Everyone has their favorite Western movie canon. Except for people who don’t like Westerns which is, frankly, inconceivable. My own list includes Rio Bravo, The Wild Bunch, Unforgiven, The Searchers and television’s Lonesome Dove. Classics, all. But there’s so much good stuff to choose from in a genre that goes back well over a century that, inevitably, some works get overlooked. Herewith, six Westerns that merit renewed attention. Some are lesser-known works by famous directors, some were under-appreciated upon release, and some were manhandled by the studio big-shots. But all are reminders of what makes the Western so enduring.
Seven Men From Now (d. Budd Boetticher, with Randolph Scott, 1956)
At one point in Mel Brooks’ classic Western spoof Blazing Saddles, everyone stops and removes their hats when the name “Randolph Scott” is reverently invoked. In a role originally meant for the quintessential western actor at the time, Scott towers above a great cast in a tale of revenge, double-crosses and white-knuckle shootouts. Scott plays an ex-sheriff hunting down the men who killed his wife during a robbery. Lee Marvin co-stars in his best bad-guy role this side of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence. Though Scott is not as well-known today as other Western stars, he embodied the straight-shooting, stoic Western hero like few others.
She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (d. John Ford, 1949)
If you only envision the Duke as a gunslinger, take a look at this classic, in which John Ford cast a 42-year-old actor as an aging cavalry officer contemplating retirement in the face of an Indian uprising. This is one of this actor’s most sentimental, nuanced and even romantic performances in what is perhaps the most under-appreciated of Ford’s “Cavalry Trilogy” of films. If you can keep a dry eye when the captain's soldiers present him with a gold watch in parting (a scene that involves a wonderful bit of business with the Captain and some reading glasses), you’re made of sterner stuff than I.
Jeremiah Johnson (d. Sydney Pollack, with Robert Redford, 1972)
A “pre-Western” of sorts, with Redford playing one of the band of mountain men of the early-1800s who were among the first white men to explore the Great Basin and the Rocky Mountains. Based loosely on a real, much scarier character with the arresting nickname of “Liver-Eating” Johnson, Redford’s trapper gets caught up in an Indian-fighting vendetta that threatens to turn his solitary utopia into a private Vietnam (the war, which was still on, serves as a subtext in the story). Gorgeous location scenery, filmed in Utah, is a lush and wonderful visual counterpoint to Redford’s laconic loner.
Appaloosa (d. Ed Harris, with Harris and Viggo Mortenson, 2008)
Robert B. Parker, creator of the modern-day Boston sleuth Spenser, turns his attention to the West and a pair of laconic guns for hire, played on film by Harris and Mortenson. Out to clean up the titular town and rout the overbearing villain (Jeremy Irons) and his dastardly crew, the two men approach their deadly task with the understated efficiency of working stiffs tackling another day at the office (“Feelings get you killed,” Harris observes at one point). Renée Zellweger plays the woman who comes between the two best friends.
Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (d. Sam Peckinpah, with Kris Kristofferson and James Coburn, 1973)
An aging Sam Peckinpah’s melancholy meditation on friendship and betrayal. It’s no small irony that Kristofferson, as the Kid — the outlaw — has a purer concept of loyalty than his lawman nemesis, who is doing the politicians’ and cattle barons’ bidding. Coburn, as Pat Garrett, “aims to grow old” with the territory, but he makes it clear his younger friend can’t expect the same privilege. A gorgeous soundtrack by Bob Dylan (who has a small onscreen role) is a bonus. Peckinpah brilliantly captures Garrett’s soul as it erodes away crumb by crumb. Brutally edited by the studio when it was released, it has since been restored to its intended version on DVD.
Lonely Are the Brave (d. David Miller, with Kirk Douglas, 1962)
Based on a novel by Edward Abbey. Kirk Douglas plays Jack Burns, an iconoclastic modern day cowboy who arranges to have himself thrown into jail to help another inmate, a friend, out of a jam. When, inevitably, he becomes a fugitive, Burns becomes an anachronistic, overmatched hero, pitting his wits and cow pony against the modern-day forces of the law, dodging highway traffic and police helicopters all the while. The ending is as tragic and ironic as it is pre-ordained. The role of the defiantly out-of-step Jack Burns was reportedly one of Douglas’ favorites. The screenplay is by one-time blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo.