My Top-10 Westerns

I felt it was high time I finally opened up my thoughts on the Western genre. Love it or hate it, westerns are pretty much as staple as staple film gets but there is definitely something very enjoyable about the genre as a whole. So I decided, I should finally talk about all my favourite western movies.

Now what should become very apparent from the get-go from looking at this list is that I haven’t actually watched that many westerns. As a result, some of the entries on this list are going to be a little on off-kilter side, which is fine because I hate boring picks. But it would be dishonest of my not to include the entire Dollars Trilogy, so obviously I’ve done that. Even so, I have quite a few honourable mentions

I pondered whether or not to include any animated entries on the list and ultimately decided not to. Not because I don’t think these movies are good – but I felt that maybe they’d deserve a list on their own. A few of theentries include Fievel goes West (the only good sequel to An American Tail), the late 2000s Lucky Luke feature Go West (which despite its painfully modernised take on Lucky Luke, is still really enjoyable) and Home on the Range, which I feel is a painfully under-rated mid-2000s Disney feature (and not a western in the traditional sense but in the same general territory.

The second Spede Pasanen comedy western, The Unhanged (Hirttämättömät, 1971) very nearly did end up on the list but a few other entries shuffled things around a bit. Quentin Tarantino was obviously going to be included on the list but I ultimately ended up leaving out Hateful Eight, even though it was definitely a worth-while film, I’ve yet to have really seen it multiple times to give my full opinion on it. Both of these filmmaker’s other western endeavours did wind up on the list (which does spoil this a bit) but I felt it was just fair to give both movies their due credit.

Well, that was a really long-winded introduction. Let’s finally get to the list…

10. Shanghai Noon

Shanghai Noon hits all the classic western tropes: outlaws, indians, saloon fights. Its most original element is the inclusion of Jackie Chan into the mix. As the imperial guard Chong Wang, he’s forced to team-up with untrustworthy and (to a certain extent) inept outlaw Roy O’Bannon (Owen Wilson) to rescue Princess Pei-Pei from a vengeful former guard trying to make his fortune in the west.

Shanghai Noon is definitely a unique mix of a martial-arts, western, buddy comedy and an adventure film (especially during Wang’s trek through the wilderness at the start). It features some hilarious (as well as occasionally cringe-worthy) racial comedy and physical gags as well as the excellent, comedic fight choreography Chan is known for.

Shanghai Noon’s low position may puzzle some of you considering this movie is in my all time Top-5 of Jackie Chan films. However, that unfortunately is its biggest weakness. The western trappings are slightly superficial and as funny as Chan’s interactions with Owen are, they don’t hold a candle to the on-screen chemistry between him and Chris Tucker in the Rush Hour movies. The film is worth seeing on its own merits at any rate, but I feel it may not hit home for fans of true westerns except for the occasional vignettes of western film tropes.

9. The Lone Ranger

The Lone Ranger has had a tough past with big-screen adaptions going as far back as the 1960s and unfortunately the 2013 edition did very little to improve on this. I will immediately admit that The Lone Ranger’s scale is bafflingly huge, its story a little over-reaching in its ambition and its casting of Johnny Depp as Tonto is more than a smidge questionable. Does any of this make it a bad movie? Hell no.

The Lone Ranger contains as much tongue-in-cheek comedy as one comes to expect from a modern western and more. Depp’s and lead Armie Hammer’s on-screen interactions are just a joy and I’ve yet to have seen Depp give a bad performance in any movie. In fact, I would say that without the film’s rather twisted reveal about Tonto’s motives, the story would be rather painfully obvious big-screen adaption of classic serial material and its this thing specifically that actually gives the film a lot of extra strength.

The acting performances, even from minor character players (like Helena Bonham Carter), are fantastic and the comedy just hits home with me. The action scenes, especially towards the ending, do go maybe a little out of hand. At the same time, the film has some amazing visuals are an element that has maybe been unjustly over-looked.

So no, The Lone Ranger isn’t a bad movie. A little over-bloated and confused – but ultimately very, very entertaining.

8. For a Few Dollars More

For a Few Dollars More, the middle child of the Dollars Trilogy, has always been my least favourite entry of said series of films. But even in that, it’s an amazing film. The movie follows two Bounty Killers, Colonel Mortimer (Lee Van Cleef) and Manco (Clint Eastwood) trying to nail the notorious outlaw El Indio (Gian Maria Volente) who plans to rob the highly secure El Paso bank after breaking out of prison.

