Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

100 Westerns by Edward Buscombe

 

An excellent introduction to the genre

 

I like Edward Buscombe’s writing on Westerns. I have already reviewed The BFI Companion to the Western, which he edited, and his book Injuns: Native Americans in the Movies –click the links for those. I heard about his 2005 book (reissued 2013) 100 Westerns on How the West was ‘Cast and read it. I can recommend it to someone who wants a brief introduction to the genre and is looking for an interesting selection.

 

 

In his introduction, Mr Buscombe says that no genre has ever occupied such a dominant position in the movie business as the Western. From around 1910 to the 1960s, around a fifth of all films made were oaters. And “a significant number of the best films ever made in Hollywood were Westerns.”

 

Of course there are also many cross-genre movies, musical Westerns, comedy Westerns, Western noirs, even sci-fi and horror ones. And although the big-screen Western movie may have declined since the 1960s, history books on the American West still pour out annually, serious fiction too, and there’s more critical writing than ever (notably, of course, Jeff Arnold’s West – though strangely Ed Buscombe doesn’t mention this).

 

Happily, although many movies, especially silent ones, have been lost – click here for our essay on that – there remains to us a massive corpus of Westerns of every type, possibly 7000, estimates the author.

 

So choosing only a hundred pictures from this huge treasure trove isn’t easy.

 

Buscombe says he has tried to make a representative selection. All the great directors are there, Ford, Hawks, Mann, Daves, Peckinpah, Eastwood, Leone, and so on. Actors too, Wayne, Cooper, Scott, Stewart, Eastwood & Co.

 

All the ‘great’ Westerns are there, The Iron Horse, Red River, Shane, High Noon, The Searchers, The Wild Bunch, the usual suspects you might say. Some ‘lesser’ pictures too, like Forty Guns, Great Day in the Morning, The Shooting, Terror in a Texas Town and more. And there are some frankly obscure choices, such as the 1969 Brazilian film Antonio das Mortes, or the 2001 Thai ‘Western’ Tears of the Black Tiger/Fa Talai Jone, pictures I have not seen or even heard of, though I might try.

 

But that’s OK, it’s a personal choice. I guess a hundred Western lovers would have a different hundred films, though many would be in common.

 

Each Western gets two-to-three pages. If I have a criticism it is that much, even most of this space is dedicated to a plot summary, and I’m not sure how useful that is. I’d rather have some pithy comments on the value of the film, or some background to its making. Look at the entry on what I regard as a fascinating and ‘important’ Western, the original 3:10 to Yuma, for example. There is so much to say. But Buscombe’s pages are devoted entirely to an account of the plot, nothing else.

 

Still, he does include the occasional perspicacious and enlightening comment here and there. Just a representative sample:

 

Of The Beguiled, which Buscombe calls “a wonderfully acted and atmospheric film”, he says that Eastwood’s “mocking recital of grace at his last supper … is a fitting prelude to his come-uppance”.

 

The author sees The Big Sky as “a familiar Hawksian tale of a ‘love story’ between two men.” Also, “Hawks did not regard the film as one of his favourites” and “Kirk Douglas was not Hawks’s first choice for Jim Deakins, the director preferring John Wayne or Gary Cooper.”

 

A male love story

 

In The Big Trail, “Tyrone Power … with a voice like a sandblaster and energetic eye-rolling, appears to have strayed in from the provincial Victorian stage.”

 

Restrained he wasn’t

 

A Bullet for the General “packs a genuine ideological punch, with the cold and calculating Tate a symbol of American machinations in Latin America.”

 

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid “is all a little too determinedly cheerful, not helped by Burt Bacharach’s music, especially the awful Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.” On the button, Mr Buscombe.

 

Calamity Jane is “a film of great charm and energy”.

 

In Cowboy, “Jack Lemmon would have been strange casting as the real-life [Frank] Harris, but as the rather gauche young man first discovered as a hotel clerk in Chicago he strikes the right note of awkward charm.”

 

Day of the Outlaw is possibly André De Toth’s best Western. Agreed.

