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Nine Overlooked Classic Westerns

Nine Overlooked Classic Westerns

The Western was a movie staple for decades. It seemed the genre that would never die, feeding the fantasies of one generation after another of young boys who galloped around their backyards, playgrounds, and brick streets on broomsticks, banging away with their Mattel cap pistols. Something about a man on a horse set against the boundless wastes of Monument Valley, the crackle of saddle leather, two men facing off in a dusty street under the noon sun connected with the free spirit in every kid.

The American movie – a celluloid telling that was more than a skit – was born in a Western: Edwin S. Porter’s 11- minute The Great Train Robbery (1903). Thereafter, Westerns grew longer, they grew more complex. The West – hostile, endless, civilization barely maintaining a toehold against the elements, hostile natives, and robber barons – proved an infinitely plastic setting. In a place with no law, and where will and desire and ambition could – and usually were – enforced at the point of a gun, there seemed no story which couldn’t find a malleable setting in the Old West, from plain ol’ rootin’ tootin’ adventures to political allegories, social commentary, and revisionist reconsideration of American mythology.

The genre reached a creative peak during the 1960s and 1970s. At a time when America seemed to be questioning all of its creation myths, there seemed no better place for that examination than in one of its most persistent myths — the West – and Western movies poured out in a flood. Some 200 Westerns hit U.S. screens between 1960 and 1978, with over 70 turned out 1969-1972 alone. This was the era of Hombre (1967), McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), A Man Called Horse (1970), Jeremiah Johnson (1972), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Little Big Man (1970), Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), The Wild Bunch (1969), and Sergio Leone’s cycle of Clint Eastwood-starring “spaghetti” Westerns culminating in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966).

But by the late 1970s, after seven decades of remarkably consistent popularity, the genre was fading. Maybe it was the glut of men-on-horseback flicks, maybe too many of them had been just plain bad, maybe an overdose of revisionism had made the form too unpalatable; too much social commentary, not enough fun. Certainly by the 1980s, key to the audience’s waning appetite for the Western was that the form simply didn’t work anymore. It was too sedate, the action too small in scale. A man fending off hostile Indians with a lever-action Winchester didn’t cut it next to screen-filling intergalactic battles, wizardry and magic, rampaging monsters, and all the other effects-fed forms which came to dominate the box office. Maybe the Old West had simply gotten too old; too far back in antiquity to resonate with a young audience characterized by a cultural disconnect with the times and tastes which predated them.

Oh, there would still be the occasional, notable hit: Eastwood’s melancholy Unforgiven (1992);Kevin Costner’s sledgehammer of noble revisionism in Dances with Wolves (1990);the flyweight goof, Maverick (1994). But the Western, as a box office cornerstone, as a persistent audience favorite, as a broomstick-riding young boy’s fantasy-feeder, had lost its place.

There are still Westerns we remember, and Western filmmakers – like a John Ford, a Howard Hawks – that still stand high in the American canon. Serious cineastes still salute Ford as a master and never better than when he reveled in the legendary West of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and The Searchers (1956). Hawks had Red River (1948) and Rio Bravo (1959), Delmer Daves had 3:10 to Yuma (1957) and Cowboy (1958), Budd Boetticher had his tight, little Randolph Scott westerns, and Anthony Mann his psychologically heated collaborations with James Stewart. We remember the allegorical High Noon (1952), and the epic sweep of How the West Was Won (1962) and the brooding melancholy of The Ox Bow Incident (1943).

In their shadow, but riding high in the saddle nonetheless, were others. Perhaps they never attained the status of classics, they never had the poetic resonance of a Ford, the compact cohesion of a Boetticher, the he-man myth-making of Hawks. But something still happened for you when you saw their heroes climb up in the saddle, give their mounts some heel, and head off in a cloud of dust.

1- The Professionals (1966). Directed by Richard Brooks. Adapted from Frank O’Rourke’s novel by Richard Brooks.

I don’t know why The Professionals isn’t remembered as well as, or rated among the all-time great Westerns. I’d go one step further; it should be among the all-time great action/adventures with possibly one of the best Western ensembles since The Magnificent Seven. The credit goes to Brooks, always an intelligent, creatively ambitious filmmaker interested serious, adult stories. Despite its rip-roaring nature, The Professionals is no exception.

The Mexican-born wife (Claudia Cardinale) of a Texas millionaire (Ralph Bellamy) has been kidnapped by a bandito/revolutionary (Jack Palance) and taken south of the border. Bellamy hires a crack team of specialists led by ex-soldier Lee Marvin (backed by Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, and Woody Strode) to get her back. The trek south is grueling, the raid on Palance’s camp daring, and the long ride back marked by as many plot twists as there are bends in the road.

