“The Westerner is the last gentleman, and the movies which over and over again tell his story are probably the last art form in which the concept of honor retains its strength.” – Robert Warshow, “Movie Chronicle: The Westerner” (1954)
In the years since Robert Warshow described the Westerner thus, the world he inhabits has been alternately revised, resuscitated, and left for dead, a detail which in itself may tell us something about the Western. With particular frequency, the genre induces critics to lean in close and listen to its rhythms, as though one might diagnose the murmur or produce a report of fine health. Indeed, in certain quarters (including, at times, my own) it is practically an article of faith that the Western is a unique preserve of the American self-conception, and as such no other genre seems to provoke such profound anxiety. In defining the genre’s “modern” form, perhaps this is the first question to ask: When did we learn to expect so much from the Western?
As Philip Lopate notes in the introduction to his indispensable book “American Movie Critics: An Anthology from the Silents Until Now,” we might trace the tendency to take the Western seriously to a cadre film critics — Otis Ferguson, James Agee, Manny Farber, and Warshow, to name but four — whose appreciation for Hollywood fare exceeded that of the “moonlighters” preceding them. But while the Western remains fertile ground for criticism of contemporary masculinity, a search for political allegories and historical analogies has largely replaced Warshow’s outdated chivalric description.
Outdated, perhaps, because the modern or “revisionist” Western only arrived when “the West” itself began to vanish. Though the region had long since relinquished its frontier status, the baby boom, the military-industrial complex, and postwar Sunbelt migration rapidly transformed ranches and mining towns into unforeseen suburbs and retirement communities. More than ever before, “the West” existed only in the imagination.
The result, at least with regard to the list below, is not unlike the decoupling of modern film noir from the postwar American city. “The West” might now include the antebellum South (“Django Unchained”), turn-of-the-century Bolivia (“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”), Prohibition-era California (“There Will Be Blood”), and 1980s Texas (“No Country for Old Men”). More to the point, redefining “the West” necessitates redefining “the Westerner.” Though the immigrants, veterans, lovers, and slaves that populate the modern Western are undoubtedly strong, society’s traditional “concept of honor” selfishly, even hatefully, excludes them. It is not their code, nor need it be. For these heroes, the time to strike out for new territory is already here. – Matt Brennan
Read our (by no means exhaustive) list of 12 must-see modern Westerns after the jump.
“Hud” (Martin Ritt, 1963): This corrosive portrait of the modern cowboy as an “unprincipled man” is also one of the sexiest Westerns ever made. As spoiled, demanding rancher’s son Hud Bannon, Paul Newman is so gorgeous, so charismatic, you’re willing to forgive him anything; his picture should be in the dictionary next to the word “antihero.” Mistreating Alma (Oscar winner Patricia Neal), the Bannon family’s acerbic housekeeper, and inspiring newfound machismo in his young nephew, Lonnie (lithe beauty Brandon de Wilde), Hud becomes an emblem of American masculinity run amok. “You got me out of the wrong side of bed this morning, don’t go snapping at my heels,” he hisses in the opening sequence. “I’m just liable to turn around and bite ya.” In “Hud,” as it happens, the elixir is also the venom: the further Newman’s seduction sinks in its teeth, the closer the viewer comes to sympathy with the devil. – Matt Brennan
“Once Upon a Time in the West” (Sergio Leone, 1968): As mythic as its title suggests, Sergio Leone’s tale of disputed land and discordant people in the fictional town of Flagstone transforms the cinematic intelligence of the director’s “Dollars” trilogy into a singular epic that counts among the finest films ever made. From the laconic pacing and the textured sound design to Tonino Delli Colli’s sweeping widescreen cinematography and Henry Fonda’s blue-eyed villain, everything in the film seems both a paean to the Western and a rejection of it; the first ten minutes alone suggest the entire spectrum of the genre’s possibilities. The rest is, as they say, gravy — two and a half long, loping hours punctuated by spectacular violence, drawing inspiration from “My Darling Clementine” and “The Magnificent Seven” alike, an elegy for a dream that Hollywood largely created from one of the foremost authors of its destruction. I can’t imagine the Western without Leone’s “West.” – Matt Brennan
