Best Discoveries of 2021: Westerns
I don’t know exactly when I picked up my newfound interest in westerns, but I suspect it had something to do with the pandemic. During all those days of shutdowns, I wanted to watch something that had nothing to do with technology. A pocket watch, a train, a six-shooter… That was as much tech as I wanted from my movie-watching in those days, and perhaps now.
Westerns were so prolific, at least on television, when I was a kid, and maybe I wanted to revisit that simpler time and a time before that when westerns were everywhere. I began to watch many of them, enjoying them all, even the bad ones. It is often said that all you need for a film noir is a man, a woman, a room, and a weapon. Maybe all you need for a western is a man, a horse, the Old (or New) West, and an enemy of some type. I don’t know, I just know I enjoy westerns, and here are the ones I enjoyed most this year. (Like the SF/Horror list, I saw many other westerns, but these were the best.) Please let me know about the ones you enjoyed this year.
The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) Sam Peckinpah (Warner Archive Blu-ray)
Jason Robards stars in the title role, a man cheated by his friends (Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones), seeks enlightenment from God and gets it. But what does he do with it? Peckinpah apparently intended this as a comedy, but it contains too many tragic elements for an effective comedy. The film also seems to be just as much the story of Hogue’s lover/prostitute Hildy (Stella Stevens) as Hogue’s. I have mixed feelings about this one, but plan to revisit it in a year or so.
The Culpepper Cattle Co. (1972) Dick Richards (Signal One Blu-ray, Region B, UK)
I had planned to write a full review of this unconventional coming-of-age western, but time got away from me. I’ve thought a lot about this picture featuring Gary Grimes (in only his second film) and a whole slew of great character actors including Bo Hopkins, Luke Askew, Billy Green Bush, Geoffrey Lewis, Charles Martin Smith, Hal Needham, Royal Dano, and more. Well worth seeking out.
Colorado Territory (1949) Raoul Walsh (Warner Archive DVD; extra film on the High Sierra Criterion Blu-ray)
Colorado Territory is Raoul Walsh’s remake of his own 1941 film High Sierra (both films are included on the Criterion release of High Sierra), this time with Joel McCrea and VIrginia Mayo in the parts originally played by Humphrey Bogart and Ida Lupino. Plus this one’s a western. McCrea plays Wes McQueen, who escapes a jail cell to meet his former partner-in-crime. Along the way, he gets involved with a woman (Dorothy Malone) he thinks might be worth giving up a life of crime for. Ah, but there’s this former dance hall girl (Virginia Mayo), and, well… Some prefer this film to High Sierra, but while I like Colorado Territory quite a bit, Bogart and Lupino get the nod from me.
Sergeant Rutledge (1960) John Ford (Criterion Channel)
Woody Strode appears in a rare starring role as Sergeant Braxton Rutledge, a black first sergeant in a black U.S. Calvary regiment. Rutledge, standing trial for the murder of a white man and the rape of his daughter (Constance Towers), is defended by Lieutenant Tom Cantrell (Jeffrey Hunter) in one of John Ford’s most underrated films.
The Law and Jake Wade (1958) John Sturges (Warner Archive Blu-ray)
This John Sturges western doesn’t go into a lot of depth, but it’s a solid tale of two criminals, one who’s gone straight and is now a town marshal (Robert Taylor), the other still an outlaw (Richard Widmark) forcing his former partner to turn over the money he stole from a previous job together. Beautiful cinematography by Robert Surtees, especially the scenes of California’s High Sierra mountains.
Major Dundee (1965) Sam Peckinpah (Sony DVD)
We’ll probably never have a true director’s cut of Major Dundee, but whether you see the 123-minute or the 135-minute cut (the one I saw), you can see that the film is so, so close to greatness, perhaps just short of a masterpiece. Charlton Heston plays Major Amos Dundee, the leader of a ragtag Army troop consisting of Union and Confederate soldiers whose mission is to ride into Mexico to kill a band of Apaches who’ve been raiding U.S. bases in Texas. Major Dundee boasts one of the finest casts in any western, including Richard Harris, Senta Berger, James Coburn, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, R.G. Armstrong, L.Q. Jones, Silm Pickens, and more. This past summer Arrow released an edition that looks stunning, but a little out of my price range unless it goes on sale. Any fan of westerns will want to see this, either on DVD, in the limited edition Blu-ray, or the eventual standard edition. See it.
