Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Five Film Favorites: Westerns


Jack Burns and Whisky pass through a junkyard in
"Lonely Are the Brave," which was adapted from the
Edward Abbey novel, "Brave Cowboy."

We’ve all seen lots of bad Western movies. Typically, they feature fist-fighting drunk cowboys and their inevitable handgun duels, all poured into hackneyed plots. Yet, a good Western, with well drawn characters moving about in a lean story, is hard to beat.

Regardless of the overall quality of the movie, the stark landscape of most Westerns is the prefect backdrop for tall tales of men, and sometimes women, driven to extremes.

Listed below are my five favorite Westerns, presented in alphabetical order:
  • “High Noon” (1952): B&W. 85 Minutes. Directed by Fred Zinnemann; Cast: Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly, Thomas Mitchell, Lloyd Bridges. Note: The contrasts are vivid. Shadow or light? Happiness or duty? Community or self interest? Honor or whatever is the opposite? Life or death?
  • “Lonely Are the Brave” (1962): B&W. 107 minutes. Directed by David Miller; Cast: Kirk Douglas, Gena Rowlands, Walter Matthau, George Kennedy. Note: To help his friend, a free-spirited cowboy flings himself recklessly at the hobbling effects of modernity … then tries desperately to escape.
  • “Stagecoach” (1939): B&W. 96 minutes. Directed by John Ford; Cast: John Wayne, Claire Trevor, Andy Devine, John Carridine. Note: With this saga that throws disparate travelers together, to face peril, Ford made a star of Wayne. And, Ford created a template for all such movies to follow.
  • “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (1948): B&W. 126 minutes. Directed by John Huston; Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston, Tim Holt. Note: Three down-on-their-luck drifters, almost strangers, throw in together to prospect for gold in Mexico. Problems ensue and personalities clash.
  • “Unforgiven” (1992): Color. 131 Minutes. Directed by Clint Eastwood; Cast: Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, Richard Harris. Note: A grizzled pair of former gunfighters/murderers team up to try to collect a $1,000 reward by killing two cowboys who deliberately disfigured a prostitute. Naturally, the corrupt sheriff must throw his weight around.

The films on the list above all have plots that can be boiled down to one word. “High Noon” is about honor. “Lonely Are the Brave” is about freedom. “Stagecoach” is about survival. “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” is about greed. “Unforgiven” is about revenge. Decisions by the characters drive the action.

“Lonely Are the Brave” is probably the least known movie on that list. If you aren’t familiar with it, do yourself a favor and see it soon. It’s sort of a beat treatment to the cowboy-verses-modernity angle. It was produced to be a Hollywood answer to the French New Wave films that were becoming popular in America in the early-1960s.

My peers grew up watching Western feature films in movie houses and weekly Western series on television. And, whether we knew it or not, some portion of the baby boomer generation’s collective sense of right and wrong was being shaped by all those heroes and villains wearing cowboy hats and boots.

Speaking of fashion, when I was six or seven years old there was a spell in which any shirts with a collar that I wore had to resemble the trademark checkered cowboy shirt Roy Rogers wore on his weekly TV show.

The five films on my list represent my favorites today. Another day’s list of favorite Westerns might be different. Moreover, this list doesn’t represent my ideas about important or great movies. Just favorites.

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