George Pelecanos’ Favorite Westerns

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The Magnificent Seven (1960)

A handful of professional gunmen led by black-clad Yul Brynner are hired to protect a south-of-the-border farming village from scores of bandits in John Sturges’ western adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai. Rousing entertainment and every boy’s perfect action film, with a martial Elmer Bernstein score that will haunt you to your grave. Among the seven: Steve McQueen, Robert Vaughan, Charles Bronson, and as the knife wielding Texican, James Coburn.

One Eyed Jacks (1961)

A superb psychological western, sensuous, brutal, and beautifully shot. Outlaw Marlon Brando goes after his former partner (Karl Malden), now a sheriff in a coastal California town. Kubrick began the shoot but Brando took over the directing reins halfway in. The performances are outstanding, with Slim Pickens, Ben Johnson, and a truly bughouse Timothy Carey of particular note. Great jailhouse brutalization scene between Brando and Pickens, recreated by Peckinpah, twelve years later, in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.

Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (1962)

man_who_shot_liberty_valance_poster2The Searchers is the obvious choice, but this is my favorite John Ford western. It is, in many ways, his most complex and moving film. Rugged cowboy John Wayne saves city-slicker lawyer James Stewart from reprobate gunman Lee Marvin, sacrificing his own happiness and altering history in the process. Ford’s tragic, noirish eulogy for a wilderness overrun by civilization was his own swan song as well; he’d never make a film this rich again. “This time, dude, right between the eyes.”

Hombre (1967)

Martin Ritt’s adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel is a modern version of Stagecoach and a intelligent character study exploring the themes of race, heroism, cowardice, and greed. Paul Newman, blue-eyed and super cool, plays the title role, a white man raised by the Apaches who decides to save the ones he despises. Builds slowly and deliberately to a final showdown between Newman and a group of villains led by proto-badass Richard Boone. “Well now, Hombre,” asks Boone, very casually, before the guns come out. “What do you suppose hell is gonna look like?”

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

Sergio Leone’s operatic masterpiece is, on the surface, an epic tale of revenge, but underneath is the definitive take on the price of America’s Manifest Destiny. Shot, in part, in John Ford’s beloved Monument Valley, Leone fires on all artistic cylinders, from the extraordinary opening title sequence to the last gunfight. Sound design, cinematography, and performances—by Bronson, Jason Robards, Claudia Cardinale, and especially Henry Fonda—are in harmonic balance, all brought to life by Ennio Morricone’s Hendrix-meets-the-angels score. The Main Theme will be played at my funeral. A beautiful, perfect film.

The Wild Bunch (1969)

A band of aging outlaws who “came too late and stayed too long” make their last stand, taking on half the Mexican army in Sam Peckinpah’s ode to friendship, honor, and bloody redemption. Peckinpah’s stunner was a parable for Vietnam that turned peace-loving audiences on with its cathartic violence, in the process burning down the genre itself. Concludes with the Battle of Bloody Porch, perhaps the most visceral, mindblowing action sequence ever committed to film. Oddly enough, it’s the quiet moments that stick with you. William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Ben Johnson, and Warren Oates take the last walk, and blow it all to hell.

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973)

Peckinpah again, exploding the myth. This was a critical and commercial failure upon its release, but the years and a director’s cut have given it a new life. Kris Kristofferson is the hippie-like Billy, James Coburn is the haunted Garrett, and a cast of supporting character-actors drift in an out of the narrative like doomed players in a dusty dream. Rock hard, fatalistic Rudy Wurlitzer dialogue, and very hardboiled. R.G. Armstrong and Kristofferson do the jailhouse bit. Bob Dylan does the for-the-ages score. He also plays Alias, mumbles, and throws a knife. Slim Pickens dies to “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” Essential.

The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)

The last great western. Unforgiven won the awards, but this is the one for which Clint Eastwood will be remembered. In the years following the Civil War, Eastwood traverses the Midwest, searching for the Union renegades who murdered his family. Along the way he adopts a new family of friends, misfits, and lovers, but not before spilling some righteous blood. Eastwood directs masterfully, taking over for a fired Phil Kaufman, pacing the episodic script to perfection and giving it life. Name one red-blooded guy who can’t quote stretches of dialogue from this film. “Dyin’ ain’t much of a livin’, boy.” ‘Nuff said.

Originally published in Uncut Magazine’s Magnificent Seven column.


George Pelecanos is the author of fifteen crime novels set in and around Washington, D.C. He is an award-winning essayist who has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, GQ, Sight and Sound, Uncut, Mojo, and numerous other publications. Esquire magazine called Pelecanos "the poet laureate of the D.C. crime world." Recently, he was a producer, writer, and story editor for the acclaimed HBO dramatic series, The Wire More from this author →