The Big Trail (1930) Raoul Walsh (20th Century Fox Blu-ray)
The Big Trail (1930) marks John Wayne’s first starring role as well as an early widescreen Western shot on location (covering seven states). The story is routine, even by 1930 standards: John Wayne plays Breck Coleman, a young trapper seeking to avenge the death of his friend who was traveling on the Santa Fe Trail. Coleman comes upon a large group of settlers ready to cross the Oregon Trail and shows no interest in joining them until he discovers a man named Red Flack (Tyrone Power Sr.) among their number. Flack, Coleman believes, is the man who killed his friend. Thus begins the journey. The story also involves a love triangle between Coleman and a young woman named Ruth Cameron (Marguerite Churchill), who is more interested in a man named Thorpe (Ian Keith), one of Flack’s buddies.
Director Raoul Walsh and cinematographers Lucien Androit and Arthur Edeson capture some magnificent shots of the journey, depicting the hardships of the travelers (particularly the horses, which must have been harmed during the filming). These moments are spectacular, yet the film also includes many scenes with people simply standing around talking for long stretches of time.
Lonely Are the Brave (1962) David Miller (Kino Lorber Blu-ray)
Kirk Douglas plays Jack Burns, an old-school cowboy trying to navigate the modern (1962) world. Apparently this was one of Douglas’s favorite roles, and it’s easy to see why from this non-traditional Western. The supporting cast is stellar, featuring Gena Rowlands, Walter Matthau, Carroll O’Connor, William Schallert, George Kennedy, and Bill Raisch, the one-armed man from The Fugitive TV series.
The Wonderful Country (1959) Robert Parrish (Kino Lorber Blu-ray)
Robert Mitchum (pictured here with Julie London) plays Martin Brady, a Mexican (no lie!) wanted in the U.S. for a murder from several years earlier. Now an arms dealer, Slipping into Texas to secure a deal for his Mexican boss, Brady breaks his leg, delaying the proceedings. As luck (bad luck, that is) would have it, the shipment is stolen while Brady’s laid up. There’s much more going on underneath the surface, and if you can get over Mitchum and a Mexican accent, you may discover that The Wonderful Country is a very moving film.
The Spikes Gang (1974) Richard Fleischer (Kino Lorber Blu-ray)
Say what you will about the man, but I can’t think of a Richard Fleischer film that isn’t entertaining. Case in point: The Spikes Gang, a Western that begins with three boys finding a man near death and unsure of what to do about it. The boys, Wil (Gary Grimes), Tod (Charles Martin Smith), and Les (Ron Howard) decide to help the man named Harry Spikes (Lee Marvin), whom, upon recovery, promises to reward them someday. With Spikes’s tales of adventure and bank robbing, the boys decide to imitate his exploits, which lands them in big trouble until they’re rescued (or maybe cursed?) by Spikes. Watching Lee Marvin and the young Howard, Smith, and Grimes (who only made six films and a handful of television episodes before walking away from acting in the late 1970s) is reason enough to watch film, but The Spikes Gang is far from a throwaway Western. It’s worth a look.
The Last Sunset (1961) Robert Aldrich (Criterion Channel, also available on a Kino Lorber Blu-ray)
Trying to escape a murder charge, gunfighter Brendan O’Malley (Kirk Douglas) crosses into Mexico where he comes upon a ranch owned by a drunken Southerner (Joseph Cotten) married to a woman named Belle (Dorothy Malone). Ah, but O’Malley and Belle were formerly lovers. But there’s not much time for carrying on since Sheriff Dana Stribling (Rock Hudson) has been tracking O’Malley to serve him a warrant for murder. Somehow they all get caught up in a cattle drive, where tensions mount and Belle’s daughter Missy (Carol Lynley) begins to fall for O’Malley. Although credited to Dalton Trumbo, the script for this film suffered many problems (which Trumbo tried to fix), but the cast is wonderful. Not the finest western (or the best Aldrich film) you’ll ever see, but still enjoyable.
Arizona Legion (1939) David Howard (George O’Brien Western Collection 1938-1940 DVD MOD set, Warner Bros.)
It’s been over a year since I watched my first George O’Brien B-Western, and it was fun returning to view another one. In Arizona Legion, cattle rancher Boone Yeager (O’Brien) decides to join a gang of outlaws, devoting himself to a life of crime. Boone’s fiancé Letty (Laraine Day, credited as Laraine Johnson) can’t understand why, but what she doesn’t know is Boone has infiltrated the gang in order to bring them down from within. A good B-Western with comic relief from a young Chill Wills and a pre-Frankenstein Glenn Strange. For more, check out this review from Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings.
Quantez (1957) Harry Keller (Kino Lorber Blu-ray)
Previously discussed in an essay here and a video essay on my YouTube channel
Put your horses in the stable and have a shot of whiskey, because that’s it for westerns for awhile. Please let me know which westerns you enjoyed this year.