Top Western Movies, Part 2

The Wild Bunch (1969) Director: Sam Peckinpah / Stars: William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, Edmond O’Brien
As the West is tamed, a group of aging outlaws look for one last big score. The bloody band of outlaw brothers flee to Mexico in 1913, where death awaits at the hands of a corrupt general and his guerrilla army. The Wild Bunch shot holes in the Western, lots and lots of bullet holes. Instead of sanitized deaths, director Sam Peckinpah’s take on violence is epic, bloody and choreographed in slow motion—thought to be a political statement against the Vietnam War, but he denied it. “I was trying to tell a simple story about bad men in changing times,” he said amid the hail of criticism. “You feel a great sense of loss when these killers reach the end of the line.” The influential film heralded the end of the line for traditional Westerns as well.


The Searchers (1956) / Director: John Ford / Stars: John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, Ward Bond
Civil War veteran Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) spends years searching for a niece (Natalie Wood) captured by the Comanche who slaughtered her family. His motivation curdles as he inches forward against the spectacular Monument Valley backdrop along with his brother’s adopted son, a half-breed Indian (Jeffrey Hunter). Declining to offer up another good guy/bad guy trope, the subversive and highly influential film depicts the usually heroic Wayne as a racist antihero caught in a karmic cycle of fear, hatred, and violence.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) / Director: George Roy Hill / Stars: Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Katharine Ross, Strother Martin
A couple of lovable bank robbers jump out of Wyoming’s frying pan and into Bolivia’s line of fire as they head to South America to escape the law. Screenwriting legend William Goldman provides the modern-day dialogue and Burt Bacharach the fresh soundtrack (can you imagine “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” in a John Wayne flick?). With their unparalleled onscreen chemistry and snappy repartee, Redford and Newman ushered in the modern-day buddy picture, followed by the likes of The Man Who would Be King, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, Lethal Weapon and many more.


The Magnificent Seven (1960) / Director: John Sturges / Stars: Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Eli Wallach, Robert Vaughn, James Coburn, Horst Buchholz, Brad Dexter
The magnificent Akira Kurosawa film “The Seven Samurai” finds expression on another continent as a band of outlaws (led by Yul Brynner) help Mexican townspeople defend their homes against villains (led by Eli Wallach). In it for the money at first, the outlaws (each with his own personality) end up bonding with the villagers and decide to fight even when their own survival looks unlikely. A harbinger of the more realistic, fatalistic films of the 1960s and 70s, McQueen’s character says at the end, “We lost. We always lose.”


The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) Director: John Ford / Stars: James Stewart, John Wayne, Vera Miles, Lee Marvin
Stewart plays Ransom Stoddard, an Easterner who gained famed for supposedly killing a notorious outlaw Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), and now as a U.S. senator returns home for the funeral of an old friend Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). The truth comes out, but, as in real life, the legend remains more useful.

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