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.