BEST OF THE WEST
Hollywood’s All-Time Ten Best Westerns (the movies – not the motels)
By Shaun Costello
The Western, being Hollywood’s favorite entertainment genre, was produced in such numbers that the sheer volume of titles makes the job of narrowing the field to only ten just about impossible. Maybe, the first task is to define the genre – just what exactly is a Western Movie? The stranger, who shows up in the nick of time to save a town from corrupt land owners – SHANE? The town Marshall who single-handedly takes responsibility for the safety of his town, even though the very people he’s protecting run for cover, and refuse to stand behind him – HIGH NOON? A noirish cavalcade of over-the-hill characters trying to make a buck on aging reputations – UNFORGIVEN? Cowpokes, banding together, against all odds, to make the impossible journey – RED RIVER? A tale of vengeance, and the collecting of odd souls, as a man seeks out the men who murdered his family, only to find salvation in something more important – THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES? The saga of men who had outlived their era, and couldn’t seem to adapt to reality – BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID? The answer, of course, is yes to all of these, as well as the other titles on this list.
But what must we eliminate? Here’s where I begin to make enemies. First, the Seven Samurai clones: THE WILD BUNCH, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, and THE PROFESSIONALS – three of my all time favorite movies, but not true Westerns, not really. Next, anything with singing – sorry, Gene and Roy. And how about all those dark, cerebral, recently made Westerns, starring country western singers with long hair, and giant hats, wearing those ankle-length duster-coats, that seem to make Nascar fans swoon – Nah! Let’s stick to the best of the genre. And let’s also remember that we’re doing the subjectivity shuttle, here. Everyone has their favorites, and I know there are die-hard Peckinpah fans out there, who would rather go down in a hail of squibs, than turn their back on THE WILD BUNCH, but this is MY list, and it’s tough to whittle it down to just ten. For purpose of full disclosure, I have to admit to breaking one of my rules here, which is to never list a movie that’s been on one of my previous lists, but RED RIVER is one of the greatest films ever produced by Hollywood, and it’s a Western, so it’s here. Get over it.
So, in alphabetical order:
BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID
1969 George Roy Hill
Hey, it was the Sixties, and if ever there was a Sixties western, it’s this memorable saga of Butch and Sundance. William Goldman’s tasty screenplay is loosely based on real events, so here is some background:
Robert LeRoy Parker (April 13, 1866 – November 6, 1908/1936?), better known as Butch Cassidy, was a notorious American train robber, and leader of the Wild Bunch Gang in the American Old West, doing most of his mischief in Wyoming and Montana from the 1880’s through the turn of the century. After pursuing a career in crime for several years in the United States, the pressures of being pursued, notably by the Pinkerton Detective Agency,
forced him to flee with an accomplice, Harry Alonzo Longabaugh, known as the Sundance Kid, and Longabaugh’s girlfriend, Etta Place, first to Argentina and then to Bolivia, where he and Longabaugh were allegedly killed in a shootout in November 1908.
OK, back to Hollywood. This movie is many things on many levels, and all of them good, which almost never works, but in this case, worked to perfection. Enough beautifully staged action to qualify as
a solid action film, Goldman’s brilliant and hilarious screenplay, which makes it an engaging comedy, and the inevitable, tragic ending, which you knew somehow was coming, but that happens so quickly that it doesn’t sour the film’s success as the ultimate, happy go lucky Buddy Movie. From the trick opening, to Butch and Sundance’s demise in a hail of Bolivian bullets, the movie never loses its focus, probably due in equal parts to Newman and Redford’s chemistry, Goldman’s script, and George
Roy Hill’s adroit direction. Katherine Ross, as the Kid’s gal pal, is lovely to look at, and nice ensemble work by a game cast. Solid lensing by Conrad Hall, who moved in with Ms Ross during the shooting, and a lovely score by Burt Bacharach. The huge worldwide Box Office would encourage producers to come up with an appropriate vehicle to repackage the Newman/Redford magic, which would happen five years later in another George Roy Hill blockbuster, The Sting.
THE GUNFIGHTER 1950 Henry King
The problem with being a gunfighter, it seems, is that everybody wants a piece of your street cred.
Notorious but aging gunfighter Jimmy Ringo (Gregory Peck) tries to avoid the trouble that goes with his reputation as the fastest draw in the west. However, when a cocksure cowpoke named Eddie (Richard Jaeckel) deliberately provokes an argument and draws on him, Ringo has no choice but to kill him. Ringo is warned to leave the area because the deceased has three brothers who are certain to seek revenge. Sure enough, the brothers pursue him, but he takes them by surprise, disarming them and driving off their horses.
Ringo then stops to wait in the nearby town of Cayenne, where he occupies a corner of the largely empty saloon for most of the remaining film. It is only revealed later that he is hoping for a chance to see his wife and young son, whom he has not seen in
eight years. The local barkeep, Mac (Karl Malden), remembers him from the past in another town and alerts Sheriff Mark Strett (Millard Mitchell), who turns out to be an old friend of Ringo’s. Strett also knows Ringo’s wife Peggy (Helen Westcott), and tells Ringo she has changed her surname to hide their past life together. Urging Ringo to leave town as quickly as possible, Strett nevertheless agrees to go and ask Peggy to come and see him. She declines, still fearing the notorious and hotheaded nature of Ringo’s younger days that drove them apart.
While waiting, Ringo also has to deal with Hunt Bromley (Skip Homeier), the young local would-be gunslinger who is keen to make a name for himself, and Jerry Marlowe (an uncredited Cliff Clark), a semi-retired man who mistakenly believes Ringo killed his son some years before. Ringo also meets another friend from the
past, a bar-girl named Molly (Jean Parker), who eventually persuades Peggy to come and talk to her husband. Meeting at last, Ringo tells his wife that he has changed, that he wants to settle down somewhere where people do not know him, possibly out in California, and asks her to leave with him. She refuses, but agrees to reconsider in a year’s time if he will remain true to his word. Ringo also gets acquainted with his son at last, although he does not tell him of their relationship.
