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The greatest Westerns: a list to get ornery about

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A few months ago the film reviewers of Britain’s Time Out magazine compiled their list of the 50 Greatest Westerns. It was timed to coincide with the UK release of Kelly Reichardt’s feminist-revisionist Western Meek’s Cutoff, which placed 45 (and might have done better given the originality of its vision and the subtlety of its execution). It’s an excellent list—bold, eclectic, informed, and ambitious. It’s also unapologetically modern or, if you like, cinematically ageist. There’s not one silent entry, so John Ford’s epics The Iron Horse and 3 Bad Men are omitted along with the William S. Hart classic Tumbleweeds, which might, perhaps, have seemed creaky to Time Out’s post-boomer demographic.

No room on the list: John Ford's silent '3 Bad Men.'

Of Ford’s talkies, his Cavalry trilogy is unrepresented—She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, with its gorgeous Technicolor cinematography by Winton C. Hoch, is a major loss. Also missing are Anthony Mann’s The Furies, Man of the West, and The Man From Laramie, while Mann’s Winchester ’73 (4th) is dubiously placed above another of the five tenacious Westerns he made with James Stewart, the brutal The Naked Spur (29th). Two of Budd Boetticher’s seven rugged Randolph Scott Westerns are included, but not the tense Ride Lonesome. Other absentees include The Big Trail, the 1931 Cimarron, Duel in the Sun, The Gunfighter, Run of the Arrow, the 1957 3.10 to Yuma, John Huston’s The Unforgiven, Major Dundee, and The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid. Neither Henry Hathaway’s True Grit nor the Coen Brothers’ estimable remake is listed, and Open Range is the lone Kevin Costner film, there being no place for Silverado or, unsurprisingly, Dances With Wolves.

The anti-Westerners: Warren Beatty and Julie Christie in Robert Altman's 'McCabe & Mrs Miller.'

The angel of death: Alan Ladd in George Stevens' 'Shane.'

Countercultural hipness is favored in the list over traditionalism, to a fault. Monte Hellman’s The Shooting (13th) is a truly strange, nihilistic Beckettian Western—haunting and hallucinatory—but no one can persuade me it’s more resonant than Wagon Master (40th), Ride the High Country (34th), The Naked Spur (29th), Rio Bravo (28th), Once Upon a Time in the West (26th), Shane (24th), Stagecoach (23rd), High Noon (20th), The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (18th), Red River (17th), Unforgiven (15th), or The Wild Bunch (14th).

While I agree with the placing of Samuel Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (Time Out ranks its 2nd, I rank it 3rd), the selection of Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs Miller as the greatest of all Westerns is jarring. My objection is not that it posits an alternative myth—like many of Altman’s films—or that it’s set in the Pacific Northwest; Mexican Westerns like Peckinpah’s epochal The Wild Bunch and Robert Aldrich’s Vera Cruz (37th) also stretch the boundaries of the West. (John Ford’s Seven Women [30th] is Western-like but set in Mongolia and therefore ineligible…still, nice try.) McCabe’s depiction of the turn-of-the-century West, the role of prostitution, and the violence deployed in building it are compelling, and the elegiac tone ineffable. It is a great film—maybe “perfect,” as Roger Ebert claims—but, intentionally, it doesn’t look or feel like a Western. It could more helpfully be categorized with great post-frontier Westerns like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, There Will Be Blood, even The Last Picture Show—even with a meta-Western like The Last Movie (1969)—rather than with the likes of Pat Garrett, Shane, and The Searchers.

The abductor: Henry Brandon as Scar in John Ford's 'The Searchers.'

The latter, Ford’s and John Wayne’s masterpiece, places third on Time Out’s list, but in my view it is, despite its awkward roughhousing, the Citizen Kane or King Lear of Westerns, unimpeachably the best. Although The Wild Bunch is set in 1913, a generation after the closing of the frontier, it is closer in spirit to the Westerns it deconstructs—those of Ford, Mann, Boetticher, Howard Hawks, William Wellman, and a few others—than to other post-frontier Westerns.

Instead of fifty, here’s a personal score of Westerns that betray my traditionalist, Fordian bias:

1. The Searchers (1956, John Ford)
2. Shane (1953, George Stevens)
3. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973, Samuel Peckinpah)
4. The Wild Bunch (1969, Peckinpah)
5. Red River (1948, Howard Hawks)
6. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962, Ford)
7. Unforgiven (1992, Clint Eastwood)
8. The Naked Spur (1952, Anthony Mann)
9. Stagecoach (1939, Ford)
10. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968, Sergio Leone)
11. My Darling Clementine (1946, Ford)
12. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007, Andrew Dominik)
13. 3 Bad Men (1926, Ford)
14. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966, Leone)
15. High Noon (1952, Fred Zinnemann)
16. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949, Ford)
17. McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971, Robert Altman)
18. The Man From Laramie (1955, Mann)
19. Ride Lonesome (1959, Budd Boetticher)
20. Wagon Master (1950, Ford)

And here is the full Time Out list:

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