Six shooters, ten-gallon hats, 12 gauges and five card tricks. The maths of the Old West were as simple as its myths were complex. The same goes for the Western, where the rich raw materials – cold-eyed gunslingers, heartless cattle barons, vicious henchmen, strong-willed dames – were forged into Hollywood lore by directors as great as Ford, Hawks, Peckinpah and Leone. But with hundreds of horse operas to chose from, where do you start? We’ve put together our guide to mastering the genre in ten glorious steps. It’s not a top ten, nor a Desert Island wish-list, but a whipcracking gallop through the broad Western spectrum that will enable you to appear an expert in any Western conversation and hold your head up with the talk turns to stand-offs and shoot-outs. Prepare to learn…
Director: Fred Zinnemann
Tagline*: “The story of a man who was too proud to run.”
Forget the rows over its political subtext for a moment and consider what makes High Noon great: heart-pounding suspense. Feel your blood pressure rise as the clock ticks ominously towards twelve, the moment Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald) and his goons will roll into town hungry and avenge themselves bloodily on the sheriff who put them away. Gary Cooper is majestic as their adversary, Will Kane. Crumpled by the betrayal of his community and left to face the gunmen alone, only his moral courage prevents him fleeing town a broken man. Is it a metaphor for McCarthyism? The Cold War? The value of a good watch? Who cares? Just lean forward and enjoy. Tick, tick…
Iconic moment*: Kane chucking his badge, and idealism, into the Hadleyville dust.
What to quote*: “Deep down inside, people just don’t care,” Lon Chaney’s bitter ex-lawman tells Cooper. We do, Coop. Really.
Pub trivia*: Despite what you’ve read, High Noon doesn’t run in real time. It begins with the clock reading 10:35am and ends 15 minutes after the noon train steams into Hadleyville – 105 minutes squeezed into the film’s 85 minute run-time. But hey, we forgive them.
Further reading*… The Ox-Boy Incident (1943), Bad Day At Black Rock (1955), Lonely Are The Brave (1962), The Virginian (1962), High Plains Drifter (1972)
Director: George Stevens*
Tagline*: “There's a score to settle... and this is it!”
Not the greatest Western ever filmed – in fact, a dusty cattle-drive from it – but essential viewing for any budding aficionado. It’s Hollywood’s ultimate Western blueprint that ticks off the key ingredients. Mythic stranger? Check. Besieged homesteaders? Check. Panaromic vistas? Check. A final, climatic showdown before the hero concedes that he has no place this world? Check and check. Shane may have it cornball moments but there’s poetry in every frame and, in Alan Ladd’s stand-up gunman, it boasts a definite Western hero foreshadowing every clinking, spurred, salon-door-swinging gunslinger from Josey Wales to Harmonica, and, ahem, the Waco Kid.
Iconic moment: Could it be anything other than Shane’s final walk over the horizon?
W*hat to quote*: "Shane. Shane. Come back!" Little Joey (Brandon De Wilde) secures his place in movie folklore.
Pub trivia: Jean Arthur, a committed animal lover, inspected the on-set livestock regularly to make sure they were kept in adequate conditions.
Further reading… Cat Ballou (1965), Pale Rider (1985)
Director: Howard Hawks
Tagline: “Greatest spectacle ever!”
Brutish, single-minded and often pretty unlikeable, John Wayne’s cattle man Tom Dunson is regularly compared with another of the Duke’s Civil War veterans, The Searchers’ Ethan Edwards. Unlike Edwards though, Dunson has the capacity to see reason during his epic 9000-strong cattle drive along the Chisholm Trail, albeit only when the bullying, boozing and fist-fighting doesn’t pan out and a mutiny is stirred up by his surrogate son. Dunson’s rivalry with Montgomery Clift’s young upstart and odd-couple chemistry with Walt Brennan’s salty old-timer builds the tension, as the threat of Indians and bankruptcy drives him to the bottle. Howard Hawks’ finest Western, it’s an intimate drama nestled within a sweeping cattle-drive epic. Hee-yaw!
Iconic moment*: That immense cattle stampede, captured in all its adrenaline-surging mayhem by Russell Harland’s camera, still takes the breath away.
What to quote: “Never liked seein’ strangers. Maybe it’s because no stranger ever good-newsed me.” Brennan explains his crankiness.
Pub trivia: Montgomery Clift passed on the role of Dude in Rio Bravo, unwilling to reunite with Wayne and Brennan after enduring their homophobia on the set of Red River.
Further reading… Rio Grande (1950), Rio Bravo (1959), El Dorado (1966)
Director: John Ford
Tagline: "He had to find her... he had to find her."