However, by this time Ringo has spent too long in town. The three brothers are still trailing him and arrive, but are captured by Strett and his deputies before they can ambush Ringo. As Ringo makes final preparations to leave, Bromley seizes his chance. Eager to get himself a reputation as a gunfighter, Bromley shoots Ringo in the back, fatally wounding him. Word quickly spreads through the
town that Bromley has shot Ringo. As Ringo lies dying he tells Sheriff Strett to say that he, rather than Bromley, drew first. When Bromley starts to say that he doesn’t want Ringo’s help, Ringo rejects Bromley’s words, informing his killer that he will soon know how it feels to have every hotshot and two-bit gunfighter out to get him in turn. An angry Strett tells Bromley to leave town immediately, punctuating his order with a severe beating which he warns is “just the beginning” of what Bromley’s got coming to him for killing Ringo. It is clear that Bromley has become a magnet for trouble: he will soon discover (just as Ringo did) that notoriety as a gunfighter is in reality a curse which will follow him wherever he goes, making him both an outcast and a target for the rest of his life.
The film closes with Peggy Walsh attending Jimmy Ringo’s funeral, making her way through the crowd around the church door with her son to reveal, quietly but with pride, what the townsfolk have never known – that she is Mrs Jimmy Ringo. Thus, despite his death, the gunfighter finally achieves what he sought in coming to the town – his wife’s forgiveness and reconciliation.
Nice work by a peak Peck, Malden, and a game ensemble of mostly “B” players. Solid direction here by Henry King, and dark lensing by Arthur C Miller. The screenplay is credited to William Bowers, but word has it that a major rewrite was done by Nunnally Johnson, who also Produced. Good score by Alfred Newman. This is a small, dark, unpretentious Western that never tries to over-reach, and stays on-target throughout.
HIGH NOON 1952 Fred Zinnemann
Now considered one of the great American Westerns, High Noon received some frosty reactions when it opened in 1952.
Upon its release, the film was criticized by audiences, as it did not contain such expected Western archetypes as chases, violence, action, and picture postcard scenery. Rather, it presented emotional and moralistic dialogue throughout most of the film. Only in the last few minutes were there any action scenes.
In the Soviet Union the film was criticized as “a glorification of the individual.” The American Left appreciated the film for what they believed was an allegory of people (Hollywood people, in particular) who were afraid to stand up to HUAC. However, the film eventually gained the respect of people with conservative/anti-communist views. Ronald Reagan, a conservative and fervent anti-Communist, said he appreciated the film because the main character had a
strong dedication to duty, law, and the well-being of the town despite the refusal of the townspeople to help. Dwight Eisenhower loved the film and frequently screened it in the White House, as did many other American presidents. Bill Clinton cited High Noon as his favorite film and screened it a record 17 times at the White House.
Actor John Wayne disliked the film because he felt it was an allegory for blacklisting, which he actively supported. In his Playboy interview from May 1971, Wayne stated he considered High Noon “the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life” and went on to say he would never regret having helped blacklist liberal screenwriter Carl Foreman from Hollywood.
Ironically, Gary Cooper himself had conservative political views and was a “friendly witness” before HUAC several years earlier, although he did not name names and later strongly opposed blacklisting. Wayne accepted Cooper’s Academy Award for the role as Cooper was unable to attend the presentation.
In 1959, Wayne teamed up with director Howard Hawks to make Rio Bravo, as a conservative response. Hawks explained, “I made Rio Bravo because I didn’t like High Noon. Neither did Duke. I didn’t think a good town marshal was going to run around town like a
chicken with his head cut off asking everyone to help. And who saves him? His Quaker wife. That isn’t my idea of a good Western.”
Irritated by Hawks’s criticisms, director Fred Zinnemann responded, “I admire Hawks very much. I only wish he’d leave my films alone!” Zinnemann later said in a 1973 interview, “I’m told that Howard Hawks has said on various occasions that he made Rio Bravo as a kind of answer to High Noon, because he didn’t believe that a good sheriff would go running around town asking for other people’s help to do his job. I’m rather surprised at this kind of thinking. Sheriffs are people and no two people are alike. The story of High Noon takes place in the Old West but it is really a story about a man’s conflict of conscience. In this sense it is a cousin to A Man for All Seasons. In any event, respect for the Western Hero has not been diminished by High Noon.”
I included so much background because it’s so surprising. Back to the movie. It’s said the there’s no such thing as an honest man. Will Kane (Gary Cooper) proves otherwise. Kane, the longtime marshal of Hadleyville, New Mexico Territory, has just married pacifist Quaker Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly) and turned in his badge. He intends to become a storekeeper elsewhere. Suddenly, the town learns that Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald)—a criminal Kane brought to justice—is due to arrive on the noon train.
Miller had been sentenced to hang but was pardoned on an unspecified legal technicality. In court, he had vowed to get revenge on Kane and anyone else who got in the way. Miller’s three gang members – his younger brother Ben (Sheb Wooley), Jack Colby (Lee Van Cleef) and Pierce (Robert J. Wilke) wait for him at the station.
Kane and his wife leave town, but fearing that the gang will hunt him down and be a danger to the townspeople, Kane turns back. He reclaims his badge and scours the town for help, even interrupting Sunday church services, with little success. His deputy, Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges), resigns because Kane did not recommend him as the new marshal.
Kane goes to warn old flame Helen Ramírez (Katy Jurado), first Frank Miller’s lover, then Kane’s, and now Harvey’s. This girl gets around. Aware of what Miller will do to her if he finds her, she quickly sells her business and prepares to leave town.
