"Open Range" is the first major movie Western in almost a decade. Westerns reigned as probably the most popular motion-picture genre from the beginning of the movies, just after 1900, through the 1950sthe peak of the classic Western. They began to decline simultaneously with the loss of faith and moral confidence that has been weakening American society and culture since the 1960s, when they were transformed from the ultimate genre of moral virtue into a vehicle for traducing our national experience (e.g. "Little Big Man" ) and grossly exploiting violence ("The Wild Bunch" ). By the 1970s their numberon television as well as on the movie screenwas declining rapidly, until the box-office disaster of the mega-budget "Heaven's Gate" (1980) almost killed the genre altogether; it turned the cattlemen versus farmers theme into Marxist class war.
The Reagan '80s saw only two major WesternsClint Eastwood's "Pale Rider" (1985) and "Silverado" (1985), an amateurish, heartless contrivance. Better was the television mini-series "Lonesome Dove" (1989). Following the success of Kevin Costner's anti-American "Dances With Wolves" (1990), the early '90s saw Eastwood's acclaimed "Unforgiven" (1992), and, in 1993, "Geronimo: An American Legend," "Tombstone," and the feminist Western, "The Ballad of Little Jo," the latter three all worthy additions to the genre. In 1994 Costner's "Wyatt Earp" was releasedit is unwatchable, the worst movie I have ever seen, which is saying a lot!
The decline of the Western is attributable in significant measure to the nihilistic moral outlook that pervades so much of our culture. Movie heroes now are often in the crude mold of Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose excesses really are a wink to the easily pleased audience, and not meant to be taken seriously. Men in the mold of John Wayne and Gary Cooper seem to have gone the way of the dinosaurs. And Clint Eastwood is not their heir because, with the exception of "Pale Rider," his Westerns are products of the left-wing culture, culminating in the barren, clichéd "Unforgiven." A straight line can be drawn from this film back to Vietnam-era counterculture Westerns like "Little Big Man" and Robert Altman's "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" (1971). Nor is Eastwood remotely in the league of the great directors described below; his direction is competent but earthbound, lacking any of the visual poetic imagination and technical genius of his predecessors. The fact that he is regarded so highly todaynot least by many younger conservativesis a product of cultural ignorance and demonstrates vividly the extreme decline in standards since the 1950s.
I discuss the evolution of the Western in detail in "Rediscovering the Classic Western: How 'Cowboy' Came to be a Pejorative Term," just published in the summer issue of the Hudson Institute's American Outlook magazine.
For readers in search of wholesome entertainment and moral instruction for their children, here is my list of the greatest Westerns ever made, in chronological order. Almost all are available on video; many can be seen (in letterbox, where appropriate) on the invaluable Turner Classic Movies.
1. "The Toll Gate" (1920, silent). William S. Hart was the first major Western star, creating the image of the lanky, taciturn man of steel, slow to anger but quick on the draw. The movie's tale of the "good bad man"a role patented by Hartis a staple of the genre.
2. "Three Bad Men" (1926, silent). John Ford began learning his craft in 1917, directing dozens of silent Westerns. This story of three outlaws who redeem themselves rescuing a helpless girl is more personal than his better known silent epic of the building of the transcontinental railroad, "The Iron Horse" (1924). Incidentally, to show the mythic lengths Hollywood would go in those days, the young Lincoln is introduced, dreaming of the great railroad uniting the nation across the vast continent.
3. "The Virginian" (1929). Owen Wister's novel, published in 1902, established the archetype of the cowboy as the soft-spoken knight on horseback, courtly toward women but deadly once aroused by the call of justice. This early talking picture creaks a bit but its inspiration still glows, thanks to the direction of Victor Fleming, who 10 years later directed "The Wizard of Oz" and "Gone With the Wind." It is the best of the many movie versions, with Gary Cooper as the Virginian uttering the most famous of Western lines: "If you're gonna call me that...Smile!"
4. "Stagecoach" (1939). The Western fell on hard times during the Depression (except for the cheaply made serials and "B" Westerns), until John Ford revived the genre with this famous film, the one that made "B"-hero John Wayne into an "A" star. One of the first films to use the epic setting of Utah's Monument Valley to elevate its story. Such imaginative use of landscape, especially in color and 1950s widescreen CinemaScope, became one of the glories of the genre.
5. "My Darling Clementine" (1946). Ford's first film after service in the war, this is the greatest telling of the myth of Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda), joined by his brother (Ward Bond) and Doc Holliday (Victor Mature), and his showdown at the OK Corral early one morning with the evil Clanton gang. The Sunday morning church scene and Earp's good-bye at the end to the Eastern schoolmarm are outstanding examples of Ford's visual poetic art.
