The classic western was conceived from an undeniably Euro-centric, colonial perspective, with white characters upholding their supposed birthright of freedom and property. In the western, the immense country beyond the Mississippi River figures at once as the sublime object that exceeds the human grasp and as a quantifiable possession. And the prototypical cowboy straddles these paradoxical poles: at home on the dusty, timeless landscape, but also facilitating its incorporation into a society marching toward the Pacific. In 1925’s Tumbleweeds, the herder hero played by William S. Hart reluctantly makes way for the newly arrived homesteaders; in 1953’s Shane, Alan Ladd’s eponymous character rides off after making the West safe for the American family; and in Sergio Leone’s 1968 opus Once Upon a Time in the West, Jason Robards’s Cheyenne sacrifices his life not to end the expansion of the American empire, but to facilitate a more just one.
But this standard narrative mold, to paraphrase John Ford’s 1962 classic The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, only represents the printed legend. The historical American West was more diverse and less male-dominated than the one Hollywood imagined for many years. Life in the Western territories demanded just as many determined women as it did men, and suffragettes had their first major victories in the West: Wyoming was the first state to grant women the vote, and the first to have a woman governor. A third of all cowboys herding cattle on the Great Plains were black—a fact that’s only surprising until you consider which groups were most in need of self-reliant vocation and freedom from the long arm of the law in the wake of the Civil War. Every once in a while, these historical realities break through the filtered screen of the Hollywood western: Joan Crawford and Marlene Dietrich play no-nonsense saloon owners in Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar and Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious, respectively, and Sidney Poitier’s often overlooked Buck and the Preacher from 1972 is one of the too-few films that are centered around black frontiersmen.
When Europeans, influenced by decades of dime novels and Hollywood flicks, got around to making westerns, the resulting films would be part of this swing toward revisionism. By this time, European filmmakers were coping with the aftermath of the most devastating conflict in human history, and Italian westerns like Sergio Corbucci’s The Great Silence and Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly are infused with the lived-in existentialism of postwar Europe. In them, the American West becomes an otherworldly wasteland of pure brutality and diminished—rather than heightened—agency. Europeans’ estrangement of western film tropes would help spur a revisionist take on the standards of the genre that infuses films produced to this day.
However, for all the observations that such “postmodern” westerns are about the end of the West—in Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales and elsewhere, represented by the arrival of new technologies like the Gatling gun—the western has always been about endings. It’s no coincidence that the genre’s proverbial image is that of a figure “riding off into the sunset.” The American frontier was declared closed after the 1890 census, a decade before the first western on our list (Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery) was produced. Right-wing New Hollywood directors like Sam Peckinpah, Don Siegel, and Eastwood have tended to identify this perpetual fading of the West with the decline of a virile and violent, but honorable masculinity.
The bloodbaths that end films like Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch arguably represent what Freud would have called “screen memories,” a compromise between repressed memory and images we’ve invented to defend ourselves against terrible truths. The true bloodbaths in the West were the military campaigns against Native Americans, genocidal conflicts that many big-budget westerns keep on the margins, with natives appearing as stereotypical noble savages or town drunks. Ford’s films, as often as they rely on racist characterizations, were often the prestige westerns to look most directly at these wars: The Searchers and Fort Apache explore, in their own flawed fashion, the morally degrading racism in their main characters’ hearts. Some decades later, Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves became the paradigm of a post-‘70s cultural sea change: When it comes to “cowboys versus Indians,” the cowboys are no longer the automatic locus of our sympathy.
Today, infusing familiar iconography with new meaning, such revisionist representations of the American West have helped to explode the boundaries of the genre, allowing filmmakers as well as critics to explore cinematic tropes about life on the frontier in non-conventional western narratives. In contemporary films like Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain and Chloé Zhao’s The Rider—and looking back to ones like Victor Sjöström’s The Wind and John Huston’s The Misfits—we can recognize something like a western mode, a broader and more expansive cinematic language that has been suffused by the symbols of the American West. The western has proved itself a durable and influential way of talking about the human condition—one that needs not be confined within the frontiers drawn by the Euro-American colonial imagination. Pat Brown
Editor’s Note: “Western Noir” is currently streaming on the Criterion Channel.