Amy gives her husband an ultimatum: she is leaving on the noon train, with or without him.
The worried townspeople encourage Kane to leave, hoping that would defuse the situation. Even Kane’s good friends the Fullers are at odds about how to deal with the situation. Mildred Fuller (Eve McVeagh) wants her husband, Sam (Harry Morgan) to speak with Kane when he comes to their home, but he makes her claim he is not home.
In the end, Kane faces the Miller Gang alone. Kane guns down two of the gang, though he himself is wounded in the process. Helen Ramírez and Amy both board the train, but Amy gets off when she hears the sound of gunfire. Amy chooses her husband’s life over her religious beliefs, shooting Pierce from behind. Frank then takes her hostage to force Kane into the open. However, Amy suddenly attacks Frank, giving Kane a clear shot, and Kane shoots Frank Miller dead. As the townspeople emerge, Kane contemptuously throws his marshal’s star in the dirt and leaves town with his wife.
No Western had ever come close to this kind of gripping drama, and the term “Adult Western” was coined to describe it. Brilliantly piloted by Zinnemann’s steady hand, the tension builds relentlessly until the Quaker bride shoots the last bad guy. Cooper is steadfast and perfect, Kelly is trim and convincing, and Katy Jurado shines as the busiest girl in town. Crisp black and white lensing by Floyd Crosby, and brilliant editing by Elmo Williams and Harry Gerstad, relentlessly keeping the clock ticking as the whole town waits for the Noon Train. A memorable music score by Dimitri Tiomkin. One of the real champs.
THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES 1976 Clint Eastwood
I know I’ll take some flak for including this, but I love this movie, and every ridiculous character in it.
Josey Wales, a Missouri farmer, is driven to revenge by the murder of his wife and son by a band of pro-Union Jayhawkers—Senator James H. Lane’s Redlegs from Kansas.
Wales joins a group of pro-Confederate Missouri Bushwhackers led by William T. Anderson. At the conclusion of the war, Captain Fletcher persuades the guerrillas to surrender, saying they have been granted amnesty. Wales refuses to surrender. As a result, he and one young man are the only survivors when Captain Terrill’s Redlegs massacre the surrendering men. Wales intervenes and guns down several Redlegs with a Gatling gun.
Senator Lane puts a $5,000 bounty on Wales, who is now on the run from Union militia and bounty hunters. Along the way, despite wishing to be left alone, he accumulates a diverse group of companions. They include an old Cherokee named Lone Watie, a young Navajo woman, and an elderly woman from Kansas and her granddaughter whom Wales rescued from Comancheros. And a mangy hound who Wales spits his tobacco on.
In Texas, Wales and his companions are cornered in a ranch house which is fortified to withstand Indian raids. The Redlegs attack but are gunned down by the defenders. Wales, despite being out of ammunition, pursues the fleeing Captain Terrill on horseback. When he catches him, Wales dry fires his pistols through all twenty–four empty chambers before stabbing Terrill with his own cavalry sword.
At the bar in nearby Santa Rio, a wounded Wales finds Fletcher with two Texas Rangers. The locals at the bar, who refer to Wales as “Mr. Wilson,” tell the Rangers that Wales was killed in a shoot-out in Monterrey, Mexico. The Rangers accept this story and move on. Fletcher refuses to believe that Wales is dead. He says that he will go to Mexico and look for Wales himself. Seeing the blood dripping on Wales’s boot, Fletcher says that he will give Wales the first move, because he “owes him that.” Wales rides off, hopefully to rejoin his odd collection of companions who have set up housekeeping at the old lady’s late son’s Rancho.
This is typical, sentimental story telling from Eastwood, who, along with John Ford, gets two titles on this list. Without his knowledge or consent, and gradually throughout his journey, Josey’s murdered family is replaced the odd collection of characters who he saves from calamity along the way, and feels responsible for. Chief Dan George plays the old Cherokee, and delivers too many hilarious, dead-pan lines to count.
Nice work by director Eastwood, with solid cinematography by Bruce Surtees, and editing by Ferris Webster. Nice job by all.
RED RIVER 1948 Howard Hawks
As American as it gets. Hawks’ memorable tapestry of the blazing of the Chisholm Trail. The cattle were in Texas, but the Rail Head was in Abilene Kansas. And driving a huge and ornery herd of cattle, for the very first time, across the Red River, over mountain ranges, through hostile Indian territory, risking misadventure with nature and bands of rustlers, was no easy business.
Hawks, probably Hollywood’s best dialogue director, made John Wayne almost believable. Lots of crusty, spicy cowpoke dialogue that might be corny in the hands of another director, but Hawks pulls it off.
One memorable scene has John Ireland and Montgomery Clift admiring each other’s six shooters in great detail. Say’s Ireland, “The only thing as beautiful as a good gun is a Swiss Watch, or a
woman from anywhere. You ever have a Swiss watch?” Of course, Hawks was having some fun with guns as penis parody material, which gets funnier with each viewing.
It’s dawn on the range, and the men and the cattle are ready. Hawks’ camera does a slow, minute-long, 360 pan across the faces of cowboy after cowboy, beginning and ending on Wayne, who looks to Montgomery Clift and finally say’s, “Take ‘em to Missouri, Matt”. Clift raises his hat and whoops the first of many,
And the next cowboy does the same, and in quick cuts now, face after face, whoop after whoop, until, finally driven by the drama of the moment, the music swells, and the herd begins to move. It’s one of the great moments in movie history and, if you haven’t experienced it – shame on you.