 

 

Dead Man is “a strange and original film; not exactly a critique of the Western (for all its squalor and violence), more like a dream.”

 

Of Fort Apache, Buscombe says, “Ostensibly Ford seems to be saying, as apparently he says in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, that the country needs its myths, even if they are based on falsehood. But since we, the audience, have already seen the shameful result of Thursday’s arrogance, the effect of the film, far from preserving the myth, is to eat away at its foundations.”

 

Forty Guns: “Fuller’s cinema is brash, even vulgar, but its raw power is undeniable.”

 

In The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, “Eastwood looks on [at Eli Wallach’s performance] with an amused smile, as if scarcely able to believe the cunning with which the picture is being stolen from him.”

 

Clint, Eli, Lee and Sergio, Clint saying, “I cannot believe this.”

 

Go West is “a wonderfully fresh and innocent film, performed and directed with all [Buster] Keaton’s deftness and grace.”

 

Great Day in the Morning is “probably the best” Western of Jacques Tourneur. Really?

 

The Grey Fox is “a surprisingly tender film for a Western” and “Bill makes an unlikely hero, but [Richard] Farnsworth’s sad, gentle face illuminates the screen.” The picture is “strong on character and atmosphere, with a lovely period feel.”

 

As for Heller in Pink Tights, “From Louis L’Amour’s tediously conventional novel, director George Cukor fashioned a thing of grace and beauty.”

 

The finale of Hell’s Hinges, with the town ablaze, “anticipates Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter.” I hadn’t joined the dots on that one.

 

Johnny Guitar: “Vienna (originally the script explained her name by reference to her middle-European musical father; this was cut, but the alert viewer will notice a bust of Beethoven in her room).”

 

There’s Ludwig

 

The 1992 version of The Last of the Mohicans “is essentially an old-fashioned adventure story, filmed with great verve and gusto.”

 

Of The Last Sunset, “what could have been a ludicrously melodramatic tale is given real intensity by the direction and performances.”

 

“The exploration of racism” in The Last Wagon “is more compelling than in Broken Arrow.” I guess that’s right.

 

“There are a score or more of Jesse James Westerns,” says Buscombe, “but on balance, The Long Riders is the best.” It is “a film of great verve and style.”

 

The Magnificent Seven is “the forerunner of the European Western in which self-sufficient heroes perform balletic acts of violence amid vistas of Mexican deserts.”

 

Spaghetti ante diem?

 

“The last of the five Westerns which Anthony Mann made with James Stewart, [The Man from Laramie] is “arguably the best.” That’s my feeling too, much as I like the others. Whereas The Naked Spur is “Anthony Mann’s most pared-down, elemental Western.”

 

Of The Missouri Breaks, Buscombe says, “This is one of the best Westerns of the 1970s.” Well, I can’t agree with him on everything, I suppose. Actually, The Missouri Breaks is one of the worst Westerns of the 70s, largely thanks to the perfectly dreadful performance of Brando.

 

Of the 1970 Monte Walsh, Buscombe says, “This is a gentle film, its moments of broad comedy not disguising its underlying sadness.” So I’m back to agreeing with him now.

 

“What makes [Open Range] such a successful film is not so much its deployment of traditional elements but its sensitivity and insight, as well as its beauty.”

 

“Perhaps the nearest thing in literature to Pursued is Wuthering Heights.”

 

It sure was wuthering

 

Ramrod is an admirable example of the kind of small-scale, ostensibly formulaic Western which brings out the best in all concerned.”

 

Rio Bravo is the pinnacle of Howard Hawks’s art.”

 

“Gordon Douglas made Westerns for twenty-five years, some of them routine, others, such as the last one, Barquero, agreeably full of quirky incident and off-beat characters. Rio Conchos is undoubtedly the best of the bunch.”

 

Shane was “a self-conscious attempt to make a classic.”

 

The Shooting was “perhaps the nearest to an avant-garde Western that American cinema approached until Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man.”

 

In Way Out West, “one of the gags, in which Stan pulls up his trouser leg in order to stop a stagecoach, you won’t get unless you have seen Claudette Colbert hitching a lift in It Happened One Night.”

