Faced with a slew of obligations in the weeks leading up to the eloquently named National Day of the Cowboy (because just “National Cowboy Day” wasn’t good enough), I was left with little time to prepare as complex a celebration as I would tend towards. Alas, I lack the time and mental energy necessary to write a treatise on gender in Johnny Guitar and A Bullet for the General or to point out every dick joke in Forty Guns.
Forty Guns (1957) dir. Samuel Fuller
Writing nothing, however, was never an option for me. I love westerns. I’m the western guy. I sleep next to a statue of John Wayne and have a poster of Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp next to my front door. Despite all that, I realized in the lead-up to this little block of time I have to write in that I’ve never really gone broad with my undying affection for the genre. The most I’ve ever published about westerns was my write up of the exceptional and gory spaghetti classic, Cut-Throats Nine. With that in mind, I figure, why not indulge myself? Why not lay off the big ideas for half a second and post a glorified Letterboxd list? Well, dear reader, that’s what I intend to do.
This National Day of the Cowboy, to celebrate my love of the genre, I present my top five western films ever made!
5. Canyon Passage (1946)
dir. Jacques Tourneur
An atypical western in almost every possible way, upon first viewing I compared Tourneur’s dazzling Technicolor tapestry to William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. My case was built on two bizarre structural inclusions. The first was that Tourneur uses the untamed forests of nineteenth-century Oregon (an odd locale for an old Hollywood western) as a realm of transformation and mystery, treating the Native Americans who live there as the rightful inhabitants that the bevy of incoming settlers either can’t or won’t understand. (I should say, to call the portrayals of Native Americans here progressive is pushing it, but the bar for these movies is on the fucking floor.)
Second, the film is built around the all too uncommon love square. Although the resolution is distinctly unShakespearean, the rest of the narrative trades in the broad vistas and blunt relations of the typical cinematic frontier for a complex web of emotional and financial entanglements that mold and threaten the film’s numerous characters in ways they never fully understand. Canyon Passage’s dense thematics are paired with similarly complex compositions to create a beautiful, ethereal vision of the American west unlike any conceived before or since.
4. True Grit (2010)
dirs. Joel & Ethan Coen
I first saw this one at an impressionable time in my life, probably sometime around 2014, and though I enjoyed it quite a bit, nothing about it particularly grabbed me. From my cultural vantage point, that also seems to be the case for a lot of people; it’s good, but when it tries to stand up next to the rest of the Coen Brothers’ filmography, it just can’t compare. It wasn’t until after two more rewatches (both propelled by the film’s strange magnetic pull) that I finally gave it its proper due.
For my money, True Grit is the Coen Brothers’ best film, or is at least tied with A Serious Man for that title. What they crafted is a truly American fantasy; a muddy, alcoholic quest across a beautiful country that tears itself apart in bursts of horrifying violence until the land itself decides to bite back. Carter Burwell’s score is exceptional, drawing extensively on hymns and folk songs. Roger Deakins walks a fine line between nominal realism and outright fantasy, peppering the screen with exquisite bursts of gunsmoke and delivering one of the greatest images in cinematic history: Rooster Cogburn racing to save his young charge’s life on horseback, silhouetted in a sequence that recalls The Night of the Hunter as much as Goethe’s “Erlkönig.”
For all my pretension about its formal qualities, True Grit is also just a damn good adventure story, with its leads (Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, and Matt Damon) all doing career-best work as they drink, cuss, and smoke their way from gunfight to gunfight.
3. My Darling Clementine (1946)
dir. John Ford
Released in the same year as Canyon Passage and sharing a few of its Shakespearean qualities (the iconic soliloquy from Hamlet is performed in a saloon), My Darling Clementine is the first of two entries on this list by John Ford, the greatest American filmmaker to ever live. Additionally, it’s where the image of Henry Fonda that’s hanging in my foyer comes from. To talk about John Ford, for me, is to try and talk about all of cinema. He’s a comedian and poet, a socialist and a Republican, a classicist and a revisionist, and all of these things at the same time. He’s also my phone background, but I digress.
The best of all the film versions of the oft mythologized shootout at the O.K. Corral, My Darling Clementine, like its cinematic siblings, diverges liberally from the source material and is, according to Ford, based on conversations he had with the real Wyatt Earp. Clementine is the most self-consciously poetic of Ford’s westerns and the daylight moments of tender humanity (rarer here than in his other work, save perhaps The Searchers) are contrasted by smoky, shadow-shrouded nighttime scenes of violence and debauchery.
It expands upon the popular subjects of classical westerns (the arrival of civilization, the backhanded majesty of the law, etc.) with more eloquence than any of its contemporaries and is backed by a higher level of craft than just about any movie ever made. Though many consider Rio Bravo to be the film that best embodies those qualities that make a western a western, I would offer up in rebuttal My Darling Clementine; it’s an age-old story of broken men, wide open spaces, and what happens when everyone’s wearing a gun.
2. McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)
dir. Robert Altman
Altman’s is perhaps the second western to make proper use of an industry freed from the shackles of the Hays Code (the first being The Wild Bunch, obviously). A mirror image of Canyon Passage in many ways, McCabe & Mrs. Miller tackles the entrepreneurial spirit of the American West not with mystical forests and simmer emotion, but with copious sex, graphic violence, frequent substance abuse, rampant cursing, and an atmosphere otherwise consumed by sin, vice, and greed.
Where Tourneur’s massive cast of characters have their emotions externalized in moments of transcendent cinematic beauty, the townspeople in McCabe are subject to the distinctly unromantic stylistics of Robert Altman, in which their bottled-up feelings do not join with the spirit of the land but sputter out in desperate, embarrassing, and even abusive displays of cruelty and incompetence.
Though much of the film is gorgeous to look at (as most westerns are), it’s also an Altman film, which means the seams are all out on display. It was during my first experience watching this film (mouth agape as Warren Beatty dashed across a ghostly street covered by an exceptionally shitty, low-rent snow effect) that I first understood that a movie looking or sounding incompetent could, in fact, be astonishingly beautiful. The movie also has original Leonard Cohen music, which is cheating.
1. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
dir. John Ford
Alas, my final choice is also my most boring one, but no list is complete without the genre’s only worthy eulogy. The west is dead, Ford explains, and all we do now is lie about it. It goes without saying that the film is a masterpiece, with three exceptional lead performances from some of the genre’s finest presences and a John Wayne turn so incredible that it became the basis of the critic Manny Farber’s greatest contribution to the cinematic lexicon. In every conceivable sense, it’s a damn good movie and it would be pointless of me to ramble on about it. After Liberty Valance, the genre was eternally changed. For a brief moment, thanks to our delightfully sleazy friends in Italy, westerns were exploitation films, then they were social pictures, and now they’re nothing. The genre, for the time being, is well and truly dead. This being the case, the over-quoted but no less true maxim of Liberty Valance remains the genre’s last words: “Print the legend.”