THE SEARCHERS 1956 John Ford
Directed by John Ford, based on the 1954 novel by Alan Le May, and set during the Texas–Indian Wars, the film stars John Wayne (who else) as a middle-aged Civil War veteran who spends years looking for his abducted (by Comanches no less) niece played by Natalie Wood, along with Jeffrey Hunter as his adoptive nephew, who accompanies him on the search.
In 1868, Ethan Edwards (Wayne) returns from the American Civil War, in which he fought for the Confederacy, to the home of his brother Aaron (Walter Coy) in the wilderness of west Texas. Wrongdoing or legal trouble in Ethan’s past is suggested by his three-year absence, a large quantity of gold coins in his possession, a Mexican revolutionary war medal that he gives to his young niece Debbie (played as a child by Natalie Wood’s sister Lana Wood), and his refusal to take an oath of allegiance to the Texas Rangers, as well as Rev. Samuel Clayton mentioning that Ethan “fits a lot of descriptions”.
Shortly after Ethan’s arrival, cattle belonging to his neighbor Lars Jorgensen (John Qualen) are stolen, and when Captain Samuel Clayton (Ward Bond) leads Ethan and a group of Rangers to follow the trail, they discover that the theft was a ploy by Comanche to draw the men away from their families. When they return home, they find the Edwards homestead in flames; Aaron, his wife Martha (Dorothy Jordan), and their son Ben (Robert Lyden) dead; and Debbie and her older sister Lucy (Pippa Scott) abducted.
After a brief funeral, the men return to pursuing the Comanches. When they find their camp, Ethan recommends an open attack, in which the girls would be killed, but Clayton insists on sneaking in. The Rangers find the camp deserted, and when they continue their pursuit, the Indians almost catch them in a trap. The Rangers fend off the Indian attack, but with too few men to ensure victory, Clayton and the posse return home, leaving Ethan to continue his search for the girls with Lucy’s fiancé Brad Jorgensen (Harry Carey) and Debbie’s adopted brother Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter). However, after Ethan finds Lucy brutally murdered and presumably raped in a canyon near the Comanche camp, Brad becomes enraged, rides wildly into the camp, and is killed.
Ethan and Martin search until winter, when they lose the trail. When they return to the Jorgensen ranch, Martin is enthusiastically welcomed by the Jorgensens’ daughter Laurie (Vera Miles), and Ethan finds a letter waiting for him from a man named Futterman, who has information about Debbie. Ethan, who would rather travel alone, leaves without Martin the next morning, but Laurie provides Martin with a horse to catch up. At Futterman’s (Peter Mamakos) trading post, Ethan and Martin learn that Debbie has been taken by Scar (Henry Brandon), the chief of the Nawyecka band of Comanches. A year or more later, Laurie receives a letter from Martin describing the ongoing search. In reading the letter aloud, Laurie narrates the next few scenes, in which Ethan kills Futterman for trying to steal his money, Martin accidentally buys a Comanche wife, and the two men find part of Scar’s tribe killed by soldiers.
After looking for Debbie at a military fort, Ethan and Martin go to New Mexico, where a Mexican man leads them to Scar. They find Debbie, now an adolescent (Natalie Wood), living as one of Scar’s wives. When she meets with the men outside the camp, she says she has become a Comanche and asks them to leave without her. However, Ethan would rather see her dead than living as an Indian. He tries to shoot her, but Martin shields her with his body and a Comanche shoots Ethan with an arrow. Ethan and Martin escape to safety, where Martin saves Ethan by tending to his wound. Martin is furious at Ethan for attempting to kill Debbie and wishes him dead. “That’ll be the day,” Ethan replies. The men then return home.
Meanwhile, Charlie McCorry (Ken Curtis) has been courting Laurie in Martin’s absence. Ethan and Martin arrive home just as Charlie and Laurie’s wedding is about to begin. After a fistfight between Martin and Charlie, a nervous “Yankee” soldier, Lt. Greenhill (Patrick Wayne), arrives with news that Ethan’s half-crazy friend Mose Harper (Hank Worden) knows where Scar is. Clayton leads his men to the Comanche camp, this time for a direct attack, but Martin is allowed to sneak in and rescue Debbie, who welcomes him. During the attack, Martin kills Scar and Ethan scalps him.
When Ethan sees Debbie, Martin is unable to stop him from chasing her, but instead of killing her, Ethan carries her home. Once Debbie is safely with her family, and Martin is reunited with Laurie, Ethan walks away, alone, the cabin door closing on his receding image in one of the most famous and iconic closing scenes in film history.
Quite a yarn, nicely piloted by Ford, with beautiful cinematography by Winton Hoch. Ford’s Favorite location, Monument Valley, never looked better. Wayne seems comfortable with this kind of suds, and obviously works well with Ford. Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, Ward Bond, and Natalie Wood round out the cast.
A busy Western about guilt and vengeance. Very nice indeed.
SHANE 1953 George Stevens
I saw this as a child, in the Edwards Theater in East Hampton, which was the venue that provided so many of my early movie experiences. I can still remember young Brandon deWilde’s voice echoing across the valley, calling to Shane to come back, as Alan Ladd rides off into a perfect movie ending. Great stuff. Great movie.
Two themes here that reoccur in movie westerns, over and over; you just can’t escape who you are, and sometimes a man just stands up. And more often than not, both cost you what you want most. This is a simple story about good and evil, and right and wrong, and doing what’s needed, no matter the cost. A simple story delicately handled by director George Stevens, with a game cast of heroes and villains. It’s the old story of the hard working homesteaders, trying to make a go of it against all odds, and against the will of the greedy land barons, who want to keep the range open and free of the fences these pesky farmers keep putting up everywhere. Just how far will the land Barons go to squeeze the homesteaders off their land? Assault? Arson? Murder? There’s no end to it. These are simple farmers, unable or unwilling to fight back. They need help. They need a hero. Into this sordid atmosphere, a quiet man appears, riding into town wearing buckskin, looking for work. His name is Shane.
