Someone asked me to name the two best Western movies ever made. That's an impossible task. There are so many outstanding Westerns, a list of a hundred would leave out some very worthy nominees. Among the very best ones, it is probably not possible to fairly rank them.

Nevertheless, I complied, naming one Western that is for my money the perfect true Western; and one that is of the revisionist mode that has been more popular since the later 1960s.

1) Hondo.

2) Once Upon a Time in the West.

Here follows a defense of these choices, as well as a laying out of what I take to be several plausible alternatives.

Classic Westerns:

Probably most people, asked to pick a single exemplar of the genre, would have named either Shane or High Noon. Both are excellent films, although if you are going to watch High Noon, you should really also watch Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo, which was made as a direct response to it; Hawks thought High Noon was flatly unAmerican. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is another that could be named as a kind of summary of all that has gone before, introducing a criticism but still honoring the past. There are plenty of other plausible entries, such as The Oxbow Incident.

There has also been a small but worthy group of more contemporary Westerns in the classic mode, especially Tombstone and Open Range. They deserve to be mentioned, even though I would tend to select something from the classic era as the pinnacle of the form.

For me, though, Hondo is the perfect Western. It stars John Wayne, as the quintessential American Western ought to do. (So does Rio Bravo, and after a fashion Valance). It was based on a story by Louis L'amour, as the quintessential American Western ought to be. The character is perfect: virtuous and autonomous, he stands on his own two feet and respects the autonomy of others even when he strongly disagrees with them. He is quick to offer a hand, but never does for another to such a degree that they cease to be independent themselves. Though it is a 'cowboy and Indians' movie, Hondo makes enemies among both kinds of folks, and friends among both kinds of folks, and it shows the Apache fairly and indeed positively. Hondo is a perfect statement of what the Western, in its classic era, did best.

You can and should watch more than just one of these movies; watch as many as you can. If I had to name one classic era Western as the pinnacle, though, it would be Hondo.

Revisionist Westerns:

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance might actually fit here as much as in the classic genre. It definitely begins the revision and re-examination of the genre that is more completely done elsewhere. Some other great names, which some might think of first, include Peckinpaw's The Wild Bunch, Leone's The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, and Eastwood's Unforgiven. All of these are worthy choices.

I picked Once Upon a Time in the West for two reasons. The first is that Sergio Leone took everything he learned from The Good, the Bad, and The Ugly and applied it more seriously here. The second but more important reason is that Once Upon a Time comes to a deep metaphysical insight into the human condition that plays out over the course of the film. It is made explicit by the dialogue right before the final gunfight. I think the conclusion is true; and if so, the golden age we have been living in was always going to end. Maybe it isn't true; but if it isn't, there won't be room for men in the golden world to follow.

Revisionist pictures are at their best when they learn the lessons of the old form, and draw deep conclusions that advance our understanding. Of the others I named, Eastwood's Unforgiven does this best; but the conclusion is not that different from Leone's. Indeed, if anything, Leone sets it out in starker terms.


J Melcher said...

True Grit? (which version?)

Lonesome Dove?


Roy Lofquist said...

Lonesome Dove

Grim said...

Lonesome Dove isn't a movie, though. It's a different genre entirely (and doubtless the best of that genre).

True Grit wasn't my favorite. I would probably list it near the bottom of John Wayne's major films, although above most of his films, as the bulk of them were very cheaply filmed early black-and-white-hat genre pieces, amusing in their own right but not great movies by and large. His earliest greats are Stagecoach (another classic) and Angel and the Badman, which I particularly love. It's early, but in a substantial way is already reformist: he's an antihero who becomes heroic, but not by becoming a classic cowboy hero. He becomes a Quaker, and surrenders his arms to pursue peace and love.

Gringo said...

I was never a big Western fan. The mythology of the Westerns collided with what I experienced with my relatives in the West- better said Southwest. While I don't believe they were that skilled as horsemen, they did raise cattle- in addition to wheat, cotton, and alfalfa. And they did wear cowboy boots. All the time, as far as I could tell.

Female cousins from the other side of the family, a thousand plus miles north, rode and owned horses from childhood. One worked as a cowgirl in Montana for two years. That includes Montana winters!

Western movies didn't fit what I knew of the West.

I didn't like Blazing Saddles that much because I never liked Westerns that much: you best appreciates satires of what you love.

Jack Shaefer's Shane is one of the best-known Western novels- and movies. I saw the movie Shane at a rig in the Guatemalan jungle. Jack Schaefer never set foot in the West until royalties from his Western novels gave him sufficient funds to move to New Mexico. I never met Jack Schaefer, but his son was a family friend.

Thos. said...

One of my favorites is Rio Bravo, but I don't think I'd argue that it's the best western of all time. There are probably any number of "better" movies in this genre, but for some reason I don't enjoy them as much as I like this one.

Texan99 said...

Hombre, for me.

ymarsakar said...

High Noon shows the more cowardly side of American towns but I don't think it is anti or un American.

It just shows the darker side of things. Trying to pretend your country is all Light and goodness, isn't exactly going to work. Trying to expel anything dark outside of the gates, just means one ignores all the dark traitors inside the gates.

I think it is better to deal with Democrat towns sooner rather than later. It is certainly better than ignoring it and waiting for DC to go full totalitarian.

ymarsakar said...

The best Western is the life of humanity on Earth, specifically something called the United States of America.

It is the elohim playing their avatars, which creates the illusion of the avatars that their life is real.