By Don Gillette
Most people who claim they don’t like Westerns will watch a Western in a heartbeat if they happen to stumble onto one when they’re clicking the channels. They just won’t tell you about it. So okay—there are some people out there who don’t like Westerns because they don’t understand them. Pardon my sexism, but usually, they’re women.
Please don’t be offended, but this column is kind of slanted toward men. We (men) understand. Both horses and men are big, hairy, sweaty animals and if you ladies are inclined to ride one, we would prefer it be us. Again, this is a matter of choice. Catherine the Great of Russia reportedly had it both ways; she was the exception.
But real men love Westerns. Sometimes the only thing my sensible, left-wing, liberal self and my lunatic, blood-thirsty, right-wing friends can agree on is how much we love Westerns. It’s common ground. They might think Donald Trump is the savior of humanity while I think he should be killed with fire, but pop Wyatt Earp into the Bluray player and we’re the best of buddies.
Westerns were the most popular Hollywood genre from the early days of film right into the 1960’s—and their popularity since then has waxed and waned. We’ll go a few years without a single Western and then somebody will remake 3:10 to Yuma or True Grit and all of a sudden, they’re back in vogue.
The cowboys of the Old West are the American version of the Japanese Samurai warrior or King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table—they’re all bound by a code of ethics, honor, and chivalry. The “bad guys” are usually assholes, but every once in a while bad guys come along who are likeable and have their own moral code—they’re just trying to get by. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, for instance… two likeable clowns trying to earn a dollar. They rob from the rich and give to themselves, but they don’t go overboard with it.
There’s a lot to like about Westerns. Ranches, jails, saloons, prostitutes with hearts of gold, revenge, villains, heroes, honest lawmen, rugged individualists, scenery… and whiskey. “Leave the bottle.”
Netflix is a little light in the streaming Westerns department. I’ll take that up with them next time I pen one of my world-renowned complaint letters. But for right now, these are interesting…
This one happens to be one of my favorite Westerns. The Oscar-winning screenplay was written by William Goldman who also wrote one of my favorite books (Temple of Gold) and this movie is chock-full of memorable quotes. The plot is simple enough; Butch (Paul Newman) and Sundance (Robert Redford) are two outlaws in the Old West who rob trains and banks. They spend the rest of their time trying to elude capture by a posse put together by the Union Pacific Railroad. When they eventually escape to Brazil, they decide to “go straight” and get jobs as payroll guards, but that doesn’t work out so they’re forced to return to their old ways. It’s exciting, hilarious, action-packed, and more fun that anyone would ever expect from a Western. If you haven’t seen it, see it; if you have seen it, see it again.
Multiple Academy Award-winning Unforgiven is a very dark Western. The American Film Institute considers it #4 in the Western genre and it’s on every “Top 100” list ever imagined. Aging outlaw/killer William Munny (Clint Eastwood) takes one last job with his old partner Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman). The job is an Old West-style “contract killing” of a cowboy who disfigured a prostitute in the town of Big Whiskey. Meanwhile, Big Whiskey’s sheriff, Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman), has no intention of allowing any hired assassins in his town and he bans handguns of any sort within the town limits. When British-born gunfighter English Bob (Richard Harris) shows up, also seeking the reward, Little Bill beats him to a pulp. Later, William Munny, racked with fever, is sitting in the saloon when Little Bill spots his hidden pistol. Bill beats Munny savagely and kicks him out of town. Three days later, Munny and Logan carry out the contract—they kill the cowboy who sliced up the prostitute’s face. Logan decides he hasn’t the stomach for killing anymore and heads back home. When Munny learns that Logan was captured, tortured, and killed by Little Bill, he rides into town for a little taste of revenge. This Western is not for everybody—it deals with the ugliness of violence and what it does to those who perpetrate it, regardless of what side of the law they’re on. It’s frank, brutal, emotional, and it elicits strong reactions from anybody who sees it. Don’t miss it. This is one you can watch a dozen times.
One of the best old-school Westerns, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance isn’t about the man who shot Liberty Valance at all. Ranse Stoddard (James Stewart) is traveling to Shinbone to open a law practice when his stagecoach is robbed by a gang of outlaws led by Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). Instead of standing meekly by, Stoddard berates Valance for stealing an heirloom from a widow. Valance beats Stoddard and leaves him on the trail to die, but he’s found by Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) who brings him back to town. The locals nurse him back to health and he eventually opens his law office, but Valance isn’t too keen on that—he wants no obstruction to his control of the town. Fearing for his safety, Stoddard gets a revolver and attempts to learn how to use it. Doniphon helps him learn to shoot and the two become reluctant friends. When Stoddard is nominated to the “Statehood Convention,” Valance freaks and the two face off in the street. Valance toys with Stoddard, first shooting a vase near his head, then shooting him in the arm. Stoddard drops his gun and Valance allows him to pick it up. Stoddard fires off a shot and Valance falls dead in the street. At the statehood convention, Stoddard’s opponent calls his behavior “un-statesmanlike” and Stoddard contemplates withdrawing from the race, but Doniphon calls him aside and confesses that he shot Liberty Valance from an alley, firing at the same time Stoddard did leading to the line, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is as complete a story as you’ll likely find on film. No one-paragraph wrap-up could ever delve into the depth of character and the personalities involved. At the risk of sounding preachy, I really do urge you to watch this one.