The location is an isolated valley in the sparsely settled territory of Wyoming. Whatever his past, Shane soon finds himself drawn into a conflict between homesteader Joe Starrett (Van Heflin) and ruthless cattle baron Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer), who wants to force Starrett and the others off the land.
Shane stays for supper and the night at the invitation of Joe’s wife, Marian (Jean Arthur), and starts working as a farmhand. Young Joey (Brandon deWilde) is drawn to him and the gun, and wants to learn how to shoot. Shane tries to teach him and his mother that a gun is a tool like any other, except it’s designed to shoot people. Whether it’s used for good or not depends on the person using it.
There is an obvious attraction, and perhaps a history, between Shane and Marian. She tells Shane that they would be better off if there weren’t any guns in the valley, including his. She is emphatic that guns are not going to be a part of her son’s life.
When Shane goes into town with Starrett and the rest of the homesteaders, he gets into a fistfight with Ryker’s men after being ridiculed for backing down before. With Joe’s help, they win, and the shopkeeper orders them out. Ryker declares that the next time Shane or Joe go to town the “air will be filled with gunsmoke.”
As tensions mount, Ryker hires Jack Wilson (Jack Palance), an unscrupulous, psychopathic gunslinger, who laughs at the thought of murder. Wilson goads ex-Confederate Frank ‘Stonewall’ Torrey (Elisha Cook, Jr.), a hot-tempered Alabama homesteader, into a fight, and shoots him down in the street.
After the funeral, many plan to leave. But a fire set by Ryker’s men spurs them into pulling together to put it out, rather than driving them out.
Ryker decides to have Wilson kill Starrett in an ambush at the saloon, under the pretense of negotiating. One of Ryker’s men loses his stomach for this, and warns Shane that Starrett’s “up against a stacked deck.”
Joe is resolved to go anyway. He knows that Shane will look after Marian and Joey if he doesn’t survive. But Shane tells Joe he’s no match for Wilson, although he might be a match for Ryker. They fight and Shane has to knock him unconscious. Joey yells at Shane for pistol whipping his father with the butt of his gun.
Marian begs Shane not to go and asks if he is doing it for her. He admits that he is, and for Joey, and all the decent people who want a chance to live and grow up there.
In town, Shane walks into the saloon. Shane tells Ryker that they’re both relics of the Old West, but Ryker hasn’t realized it yet. Wilson draws, but is shot and keeps reflexively shooting, even after he’s dead – only Jack Palance can get away with stuff like this. Ryker pulls a hidden gun and Shane returns fire. He’s turned to leave when Ryker’s brother fires a Winchester rifle from the balcony overhead. Joey, who ran after Shane, calls out and Shane fires back.
Shane walks out of the saloon, where Joey is waiting for him. He says that he has to move on and tells him to take care of his family. Shane also says to tell Joey’s mother that there “aren’t any more guns in the valley.”
Shane’s blood runs onto Joey’s hands when he reaches up to him. Joey’s worried, but Shane tells him that’s fine. Wounded, Shane sits up, with his arm hanging uselessly at his side as he rides past the grave markers on Cemetery Hill, and out of town, into the sunrise, over the mountains.
Whether Shane has been mortally wounded, as is often speculated, is apparent in neither the film nor in Schaefer’s novel.
Best scene: Stevens needed a gimmick, a piece of stagecraft to set up the entrance of Wilson, the gunfighter hired by Ryker to harass the homesteaders. Wilson is played by Jack Palance, billed in the credits as Walter Palance, in his first important role. Stevens wanted the audience to understand that the man who was about to come through the swinging doors of the Saloon, was evil incarnate, before they ever saw him. In the background is the
doorway to the saloon, not yet open, with a man’s legs and boots visible behind the swinging doors. Stevens sticks a sleeping dog in the foreground. As the saloon door opens, the dog awakens, whimpers, and crawls out of frame. One of the best evil entrances ever staged.
A simple story – beautifully told.
SILVERADO 1985 Lawrence Kasdan
Something you need to know. Two years before Silverado, Larry Kasdan made The Big Chill, which did impressive box office, and was loved by just about everyone I knew. And I hated it. I thought it was an endless, pretentious, post mortem gab fest, although I loved
the house, and the music, and fell totally in love with a delicious young Glenn Close. Anyway, The Big Chill was supposed to be a great opportunity for a young unknown actor named Kevin Costner to show his stuff. Unfortunately for Costner, the picture was re-edited leaving his entire performance on the editing room floor.
He’s the dead guy in the coffin, who everyone’s talking about. Kasdan liked Costner, and felt badly about what had happened, so he kept an eye out for a likely vehicle to put Costner’s talents to good use. While working, two years later, on the script for Siverado, Kasdan expanded the role he wrote for Costner, to make up for poor Kevin getting stuck in that coffin. Just so you know.
Emmett (Scott Glenn) is ambushed by three men while he sleeps in a deserted shack. In a brief gunfight, he kills all of the assailants. As he travels to Silverado, Emmett finds a man, Paden (Kevin Kline), lying in the desert, having been robbed and left to die.
Emmett and Paden ride to the town of Turley to meet Emmett’s brother, Jake (Kevin Costner), who is locked up and awaiting hanging for killing a man in self-defense. Paden is later jailed when he encounters and kills one of the men who robbed him. Emmett aids Jake and Paden in a breakout with the help of Mal (Danny Glover), a black cowboy who was run out of town by sheriff John Langston (John Cleese).