In the end, there’s a lot more to the characters of Mortimer and Indio than meets the eye and in certain way For a Few Dollars More is definitely a refinement over Sergio Leone’s first Dollar picture. The film also has a great cast of comedic supporting players (including Klaus Kinski as the hump-backed Wild) and plenty of cool scenery, not to mention Ennio Morricone’s excellent score as usual. There’s even quite a few iconic scenes in the mix.

However, I feel that more so than in any of the other Dollars films, Clint’s character maybe falls into the background as not being particularly interesting. The film is really the story of Mortimer and Indio. On top of that, much like Lone Ranger, the movie suffers from a preposterously large scope and running time – but unlike its follow-up doesn’t quite earn it the same way.

Still, this movie is a must-see for Western fans.

7. Blazing Saddles

The original Mel Brooks spoof. The town of Rock Ridge is being threatened by the machinations of a greedy railroad builder, who in an attempt to drive the people out-of-town hires a convicted ex-slave to be their sheriff. Blazing Saddles broke every rule in the comedy book when it first came out and it’s because of this audacious approach why the film really does stand out so well even to this day.

Cleavon Little as Sheriff Bart is hilarious in his many racist encounters with the citizens. He completely up-stages Gene Wilder as the Waco Kid (though Wilder then took the forefront later in Young Frankenstein). Harvey Korman, Madeline Kahn and, of course, Brooks himself are all supremely hilarious and the movie just manages to poke fun at so many western clichés it’s quite the joy.

There’s really only two things holding it back for me. Once again, I feel reasons other than its Western setting (and amazing theme song performed by Freddie Laine) give the film its strength. The racial comedy, the witty dialogue and occasionally cartoony aspects of it are far more prominent. Nothing hammers the point home more than the finale where the characters actually break out of the movie into modern-day (of the 1970s) and which has honestly always been my least favourite part of the film.

Still, another absolute must-see.

6. Wild, Wild West

While I won’t pretend Wild, Wild West has any of the comedy clout of Smith’s other action-comedy endeavour of the 1990s (MiB), it’s a movie that I think gets frequently under-appreciated. Yes, it’s based on a TV series. No, I never watched it or particularly cared.

Will Smith is Captain Jim West trying to nail the evil Dr. Loveless whose plan is no less than to break up the United States and kill the president with a giant mechanical spider. Kevin Kline as the inventor US Marshall Artemus Gordon teams up with him and completes the ridiculous steam-punk western, comedy adventure.

Yes, WWW is filled with more implausible action and awkward joke moments than you can swing a bat at. Yes, there’s a heavy layer of racial humour as well as sexually suggestive dialogue sprinkled all over the thing. Yes, Kline is over-burdened with costumes and props. Yes, Will Smith does scream a lot. So why is any of this a bad thing?

Wild, Wild West is a leave your brain at the door type of deal where the thorny relationship between the hero-duo slowly morphs into respect and a kind of warm co-operation. The comedy has me in tears and the ridiculous steam-punk gadgetry is so kitsch it just makes the whole movie for me.

5. A Fistful of Dollars

Yes, this movie is basically just a Western version of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. I don’t care! A Fistful of Dollars is one of my all time favourite movies. Yes, not just one of my favourite Westerns – just movies in general. Clint Eastwood is the mysterious Joe, who rides into a small Mexican town ruled by two factions: the Baxters and the Rojos. The eldest Rojo brother, Ramon, is a sadistic bastard who robs a Mexican military unit for his own ends. Joe pits the two sides against each other for reasons that are only revealed at the movie’s end.

Fistful is probably the most minimalistic of the films on this list. The story is quite basic, if laced with a light layer of intrigue. The movie maybe has a few rough patches as well, but Leone did show his directorial chops well with the film’s excellent cinematography. Clint’s character is just cool beyond belief and the finale is a classic. And the theme song is also my second favourite from the Dollars trilogy.

In all, not having Fistful in the Top-5 would have been an insult. Sure, Leone refined the trilogy further and, as I’ve stated before, the motivations and even a lot of the characters in this film are still very basic. But in that, it’s a very honest and straight forward movie, and unlike its follow-up, doesn’t run overly long.

4. Bandidas

Fun story, I have a terrible habit of mixing up the female leads of this movie, so having them star in the same comedy western is a real joy to the eye and a pain in my head. Penelope Cruz plays Maria, the tom-boy daughter of a lowly farmer, and Salma Hayek plays Sara, the daughter of a wealthy land-owner, who are both wrapped up in a scheme by greedy Sheriff to steal lands for a new railroad. Sara’s father is murdered and so she turns to being an outlaw in order to stop the scheme and has to form an uneasy alliance with Maria.

The duo is later joined by Quentin Cooke, a pioneer of forensics, who starts out trying to nail the female bank robbers (not in a dirty way) and later ends up joining them on their quest. The film includes some more beautiful scenery, really fun comedy (Hayek and Cruz’s on-screen chemistry is brilliant) and even some mild fan-service as both of them eventually take a liking to Cooke.

A movie with a premise like this would turn stale very easily, but I think Bandidas does a good job of maintaining comedy, action, character development as well as creating new obstacles for the heroines. The finale confrontation, which includes Cooke’s fiancée, is maybe a little uneven but the movie is a great lesser known comedy-western. Highly recommended.

3. Speedy Gonzales – The Son of About Seven Brothers

Speedy Gonzales is the fastest man in the west. He comes to the small town of New York to find out who killed his brother Moses. As he asks around, he finds little in the way of answers but begins to slowly suspect that nearly everyone he meets has something to do with his brother’s death. Speedy eventually discovers the ring-leader to be the crooked sheriff (Leo Jokela) and one-by-one the conspirators are taken down.

Speedy Gonzales is a very unusual beast in Spede’s filmography. An ensemble cast western comedy but one with a dark flair which clearly imitates the style of the recently emerged spaghetti-westerns. Although there’s a light layer of childish slap-stick, punny moments and some general absurdity – it’s the dark mood of the film that actually gives it staying power, along with the amazing score by Jaakko Salo.

The cast includes such heavy hitters as Simo Salminen as the Slowest Man from Häme, Ville-Veikko Salminen as the slick Bat Masterson, Juhani Kumpulainen as the disgusting Moss, Esko Salminen as the hilarious Manolito and Pertti Melasniemi as the psychotic Clyde. Tarja Markus also plays an unconventional leading lady in a Spede film, Rita the mostly silent but deadly partner of Speedy.

All around a master piece of the Finnish gravel pit westerns.

2. Django Unchained

In Quentin Tarantino’s most blatant love-letter to the spaghetti westerns, Jamie Foxx plays Django. Django is a slave freed by Christoph Waltz’s Dr. Schultz, a bounty hunter who originally needs Django’s help to track down the Brittle Brothers and who eventually decides to help Django track down and free his wife who was sold off by his misanthropic former owners.

Django Unchained is a powerful movie on many levels. It doesn’t dance around or sugar-coat the horrors of the slave trade and manages to tell a captivating tale of intrigue and revenge. Samuel L. Jackson gives possibly his most disturbing performance to date and the movie manages to include countless iconic moments from the inept Klan members to Django’s swanky blue servant costume, from Leo DiCaprio’s very real blood-stained performance to the eventual explosive finale.

In fact, the finale is maybe the one thing that slightly sours the experience. In all its cheekiness and wittyness, Django Unchained does have a certain groundedness which is lost with Django’s final confrontation scene. And it’s this very minor flaw that unfortunately prevents it from being in my all time Tarantino Top-5. However, when there’s only 5 sub par minutes of an excellent 166 minute movie, that still puts this movie in a higher calibre than most of the entries on this list.

1. The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

A pick so obvious, I might as well had put it at the top of this page but I decided to make you all wait for it. Because just as in the case of a lot of these movies (The Lone Ranger, For a Few Dollars More and Blazing Saddles) sometimes the journey is infinitely more important than the destination.

The film focuses on a trio of characters. Tuco (the Ugly), an outlaw on the run trying to get revenge on Blondie (the Good) who left him in the desert to die. When they discover that Confederate gold has been hidden in a cemetery, they’re forced to join forces as one of them knows the name of the cemetery and the other one the name of the grave. All the while, they’re hunted by Angel Eyes (the Bad), a sadistic fortune seeker who’ll kill anyone he doesn’t need.

The film is largely about the relationship of Tuco and Blondie and as such is both an epic adventure film and a great character story. Leone pulls all the stops with the story set during the final days of the American Civil War and manages to make the epic (literally) 3 hour movie feel amazing.

Without question, the greatest western ever made.

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