Thursday, April 21, 2011

Best of the west

To commemorate the release this week in UK theaters of Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff (2010)—a western that competed with Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere (2010) for the Golden Lion at last year’s Venice Film Festival and lost—several critics at Time Out London have compiled a list of what they believe to be The Fifty Greatest Westerns of all time.  Cutoff makes the list (at #45) and I need to issue a disclaimer right here and now that I’ve not seen the movie so I can’t and shouldn’t come to any conclusions about its artistic merit—with my track record for seeing recent releases, I’ll probably get a gander at it five years down the road.  (I will say, however, that as many times as I had to sit through that annoying trailer for Coppola’s Somewhere during the “commercial breaks” on CharredHer On Demand I don’t care if I ever see that damn movie.)  But it would almost have to knock my socks off to make a list of the fifty best (as a point of reference, it’s got an 87% over at Rotten Tomatoes) and be that as it may, I have seen some of the westerns in this tally and as is my won’t, I’m not pleased with the selections.

 3) The Searchers (1956)
 4) Winchester '73 (1950)
 6) Dead Man (1996)
 8) Johnny Guitar (1954)
12) Heaven's Gate (1980)
13) The Shooting (1967)
14) The Wild Bunch (1969)
15) Unforgiven (1992)
16) Forty Guns (1957)
17) Red River (1948)
19) One-Eyed Jacks (1961)
20) High Noon (1952)
21) El Topo (1970)
23) Stagecoach (1939)
24) Shane (1953)
25) Django (1966)
28) Rio Bravo (1959)
29) The Naked Spur (1953)
30) 7 Women (1966)
35) Rancho Notorious (1952)
36) Little Big Man (1970)
37) Vera Cruz (1954)
40) Wagon Master (1950)
41) Blazing Saddles (1974)
42) Ulzana's Raid (1972)
45) Meek's Cutoff (2010)
46) Rancho Deluxe (1975)
47) The Claim (2000)
48) Open Range (2003)
49) Lonesome Dove (1989)
50) The Hired Hand (1971)

Right off the bat, let me just say that if I had only one Robert Altman film to watch for the rest of my life it would probably be McCabe and Mrs. Miller, the film that clocks in at the top spot on Time Out’s countdown.  But I certainly don’t think it’s better than The Searchers, or Winchester ’73, or Stagecoach, or The Ox-Bow Incident or any number of other movies on this list.  As a commenter over at this article so astutely puts it: “You guys do know Altman is dead, right…so you won't be getting a letter of thanks anytime soon.”

I don’t see how Decision at Sundown would rank higher on this list than Seven Men from Now…but then again, I can’t see why it would be chosen over superior Boetticher-Scott vehicles like The Tall T (1957) or Ride Lonesome (1959).  Similarly, Sam Peckinpah westerns like Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid and The Wild Bunch did better than Peckinpah’s all-time best western, Ride the High Country…but I think Sam’s The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) is a better oater than Garrett.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is pompous, silly and needlessly overlong…one of those movies in which long pauses between sentences are supposed to represent deep thought but usually cause me to be impatient because I’m convinced the actors are forgetting their lines.  The subject is better covered in a western that didn’t make the list, 1980’s The Long Riders.  Hell, I’d even sit through the Tyrone Power version before saddling up to watch Brad Pitt sleepwalk through that movie again.  As for El Topo—that movie is a boring, pretentious piece of crap, and I’ll stand on Alejandro Jodorowsky’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.

In defense of the list, there are some unusually daring choices on here—I’m speaking, of course, of movies like The Shooting (a longtime TDOY fave), Ulzana’s Raid, Day of the Outlaw, Rancho Deluxe and The Hired Hand.  But a list like this shouldn’t leave off classic oaters like Stars in My Crown (1950), to Yuma (1957), Last Train from Gun Hill (1959), The Gunfighter (1950) or Man of the West (1958).  Other westerns that I would rather watch than some of these listed include The Shootist (1976), Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970; I don’t think any of Don Siegel’s westerns made the list), El Dorado (1967), Silverado (1985), No Name on the Bullet (1959), Hombre (1967), The Professionals (1966), Bend of the River (1952), Blood on the Moon (1948), Broken Lance (1954), Fort Apache (1948), The Fastest Gun Alive (1956), Jubal (1956), Pursued (1947), Colorado Territory (1949) and Yellow Sky (1948).  There are also no silent westerns on the list, which would seem to indicate a lack of film education on behalf of the people who compiled it...surely some of John Ford's early work like The Iron Horse (1924) or 3 Bad Men (1926) could have made the cut.

And finally—Blazing Saddles?  Look, I like the movie—I took my prom date to see it instead of actually going to the dance, which will give you an idea of how twisted I am—but there are better comedy-westerns to replace it on the list…the first two I thought of immediately were Destry Rides Again (1939) and Support Your Local Sheriff! (1969), both funnier than Saddles on any given day of the week.

Comments, suggestions and brickbats are, of course, always welcome and encouraged.

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Laura said...

Completely agree with your comments on this list, Ivan. While I often enjoy debating the pros and cons of "best of" lists, I felt like whoever compiled this list had no real knowledge of the genre. You critiqued it far better than I had the patience to do!

Best wishes,

Cullen Gallagher said...

Your criticisms are spot-on. And I was also lamenting the lack of silent films on the list.

Chris Riesbeck said...

For westerns that are funny, I'd also pick Support Your Local Sheriff. For spoofs of westerns, I've always had a weak spot for Rustlers' Rhapsody and to heck with Maltin.

Rich said...

I liked 'Meek's Cutoff' a lot, though I'm not sure what you would make of it. It's shot very small-scale; no grand vistas of the wide open plains. There are no obvious good guys and bad guys, and it ends on an ambiguous note. But the acting is great (I think you'd like Bruce Greenwood in particular) and it has an extremely realistic feel to it; it's not romanticized at all.

My favorite all-time Westerns are 'Stagecoach' and 'The Good the Bad and the Ugly.'

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

I liked 'Meek's Cutoff' a lot, though I'm not sure what you would make of it. It's shot very small-scale; no grand vistas of the wide open plains. There are no obvious good guys and bad guys, and it ends on an ambiguous note.

Oh, I'll definitely have to have a look-see...I'm ga-ga for westerns, and anytime one is made nowadays it's a rarity so I naturally gravitate towards them if only for the curiosity factor. And there have been a number of good oaters released within the past decade: I liked both The Missing (even though if it is a lot like The Searchers) and Open Range (though I'm not sure I would have included it in my top 50). But I appreciate the recommendation, and if it turns up in a venue where I can view I'll certainly settle in with it.