As a fan of the Old West, I enjoy nothing better than a Saturday afternoon spent screening a classic old horse opera on my widescreen. If you go online and search for the best westerns ever seen, you will find an endless supply of fantastic films listed. Since I have seen so many of these over and over, I started wondering about another list – a list of the best Western films never seen. So, I have put together a list of my fifteen favorites.
For one reason or another there are plenty of westerns that are both timeless and unknown. To qualify for this list a film couldn’t show up on any top 15 list I found. It also couldn’t be a sort-of-like-a western such as Cowboys and Aliens or Westworld. So here are numbers 11-15 of the finest western movies you have probably never seen and why I love them.
15 – Seven Men from Now (1956) – Budd Boetticher directs Randolph Scott as Ben Stride, an ex-sheriff hunting down seven bandits responsible for the death of his wife during a holdup. Lee Marvin delivers as Bill Masters a ne’er do will petty gunman who wants the gold stolen in that robbery. The tension between the two as they trail the gang is palpable. The twists and turns in this plot are many without ever losing track of the story. The film was produced by Batjac Productions, John Wayne’s company, and Wayne originally intended to play Stride. He was unable to do so, because of his contract with John Ford to do The Searchers. We can all be glad, based on the performances in both these films, that things turned out as they did.
14 – The Ox-bow Incident (1943) William Wellman is better known for his war or flying films, but the 1940 novel, The Ox-bow Incident, by Walter van Tilburg Clark, provided the story for his classic western of mob law and lynching. This film is a morality play in the finest sense of any in its genre. Henry Fonda, Gil, is the lead for the sake of billing, but in a larger sense this is an ensemble piece without a star. The examination of individuals against a mob and the notions of justice, either by law or by vengeance, showcases the talents of a well cast group of actors. Great performances are turned in by Fonda, Anthony Quinn, Harry Morgan and particularly by the doomed Dana Andrews
13 – Will Penny (1968) – Tom Gries directs in a film that seems to need no director. Charlton Heston, in the title role, turns in what may have been his best ever screen performance. This is a small story of simple folks faced with unimaginable hardships. The likes of Ben Johnson, Bruce Dern, and particularly Donald Pleasence grace the screen with precise and understated performances. On second thought perhaps the reason the film seems to need no director is because the direction is just outstanding.
12) – Ulzana’s Raid (1972) – Burt Lancaster is at his best when he plays care worn, weary men who have seen too much in life. His portrayal of the cavalry scout Macintosh does not disappoint. Robert Aldrich directs a revisionist western that any fan of traditional westerns will enjoy. The story is simple – track and capture the escaped Apache, but in no way simplistic. Never sentimental in tone, the study of youth versus age, savage versus civilized and death in preference to misery is brutally portrayed with stark realism from all angles. The desert landscape becomes the leading character and eclipses all but Lancaster’s performances.
11) – Man of the West (1958) – From the Novel, Man of the West, by Will C Brown, this film features Gary Cooper in his final Western. He plays a reformed bandit, Link, now the trusted guardian of his hometown’s fund for recruiting a new school teacher. During a botched train robbery Link and two other passengers are left behind. Their only chance to survive is to follow the outlaws to their hideout and to the family that raised Link as a cutthroat and bandit.
This film never takes a clichéd turn. The outlaws seem rational even sympathetic until one by one they are revealed as psychotic killers. Tough scenes of humiliation, rather than shied away from, are played out in a well staged and stylistic manner. Lee J Cobb is as good as a bad guy gets and fine performances are turned in by Jack Lord, John Dehner and Royal Dano.
I’ll continue with the next five films next week. Let me know what you think of these films or see if you can guess what the next five, numbers 6-10, will be.