Originally published in 2012 on the blog: Mixer.
With the release of Tarantino’s, Django Unchained, I’ve found myself in many conversations about the film with friends and strangers. Many of these conversations have led to discussions about the Western movie genre. Eventually, I often find myself at the mercy of one question: What’s your favorite Western?
“What’s my favorite Western?!” I say, in my best indignant John Cleese impersonation. This question is glaringly similar to another I’m often asked behind the bar: What’s your favorite drink?
“My favorite drink (Cleese rerun)?! How can I even begin to answer that?”
However, I believe questions such as these are really masked pleas for advice on how to start learning about something new. When a customer asks me my favorite drink, they are really asking for help in deciding which drink to try. Ah, the coyness of the first exploratory steps into the unfamiliar. Therefore, when someone who knows my love of Westerns asks me what my favorite Western is, what they are really asking me is this: which Western would I recommend to a newcomer?
Now that I can do. Here is my list of the top 5 Westerns to-get-you-to-watch-more-Westerns.
Note: The aim of this list is to get you to love Westerns and I will do my best to get you there. I have paired each film with a drink because, well if you hadn’t noticed, that’s kind of my thing.
Let’s start the list off with a classic film at the end of the classic Hollywood Western era. The film, directed by Fred Zimmerman and starring Gary Cooper, was produced during the second Red Scare, otherwise known as McCarthyism. In fact, Carl Foreman, the film’s writer and producer, was blacklisted during production by the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and fled to Britain before the film was released. The film tells the story of a chicken-shit town facing the return of an ex-convict and his gang of outlaws vowing revenge on the man who put him behind bars. That man is Marshal Will Kane, played by Gary Cooper, who has recently wed his Quaker wife and vowed to be a pacifist. Fat chance because he alone is the only one in town willing to stand up to the outlaws and their leader. The film is very much a metaphor for American society at the time, especially Hollywood who stood by and allowed many innocent citizens be blacklisted and demonized by a fear-mongering HUAC–people like my arch-nemesis, John Wayne (fist to the sky–damn you, Wayne!). High Noon was also the first Hollywood film to play back in near-real time. That is to say, while Marshal Kane–the long arm of the law–watches the long arm of the clock, the audience watches it with him. This enhances the sense of suspense and foreboding as we await the story’s exciting conclusion.
Enjoy High Noon with a nice Vodka tonic. Drop a cranberry or cherry in there as a garnish. The taste profile will be sharp and bold like a black and white film, with a slight hint of communism.
What would a modern Hollywood western be without a chance to tell the bad guy’s side of the story? Originally a short story by Elmore Leonard, this film is one of those rare instances when the screenplay deviates far from the original story and the film is actually better for it. In 3:10 to Yuma, Russell Crowe plays a crime boss on his way to jail, escorted by a 3-limbed rancher willing to do anything to save his family’s farm. Crowe’s character shows what appears to be a good side, perhaps due in part to regret. As the film progresses the audience is left wondering not only of his true intentions but of his final ones as well. Top-notch acting, a terrific script, and brilliant directing on James Mangold’s part make this a Western that will make you want to see another one as soon as it’s done.
Enjoy it with a nice, smooth bourbon whiskey. Drop a large ice-cube in it and sip away. Are you not entertained?! Whoops, sorry wrong movie.
No doubt this is on everyone’s top Westerns list, but I couldn’t let my desire to be obscure or original rob you of a potential romance with the genre. This movie is filled with great dialogue and good cinematography. Many of us who grew up on Westerns were left having to decide between Clint Eastwood or John Wayne. One was partial to showing a less villainous side to Natives (like in The Outlaw Josie Wales) and the other loved to be a racist bag o’ dribble. Well, you could probably guess which one I chose and yes, I am well aware that Clint Eastwood is a Republican and has an affinity for talking to chairs, but he’s old now and I was young then. All I knew is he didn’t kill as many “Indians” and back then that was the best I could ask for. In fact, it’s still the best I could ask for from Hollywood, but what can you do? Make a film yourself? Precisely. Back to the topic. Unforgiven explores the end of another “bad guy.” A man who would eventually find his old ways were never that far behind him. This is Hollywood once again trying to get us to root for the villain by watching him try to outrun his past. This film explores a question that we all ponder from time to time: Is there such a thing as redemption? Who really knows? Certainly not Clint. Just wait for the final shootout.
Irish whiskey for this one. Pure, burn your nose, Irish Whiskey. Now you can have that Eastwood rasp in your voice you always wanted.
Leave it to the Australians to take something us Americans have made our bread and butter and destroy us with it. Forget about all our, “Can the bad guy be a good guy?” mumbo-jumbo! The Australian answer is most assertively: No. Here is a true and very realistic Western directed by John Hillcoat and starring Guy Pearce. This Western is not for the squeamish, but I hope you would have seen the previous movies on the list to prepare you for this one. It is not forgiving to any of the “bad guys” on either side of the law. Criminals and officers are given their “propers” and the film’s hero, played by Pearce, is plagued by his own hand in the story’s tragic events. This film doesn’t wonder if a bad man can be redeemed, but rather boldly states that we are morally obligated to do what is right no matter the cost. Another plus to this film is its portrayal of Aboriginal culture in Australia during the late 19th century, for which the producers took the massive effort to depict accurately.
Have an ice-cold lager with this one. The sweltering scenes will make you feel hot even on the coldest days. The Proposition, it’s Australian for Western.
1. Once Upon a Time in the West
The best movie to explain to the world why I love Westerns and why they should too is Sergio Leone’s epic film. It is a movie that has it all–gunfights, women, dramatic change, revenge, long-range cinematography, and a brilliant villain. Like Tarantino’s Django and John Hillcoat’s Proposition, there is something to be said about directors who were inspired by a genre and pay homage to it with their films. Tarantino has brought us full circle, but one of the original directors to pay homage to the American Western with their own version was Sergio Leone. When someone asks me why I like Westerns so much, I almost immediately ask them if they like The Odyssey. Most of the time their answer is yes. Who doesn’t look fondly upon that story? It has it all. Myths and legends, a long arduous journey through literal hell and back, and ultimately love, loyalty, and betrayal. These are all the things a true Western also holds, especially Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West. The film depicts the journey of a tragic hero on a trail of vengeance. Along the way, he crosses paths with a myriad of cliche western characters on their own journeys: a “whore” with a vendetta of her own, a “half-breed” scout trying to stake his claim, and a ruthless “mercenary” sans a conscience. All of this takes place on the precipice of a dramatic change in the American landscape. The scope of the birth of modern America dwarfs these characters, yet we are sucked in by powerful storytelling to each of their individual journeys. That is the brilliance of Sergio Leone and the true Western. A genre that takes place on such a large landscape yet has the capacity to draw you near to the characters in it. A good Western film is a sweeping shot of an endless frontier and an extreme close up of a character’s internal conflict. The true Western zooms and retracts, pushes and pulls, and brings about all the emotions an epic story should. In Leone’s West, it is never simply about good versus evil, but about the consequential tragedy and greatness of America’s expansion. A story filled with violence, sadness, destruction, and creation. That is what the Western tries to describe in 2 hours, and in Leone’s shining example, it most emphatically succeeds.
Enjoy this one with a good blended scotch, topped off with a splash of club soda. Let the smokiness bring you in and the suds send you back.
That concludes this list. Cheers!