During the 1950s, Hollywood made hundreds—and I mean hundreds—of Westerns. I know because I started counting them and quit after about 530 Westerns made by the year 1955. My catalog included B-movies, singing westerns, and serials, but didn’t even include TV series, and westerns were a veritable staple of network television in those years.
The genre fell out of favor during the late 60s and early 70s when the certainties of right and wrong and good guys and bad guys got muddled during the social tumult of those years. It just seemed as if the form was spent and didn’t really have a lot to say to contemporary American audiences.
There were a few attempts at reinterpreting the genre in the late 70s and early 1980s, including Arthur Penn’s notable The Missouri Breaks (1976), Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider (1985), and Lawrence Kasdan’s amusing and lively Silverado (1985). But the Western had pretty much stalled out until Eastwood made Unforgiven (1992). This film single-handedly breathed new life into the genre.
The Western is still a relatively uncommon movie these days, but the ones that have come out are generally of a much higher quality than the stuff Hollywood cranked out almost by rote back in the 1950s. Which ones are at the top of the heap, you ask?
One of the best and most popular of this new breed of westerns is 3:10 to Yuma (2007). The film is an ultra-violent and stylish remake of a 1957 version that was only slightly-violent and stylish. I’m a big admirer of both of these movies. The story being told here in both movies is about a poor rancher, Dan Evans (Van Heflin in the original, Christian Bale in the remake) who is tasked with bringing gunman and robber Ben Wade (Glenn Ford or Russell Crowe) to justice by getting him on the 3:10 train to Yuma. Violent hijinks ensue.
The 1957 version stars Glenn Ford and Van Heflin, and features the title song by Frankie Laine. Shot in crisp, striking black and white by cinematographer Charles Lawton, Jr., it’s a bit more visually appealing than the 2007 version. The original story is by Elmore Leonard, the noted American novelist and screenwriter who later penned the novels Get Shorty, Out of Sight, Hombre, and Rum Punch. These were all made into movies (Rum Punch was made as Jackie Brown (1997), and Hombre (1967) starred the great Paul Newman). In an Elmore Leonard novel, the good guys are usually somewhat questionable, and the bad guys are significantly more questionable, but only by a degree. The moral universe is murky, at best.
The 2007 version of 3:10 to Yuma by director James Mangold is vastly entertaining. Heads-up, however: this is a violent film and probably not a great one to watch with the kids. But if you’re looking for a fast-paced Western with blazing pistols and just the right amount of moral ambiguity, 3:10 to Yuma is the movie for you. The modern version explores the relationship that develops between Crowe’s and Bale’s characters in a profoundly moving manner.
The Coen brothers (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen) have also taken on the Western a couple of times with their usual off-kilter but fascinating way of upending traditional story lines. No Country for Old Men is a Western set in the present day and is just outstanding. But you might also want to check out their clever remake of the John Wayne classic True Grit (1969) (the movie that finally won Wayne a Best Actor Oscar). The 2010 update is a rousing rendition of the story where a teenage girl hires a drunken, aging gunfighter to track down her father’s killer. Jeff Bridges takes on the role of Rooster Cogburn, Matt Damon is his laconic Texas Ranger partner on the trip, and Hailee Steinfeld more than holds her own as Mattie Ross, the girl with “true grit.” This movie is just pure fun.
The next three movies are the reason you have a subscription to DVD Netflix. These are small movies, somewhat overlooked, but all worth watching. And where else are you going to find them but in the enormous library of dvd.netflix.com?
Meek’s Cutoff is a rarity—a feminist Western. Based on the true story of a group of settlers wandering lost in the deserts of eastern Oregon, this movie shows what happens when you leave men in charge of a trip. They refuse to admit they’re lost and the women are forced to take over and find their way to safety. Obviously, this is a superficial summary of a highly dramatic tale of adventure in the Old West. Directed by Kelly Reichardt, the film features one of the best actresses of our times—Michelle Williams. Don’t miss this one.
Tommy Lee Jones directs another feminist Western, this one about a trio of abandoned women in the Nebraska Territory of the 1850s, seeking refuge in a church that cares for mentally ill women. Hilary Swank is especially good here as one of the three women. The cast also includes Jones, John Lithgow, Meryl Streep, and James Spader. It’s a grim and complex tale, well told by Jones. The score, by Marco Beltrami, is particularly notable—it’s haunting, powerful, and moving.
I’ve mentioned this movie before, and I just can’t say enough about how stylish and exciting it is. This Korean Western by Kim Jee-woon is just simply dazzling. Set just before the start of World War II, a Korean bandit is hired to steal a treasure map from a Japanese government official traveling by train through the wooly frontier of Manchuria, China. Sound crazy? It is! And absolutely worth renting. The opening sequence is one of the best I’ve ever seen. Honestly, trust me on this one. It’s in Korean, mainly, but with subtitles. You’ll end up watching it, and then having your friends over to watch it and then more friends over and watch it again. And probably the only place you’ll find this crazy movie is DVD Netflix.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication.