September 29, 2011


Stephen Bly 2008
by Stephen Bly

Quite often I get asked, “What’s your favorite western movie?”
Sure, the 1952 classic, High Noon, rates high. But there are a number of others I enjoy. Here’s a list of ones I like best, though I make no claim to pronounce these the best westerns ever made. They’re the ones I like watching over and over.

These are listed in chronological order, by release date, not in order of preference.

 1. Stagecoach (1939) - John Wayne’s first major role. Directed by John Ford. While showing the limitation of a pre-war movie, it sets the tone of westerns aimed for adults. The genre would never be the same. Stagecoach did for the movies what Gunsmoke did for TV westerns. This might be the first time many witnessed legendary western stunt man, Yakima Canutt, stop an out-of-control stagecoach. Indiana Jones crawling under the speeding German troop transport in Raiders of the Lost Ark is a tip of the fedora to Canutt.

Fort Apache
 2. Fort Apache (1948) - stars Henry Fonda, John Wayne, Shirley Temple. Directed by John Ford. The presentation of seasoned western cavalrymen, of a headstrong and stubborn office (Fonda), and of unscrupulous Indian agents all ring true with history. Wayne is not the main character. Anyone could have played his part. The story center’s around Fonda’s role, an obvious ‘Custer’ type. This might be the first time the general public was informed, no matter how subtle, that Custer wasn’t such a great hero after all. The concluding scene about how things should be remembered is classic.

High Noon
 3. High Noon (1952) - stars Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly. Directed by Fred Zinnemann. Hands down, my favorite movie of all time. I went to the theater as an 8-year-old and watched every breath-taking second of it. I made up my mind that day that I would live by the ‘code’ as Will Cane did. It is the reason I write western stories. And Cane is the proto-type of my own characters: Stuart Brannon, Tap Andrews, Avery John Creede, etc.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence
 4. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) - stars James Stewart, John Wayne, Vera Miles. Directed by John Ford. I like the gradual realization of what really happened ... and why it’s important to allow things to continue as they are. Who do you think is the hero in this movie?

Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid
 5. Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid (1969) - stars Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Katharine Ross. Directed by George Roy Hill. Okay, some say this is a comedy, not a western ... and that the “Raindrops Keep Falling” sequence annoys. But I love the great old time sepia nickelodeon/silent movie opening and the intro line: “some of what follows is true.” And the excellent cinematography. The early scene with Butch at the bank ... watch the shadows and camera angles ... wow, it’s good. And the final scene is an all-time classic. But I enjoy the affable Butch Cassidy (which is true to history) and the fact that no matter how likeable you might be, good does triumph over evil.

A Fistful of Dynamite
 6. Duck, You Sucker (1971) - stars James Coburn, Rod Steiger, Romolo Valli. Directed by Sergio Leone. Music by Ennio Morricone. This is, perhaps, the worst title ever. Sometimes it’s called A Fistful of Dynamite. They wanted to name it Once Upon A time ... Revolution. But using ‘revolution’ in a 1971 film was considered too radical. Warning: it is, in places, graphic and violent and not for all audiences. But it tells an honest story will all the action and character development you would expect in a good western. And there’s a chance element stressed here ... of being in the right place at the right time ... that rings true to most revolutions.

The Shootist
 7. The Shootist (1976) - stars John Wayne, Lauren Bacall, Ron Howard. Directed by Don Siegel. My favorite John Wayne movie. The Code of the West reigns supreme with more clarity than any other movie. I relate to the character of J. B. Books, even down to his battle with cancer.

Quigley Down Under
 8. Quigley Down Under (1990) - stars Tom Selleck, Laura San Giacomo, Alan Rickman. Directed by Simon Wincer. Originally slated for 1980 to star Steve McQueen. Forget the predictable plot. The movie is about a Sharps rifle and re-established the lost sport of long distance, silhouette shooting. It’s also about a woman called ‘Crazy Cora.’ Laura San Giacomo should be given an award for the best female performance in any western ever. Yeah, I consider this a ‘western,’ even though it’s set in Australia.

Open Range
 9. Open Range (2003) - stars Robert Duvall, Kevin Costner, Annette Bening. Directed by Kevin Costner. For a modern movie, they get a lot of things right, such as the sound effects of the gunfight. For once, Hollywood made gun reports authentic. That might be the only time in the history of western movies.

The Alamo
10. The Alamo (2004) - stars Billy Bob Thornton, Dennis Quaid, Jason Patric, Patrick Wilson. Directed by John Lee Hancock. This is the modern, not John Wayne version. Pre-civil war Texas might not seem like the setting for a western, but I’ll put it in that category. Terrific cinematography. Superb casting. Historical accuracy. I love this film. It inspires me every time I watch it. Pay close attention to the character development of William Travis (played by Patrick Wilson).

True Grit
I have also recently added to this list the newest release of True Grit (2010) - starring Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Hailee Steinfeld. Directed by the Coen brothers. I admire John Wayne as much as the next western movie buff. But in the original True Grit I was always aware that Rooster Cogburn was really John Wayne. In this version, Jeff Bridges is Rooster Cogburn in every twitch of his being.


What western movie would you add to or subtract from this list? And why?


COMING MARCH 2012: Stuart Brannon’s Final Shot, by Stephen Bly, with Janet Chester Bly, Russell Bly, Michael Bly & Aaron Bly


csthankful said...

As I read that I could hear Steve's voice narrating....I count it a blessing to still be able to "hear" his voice. There are so many westerns out there and my darlin' loves to watch every one. I have to admit that I have gotten into the pattern of critiquing things that could not possibly have been like parts of the story line that are out of their time-period. We probably have every John Wayne movie ever made, but to add to the list would be Crossfire Trail. Who can ignore a good Louis L'Amour movie and Tom Selleck??? We too thought the newer True Grit was better than the first...but would not miss an opportunity to see John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn. So many movies....

Janet Bly said...

Thanks for the comments, Connie Sue! Always appreciated.

Shannon Nicole Wells said...

I've seen most of these movies and agree they are the best. The first Western i ever watched was "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance." I cried at the end and still want to cry eery time i watch it. :)