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The Best Discoveries of 2020: Westerns

Man, I had a great time with this genre in 2020! I’ve always enjoyed westerns, but once the pandemic hit, I found myself watching several of them and couldn’t understand why. Many of these films I’d never heard of, but based on the recommendations of others (especially my friends Laura from Laura's Miscellaneous Musings, Tim in the UK, and Jan W.), I decided to check them out and discovered very few I didn’t like. Eddie Muller has often said that all you need for a film noir is a man, a woman, a hotel room (preferably a cheap one) and a weapon. I wonder if all you need for a western is a predominantly outdoor setting, a horse, a weapon, the the promise of land, gold, a woman, or all three. I don’t have a solid answer to that, but I am beginning to understand why westerns were so popular not only in movies, but also on television. Try to find a western now, and it’s pretty tough, with a few exceptions. I really enjoyed my continuing exploration of westerns and hope you’ll find something to try from this list.


Along Came Jones (1945) Stuart Heisler (MGM DVD, ClassicFlix Blu-ray)

A Western comedy I really enjoyed, despite the overuse of rear projection shots. Gary Cooper, Loretta Young, Dan Duryea, and William Demarest are all wonderful.

The Bravados (1958) Henry King (Twilight Time Blu-ray)

A tremendous film of darkness, revenge, and redemption, previously reviewed here.

Broken Lance (1954) Edward Dmytryk (Twilight Time Blu-ray)

A dark, complex Western with definite touches of Shakespeare, Broken Lance is the story of an aging take-no-prisoners rancher (Spencer Tracy) who’s managed his business and raised his sons (Robert Wagner, Richard Widmark, Hugh O’Brien, Earl Holliman) showing almost no love or compassion. Superb use of Technicolor and Cinemascope.

Cowboy (1958) Delmer Daves (Twilight Time Blu-ray)

Hardly anyone talks about this western. They should. Thanks to my good friend Tim for introducing me to this one. Previously discussed here.

Devil’s Doorway (1950) Anthony Mann (Criterion Channel)

I’m not surprised that such a dark film came from director Anthony Mann, but I’m stunned that it was produced at MGM. Robert Taylor plays Lance Poole, a Native American Civil War hero who returns from the war to discover that white men have changed the homesteading laws to drive the Native Americans off the land. The leader of this group (Louis Calhern) isn’t a mustache-twirling villain, but rather quietly evil. You may have a hard time picturing Taylor as a Native American, but the role turns out to be one of his best. As an added bonus, John Alton shot this film.

Doc (1971) Frank Perry (Amazon Prime)

Based on a novel by Pete Hamill, Doc is one of the dustiest westerns I’ve ever seen, which is significant. There’s nothing clean or sanitized about this revisionist take on the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. If you’re a fan of McCabe & Mrs. Miller (also from 1971), you’ll probably like Doc. Although it’s not quite in the same league as the Robert Altman film, Doc is certainly worthy of discovery (or rediscovery). The Kino Lorber Blu-ray is scheduled for March 23, 2021.

Flaming Star (1960) Don Siegel (Twilight Time Blu-ray)

Flaming Star, like King Creole (1958) and a handful of his early films, proves that Elvis Presley could have had a shot at becoming a serious actor. Here, Elvis plays Pacer Burton, son of a Kiowa mother called Neddy (Delores del Rio) and a white father named Sam (John McIntire). Clint Burton (Steve Forrest), Pacer’s brother by his father’s previous marriage, is having a birthday party as the film opens, but the party doesn’t last long. The Kiowa tribe has a new chief who pressures Pacer to declare his allegiance: to his tribe or the white man. The film contains some questionable story elements, but the performances from Elvis, Forrest, del Rio, and McIntire are poignant and powerful.

Garden of Evil (1954) Henry Hathaway (Twilight Time Blu-ray)

My first film of April ended up being one of the best westerns I saw all year. This film stars Gary Cooper, Richard Widmark, and Cameron Mitchell, who play three very different men stopping in a Mexican village on the way to California for gold prospecting. Almost immediately, a woman (Susan Hayward) barges into the cantina where the men are relaxing, promising to pay each man $2,000 if they’ll help free her husband who’s trapped in a gold mine in Apache territory. There’s so much going on in this film, so many layers, all of which take on a different tone with the use of gorgeous CinemaScope Technicolor, to say nothing of the Bernard Herrmann score (his only Western). Highly recommended.