The greatest Western ever made and an influence coursing through the veins of films as diverse as Taxi Driver and Star Wars, John Ford’s elegy to Monument Valley is everything a horse opera should be: morally complex, beautifully shot, perfectly scored, operatic and, yup, full of horses. The lines between the traditionally rapacious Comanche and the peace-loving settler kin are as blurred as Ford’s VistaVision photography of the wintry West is crisp. John Wayne’s lonely steppenwolf Ethan Edwards, hunting down his missing niece in a very literal sense, has politics straight from a BNP handbook, but as anti-heroes go, there’s none more compelling.
Iconic moment: Ethan’s final departure, framed by that door lintel, is one of cinema’s defining images.
What to quote: “That’ll be the day” – Ethan’s catchphrase lends Buddy Holly a handy song title.
Pub trivia: David Lean watched The Searchers repeatedly while working out how to shoot Lawrence Of Arabia.
Further reading… She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949), Flaming Star (1960), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), The Shootist (1976), Lone Star (1995)
Director: Anthony Mann*
Tagline*: “IN THE ROLE THAT FITS HIM LIKE A GUN FITS A HOLSTER! GARY COOPER as the MAN OF THE WEST”
This dark-edged Gary Cooper/Anthony Mann collaboration only happened because of Mann’s acrimonious falling out with James Stewart. And a good thing it was too. Cooper’s Link Jones, a reformed crim feigning villainy to escape Lee J. Cobb’s cold-blooded sadist, is more complex and conflicted than High Noon’s stand-up sheriff Will Kane. His train journey to Fort Worth, and new beginnings, only sucks him back into the morass. Cooper has never been better, while Mann is a master of cranking tension, Julie London’s grim, forced striptease showing him utterly unafraid to trample on audience scruples. He brings a uniquely noir touch to the Old West. The result is his finest Western, capturing classic themes backdropped by the sparse, landscape and boasting DNA the Coen brothers would splice into No Country For Old Men.
Iconic moment: On the point of strangling Jack Lord’s gang member, Link is forced to decide between his violent past and his future as a reformed man.
What to quote: “There's a point where you either grow up and become a human being or you rot, like that bunch.” Link draws his line in the Californian sand.
Pub trivia: Clint Eastwood cites Man Of The West as a direct inspiration for Unforgiven.
Further reading... Pursued (1947), Winchester ’73 (1950), 3:10 To Yuma (1957), Open Range (2003), No Country For Old Men (2007)
Director: John Sturges
Tagline*: “They were seven - And they fought like seven hundred!”
Thanks to its status as Sunday telly staple, everyone and their cat knows the plot of John Sturges’ tale of gallantry: seven gunslinging samurai gallop into Mexican town, battle it out with vicious, if ill-defined, bandits, become The Magnificent Three, all set to Elmer Bernstein’s stirring score. Not everyone knows how tough it was to make. Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen were barely on speaking terms (Brynner felt his rival was trying to steal his scenes), while there was fury from the government of Mexico who felt that the film typecast Mexicans as victims and whose censor was ever-present on set. Somehow, amid the uncertainty that plagued John Sturges’ shoot, a rollicking classic was born.
Iconic moment: Horst Buchholz’s devil-may-care, all-guns-blazing sprint through two outhouses full of bandits.
What to quote: “Only the farmers won. We lost. We always lose.” Yul Brynner gloomily accepts that gunslinging isn’t all poker and girls in big skirts.
Pub trivia: When Brynner married Doris Kleiner during the shoot, he used the same set and props as the villagers’ fete. Cheapskate.
Further reading… The Professionals (1966), Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid (1969), ¡Three Amigos! (1986), Silverado (1985)
Director: Sergio Leone
Tagline: “There were three men in her life. One to take her... one to love her... and one to kill her.”
Greater even than the Dollars Trilogy, Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Western captures the West’s watershed moment: gunmen and outlaws violently usurped by the dead-eyed allure of cold cash and profit. Western character staples – the whore-with-a-heart, the enigmatic gunslinger, the sly bandit – are given depth, charisma and their own musical motif (written sight-unseen by Ennio Morricone). The impact of the railroad – the pumping artery of the new West – is encapsulated in one majestic crane shot across the bustling Flagstone. Casting Henry Fonda as Frank, a hired gun whose remaining crumbs of humanity are buried deep beneath a brutal crust of cynicism, was another stroke of genius, delivering a character so far removed from the decency of Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine (a film homaged by the director) as to leave audiences reeling. Broody, troubling and poetic, Leone’s masterpiece is a majestic tombstone to the old frontier.