Paul Newman again… only Jew to ever star in six Westerns… and each one is a classic. In Hombre, Newman plays John Russell, a spurned passenger in a stagecoach filled with “respectable” people. Russell was raised by Native American Apaches but was later adopted by a white man in town. As an adult, he returned to the Indian reservation to live but when he inherits a hotel, he decides to trade it for a herd of cattle. This means he’s got to take a stagecoach to another city and on that ride, the stagecoach is attacked. Bandits fail to find the money they were after, but they leave the passengers in the middle of the wilderness with very little water. After the attack, Russell leads the passengers in search of the next town. Meanwhile, the bandits decide the money must be in the passengers’ possession and they head out in pursuit. Along the way, the true personalities and prejudices of all the passengers come out; the good, the evil, and everything in between. What we have in Hombre is a classic character study of individuals brought together by chance. This ensemble piece is one of the best.
Anytime I see Tommy Lee Jones, I find it really hard to believe he was Al Gore’s roommate at Harvard. Even more difficult to believe is that he actually went to Harvard because if there ever was a cowboy, it’s Tommy Lee Jones. I can’t imagine the U.S. Supreme Court stealing the presidency away from Tommy Lee Jones like they stole it away from Al Gore. Tommy Lee would have kicked their asses. In The Missing, Tommy Lee plays Samuel Jones, the estranged father of Magdelena Gilkeson (Cate Blanchett), a frontier medicine woman. When her daughter is kidnapped by an Apache witch doctor, she recruits her forgotten father to help her get the girl back. Samuel Jones isn’t really a cowboy, per se, but close enough. And The Missing isn’t really a Western, but close enough. What this Ron Howard film does is combine a Western with a Thriller with an Action movie with a Period Drama while throwing a little mysticism in for good measure. This film is historically accurate even down to the metaphysical aspects and the dialog, but what it’s got going for it is, by far, the gripping, taut, and tense story line. Definitely worth a watch.
I’m going to start off by stealing borrowing a one-sentence description of this movie: “With the help of a German bounty hunter, a freed slave sets out to rescue his wife from a brutal Mississippi plantation owner.” Now, I’ve seen Django Unchained three times—maybe four—and the first thing that crossed my mind when I read that description was: “Who would want to watch this?” However, you can’t depend on this particular synopsis because it’s missing a few key words. Words like “Quentin” and “Tarantino,” for example. I’m not going to wax rhapsodic about Quentin Tarantino because he honestly is about half-nuts and his scripts, taken at face value, are absolutely ridiculous. But there’s something about the way this dude directs and casts his films that makes the ridiculous not only plausible, but completely believable. Graphic violence, blood-thirsty fights, great humor, non-stop action, the foulest of language, and — wait for it — Don Johnson playing the leader of a Ku Klux Klan patrol that can’t see where they’re going because the holes in their hoods aren’t large enough. You know, usually, I can pull off these descriptions and plot summaries fairly easily, but I honestly cannot describe Django Unchained except to ask you to give it 10 minutes. That’s all. Watch it for 10 minutes. If you don’t stay until the end, you’re probably as crazy as Quentin Tarantino.
Raquel Welch in 1968. That’s right, I said it and I’ll say it again in italics: Raquel Welch in 1968. Actually, Bandolero! is a rock solid Western that goes about telling its story in two directions. The first half is very funny and likeable despite its storyline: Dee Bishop (Dean Martin, who’s always good in a Western), a former Quantrill Raider, gets arrested while robbing a bank. The town sends for a professional hangman to hang Bishop and his gang, but Bishop’s brother, Mace Bishop (James Stewart, also always good in a Western) gets word of the hanging, mugs the hangman on the trail, and takes his place. Mace plays along with the town and at the last minute, breaks Dee and the rest of the gang out of jail. They rob the bank as Dee and the gang intended to do in the first place, and take off. This is when the movie turns from light-hearted to serious. The Bishops and their gang have not only robbed the bank, but kidnapped Maria Stone (Raquel Welch) so Sheriff July Johnson (George Kennedy) and his deputy Roscoe go after them and chase them into Mexico where the banditos have little use for Americans. This movie is two films in one; the engaging, happy-go-lucky, first part and the ominous, serious, second part. Granted, it isn’t the greatest Western ever filmed, but it’s entertaining and a good way to kill an evening. Writer Larry McMurtry, in Lonesome Dove, named his sheriff July Johnson and his deputy, Roscoe. And if it’s good enough for Larry McMurtry, it’s good enough for me.
This film is definitely not everyone’s cup of tea; in fact, unless you’re a Wesley Snipes fan or a Blade fan or a Walking Dead fan, you might want to pass. I watched it because I’m a Wesley Snipes fan. I thought the Blade movies were good, so I gave this a try based solely on Mr. Snipes. Turns out that he not only disappointed the Internal Revenue Service, he also disappointed me. In brief, Aman (Snipes) is the son of a nun. Apparently, when this nun said “nun,” she didn’t mean “none” and for that reason, Aman is cursed. Why he was cursed and not the morally casual nun, we never discover. The curse is that whoever Aman shoots comes back from the dead, so eventually, he’s got an entire zombie army of former victims hunting him down. The only saving grace in this movie is Wesley Snipes—and as I said, the IRS snatched him halfway through filming. The zombie stuff and the blood-and-guts is fairly well done, but the story doesn’t make any sense and sometimes the dialog doesn’t seem to match up with what’s going on. In my defense, you’ll notice the title of this article is “Westerns To Watch On Netflix,” not “Best Westerns To Watch On Netflix.”
I’m kidding. Urban Cowboy is a Western like Taco Bell is a restaurant.
How many of my Top Ten Westerns are on Netflix? Two. But keep your eyes peeled if you’re interested in this genre. The really good ones crop up from time to time. Just search using “Westerns” as your criteria. By the way, my Top Ten are:
- The Searchers
- Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
- Lonesome Dove
- High Noon
- Red River
- The Wild Bunch
- The Shootist
You can trust me on Westerns; I spent 9 weeks at Fort Sam Houston, Texas in Combat Medic Training. Never saw a single horse, but the scorpions are the size of German Shepherds.