The Hanging Tree (1959) Delmer Daves (Warner Archive Blu-ray)

I absolutely love the cinematic beauty of a Delmer Daves western, yet I wonder how much of that beauty contributes to - or detracts from - the underlying darkness of the stories and characters in his films. The Hanging Tree will certainly demand further viewings, and not just for a closer examination of its themes. It’s also a gorgeous film. Gary Cooper plays Joseph Frail, a doctor with a past who rescues a young man (Ben Piazza) from a lynch mob. For his efforts, Doc Frail demands the boy work for him. As everyone in mining town is focused on their claims, Frail works on restoring the sight of a woman (Maria Schell) involved in a stagecoach accident. All of this converges in an ending that somehow doesn’t quite feel right. Again, I need to revisit this one soon. George C. Scott’s film debut.

I Shot Jesse James (1949) Samuel Fuller (Criterion Channel)

The familiar story of the murder of Jesse James (Reed Hadley) by Robert Ford (John Ireland) is treated without pretension, but with plenty of intensity by first-time director Sam Fuller, already showing that he’s in complete control.

Lawless Valley (1938) David Howard (George O’Brien Western Collection (1938-1940) DVD [MOD] set

My first venture (as far as I can remember) into B-picture Westerns, previously discussed here.Thanks to my friend Laura for the recommendation!

Lawman (1971) Michael Winner (Twilight Time Blu-ray)

Okay, this is technically a rewatch, but since the only thing I remembered from this movie was its ending, I’ve decided to include it here. Burt’s doing his law enforcement thing again... I really like Lawman, revisiting it this month for the first time since its original theatrical release. A fairly straightforward story sets the stage for a complex look at human nature, crime, punishment, and much more. Burt Lancaster plays Jered Maddox, marshal of a town named Bannock, where a group of ranchers accidentally kill an innocent man during a drunken romp through the town. Maddox arrives in Sabbath, a much larger town where the ranchers live. Maddox gives the men a choice: They can turn themselves in to Maddox or be killed, plain and simple. But we’re dealing with human nature here, and nothing is plain or simple. The supporting cast is impressive: Robert Ryan, Lee J. Cobb, Robert Duvall, Sheree North, Albert Salmi, J.D. Cannon, Joseph Wiseman, Ralph Waite, John McGiver, and even a few shots of John Hillerman. Quite violent for the time, but much less so now, Lawman is worth seeking out.

Lust for Gold (1949) S. Sylvan Simon, George Marshall (Criterion Channel)

Imitating the best (and sometimes the worst) flashback framing devices from film noir, Lust for Gold (aka Bonanza) finds us in modern times with Barry Storm (William Prince), a young man who believes he has a claim to a lost gold mine somewhere in the Superstition Mountains. He learns the story of how his grandfather Jacob “Dutchy” Walz (Glenn Ford) discovered the mine and fell in love with a woman named Julia (Ida Lupino), who’s already married, but withholds this information from Walz. Lust for Gold is filled with greed, deception, and some moments that (especially for 1949) are quite brutal, making it a truly western noir.

The Magnificent Seven (1960) John Sturges (MGM Two-Disc Collector’s Edition DVD)

Yes, this is my first time to watch all of the original film The Magnificent Seven, not the TV show, not the remake. Of course, this film is not the true original, since it acknowledges in the credits that it was inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece Seven Samurai (1954). The story is similar: a poor village being plundered by bandits (led by Eli Wallach) hires a team of professional gunfighters (including Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, etc.) to help them. Although it’s modeled on Kurosawa’s film, The Magnificent Seven isn’t going overboard to exactly replicate Seven Samurai, which is one of its strengths. Elmer Bernstein’s score is legendary, and rightfully so. The DVD is still available, and as far as I can tell, is the only release that includes the audio commentary from writer and film historian Christopher Frayling. I’m not giving this one up, not unless six guys with guns come riding into my living room, and maybe not even then.