After helping a wagon train of settlers recover their stolen money from thieves, and leading them to Silverado, the group disbands to find their relatives and settle into the town. Emmett and Jake learn from their sister’s husband, the land agent for the area, that rancher Ethan McKendrick (Ray Baker) is attempting to maintain the open range, which he will dominate with his enormous herds of cattle, by driving all lawful claimants off the land. Emmett had
killed McKendrick’s father years earlier in a gunfight, and McKendrick had hired the men who attempted to kill Emmett upon his release from prison. Mal finds his father Ezra (Joe Seneca), left destitute after his home had been burned down and his land overrun by cattle.
It is soon revealed that the sheriff Cobb (Brian Dennehy), an old friend of Paden’s, is on McKendrick’s payroll. After McKendrick’s men murder Ezra, burn the land office, and kidnap Emmett’s nephew Augie (Thomas Wilson Brown); Paden, Mal, Emmett, and Jake determine to defy
Cobb. The four stampede McKendrick’s cattle to provide cover for a raid on his ranch, in which most of the bandits are killed and the kidnapped boy is rescued. They then return to town, where in a series of encounters, each defeats his own personal enemy. In the last of these, Paden kills Cobb in a duel. Emmett and Jake leave for California, their long stated goal, while Mal and his sister reunite and decide to rebuild their father’s homestead. Paden stays in Silverado as the new sheriff.
This is rollicking, knee slapping good fun from beginning to end. Nicely piloted by Kasdan, who also wrote the screenplay with his brother Mark. Tasty tangy dialogue delivered by a game cast, but it’s little Linda Hunt who steels the show as the tidy little saloon keeper who rather fancies Kevin Kline. A robust musical score from Bruce Broughton, whose work I’m unfamiliar with. Good work by all. Great fun.
STAGECOACH 1939 John Ford
In 1939, John Ford (who else) would finally make a Western for grown ups, and movies would never be the same again. Rumor has it that Orson Welles screened Stagecoach over twenty times with DP Greg Toland, during pre production for Citizen Kane. Room Ceilings had been included in Stagecoach by Ford and DP Bert Glennon, and Welles was so impressed that he reworked the cinematic design for Citizen Kane.
John Ford’s first talking Western – and talk they do, starring Claire Trevor and John Wayne in his break-through role. The screenplay, written by Dudley Nichols and Ben Hecht, is an adaptation of “The Stage to Lordsburg”, a 1937 short story by Ernest Haycox. The film follows a group of strangers riding on a stagecoach through dangerous Apache territory.
Although Ford had made many Westerns in the silent film era, he had never previously directed a sound Western. Between 1929 and 1939, he directed films in almost every other genre, including Wee Willie Winkie , starring Shirley Temple, and The Informer, starring Victor McLaghlen. Stagecoach was the first of many Westerns that Ford shot using Monument Valley, in the American south-west on the Arizona–Utah border, as a location, many of which also starred John Wayne. In Stagecoach the director skillfully blended shots of Monument Valley with shots filmed at Iverson Movie Ranch in Chatsworth, California, and other locations.
In 1880, a motley group of strangers boards the east-bound stagecoach from Tonto, Arizona Territory to Lordsburg, New Mexico Territory. Among them are Dallas (Claire Trevor), a prostitute who is being driven out of town by the members of the “Law and Order League”; an alcoholic doctor, Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell); pregnant Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt), who is traveling to see her cavalry officer husband; and whiskey salesman Samuel Peacock (Donald Meek).
When the stage driver, Buck (Andy Devine), looks for his normal shotgun guard, Marshal Curly Wilcox (George Bancroft) tells him that the guard has gone searching for fugitive the Ringo Kid (John Wayne). Buck tells Marshal Wilcox that Luke Plummer (Tom Tyler) is in Lordsburg. Knowing that Kid has vowed to avenge the deaths of his father and brother at Plummer’s hands, the marshal decides to ride along as guard.
As they set out, U.S. cavalry Lieutenant Blanchard (Tim Holt) informs the group that Geronimo and his Apaches are on the warpath and his small troop will provide an escort until they reach Dry Fork. Gambler and Southern gentleman Hatfield (John Carradine) joins them and at the edge of town, the stage is flagged down by banker Henry Gatewood, (Berton Churchill), who is absconding with $50,000 embezzled from his bank.
Along the way, they come across the Ringo Kid, whose horse became lame and left him afoot. Even though they are friends, Curly has no choice but to take Ringo into custody. As the trip progresses, Ringo takes a strong liking to Dallas.
When Doc Boone tells Peacock that he served as a doctor in the Union Army during the “War of the Rebellion,” Hatfield quickly uses a Southern term, the “War for Southern Independence.” Later, Mrs. Mallory asks Hatfield whether he was ever in Virginia; he tells her he served in the Confederate Army under her father’s command.
When the stage reaches Dry Fork, the group is informed that the expected cavalry detachment has gone to Apache Wells. Buck wants to turn back, but Curly demands that the group vote. With only Buck and Peacock objecting, they proceed to Apache Wells. There, Mrs. Mallory faints and goes into labor when she hears that her husband had been wounded in battle. Doc Boone is called upon to assist the delivery, and later Dallas emerges holding a healthy baby. Later that night, Ringo asks Dallas to marry him. She does not give him an immediate answer, afraid to reveal her checkered past, but the next morning, she agrees if he promises to give up his plan to fight the Plummers. Encouraged by Dallas, Ringo escapes but returns when he sees signs of a possible Indian attack.
When the stage reaches Lee’s Ferry, the passengers find the station and ferry burned, and those who were not killed have fled. They tie large logs to the sides of the stagecoach and float it across the river. Just when they think that danger has passed, they are set upon by a band of Apaches. Curly releases Ringo from his handcuffs to help repel the attack. During a long chase, when things look bleak, Hatfield is about to use his last bullet to save Mrs. Mallory from being taken alive when he is fatally wounded. Just then, the 6th U.S. cavalry arrives to the rescue of the group.