What distinguishes The Professionals from most actioners is the history Brooks gives his principals: Marvin, Lancaster, and Palance had once fought side-by-side in the Mexican Revolution. Disillusioned, Marvin and Lancaster had left and have been scratching around ever since for a quick buck. That undertone of rueful melancholy gives Professionals an emotional hue few action flicks even attempt.

Facing off with his friend-now-foe Lancaster, Palance understands Lancaster’s cynicism while trying to explain his own tattered but undying commitment: “We stay because we believe. We leave because we are disillusioned. We come back because we are lost. We die because we are committed.”

2- El Dorado (1966). Directed by Howard Hawks. Adapted from Harry Brown’s novel by Leigh Brackett.

Rio Bravo is considered one of Hawks’ best and it may be the better piece of cinema, but this de facto remake is, I think, immensely more fun.

Gunfighter John Wayne and town marshal Robert Mitchum are old buddies. Wayne has been approached by nasty land grabber Ed Asner to work for him in a range war, but Wayne won’t go up against his friend and leaves town. Some months later, he hears Mitchum has become a laughable drunk and a new ace gunman is being brought in to take care of him. Wayne rides back to help Mitchum, in turn helped by a rather inept James Caan who owes Wayne for saving his life.

That’s the key to Brackett’s story; criss-crossing moral debts: Wayne owes Mitchum and the family Asner has been trying to run off; Caan owes Wayne; Mitchum owes his own self-respect to try to gather himself together and become the man he once was.

While Brackett’s script gives the proceedings enough dramatic heft to get us caring about how it all plays out, it’s also funny as hell. El Dorado doesn’t take itself nearly as seriously as Rio Bravo does, and Brackett composes a perfectly balanced piece of action (choreographed with characteristic flair by Hawks) and wit. Take this bit where Wayne — chasing a gunman with a bad leg who has run by the shotgun-armed Caan – comes across Caan in the street:

“Did you get him?” Wayne asks.

“Who?” Caan blithely replies.

“The fella that ran outta the church!”

“Well, yes and no.”

“Yes and no? Did you or didn’t you?”

“I hit the sign, and the sign hit him.”

Exasperated, now: “Well, that’s great.”

“He was limping when he left!”

“He was limping when he got here!”

3- Escape from Fort Bravo (1953). Directed by John Sturges. Written by Frank Fenton, Phillip Rock, and Michael Pate.

You can’t talk about Westerns without mentioning at least one cavalry v. Indians pic. I know Ford’s cavalry films particularly Fort Apache (1948) and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon – are considered the gold standard, but Ford’s penchant for the sentimental and the romantic never sat quite well with me. My favorite is Escape from Fort Bravo, a movie as tough and hard as the sun-baked desert where it takes place.

It’s the Civil War, and Fort Bravo is an undermanned Union prison for Confederates far out on the southwestern frontier surrounded by hostile Mescalero Apaches. While the fort commander (Carl Benton Reid) always has it in mind that he may one day have to arm his rebel prisoners to fight off the Apaches, his subordinate, William Holden, is an unbending, unyielding warden with no qualms about bringing back runaways in humiliating fashion. Holden’s hard shell finally gives way when Eleanor Parker comes to town. When it turns out she is part of an escape plan involving her rebel lover (John Forsythe), Holden vows to brink the escapees back for a harsh justice, including – and especially — Parker. But on the return, they are ambushed by a band of Mescaleros. In the bare shelter of a small hollow, the small band – fighting together – try to hold off the Apaches until help comes. With only the barest of elements – a shallow hole, empty ground, some far off rises– Sturges’ creates a masterful bit of action movie-making in the third act fight between Holden and his small band and the Apaches.

Ford was in love with the idea of the West, but Sturges saw that the scabrous outlands of the southwest were no place for romanticism and soft hearts. His men are hard; not macho, strutting hard, but hard out of necessity, hard from the personal armor they build around themselves as a means of survival.

Best moment: Half of Holden’s people are dead, the others wounded, and there’s Powell. In an attempt to save the still-living by having the Mescaleros think he’s the lone survivor, Holden climbs out of their little shelter and suicidally walks toward them. As the cliché goes, the silence – broken only by the wind — is deafening. The Mescaleros come out of their distant positions, small figures on the white bluffs outlined against a startlingly blue sky, and then there’s the exquisitely unbearable suspense of waiting for the inevitable first shot to be fired.

