Cowboys, Indians and Mel Brooks: Five must-see Westerns
By Celine Wright
Published: Sunday, July 7, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
It won't be only Disney executives who are watching the box-office returns for “The Lone Ranger.” Lots of people are wondering whether Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer can ride to the rescue of a genre that was once a staple of American cinema but has since fallen on hard times: the Western.
“The Western has always been a definitively American art form,” says Jeffrey Richardson, Gamble curator of Western history, popular culture and firearms at the Autry National Center of the American West in Los Angeles. “It's one that has grown and evolved over time, but, unfortunately, it has been in decline over the past 50 years.”
The Western doesn't have the same place in the minds of young people that it does for the baby-boomer generation, which grew up on the movies of John Wayne, Gary Cooper and Clint Eastwood, and television series such as “Gunsmoke,” “Bonanza” and “Wagon Train.” The Western is an empty word for them, conjuring images of cowboys and campfires but disassociated from the true heart behind them — the survivalist sentiments and moral lessons.
Even Richardson, who is 35, says he didn't grow up on Western movies — and he's made a career out of the genre.
Still, every few years, the Western makes a reappearance. There was the remake of the classic “True Grit” (2010), starring Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon, and the more-contemporary Western “No Country for Old Men” (2007), starring Tommy Lee Jones and Javier Bardem. But neither completely won over young audiences, as the former was rated PG-13 and the latter R.
Richardson thinks the revival of “The Lone Ranger” has a shot at changing that (although it, too, is PG-13).
“The marketing might of Disney and Johnny Depp might make this a little different — hopefully, ignite a passion of a much younger audience,” he says.
Not only was the film shot on location in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah, but modern technology also adds an entirely new component, especially in comparison to many great Western films that weren't even shot outdoors, Richardson says.
“Hopefully, a movie like ‘The Lone Ranger' will provide a good combination of live action and CGI (comuter-generated imagery) — for a younger audience that expects CGI and an older audience that might think it's heavy-handed,” he says.
On the occasion of “The Lone Ranger's” release, Richardson shared his top five Western films:
“Unforgiven” (1992): This film, directed by and starring Eastwood, follows retired gunslinger William Munny (Eastwood) as he takes one last job after a prostitute is disfigured by cowboys. A darker Western, “it really shows the moral and social complexity of the Western genre,” Richardson says. “It was one of the few I saw as a kid in the theater. I thought Westerns were very simplistic, and this film was so much more than that.”
The film went on to win an Academy Award for best picture, the third Western to do so — following on the spurs of “Cimarron” (1931) and “Dances With Wolves” (1990).
“High Noon” (1952): “It's the most-screened movie by the White House,” Richardson says. It doesn't conform to the typical action-packed Western scenario. “Really, it is quite slow and very methodical,” Richardson says. “The buildup and pacing to the climactic action is confined to the ending minutes, but the drama and suspense is quite powerful.”
Cooper plays Will Kane, a longtime marshal in New Mexico who is newly married to Amy (Grace Kelly) and about to turn in his badge when he learns that a man he once arrested is seeking revenge. Kane turns back to help, but the townspeople refuse to assist him, so he must act alone.
“The Wild Bunch” (1969): The most violent of the group, this Sam Peckinpah film traces a pack of outlaws on the Texas border who look for one last robbery, as the West is becoming more gentrified all around them. “It showed the excitement of the West, but in somewhat of a more unrelenting style that really showed the consequences of violence,” Richardson says.
“The Searchers” (1956): “I would probably lose my job if I didn't mention at least one John Wayne-John Ford collaboration,” Richardson says. Probably no other actor has starred in more Westerns than Wayne, who was known for his rugged, masculine look that made him the perfect cowboy. But in this one, “you really see him as a human and not a caricature. He (Wayne) shows an entire range of emotion,” Richardson says.
“Blazing Saddles” (1974): No Western movie list is complete without this comedic classic. This satire stars Cleavon Little and Gene Wilder and is directed by Mel Brooks, who also appears in multiple supporting roles. The film is filled with oddities and anachronisms — such as its black lawman, Sheriff Bart (Little). “It has that heart of absurdity that really skewers the genre in ways that are fun and informative,” Richardson says, especially in the scene where Sheriff Bart holds himself hostage.
Celine Wright is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- O’Hara couple help fund ‘Immaculate’ film in son’s honor
- Review: ‘Anchorman 2’ an improv-ment over first go ’round
- The ladies of ‘Anchorman 2’ show Ron who’s boss
- Film recalls pivotal moment in 1972 Pittsburgh