The Western is one of the only genres I can think of in which the setting is as important as the characters and the story.
Most of the Westerns I saw as a kid were on a tiny black and white RCA TV set at home. Even in that highly-diminishing format, I would get swept up in the landscapes of the Western. When I was in college in the 1970s, I lived near a revival film house and began to see some of these great Westerns in color. And I fell in love with the landscapes of the Western all over again.
In fact, in many cases, the landscape of the Western makes the movie more watchable than the action of the film. Take a movie like The Outlaw (1943). This black and white turkey from Howard Hughes is only worth watching for the glorious cinematography of California, Arizona, and New Mexico by Gregg Toland. Toland was a cinematographer on Citizen Kane, and his work on The Outlaw nearly defeats a ludicrous script and a festival of bad acting. Nearly.
Here is my list of the most beautifully-filmed Westerns. One important thing to keep in mind is that these strikingly-beautiful landscapes are often not filmed in the American West. That’s because the Western genre is mythic storytelling. And that requires mythic landscapes, not all of which are actually found in the American West. Only one of my favorites was actually shot in the U.S. That doesn’t matter to me, though. This is the landscape of the imagination of the Western. It’s as important as the story being told.
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)
John Ford made three peerless Westerns: Stagecoach, The Searchers, and this one. The Searchers is probably the greatest Western of them all, but She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is unforgettable, mainly because of its setting, shot in Arizona’s Monument Valley by Winton Hoch. Hoch had a fascinating career. He was originally a chemist at the California Institute of Technology, and was instrumental in the development of the technology used in Technicolor. He won three Academy Awards for cinematography (Joan of Arc in 1948, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon in 1949, and The Quiet Man in 1952), as well as a Technical Academy Award for his work on Technicolor. There are several unforgettable long shots of Monument Valley in this film in which the cavalry platoon travels across the floor of the valley—tiny figures against a magnificent and stark landscape.
The third in Sergio Leone’s “Spaghetti Western” trilogy that also included A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and For a Few Dollars More (1965). These are the movies that made Clint Eastwood an international star. The setting is “the American Southwest.” Yeah, right. Part of the reason they are called Spaghetti Westerns is their European production. The other reason is that their director is Italian. The movies were shot in the starkly beautiful region of southern Spain called Almeria, while the interiors were shot on sound-stages in Rome. Leone used a different cinematographer for each of the movies in this trilogy, and the work done here is by Italian cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli—the best of the three.
This movie by Clint Eastwood was dedicated to Don Siegel and Sergio Leone. Siegel directed Eastwood in Dirty Harry, among others, and the intimate violence of Unforgiven certainly harkens back to that film. It is the spectacular landscapes of the West however, that evoke Leone. The film was shot in Alberta, Canada, and Sonora, California by Eastwood’s frequent partner Jack Green. Green has shot eleven movies for Eastwood, but this one is his masterpiece. He won an Academy Award for Best Cinematography for Unforgiven (while Eastwood won for Best Picture and Best Director).
If you’re gonna fall in love with the wrong person, may as well do it against a gorgeous background. Jack and Ennis are two married cowboys who go on fishing trips in Wyoming and, surprise, surprise, fall in love. The supposed setting for much of the action of the film is the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming, specifically Brokeback Mountain. Guess what? There is no Brokeback Mountain. The movie was shot in Alberta (again) by acclaimed Mexican cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto.
Remember how at the top of this post I mentioned that with some Westerns the landscapes are so stunning that they nearly overcome the bad script and lousy acting? Well, for me at least, The Revenant is Exhibit A of this thesis. Honestly, the story is so dopey it’s almost laughable. Actually, I did laugh at one point while watching this movie. It was when the doctor at Fort Kiowa inspects Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), who we’ve seen go through just about every horrible disaster that could befall a person—including a bear attack—and pronounces: “He’ll be fine.” Hah! The movie is, however, a flat-out feast for the eyes. It was shot by the brilliant Mexican cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. It was his third straight Academy Award for Cinematography, having won for Gravity and Birdman in the two prior years. (Trivia about Lubezki: his nickname is Chivo, which means the goat.) The Revenant was filmed in the Canadian Rockies, the Canadian Badlands outside Drumheller, Alberta, and the Cascades in Washington.
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.