Cowboys Without Aliens Made John Wayne, Clint Eastwood Stars: Rainer File
I love Westerns and wish Hollywood made more of them. -- even when, as in “Cowboys & Aliens,” they feature space invaders.
Until fairly recently, the Western was a malleable mainstay. A good one could express everything from down-home traditionalism (“Shane”) to manly heroics (“The Professionals”) to Vietnam-era fury (“The Wild Bunch”).
Fine Westerns still occasionally crop up, like the remakes of “True Grit” and “3:10 to Yuma.” These movies did well at the North American box-office but not overseas, where many Hollywood movies now earn more than half their money.
I was recently reminded of the sheer beauty of the genre when I watched the Criterion reissue of John Ford’s “Stagecoach” (1939), which made John Wayne a star. Orson Welles said he viewed it 40 times to learn film techniques before directing “Citizen Kane.”
Filmed predominantly in Monument Valley on the Arizona-Utah border, “Stagecoach” is about a motley crew of Western archetypes crossing dangerous Apache territory. There’s the gambler, the banker, the lush, the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold and the outlaw (Wayne’s Ringo Kid).
The battle scenes are breathtaking. Much of the risky stunt work by Wayne’s double, Yakima Canutt, involved falling between teams of charging horses.
Ford made many other celebrated Westerns, including “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” (1949) and “The Searchers” (1956).
“Yellow Ribbon,” whose look was heavily influenced by Frederic Remington’s Western paintings, stars Wayne as a retiring cavalry officer. “The Searchers” (1956), which I consider overpraised, is about a Civil War veteran trying to hunt down the Comanches who captured his niece.
One of my favorite Ford Westerns is “My Darling Clementine” (1946), Ford’s re-telling of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral. Henry Fonda, at his most lean-hipped and soft- spoken, plays Wyatt Earp and the famed square-dance sequence is a transcendent reimagining of American folklore.
Director Anthony Mann infused his Westerns with neurotic intensity. Among his best are “The Furies” (1950), with Walter Huston (in his last role) as a martinet cattle rancher, and “The Far Country” (1954), where Jimmy Stewart plays a misfit cattleman bringing his herd to Alaska.
Sam Peckinpah’s Westerns --- including the elegiac “Ride the High Country” (1962), the explosive “Wild Bunch” (1969) and “Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid” (1973) --- are among the most powerful in the genre. No filmmaker did more to bring out both the savagery and the lyricism of the Old West.
Westerns such as “The Professionals” (1966) and “The Magnificent Seven” (1960) are marvels of storytelling. The latter is a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai” (1954), the greatest Western not set in the U.S. A close second is Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo” (1961), starring Toshiro Mifune as a samurai-for-hire and remade three years later as Sergio Leone’s “Fistful of Dollars” with Eastwood.
“The Ox-Bow Incident” (1943), “High Noon” (1952) and, to an extent, “Little Big Man” (1970) are socially conscious without being preachy. Howard Hawks’s “Red River” (1948) has Wayne and a young, intense Montgomery Clift squaring off in a stirring cattle-drive redo of “Mutiny on the Bounty.”
Robert Altman’s “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” (1971) is a beautiful, heartbreaking drama starring Warren Beatty as a small-time hustler in an early 1900s mining town.
Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” (1992), where he stars as a reformed killer, is one of the few Westerns that deeply explores the emotional consequences of the violence seen on the screen.
“One-Eyed Jacks” (1961), Marlon Brando’s sole directorial effort, is an underrated film in which he plays a cowboy bent on revenge.
My list of overlooked Westerns also includes Philip Kaufman’s “The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid” (1972); Fred Schepisi’s “Barbarosa” (1982) (starring Willie Nelson as a wind-swept outlaw); Walter Hill’s “The Long Riders” (1980) (with a great Ry Cooder score); and Irvin Kerschner’s “The Return of a Man Called Horse” (1976), one of the rare pro- Indian Westerns.
Good westerns can still be made. Just remember to leave out the aliens.
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