“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (George Roy Hill, 1969): I wish I’d been around to see the splash “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” made in 1969, because even now, 45 years later, the cheeky comic Western bristles with invention. Whole sequences seem to float by on this irreverent energy — a sun-splotched bicycle ride set to Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,” for instance, or the series of Bolivian heists in the film’s second half, blending linguistic wit, physical comedy, and bright, scatting music periodically interrupted by gunfire. Even the incongruously bloody denouement is peppered with Paul Newman and Robert Redford’s mocking charisma, before the final freeze frame bleeds into sepia. Indeed, for all its wild novelty, the film remains steeped in tradition, paying homage to early photography and “The Great Train Robbery”: “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” may send up the Western’s stalest conventions, but it knows from whence it came. – Matt Brennan
“The Wild Bunch” (Sam Peckinpah, 1969): “Dying is not fun and games,” Peckinpah said of “The Wild Bunch,” which chronicles the demise of the classic Hollywood Western as furiously as it does the blood-spattered corpses that pile up from the opening ambush to the final slaughter. In between, the film’s revolutionary aesthetic — slow motion, quick cuts, crude angles — might be said to destroy the genre in order to save it, turning the honor code of the Old West into a misanthropic portrait of the violence at the heart of modern “civilization.” “Go on,” leader Pike Bishop (William Holden) warns his aging band of outlaws on the Texas-Mexico border in 1913. “Go for it. Fall apart.” If “The Wild Bunch” tends toward the apocalyptic, though, it also suggests a certain resignation to the terrifying fact of a fallen world. “It ain’t like it used to be,” sage old Freddie Sykes (Edmond O’Brien) says at film’s end. “But it’ll do.” – Matt Brennan
“McCabe and Mrs. Miller“ (Robert Altman, 1971): Altman used his clout from “M.A.S.H.” to get backing for “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” which was way ahead of its time — and has gained in stature over the years. Long before “Deadwood,” Altman threw out the rule book with this gritty nihilistic western (originally called “The Presbyterian Church Wager”) adapted from Edmund Naughton’s novel. Altman threw iconic lovers Warren Beatty and Julie Christie, at the height of their fame, into an anti-romantic fable about a gambler and a madam, shot by Vilmos Zsigmond on a messy, muddy Pacific Northwest location, and surrounded them with an ensemble of wily character actors. The result is magic. – Anne Thompson
“Heaven’s Gate“ (Michael Cimino, 1980): Cimino’s punishing frontier history is often cited as the death knell of the so-called “Hollywood Renaissance,” the expensive, self-indulgent flop that paved the way for the empty “high concept” filmmaking of the 1980s. Though the director’s overly ambitious follow-up to “The Deer Hunter” is no neglected masterpiece, “Heaven’s Gate” deserves a second look because it’s not the “unqualified disaster” of industry myth, either. In retelling the tale of Wyoming’s 1892 Johnson County War, in which Texan mercenaries hired by wealthy cattle men massacred immigrant farmers accused of stealing steers for food, Cimino and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond heap beautiful composition atop beautiful composition. It’s an immersive aesthetic experience, but even the dizzying swirl of a fiddler skating circles around the local dance hall can’t stir the preachy didacticism of the narrative from its awful slumber. “Heaven’s Gate” is ultimately that more slippery, shimmering, frustrating thing: a noble failure. – Matt Brennan
“Unforgiven” (Clint Eastwood, 1992): Midway through “Unforgiven,” writer W.W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek) and Sheriff “Little” Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman) spend a long night conversing in Big Whiskey, Wyoming’s cramped lockup. The coarse appeal of Daggett’s story convinces Beauchamp to stay on when his disgraced former employer, English Bob (Richard Harris), leaves town: as reporter Maxwell Scott (Carleton Young) opined in 1962’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Clint Eastwood’s ruminative Western, which follows reformed outlaw William Munny (Eastwood) and former partner Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) as they embark, wizened, on one last job, inhabits this gulf between heroic myth and muddy reality. We first see the genre’s grizzled icon tumbling in a pigsty’s shit, and the rest of film finds him repeatedly bloodied, dirtied, resigned. If Eastwood hadn’t gone on to direct 18 (and counting) subsequent features, you might almost call it a farewell. Shadowed by unspeakable evil, “Unforgiven” finally forces Munny to choose the old ways over his late wife’s Christian charity, resolving into something like an elegy, or a dirge. – Matt Brennan