Iconic moment: Fonda, one of Hollywood’s good guys, guns down a child in cold blood and, in one blue-eyed frame, becomes one of Hollywood’s former good guys. *
What to quote*: “People scare better when they’re dying.” Frank spells out his simple approach to securing land for Morton’s railway company.
Pub trivia: The McBains’ funeral scene is borrowed almost shot-for-shot from Shane.
Further reading… A Fistful Of Dollars (1964), For A Few Dollars More (1965), The Good The Bad And The Ugly (1966)
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Tagline: “Nine men who came too late and stayed too long...”
The Wild Bunch is a revolutionary film in so many ways, it’s hard to name them all. The violence, for one, remains shocking, gruesome, and very, very bloody, shaking up audiences used to a soapy Wild West seen in the TV cowboy quickies of the time. Not only was the bloodshed allegoric of the US’s war in Vietnam, it was intended by Sam Peckinpah to be a form of catharsis for violent acts. Then there’s the multi-camera editing, the spectacular slow-mo, Jerry Fielding’s astonishing score – each provoking regret and end-of-an-era pathos to William Holden’s motley band of characters. They remain as vivid now as they were in 1969. On top of all this, The Wild Bunch introduced modern cinema to the concept of a bullet wound, bringing guts and Gatling guns blasting into our cinemas.
Iconic moment: The final, guns-a-blazing, unbelievably bloody shoot-out.
What to quote: “If they move, kill 'em.”
Pub trivia*: Nicknamed the ‘Battle of Bloody Porch’ by the cast and crew, the final scene used 10,000 blanks and took 12 days to shoot. All in all, there are 325 edits in five minutes of action, an average of one shot per second.
Further reading... Ride The High Country (1962), Major Dundee (1964), Django (1966), Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid (1973), Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia (1974)
Director: Arthur Penn*
Tagline*: “Either the most neglected hero in history or a liar of insane proportion!”
The one from the Native American perspective, Arthur Penn’s picaresque tale flips all Western myths on their head and paints the US Cavalry as the bad guys who gun down our heroes. And as you’d expect from the man who pumped a tonne of lead into the crime thriller with Bonnie And Clyde, there’s nothing conventional about Penn’s Western. Nothing respectful either. Dustin Hoffman is Jack Grabb – ‘Little Big Man’ to the Indians who raised him – a teller of tales taller than the sandstone stacks in Monument Valley. He’s the sole survivor of Little Bighorn, who recounts his 121 year-old life in highly entertaining – if possibly entirely made-up – detail. He’s every Western archetype (settler, cavalryman, Indian) wrapped up in one. It’s fair to say that Little Big Man does for the Cheyenne tribe what Dances With Wolves would do for the Sioux, but does it sillier, ruder and more subversively.
Iconic moment: Custer’s massacre of a Cheyenne village, a powerful, and deliberate, murder, echoes the My Lai massacre in Vietnam.
What to quote: “Sometimes the magic works; sometimes it doesn't.” Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George) wakes reluctantly from his deathbed. The magic worked for Chief George – he picked up an Oscar nomination for the role.*
Pub trivia*: To get sufficient croakiness in his voice to play the 121 year-old Grabb, Hoffman screamed at the top of his lungs for an hour in his dressing room. Wonder what Lawrence Olivier would have made of that.
Further reading… Run Of The Arrow (1957), Blazing Saddles (1970), The Missouri Breaks (1976), Dances With Wolves (1990)
Director: Clint Eastwood
Clint Eastwood looks back at the Western, and his career, with fresh eyes in an epic that recalls John Ford’s finest moments in scope and characterisation. Clint’s world-weary, rusty gunslinger-turned-hapless-pig-farmer William Munny has no illusions over his marginalised place in the world, or his likely fate (“We all have it coming, kid”). He’s a man at war with himself, forced into one final job – killing two cowboys who mutilated a prostitute – by his own poverty. Just as soon as he can remember how to ride and shoot again. Eastwood famously dedicated the movie to his mentors Don Siegel and Sergio Leone; this is his elegy to the dying Old West their films portrayed.
Iconic moment: The death of Little Bill (Gene Hackman), pathos-soaking yet incredibly moving. “Deserve's got nothin' to do with it.”
What to quote: “It's a hell of a thing, killing a man. Take away all he's got and all he's ever gonna have.”
Pub trivia: Unforgiven was only the third Western, after Cimarron and Dances With Wolves, to win the Oscar for Best Picture.
Further reading… The Shootist (1976), Wyatt Earp (1994), Open Range (2003), The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (2007)