4- Rio Conchos (1964). Directed by Gordon Douglas. Adapted from Clair Huffaker’s novel by Joseph Landon and Huffaker.

The Civil War is not long over. Richard Boone is a one-time rebel officer obsessed with killing Apaches to revenge the wife and child lost in an Indian massacre. Stuart Whitman is a cavalry officer responsible for losing a shipment of new repeating rifles. Boone is not-so-gently coaxed into helping Whitman find a Confederate renegade who has set up camp in Mexico and plans to give the repeaters to Apaches and set them loose north of the border to avenge the South’s defeat.

What breaks Rio Conchos out of the usual “impossible mission” genre are the roiling inner lives of its principals. Caustic, bitter, and brutal, Boone is a classic anti-hero, so filled with hate for the killers of his family that he blows his group’s cover when he attacks a similarly hate-filled Apache chief during the rifle trade. And there’s Edmond O’Brien’s psychically fractured renegade reb officer, babbling his insanely grandiose plans for a southern resurrection as he dodders around a half-finished recreation of a plantation house.

With not a Good Guy in sight, and a violent, tragic ending in which obsession and hate trump common sense, Rio Conchos passes as a Western noir. As good as this flick is, I’d recommend watching it just to see the closing crane shot: as deft a “money shot” and “button” as you’re likely to see.

5- The Fastest Gun Alive (1956). Directed by Russell Rouse. Adapted from Frank D. Gilroy’s story, “The Last Notch,” by Gilroy and Rouse.

They called them “psychological Westerns” – Westerns where the threats were as much inside a man’s head as they were out in the dusty streets and arid badlands. The grandfather of the form is Henry King’s 1950 The Gunfighter, but this one’s a worthy descendant.

Glenn Ford is a nice-guy store-keep, but he’s starting to bridle at the constantly rehashed story of a gunfight in a nearby town. When Ford mouths off that the blatherer doesn’t know what he’s talking about, his friends and neighbors are dismissive – until Ford returns with a gun of his own and puts on a display in the street which leaves the townspeople judging him to be – you guessed it – the fastest gun alive. But that shooting in the next town was by ruthless bank robber Broderick Crawford who thinks he’s the fastest gun alive. When Crawford and his gang pass through Ford’s town and Crawford hears word of Ford’s feat of speed and marksmanship, he threatens to burn down the town unless Ford faces him in the street. Ford may be fast, but now he confesses what’s really been eating at him: he’s never drawn down on a man, and still carries the guilt of his town marshal father’s death.

There’s not a lot of action here, but a slow, deliberate, ultimately relentless build-up to the final confrontation. It’s a fine cast that sells this: Crawford’s psychotically obsessed gunman, his deliciously droll back-up John Dehner, but especially Glenn Ford. He’s no hero: he’s sick to his stomach with fear and you feel it with him. After one of his neighbors (Leif Erickson) has offered to take his place against Crawford, Ford takes his gun and tries to ready himself to go out into the street. As Erickson starts to tell Ford he doesn’t need to do this, Ford, his voice tight with fear, says, “Don’t say a word, Lou…because a word is about all it’d take.”

6- Invitation to a Gunfighter (1964). Directed by Richard Wilson. Written by Hal Goodman & Larry Klein, Alvin Sapinsley, Elizabeth Wilson and Richard Wilson.

And speaking of psychological Westerns, damned near everyone in this flick could do with some time on a shrink’s couch. That also makes this – for the patient viewer – an unusually emotionally dense oater.

Just after the Civil War, reb soldier George Segal has returned to his hometown to find his girlfriend married to another man and his family farm confiscated and sold off by Pat Hingle, the Bible-quoting, string-pulling, manipulative power in town. Hingle puts out a call for a gunfighter to rid the town of this last rebel and inadvertently winds up with Yul Brynner, an ice-blooded killer who seems to see through to each individual’s flaws…then enjoys poking at them. But behind Brynner’s cool exterior are his own demons.

Invitation is a stew of prejudice, guilt, obligation, false faces and spiteful hate. It might be a little too soapy for some, too deliberate in its pace for others, but for someone wanting a little bit more than dust and bullets, you might want to take up this Invitation (ok, groan, yeah, I know, but I couldn’t resist).

7- The Scalphunters (1968). Directed by Sydney Pollack. Written by William W. Norton.

A comic Western about racism. That’s right; you saw all those words in the same sentence: “comic,” “Western,” “racism.” Comedy Westerns are tough enough to pull off without becoming exercises in plain silliness, but to throw a hot button social issue into the mix compounds the challenge several fold. Norton’s script is up to the mark, and Pollack – always an intelligent director who liked his movies with some kind of meat on their bones – does its mix of action, humor, and barbed comment justice.

In pre-Civil War Texas, Burt Lancaster is a trapper on his way to town with a load of valuable pelts. One of the local Apaches (Armando Silvestre) takes umbrage that Lancaster has been trapping on tribal land and takes Lancaster’s furs. Not a completely unreasonable guy, the Apache pays Lancaster with an escaped slave (Ossie Davis). Lancaster tracks the Apaches but before he can steal his furs back, Silvestre’s band is attacked by “scalphunters” – a band of murderers who slaughter and scalp the Apaches for bounty money. Davis falls into the hands of the scalphunters, led by Telly Savalas, and tries to play Savalas and his girl (Shelley Winters) off each other to gain his freedom. Meanwhile, Lancaster dogs Savalas’ caravan, trying to get back his furs and Davis who, to Lancaster’s frustration, has no wish to be “liberated” back into slavery.

Refreshingly, the script doesn’t ennoble anyone, including Davis. In fact, the moral of The Scalphunters may be that all men are created equal, the proof being that all men, whatever race, creed, or color, are equally susceptible to the same dumbassedness, and a blindness to it.

That goes for Lancaster, too, even though he holds what loosely passes as the hero role. As his furs are being taken away by Silvestre: “You’re all right, Two Crows. You oughta be a white man. They’d make you captain of the steamboat and president of the bank. Just because you own this damn country!”

8- Bite the Bullet (1975). Directed and written by Richard Brooks.

Not as punchy as The Professionals, but an admirable flick nonetheless, Bullet is about a grueling, big-money, 700-mile cross-country horse race.

Gene Hackman is an apathetic cowboy who gets swept up in the enthusiasm for the race and decides to enter even though it means going up against James Coburn, an old friend and Spanish-American War buddy. As the motley (maybe too motley) assortment of riders pounds their way across boulder-strewn hills, woodland back roads, and cruel desert, Brooks takes swipes at prejudice (in any number of forms), animal cruelty, empty-headed machismo, and the American obsession with winning at any cost.

As he did with The Professionals, Brooks gives his characters a history; they carry with them the weight of their memories. A particularly strong piece is Hackman’s monologue about how he met – and lost – his wife during the war with Spain.

And also as he did with The Professionals, Brooks exercises a gift for a choice bon mot. Hackman leaves Coburn to keep an eye on Jan-Michael Vincent, a self-styled Stetson-wearing tough-guy, after he’s beat hell out of him for calling a miscast Candice Bergen a whore. Says the curious Coburn: “Why don’t you tell me the story of your life. Just leave out everything but the last five minutes.”

It’s not always a particularly subtle film, and it goes waaay off the rails for a bit about three-quarters through with some half-assed subplot about a prison break, but it gets back on track for a finish that’s triumphant..and, without cheating, touching.

9- Waterhole #3 (1967). Directed by William A. Graham. Written by Joseph T. Steck and Robert R. Young.

Ok, you’ve had your social commentary, you’ve had your frontier angst, you’ve had your cowboy hearts of darkness. Now, you just want to kick back and have some fun.

James Coburn, in the kind of role he practically patented in the 1960s, plays a wolfish, fast-talking, quick-thinking, conniving gambler who comes into possession of gold from an Army payroll robbery. Then the stolen gold is stolen from him by hot-headed marshal Carroll O’Connor, then stolen back by the original thieves which prompts Coburn and O’Connor to team up to steal it back and — … Well, you get the picture. There’s gunfights in a whorehouse, more lying than a presidential debate, and O’Connor’s daughter (Margaret Blye) claiming rape (although even she’s not sure that’s what it was) to anybody who’ll listen only to be ignored, even by her own father (who seems more concerned with Coburn’s having stolen his prized horse), in the chase after the loot.

A lot of it, admittedly, is un-PC by contemporary standards, and it does fizzle out toward the end, but if you can give in to it, and enjoy Coburn, O’Connor, Claude Akins, Joan Blondell, James Whitmore, Bruce Dern, and the always-scary Timothy Carey playing the hell out of the goofiness, it’s a fun watch, particularly if you buy into the pic’s philosophy, sung by Greek chorusing balladeer Roger Miller: “Do unto others before they do it unto you.”

– Bill Mesce