A Man Alone (1955) Ray Milland (Kino Lorber Blu-ray)

Ray Milland plays Wes Steele, a gunfighter who happens upon the aftermath of a stagecoach massacre. When he seeks to report the crime to the authorities in the nearest town, Steele becomes a target, hiding out in a house cellar belonging (as luck would have it) to the town sheriff Gil Gorrigan (Ward Bond), who’s been stricken with yellow fever. Attempting to avoid discovery, Steele learns what really happened to the stagecoach as he falls for Gorrigan’s daughter Nadine (Mary Murphy). An usual but effective western, co-starring Raymond Burr, Lee Van Cleef, and Alan Hale Jr.

Man with the Gun (1955) Richard Wilson (Criterion Channel)

Westerns are loaded with stories about out-of-control frontier towns seeking law and order from a lawman (or anyone) who can depose the current inefficient (or corrupt) sheriff. In comes Robert Mitchum as Clint Tollinger, who acts as the “town tamer,” fighting fire with fire (some of which comes from the local madame Jan Sterling). Any film with Ted de Corsia and Emile Meyer is automatically on my radar.

No Name on the Bullet (1959) Jack Arnold (Universal DVD)

John Gant (Audie Murphy) rides into a small Arizona town and everyone knows why he’s there: to kill someone, but no one knows who. Gant’s presence creates speculation, panic, and a mob mentality, but a local doctor (Charles Drake) tries to bring a sense of rationality to the townspeople. No Name on the Bullet is an atypical, yet very effective Western.

Rachel and the Stranger (1948) Norman Foster (Warner Archive Blu-ray)

Widower David Harvey (William Holden) needs a mother for his son (Gary Gray), but he also needs a cook, housekeeper… essentially an indentured servant. Welcome to the pioneer West. But when Harvey’s traveling friend (Robert Mitchum) comes around, it could spell trouble for Harvey and his common-law wife (Loretta Young). The actors rise above the predictable material, and things get quite dark during the last act, making things a bit less predictable.

Rawhide (1951) Henry Hathaway (Kino Lorber Blu-ray)

When news of four escaped convicts reaches the stagecoach way station at Rawhide Pass, Cavalrymen commander a stagecoach that’s just stopped to let off passengers, transporting it out of the reach of the outlaws. For her own safety, they refuse to allow Vinnie Holt (Susan Hayward) and her young niece Callie (Judy Ann Dunn) to continue their journey until the convicts are caught, leaving her at the way station with the stationmaster (Edgar Buchanan) and his disgruntled assistant (Tyrone Power). As you can imagine, the convicts (Hugh Marlowe, Jack Elam, George Tobias, Dean Jagger) show up and hold everyone hostage until the next stagecoach arrives. Anyone expecting this to be a predictable western will be pleasantly surprised.

The Shepherd of the Hills (1941) Henry Hathaway (DVD borrowed from a friend)

John Wayne as a moonshiner? In Technicolor? Harry Carey plays Daniel Howitt, a mysterious stranger who arrives in the Missouri hills to befriend a community, hoping to settle down there. Young Matt Matthews (Wayne) refuses to allow him to settle, and might well kill the man. This is an odd, yet very effective, compelling film that touches on many elements of spirituality, community, sacrifice, and family. Don’t expect a traditional western. The film also stars Betty Field, Beulah Bondi, Samuel S. Hinds, Marjorie Main, Ward Bond, Tom Fadden, Marc Lawrence, and John Qualen. You can now pick this one up on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber.

Station West (1948) Sidney Lanfield (Warner Archive DVD)

What a terrific Western! Some have called this a film noir Western, and with a cast of film noir regulars, it’s hard to disagree. I reviewed the film back in April.

The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936) Henry Hathaway (Universal DVD)

A long-running feud between two mountain families is broken up (or is it?) by a man (Fred MacMurray) seeking coal mining rights to their land. An early three-strip Technicolor film with a great cast including Henry Fonda, Sylvia Sidney, and the always adorable George “Spanky” McFarland.

