Western Round Up

In which we ride the trail with a few of the lesser lights in the Western genre, before finishing with a classic shootout between some of the greats.

Let’s get the wagons rolling with Seven Men From Now (Budd Boetticher, 1956), a remarkably economical and efficient Western at only 78 mins long. Good suspense and characters, as well as fine photography (in WarnerColor, no less!! Whatever that is!).   
I'm stealing the show.
You gotta problem with that?
It's Lee Marvin who steals the show, though, particularly in the scene when he taunts his companions during a rainstorm. Further along the trail, we have the excellent Man of The West (Anthony Mann, 1958), a gripping, violent and satisfyingly dark Western. Gary Cooper is on terrific form, but is matched all the way by a rip-roaring performance from Lee J Cobb. If you prefer more modern Western settings, try Hud (Martin Ritt, 1963), a beautifully shot and wonderfully acted affair. Paul Newman is outstanding as the charming, but cruel and self-centred Hud who contrives to alienate all those around him with his don't-give-a-damn attitude. Elmer Bernstein's melancholic score perfectly fits the mood and themes of the film as the powerful, emotional drama unfolds. Splendid stuff. Ritt and Newman collaborated again a few years later on Hombre (Martin Ritt, 1967) although Newman is less impressive in this, leaving Richard Boone to take the plaudits as the villainous, and splendidly named, Cicero Grimes. Comparisons to Ford's Stagecoach are perhaps unavoidable, but this manages to develop enough of its own personality, particularly in the unusually long stand-off at the climax.

Take two versions of 3:10 to Yuma into the shower? Not me. The original 3:10 to Yuma (Delmar Daves, 1957) is much the better version, relying on dialogue rather than action to drive the story along. The story is slim and there's some slightly unlikely turns of event, but two immensely appealing performances from Glenn Ford and Van Heflin anchor the film and give it an emotional depth, which pays off during the genuinely tense climax.The 3:10 to Yuma (James Mangold, 2007) remake is solid, delivering more action and gunplay, but less tension and intimacy. It also delivers more star power in the form of Russell Crowe and Christian Bale, but they can't match the charismatic leads in the original. Ben Foster does a fine job as the villainous second-in-command, though – he has a career ahead of him in acting ahead of him if the goalkeeping doesn’t work out. That’s a little football joke there, folks.

As I’m on a comedy roll, why not try Way Out West (JW Horne, 1937), in which Laurel and Hardy cause havoc, sing On the Trail of the Lonesome Pine and create one of cinema’s greatest running jokes when Stan nonchalantly sets his thumb on fire to light his pipe. You might just keep some spare underpants nearby, in case you wet yourself laughing.

Or there's always Blazing Saddles (Mel Brooks, 1974) for a good old politically incorrect chuckle. In fact, why not watch the farting cowboy scene right now - you know you want to. Destry Rides Again (George Marshall, 1939) is less funny, but still a genial affair, relying mostly on James Stewart's laid-back charm to carry it. Rather ironically, given Destry's moral stance on guns, it doesn't stick to them and finishes in a disappointingly routine fashion.

You’d be better off with Wagon Master (John Ford, 1950), a fun and rather gentle Western, which refreshingly tones down the gunplay for a celebration of pioneering spirit and frontier camaraderie instead. Looks lovely, chock-full of terrific characters and often very funny. At one point two men do a bunny-hop dance-off, and that’s just cool.

Linda Darnell pouts. Lovely.
Also surprisingly funny is My Darling Clementine (John Ford, 1946) based on the legendary Gunfight at the OK Corral. Henry Fonda is suitably heroic as Wyatt Earp, looking to clean up the town with the help of his brothers and the infamous Doc Holliday (Victor Mature). As always, Ford shoots with an eye for exciting action and beautiful scenery – Monument Valley looks gorgeous, matched only by the lovely Linda Darnell and Cathy Downs as they pout for the men. A good-natured film and well worth a watch. Fonda also turns up in The Ox-Bow Incident (William Wellman, 1943), a tight and grim examination of frontier justice centred round a mob lynching.  By contrast, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (John Ford, 1949) has a big reputation, but is rather disappointing. It all looks lovely, but compared to other Ford films, it wasn't dramatic, funny or interesting enough to keep my attention.

A couple of recent efforts in the genre include Seraphim Falls (David Von Ancken, 2006), which delivers a tense and intriguing first half as Liam Neeson tracks a fugitive Pierce Brosnan through the wilderness. However, it loses its way badly as it stumbles over allegorical themes and supernatural undertones towards an unsatisfying finale. Presumably the writer developed blackwater fever halfway through. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, 2007) is a much better effort. A slow-moving, but intelligent and compelling Western, which muses on the nature of fame and celebrity, whilst also being a stylish period piece. There are excellent, edgy performances from Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck and Sam Rockwell and the beautiful cinematography and superb narration keep the interest throughout. It does become a little ponderous in the middle section but rallies strongly with a thoughtful and rather poignant ending.

He's behind you!
But enough of these young whippersnappers. After sneaking around in saloons exchanging cool ripostes, we want the big guns to face off, preferably to the strains of Ennio Morricone. Shutters are closed, children peep from beneath the porches and undertakers excitedly prepare their coffins as the dust and tumbleweed clear to reveal The Searchers (John Ford, 1956) striding down the street. 
The Searchers not great?!
You better get off your horse, mister.
Unfortunately for it, it can’t live up to its reputation and falls short of the greatness foisted upon it. The central story, in which a vengeful and racist Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) sets out to rescue his niece from the Indians who captured her, is good, whilst the themes are interesting and the scenery breath-taking. However, the comedy vignettes are rather forced and the character of Mose more and more distracting with every viewing. So, it is easily dispatched by a flick of the wrists and a gunshot by Shane (George Stevens, 1953), in which drifting gunslinger Alan Ladd teams up with some poor farmers to protect their land and families from a gang of bullying ranchers. Fabulous cinematography, fine performances and a memorable villain in the flinty-eyed Jack Palance add up to a satisfying viewing experience. And there’s even a fine bar room brawl in the best traditions of the Western genre. But even a good guy like Shane is no match for the might of Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood, 1992), in which Eastwood simultaneously celebrates and disintegrates the genre that made his name. With superb support from the likes of Richard Harris, Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman, this deserves to collect the bounty and be the last man standing. Although it best get outta Dodge before The Outlaw Josey Wales turns up – more of that here.

Until next time pardners, I'm saddlin' up and movin' on - a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do. Plus my dinner's ready. If you're keen to keep them dogies rollin', you can view Time Out's list of 50 Greatest westerns here.

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