“Brokeback Mountain” (Ang Lee, 2005): Dwarfed by the magnificent vistas of Lee’s Western romance, adapted from Annie Proulx’s National Magazine Award-winning short story, the prairie towns of “Brokeback Mountain” come to resemble disappointment itself, hardened by time and tough living. It’s here that Ennis del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) hew closest to expectation, working, marrying, and raising children despite the tug of desperate want. The film thus casts the Western’s enduring obsession, the collision between individual freedom and societal constraint, as a delicate, unexpected love affair between two men unable to name “this thing” that holds them together; from the pained, sterling performances to Gustavo Santaolalla’s unadorned, strumming score, “Brokeback Mountain” expresses their deep longing for a future that seems as distant as the horizon. – Matt Brennan
“The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” (Tommy Lee Jones, 2005): As unforgiving as the desert sun, Jones’ directorial debut begins with a statement of curdled values — “Liberty means freedom from high interest rates,” the sign outside a mobile-home dealership proclaims — and descends into a canyon of despair. Marriages flail, an old man begs to die, and the titular corpse rots away as rancher Pete Perkins (Jones) squares off against the border patrolman (Barry Pepper) who killed his best friend. Propelled by extraordinary performances and Guillermo Arriaga’s harrowing, Faulknerian script, the film will wring you dry. In the desolate borderlands of the American dream, only the devotion to Melquiades’ memory stands between Pete and meaninglessness itself. Though Pete’s quixotic effort to provide a decent burial won’t bring the man back or avenge his death, the journey holds out one last, tattered thread of redemption, and “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” grabs on with all its might. – Matt Brennan
“No Country for Old Men” (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007): Godard said that all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun, but the Coens, faithfully adapting Cormac McCarthy’s bloodstained postmodern western, rewrite that formula with a guy (Josh Brolin) and a bag of cash. 2007 brought two extremely disciplined, formally austere epics from obsessive auteurs (this, and PTA’s “There Will Be Blood”). Hyperbole is hard-earned, but this lean and mean tale of biblical grandeur stands above other films of that year and, for that matter, most films of the decade. If nothing else, “No Country” is the proof-text of cinematic sound design. You’ll never witness a performance as evil and shiver-inducing as Javier Bardem’s Oscar-winning portrayal of a serial killer. Late at night, it’s not Norman Bates’ shadow looming over the foot of my bed — it’s Anton Chigurh and his cattle gun. It amazes me to this day that a film so radical, ambiguous and anticlimactic — though, my god, what an ending — won best picture. The film’s final scene, where Tommy Lee Jones unspools an frightening and understated monologue about his dream, will haunt you forever. – Ryan Lattanzio
“There Will Be Blood” (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007): Controversial, perhaps. Flawed, certainly. But Anderson’s great American epic runs headlong into the abyss of genres, histories, and troubled strivers that have defined more than a century of cinema. Visually and aurally stunning, politically relevant and historically sound, its reserve of eccentric energy is devoted to the story of two men (Paul Dano and a larger-than-life Daniel Day-Lewis) battling for the soul of the country. In the words of the Byron poem from which it takes its name, I may not live to see it, but I foresee it: someday, “There Will Be Blood” will rightly be called a classic. – Matt Brennan
“Django Unchained” (Quentin Tarantino, 2012): If Quentin Tarantino’s historical revenge fantasy is scarcely the cunning critique of slavery he seems to think it is, “Django Unchained” nevertheless marshals the director’s flair for genre in the service of a brash and extraordinarily bloody spaghetti Western. As the eponymous freedman (Jamie Foxx) and German bounty hunter King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) trace Django’s wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), to the Mississippi plantation of depraved slaveholder Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), Tarantino reconstructs the Old South as a visceral nightmare; even the slop of beer and the clatter of spilled sweets are repugnant. Whether you consider it a travesty or an instant classic (arguably, it’s a little of both), “Django” has to be seen to be believed. It makes “The Wild Bunch” look like Ibsen. – Matt Brennan
See trailers for all 12 films on this list after the jump: