It should come as no surprise to anyone that Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption is one massive whiskey-addled love letter to the classic westerns of the sixties and seventies, but just in case you didn’t know, the OneMetal posse is here to lasso you around the waist and drag you on a tour of the best cowboy classics.
Directed by George Stevens, 1953
Starring Alan Ladd, Jack Palance, Jean Arthur and Ben Johnson
Goddamned varmint ranchers are plaguing a family of homesteaders and only little Alan Ladd can stop them. The settlers slowly learn to trust Shane and propel him to the status of saviour – read, they all kind of fancy him a bit. Much more emotionally and morally complex than the westerners of the time, Shane is one of the most picturesque movies you’ll ever see and at its core are two fantastic performances. For a wee man, Laddy is surprisingly effective as world-weary tough guy Shane, despite his height complex and booze-battered body, while Jack Palance is the embodiment of arseholes as his archenemy Jack Wilson. Bizarre and annoying child performance aside, this is an essential slice of cinema history.
For A Few Dollars More
Directed by Sergio Leone, 1965
Starring Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Gian Maria Volonté
While For A Few Dollars More isn’t Leone’s best film, it’s definitely his most enjoyable; more epic and elegiac than its prequel, A Fistful Of Dollars, but more fun and flamboyant than The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, Eli Wallach notwithstanding. The suspense-laden revenge story stars Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef as rival bounty hunters who team up to take down a murderous Mexi bad guy. Grand stand-offs, flying hats, extreme close-ups, and a melodramatic score from Ennio Morricone make it a riotous revisionist western with one of the greatest endings of all-time.
Dircted by Sergio Corbucci, 1966
Starring Franco Nero
Sergio Corbucci’s spaghetti western is a demented cult classic that sees a coffin-dragging stranger play two warring factions off against each other. Caught between the KKK and a group of Mexican bandidos, Django (Franco Nero) is a bringer of justice, initially motivated by filthy lucre. The movie is exceptionally violent, especially when our angel of death discovers the pains of torture by having his hands crushed under a horse’s hooves. When it all gets a little too much, he simply busts out a mini-gun from his coffin to take some names. If you want to go one level weirder then you could always watch Takashi Miike’s bizarre Django tribute movie, Sukiyaki Western Django.
Once Upon A Time In The West
Directed by Sergio Leone, 1968
Starring Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Jason Robards and Claudia Cardinale
No list of great Westerns could be complete without mention of Sergio Leone’s piéce de la resistance. Once Upon A Time In The West is simultaneously a homage to the classic westerns of John Ford and Anthony Mann and a stinging attack on the American Dream. It’s as though Leone watched every single western ever made before he created this gargantuan tale of a vengeful gunslinger (played by Charles Bronson) prowling through an America on the cusp of ‘civilisation’. The standout performance has to come from an ageing Henry Fonda as the strikingly evil antagonist, who brings a wealth of cinematic reference to the table in by far his best performance. The western to end all westerns.
The Wild Bunch
Directed by Sam Peckinpah, 1969
Starring William Holden, Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine and Warren Oates
Man’s man ‘Bloody Sam’ Peckinpah tore the puritanical westerns of the previous decades apart with this epic tale of an ageing gang of outlaws on the run. Craggy cad William Holden stars as Bishop Pike, a bullet-spitting criminal whose gang, the Wild Bunch, roams the Tex-Mex border robbing trains and rutting with Mexican girls. Equally butch man-actor Robert Ryan plays Pike’s old buddy, Deke Thornton, sent by the railroad company to bring his ex-colleagues to justice. What ensues is an epic game of cat and mouse culminating in one of the biggest and bloodiest battles ever committed to celluloid, replete with mini-gun massacre. It’s all so macho that this writer witnessed a near-brawl at a Wild Bunch retrospective – the perfect testament to the testosterone-fuelled, slow-motion mayhem of Peckinpah’s greatest film.
The Hired Hand
Directed by Peter Fonda, 1971
Starring Peter Fonda, Warren Oates and Verna Bloom
The Hired Hand is Peter Fonda’s directorial debut, an elegiac western that was inexplicably buried by the studio. It’s a small but beautiful movie driven by three outstanding performances from Peter Fonda, Verna Bloom and Warren Oates, and a haunting score from Bob Dylan collaborator Bruce Langhorne. Fonda stars as Harry, a burnt out drifter who returns to his wife, Hannah (Verna Bloom), and child after years out in the American wilderness with his buddy, Arch (Warren Oates). In the face of an angry wife who struggles to accept his disappearance, Harry promises to renounce his old ways, but the violence that coloured his former life is never far away. It’s kind of like Paris, Texas with guns.
