What makes a Western film a Western? Is it just good guys in white hats vs. bad guys in black hats? Is it just the presence of horses, six-shooters and a fight in the town saloon? I hope not. The genre survives because it’s flexible enough to look at the human condition from almost any perspective and through any circumstance writers can dream up.
An invitation to assemble a list of must-see Westerns was an opportunity too good to pass up, and I’ve included the films that mesmerized me as a kid and inspired me as an adult. Growing up in Chicago, I was raised on WGN-TV’s Family Classics show. And it was host Frazier Thomas that introduced me to my first Western, The Mark of Zorro.
Directed by Rouben Mamoulian and released in 1940, The Mark of Zorro features Tyrone Power at the pinnacle of his heroic talents. Better known perhaps for his swordplay than his dialogue, Power set a standard for other actors who would have to play heroes and their mild-mannered alter egos. Besides, this picture contains the finest swordfight ever choreographed for a Western — Power vs. Basil Rathbone!
High Noon was directed by Fred Zinnemann and released in 1952. The controversial film won four Oscars, including Best Actor for Gary Cooper. Intended as an allegory for Hollywood blacklisting, it earned the ire of notable stars, including John Wayne, who nonetheless accepted the Oscar on Cooper’s behalf. Its stark dialogue and emotional intensity set it apart and still requires audiences to think.
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon was the second picture in director John Ford’s (unofficial) cavalry trilogy. Released in 1949, it featured some of the finest acting of Wayne’s career, as he portrayed a cavalry captain leading one last campaign on the eve of his retirement. The cinematography is stunning, as John Ford captured the West the way Robert Redford captures Montana. However, an honorable mention goes to Rio Grande (1950), the third film in the trilogy, due to the extraordinary chemistry between Wayne and Maureen O’Hara. They were just getting warmed up for their next film under Ford’s direction, The Quiet Man (1952).
True Grit was directed by Henry Hathaway and released in 1969. As the drunken U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn, Wayne earned himself the only Oscar of his career. That curiosity alone places this film on my list, but watch it again and see John Wayne redefine the Western hero/anti-hero.
Winchester ’73 was released in 1950. Directed by Anthony Mann, it features one of the most finely constructed stories ever used in a Western.
The main plot follows good guy Lin McAdam (Jimmy Stewart) as he chases bad guy Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally), who stole a rare Winchester rifle won by McAdam at a shooting contest. The story then follows the rifle as it moves through the interesting lives of the supporting cast, who all come into contact with McAdam and Brown at various times. Unexpected plot twists and turns, plus appearances by Shelley Winters, Rock Hudson and Tony Curtis, make this a memorable film and my favorite Western.
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