Top Ten: Western Treasures Part 1
One of the more fascinating aspects of this genre is that the historic "wild west" of America had just officially ended when these motion pictures were first being churned out. In other words, history having just been made in the west's late 1800s was soon represented on celluloid in the early 1900s.
In 1901, Butch Cassidy and Sundance left America for Bolivia, when only a couple of years later The Great Train Robbery was released. Legendary silent film stars Tom Mix and William S. Hart were close friends of Wyatt Earp (a recurring subject in countless motion pictures to come) and both attended his funeral.
Decades later these early westerns continue to influence contemporary filmmakers like Martin Scorsese. Check out this brief but revealing moment with the famous director:
Speaking of Earp, his participation in the infamous "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral", has had many cinematic incarnations over the years. These filmed shoot-outs have probably inspired more debate and controversy over what really happened than the incident itself ever could. This is perhaps a worthwhile byproduct of the art form, keeping in mind that fictionalized cinema's primary concern should be to tell a good story, not faithfully record history. Unless film actually rolled on the event, creative license has to be in play, like it or not. So it might as well serve in making the imaginary narrative more legitimately compelling.
Below is a short clip from a 1971 TV documentary of star Henry Fonda asking director John Ford about filming the historic gunfight for their film My Darling Clementine (1946):
I've underlined the story's depth and its characters' dimensionality in choosing my Top Ten Westerns. It will precede toward #1, the greatest representation of the category. The list will exclude westerns having a more modern day setting, and others perceived as transcending the genre e.g., The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Bad Day at Black Rock, Hud, Lonely are the Brave, Lone Star and The Beguiled. These aforementioned films, Top Ten runner-ups and numerous other fine westerns will be covered later in "Plundering the Genre."
#10. The Tall T (1957, U.S.A.)
Director: Bud Boetticher
Director Boetticher, who typically worked with writer Burt Kennedy and star Randolph Scott, made quite a number of these outstanding, taut little westerns. This is the boldest and most dramatically captivating of them all. Here, Scott, after having lost his horse in a bet, takes a stagecoach and stumbles into a trio of "baddies." These adversaries, on the one hand are so vicious and brutal they throw their dead victims (including a small boy) into a well. On the other, they have a leader (a scene stealing Richard Boone) who articulates some thoughtful but conflicting intellectual responses over events as they unfold. Tension and deep emotions reach the boil when Scott tries to outsmart the three outlaws (the others played by Henry Silva and Skip Homeier) who are holding a hostage (Maureen O'Sullivan) for ransom. Intelligent, suspenseful and thought provoking all in a compact 78 minutes.
#9. Once Upon a Time in the West a.k.a. C'era una volta il West (1968, Italy)
Director: Sergio Leone
The title denotes a western that couldn't be more dissimilar than the one above. The Tall T clocks in at little more than an hour. Once Upon A Time in the West is slightly under 3. Stylistically they are complete opposites. In film #10, closely connected situations and outspoken characters are rapidly developed. Here they sit around silent and endlessly wait while we watch on, a little bewildered, but fascinated at the attention to detail and creative use of the wide-screen canvas. The story is tight and controlled in the aforementioned film and mysteriously stretched out here; its lengthy scenes at first seem unrelated to one another. This is the American West revered but re-invented by an outsider: Slow and deliberate, containing many humorous observances and anecdotes. The photography and character movements are uniquely choreographed like some ritualistic dance and scored to a new kind of atmospheric soundtrack, contributed by the legendary Ennio Morricone, designed to accentuate its operatic nature. By the time the performers start to move in synch with the plot, we begin to appreciate the film's grand design, historic significance and how an intricate web of stimulating personalities are ingeniously connected to one another.
The almighty railroad, laying tracks as it slowly heads to the Pacific Ocean, is trying to simultaneously buy the land in its path like big corporations do: Cheaply. Its hired gun Frank (Henry Fonda relishing a role opposite his typical good guy image) is most willing to remove the obstacles for his railroad boss Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) with even less fuss. Morton hearing the news of one of Frank's dirtier deeds states: "Tell me, was it necessary that you kill all of them? I only told you to scare them" with Frank responding "People scare better when they're dying." Enter Charles Bronson as a mysterious stranger called "Harmonica" with a very private, strangely obsessive vendetta against Frank. The stranger will team up with a wanted desperado Cheyenne (Jason Robards) to protect a widow (Claudia Cardinale) from Frank's ruthless aggression. Leone and his co-screenwriters Dario Argento, Bernardo Bertolucci and Sergio Donati, have fashioned an epic homage to the western form. After building the requisite anticipation, they reveal their central character's darkest secret at this elaborate story's incisive conclusion.
#8. High Noon (1952, U.S.A.)
