The Western. Wide open spaces full of beauty and loneliness. Conflicts centered around codes of honor rather then the rule of law. Frontier verses civilization. All of these themes give us the Western, a genre that is generally much more complex then often given credit for. This thread is a place for the discussion of the Western in all of it's forms. I'm including a list of the influential and must watch movie Westerns. If someone wants to do a section of text for Western novels and TV shows, I'll add it. Also if anyone wants to do some of the later films, then feel free and I'll edit in.
The history of the Western films can be broken up sections:
Stagecoach to The Searchers
A Fistful of Dollars to Unforgiven
The Great Train Robbery (1903). It was a 10 minute short that was filmed most in New Jersey of all places. It's also one of the first films to incorporate a lot of cinematic technique like parallel editing. It was also one of the first films to make use of color (hand colored) and it was the first blockbuster film. It took the medium from being a novelty to something serious.
Hells Hinges (1916). It's responsible for defining large swaths of the cliches of the Western. The petticoat brigade, the outlaw pining for his lost love, the morally corrupt preacher all come from this movie. It stars the John Wayne of his day, a man by the name of William S. Hart. There Will Be Blood takes a lot from this movie. It's not on Netflix but the National Film Preservation Foundation has a copy of it for free online.
Stagecoach (1939). John Ford and John Wayne. Both had made plenty of Westerns before this one. But combined they found magic. It's the story of a mixed group attempting to make it across to Lordsberg while trying to avoid hostile Indians. It's amazingly tight in it's plotting. Ford doesn't waste anything from dialogue to actions. Everything fulfills some role later on. For people who tend to think of black and white films as boring and plodding, Stagecoach shows them the error of their ways. Wells studied it endlessly before making Citizen Kane, spending nights with various people in the production asking why everything was done the way it was. The shot of John Wayne riding up as the Ringo Kid is an iconic one, and it made him a star. Netflix has it for streaming.
The Ox-Bow Incident (1943). It's the first of the social conscience Westerns and probley one of the finest social conscience movies ever made. It stars Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan as two cowboys who end up mixed up with a lynching. I could go on about the power of the film but I won't. I'm just going to give you a clip. Netflix has the full movie for streaming.
My Darling Clementine (1946) Is a bit of a turning point for John Ford. A lot of his films up till now have been creating the myth of the West. In this one we see the first hints of him taking apart the myth. Ebert calls this film the “Sweetest Western ever made”. It has Henry Fonda playing Wyatt Earp in the events leading up to the gun fight at the OK Corral.
The Calvary Trilogy: Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), Rio Grande (1950). These are the films people think of when you say John Wayne and John Ford. They solidify the myth of the West, the idea of the Calvary riding over the ridge to a bugle charge, the wagons circling, fighting off the Indians. They are some of the most fun Westerns that the team of John Wayne and John Ford did together. Also the Westerns that best fit the idea that the genre is full of imperialist dogma. Fort Apache is available for streaming.
(She Wore a Yellow Ribbon)
Red River (1948) John Wayne plays a man driven to make a successful and powerful ranch with the help of his adopted son and his partner. During the cattle drive to market Dunson (Wayne) makes a brutal attack on a cow hand leading to a split between him and his son. Garth (Clift) takes the herd and drives it to market. When John Ford saw the movie he said 'I didn’t know the big son of a bitch could act!'
The Furies (1950). Antony Mann is a director who is often over shadowed by Ford and Leone but he is as equally important to the genre as those two. What he brings is an air of darkness and cruelty to the Western. Where Ford uses the landscape of the West to show majesty and grandeur of the West, Mann used it to show the bleak emptiness of the land. The Furies is the story of a family ranch and the conflicts within it.
Broken Arrow (1950). It is perhaps the first of the White Guilt movies but it doesn't fall into the traps that movies like Dances with Wolves does that make those films unbearable. Jimmy Stewart plays a retired scout who is tired of the constant warfare and wants to bring an end to it. So he begins to talk with the local Apaches and slowly they begin to build a peace that is threatened by old feuds on both sides. The movie is sympathetic to the Indians but it's clear that vicious crimes were committed by both sides. It's available for streaming on Netflix.
