Hats, horses, boots, barrels, guns and grand landscapes — is there a genre as visually distinctive as the western, or as instantly recognisable? Since the silent era, filmmakers have been drawn to tales of cowboys, bounty hunters and wandering outsiders roaming dusty plains while brandishing their trusty revolvers, as have viewers along with them.
Evolving out of stories about American’s Old West, and riding through the heydays of icons John Ford and John Wayne, the genre now encompasses a raft of efforts — if it tussles with struggles between law and order, or surviving in unforgiving climes, it has probably been called a western. Still, there’s nothing like the classics to remind you just what makes the oater such a cinema stalwart. Refresh your memory with these efforts, which are currently screening on SBS On Demand.
A picture of complexity, both in the detail evident in each one of its gold-hued frames and in its weary protagonist, The Searchers is widely considered the best western ever made for many reasons. Director John Ford and star John Wayne worked together extensively throughout their careers, including on 1939’s Stagecoach — the film that thrust the latter to fame — however they’ll always be remembered for this account of a Civil War veteran on a determined mission to find his niece.
Based on Alan Le May’s 1954 novel, the feature tracks the difficult homecoming that greets Wayne’s Ethan Edwards, and the tougher task that follows when eight-year-old Debbie (Lana Wood) is abducted — his harsh views about her Comanche captors included. It’s also considered to be one of the finest roles of Wayne’s career, seeing the actor canter between hero and villain as Ethan faces the realities of his obsession, if not the prejudice behind it.
The Outlaw Josey Wales
Clint Eastwood has enjoyed an extensive association with westerns. The TV series Rawhide proved his big break, Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy cemented him as a movie star and he won his first Oscar for directing Unforgiven. The Outlaw Josey Wales sits in the middle as one of the highlights of the ‘70s revisionist western period. Helmed by Eastwood as well, it doesn’t just adhere to genre conventions, but probes them.
Here, in the midst of his Dirty Harry days, Eastwood plays the titular farmer — a man initially seeking revenge for the murder of his wife and son, then caught up in the Civil War conflict, and finally refusing to surrender. Like Wayne in The Searchers, the complexity of Eastwood’s lead performance helps the film to stand out. Driven to fight but tired by war, and an outsider who still finds solace with others, his Wales is a swell of complicated contradictions.
Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid
An iconic cast takes on two iconic characters in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, with a filmmaker to match. More than 50 features about the duo had been made before this 1973 effort, and in any other hands, it might’ve just added another title to the pile. The movie was besieged by troubles — budget, reshoots, and clashes both on-set and during editing alike — but it endures as one of the most memorable depictions of the pair.
James Coburn and Kris Kristofferson tackle the eponymous real-life figures for The Wild Bunch director Sam Peckinpah, in an offering that explores the fine line separating those breaking and those upholding the law. Jason Robards, Harry Dean Stanton, an uncredited Bruce Dern and Bob Dylan feature as well, with Dylan also providing the score and writing ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’ for the film.
Another Clint Eastwood-starring and directed effort, Pale Rider casts its guiding force as a guiding force: a preacher. In a film that takes its name from the Book of Revelations, the preacher doesn’t get another moniker, but he does get to ride a pale horse. He’s an influential presence in a California mining town, where hired guns are trying to scare away families at a prospector’s behest. When he inspires the locals to stand up for themselves, violence can only follow.
As well as Eastwood’s gun-slinging pedigree, the highest-grossing American western of the ‘80s owes a debt to another oater staple in 1953 classic Shane. Similar narratives drive two impressive entries in the genre, while Eastwood does what he does best on-screen — that is, conveys much while saying little.
Trust Mel Brooks to not only satirise westerns, but to do so with a no-holds barred approach. Made when the writer/director was still riding high from the success of The Producers, his Blazing Saddles hasn’t met a classic genre cliché that it didn’t want to poke fun of — usually with Brooks’ brand of silliness, but also with an awareness of the racial tensions often at the heart of the oater’s narratives.
Cue an entirely white town that’s appointed a black sheriff as protection from railroad thugs, and a cavalcade of sometimes astute, sometimes over-the-top gags to go with it. Gene Wilder has fun as the Waco Kid, a boozing gunslinger, in the same year that he’d star in another Brooks-directed spoof of a beloved genre: Young Frankenstein.
Add Sweet Vengeance not just to the neo-western fold, but to the modern spate of oaters redressing the genre’s historic fondness for leaving women on the sidelines. As an ex-prostitute on a revenge mission, January Jones’ Sarah isn’t taking the death of her husband or the involvement of a local prophet (Jason Isaacs) lightly.
Ed Harris plays a new sheriff in town; however the film’s sympathies reside with Jones’ protagonist. Telling her tale with affection, writer/director duo Logan and Noah Miller aren’t afraid to blend violence with off-kilter sensibilities.