The Western has been around just as long as the West itself. Self-mythologizing is the way of the West. Without our own admiration, how are we supposed to operate in an increasingly ugly and uncompromising world?
Sure, we’re responsible for killing the American Indians, killing each other over small, inconsequential amounts of money, and the greed usually reserved for British royalty, but we’re also really, really cool.
Here are the Westerns that have, to me, accomplished the self-mythology of the genre better than the others.
Stagecoach might be the only Western ever made that I completely believe in. It might also be the only John Wayne performance that I can grow totally invested in.
This is John Ford’s movie from beginning to end, and he is at the top of his game here. The photography, the pacing, the acting, the music–everything comes together to create the first great Western of all time. Without Stagecoach, there would be no Western genre the way we have it now.
Without this film, I wouldn’t be able to love all the genre-subverting glory that follows it.
High Noon (1952)
Gary Cooper’s performance in Fred Zinneman’s masterpiece is nothing short of brilliant. He holds the weight of the world on his shoulders. Not just the weight of impending doom, or of violence, or of a life lived too little, either. He is broken because he knows he deserves it. He knows that, at the end of the day, all life is precious. All life. And, in real time (an extreme rarity in any genre, let alone Westerns), we watch Cooper’s slow descent into anxiety-ridden madness.
His town was built on stolen land, taken from murdered people, and given arbitrary rules to form the illusion of civilization. Everything is broken. He roams empty streets, looking for solace, but all he can find is pain. This isn’t a very fun Western. It’s downright bleak.
Being a man is his biggest curse. He has to follow the rules of manliness (that is, don’t die) in order to keep his wife. He has to kill a man to find respect.
The ethical murkyness of this film is enough for a full dissertation, but, if you want, you can just watch it and leave it at that.
The Seachers (1956)
Another John Ford classic, but this time subverting the formula that Stagecoach built. It follows the same rules (civil war veteran looking to make things right), but it follows the rules blindly. The blatant, and often completely horrifying, racism in this movie isn’t a relic of the times or some sort of generation gap. It’s John Ford laying down exactly how he feels about the era he basically created with his films.
The entitlement, the rage, and the arrogance of Americans in the face of Manifest Destiny is all over this movie. The scariest part of this film, however, is not the hate the Americans have toward American Indians, but the complete apathy. They just don’t care about them. They don’t care if they live or die. It’s weird, unsettling, and brilliant. Ford’s direction is superb, the visuals are stunning, and he’s still tricking people into thinking they’re supposed to like what they’re seeing. Genius.
McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)
My dream is to write anything in my life as deeply profound and brilliant as Robert Altman’s anti-Western starring Warren Beatty and Julie Christie. It has everything–gender politics (notice the ampersand instead of the word), a score by Leonard Cohen, great performances, and a tongue-in-cheek dissection of the American free market system as seen through prostitution in a town called Presbyterian Church.
I can’t even begin to tell you how brilliant, weird, monumental, and landscape-changing this movie really is. It would take more than a section of a blog post. But I can tell you that out of the ten people I’m currently convincing to watch this movie, only about three of you will like it.
The pacing is slow, the photography is muddy (not a mistake), and the plot is meandering and vague, at best. But, if you can see it for what it is, you’ll quickly realize that this might just be the best Western of all time, and one of the great American films.
Dead Man (1995)
Even without the bone-tinglingly groovy Neil Young original score, Jim Jarmusch’s surrealist Western would still be a modern masterpiece. And yet, the movie gods have smiled upon us. Dead Man, made all the way back in a time where people who aren’t 14 got excited about Johnny Depp because of his artistically and commercially risky film choices. And it doesn’t get much riskier than this one.
Depp plays a man named William Blake (but he’s not that William Blake), who is shot and left for dead somewhere out West. When he wanders into the wilderness to die, he is found by an American Indian named Nobody, who just happens to be obsessed with the poetry of William Blake. The real one. The two then go on a bizarre, disturbing, and hilarious journey of self-discovery through uncompromising black and white terrains. And Iggy Pop.
It takes the self-mythologizing of the early John Ford films and makes it literal. This is a man who is already a myth, and then he creates himself backwards until he dies. But he’s already dead. Or he will be soon. And he spends time with an American Indian who isn’t anybody. Not because he’s nobody, but because he’s Nobody.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
Andrew Dominik’s newest film, Killing Them Softly, is in theaters right now, and it’s getting the same treatment as his previous film, a dark, cerebral character-study about one of the most infamous criminals in American history. This movie was always a tough sell (look at the length of that title!), but Dominik made it even tougher with the long run-time, penchant for philosophizing, and attention to supporting characters, but how unfair it is that this movie is so under-seen.
For a movie this beautiful (Roger “the best eye in show business” Deakins did the cinematography), poetic, and deeply fascinating, it really deserves a lot better. See it. Now.
[Honorable Mentions: Once Upon a Time in the West, No Country for Old Men, The Proposition, Heaven’s Gate]