|BEST WESTERN GUNFIGHTS
1. Shane. Compared to today’s graphic violence the final gunfight is rather tame. The
beauty of this film is in the build-up to the climax. The audience is exposed to issues of
family, relationships, idolatry and human failings. The gunfight is almost anti-climatic but
Shane (Alan Ladd) proves his skill and lives up to the reputation that has been simmering the
whole movie. Courage and determination fuel this movie but in spite of the violence it is
really a character study.
Honorable mention: Branded
2. High Noon. It’s part of the American West mythology: the lone lawman facing off
against a host of evil-doers. But this film examines the psychology of the group; in this case
the townspeople who desert the brave but ill-prepared, sheriff, played by Gary Cooper.
Alone he faces several gunmen and in spite of his own fears, the town’s desertion and his
own shortcomings as a gunfighter he prevails. This film ushered in the next decades’
westerns; films that began to question the mythology.
Honorable Mention: Vera Cruz
3. Cat Ballou. Lee Marvin, the cigar-chomping, no-nonsense tough guy, goes to town
with this good-natured western romp. He plays two roles: a drunk, ex-gunfighter and a killer,
also handy with a gun. Throw in a very young Jane Fonda who hires the drunken gunfighter
Marvin and you have a hilarious mix. The shoot-em-ups, as much as they can be, are fun to
watch, yet retain intensity. Watching Lee Marvin draw against himself is hilarious.
Honorable Mention: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
4. Wild Bunch. For a course on anthropology, I wrote a paper on how the shift in
morality, as portrayed in Westerns, was reflective of society in the sixties. One of the films I
used as evidence of this theory is the Wild Bunch. In this film, the protagonists are criminals,
albeit with a moral compass. The violence, widely decried at the time, is very realistic
particularly the final shootout with the Mexican troops. Blood, guts and gore splatter the
screen making the “clean” shot of past westerns look antiseptic. The realism of knives,
pistols, rifles, shotguns and gatling guns leap off the screen. It’s funny how the events in the
film show the transition between centuries; the film itself is a transition from the white
hat/black hat westerns of the fifties to the Vietnam, protest-plagued America of the sixties
Honorable Mention: Silverado
5. Magnificent Seven. How could a bald, ex-circus performer with a strange accent
star in one of the biggest westerns of all time? If it’s Yul Brynner, you don’t have to ask. In
this film, based on Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, seven gunmen are hired to get rid of the
local bandidos who are extorting the village folk. Excellent acting and some very good
action, especially from the young Charles Bronson, who was born to carry a gun, carry this
film to its well choreographed climatic shootout. There’s a bit of pathos as some of the
Mexican children attach themselves to one of the seven and there’s a good lesson on
courage and fatherhood from Bronson’s character. Great music too.
Honorable Mention: Westworld
6. True Grit. John Wayne personified the western. The Duke brought a manly
toughness to all his roles but as the flawed, alcohol-sodden Marshall Rooster Cogburn he
mastered the genre. Wayne’s antagonist, a young Robert Duvall, is dismissive of the “fat, old
man” but he gets what his criminal character deserves in the climatic shootout. This battle,
fought on horseback, is more reminiscent of a knight’s joust than a traditional gun fight. But
you have to love Wayne riding a horse with the reins in his mouth, firing a Winchester rifle
(and recocking it by spinning it) with one hand and a pistol with the other while Duval’s
gang charges right back and shooting at him. Different yet unforgettable.
Honorable Mention: The Shootist
7. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Men love the buddy film and this is the
penultimate example of it. Robert Redford and Paul Newman were at their peak when this
was filmed. It continued the theme of the morally ambiguous heroes as these bank and train
robbers (loosely based on the real men) embark on a crime spree with their gang. A lot of
shooting takes place but the climatic showdown happens when our heroes, after flubbing a
bank robbery, are cornered by the Bolivian army (Bolivia, long story!). In a tragicomic
sequence, our heroes charge towards an inevitable death. For guys, tear-inducing.
Honorable Mention: Hombre/Jeremiah Johnson
8. Unforgiven. Quite possibly the best western ever made. This Academy Award
winner explores the conflicted morality of the period and discovers that no one is guilt-free.
Gene Hackman plays the sadistic yet effective sheriff; Clint Eastwood is the ex-
gunfighter/killer out for the bounty put up by a group of prostitutes. A phenomenal
supporting cast makes this dark, moody and violent film crackle with tension. The final
shootout in the saloon between Eastwood and Hackman (and his deputies) is a maelstrom of
bloodshed and a testament to accuracy and the efficacy of a shotgun. NO ONE who likes
westerns should pass this one by.
Honorable Mention: High Plains Drifter
Okay, buckaroos, what you’ve been waiting for…
THE HOLY TRINITY
Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
It took Italian director Sergio Leone who made a “cowboy movie” in Spain, in Italian, with a
relative unknown, Clint Eastwood, to redefine the American western. Utilizing revolutionary
filming techniques, phenomenal scores and unflinching violence, Leone gave us the anti-hero
in extreme closeup.
The first of the “spaghetti westerns”, Fistful of Dollars, was based on Kurosawa’s Yojimbo,
starring Toshiro Mifune. Leone’s western version of this Japanese classic is almost a frame
by frame recreation but with its own distinct identity. Eastwood’s “man with no name” (a
fallacy by the way; he’s called Joe) speaks little but shoots fast and often. Eastwood plays
off two crime families against each other and kills many along the way. But his final
shootout is more known for its unique twist which I won’t reveal here. Suffice it to say that
no one fans a revolver better.
The second in the trilogy, For a Few Dollars More, costars the great but under-rated Lee
Van Cleef as Colonel Mortimer, a man with a secret. He and Eastwood form an uneasy
alliance which by the end of the film becomes a friendship. The final gunfight between Lee
Van Cleef and the film’s villain builds tension through a long, inspiring musical piece
interspersed with multiple split second cuts of eye to eye close-ups. When the shooting
finally happens, you’ll realize you’ve been holding your breath the whole time.
The masterpiece, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is an epic film that shows the effects of
the American Civil War in all its senselessness and brutality. In effect, it is an allegory of the
Vietnam War and it encapsulates everything that is wrong in war. Our protagonists (there are
no heroes in this one) are Eastwood as the ubiquitous gunman, Eli Wallach as the simple,
animalistic Turco and Lee Van Cleef as the excessively cruel prison camp commander. The
movie follows these men as they search for Confederate gold. The climatic gunfight occurs
in the graveyard and features a three way gunfight (who would you draw on first?). Sorry
fellow cow-punchers, this too has a surprise ending so you’ll have to watch it yourself.
Unquestionably, Clint Eastwood has had the greatest influence on the western. Other stars
like John Wayne epitomized the traditional cowboy but Eastwood’s laconic loners, morally
ambiguous characters revolutionized the genre.
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