6. "Fort Apache" (1948). Ford's most profound Western with its theme of the timeless rituals of the regimental family as a metaphor for the true glory of America, which is embodied in the daily lives of its people. Leaders are a mere symbol of this greater truth, which their failings should not be allowed to obscure. The staging of the battle at the endwith long shots and no close-upsis another example of Ford's peerless art.
7. "Red River" (1948). Howard Hawks's epic cattle drive, the first on the Chisholm Trail from Texas to Abilene, solidified the Wayne persona as the implacable warrior, the Achilles of the Western. The ending, alas, is contrived and damages the film.
8. "Three Godfathers" (1948). Ford's Technicolor updating of his "Three Bad Men" theme; here John Wayne and his partners find redemption saving a newborn whose mother has just died in the desert. One unforgettable shot after another.
9. "High Noon" (1952). Perhaps the best known classic Western and certainly the best remembered Western movie ballad, with Gary Cooper's Oscar-winning performance as the marshal who spurns his bride's pleas that he flee the gang coming to kill him and who finds himself standing alone. Fred Zinnemann's direction, however, is rather studied, and the film's reputation has declined over the decades. Readers may wish to note one of the castRobert Wilke, the shabby member of the Miller gang who during the opening credits is seen riding up alonebears resemblance to what the last president must look like when he rises in the morning after a busy night! Wilke was one of the leading, really mean varmints of Westerns in the '50s. (He is shot in the back here by Grace Kelly, and killed by Cooper himself six years later in "Man of the West"see below.)
10. "Shane" (1953). My choice as the greatest of all Westerns. Director George Stevens's adaptation of the popular novel is the ultimate mythic treatment of the gunman who tries to settle down but ultimately cannot escape his past. That most urban of movie-makers, Woody Allen, has described the final scenes as "some of the best...I've ever seen in an American movie."
11. "The Naked Spur" (1953). James Stewart made five Westerns with director Anthony Mann between 1950 and 1955, tough moral dramas of a man struggling to come to terms with his past. Mann specialized in mighty cathartic climaxes, set against rugged natural scenery, of which the one here is the most memorable.
12. "The Searchers" (1956). The most critically praised Western because it is one of the earliest to show moral complexity, as Wayne's hero becomes a mirror image of the savage Indian, Chief Scar, he is pursuing in search of his kidnapped niece (Natalie Wood). The story does not quite support all the themes John Ford tries to convey and the climax will not be all that credible to some viewers. What makes the film great is the first 40 minutes, some of the most stunning direction ever filmed, as Ford launches his tale against the epic buttes and mesas of Monument Valley in wide-screen VistaVision. It needs to be viewed in a big theater, where one can marvel at the subtlety and telling economy of expression with which Ford paints on his huge canvas.
13. "Seven Men From Now" (1956). The first of seven Randolph Scott Westerns directed by Budd Boetticher in five years. These small, short films often filled the second half of double bills and were hardly noticed in their time. Today two or three are widely admired as among the greatest Westerns ever made for their moving, economical distillation of the heroic essence and moral confidence of the genre. Physically, Scott embodied the William S. Hart traditionno Western star ever looked more like a cowboy, and Scott was probably the most accomplished horseman of them all. In these movies, coming at the end and what proved to be the high point of his career, he often plays an aging loner seeking justice for his lost, or murdered, wife. His credo: "Some things a man can't ride around." The scene where Scott talks one night with the woman who, with her hapless husband, he is guiding through Indian countryhe is bedded down beneath their covered wagon, she inside itis a masterpiece of understated eroticism. This wonderful little gem recently was restored by UCLA and has been exhibited at film archives around the country. Alas, it is not on video.
14. "3:10 to Yuma" (1957). Director Delmer Daves, who made the first influential film to show whites' mistreatment of Indians ("Broken Arrow" ), made six Westerns between 1956 and 1959. (Compare Clint Eastwood, who directed four Westerns over a 20-year period, with the intense creativity of Daves, Boetticher, and Mann, not to mention Ford. They almost have to be considered superior for this reason alone.) This one is known as the "poor man's 'High Noon'" because it also dramatizes a stark moral choice: Why shouldn't the poor farmer (Van Heflin), who agreed to take a notorious bank robber and killer (Glenn Ford) to Yuma prison in return for a few hundred dollars he desperately needs, break his promise and instead accept the killer's offer of $10,000and save himself from the killer's gang in the process? This actually is a superior film because of Daves's more spontaneous direction, except for the unfortunate Hollywood ending.
