A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about the merits of over-the-top disaster movies to take your mind off more real and present disasters. I took my own advice, and I’ve been reveling in earthquakes, tornadoes, alien invasions, ice storms, and volcanoes, loving every scientifically impossible minute. Now I’ve turned to something more quintessentially American. I’ve been watching westerns. Yep, natural disasters have been replaced by bandits and tumbleweeds, and urban scenery by deserts and canyons.  

Again, this is in no particular order. Except for #1.  

1. Silverado (1985)

This is absolutely, hands down my favorite western. It wasn’t a box office smash, mainly because of timing – Westerns were not in vogue in the eighties. Even with the star power in this cast, people weren’t running to the theaters to see Kevin Cline and Brian Dennehy face off in the classic middle-of-Main-Street quick-draw contest, and they really missed out. Other cast members include Scott Glenn, an impossibly young Kevin Costner, Danny Glover, Jeff Goldblum, John Cleese (as a sheriff who admits he’s “not from around these parts”), Jeff Fahey, Rosanna Arquette, Linda Hunt (who steals the show as the saloon keeper) and a host of familiar character actors. The plot is a classic: A group of basically good guys with checkered pasts strolls into town, only to discover that the local cattle baron is terrorizing the peaceful homesteaders, aided and abetted by a corrupt sheriff, who just happens to have a history with one of the good guys. Cline manages to be funny without being comic, Dennehy is in fine form as an affable villain, and Kevin Costner has fun as a reckless young gunslinger who just can’t seem to stay out of trouble. If you haven’t seen Silverado, don’t wait! Butter some popcorn and watch it tonight! It’s streaming on Amazon Showtime, or you can rent it for $2.99 from multiple sources.  

2. The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948)

The oldest movie on my list, and the only one with a perfect 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes. This John Huston classic won him the Academy Award for Best Director, and his father, John Huston, won for Best Supporting Actor. The movie stars Humphrey Bogart as Fred C. Dobbs, a down-at-the-heels drifter who, along with his partner, teams up with an old ex-miner, follows the lure of gold to into the mountains of central Mexico. The movie’s official trailer starts by scrolling this statement: “To the screen’s memorable achievements there comes a motion picture so forcefully conceived – so notably enacted – of such dramatic power, it will remain in your memory forever!” They weren’t kidding.  

Now you know where this saying came from: 

3. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

I was ten years old when this movie hit the local theater, and I immediately fell madly in love with Robert Redford. He’s the young partner of seasoned outlaw Paul Newman (a dynamic they would repeat four years later in The Sting), and the two train robbers spend most of the movie on the run from a posse of determined lawmen. The film won four Academy Awards, including one for Best Song. The movie made it to number one in box office sales, and B.J. Thomas’ recording of “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” made it to number one on the Billboard charts that year as well. 

B.J. Thomas – Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head

4. The Outlaw Josie Wales (1976).

It would be easy to do a list that just included great Clint Eastwood westerns. That chiseled face, those squinting eyes, that understated menace…the man was born to play a gunslinger. But it’s not just Eastwood’s portrayal of the title character than makes me love this movie, it’s the supporting cast. As Wales flees from pursuing bounty hunters and militia, he reluctantly picks up an assortment of fellow travelers including an old Comanche, a young Navajo woman, a dog, and a young woman traveling with her grandmother from Kansas. The group gradually becomes a new family for loner Wales, despite his best efforts to the contrary. I haven’t seen this one for a while, and it’s definitely on my list for the upcoming week.  

This clip contains one of my favorite lines: 

5. Unforgiven (1992)

While I’m on the subject of Clint Eastwood, I’d like to add a very different movie to the mix. Again, Eastwood is playing a gunslinger, but this time he’s retired, or trying to be. He’d dragged back into the business when an old friend, played by Morgan Freeman, asks for his help. Freeman’s character wants to collect the bounty offered by a group of prostitutes to kill some men who abused and disfigured one of their own and knows he can’t do it alone. Eastwood directed this movie and shows his skill in making his own performance the center, as opposed to the star, of the story. The supporting characters get a lot of the best scenes, especially Gene Hackman as Little Bill Daggett, the gleefully evil sheriff, a role for which he won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. 

