Pistoleers & Pioneers Vol. 1: Ten Western Classics To Die For
HANNIE CAULDER (1970) (SWDB entry) – Directed by Burt Kennedy – One of Western cinema’s oldest themes is revenge. With this groundbreaking film, instead of a man, the main protagonist is a woman. Hannie Caulder (Raquel Welch) is raped by a group of violent outlaws, The Clemens Brothers played by three of cinema’s greatest Western character actors: Strother Martin, Jack Elam and Ernest Borgnine. They also kill her husband. The gang then burn her house and leave Hannie for dead but luckily she survives the attack. While recuperating, a bounty hunter named Thomas Price (Robert Culp) is traveling by her property. When he finds the injured Hannie, he helps get her back on her feet. Hannie makes it clear she wants to get revenge on the Clemens brothers. Price does his best to persuade her to let it go, explaining that seeking revenge can only bring more hurt into her life, but Hannie’s will is too strong. She’ll do it with or without him. Price finally excepts her terms and brings Hannie to a gun maker (Christopher Lee) who builds a special pistol just for her. After she learns how to shoot, Hannie and Price set out to get the Clemens Brothers together. Hannie Caulder was unique for its time and a excellent female empowerment tale. Theres also a great chemistry between Welch and Culp which makes the film really enjoyable to watch. Geek Note: This film was one of the inspirations for Quentin Tarantino‘s Kill Bill which also dealt with a female getting revenge. So if you liked that, please check out Hannie Caulder! – Buy BluRay: Amazon US
THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES (1976) – Directed by Clint Eastwood – This was the follow up to Eastwood’s supernatural Western High Plains Drifter (1973) and a classic tale of revenge, based on the book Gone To Texas. In Missouri during the Civil War, a farmer named Josey Wales is working on his ranch when his family is murdered by a squad of Union soldiers (known as Redlegs) who are led by a man named Captain Terrill (evil hick supreme Bill McKinney). These men not only kill Confederate soldiers on the trail, they pillage, rape and burn down the homes of innocent civilians. With his family dead, Wales decides to join a group of ragtag Confederate bushwhackers until the war is over. When the other men decide to turn themselves in after the Union wins, Wales stays behind. Soon after they arrive at the Union camp, the Confederate captives are murdered by the group of Redlegs. Afterwards, they hire one of Wales old compatriots, Fletcher (John Vernon) to help track him down and kill him. One of Wales other friends Jamie (Sam Bottoms) manages to flee the massacre but is shot on the way. Wales and Jamie make it out, but the kid later succumbs from his wound, leaving Josey to wander on his own trying to evade capture. When an Indian named Lone Watie (Chief Dan George) shows up Josey has a new cohort to ride with. By the end of the story Josey finds a kind of new family with different people who he meets on his journey. It’s certainly a violent tale but also has a thoughtful side and shows Clint Eastwood’s sharp eye for mixing violence with humor, with Wales’ sense of honor at the forefront. You can see his own personal style of film making that he would come to be known for taking shape here as well. Buy BluRay: Amazon US
RIO BRAVO (1959) Directed by Howard Hawks – When Director Howard Hawks and John Wayne decided to go see the Western High Noon they were so put off by the films plot and portrayal of the lead character played by Gary Cooper they decided to make their own film as an answer to it. What they eventually made was Rio Bravo. The film tells the story of a Texas Sheriff named John T. Chance (John Wayne) who arrests a killer Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) and is holding him in the local jail until the federal marshal arrives. Along with his best friends Dude (Dean Martin) the town drunk, Stumpy (Walter Brennan) his craggy but loyal deputy and a fresh faced rookie, Colorado Ryan (Ricky Nelson) they fend off Burdette’s brother’s thugs who do their best to ambush their efforts at every turn. As a subplot to the story, Chance also has a love interest, Feathers (Angie Dickinson) who both irritates and excites him. This film is one of the most enjoyable Westerns I’ve ever seen. Its got so much charm, wit, humor and is a solid, thoughtful story about honor and loyalty amongst lawmen. The sharply written script by Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett is certainly the structure that holds it all together, the movie crackles with the Hawks trademark fast moving bantering dialogue and makes it all so much richer. Added to this, it features some great tunes sung by Ricky Nelson and Dean Martin and a classic Western score by Dimitri Tiomkin. The film was actually remade twice more by Hawks as El Dorado and Rio Lobo, although the original remains my favorite. Buy BluRay: Amazon US
THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (1962) – Directed by John Ford – In the town of Shinbone, an attorney named Ransom Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart) arrives to try to help bring law and order to the West by opening a practice. His main problem is the outlaw Liberty Valance (played with an evil ferocity by Lee Marvin) is spreading fear with his violent bullying of the townsfolk. Ransom does have plenty of supporters in Shinbone, most prominently his new friends Hallie (Vera Miles) a restaurant waitress and Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) a rancher and gunman. They both see that Ransom’s intelligence and class is a benefit to the town. Doniphon also knows Ransom is from the East and is more civilized and doesn’t carry a gun which is a weakness. When Liberty Valance and his thugs (Strother Martin and Lee Van Cleef) smell blood, the trouble starts. Doniphon does his best to stand between Ransom and Liberty but when the two finally go up against each other, he must step aside. This is one of John Ford’s finest films because its so filled with an energy radiating from everyone in the cast. Ford was known for provoking his actors in different ways to get their best emotional performances. It certainly shows. Everything in the film seems larger than life and mythical, even the steaks they serve in the local eatery are immense! Buy BluRay: Amazon US
TRUE GRIT (1969) Directed by Henry Hathaway. After her father is senselessly murdered by an outlaw named Tom Chaney (Jeff Corey), young Mattie Ross (Kim Darby) decides to track him down and bring him to justice herself. She only needs the help of a bounty hunter. She chooses a well known tracker named Rooster Cogburn (John Wayne) who she finds in Fort Smith, Arkansas. When she meets Cogburn she sees that he lives a wild, unstable life that she doesn’t really understand. Rooster’s habitat is the back-room of a store where he lives with the owner, an Asian shopkeep named Chin Lee and his beloved tabby cat, General Sterling Price. When Mattie tells Cogburn she’ll be going with him he tries his best to leave her behind but Mattie has a strong will and tags along anyway. Cogburn also has to contend with a Texas Ranger named LeBeouf (Glenn Campbell) who is himself, out to arrest Chaney. Together the three form an uneasy alliance. When Mattie accidentally finds Chaney, he is with his current gang of outlaws led by Lucky Ned Pepper (Robert Duvall). Mattie is taken hostage after an unsuccessful try at killing Chaney. LeBeof and Rooster must then get her back any way they can. When they finally catch up to Chaney who has kidnapped Mattie, there is a gunfight and Mattie falls into a rocky pit and is bitten by a rattlesnake. Rooster comes to her aid and saves Mattie’s life. What really makes True Grit so special for me is the bond that slowly forms between Rooster and Mattie, he refers to her as “baby sister” throughout the movie. You can see that John Wayne’s super tough cowboy persona made popular by his roles in Red River, The Searchers and Rio Bravo over the years got softer and by the time he made True Grit it ultimately was the film that showed his more tender side. Look for cameos from Strother Martin and Dennis Hopper. Buy BluRay: Amazon US
THE WILD BUNCH (1969) Directed by Sam Peckinpah – Taking a cue from the final scenes of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, Director Sam Peckinpah combined the cinematic tools of slow motion and on-screen violence and brought it to its zenith with his blood and whiskey soaked tale of a group of outlaws that were coming to the end of their glory days in the Old West. The movie is really about changing times and how it affects these men. Peckinpah decided to comment on the sanitized TV westerns that didn’t show the deeply disturbing, ugliness of violence. He also saw it as a catharsis which would help viewers get a positive thrill and help them release anxieties due to the Vietnam War which was raging when the film was released. As opposed to most Westerns, this film takes place at the turn of the century in 1913. The Bunch led by tattered and turn outlaw Pike Bishop (William Holden) are older men thrown out of their time, we can see they simply don’t accept the new world and its technological changes. In one scene they come upon a new thing called a car and look at it like its a UFO. Peckinpah’s love of the Western genre was at its purest with this film. His interest in the themes of jealousy and loyalty to friends is deeply explored in a way only he could as well. The Wild Bunch opens with a robbery, planned to be the big final score that which will help the men retire to the quiet life. Only its not meant to be. When one of the bunch opens fire, it sets off a gunfight in the middle of a town. Not only are police and members of Pike’s gang killed but innocent residents are blasted down in the fray. The use of slow motion is utilized, exaggerating the horror and pain that comes with a shootout. The bunch escapes but later find out what they thought was bags of money was just some washers. This drives them to find new ways of making the money and leads them into Mexico where they steal guns and plan to sell them to a Mexican warlord named Mapache. Only things get complicated and they find themselves being chased by Pike’s old partner Deke Thorton (Robert Ryan) and his posse of crazy bounty hunters. They also must decide to uphold their loyalty and fight to save one of their own, Angel (Jaime Sanchez) who steals some of the guns to give to his people, which angers Mapache, who captures and tortures him. The Wild Bunch features an amazing cast of some of cinema’s classic tough guys including: Ernest Borgnine, Ben Johnson, Warren Oates and Edmond O’Brien. Buy BluRay: Amazon US
TOMBSTONE (1993) Directed by Kurt Russell (uncredited) & George P. Cosmatos – In this updated story based on the Gunfight at the OK Corral, Kurt Russell plays Wyatt Earp and Val Kilmer is his best pal Doc Holliday. What resulted was one of the last great mythical westerns made in Hollywood. The film might be about Wyatt and his brothers (played by Bill Paxton and Sam Elliot) but Kilmer steals the show as the tuberculosis-ridden eccentric dentist turned outlaw. When the films previews were shown on television I actually thought Tombstone was a horror western and Kilmer was playing some kind of ghost. I was wrong, but when I went to see the film at the movies I had such a great time. The main villains in the film are the organization known as The Cowboys (their trademark is a red sash they all wear). The two soulless leaders are the wild eyed, sneering Curly Bill Broscious (Powers Booth) and the silent but deadly Johnny Ringo (Michael Biehn) who are perfect foils for Russell’s cautious Earp and Kilmer’s sharp witted Holliday. The film follows the Earps from their arrival in Tombstone through to the gunfight at the OK Corral up to Holliday’s death. The supporting cast is excellent. Youll see faces like Billy Bob Thornton (much heavier here), Dana Delaney as Wyatt’s mistress Josephine Marcus, Thomas Haden Church as Billy Clanton, Billy Zane as a stuffy performance artist and Jason Priestly hot off the show Beverly Hills 90210 playing strangely enough, a gay dandy. The script by Kevin Jarre is one of my favorites of the past 20 years. Its got so many great lines, a lot of them delivered by Kilmer’s Doc Holliday who is a strange entity that just makes the movie a real powder keg of action. It has remained one of my favorite modern Westerns since its release. NOTE: Look for a nice cameo from Charlton Heston. Buy BluRay: Amazon US
BAD COMPANY (1972) Directed by Robert Benton – In this early 70s example of an acid western, during the Civil War, a young man named Drew Dixon (Barry Brown) who had a brother that died during battle, decides to evade the draft and go West instead. While making his way through Missouri he runs into a young grifter named Jake Rumsey (Jeff Bridges) who robs him of his belongings and money. Later on, Drew runs into Jake again while staying at a rooming house and the two get into a fight. The scrap ends and Drew tells Jake that he’ll join up with his gang but wants every cent of his money back in return. Jake’s gang of criminals are just kids and don’t have much experience. This aspect makes the movie more realistic and true to life. The film follows the band as they make their way across the plains. What starts out as a rollicking adventure soon turns dour as the pals run into some deadly situations, lives are lost and soon they all are just fighting to survive the journey. A few of the boys decide they want to leave and rob Drew and Jake of their last belongings and take off on their own. Drew then finds himself robbed and abandoned after Jake notices Drew has been holding out money on him. Drew finally catches up to Jake during a gun battle and the two put their differences aside, partner up again and continue on their adventure. Bad Company pre-dates films like the Brat Pack era Young Guns (1988) which would cover a similar kind of coming of age theme. Yet Bad Company is more understated and interesting since it tells it like it really would be with even friends turning on each other in desperation just to survive. Like Ransom Stoddard in Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Barry Brown’s Drew is an educated upper crust kid and this aspect makes an interesting stew when hes paired up with Bridge’s poor scrapper Jake Rumsey.