Vera Cruz (1954) Robert Aldrich (Amazon Prime)

Ex-Confederate soldier Ben Trane (Gary Cooper) finds himself in Mexico looking for work as a mercenary where he discovers Joe Erin (Burt Lancaster) the leader of a gang of criminals. Together they sign up to escort a countess (Denise Darcel) to the city of Veracruz for the sum of $50,000, but there’s more than a simple escort trip going on here. I’ll be honest: I was so distracted by Burt Lancaster’s teeth that I was laughing more than Aldrich probably intended. Vera Cruz is essentially a testosterone-fest with Gary Cooper’s Ben Trane as the only person in the film with any scruples whatsoever. I would’ve preferred the film as a flat-out comedy, but I still enjoyed it. My biggest disappointment is that Jack Lambert gets so little screen time.

The Violent Men (1955) Rudolph Maté (Criterion Channel)

A literal barn-burner, The Violent Men tells the story of former Union army officer John Parrish (Glenn Ford) who’s had enough of ranching and is ready to sell his ranch to the only viable buyer around, the ruthless cattle baron Lew Wilkison (Edward G. Robinson). While Parrish is thinking over Wilkison’s measly offer, Wilkinson’s sadistic brother (Brian Keith) stops his affair with his brother’s wife Martha (Barbara Stanwyck) long enough to have one of Parrish’s men murdered. Things spin out of control, and impressively so, but I wonder if the film would’ve been as effective without the stellar cast and its eye-catching CinemaScope photography.

Wagon Master (1950) John Ford (Warner Archive Blu-ray)

A group of Mormons led by Ward Bond (I know… Seriously?) gets run out of town, looking for someone to help them journey to the San Juan Valley. Horse traders Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr. seem the best choice, but initially they aren’t interested, not until some enticements of the female persuasion make themselves known. Did I mention there’s also a dangerous group of killers lurking around, looking for a place to hide? A Mormon wagon train might provide a good cover… I’m just sayin’…

The Walking Hills (1949) John Sturges (Criterion Channel)

It’s been compared to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, made one year earlier, but while The Walking Hills isn’t in the same league as the John Huston film, it’s still a terrific picture with a great cast, including Randolph Scott, Ella Raines, William Bishop, Edgar Buchanan, Arthur Kennedy, John Ireland, and blues singer Josh White. Like Sierra Madre, The Walking Hills includes unmistakable traces of film noir in its DNA. In a Mexican bar, a group of men discover that one of them actually knows where a legendary wagon of gold is buried. Greed takes hold, as we might expect, but there’s also distrust going on here. A solid Western worth checking out.

Warlock (1959) Edward Dmytryk (Twilight Time Blu-ray)

I love westerns (or any film) whose ideas are as big as the landscape they occupy, and that’s certainly true of Warlock, which has much in common with Wichita (1955), a film I previously reviewed. Henry Fonda stars as Clay Blaisedell, a “marshal-for-hire” who plans to clean up the town of Warlock. Blaisedell warns the town leaders that they’ll appreciate the peace and quiet for awhile, but eventually they’ll turn on him. It’s happened before. This is a rich, complex western with multiple layers, a film you can watch every year and still learn something new from it. Co-stars Richard Widmark, Anthony Quinn, Dorothy Malone, and one of my favorites, DeForest Kelley, Whit Bissell, who (spoiler) amazingly doesn’t get killed in this one.

Whispering Smith (1948) Leslie Fenton (Universal DVD)

Alan Ladd plays the title character, a railroad officer paid to bring in railway criminals, one of which might just be his friend (Robert Preston). An enjoyable Western, now part of a Kino Lorber Western box set.

Wichita (1955) Jacques Tourneur (Warner Archive DVD)

Believe it or not, Wichita was one of the most relevant films I saw during the pandemic months of 2020. Read more here.

I hope you’ll consider exploring some of these westerns. I sure had a great time with them and look forward to more westerns in 2021.

Next: All of my first-time watches in 2020 of film noir.

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