Popped Culture #4: Westerns

I have made a shameful mistake.  And I don’t mean failing to blog for the last two months, although I suppose that is a bit shameful, too.  No, this is a far more nefarious error: as one of my readers pointed out, I failed to include any westerns on my list of favorite historical fiction movies.  This is a terrible oversight, not only because westerns clearly qualify as historical fiction, but also because some of my favorite films are westerns.  In fact, I love the genre so much that a western has to be pretty terrible for me to not enjoy it.  So, to make up for the oversight, I’m giving westerns their very own top-ten list:

1)    The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) – The history makes no sense.  Battling Union and Confederate armies in the desert?  Huh?  But the film is brilliant.  The story is quite good, especially for a western.  Three gunslingers are searching for hidden gold against the background of civil war.  Two know the location of the cemetery where it is buried; the third knows the name of the grave.  This clever setup becomes a thing of beauty in the capable hands of director Sergio Leone, whose long shots let tension build and build before the guns start blazing.  It also doesn’t hurt that the three men in question are played by Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and Eli Wallach in a career defining role (yes, he’s even better here than in The Holiday).  Sergio Leone and Clint each made several great westerns, both together and separately.  This is their best.

2)    Unforgiven (1992) – Something I appreciate about westerns is that they know the audiences expectations, and they are typically straightforward in striving to fulfill them.  Unforgiven is a bit of an exception.  The story about an aging gunslinger who rides into town to avenge a battered prostitute plays with the genre’s formula, while never straying too far from it.  The result is a great film.

3)    Dance with Wolves (1990) – Shahwani tatonka owachi!  Dances with Wolves, you are my friend!  Several film critics have written that the plot of Avatar was stolen from Dances with Wolves.  I see that as a tremendous compliment to the Kevin Costner film, and one that is well-deserved.

4)    The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) – Clint Eastwood is at the height of his powers as an actor in this wonderful tale of a dangerous man trying to find redemption from his dark past.  Yes, that is the plot of almost every western ever made, but here it is done exceptionally well.

5)    Blazing Saddles (1974), Rustlers’ Rhapsody (1985), and Three Amigos (1986) – I couldn’t decide which of these movies I like more, so I put them in together.  Blazing Saddles, Three Amigos, and the less well-known Rustlers’ Rhapsody are all terrifically funny movies that generate most of their humor by simply playing out the rather silly conventions of the western genre.

6)    High Noon (1952) – A lawman faces the return of the men he sent to jail, now bent on revenge, while the town he protects refuses to help him.  While we wait for the evil gunmen to arrive, the tension mounts and mounts.  It’s a bit like a Sergio Leone western before Sergio Leone, only with everyone in cleaner clothes.

7)    Deadwood (2004-2006) – A brilliant re-construction of the West, complete with dirt, blood, and lots of swearing.  Even if the series weren’t wonderfully entertaining, it would be worth watching just for Ian McShane’s brilliant performance as Swearengen.

8)    The Magnificent Seven (1960) – A western remake of Seven Samurai, it in turn inspired Three Amigos.  As if that weren’t enough to demonstrate it’s greatness, the film boasts a ridiculous cast featuring Eli Wallach, Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, and James Coburn.

9)    Appaloosa (2008) – Director Ed Harris clearly loves westerns, because this entry in the genre hews so closely to formula that it almost becomes a parody.  Almost, because Viggo Mortensen and Ed Harris aren’t about to let that happen.  Instead, what they produce is perhaps the most “western” western of all time.  And that’s a good thing.

10) Young Guns (1988) – As an eleven-year old, I LOVED this movie.  I must have annoyed my parents terribly as I repeatedly drew an imaginary pistol on them and told them, “I’ll make you famous.”  Is Young Guns any good?  Hmm…  After having re-watched it recently, I can’t really say that it is.  Nevertheless, it’s the movie that made me fall in love with the genre.




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