10. The Violent Men (Rudolph Maté, 1955)
Polish-born filmmaker Rudolph Maté worked for a little over a decade as a cinematographer in Hollywood before starting to crank out potboilers as a director in the late ‘40s, many of them marked by a distinct pictorial flair. He was a mainstay by the mid-‘50s, and The Violent Men counts among his most ravishingly shot films, and indeed one of the unheralded Technicolor westerns of the golden era. The central California frontier, where the majestic flatland meets the imposing Sierras, has rarely been more reverently photographed, and a single montage of Glenn Ford’s John Parrish galloping from one range to another as Max Steiner’s strings howl on the soundtrack is stirring enough to validate the invention of CinemaScope. Fittingly, the land itself provides the conflict here, with Ford’s Union veteran-cum-landowner trotting out his old fighting spirit when the vicious owners of a neighboring estate—Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson in wonderfully belligerent performances—try to exploit his ranch for pennies. A cathartic war against greed ensues, and the result is finely wrought big-screen entertainment. Carson Lund
9. The Gold Rush (Charles Chaplin, 1925)
What’s surprising when one takes a fresh look at The Gold Rush is how serious it is about depicting the hard life of prospectors. The comic soul of the film is, in fact, quite black, even if Charlie Chaplin exploits every opportunity (beautifully) to transform the environment into a vaudeville stage. Lonely as the wastes are, the town in the film is sinister and lurid, full of sex and violence, despite the fact that Chaplin always seems to find a way to invest in it the personality and tone of his early one-reelers. He makes the town funny but retains its barbarism. Chaplin pursues deliverance not in the miracle of hitting pay dirt, but in the promise of a woman, and it’s this promise that Chaplin would keep after, well into his sync-sound period. Around the film’s midpoint comes a sequence that cuts between the townsfolk singing “Auld Lange Syne,” and the Tramp, alone in his cabin, listening, longingly. It’s as perfect a moment as any other in the great silent period. Some accuse the director of succumbing to sentimentality, but he’s never less sublime than when he reaches for ridiculous, grandiose highs in romance, coincidence, and naked emotion. Jaime N. Christley
8. I Shot Jesse James (Samuel Fuller, 1949)
As a liberator of the concentration camps, Samuel Fuller certainly saw his fair share of the evil that humans do, and the majority of his films suggest that such collective dis-ease is ongoing, never-ending. Contented happiness, if it comes, is either a deceptive load of bullshit or merely a momentary uplift of the soul, unique to the individual experiencing it—and how often this latter incidence occurs, for Fuller’s characters, at the point of dying. I Shot Jesse James provides one such example of this. Fuller’s debut feature is remarkable for its sophisticated and intuitive treatment of a famed tale of the Old West, viewing Robert Ford’s (John Ireland) cowardly assassination of his friend and fellow thief Jesse James (Reed Hadley) as a quintessentially gay love story. Of the film’s producer, Robert L. Lippert, Fuller observed, “[he was] too uptight to even pronounce the word homosexual,” and Fuller most certainly used this instinctive fear—one not only limited to his business partner—to his advantage. It’s not so much the explicit nature of some of the film’s allusions (James asking Ford to wash his back; the assassination itself, shot in such a way as to evoke rape) as it is Ireland’s interiorized performance and Fuller’s matter-of-fact mise en scène (complete with ripped-from-the-headlines transitional montages) that solidifies the film’s accomplishments. Keith Uhlich
7. Rancho Notorious (Fritz Lang, 1952)
Rancho Notorious opens with Vern Haskell (Arthur Kennedy) planting a big kiss on his fiancée, Beth (Gloria Henry), but this being a Fritz Lang film, it’s downhill from there for the Wyoming cowpoke. Lang’s fatalism rears its ugly head as Vern, once an innocent rancher who vengefully hunts down the man who abused and killed Beth in a hold-up, becomes the very thing that would appear to be antithetical to his nature. His episodic journey toward a hideout for ruthless outlaws run by Altar Keane (Marlene Dietrich) is pockmarked with eccentric touches, from the ongoing Greek chorus-esque narration sung like a campfire song to the numerous narrative digressions (none more rousing than a flashback of Altar riding the back of a drunken man in a barroom “horse race”). But this wildly entertaining concoction is consistently shot through with a bleak pessimism. Here, any honorable qualities Vern or anyone else may possess is ultimately beside the point, because in Lang’s view, by simply existing in a lawless, violent world, violent behavior is an inevitability. Wes Greene
6. Day of the Outlaw (André De Toth, 1959)
André De Toth’s Day of the Outlaw is the rare western to take place across a landscape blanketed in snow, whose temperatures are as biting as the long-gestating feud between the homesteaders of the bleak town of Bitters, Wyoming and a local rustler, Blaise Starrett (Robert Ryan). Just as these tensions start to boil over, the film pulls a bait-and-switch, shifting gears with the intrusion of a gang of robbers hiding out from a bank heist. The group is led by Jack Bruhn (Burl Ives), an AWOL Army captain who fancies himself a noble criminal. But in a film that’s already established its protagonist as a raging, loathsome man, there’s no room here for romantic notions of crime. No sooner has Jack been introduced as the ringleader of the robbers than the filmmakers underline his powerlessness to control them; as he insists that the other criminals leave the women of the town alone, the men only laugh at him. De Toth’s images are by and large static, and punctuated by slow, deliberate movements of the camera, effectively communicating the pervasive sense of isolation that grips both the occupied townspeople and the marauders, who increasingly reveal their pathetic inability to think further than their immediate desires. Jake Cole
