence. It is only during the inevitable, bloody climax that he is forced to draw his six-shooter, but Stevens is careful not to frame the bloodshed as cathartic or exciting. Rather, it is a spoke in a sad cycle of death from which escape seems impossible. Using a child’s-eye-view, the film dismantles the masculine ideal of the cowboy and the violent legend of the Wild West. As Shane tells Joe during the film’s heartbreaking denouement, “There’s no living with a killing.”

3) The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

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Dir. Andrew Dominik

The only western from this side of the millennium to make the list, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford could have earned a place on the brilliance of its title alone. But this is a stunning film by any metric; a complex rumination on celebrity, hero worship, and the deceptive power of legacy. Brad Pitt and and Casey Affleck have never been better, breathing a deep sense of humanity into the well-worn historical figures of Jesse James and Robert Ford respectively. Roger Deakins’ sumptuous cinematography is some of the best work is his peerless career, while a jangly soundtrack from Australian rock geniuses Nick Cave and Warren Ellis provides a portentous atmosphere. The film’s troubled post-production and failure at the box office led film critic Mark Kermode to call it “one of the most wrongly neglected masterpieces of its era,” and it’s difficult to argue with that assessment.

2) Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

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Dir. Sergio Leone

The fairy-tale reference in the title of Once Upon a Time in the West is an appropriate one. After all, what is the Old West if not the American equivalent of the enchanted kingdom, and the gunfighter its Fairy Godmother? With a story that hinges on the construction of the trans-continental railroad, Once Upon a Time in the West tells the making of the modern United States; the remorseless tide of civilisation which swept a continent, and the brutally violent men who made it possible. It’s grandiose and ambitious storytelling, carried by a peerless ensemble cast and punctuated with achingly tense episodes of violence. As Sergio Leone’s first western without his muse, Clint Eastwood, the film signalled a clear shift in tone from the director’s earlier spaghetti westerns. Slower and more deliberately plotted, the script places a greater emphasis on human drama than stylish gunfights and elaborate action sequences. It also gave Leone the opportunity to work with his favourite actor, the legendary Henry Fonda, who is cast chillingly against type as the villainous mercenary Frank.

1) The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)

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Dir. Sergio Leone

Not just the best western on this list, but probably the greatest film ever made. Having cut his teeth on the low-budget escapades of A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More, Sergio Leone was finally given the chance to stretch his legs into genuinely epic territory. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is a sprawling story of three gunslingers on the hunt for buried gold during the American Civil War. Clint Eastwood is an effortlessly cool presence in his third and final turn as The Man With No Name, but it is Eli Wallach’s Tuco, the ugly of the film’s title, who shines as one of cinema’s most fascinating anti-heroes. Wallach’s electric performance imbues an otherwise repugnant and amoral figure with a deep sense of tragedy, placing a complex character study at the film’s emotional core. On a technical level, it is impossible to name a more exquisitely made picture. Leone’s customarily gorgeous cinematography pays equally loving attention to the the craggy terrain of the Spanish desert and the sun-charred crevices of Clint Eastwood’s face. The action on screen unfolds at an overwhelming scale, with thousands of extras and colossal sets provided courtesy of the Spanish Army, but Leone never loses his grip on the palpable, sweaty intimacy which pulls his audience into the rugged world of the film. And, of course, there’s Ennio Morricone’s musical score; a sweeping, utterly singular symphony which evokes both the splendid grandeur and fearsome barbarity of the Old West.

The Revolution devours its children: Sergio Leone’s Duck, You Sucker

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The year 1968 was defined by political radicalism and civil unrest. From the May demonstrations in France to the American civil rights movement, a wave of anti-authoritarian protests and riots swept much of the world, even reaching behind the iron curtain of the USSR. In Italy, home of director Sergio Leone, almost all the country’s universities were rapidly occupied by a predominantly left-wing counter-culture movement known as “Sessantotto”. This was a period of unprecedented civil strife in the post-war world, and film-makers had never had it so good.

It was against this tumultuous backdrop that Leone, along with collaborators Sergio Donati and Luciano Vincenzoni, devised another of his spaghetti westerns as a follow-up to his acclaimed “Dollars” trilogy and the upcoming Once Upon a Time in the West. This next project was to be set against the chaos of the Mexican Revolution around the year 1914. It followed a great heritage of films about the conflict, but where those had typically charted the revolutionary heroics of Pancho Villa or Emiliano Zapata, this was to tell the story of two luckless bandits stuck in the middle.

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The result was the curiously titled Giù la testa, or “Duck your head”, which arrived in Italian cinemas in 1971. This became Duck, You Sucker for the English-language release, although later American prints carried the title A Fistful of Dynamite to capitalise on the popularity of Leone’s first western, A Fistful of Dollars (1964).

Despite this awkwardly enforced association, Duck, You Sucker is a much harsher and more cynical film than any of Leone’s earlier work. In many ways, it feels like a conscious reflection on the director’s career thus far. Where he had previously deconstructed the tropes of classic Hollywood westerns in his “Dollars” trilogy, here he critiques the archetypes found in his own films, and how they, in turn, had influenced contemporary Hollywood. As such, Duck, You Sucker is a fascinating example of self-reflection from one of history’s great film-makers, and a cruelly underappreciated work in the western canon.

With this in mind, it may come as a surprise that Leone never intended to direct Duck, You Sucker himself. He had hoped that Once Upon a Time in the West would be his final statement on the western genre, and wanted instead to focus on an adaptation of Harry Grey’s prohibition-era crime novel The Hoods (this would eventually become 1984’s Once Upon a Time in America). A series of alternative directors were approached to helm the project, including Peter Bogdanovich, Sam Peckinpah, and Leone’s long-term assistant director Giancarlo Santi. In fact, the latter was ten days into shooting when a series of on-set problems forced Leone, reluctantly, to step behind the camera himself.