The Outlaw Josey Wales
Directed by Clint Eastwood, 1976
Starring Clint Eastwood, Chief Dan George, Sondra Locke and John Vernon
Poor ol’ Josey. Not only does he witness his wife and child murdered by hairy Union soldiers, but then his closest ally sells him and his Confederate colleagues out to the very same men. It sounds like a recipe for a straight-up revenge western, but Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales is more a movie about a violent man’s quest for redemption. It’s not short of iconic scenes – the meeting between Josey and Indian chief Ten Bears – or classic characters – the dispossessed Comanche Lone Watie (Chief Dan George) – but it’s the remarkable way in which Eastwood observes warmth and humour amid a challenging era in American history that stands out the most. It’s a complex vision of ‘the West’, which Clint would later perfect with Unforgiven.
Directed by Clint Eastwood, 1985
Starring Clint Eastwood, Michael Moriarty, Carrie Snodgress and Chris Penn
Clint Eastwood revisited some old ghosts when he made his starkly beautiful companion piece to High Plains Drifter, Pale Rider. Clint stars as ‘the Preacher’, a nameless stranger who stumbles upon a small prospecting town struggling to fend off a greedy mining company. The sharp-shooting man of the cloth defends the townsfolk with a seemingly supernatural zeal against the local sheriff and a ruthless landowner hell-bent on getting himself some gold. Actor’s actor and general oddball Michael Moriarty also stars in one of the most oblique and beautiful westerns ever made – never more so than during the striking denouement set amid the snowy peaks of Boulder Mountains, near Idaho.
Directed by Clint Eastwood, 1992
Starring Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman and Richard Harris
It’s a testament to Clint Eastwood that the greatest western ever made was released in 1992. I can hear Sergio Leone fans crying Once Upon a Time In The West, but Clint’s masterpiece edges the showdown for this reviewer. Everything good Eastwood ever did, in front of or behind the lense, is referenced in an astonishing cinematic achievement crafted decades after the golden age of the genre. Watch it for Eastwood’s best performance. Watch it for Gene Hackman’s best performance. Watch it for Morgan Freeman’s best performance. Watch it for one of the most terrifying endings of all-time when Eastwood becomes the physical embodiment of murder – the saint of killers, if you will.
Created by David Milch, 2004-2006
Starring Ian McShane, Timothy Olyphant, Molly Parker and Brad Douriff
Yeah, we know it’s not a film, but you can’t talk about Westerns without mentioning HBO’s Deadwood. If nothing else, the series is responsible for turning a smarmy antiques dealer with a flamboyant Euro-mullet into a snarling bag of Machiavellian malevolence. A mix of fact and fiction, the story begins with the slaying of Wild Bill Hickok, which sends the lawless township of Deadwood, Colorado, spiralling into the hands of the government. The scripts and dialogue are sensational, eclipsing everything seen previously on TV – only The Wire in its finer moments can hold a candle to David Milch’s whiskey-addled enterprise. Amid a town of larger than life characters, Ian McShane steals the show as foul-mouthed bar owner Al Swearangen, feverishly protecting his investments from the shadows; has there ever been a more likeable and loathsome character on TV?
Directed by John Hillcoat, 2005
Starring Guy Pearce, Ray Winstone, Danny Huston and Emily Watson
Definitely the best film in a spate of westerns from the last decade, this one relocates the action to the Aussie Outback, where everything seems much more miserable. Murder ballad warbler Nick Cave wrote the script and penned the music for this surprisingly effective play on the traditional revenge tale, and the savage lyrics of his songs find the perfect home in a beautiful but unremittingly bleak vision on an Australia gripped by a desire to civilise in the face of lawlessness. Guy Pearce plays a notorious outlaw who must bring his psychotic older brother (Danny Huston at his most frightening) to justice or see his younger brother executed at the hands of Pom lawmakers. As awe-inspiring and suspenseful as it is terrifying.
Did we miss any of your most wanted, or do you think we hit the bullseye? Let us know in the Comments.