Since the era of the dime novels, to the beginning of the film age and right up until today, many a man has been drawn to the tales of the Wild West. In terms of American men, the fascination with Westerns is rooted in the fact that it is part of our cultural history and character. However, more broadly speaking, the primary reason we love them, according to Joseph Campbell’s influential book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, is because it is hard-wired into us. Campbell’s notion of the “Hero’s Journey” and its ubiquity in many myths and legends, while not without its shortcomings, is certainly something that is indicative of a shared human nature that gives us a glimpse of what it means to be male and made in the image of God. The enduring narrative of leaving the known world, and passing into a mysterious “other world”, filled with obstacles and enemies to overcome; all the while the hero sheds his old identity and takes on a new one, so that when he returns to his former world he brings with him great blessings or a kind of good news to those he had left behind. It is this heroic archetype that give us a deeper sense of who we are and our place in the world, and one that the Western genre has, from its inception, traditionally followed by mixing both myth and history.
However, what most men associate with and find endearing about the genre is of course the character of the cowboy and his code of conduct, which was a sort of 19th century version of the medieval code of chivalry. In fact the resemblance is not coincidental. Manly traits such as honor, integrity, loyalty (riding for the brand), self-reliance, respect for women, and the instinctual sense of justice that are characteristic of Western stories are the result of the mixing of two cultural influences in American history.
According to famed Western author Louis L’Amour, the cowboy’s chivalric mores came to America from the Old World in two ways. The first was from the Eastern States by way of the works of Sir Walter Scott such as Waverly, Rob Roy, and Ivanhoe. These and similarly themed works were very popular in the antebellum South, so that when the war ended and a lot of Civil War vets headed West to join the cattle drives, they brought such mannerisms with them.
The second source came from the West coast, where the Mexican aristocratic traditions of the Californios had long been shaped by the works of the Spanish Golden Age of literature, such as Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Lesser known, but still lurking around in the cultural backdrop of the same time period were stories from the Spanish Picaresque tradition, such as Lazarillo de Tormes. These novels were not as polished as Cervantes, but were nonetheless very popular with their tales of “low-born” or common heroes who through their wits and wile survived in a corrupt and decadent world.
These two strands of literature melded together to form the American Western genre, first in literary form in 1860 when Beadle Publishing Co. released its first Dime Novel, Malaeska, the Indian Wife of the White Hunter. Later, film carried on the tradition in 1903 with the release of the silent movie The Great Train Robbery, which more or less set the format for Western films for the next half century. However beginning in the 1960’s and into the 90’s, we saw the emergence of the anti-hero in Western films who tended to reject any rigid code of conduct that went beyond his own personal struggles or vendettas. Thus traditional Western tropes such as law and order or truth and justice were reduced to the realm of the personal- passions over principle.
However, the turn of this century saw the return of the traditional Western format while still offering realistic characters that resonate with us in both the head and the heart. This is why Western films continue to be popular with men and most likely always will be, so long as we can always picture ourselves strapping on a Peacemaker (even if ours holds a lot more rounds!) and riding into the sunset in search of adventure.
So here are my picks for ten Western films that I think epitomize the heroic narratives and the positive manly qualities that makes the genre so great. They are listed in chronological order, and should in no way be considered definitive. Also, keep in mind that I am only including films that showcase positive male characteristics. So while classic such as as Once Upon a Time in the West or Unforgiven are certainly among the best Westerns ever made, their tone is a little too dour for this particular list. However, feel free to add your personal favorites and why in the comments section below.
This movie, about a diverse group of nine passengers on a stagecoach traveling through hostile territory, put John Wayne on the map and more or less type-caste him till the day he died. His portrayal of the Ringo Kid shows a model of manhood that is willing to settle his own affairs, while at the same time respecting legitimate authority when he, on two occasions, presents himself to the custody of the local marshal. Meanwhile his treatment of Dallas (a prostitute who was driven out of town) is commendable, especially when the other members of the party are content in shunning her. However, it is the way that the passengers, all of whom have their own crosses to carry, through the shared ordeal of a tumultuous journey, come to accept and respect one another by the end of the movie that makes this film a true classic.
High Noon (1952)
A great film about how lonely it can be to be a true Mensch. Marshall Kane (Gary Cooper) wants retire from law enforcement with his new Quaker wife, but enemies from his past are out for revenge. He refuses to run away from his problems and risks his marriage, his reputation, and his place in society to do what he needs to do to protect those for whom he feels responsible. Unfortunately this includes the ungrateful and parochial town members who just want Kane and his problems to go away without them having to do anything. Kane’s disgust with the town’s people, who show up after the final gunfight but who couldn’t be found to help him before hand, is certainly something that most men can relate to in their lives.
A classic film about the proverbial laconic warrior with a hidden past who is just trying to find a little peace and quiet and some semblance of a community to belong to. When the Starrett’s, the family Shane (Alan Ladd) settles down with as a hired hand, are drawn into an volatile range conflict, Shane decides to defend them at all costs. His extreme sense of duty to protect them even goes as far as taking Mr. Starrett’s place in the final fight, because he knows he is a better gunfighter and has less to lose. Another endearing element about this movie is the avuncular bond that forms between Shane and the Starrett’s young son Joey, who Shane gives a fairly accurate shooting lesson (cf. Ed McGivern’s Book of Fast and Fancy Revolver Shooting). Lastly, where else are you going to hear a line like, “A gun is only as good or bad as the man using it” in Hollywood today?