Having been coerced into another Western, Leone seems to have been determined to cast the film in a very different mould from his previous efforts. The film’s opening moments make perfectly clear that this is not the light-hearted hijinks of his “Dollars” trilogy, nor the romanticised heroism of existing films on the Mexican Revolution.

Our protagonist, Rod Steiger’s hapless bandito Juan Miranda, is introduced urinating onto an ant-hill in the film’s first shot, and within moments he has robbed a stagecoach, executed a man in cold blood, and raped a terrified woman. A ruthlessly amoral character, Juan is a far cry from Tuco, the lovable rogue played by Eli Wallach in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, and this brutality sets the tone for the rest of film’s world. Instantly, Leone is asking his audience to cast aside their romanticised preconceptions of the gunslinging Old West in which his films exist.

The film shortly introduces us to its secondary protagonist, John Mallory, an expert dynamiter and veteran of the Irish struggle for independence (in one of the film’s many anachronisms, he carries a flag marked “IRA”, an organisation formed years after the story takes place). Played with an admittedly questionable accent by James Coburn, John seems to be cut from the same cloth as Clint Eastwood’s morally ambiguous “Man With No Name” archetype, but a series of flashbacks reveal a darker truth to his past. By the film’s climax, John is discovered to have murdered his best friend while escaping from British authorities in Ireland. Now finding himself embroiled in the Mexican Revolution, he continues to seek atonement for this personal betrayal committed in another, distant war.

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James Coburn and Rod Steiger as John and Juan, two bandits caught in the middle of the Mexican Revolution

A tenuous friendship is formed between these two characters, but the essential contrast between them is made clear in their conflicting perspectives on the ongoing revolution. John is an idealist; in his pocket he carries a copy of The Patriotism by Russian Revolutionary Mikhail Bakunin, and he appears willing to sacrifice himself for a greater good. Juan, on the other hand, has no such creed, nor any inclination to selflessness. His only allegiance, he insists, is to himself and his own family. Of these two perspectives, Leone seems to sympathise with the latter, who’s world view is made explicit in an impassioned speech delivered mid-way through the film:

“I know all about the revolutions and how they start! The people who read the books go to the people who can’t read the books, the poor people, and say, “We have to have a change.” So, the poor people make the change. And then, the people who read the books, they all sit around the big polished tables, and they talk and talk and talk and eat and eat and eat. But what has happened to the poor people? They are dead! That’s your revolution!”

Juan’s speech is vindicated later in the most tragic of circumstances, when his entire family are slaughtered while resisting government troops. However, this is not to suggest that the film is on the side of the oppressive authorities. Indeed, emphasis is placed on the brutality dealt by government forces, with a number of lengthy sequences depicting massacres and summary executions.

Throughout all these events, the specifics of the Mexican Revolution and the various factions fighting it are only alluded to in vague terms. Rather, the conflict appears to stand for the concept of revolution in a generic sense. An opening quotation from Mao Zedong (which was removed from the American release) states that “The revolution is not a social dinner, a literary event, a drawing or an embroidery; it cannot be done with elegance and courtesy. The revolution is an act of violence.”

The sentiment of this quote is echoed in the brutality of the film’s violence, in stark contrast to the stylised, larger-than-life gunplay of Leone’s earlier westerns. In depicting the bloody massacre of civilians and combatants alike, the film makes clear that revolutions are never clean, nor is the violence inherent to them in any way honourable. In short, revolution is a dirty business, and anyone proposing such a thing from the comfort of an Italian university should understand the consequences.

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If Duck, You Sucker has a philosophy, it might be best described as something approaching nihilism, or at least individualism. When caught in a revolution, Leone seems to argue, the best option is to look out for number one – in other words; duck, you sucker! Indeed, Leone himself called the film a “reverse Pygmalion” story; the intellectual revolutionary (John) meets an uneducated petty criminal (Juan), and it is the simplistic, selfish world view of the latter which appears to win out.

Such a cynical interpretation of the Mexican Revolution caused controversy in Mexico itself, where the film was banned until 1979. This was hardly a proportionate response, as Leone is evidently more concerned with elaborate action set-pieces than he is with politics. A lengthy bank-robbery-turned-prison-break in the second act is one of the finest sequences of his career, accompanied by an unusually jazzy yet typically masterful score from composer Ennio Morricone.

With Duck, You Sucker, then, Leone continues the cinematic finesse of his previous westerns while exploring more thematically interesting territory, with occasionally refreshing results. The stylised, almost balletic violence which characterised his earlier work is exchanged for a grittier and less glamorous atmosphere. Likewise, his characters are no longer appealing archetypes but flawed and thuggish killers.

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In the years between the first conception of Duck, You Sucker in 1968 and its release in 1971, much had changed. At the same time as the world was in turmoil, Hollywood had experienced a revolution of its own. Taking influences from European cinema, a new wave of young American auteurs were pioneering a fresh style of film-making which cast aside the taboos and stuffiness of the old Hollywood. In this vein, westerns like The Wild Bunch and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (both 1969) had drawn upon Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns to popularise a new form of so-called “revisionist” western. These films thrived on moral ambiguity, anti-authoritarianism, and stylised violence, and they appealed to cinema audiences living in a world of rapid social and political change.

 

Much as John Mallory is atoning for his past in Duck, You Sucker, Sergio Leone is likewise reflecting upon his own influence on world cinema. The irreverence with which he had portrayed violence and cruelty in his “Dollars” films had helped to transform not just the western genre, but the very way in which Hollywood operated. Having pioneered this new western for the counterculture age, Leone seems to ask, “Is this what you really want?”