The old definition of a “Western” was a story (movie, novel, or otherwise) that took place in the formative years of the American West, or the WIld West. The best Westerns, however, transcend this antiquated definition because they have since developed some other important commonalities.
Like all good stories, good Westerns follow a character (or many characters) who undergo deep personal transformations over the course of the tale. When these transformations occur in the beginning of a Western (usually caused by some injustice like the murder of a loved one), we are often treated to a wild train ride of blood-soaked vengeance driving across arid badlands and through cities with foreboding names like Dodge, or Deadwood, or Tombstone. Not to mention a slew of classic lines, like “Dyin’ ain’t much of a livin’, boy,” or “Fill your hands, you son of a bitch.”
As delightful as these might be to watch, my favorite Westerns execute the slow transformation, which is finally, and usually explosively, necessitated by a situation that has become untenable because of a personal weakness in the main character.
Another trait of the Western is it’s strict adherence to the truths of human nature. Heroes and villains do not exist, just as they do not exist in real life. For even the casual fan of the Western will notice adherence to this principle in just about every story told. Sergio Leone’s “Man With No Name” trilogy, which includes the best known third installment The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, follows a man who is deemed “Good” by the title of the film, but is clearly not “good” in any sense of the word today. He smokes, drinks, kills without flinching, and leaves a man bound and hanging before mercifully shooting him down and, instead, leaves him stranded in the desert. So “good” is relative. The man who plays “the Bad” is in fact “the Good’s” partner in in the previous film, For A Few Dollars More, where they achieve a common goal of killing El Indio, a rapist/murderer/brigand with a creepy musical pocket watch.
And of course, no Western is complete without some kind of final showdown, usually involving gunfire.
As it happens, most of my all-time favorite movies fall squarely into this definition of the “Western”. These are movies that I can watch back to back without being bored, because they are simply great stories told well. Here they are, in no particular order.
3:10 to Yuma (2007)
The Story: Remake of an older Western I’ve never seen. About a man (Christian Bale) who, by all accounts, is a coward. His knack for pitiful optimism, his overly cautious nature, and even his bum leg are all badges (and constant reminders) of his past and present cowardice. Even his own young son has no respect for him. When some railroad henchmen burn down his barn and threaten to run him off his land, he is forced to come up with some money – and take a risky job bringing the West’s most dangerous man (Russell Crowe) to the 3:10 train to Yuma, where he is to face a prison sentence.
Why I Love It: The wealthy womanizer Criminal successfully hits on the Coward’s wife and she inadequately disguises her attraction to it.
Why I Really Love it: Coward mans up by the time he gets to Yuma, resulting in a fantastic shootout.
Why I Watch it Over and Over: At the end of the day, the Coward still loses, and the sly Criminal decides to bring himself in (not that it matters, because he will inevitably escape prison again).
True Grit (2010)
The Story: Remake of the John Wayne classic, which I also highly recommend. 14 year old girl’s father is murdered by a lowlife moron (Josh Brolin) who worked for him. Girl goes to town and hires a U.S. Marshall (Jeff Bridges) who takes on a Texas Ranger (Matt Damon) for assistance to find the perp. The three travel into Indian territory hunting the fugitive.
Why I Love It: U.S. Marshall is a drunk, reckless, ruthless hunter of men – the movie is named after his reputation.
Why I Really Love It: Texas Ranger talks and acts like most Texans I’ve met. Texas is better at everything. Also enjoyed watching him get knocked out while bragging about his carbine.
Why I Watch it Over and Over: The girl pays for her rash decision to murder her father’s killer with an arm, a lonely existence, and the loss of two good friends.
The Story: A ruthless killer and criminal (Clint Eastwood) who has since retired to raise to his two children is hired by some prostitutes who want dead two cowboys who disfigured one of the prostitutes. The killer takes his friend (Morgan Freeman) and a cocky kid along to do the deed, but the cowboys are being protected by the town sheriff (Gene Hackman). Carnage ensues.
Why I Love It: The Sheriff uses his power to protect scum, just like real life police.
Why I Really Love It: After finishing the assigned job and receiving payment, the killer finds it necessary to go back and take out the Sheriff, his deputies, and the pimp – all in one swift gunfight in the saloon. Amen.
Why I Watch It Over and Over: A formerly wicked man does a good thing and achieves some kind of atonement for past sins, but probably not in his own view. The cocky Kid learns that killing isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Straw Dogs (1971)
The Story: Sometimes called an English Western. In fact, this is the first movie made by Sam Peckinpah that was not an actual Western. An American mathematician (Dustin Hoffman) and his gorgeous English wife (Susan George) move to the village where she grew up. The mathematician is a self-absorbed intellectual man who is afraid of confrontation, while his wife is playful, sensual, and not nearly as serious. When the couple hire some men from town to roof their garage, it becomes clear that their ringleader has had a prior relationship with the mathematician’s wife, and he is keen on rekindling it.
Why I Love It: The entire movie is brimming with tension as the mathematician avoids confronting the behavior of the working crew toward his wife. So much so that it makes it difficult to watch.
Why I Really Love It: The mathematician is routinely duped by the profuse outward respect the workers show him, despite their constant snickering and mockery. They don’t try too hard to disguise it, but the mathematician would rather not challenge them.
Why I Watch it Over and Over: The mathematician grows a pair (although too late) and disposes of the men, including an infamous death by bear trap scene.
The Entire Movie, from the first minute to the last
The Story: Frequently called a space Western, and certainly deserving of the title. A former fighter (Nathan Fillion) on the side of the “Independents” in a failed galactic revolution now captains his own small crew and space vessel, taking odd jobs, which are usually illegal, to survive. The crew inherits a girl (Summer Glau) who has escaped from a secret government lab where she was engineered into a human weapon. She also knows some terrible government secrets. Now the galactic government is seeking her out and destroying anything that stands in their way.
Why I Love It: The captain’s decision-making and control over his crew is a mesmerizing lesson in proper leadership.
Why I Really Love It: The captain doesn’t take shit from anybody, but still manages to transform from a generally selfish brigand to someone who risks his life to bring a hard truth to the people of the galaxy (although if those people are anything like Americans, that’s a useless and foolish endeavor)
Why I Watch it Over and Over: The captain is a realist who recognizes the myriad flaws in human nature. He understands these flaws cannot be controlled or eradicated by meddlesome elitist overlords in a utilitarian ends-justify-the-means social experiment. This is the philosophical premise that he is motivated by throughout the story.