SILVERADO (1985) Directed by Lawrence Kasdan – Westerns weren’t being pumped out in the 1980s, but there were a few that were released that were very good, out of them all Silverado stands as one of the best. It stars Scott Glenn (an actor who actually resembles Clint Eastwood) as Emmett who is just been released from prison and finds himself in a gunfight one night with men whom worked for Ethan McKendrick whose father Emmett had killed and was jailed for,. After leaving the scene he finds a man named Paden (Kevin Kline) after the men hes riding with left him for dead. The two make their way to the town of Silverado where Emmett’s younger brother Jake (Kevin Costner) is being held for killing a man (in self defense). While the two men stop in Silverado they find themselves being sucked into a fight over the open range in which McKendrick is trying to lord over and will send his henchmen to kill all innocent property owners. As things get more and more out of control the friends band together to help each other and get rid of McKendrick and the corrupted Sheriff of the town who is secretly working for him. What makes Silverado such a great Western is the cast of actors who were perfectly blended together. Scott Glenn is playing a good guy here, while Kevin Kline as Paden is the quiet but strong willed friend. Kevin Costner as Emmett’s brother Jake is definitely channeling Billy The Kid, he’s a loose cannon full of life. Its one of Costner’s most fun performances. Danny Glover as Mal is the solid friend who’s always there to help when the times get tough. The supporting cast features such acting greats as Jeff Goldblum and Brian Dennehy. You really can’t miss with a group like that! I think another thing that comes through is that these actors were having a great time making this film. It seems like they were kids playing cowboys and outlaws but for the screen. Buy BluRay: Amazon US
SEVEN MEN FROM NOW (1956) Directed by Budd Boetticher. Its both a B western and one of the finest films to come out of the genre. Budd Boetticher’s style was as sharp as any director of the time, he was from the same school as directors like William Witney and Anthony Mann. These directors knew how to tell stories with flash and excitement and often hid layers of subtext within the stories being told. It was produced by Batjac, which was John Wayne’s film production company. Randolph Scott stars as Ben Stride a man who’s out to get the seven men who killed his wife. We find out that Stride refused to be a deputy after losing his job as sheriff. So his wife took his place and was at the police station when the seven men attacked her. On his journey, Stride comes across a couple who have been robbed of their goods including a case of gold. The woman seems to like Stride, who doesn’t want to get close to her. When Stride meets a bandit (Lee Marvin) and his thugs, they decide to tag along with him in hopes they’ll find the gold. One main aspect that separated Seven Men From Now from other Westerns of the time was how Budd Boetticher showed that there really were no “good” and “bad” guys in the Old West. Ben Stride is out for revenge but hes also not an entirely innocent character either. The main characters in the story are all guilty in some way or another, they do what they need to do to survive. Buy DVD: Amazon US
Never liked Silverado much, so I think that’s an interesting pick for sure. Need to check out Bad Company
Thanks a ton for putting up Outlaw Josey Wales and Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, two of the most Underrated Movies. Both of them brilliant.
One of my favorite classics has become THE GUNFIGHTER (1950) with Gregory Peck playing Ringo. It teaches a valuable lesson that many seem never to have learned. Simple and effective.
Heres a top ten of my favorite underrated westerns…
Last Train from Gun Hill
Day of the Outlaw
The Long Riders
The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (which has the best Jesse James ever in Robert Duvall)