Friday, September 5, 2008

Top ten Westerns

I've had Westerns on the mind lately, so despite the film noir masthead (can anyone name the movie?), the next few Fridays will be devoted to this quintessentially American genre. It's been said that jazz and the Western are the only art forms completely invented in America. I'm sure that's not true, but the point's well taken. Are there any two 20th-century faces more identified with American culture than Louis Armstrong and John Wayne? At one time they would have been recognized in every corner of the globe. The Western has inspired some of the best filmic storytellers of yesterday (Hawks, Ford, etc.) and today (Eastwood). The stories they've told are nothing less than The American Story, in reality and myth, peopled by cowboys and Indians, lawmen and outlaws, and ambiguous characters like Ethan Edwards in John Ford's American Odyssey -- The Searchers. To get the ball rolling here are my ten favorite Westerns.

1 The Searchers (John Ford, 1956)

2 Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood, 1992)

3 Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone, 1968)

4 Rio Bravo (Howard Hawks, 1959)

5 High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952)

6 The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford, 1962)

7 The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah, 1969)

8 The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, 2007)

9 Rio Grande (John Ford, 1950)

10 Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976) I realize this is a bit of a cheat, but Scorsese's film feels like a Western to me. Paul Schrader's script appropriates the tropes of the genre and transposes them to an urban setting. Instead of a horse, the hero (Travis) drives a NYC Checker cab. Travis Bickle is "God's lonely man." For all the talk of sidekicks and male bonding, the classic Western hero is often a solitary man...marginalized by the society he helped create. Perhaps Gary Cooper played this archetype best in High Noon. Additionally, Schrader's script features two other elements often found in a Western -- old-fashioned attitudes about women*...and gunplay.

* Hurricane permitting I'll expand on this point next Friday.


redeyespy said...

Well chosen picks. I also greatly admire William Wyler's BIG COUNTRY from '59. Hawks is arguably the most masterful of the group, though.

The citing of TAXI DRIVER is very astute! Think of all the Western antiheroes. Travis Bickle fits right alongside them.

Your masthead is a still from THE BIG SLEEP, representative of another great genre of the cineplex, the noir.

Stephen Ley said...

Thanks! And of course you are correct about The Big Sleep.

Big Country is one of those I've yet to see, also, I've sadly never seen what most acknowledge to be another great Western...Hawks' Red River. Some day...

Re Travis...I'm quite sure his attitudes about women, race, law & order, and his crusading "lone ranger" impulses would have fit more easily in the Old West than the urban decay of 1970s New York. Travis was simply born a hundred years too late. I haven't heard him say it, but I'm sure Schrader must have had films like The Searchers in his head as he wrote TD.