5. Man of the West (Anthony Mann, 1958)
Anthony Mann’s Man of the West carries with it an unshakeable aura of finality in its world-weary temperament, bringing a genre which would quickly find new modes of expression—whether in the mold of a spaghetti, revisionist, neo, or acid western—to its logical endpoint. This simultaneous sense of exasperation and dedication in the face of progress is reflected in the demeanor of Gary Cooper’s aging, reformed outlaw, Link Jones, whose proactive measures to reconcile personal principles and professional pride manifests as a kind of existential crisis. Mann utilized landscape as both pictorial and thematic device, teasing from his jagged geographies an impressionistic nuance directly reciprocal to the mental disposition of his characters. Befitting this approach, much of Man of the West transpires outdoors, from the glorious sun-drenched commencement to the threatening pink dusk left lingering after the central train robbery to the climatic shootout in an abandoned mining town. Mann’s indoor passages prove to be just as impressive, however, consistently helping to consolidate and reanimate character constitution. And from a formal perspective, they’re simply a marvel of physical orchestration and diagrammatic expression. Jordan Cronk
4. Stagecoach (John Ford, 1939)
The first sound western by the director who would become the genre’s consummate poet laureate, Stagecoach is nevertheless less a blank-slate beginning than a crystallizing crossroads. The genre staples on display—the cowboy’s instinctive courtliness, the saloon Magdalene-cum-Madonna, the Southerner’s doomed gallantry—were already familiar to the screen from the sagas of William S. Hart and Tom Mix, to say nothing of John Ford’s own earlier westerns starring Harry Carey. Yet there’s a purity to the way Ford films them, lovingly detailing a populist camaraderie emerging as the characters travel through a young nation fluxing between the danger and freedom of the wilderness and the order and prejudice of civilization. If this is the Old West of our dreams, it’s one that exists in an outsider’s limbo, away from society’s rules, alternating between the breathtaking breadth of the American landscape and the Germanically shadowy lighting of Ford’s claustrophobic interiors. From Apache warriors to narrow-minded biddies to the social barriers separating the characters, Ford never fails to perceive the fragility of his utopia. Fernando F. Croce
3. Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, 2010)
After stripping and reassembling the male-bonding journey movie with Old Joy and the neorealist weepie with Wendy and Lucy, Kelly Reichardt set her sights on the western, perhaps the hoariest and most loaded of American genres. In Meek’s Cutoff, her barebones approach is impressively realistic, imagining a cross-country journey through arid, featureless Eastern Oregon as an exercise in numbing frustration, an approach that more importantly lays the groundwork for the film’s core gender conflict. Preserving the mystical status of the Old West as a place for allegorical fables and origin stories, she shapes this dusty journey into a parable of feminist agency. The westbound wagons of Meek’s Cutoff represent not only the creeping vines of a still-growing nation, but the occasion for one woman’s development, as Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams) progresses from dissatisfied frontier wife to rifle-wielding voice of reason, a welcome corrective to decades of decisive, bravely trailblazing male heroes. Jesse Cataldo
2. The Naked Spur (Anthony Mann, 1953)
The Naked Spur is the third of five westerns on which director Anthony Mann and star James Stewart collaborated, a loosely linked series of incisively psychological films that allowed Stewart to explore a harsher, darker edge to the affably loose-limbed screen persona he had hitherto established. Here his Howard Kemp is bent on bringing murderer Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan) to justice for the murder of a marshal, not owing to any deep-seated moral code, but out of a desire for the reward money. Mann pares the film down to essentials, with rugged location shooting in the Rocky Mountains, and a cast of only five characters, whom Vandergroat pits against each other in a Hobbesian “war of all against all.” The film is bookended by two standoff set pieces, where the action is aligned vertically up sheer rocky slopes, with Vandergroat ironically inhabiting the high ground on both occasions. The ending is almost obligatorily upbeat, but the sight of Kemp arguing over possession of Vandergroat’s waterlogged corpse is certainly not a scene you’d ever see in Harvey. Budd Wilkins
1. Dead Man (Jim Jarmusch, 1995)
Like most great westerns, Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man holds the American West and its (white) inhabitants up to close scrutiny, and in this sense its radicalism surpasses virtually every earlier example. The ultimate goal for Johnny Depp’s William Blake is one of consciousness. He must come to an understanding of his own life and death as he lumbers through the American West like a wounded animal in search of solitude. His existence here is a veritable transition from innocence to experience. Eventually he must resign himself to his fate and, as his famous namesake put it in “The Book of Thel,” he will “gentle sleep the sleep of death.” More than simply being critical of a West that great artists have already attacked for decades, Jarmusch is interested in suggesting something distinctive and otherworldly, where Blake’s visionary poetry and New York hipsterism might commingle in a setting alien to them both. He tears down one mythopoetic image of West and in its place resurrects his own, which valorizes nothing so much as the agonizing flirtation one has with an enlightenment that might never come. Zach Campbell
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