Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Top 10 westerns for 2013

Here in no particular order are the best of the westerns reviewed at BITS in the last year. (Click through on the titles to read the complete reviews.)

Preview audiences reportedly were roused by such strong reactions to this film that many left the theater in protest. Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch immediately won a reputation for its graphic violence. Because of or in spite of that, it quickly found a place on most western fans’ top 10 list. Over 40 years later, it remains a powerful and absorbing story.

There’s an elegiac tone to this story of aging cowboys. The glory days are over for the men who used to ride the open ranges, and now they are hanging on to whatever work they can find in a shrinking rural economy. Distant corporate owners make the decisions about how the ranches are run. What used to be “money” is now “capital.”

Steve McQueen starred in this rambling movie set mostly in the West. Its central character goes by different names until almost the end, when he calls himself “Nevada Smith.” The film was a prequel, based on a character in Harold Robbins’ 1961 potboiler, The Carpetbaggers. That novel had been made into a film in 1964, the character of Nevada Smith played by Alan Ladd  as a Tom Mix-style cowboy actor.

Not quite a western, this story of an itinerant sheepman and his family in the great outdoors of Australia has stood up well. The enjoyment comes mostly from the performances and the novelty of watching something besides cows being driven across country. The work of sheep shearers and their camaraderie make another contrasting parallel to the usual run of cowboys.

This rousing low-budget western had a remarkable cast and enough fresh ideas to keep it more than interesting from start to finish. The cast includes John Ireland as a disaffected veteran of the Civil War and Dorothy Malone as a small-town newspaper editor’s daughter. Lon Chaney, Jr., plays the heavy, a maniacal cattleman. Jack Elam is nicely sinister as one of his henchmen.

John Ford brings a light touch to this story of a subject he treated once before in The Searchers (1956). James Stewart is the “searcher” in this film, out to find women and children kidnapped by Indians. But unlike John Wayne’s darkly driven character in the earlier film, Stewart is comically larcenous and unprincipled. His services go to the highest bidder.

First of all, this is a movie about a long-range rifle. Almost incidentally, it is carried through most of the film by Tom Selleck. The weapon is a Shiloh Sharps 1874 Long Range, and Selleck, as the title character, Quigley, is an incredible marksman with it. Much of the excitement of the film is watching him take aim at someone else little more than a speck on the screen and seeing them blown away.

This gritty, sweaty western looks like it was shot somewhere on the endless arid plains under the great open sky of the American West. But think South—way South. Good For Nothing was filmed entirely and convincingly in New Zealand. The panoramic views evoke the romance of the West at the same time they transport you back in time, in a way that many Hollywood westerns fail to achieve.

This Budd Boetticher western filmed from a Burt Kennedy script is a classic. Shot in Cinemascope entirely in the Alabama Hills of Lone Pine, California, it’s a low-budget movie that looks as high-gloss and polished as any 1950s western.

This noir western from director John Sturges is smaller scale than his big films (Gunfight at the OK Corral, The Magnificent Seven), but a quietly intense gem. Richard Widmark is cast in a role that recalls the grinning malice of the hoodlum he plays in Kiss of Death (1947). Robert Taylor, dressed in black, is the handsome marshal who was once his partner in crime.

Further reading:

Coming up: The year in snapshots


  1. Re Two Rode Together. I do not the Stewart character as unprincipled, unless, of course, trying to make a buck with the available "tools" makes that so. He always, throughout the entirety of the film, tells the truth. He is wise and compassionate with each and every character, where warranted, but especially with Linda Cristal's character. He is a great man. And, by the way, I don't see Ethan Edwards as racist. He is trying to reclaim his family, and if that requires killing the enemy, so be it. You know, like us bombing Japan and Germany.

    1. My memory of the film is that Stewart often claims to be unprincipled. The traditional western hero would be less materialistic. You are right that a better side of him comes out in defense of Cristal's character.

    2. Stewart's character is a classic Fordian hero, who apprises all of the risks inherent in a daunting, dangerous enterprise. For this, he requires compensation and makes an honest job of it. I see nothing wrong with this man. The others, civilian and military appear to be a pack of fools sending McCabe on their errand unwilling, or unable due to flat out stupidity, to deal with truth. Or, for that matter, kindness.

    3. Further Thought: McCabe has time, intelligence and courage to sell, and so he does, honestly. The cowboy is a capitalist, just like The Virginian, who aspires to be like Judge Henry, and reaches that goal.

  2. Quigley definitely deserves to be there. I haven't seen the Sundowners but read the book, which was excellent!

  3. " the novelty of watching something besides cows being driven across country"
    Singleton's Pluck, starring Ian Holm and after- a long way after- Red River, features a farmer herding a flock of geese from Norfolk to London.

  4. Ron, I'm going to try and see every one of these westerns in 2014. A Happy New Year to you and your family!