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Film

Six Definitive Films: The ultimate beginner's guide to Westerns

@Russellisation

“Courage is being scared to death…and saddling up anyway.” – John Wayne

Built on the very constructs of American idealism, the Western genre is one that remains inextricably tied to the identity of the nation itself, representing the values of liberty, justice and courage that the country itself holds so dearly. The likes of filmmakers such as John Ford, Howard Hawks and Sam Peckinpah helped to promote such themes in their genre classics released throughout the first half of the 20th-century when the genre was predominantly thriving. 

As one of the very first Hollywood genres, actors such as John Wayne, Clint Eastwood and Gary Cooper carried the lofty patriotic identities of masculinity, creating an idealistic American figure cut from the same mould. Strong-minded and self-sufficient with a bravado emblazoned on their muddied cowboy hat, these heroes rejected vulnerability and emotion in pursuit of an image of the all-American man.

Ever since the genre’s inception in the early 1920s, Western cinema has changed with the winds of America, becoming the greatest cinematic signifier for the social and political changes the country has undergone in the past century. Tracking the early beginnings of the genre to its modern rejuvenation, let’s take a look at the history of Western cinema through its six most definitive films. 

The six definitive Western films:

The Iron Horse (John Ford, 1924) 

A list of the most definitive Western films of all time cannot be created without the influence of the grandfather of American cinema, John Ford, a filmmaker who essentially created the Western genre in the 1920s. 

Though Ford had released many films before the release of The Iron Horse, it was his 1924 film that would establish himself as a Hollywood visionary. A major milestone in Ford’s career, The Iron Horse would bring his love of the genre to fruitful blossom, baring many of the hallmarks of Western cinema in its story about a young boy who witnesses the murder of his father, vowing to grow up to complete his lifelong dream.

Chosen in 2011 to be “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the National Film Registry, the announcement added that the film, “introduced to American and world audiences a reverential, elegiac mythology that has influenced many subsequent Westerns”. 

The Searchers (John Ford, 1956)

Western cinema proceeded to thrive following the release of The Iron Horse in 1924, blossoming under the watchful eye of John Ford who continued to lead the genre from the frontline. 

Releasing Stagecoach in 1939 followed by The Grapes of Wrath in 1940 and Rio Grande in 1950, Western cinema began to mature and take on a new form, with John Wayne becoming an icon of the industry. 32 years after the release of The Iron Horse, it was Ford’s film The Searchers that would make the next most significant dent in the industry, with the Western forcing viewers to consider the wrongdoings of America’s past. 

A tale of revenge, redemption and personal morality, the film follows a racist ex-Confederate soldier Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) who goes in search of his niece who he believes was captured by Native Americans. Both a genre classic as well as one of the first revisionist movies of the genre, John Ford created his final masterpiece with The Searchers.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Sergio Leone, 1968)

Whilst Ford’s prominence in the industry died down, releasing The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in 1962, the influence of the American Western had reached overseas, with Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone providing a European take on the patriotic genre. 

Inspired by Akira Kurosawa in addition to John Ford, Leone brought an iconic style to his Western trilogy that included A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and, his masterpiece, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. With the help of Ennio Morricone’s influential soundtrack, Leone crafted a film that was both inextricably tied to the identity of the American West whilst oozing a new innovative elegance that would bring the genre into a new era. 

Filmed in Italy whilst trying to emulate the great plains of America, such ‘Spaghetti Westerns’ would transform the genre on both sides of the Atlantic. 

McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman (1971)

Once the most bustling genre of Hollywood cinema, the Western genre was beginning to lose its relevance in the 1970s as cinema entered one of its most creative decades and the likes of Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick and Francis Ford Coppola took to the stage. 

It was one of these revolutionary filmmakers, Robert Altman, that would introduce a new angle for the Western genre, providing the essential text of McCabe & Mrs. Miller that Altman described as an “anti-western”. Deliberately subverting the conventions of the genre, from essential narrative beats to iconic character structures, Altman’s film followed a gambler who opens a brothel, with no sign of honour or justice in sight. 

Switching the desert sands for snow, the protagonist of John McCabe, played by Warren Beatty, is a coward and a cheat though somehow remains an endearing figure. In the time of cinematic rejuvenation, Robert Altman injected new life into a dying genre. 

Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood, 1992)

Being only one of four Western films ever to take home the Oscar for Best Picture, Unforgiven, from the genre icon Clint Eastwood, would become known as one of the greatest revisionist Westerns of modern cinema.

As the genre continued to lose its relevance in the 1970s and 1980s, few films were able to lift the genre up off its feet, until the release of both Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves and Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. With both films questioning the role of the American psyche in the creation of an unfavourable contemporary culture, it is Eastwood’s film that holds the most enduring appeal, with the director starring as a merciless killer turned pig farmer who is forced to return to his life of crime.

Analysing the place for the Western caricature in modern life, the film is a fascinating analysis of the genre, breaking down its sheer identity to understand how it reflects the culture and ideals of a changing America. 

No Country for Old Men (the Coen brothers, 2007)

The turn of the new millennium all but destroyed the existence of the Western genre, with science fiction taking over as the genre of choice for a generation of film fans craving innovation and excitement. 

Still, as the likes of McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Unforgiven had shown in previous decades, the Western genre remained pertinent as a tool to reflect the changing ideals of America, with the Coen brothers 2007 classic No Country for Old Men depicting just this. Juxtaposing the old West in Tommy Lee Jones’ Sheriff Ed Tom Bell and the mindless psychopath Anton Chigurh, played by Javier Bardem, the Coen brothers present a fascinating dynamic that pitches the genre in a tussle between both sides of its identity. 

As the title of the film suggests, the wild West has changed over the century, no longer is it a place for the basic ideals of justice, liberty and freedom. The world’s changed.