The Seeker

A Meta-Cognitive Journal About Writing… Plus Other Stuff

True Grit pt. 3

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I thought I put this topic to rest, but then I heard something on NPR last week that got me thinking.  It was movie critic Bob Mondello’s Western primer–his 5 offerings of the best and most-accessible Western films of all time, designed to the spark interests of movie goers who don’t think they like the genre or whose appetites may have been whetted by the recent surge of True Grit at the box office (it has earned more than $125 million and substantial critical acclaim).  You can listen to the segment here.

The films he selected were:

1.  Shane (1953)

2.  The Searchers (1956)

3.  The Wild Bunch (1969)

4.  Blazing Saddles (1974)

5.  Unforgiven (1992)

I smiled when I heard him rank The Wild Bunch so high on his list.  I’ve been an afficianado of the film for some time, but it seems I’m one of the only persons in my social circle who has heard of it, much less seen it.  Mondello pointed to the opening line, claiming it was everything you need to now about the film:  “If they move, kill ’em.”  It’s perfect.  Pretty much everything that moves in the film is killed.

I love that he slid Blazing Saddles in at #4–the most profane, insulting, hilarious film ever just happens to be a Western (or at least a mock-up of one).

The list is no doubt open to debate since there are some notable luminaries absent.  I got to thinking about how I would add to the list while keeping in mind that the purpose is to offer different styles of the Western that would open up more interest in the genre to the casual film-goer.  This is what I came up with:

1.  Red River (1948)  John Wayne has to be represented, and since Mondello already picked his greatest film (and greatest role), I can only settle for his second best.  This one is a black-and-white cattle drive epic that might leave you in awe of how Howard Hawks captured the wide open landscapes of Texas and the southern plains.  He uses shadows, dust, and rain to great effect to underscore the brutality of the drive and of Wayne’s character, Thomas Dunson.  Dunson is a dark, driven bully who suffers a mutiny under the direction Montgomery Clift’s Matt Garth.  The role laid the groundwork for Wayne to play the equally disturbing Ethan Edwards eight years later in The Searchers.

2.  High Noon (1952)  The ultimate marshal vs. the outlaws film.  I’ve read it described as “minimalist,” which is apt given that it was shot in black and white, has an almost singular setting, and practically takes place in real time.  The lead-up to Will Kane (Gary Cooper) facing down Frank Miller and his gang is as tense as any scene ever committed to celluloid, and the payoff doesn’t disappoint.  Almost as tense is the steady ticking off of townspeople who turn their backs on the just-married marshal in his most dire moments– including his drunken, cowardly deputy Harvey Pell.  The film plays heavily on moral ambiguity since Kane’s new bride is a Quaker, and he had already stepped down from his post as marshal just minutes before it is announced that Miller was released from jail and is headed to town.  Some have ranked this as the greatest Western ever; the American Film Institute ranks it at #2 on its list of all-time greatest Westerns.

3.   Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid (1969):  The score may never be settled about which is better, this or The Wild Bunch.  This one takes all the glory; the other has greater critical acclaim and a wider influence.  You can’t go wrong with this genre-bending, anti-establishment Western.  It’s a perfectly stylized story brought to life through Newman’s wise-cracking, know-it-all Cassidy and Redford’s cool but stoic Sundance Kid.  Together they bumble around the west and eventually to Bolivia as a pair of bandits who are a lot luckier than they are good.  In the end, the old axiom proves true:  Luck always runs out.

4.  The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)  If John Wayne must be represented, so too must Clint Eastwood.  This film could be called Dirty Harry on Horseback for the manner in which the titular character is both avenging and guardian angel as he tries to outrun his bloody past in the wake of the Civil War.  It’s a tough call to take this one over The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, but it helps that this film is an Eastwood tour-de-force:  He acted the lead role and directed.  Eastwood also managed to transcend the source material, Forest Carter’s Gone to Texas.  Chief Dan George steals the film as Wales’ tag-along Indian friend Lone Watie.  This isn’t to deny the brilliance of TGTBTU; it’s just to say that Josey Wales is more accessible to people coming into the Western genre.

5.  3:10 to Yuma (2007) Russell Crowe is the charming badguy Ben Wade in James Mangold’s remake of the 1957 Glenn Ford Western.  Dan Evans (Christian Bale) signs on to help escort Wade to Contention, AZ, where he will be put on a train to Yuma Territorial Prison.  This film, too, is filled with moral amibiguity as it questions an individual’s duty to society, a father’s responsibility to his family, and the brutality of Pinkerton detectives (including a grizzled Peter Fonda).  Wade may be the main badguy, but his right-hand man Charley Prince is ten times worse as he and the rest of the gang pursue Evans to free their boss. 

Honorable mentions

Open Range (2003):  I struggled mightily to find a place for this one.  Kevin Costner finally emerges from the shadow of Dances With Wolves and gets the Western right by not disguising it as his own epic PC rendition of A Man Called Horse.  This starts as another cattle drive film, but it quickly evolves into Costner and Robert Duvall cleaning up a corrupt town controlled by a greedy cattle baron.  It helps that Costner is surprisingly effective as a violent, tortured soul who is again forced to kill in order to survive.  The final shootout is brutal and realistic.

The Road Warrior (1981) and Outland (1981).  Both science fiction films, these are excellent examples of how Western themes and plots have crossed over to other genres to considerable effect.  The first film is a take on Shane with Mel Gibson’s “Mad” Max Rockatansky crashing through the post-apocalytpic Australian desert, trying to save a group of survivors holed up in an oil refinery before they are overrun by a gang of marauding psychopaths.  The second film follows marshal William O’Niel (Sean Connery) as he tries to expose a corporate cover-up at a deep-space mining colony.  The final half hour plays out as High Noon while O’Niel awaits the arrival of a pair of hitmen hired to quiet him.

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Written by seeker70

January 18, 2011 at 9:11 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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