When the stage finally arrives in Lordsburg, Gatewood is arrested by the local sheriff, and Mrs. Mallory is told that her husband’s wound is not serious. Dallas begs Ringo not to seek vengeance against the Plummers, but he is determined to settle matters. Curly grants him leave and his gun. In the ensuing shootout, Ringo dispatches Luke and his two brothers, then returns to Curly, expecting to return to jail. He asks the lawman to take Dallas to his ranch. However, when Ringo boards a wagon and says goodbye, Curly invites Dallas to ride to the edge of town. As she climbs aboard, and Curly and Doc laugh and start the horses moving, letting Ringo “escape” with Dallas.
Stagecoach is the granddaddy of the modern Western Film genre. The yardstick by which all others are measured. After Stagecoach, movies would never look the same. Ford had invented a whole new kind of movie, which would be endlessly imitated throughout the post-Stagecoach era of modern motion pictures.
UNFORGIVEN 1992 Clint Eastwood
If you’re looking for a good guy to root for, you’ve come to the wrong movie. Unforgiven has none.
Produced and directed by Clint Eastwood with a screenplay written by David Webb Peoples, the film tells the story of William Munny, an aging outlaw and killer who takes on one more job years after he had hung up his guns and turned to farming. A dark, dark Western that deals frankly with the uglier aspects of violence and the myth of the Old West, it stars Eastwood in the lead role, with Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, and Richard Harris.
Eastwood dedicated the movie to deceased directors and mentors Don Siegel and Sergio Leone. The film won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Hackman), and Best Film Editing. Eastwood himself was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance, but he lost to Al Pacino for Scent of a Woman. In 2004, Unforgiven was added to the United States National Film Registry as being deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
The film was only the third western to win the Oscar for Best Picture following Cimarron (1931) and Dances With Wolves (1990).
A group of prostitutes in Big Whiskey, Wyoming, led by Strawberry Alice (Fisher), offers a $1,000 reward to whomever can kill Quick Mike (Mucci) and “Davey-Boy” Bunting (Campbell), two cowboys who disfigured Delilah Fitzgerald (Levine), one of their own. This upsets the local sheriff, Little Bill Daggett (Hackman), a former gunfighter and now an obsessive keeper of the peace who does not allow guns or criminals in his town. Little Bill had given the two men leniency, despite their crime.
Miles away in Kansas, the Schofield Kid (Woolvett), a boastful young man, visits the pig farm of William Munny (Eastwood), seeking to recruit him to kill the cowboys. In his youth, Munny was a bandit who was notorious for being a vicious, cold-blooded murderer, but he is now a repentant widower raising two children and has sworn off alcohol. Though Munny initially refuses to help with the
assassination, his farm is failing, putting his children’s future in jeopardy. Munny reconsiders a few days later and sets off to catch up with the Kid. On his way, Munny recruits Ned Logan (Freeman), another retired gunfighter who reluctantly leaves his wife (Cardinal) to go along.
Back in Wyoming, gunfighter English Bob (Harris) and his biographer, W. W. Beauchamp (Rubinek), arrive in Big Whiskey, also seeking the reward. Little Bill and his deputies disarm Bob, and Bill beats him savagely, hoping to set an example for other would-be assassins. The next morning Bob is ejected from town, but Beauchamp decides to stay and write about Bill, who has impressed him with his tales of old gunfights and seeming knowledge of the inner workings of a gunfighter’s psyche.
Munny, Logan and the Kid arrive later amid a rain storm and go to the saloon/whorehouse to discover the cowboys’ location. Munny has a bad fever after riding in the rain, and is sitting alone in the saloon when Little Bill and his deputies arrive to confront him. Little Bill has no idea who Munny is, and after finding a pistol on him he beats him brutally and kicks him out onto the street. Logan and the Kid, upstairs getting “advances” on their payment from the prostitutes, escape out a back window. The three regroup at a barn outside of town, where they nurse Munny back to health.
Three days later, they ambush a group of cowboys and kill Bunting – although it becomes apparent that Logan and Munny no longer have much stomach for murder. Logan decides to return home while Munny and the Kid head to the cowboys’ ranch, where the Kid ambushes Quick Mike in an outhouse and kills him. After they escape, a very distraught Kid confesses he had never killed anyone before, and renounces the gunfighter lifestyle. When Little Sue (Frederick) meets the two men to give them the reward, they learn that Logan was captured by Little Bill’s men and tortured to death, but not before giving up the identities of his two accomplices. The Kid heads back to Kansas to deliver the reward money to Munny and Logan’s families, while Munny drinks half a bottle of whisky and heads into town to take revenge on Bill.
That night, Logan’s corpse is displayed in a coffin outside the saloon. Inside, Little Bill has assembled a posse to pursue Munny and the Kid. Munny walks in alone and promptly demands to know whom is the owner of the establishment brandishing a double-barrel shotgun. Skinny Dubois (James), the saloon owner and pimp steps forward in an attempt to dissuade Munny, who in response guns him down, stating in response to a comment from Bill “Well he shoulda armed himself if he was gonna decorate his saloon with my friend”. After some tense dialogue, a gunfight ensues, leaving Bill wounded and apparently dead and several of his deputies dead. Munny orders everyone out before a moment later stopping Little Bill from trying to shoot him in the back with his drawn pistol. Bill complains about not deserving to die and curses Munny saying he’ll see him in hell. Munny says “Deserves got nothing to do with it…” and with a simple Yea’ Munny finishes him with a final rifle-shot to the head. Munny then threatens the townsfolk in the rain before finally leaving town, warning that he will return if Logan is not buried properly or if any prostitutes are further harmed. If he finds out that someone has, he will return and kill them, their entire family and friends. Then rides off into the rain to go back home to his children.
