For those of you who think this is an article about my favorite family-friendly hotel chain, I’m very sorry. Since my blog readership skews more toward the Women Are from Venus end of the universe, consider yourself warned. This article will have about as much appeal to women as a tossed salad served in a dust bowl.
Today I’m writing about the best “movie” westerns of all-time. I was named after one of the best, and I was practically breast-fed on the rest. Before I could even mimic a “Come back Shane!” cry, I had a holster filled with a cap gun. Then I graduated swiftly from breast milk to Gerber and onto roast beef sandwiches from Roy Rogers. You remember the old-school, saloon-looking Roy Rogers, right? As a kid, the Roy Rogers on Rte. 10 in East Hanover felt like Wild West City to me. And in my childhood fantasy, my dad was Wyatt Earp…and I imagined he was the only reason why a gun fight never broke out around the Fixins’ bar.
Seriously, nobody ever looked cooler in a pair of “dungarees”, work boots, and a flannel than my dad. If he hadn’t smoked Winston reds, we’d have called him the Marlboro man. And if he weren’t such a cool dad, maybe I wouldn’t share in his passion for a true American original: the movie western.
Now you can argue about the real birthplace of baseball (some say it’s England, not Cooperstown). You can convince me that our current president was born in Hawaii (by way of Kenya). But you can’t tell me that there’s anything more American, more inextricably linked to the world’s vision of America, than the movie Western.
And here are my Magnificent Seven westerns [sorry, Magnificent Seven came in at #8]…
7. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
Home for the funeral of an old friend, Senator Ransom Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart) recounts the true story of the man who killed the titular villain (Lee Marvin). When the true story is finally told, the answer defines the western genre: “This is the west, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
Was the true legend Jimmy Stewart’s lanky, leftist-leaning lawyer? Or was it the gritty John [right as] Wayne gunfighter? Not so much a whodunit as a character study of two polar-opposite heroes (and actors for that matter). The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance proves that in the old west, just as in today’s western world, America is at its best when people of different beliefs join forces…even if it means crossing party lines.
It’s fitting that Clint Eastwood got to make “the last great western” some three decades after making a fistful of dollars redefining the genre. But this ain’t your father’s man-with-no-name Eastwood. Here Eastwood has a name (William Munny), he has an anti-hero past, and he just wants to settle down with his young wife and raise crops. But as another iconic Eastwood character famously warned, “A man’s gotta know his limitations.”
So when a couple of cowboys cut up a prostitute, the bounty on their heads is all the convincing Munny needs to saddle up with his partner Ned (Morgan Freeman) and seek the justice that Sherriff Little Bill (Gene Hackman) cares little to provide. Eastwood’s never been better. He wears regret on one sleeve while unleashing his gun from the other.
“I’ve killed women and children. I’ve killed just about everything that walks or crawled at one time or another. And I’m here to kill you, Little Bill, for what you did to Ned.”
Unforgiven doesn’t just “blur the lines between man and myth, heroism and villainy”…it says unapologetically that sometimes the good can also be bad and ugly.
5. The Searchers
Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) returns from the Civil War, but the war still rages inside him. When “Injuns” attack and kidnap his young niece, Debbie (Natalie Wood), Ethan and his nephew Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) set out on a years-long journey to find her.
After years of searching in vein, Ethan’s single-minded hatred toward the Comanche appears to change his primary motivation. Recognizing that she’s probably been tainted by the “savages”, thoughts of rescuing Debbie are replaced by thoughts of the unthinkable. This is John Wayne’s greatest performance because he’s not afraid to ride his angry anti-hero dangerously close to the edge of insanity. So close to the edge, in fact, that the climactic scene feels less like a rescue and more like an attempted kidnapping. That is, until our worst fears are relieved, and the anti-hero turns hero with four simple words: “Let’s go home Debbie.”
Don’t get me wrong, The Searchers is not an easy movie to watch. It’s also a movie experience you’ll never forget.
4. Rio Bravo
“A game-legged old man and a drunk. That’s all you got?”
Add Ricky Nelson’s Elvis wannabe/Love Me Tender-less gunfighter, and that’s exactly what John Wayne’s got in this classic, often hilarious western. Yes, the story and the archetypes are all too familiar. Here the under-matched good guys face insurmountable odds in order to keep the brother of a local villain in jail. But it’s not the story, it’s the cast of characters, that makes Rio Bravo so unforgettable.
As John T Chance, John Wayne essentially plays a fun-loving parody of himself. Dean Martin’s Dude is the most loveable drunk this side of Wilbur “Shooter” Flatch [rent Hoosiers]. But it’s Walter Brennan’s Stumpy who damn near steals the movie as the cantankerous old cripple assigned to guard the prisoner.
