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Genre defining: Western

JohnWayne.jpgWelcome to the start of a new series of features which we'll step in and out of called "Genre Defining" where we'll explore what we think are the definitive films for whichever genre we're discussing. In other words if I say “westerns”, what comes to mind first and why.

Of course it's a list that will forever be evolving, but that's not to say we can't take a crack at it now.

So for the first episode I thought, with the recent few films out there hitting the genre, that we would tackle the defining films of the Western genre.

3:10 to Yuma (Filmstalker review) is in cinemas right now, and while it isn't genre defining, it does mark the return to the fore of the Western, something we've also seen lately with Seraphim Falls, and are to continue to see with The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and There Will Be Blood.

Yet none of these, well so far as we know so far, are genre defining, it's clear that the films that really define the Western on screen were made when the genre was at its strongest, at a time when names such as John Wayne were taking to the plains.

However there is one other name that creep into the genre for me, and that's Clint Eastwood, for who could deny that both his acting and directing in the genre have defined some key films and some iconic moments.

So to go back to the man that really controls the genre, John Wayne has a couple of serious genre rulers for me, True Grit, The Searchers and The Shootist.

True Grit sees the first appearance of one of his most famous characters, Rooster Cogburn, an often drunken U.S. Marshal and Texas Ranger who is roped into helping a young lady track down her father's killer who is deep inside Indian territory. I like the way the relationship between the hard man character and the young girl develops, and yet keeps the tough Western feel. Plus the Cogburn character is just superb.

The Searchers is a classic Western that really does start to pull in some serious reality, marking it apart from Western films before it. Here Wayne plays a character who returns home after the Civil War hoping for some peace but when he returns to his brother's ranch he finds that his niece has been captured by Comanches and so he heads out, along with his 1/8th Indian nephew, on a quest to rescue her. However as his quest continues his hatred begins to consume him, and threatens to overpower his love for his niece.

Now, The Shootist is another film that takes a different direction, it marks the last film that John Wayne was to star in and while he was making the film he knew he was dying of cancer, and that is what The Shootist is about. He's a famous gunfighter who comes to a small town to hide away and die in peace, but when people start recognising him he finds there's no way to escape his past. It's a beautiful film, made more so because Wayne only had months to live.

For Clint Eastwood there are a couple of films that are probably up there with Wayne's, and the first is undoubtedly the The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Sergio Leone's fantastic Western really does define the Western. Three men head off to get their hands on a small fortune, and they have to fight each other on the way there. The Good gunfighter of Eastwood, the Bad of Lee Van Cleef, and the Ugly of Eli Wallach provide an excellent trio of actors for the roles, and is indeed a classic.

High Plains Drifter, a story he retold in Pale Rider. A stranger arrives in town and after three men try, and fail, to kill him, the townspeople try to convince him to help them fight off a vicious outlaw and his gang who are due to arrive any day. This film is probably most memorable for two scenes, the painting of the town, and those final scenes. Here he plays the archetypal cowboy character that he'd made famous in the Leone trilogy, but here there's an extra air of mystery and power, elevating him above the townspeople as some superhuman saviour.

However for me, the greatest moment of Eastwood's film career was when he also got behind the camera and actually redefined the Western genre with Unforgiven. The film tells the story of a retired gunfighter takes one last job of his life, he promised his wife he wouldn't, but she's passed away and there is little for him in this life, little that he knows. The women in the local whorehouse are angry after one of the girls gets cut up and the local “Sheriff” does little for justice. They set out a bounty to hire some gunfighters for justice and he finds his old partner and sets out for just that, justice and the bounty.

What's so special about this is the huge amount of reality that's placed in the story, every detail has been turned to the hard facts of life in those days, from the guns to the hard slog of just getting by, and through to the real notions of good, bad and justice.

For me these films are the defining moments of the Western genre. These films are what I think of when someone talks of Westerns and cowboy films.

So apart from asking what you think of the genre defining series and what genre you'd like to hear from next, do you agree with my choices, or do you have other films in mind that would define the Western?

Other Genre Defining Features:
Political/Conspiracy Thriller



That's a pretty good list.

While dated now I think John Ford's Stagecoach should be mentioned as it is the film that made Wayne a star and was a landmark Western in it's day.

Maybe The Magnificent Seven could have had a mention too as it prefigured the Spaghetti Westerns and in many ways was the first "Modern Western".

One other thing, Wayne died three years after the Shootist. He had fought battles with cancer since the sixties but he was not quite months from death at the time of filming.

The Outlaw Josey Wales.

Best western ever with the best western actor ever.

I have to second that.

I've only seen a few Westerns but The Outlaw Josey Wales is also my favorite. Closely followed by The Magnificent Seven of course.

Cheers for the correction Morbius, my source was inaccurate - that's collaborative information for you.

Damn, I had The Magnificent Seven in my draft post, which I forgot to sync and so had to write it up again.

Good call on that, and I think it's definitely in there as well. The performances of the actors trying to outdo each other steals the show, but at its heart it's a superb ensemble western.

Morbius here is the walking Western encyclopedia. ;)

my favorite western is an old one called "high noon" which had Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly and a young Lloyd Bridges.

It's been years since I saw it, but I remember the way the hero stood so steadfast against the villain, against all odds. I don't know if it's the greatest western ever, but it sure did affect me in my life.

and i've never seen the unforgiven. guess i should get started on that. hehehe

"High Noon" was actually shot in Real Time decades before "24".

I'm a huge fan of "The Outlaw Josey Wales" and introduced it to Simone a few years back. Barry Norman called it "The Last Classic Western", but that was before "Unforgiven" which is an even better movie. (Though I am personally more fond of the earlier film.)

IMO Josey Wales though was not a "Defining Western" like some of those mentioned here which was why I did not mention it. It's one of the very best westerns though.

Maybe "Shane" should be mentioned, that's a pretty influential Western. Movies like "Open Range" and especically "Pale Rider" borrowed a lot from it.

Good listing, but I want to point out that Clint Eastwood has directed most of his films since 1971's "Play Misty for Me." This includes "High Plains Drifter" (1973), "The Outlaw Josey Wales" (1976) and "Pale Rider" (1985).


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