Winchester ’73 (1950) , The Naked Spur (1952) , and The Man from Laramie (1955) Antony Mann and Jimmy Stewart made five films together, these are the best three. All of them are very, very dark. Stewart plays a man haunted by his past in all of them. And all three of them are worth watching. Mann is the director everyone forgets to mention but he did some truly brilliant Westerns.
(The Naked Spur)
(The Man from Laramie)
High Noon (1952) The story of a sheriff who is abandoned by the town he's sworn to protect, leaving him to face down a gang of criminals by himself. This is one of the most iconic Westerns of all time. The idea of the lone man standing for justice had been done before, but this movie made the trope it's own. If you have any interest in Westerns then you have to watch this film.
Shane (1953) Shane is perhaps the definitive Classic Western. If you had to only ever watch one, it would be Shane. All of the mythology of the West comes into place in this film, and if it seems cliché ridden then that's simply because this is where all of them were gather. I could go on about how perfect it is, but I'll let Woody Allen do it for me. (http://www.nytimes.com/2001/08/03/movies/watching-movies-with-woody-allen-coming-back-to-shane.html?pagewanted=all
) It has Alan Ladd as the gunfighter who is at the end of an era. The West has mostly been tamed and it's time for him to move on. Until he encounters a rancher and his family being bulled. Jack Palance plays a simply amazing villain in the film, someone who defines what it means to wear a black hat.
The Searchers (1956) Is not a great film. The humor in the film is simply terrible and awkward. And Ford is a little timid about making this film. But it's an incredibly influential film even outside the genre. Wayne and Ford decide that it's time to break down the myth and deconstruct the Western. And this film turns all of Ford's previous works upon their heads. Wayne plays Ethan, a Civil War veteran who never quite gets over being on the loosing side, and one who's racism is a deep and burning passion. When audiences saw this film they were expecting something like the Calvary trilogy. What they got made them much more uncomfortable. Ethan starts out being a little racist. Then he's racist. Then he's very racist. And finally he gets to the point of simply being a villain. The basic story is that Ethan's brother and his family are attacked by Indian raiders. Most of the family is killed but the little girl is taken away. Ethan goes off to find her.
So he can kill her because she's tainted.
It's a complicated film with layers of subtext.
When the 70's film makers came around they took this movie and made it their own. Taxi Driver is almost a remake of it. The shots from the film show up in hundreds of other movies. It wasn't the first dark Western. It wasn't the first deconstructionist Western. Mann did that first. But when Ford and Wayne did it, you get something stunning. Netflix has it on streaming.
At this point we hit a gap in the Western. The genre isn't quite sure what to make of itself.
Rio Bravo (1959) It's the story of a Sheriff who needs help, gets plenty of it from the town but doesn't want it. It's not a dark film at all and a very fun Wayne western. It also has an absolutely brilliant performance by Dean Martin.
The Magnificent Seven (1960) This is the point where people chime in and say how it's simply a remake of the Seven Samurai. And it is, almost shot for shot. That's not the important part. The important part is that it shows how much Kurosawa was influenced by Ford, and how tightly intertwined the Samurai movie and the Western are. Which becomes a big deal when we get to Leone. It's also just a fun movie.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. (1962) Ford, Wayne and Stewart all in the same film. It's one of the last masterpieces of Ford's work and in this film he lays it all bare. He shows us the lies he told and more importantly why they were told. It's really his good-bye to the genre and at the end you'll understand all of his films with the line “Print the legend”.
Hud. (1963) Hud is really the final deconstruction of the cowboy and the myth before we get to the rise of the Spaghetti Westerns. Set in the year of it's filming, it's the story of three men. Hud, a selfish bastard of a cowboy. Homer, Hud's father and a man of principle. And Lonnie, Hud's teenage nephew. Slowly over the course of the film we see Hud go from that friend who's a bit of bastard but you wanna be like to being just a bastard at the end. Paul Newman played a lot of anti-heroes during this time. And Hud is perhaps my favorite.
And this brings us up to the Spaghetti western.
The Dollars Trilogy. Sergio Leone begins to rebuild the myth of the West here. These tend to be some of the Westerns that people know best. Leone had a fascination of with the rituals of violence that he picked up from the Samurai film and it becomes clear here. The long waits, the building to tension all to be released in a brief climax of violence. And at the same time, Leone shows us that life in the new era of Westerns isn't sacred. If you haven't seen them, then do so.
(A Fistful of Dollars)
(For a Few Dollars More)
(The Good, The Bad and The Ugly)
Django (1966) The most violent Western ever made. Perhaps even one of the most violent movies ever made. It has the iconic image of Django pulling a coffin into town. The coffin has a Gatling gun inside it. I'd post the plot but it doesn't matter, people get shot. A lot. Some get tortured. Banned in Sweden.
Hombre (1967) Hombre lays some of the ground work for the Revisionist Western. It stars Paul Newman as a white man who was taken by the Apaches, brought back to white society by the Army and then returns to the Apache as an adult. He's drawn back into town by the death of the white man who raised him and the boarding house he's been left. This film makes an interesting mirror with Hud. Hud starts out as a guy you want to be like then becomes a bastard. Hombre is a bastard but becomes likable towards the end. Paul Newman gives a compelling performance as usual. It's available on instant watch
Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) Leone's best film. Most of it is shots from other films stitched together into one story. It's one of those films that everytime you watch another Western you'll end up finding it referenced in this film. It's also part of a lose trilogy made up of it, Duck You Sucker (Once Upon a Time in Mexico/A Fistful of Dynamite) and Once Upon a Time in America.
Hang 'Em High (1968) Eastwood returns to the US and the Americans re-enter the Western. It's not a great film but a fun one.
The Wild Bunch (1969) This film had a pretty deep impact on cinema with it's realistic portrayals of gun violence and it's protagonists who were good men who did bad things for money. To quote Rodger Ebert
Sam Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch," one of the great movies of the decade, saw violence as essentially unselective. That was unusual in a Western, where violence has always been highly selective; with all those bullets flying around, you might get a good guy wounded once in a while, but somehow, mostly bad guys got killed.
The Western reflected our national view of violence, of foreign policy, of a lot of things. But Peckinpah seemed to be recasting it in a new mold, throwing out the moral extremes and stranding everyone in a gray, blood-soaked middle ground. In the shoot-out at the end of "The Wild Bunch," everyone caught it: men, women, children, dogs, chickens, regardless of guilt or innocence.
Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid (1969) It had a certain nostalgia. It's not a perfect movie but one you can watch over and over again. Newman and Redford are just wonderful.
Little Big Man (1970) The first of the revisionist westerns. Not one of my favorite films but it spawned a whole sub-genre.
Companeros (1970) A fun little film set in revolutionary Mexico. It's the story of a Swedish mercenary who goes to Mexico to sell guns. The reason I mention it is that it's a Zapata Western which is a weird little sub-genre of films set in Mexico during the revolution with Marxist themes.
El Topo (1970) The most bizarre of all Westerns. It's an attempt to do an allegory of all religions but done as a Western. It was a cult film shown at midnight screenings of it that managed to hang around by getting the patronage of people like John Lennon. It's the first and most odd of the Acid Westerns.
High Plains Drifter (1973) One of Eastwoods finest movies. It's the violent Spagitti Western verison of High Noon.
The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) One of the last westerns of the period. Eastwood says good-bye to the Western for a while. It's ultimately the redemption of the violent hero's of the period.
The Shootist (1976) It's Wayne's last filmhttp://www.netflix.com/WiMovie/The_Shootist/60011354?strackid=159a1a030be56262_0_srl&strkid=88409413_0_0&trkid=438381
. He plays an aging gunfighter in a west that's been civilized and he's afraid he's dying. Not of being killed but of dying a slow painful death. So he decides to go out with a bang. It's his good-bye to the genre and it's a fine film.
Unforgiven (1992) Eastwood deconstructs the myth of his westerns.
And now we're in a period of looking for a new myth of the Western. There are some more modern westerns but the reality is that they haven't been influential.
Edit 1: Added El Topo and The Shootist
Edit 2: Added Hud and Hombre
Edit 3: Added a link for Hell's Hinges online