Rio Bravo is filled with so many memorable and quotable moments. My personal favorite is the “My Rifle, My Pony and Me” sing-along. Like the “Show me the way to go home” scene in Jaws, it’s that perfect movie moment where the characters forget their differences and come together for some buddy-bonding….just before the shit hits the proverbial fan.
3. High Noon
Marshall Will Kane (Gary Cooper) has just hung up his badge. Now he’s looking forward to riding off into the sunset with his impossibly gorgeous bride (Grace Kelly). As western fate would have it, he picked the wrong day to honeymoon with Grace Kelly. Kane learns that Frank Miller, a man he sent to prison years before, will return on the noon train to exact his revenge.
Against his better judgment [he’s passing up a honeymoon with Grace fu**ing Kelly], Kane decides he must defend the town he no longer calls home. Unfortunately, his door-to-door calls for help are greeted with the kind of response I give a Jehovah Witness. Even his own deputy begs for a day off, to which Kane responds: “Go on home to your kids, Herb.”
My brother will never come right out and say it, but he’s not a Gary Cooper fan. So I think he downgrades High Noon on those grounds. Others, like John Wayne, came right out and called High Noon “Un-American” in its day. I argue that “the story of a man who was too proud to run” is the story of our everyday American heroes: The brave officers and firefighters who run into burning towers when others are running out. Or how about our military heroes who risk their lives to defend our freedom every day…so I can “go on home to my kids” every night? To me, that’s the story of High Noon.
2. Once Upon A Time In The West
To fully appreciate the artistry (and some might say larceny) of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies, you must first feast on this greatest of all Spaghetti Westerns. The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly is still everyone’s trendy pick, but Once Upon A Time In The West is Sergio Leone’s time-tested masterpiece. Brilliant set designs, a score that soars, and camera views that practically stick the loaded barrel between your eyes.
Steely-blue eyes have never been meaner than Henry Fonda’s. Harmonica-playing heroes have never been cooler than Charles Bronson. And bombshells have never been, well, bombier than Claudia Cardinale.
The film also features the greatest climactic draw in film history. When Frank (Henry Fonda) and Harmonica (Charles Bronson) square off, their history is finally revealed to us. And when the harmonica is placed in the mouth of a mortally-wounded Frank…this same history becomes his final, horrifying recollection on Earth. I guess Frank was right: “People scare better when they’re dying.”
I’m ashamed to say I didn’t watch the movie I was named after until I was in high school. My defense: Shane is one of those movies that’s famous even among people who haven’t see it. In other words, I wish I had a fistful of dollars for every time some jack-wagon hit me with the much-parodied “Come back Shane!” line. For the record, it’s “Shane! Come back!”
When I finally overcame “Come back Shane” fatigue, I learned that my namesake was more than just a one-line-wonder. It’s a wonderful movie about a weary gunfighter (Alan Ladd) who attempts to hang up his guns and settle down. Shane quickly wins the admiration and employment of Joe Starrett (Van Heflin), a humble, hardworking homesteader whose embroiled in a fight for his land.
Shane also wins the hero-worship of young Joey (Brandon DeWilde) and the quietly obvious affections of Joe’s wife, Marion (Jean Arthur). The plot inevitably forces Shane into a fateful climax against Wilson (Jack Palance), a hired gun who looks like a Muggle-born version of Lord Voldemort. Wilson’s serpent-like features and menacing expressions make him the personification of pure evil. It’s up to Shane to confront Wilson and “clear out all the guns from the valley.”
As for the “Shane! Come back” finale…some contend that a wounded Shane rides off into those majestic mountains to die as he wanted to live…in peace. Others have suggested that Shane’s respect for Joe Starrett makes him retreat before the inevitable love triangle reared its ugly head. I think the answer is much simpler, and we can draw our conclusion from Shane’s own words: “There’s no living with a killing. There’s no goin’ back from one. Right or wrong, it’s a brand… a brand sticks. There’s no goin’ back.”
As for Joey’s final cry out to Shane, I believe it represents the idea that a boy’s childhood heroes are fleeting. Inevitably, at some point, most boys go back to respecting the values of their first hero. “It’s a brand…a brand sticks.” And for the lucky sons like me and Brett and Joey, our favorite brand of hero is our father.
[Note to Dad: I’m proud to be named after Shane…even though I’m less gunfighter and more gunpowder puff].
[Note to Brett: How can you have a DieHard-on for a certain “Yippee-Ki-Yay motherfu**er” cop…and not love Gary Cooper’s Will Kane?]