And John Ford certainly would know. Ford is considered one of the greatest American film directors, with more than 140 films to his credit as a director. Ford knew that the Western had reigned as a Hollywood staple for decades, only to fall out of fashion in the ‘60s and early ‘70s. However, recent years have seen a revival of interest in Westerns. Today, we’ll take a look at four classic Westerns from four different eras—four films that say more about the era in which they were made than the era in which they take place.
People have mixed feelings about John Wayne. I have always argued that John Wayne wasn’t an actor. He was a movie star. Over the course of his long career, John Wayne the actor played one role: John Wayne, Movie Star. I watch a John Wayne movie to hear that voice, to see that tall handsome man amble across a scene, oozing self-confidence and presence. When you tell someone you watched a John Wayne movie, they know exactly what you got in those 90 minutes.
The only person in today’s Hollywood I can think of who is comparable to John Wayne is George Clooney. You see a George Clooney movie because it’s got George Clooney in it and you know what you’re going to get—the sympathetic but slightly world-weary look and that soft, reassuring voice.
I’m a big George Clooney fan, no doubt about it. But the only movie I ever felt as I saw him really stretch and become something other than George Clooney was Up In the Air (2009). Clooney’s portrayal of corporate downsizer Ryan Bingham found an unexpected vulnerability that we haven't seen before in his performances.
John Wayne’s performance in The Searchers (1956) is equally surprising, and even more powerful. Wayne stars as angry Civil War and Mexican War veteran Ethan Edwards who pursues a band of Comanches who have kidnapped his niece. Filmed mainly in the starkly beautiful landscape of Arizona’s Monument Valley, Wayne’s performance as a man filled with rage, racism, hatred, and bitterness is spell-binding. At times, his voice is so angry it quavers. An astonishing performance, really. Martin Scorsese calls John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards “a poet of hatred.”
Thirteen years after the grim rage of The Searchers, George Roy Hill directed another American classic that united three unstoppable forces in American film: Paul Newman, Robert Redford, and William Goldman.
Wait, William Goldman? Who is William Goldman?
Only one of the finest screenwriters ever! Goldman has written movies we’ve loved and watched over and over: Harper, All the President’s Men, The Stepford Wives, Marathon Man, and of course, the incomparable The Princess Bride.
All of Goldman’s screenplays feature characters who are filled with wit and ambition, who, even in the grimmest moments, manage to find humor. Goldman won an Academy Award for his screenplay for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The dialogue remains as fresh today as it was when the film premiered in 1968.
Three other aspects of this film to watch for: Burt Bacharach’s charming score, Conrad Hall’s Academy Award-winning cinematography, and Edith Head’s costume design. The costumes are particularly noteworthy, as Head’s designs for this movie influenced American casual wear for decades.
The Western as a form was largely forgotten for much of the ‘80s. It wasn’t until Unforgiven came out in 1992—with its shocking and brutal portrayal of revenge and murder in the Old West—that the Western as a storytelling format was revitalized. Or at least showed that it still was possible to find new things to say in a genre that seemed spent and irrelevant.
Unforgiven tells the story of retired gunman William Munny giving up his farm for one last revenge killing job. This seems like a hackneyed premise you’ve seen a hundred times. And yet David Webb Peoples’ script breathes new life into it. The cinematography is also spectacular, filmed in Alberta, Canada by Jack Green.
The film won Best Picture, Best Director (Eastwood), Best Supporting Actor (Hackman) and Best Editing (Joel Cox).
And now, as they used to say on Monty Python’s Flying Circus, for something completely different: Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012). Historically, the Western film had been a depiction of white America, with the only other ethnicity making an appearance being the Native Americans (who typically got slaughtered or were the bad guys).
In reality, African Americans made up a significant portion of the ranch workers in the late 1800’s. Which means that yes, there were black cowboys. Lots of them. In fact, some studies indicate as many as a quarter of all the cowboys in the Old West were African American.
Django Unchained is one of those rare movies that features an African American cowboy as one of the leads, played by Jamie Foxx. German actor Christoph Waltz plays Dr. King Schultz, a role for which he won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, and Leonardo diCaprio shines as the plantation-owning bad guy, Monsieur Calvin J. Candie.
Is the movie over-the-top and outrageous? Is it lurid, hyper-violent, and almost cartoonish at times?
Yes! It’s also one thrilling sequence after another. And it is not to be missed.
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.