Unforgiven trailer: 

6. The Magnificent Seven (1960). 

The 2016 remake of this classic got fair-to-middling reviews, and I enjoyed it well enough. But even with the advances in cinematography and a more realistic approach to costuming (and hygiene), it just doesn’t measure up against the original, which is truly—well, magnificent! Yul Brenner was still a big enough star to be cast in the leading role, despite the Russian accent he could never quite lose (it’s explained away by Steve McQueen’s character referring to him as a Cajun). The 1960 movie is a remake itself – it’s an Old West version of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 Japanese film Seven Samurai. A group of seven gunslingers is hired to protect a Mexican village from marauding banditos, facing impossible odds. You know they can’t all survive and if like me, you’ve seen it before, you know which ones actually make it. But I still found myself hoping I’d remembered incorrectly as I watched a few of my favorite characters succumb to bullets in the dusty streets.  

Maybe you can bring a knife to a gunfight. 

7. Rustlers Rhapsody (1985) 

This movie makes another of my top-ten lists – it is definitely one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen. A friend of mine rented this back in the VCR days and invited me over to watch. At one point I laughed so hard that I rolled off the sofa and onto the floor! Okay, there may have been intoxicants involved, but this spoof on old Westerns is just plain hilarious. It’s the story of Rex O’Hurlihan, AKA “The Singing Cowboy,” a Roy Rogers-style hero whose wardrobe is as impeccable as his aim. The squeaky-clean gunman, played by Tom Berenger, finds himself up against a series of foes, including Andy Griffith as the evil cattle baron who teams up with an Italian colonel straight from the “Spaghetti Western” school of film. If you’re in need of a good laugh, this is the movie for you. Trust me. 

Just a stranger passing through – 

8. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

In the mid-1960s the “Spaghetti Western” was king. These films were shot in Italy, and generally produced and directed by Italians. The heroes were usually portrayed by Americans, with supporting roles played by Italian actors. The actors filmed using their native tongues, and then two final cuts were produced, one for Italian audiences and one for English-speaking, each with the lines spoken in the opposite language being dubbed in. Perhaps the best of these is Once Upon a Time in the West, a Sergio Leone classic starring Henry Fonda as a villainous gunslinger, hired by a railroad tycoon to kill anyone standing in the way of his progress. The scenery is bleak, the music is atmospheric, and the body count does not disappoint.  

Charles Bronson’s Eastwood-worthy line: 

9. Tombstone (1993)

Many movies have been made about Wyatt Earp and the story surrounding the infamous gunfight at the O.K. Corral (where you can still visit – I’ve been there) but none of them are as much fun as this version starring Kurt Russell as the famous gambler, gunman and lawman who comes to town to seek his fortune but instead gets drawn into a local power dispute. Wyatt’s brothers are played with aplomb by Sam Elliot and Bill Paxton, but it’s Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday who steals this picture. Kilmer lost 30 pounds to portray the tubercular Holliday, and his cynical drawl is sheer oily perfection. 

I’m your huckleberry: 

10. The Cowboys (1972)

I promised to keep this list to ten and I have not yet included a John Wayne picture, which is pretty much a requirement in any list of westerns. I found myself debating a three-way tie between The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), this one, and True Grit (1969), so I asked myself, “Which one would I most like to re-watch right now?” To be fair, this movie is more about the cowboys who give the picture its name than the John Wayne character. When all the able-bodied men in the vicinity of Wil Andersen’s ranch have marched off to war, the cattleman is forced to hire schoolboys to get his herd to market. It’s a true coming-of-age story, as the young crew battles rustlers, the elements, and the herd itself. Oh, and the John Williams score is fantastic! I’m looking forward to seeing this one again.  

John Williams – The Cowboys Overture: 

Well, that’s my list. I’m sure you have your own favorites, and I’d love to hear what they are.  

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