 

Claudette (not Stan)

 

The Wonderful Country is “a minor miracle of a film”. The film and Tom Lea’s novel “anticipate Cormac McCarthy.”

 

 

Well, there you a go, a little selection of nuggets. Try the book. You probably won’t agree with everything the author says but I reckon you will agree with a lot.

 

 

17 Responses

  1. I’m more in alignment with Jeff’s take where he diverges from Mr. Buscombe’s opinions. No analysis of “3:10 to Yuma”, just a plot outline? That’s a bit odd. But the book sounds like it’s worth a read.

    Oh, and a big thanks to Jeff for the picture of Miss Colbert rather than Stan Laurel! Can’t beat some classic glamour first thing in the morning!

  2. I do not like a single one of these films. Not even Ramrod, which at least has a strong first half, or Rio Bravo, especially the latter. All revisionist.

      1. I suppose, in the sense that each new one is a take on or a development of previous pictures, though it would be hard to describe long series of B-Westerns (e.g. singing cowboy flicks) as revisionist…

        1. My remark was a little expeditious (and provocative regarding Barry as I cannot believe he does not like any of the 100 or even a single one among the dozen you have listed) and surely needed some development and explanations or clarifications.
          I was thinking of the relationship, and the gap, between history and myth and also the way the same theme is told depending on the period when the film has been made. A film is revisionist compared to the previous one on the same subject or/and because it is the product of its times.
          Revisionism can also come from the critics and academics. The same film analyse is not the same 20 or 50 years after. For instance Big Sky being a love story between 2 men (and possibly others Hawks movies such as Red River or Rio Bravo). Having read several books on Hawks, an expert about masculine/feminine relatiobships, I really doubt he was homosexual or a repressed one…
          All along your blog you are masterfully showing us the way historical figures or events are adressed depending on the times the movies are made (your recent Alamo serie for instance or Billy the Kid, Jesse James, Custer etc).
          The eternal fact/fiction fight so well illustrated in Liberty Valance, one of the (many) reasons why it is in my own 100s. Anyway Ford can represent close to 10% of the total…

          1. I like Red River, but I did not see it in Jeff’s article, on the other hand, I despise Rio Bravo, a bulllshit story about nothing with Ricky Nelson and Dean Martin mucking the place up. Angie Dickinson and John Wayne get by unscathed but Walter Brennan can make a boy scream in pain. None of these films require intellectual or pseudo-intellectual assessments, by anyone. Oh, I hate foreign-made westerns and other dubbed crapola.

          2. Certainly each generation has its own take on the ‘past’ (inverted commas to represent the mythic past).
            I think two men can love each other without being homosexual. Some male friendships come close to love anyway.
            Ford does get the lion’s share of Buscombe’s 100!

  3. I admire Buscombe and enjoy his writing generally – not that I’ve read all of it – however this particular book did strike me as a bit of a wasted opportunity for the reason you’ve stated, way too much space expended on plot summaries, you can get those on IMDB and Wiki, who needs a bookful of them. But his actual opinions are worth reading as you say, and the list itself interesting and mostly defensible.

    Have to agree with you about Great Day in the Morning – it’s a frustrating picture that has the seeds of greatness but they’re planted all wrong. Canyon Passage infinitely superior.

    Missouri Breaks was worth a watch – but strictly just the once.

    On the other hand, Man from Laramie, good as it is, is my least favourite of the Mann / Stewart movies. Not sure why, it just doesn’t hit the spot for me for some reason.

    And personally I prefer Broken Arrow to The Last Wagon.

    Be a boring world if everyone agreed all the time.

    1. Very true. I love movies that people think our stinkers and vice versa. Amazing the differences of opinions.

    1. Well tried and funny but born in 1907, Stanwyck was 50 when the film was released, Sullivan was 5 years younger.

      1. She had lost her looks, and become a grey-haired old lady. Sullivan was still a leading man.

          1. Plus, her character in FORTY GUNS was awful. Barry thought he had shot her at the end (best outcome) but durn it, she survived, raced after him and he was saddled with her for life. Quelle horreur.

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