Eastwood attempts here to make his character more appealing by having him ride a mangy old horse that repeatedly dumps him. It almost works. This is a dark, almost sacrilegious descent into the sleazy underbelly of Western Movie culture, and it’s delicious. Steady direction by Eastwood and a cast that seems to be swapping
bad guy one-upsmanship throughout the film. The tired old killers, game for a comeback (Eastwood and Freeman). English Bob, the sadistic British gunslinger (Harris). The corrupt Sheriff, Little Bill (Hackman). English Bob’s biographer W. W. Beauchamp (Rubinek). The insecure Kid, out to get that first notch on his gun (Woolvett). Quick Mike and Davey Boy, two nasty drunken cowpokes who disfigure a Hooker with a knife when Quick Mike can’t get it up (Muuci and Campbell). Bad guys all, in the town of Big Whiskey. The only let up from nastiness is the Madam of the local Brothel, Strawberry Alice, and the disfigured prostitute with a heart of gold, Delilah, who offers “free ones” to cowboys she likes.
Darkly and beautifully shot by Jack Green, a nice musical score by Lenny Niehaus, and crisp pacing by editor Joel Cox. Dark and unseemly doings in the town of Big Whiskey.
© 2013 Shaun Costello
I WISH I’D SAID THAT
By Shaun Costello
I’ve always envied those few whose witty weaponry enabled them to defuse an impossible moment with the turn of a phrase.
Sherwood Anderson when reviewing cowboy hero Tom Mix: “They say he rides as if he’s part of the horse, but they didn’t say which part.”
Dorothy Parker: “That woman speaks eighteen languages and can’t say ‘no’ in any of them.”
George S Kaufman: Once asked by a press agent, “How do I get my leading lady’s name into your newspaper?” Kaufman replied, “Shoot her.”
I wish I’d said that, but of course no one asked me. Of all the great verbal kick-turns I’ve read, my favorite happened at a Beverly Hills dinner party back in 1940.
Arthur Hornblow Jr. was one of Hollywood’s most successful producers. From 1933 to 1942 he had a hand in the production of some of Paramount’s biggest hits, before moving on to a stellar career at MGM, producing for luminaries like George Cukor and Billy Wilder. Hornblow’s fame as a producer was equaled however, by his legendary reputation as a party host. His dinner parties were storied events, and making his guest list meant you had “arrived” in the motion picture community.
The massive dining table was set according to the measurements and procedures followed by the staff of the Royal Family for state dinners at Windsor Castle. Each dinner guest was provided with their own personal
servant, who stood at attention behind each chair awaiting the call to the most menial of tasks. The wines served were of the great vintages from the finest Chateau’s of Bordeaux and Burgundy. The guest list read like the who’s who of Hollywood Royalty: Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, Robert Taylor, Claire Trevor, Spencer Tracy, Kate Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart, Bing Crosby, Olivia DeHaviland, Bob Hope, Cary Grant. All dressed to the “Nines”. At their peak. Walking on air.
On this particular evening the name of Herman Mankiewicz had been added to the guest list. Manky, as he was universally known, was one of Hollywood’s mercurial talents, responsible for the screenplays for Citizen Kane, The Enchanted Cottage,
Dinner at Eight, and many others. He was also one of Hollywood’s most notorious drunks, leaving a disgruntled and embarrassed list of dinner hosts in his wake. Arthur Hornblow Jr. had avoided inviting Manky to one of his extravaganzas, fearing bad behavior, and the possibility of an unfortunate incident. But Manky, whose barbed wit and scintillating conversation made him popular on Tinseltown’s party circuit, could not be put off forever. So on this particular evening a nervous Arthur Hornblow Jr. could do nothing more than hope for good behavior from his mercurial guest. He gave strict instructions to the staff to limit Manky’s wine service at dinner and to watch for signs of unusual behavior. That done, Hornblow continued fussing over details he felt necessary in order to present a fabulous evening to his fabulous guests.
The pre-dinner cocktail reception out on the terrace was accompanied by a string quartet, while Hollywood’s finest chattered amongst themselves, totally oblivious to possibility of the existence of anything unglamorous in or out of their own perfect little world. Manky held court with a raconteur’s glib concoction of facts and fables, and his audience loved every moment. Hornblow gazed at the assembly through the window and smiled.
The crystal bell tinkled the announcement of a dinner at the ready, and the guest list with the grace born of celebrity and assurance glided through the huge doorway into the dining chamber, the epicenter of Hornblow’s mansion. Everyone found their appropriate places with Hornblow at the head of the enormous table, and his wife Myrna Loy sitting opposite. The wines were greeted with ooohs and ahhhs, and each course served was a tour de force in epicurean perfection. Arthur Hornblow Jr, surveyed his table with a sense of satisfaction thinking to himself. “Well Arthur, you’ve done it again. Everything is as it should be.”
Gone unnoticed amidst all this perfection was an unusually quiet Herman Mankiewicz. Although his wine flow had been curtailed at the dinner table, he had consumed seven or eight martinis during the pre dinner festivities and was plastered. He sat staring straight ahead, weaving ever so slightly to his left and then his right, then slightly forward and suddenly vomited into his soup.
What followed was the longest pause in the history of Tinseltown. No one moved. No one made eye contact with anyone else. Fifty dinner guests sat silent and motionless, perhaps hoping on the off chance, that God might appear and, in his benevolence somehow make things right. But God went unneeded on this particular evening. Manky, seemingly recovered from his trance-like stupor looked down at the evidence of his mischief, then slowly lifted his head and turned in the direction of his horrified host and said, “Not to worry Arthur. The white wine came up with the fish.”
I wish I’d said that. I wish I’d been there.
© 2006 Shaun Costello/New York Times Sunday Magazine