Director: Fred Zinnemann
Now we're back to a typical western plot that seems straightforward enough. Some might say it's too much so... contrived perhaps. The story's perfect execution, however, will easily compensate for its simplicity, securing our undivided attention and deep involvement. This is a lesson in suspense- building without peer as a town Marshall gradually accepts the fact that he will have to face 4 armed and vengeful killers (whose collective purpose is to end his life) all alone. It's one of the rare cinematic stories told in "real time." (Another benefiting from this device enhancing its viewer's focus is 1949's film noir The Set-Up). Gary Cooper's performance as Marshall Will Kane, anxiously anticipating his destiny, alternately confronting and comforting those around him, is mesmerizing. He's matched by co-star Grace Kelly and fine supporting actors such as Lon Chaney Jr, Lloyd Bridges, Thomas Mitchell, Katy Jurado and Harry Morgan. The cast's multidimensional, finely etched parts are courtesy of Carl Foreman's informed screenplay. High Noon further benefits from the innovative editing of Elmo Williams and a first-rate score, including its iconic song, composed by Dimitri Tiomkin with lyrics by Ned Washington. This is a film one can savor repeatedly and never tire of.
#7. The Man from Laramie (1955, U.S.A.)
Director: Anthony Mann
Director Mann truly excelled in this genre and is thrice represented on this list, as well as directing numerous Top Ten Western runner ups. His westerns are distinguished by psychological undercurrents that stir beneath his stories' figures and within the events themselves. This palpable motivational force captivates our attention while elevating the characters' dramatic purpose.
The tale begins with our protagonist Will Lockhart (James Stewart) transporting supplies. He's also seeking the person(s) responsible for selling repeating rifles to Apaches, used to wipe out a garrison of soldiers - his younger brother amongst them. Running afoul of Dave Waggonman (Alex Nicol), and his cattle baron father Alec (Donald Crisp), Lockhart reluctantly accepts employment by rival Kate Canady (Aliene MacMahon). It's in the depiction of the Waggonman family where the drama really kicks into high gear, with outsider Lockhart becoming the catalyst for a "King Lear" type of sub-plot. Alec has an intense emotional dependency on his impetuous and morally bankrupt son Dave. This not only compromises Alec's values, but creates conflicted concerns over his ranch foreman Vic Hansbro (Arthur Kennedy), whom he unfairly holds responsible for Dave's increasingly irresponsible actions. Alec would like to consider Vic a son, but cannot seem to reconcile these feelings with his stronger ties to Dave. There's also Barbara Waggonman (Cathy O'Donnell), the independently minded niece of Alec, for whom Lockhart develops feelings although she is already promised to Vic.
A unique trait of the Anthony Mann/James Stewart westerns (of which this was the last) are the mentally troubled characters that Stewart inhabits. Far from heroic (as one might expect from a Randolph Scott or John Wayne role) they come across as flawed, stubborn and emotionally conflicted. At this story's conclusion, Lockart will find the answer surrounding his brother's death and finally choose between an act of vengeance, being what he wants, or to 'let it go' being who he is. His and the other richly drawn characters' choices will provide much food for thought, long after this hard-hitting drama ends.
#6. Red River (1948, U.S.A.)
Director: Howard Hawks
It's "Mutiny on the Prairie" as Thomas Dunson (John Wayne) leads a long and arduous cattle drive along with adoptive son Matthew Garth (Montgomery Clift, the great "method" actor's first motion picture role), sidekick Groot (Walter Brennan) and a team of hired hands most of whom will gradually come to resent and rebel against the stubborn, hard-liner Dunson. As dissension in the ranks grows over the dangers and obstacles that present themselves, so does Dunson's resolve to stay his course even though it seems increasingly risky compared to a suggested alternative route. His extreme responses, including the punishment of death to an ever growing number of dissenters, begin to look borderline pathological. When the conflict becomes unbearable between father and son, the story takes on Greek tragedy proportions. Garth assumes command by force and diverts the cattle from Missouri to Kansas with Dunson in pursuit, vowing vengeance.
Wayne's tyrannical rancher elicits some deeply convincing, dark emotions, rarely presented in his past roles. Clift's natural performance, as would be typical, is beyond reproach. Dunson's transformation from considerate father to tyrannical dictator is so gradual it consumes our attention and is quite revealing of just how much a person can change. Never is there any doubt, however, as to its authenticity. Additionally, this developmental coldness from Dunson increases our interest in Garth's reactions. The younger one's moral values are being formed as he's tested against Dunson and the arising perilous circumstances. At one point the team meet up with some Pioneers under attack by Indians. This introduces us to Garth's love interest Tess Millay (Joanne Dru), one of director Hawks' typically outspoken and headstrong females. She will become a primary factor in the story's concluding scenes of our two male leads' reconciliation. These final moments have been criticized by some as being too artificial considering the men's past differences. Mitigating factors do exist though, that for myself, substantiate a convincing and worthy resolution to what is basically a rousing adventure tale. A welcome reminder throughout is Dimitri Tiomkin's splendidly memorable theme underscoring that enormous herd of cattle on the move.