15. "Man of the West" (1958). Anthony Mann's masterpiece, with Gary Cooper as a man who had come to terms with his murderous past, but who has to face it again in the person of Lee J. Cobb's mad Dock Tobin. The final scene portrays a true image of a noble hero, as the beautiful woman (Julie London) he has saved from the nightmare of evil expresses her envy as Cooper returns to his wife and family.
16. "Gunman's Walk" (1958). Another unforgettable cathartic climax, directed by Phil Karlson, as the mighty rancher (Van Heflin) breaks down when he finally understands why the son he loved most is evil and the son he spurned is good.
17. "The Hanging Tree" (1959). Daves's masterpiece, with Gary Cooper as Doc Frail, the strong doctor and most feared man in a mining town. Oddly, he is a penitent, who is kind and generous toward the needy but avoids emotional entanglement due to a mysterious hurt in his past. No one could match Daves in building a crescendo to a really thrilling climax: Here, the Doc is saved from a frenzied mob, which is dragging this man they had long resented to the hanging tree, by the woman (Maria Schell) whose eyesight he had restoredand whom he had just rescued from rape by a drunken miner (Karl Malden). She saves him physically and restores him morally and emotionally.
18. "Ride Lonesome" (1959). The penultimate Scott-Boetticher Western, with Scott's Ben Brigade out to avenge the murder of his wife by Lee Van Cleef.
19. "Rio Bravo" (1959). Howard Hawks's theme is male camaraderie and professionalism, as Wayne's Sheriff John T. Chance joins with Dean Martin, Walter Brennan and teen idol of the day Ricky Nelson (son of TV icons Ozzie and Harriet) to fight off the villains. No films come off so effortlessly as those made by Hawks, one of the pantheon directors in the view of most critics. He made this film as a riposte to "High Noon," arguing that no law officer would ask the help of the townspeople, as Gary Cooper's marshal does in the earlier film.
20. "Day of the Outlaw" (1959). A superb depiction of the staple Western theme of the strong man (the under-rated and always excellent Robert Ryan) who initially ignores the pleas of his powerless neighbors for help against their evil tormentor from the wilderness (Burl Ives), but who redeems himself in the end. The masterpiece of cult director Andre De Toth, also one of the most accomplished of all Western action directors.
21. "Comanche Station" (1960). The last of the Scott-Boetticher series and the ultimate realization of the lone cowboy as noble soul; here his name is Jefferson Cody. (Eastwood often has no name in his Westerns.) Like the duo's two films above, this was written by Burt Kennedy.
22. "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" (1962). Ford's penultimate Western and one of his final films. This really is the great man's elegiac farewell to the genre he raised to such heights. But it is tinged with bitterness, as Ford finds the old mythic truths falling victim to the modern world. Yet another illustration of Ford's genius is how (as always, with little dialogue) he conveys a palpable feeling of loss and nostalgia in the opening scene: The now aging, great Senator Stoddard (James Stewart)who became a legend in his own time when as a young lawyer from the East he supposedly saved the town of Shinbone by shooting the evil Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin)comes to pay his respects to the deceased John Waynethe manly cowboy who died a poor man, now resting alone in a cheap casket in the back room of the general store.
23. "Ride the High Country" (1962). Randolph Scott and fellow Western stalwart Joel McCrea came out of retirement to play aging ex-lawmen trying to regain their self-respect transporting gold from a mining camp to a bank. They put their lives on the line to save a young girl, taking on three younger men in a climactic stand-up shoot-out: the classic ritual of moral courage dating back to "The Virginian." Another gem little noted when it came out, this is an early film directed by Sam Peckinpah. The aesthetic superiority of this movie, which was made under traditional rules requiring an allusive treatment of violence, over his later efforts, such as "The Wild Bunch" (1969), when he had much more creative "freedom," serves as a metaphor for pre-'60s versus post-'60s America. Peckinpah was an excellent director of actors, and here Scott and McCrea give perhaps the two greatest performances in any Western. This also is one of the few films with aging heroes whose wisdom is clearly contrasted with the immaturity of the younger peopleand it was released during the height of Camelot, no less! Written by N.B. Stone, Jr.
Most of these movies are big: their heroic themes, visual splendor and expansive symphonic musical scores (by Max Steiner, Dimitri Tiomkin, Victor Young and others) were made for the grand movie palaces that now are extinct, but which made moviegoing such an unforgettable, inspiring experience for those of us fortunate enough to have grown up in the 1950s. They are too big for the McDonalds-like shoe-box multiplexes of our functional age. What comparably vivid inspiration do children today get from popular culture?
Finally, I rank as the two greatest Western musical scores Elmer Bernstein's "The Magnificent Seven"(1960, once known as the Marlborough cigarette theme) and Jerome Moross's "The Big Country"(1958).