The Magnificent Seven (1960)
Most everyone knows that this film was based on Akira Kurasawa’s The Seven Samurai which is a terrific movie in and of itself. However, you have probably seen this movie a dozen times without ever realizing that what makes this adaptation a true men’s movie, is the fact that it manages to exemplify all the phases of a man’s life in each of the male characters in the film. Whether it is the village boys who want to be useful and brave, Chico the headstrong gunfighter-wannabe, the Mexican farmers who just want to raise their families in peace, Vin who envies them and yearns for a family of his own, Lee who is having a mid-life crisis, and of course the Old Man whose wisdom is expected to guide the decisions of the community. Most striking though is comparing and contrasting the characters of Chris (Yul Brynner) and Calvera (Eli Wallach). Both are possessed of a hardened and even ruthless personality, but who have nonetheless chosen different paths in life. This is why this film never loses its appeal.
The Cowboys (1972)
Another gem with John Wayne in it, this film is a traditional Western as well as a coming-of-age story. It is a testament to our times that some younger viewers may find this film unrealistic, because of the ages of the boys Will Anderson (John Wayne) recruits to work his cattle drive. Only in a culture where adolescence is allowed to last for ever greater periods of time, would it seem odd to see young boys living out the virtue and necessity of hard work. The film shows how a bunch boys who were quite comfortable in their own lives, grow into a level of maturity that you would be hard-pressed to find today in similarly aged boys. Both Anderson (Wayne) and his cook Jeb Nightlinger (Roscoe Lee Browne) model a hard-nosed but fatherly approach to manhood that the boys learn to adopt over the course of the film, including actually fighting for what is right at the movie’s end.
My Name is Nobody (1973)
This is the only Spaghetti Western I am including in this list because it is actually a lighthearted and thinly veiled parody of all the others done by Sergio Leone- who got Henry Fonda (from Once Upon a Time in the West) to appear in this film and Ennio Morricone to do the soundtrack. It stars goofball Terrance Hill as “Nobody”, a young bummer who is extremely fast to the draw and enthralled with the exploits of the famous but aging gunfighter, Jack Beauregard (Fonda). Beauregard just wants to sail to Europe where he can retire in peace, but Nobody convinces him to leave his mark on history by making a last stand against a gang of bandits known as The Wild Bunch. While there is a lot of slapstick humor, it still manages to give a moving look at how young men aspire to live up to the reputations of their heroes and how older men try to pass on their wisdom to those that come after them. We see this when Beauregard, in writing a farewell letter to Nobody gives his sardonic comments on a story Nobody had told earlier in the movie , “folks that throw dirt on you aren’t always trying to hurt you, and those who pull you out of a jam aren’t always trying to help you.”
Although this film is very formulaic, the terrific cast of Scott Glenn, Kevin Costner, Danny Glover, and Kevin Kline (not to mention John Cleese in the unusual role of a Western town marshal) more than makes up for its utter predictability. It tells the story of four men who all have disparate histories and paths in life, but who are all drawn together into a series of events where they come to rely on each others skills and character to survive a local conflict. It is great to see how the traditional trope of the ruthless cattle baron who pulls all the strings in town, including the corrupt town marshal (well played by Brian Dennehy), is worked out in a very 80’s (Reaganesque) manner, by standing tall with a six-shooter and the truth. Although to be sure, it offers ample opportunities for discussions such as why the main characters end up repeatedly breaking “the law” in order to uphold what is right.
Open Range (2003)
This movie is a prime example of how the 2000’s saw the return of the traditional Western narrative while depicting three-dimensionally rich characters. Robert Duvall and Kevin Costner offer a good-natured but composed model of manhood that most of us would wish to encounter in life, let alone aspiring to become like them. While it is filled with scenes and lines that will leave you with the sneaking suspicion that you have seen them before (you have), they are given a new lease on life when they are paired with characters whose personal histories we are allowed to see. In the end its rich cinematography and moving dialogue tell a poignant tale about coming to grips with ones troubled past, to do what is just in the present, in order to make a better future.
3:10 to Yuma ( 2007)
While the original 1957 version of the movie is a fine watch, it is too grounded in the two-dimensional format of the traditional Western. The 2007 remake with Russel Crowe and Christian Bale is another movie that offers a frank look into the inner lives of the standard Western character types. The rogues gallery of men that appear in this movie invites the viewer to ask themselves whether they can ever truly know a man’s nature based on a superficial glance at his state in life. The movie shows us that sometimes the “good guys” are pretty ruthless at being good and the “bad guys” are not as evil as we imagine. Also, the continuous conflict and resolution between Ben Wade (Crowe) and Dan Evans (Bale) highlights a perennial quality in men’s dealings with one another, in that the respect they can develop for one another often trumps whether or not they actually like each other.
True Grit (2010)
The 2010 Coen Brothers remake is in my estimation better than the 1969 version with John Wayne and Kim Darby. For one thing, the characters of Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Daniels), LeBoeuf (Matt Damon), Tom Cheney (Josh Broslin), and Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) are portrayed closer to their depictions in the 1968 Charles Portis novel that both films were based on. In fact, this is not a bad movie for fathers to watch with their teenage daughters since Steinfeld’s fiery performance (sorry Kim) shows that the term, “True Grit”, applies just as much to her as anyone else in the film. Ultimately the story’s main theme is summed up in Maddie Ross’s opening narration when she says, “You must pay for everything in this world one way or the other. For there is nothing free but the grace of God”. And this is exactly what we see, as the movie shows how broken men (and one woman) can still muster enough strength and will to do the job at hand, while willingly accepting the consequences of their actions.