For at least half a century, the American westerns was the medium’s most dominant genre. The reasons are simple: Most cinemas were in dense, urban areas with high crime rates, so the sweeping widescreen vistas and law-and-order plotlines had huge appeal to viewers. Maybe they still do. With so many of us trapped inside our home this last year, and with a lawless mob recently trying to overthrow American democracy, is it any surprise the sturdy ol’ western is back?
“News of the World,” Tom Hanks’s first foray into the genre, is currently streaming, and there are two more major westerns planned for later this year. Before they arrive, it’d be worthwhile to catch up on or revisit some old classics. These films are all free on various streaming services. Go get ‘em, pardner.
“The Iron Horse” (1925, Amazon Prime)
John Ford’s first blockbuster is a silent historical epic that sets its story of love and betrayal against the backdrop of the construction of the first transatlantic railroad.
“Stagecoach” (1939, HBO Max)
The movie that made John Wayne a star, “Stagecoach” features a stacked cast of character actors, including the inimitable Thomas Mitchell, in a thrilling adventure tinged with social relevance.
“The Searchers” (1956, HBO Max)
Classical westerns struggle with their racist depictions of Native Americans, but with “The Searchers” director John Ford finally began interrogating the genre’s bigotry. Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, a bigoted cowboy, who, in seeking revenge against the Comanches that murdered his family, reveals shades of racism never before explored in the genre.
“The Big Country” (1958, Criterion)
That score. Those landscapes. That endless fistfight between Gregory Peck and Charlton Heston. That killer Burl Ives performance that grabs the movie by the throat in the third act and never lets go. This one is worth seeing on the largest screen possible.
“Rio Bravo” (1959, HBO Max)
Come for John Wayne, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson, and Walter Brennan as law officers defending a small town from outlaws, and stay for Martin and Nelson singing “My Rifle, My Pony, and Me” in cinema’s sweetest musical interlude.
“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962, Amazon Prime)
Ford’s most contemplative western stars Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne as men from the East and West, respectively, who come together to create modern society. They also fight over a gal and do battle with the titular bad guy, one of the best villains the genre has ever produced.
“Hud” (1963, Amazon Prime)
One of several midcentury elegies of the Old West, this masterpiece stars Paul Newman as a hard-drinking, womanizing son of an old rancher who proves himself ill-fitted to take over the family business. Released six months before the JFK assassination, it predicts the cynicism that would overtake a generation in the next decade.
“Once Upon a Time in the West” (1968, Criterion Channel)
Sergio Leone reinvented the western – Spaghetti-style – in the ‘60s, and this three-hour epic is his masterpiece. Starring Henry Fonda (in one of his rare villainous roles), Jason Robards, and Charles Bronston, this is a film in which every scene is a minor masterpiece. We need a bigger word for how good this movie is.
“Bad Company” (1971, Amazon Prime)
This era of revisionist westerns has many gems, but “Bad Company” is often overlooked. A lyrical but often brutal tale of young men fighting for survival while running from the Army, it’s a story of kids playing cowboy that ends up as a treatise on how all cowboys are just kids.
“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (HBO Max)
The story of the James gang is a mainstay of the genre, but never before has it been told with such ethereal beauty. Director Andrew Dominik lifts a few shots from Terence Malick for this stunner that features mesmerizing performances from Brad Pitt, as the legendary outlaw, and Casey Affleck, as the yellow-bellied traitor who put him in the ground.