Fonda as the Bad Guy

The Western films of the last thirty years are predominantly defined by the historical past of the United States. These basic tenets are so fundamental that the directors from the ‘Old School” insisted upon the highest levels of verisimilitude. In return, these films helped reinvigorate the essence, the principles and the core values of American society from the early to the late twentieth century.

Writers, directors and even the lowliest of actors were forced to confront obvious divergences from modern sensibilities. Strong willed heroes brought peace to an untamed land but at what cost?

It was a self-reinforcing cycle that would help ameliorate the negative effects on an America buffeted by anti-war demonstrations and government malfeasance. Still, these paeans to American greatness would expand upon social issues and rise above the pedestrian efforts of so called artistes.

As an aside, if I hear, one more time, that McCabe and Mrs. Miller by Robert Altman is one of the quintessential American Westerns, I’m going to go postal. It has Warren Beatty as the lead and is as derivative as Star Trek Five: The Final Frontier. It is clichéd beyond belief. All in all, a “horror show,” as Mr. Burgess would say. For all that is holy, Altman fans, just stop your whining. It has no place in the halls of real men.

Instead, here are four movies, all beautifully written, insightful and thought provoking musings on the essentials of the American ethic.


The Professionals (1966)

- Richard Brooks

They say that every story has already been written and all the others are mere retellings. That may, indeed, be the case but with Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin, Claudia Cardinale, Jack Palance, Woody Strode and Robert Ryan as the cast, the story bears hearing one more time.

This movie takes a different tack in that the seasoned band of men mentioned in the title are never surprised by any twists of fate. They recognize the tenuous nature of their relationships with their employers and antagonists and are never surprised when human motivations supersede contractual obligations.

The story has plenty of twists but, of course, the end sees the professionals fulfill their contract and no more. In the final scene, they show their true colors and frustrate the dishonorable plans of their employer by saving their former enemy. The movie makes a compelling case for the dignity of the rugged individual.


Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

- Sergio Leone

One of my first movie memories is watching this movie as a kid. After a band of marauding cowboys kills everyone in a homestead family except a small boy, a moronic henchman asks, “What are we gonna do with the boy, Frank?”

Henry Fonda, as Frank, in as diabolical a role as has ever been played, replies, “Well, now that you mentioned MY NAME…,” guns down the eight year old. Thus, starts Sergio Leone’s encomium to the spirit and values of America.

Leone captures this spirit as only an immigrant can. He loves the country for its diversity, its relative fairness and its unflagging opportunity. He had seen the other side of life in other countries and he was not impressed. 

Mr. Leone is not hidebound by the delusion that the United States is perfect. He simply recognizes that there is no better place on Earth. Sure, there are, pardon the pun, bad actors and bad results but, on the whole, this is where justice prevails. This movie is a not too veiled parable about the greatness of the United States and I, for one, thank you, Mr. Leone.

Also, it’s a damn good story, has an Ennio Morricone score and Charles Bronson with that magnificent harmonica. At the station, there were three dusters and in those three dusters were three men and in those three dusters were…

What happens next? Watch it and see.


Unforgiven (1992)

- Clint Eastwood

Despite his success with films as diverse as Dirty Harry and Million Dollar Baby, Clint Eastwood is best remembered for his roles in Western films. His roles in these spaghetti Westerns are referenced by everyone and anyone including The Simpsons, Big Audio Dynamite and Gorillaz.

Mr. Eastwood in a self-referential role plays an aging, past his prime gunslinger. It is delightful and to Mr. Eastwood’s credit that he remains silent as to whether the reference is to his past characters or to himself. Unforgiven is only the third Western to win Best Picture Oscar after the decidedly average Cimarron and the abysmal Dances with Wolves. Incidentally, it irks me to no end that they insist upon capitalizing “with.”

Unforgiven is a simple story of the powerful versus the weak, the cowardly versus the brave and ultimately good versus evil. The story is not transcendent or life altering. Rather, it is an affirmation that, after a long life of toil and trouble, it was all worth it. Try not to cry when Mr. Eastwood’s character, at his departure, tells the townsfolk that they better not “screw” with the remaining prostitutes.


Tombstone (1993)

- George Cosmatos

Set in the infamous, eponymous town, the scenes of this movie are redolent of the Old West. You can almost smell the sweat of horse and saddle as Wyatt Earp, played by Kurt Russell, dismounts and ties up his horse. The masterful casting of Sam Elliot and Bill Paxton as his brothers is only overshadowed by Val Kilmer’s portrayal of Doc Holliday.

Mr. Kilmer, once relegated to such frosty roles as the Iceman in Top Gun and Madmartigan in Willow broke the mold in this movie. He simply reinvented himself. The obvious relish with which he plays the noble and dying yet practical Doc Holliday is down right inspirational. The ending scene where Doc looks at his bare feet and an absurd realization dawns on him is classic, bittersweet and incredibly funny.

Tombstone encapsulates every traditional American ideal from defense of the weak through disregard for bureaucracy to individual liberty. It also doesn’t miss a beat with the obviously modern, feminist proclivities of Dana Delaney and Joanna Pacula.

Who’s your daisy?


Need More?

There is very little to add to the lexicon that defines the American Western. Perhaps when Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is writ large on the screen, we will have something further to discuss. If you enjoyed this article, please check out my earlier effort Five Early Westerns That Influenced the Movies and Popular Culture for Decades to Come.  If science fiction is more to your liking, try here.

N.B. I love, love, love arguing about this stuff, especially in print. Please add a comment.