Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Top Eleven Westerns 2003-2013

A recent article in The Atlantic (How the Western was Lost and Why it Matters) suggests that Gore Verbinski's poorly-received The Lone Ranger might be the final nail in the coffin of a dying genre, the Western.

But what is a "Western"? Can it even be encompassed by the term "genre"? Is it not bigger than that?

The American Film Institute defines a Western film as one "set in the American West that embodies the spirit, the struggle and the demise of the new frontier."

The above-mentioned article talks about the "timeless pleasures" Westerns provide: "tough guy heroes, action set pieces on horseback, adventures in magnificent landscapes, good triumphing over evil..."

For me, a Western is any movie, TV show or book which depicts an individual or small group battling to survive in some kind of frontier. Ideally, it will include two or more of the following ingredients:
a) horses
b) revolvers
c) Native Americans
d) deserts
e) outlaws

Is the Western really dying? Using the above as my criteria I have chosen my top eleven Westerns films or TV shows from the past decade, viz: 2003 - 2013. I have listed them from oldest to newest.

montage of my fave Westerns 2003-2013 by Richard Russell Lawrence

1. Firefly (TV 2002-2003)
This short-lived, much-loved Joss Whedon television show was a great example of a Western set in space, the "new frontier" in the tradition of Star Wars. It has all five of my ingredients (though Native Americans are only glimpsed in a crowd scene in episode one.) Probably the wittiest of my eleven choices. Certainly the most fun.

2. Open Range (2003)
This is the only Western on my list that involves cattle or cowboys, which are absolutely NOT necessary for a Western. Open Range was laudable in its attempts to go for realism (e.g. a horse is killed in a shootout) and for the sublime Robert Duvall, but was bleached to bones by the blazing brilliance of the Deadwood sets, costumes and characters.

3. Deadwood (TV 2004-2006) 
The best of the lot. The first few scenes of this magnificent, misguided HBO TV series made me jump to my feet and yell "THAT's what it would have been like!" Deadwood is probably responsible for the past decade's mini-revival (or death throes!) of the Western genre. It is the quintessential Western, pitting loner misfits against the wilderness, greedy men and their own fatal flaws. Why "misguided"? It could have run for years but creator Milch sank it with expletives in an attempt to make it feel authentic. This goes to show what a minefield of political incorrectness the Western genre can be. 

4. The Proposition (2005)
Here's a great example of a Western set in Australia, but it totally works. Brutal, mysterious and with Ray Winstone. What's not to like? The opening gun battle is like nothing I've seen on film before and the story has more twists and turns than The Sixth Sense.

5. Seraphim Falls (2006)
With nods to The Outlaw Josey Wales and Unforgiven, this is an overlooked gem. The action ranges across mountains and deserts and features a surreal cameo by Angelica Huston as a Snake-oil Saleswoman. I don't care if the critics panned it. I loved it.

6. No Country for Old Men (2007)
Cormac McCarthy's book faithfully transported to screen by the Coen Brothers. A "modern" Western with sagebrush dry humour and a world-view as bleak as the West Texas desert.

7. Breaking Bad (TV 2008-2013)
The best TV show of the decade, I'm calling this a Western on account of its stunning desert landscapes and (New) Mexican cartel drug lords scarier than any Comanche Indians. As with many later Westerns, the protagonists are the outlaws. Plenty of desert sunsets, shootouts and showdowns. And did I mention the New Mexico desert?

8. Meek's Cutoff (2010)
I found this film infuriating when I first saw it on account of its "lack of ending". I stomped home to look up the background history of the real pioneers it's based on. That was when I realised the genius of Kelly Reichardt's approach. The life of an American settler was in constant limbo with no knowledge of what the next day or even hour might bring. Reichardt's constrained screen aspect mimics the blinkered viewpoint of seeing the world through the tunnel of a "poke bonnet" and the muffled dialogue of the men frustratingly conveys how much women were sidelined. An encounter with a Native American is fraught with misunderstanding and confusion. Haunting, unforgettable and stripped of all romance, Meek's Cutoff is probably the most realistic "taste" of the West the way it was.

9. True Grit (2010)
No film could do justice to Charles Portis' masterpiece, but the Coen Brothers give it their best shot. My perfect True Grit would have John Wayne as Rooster with the 1969 screenplay, including its better-for-film upbeat ending (written by Portis) but with Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie and the set dressing of the 2010 version.

10. Justified (TV 2010 - still going!)
This barely squeaks by on my criteria, having very few horses, no desert and no Native Americans, but Raylan Givens – a beautiful US Marshall in cowboy boots and hat and with an itchy trigger-finger – is a fabulous Western hero. Although Elmore Leonard's story is supposed to be set in Eastern Kentucky, it's actually filmed in and around Santa Clarita, Hollywood's iconic Western backlot.

11. Rango (2011)
Not really for kids, this decidedly creepy animation is packed with references to other Westerns and popular movies. I have listed nearly two dozen on my Rango Cheat Sheet. By making the characters animals rather than ethnic groups, Gore Verbinski neatly avoids many of the "hot buttons" that weigh down The Lone Ranger... and threaten the entire Western genre.

So my thought is: No, the Western is not dying. We are certainly not in the right Zeitgeist, but if well-written and conceived, a story of men or women on the frontier with six-shooters and horses can still be hugely satisfying.

Finally, there are some great Western books being produced. A few of my recent favourites are St. Agnes Stand by Thomas Eidson, Boone's Lick by the great Larry McMurtry and Robert B. Parker's Appaloosa (much better than the film). I myself am trying to revive the genre among children with my tales of a half-Sioux, half-white 12-year-old Detective in Virginia City, Nevada Territory: The P.K. Pinkerton Mysteries. Just out is The Case of the Pistol-packing Widows.


  1. The essence of the western is the out of place individual (eg gunslinger) struggling with his (usually) place in civilization. As the civilization advances to the frontier the heroic individual becomes an anachronism, (and usually) yet the civilization will need the hero one last time in order to destroy the last vestiges of the frontier (the bad men) that threaten it. Unforgiven is a very good recent example; it's also the central element of Deadwood.

    1. I wonder if you do do a Western set at the frontiers of the Roman empire?

  2. I'm a huge fan of westerns and these are all great! I especially liked the tips on books; I haven't read any of the three you mentioned (I'm currently ploughing through Lonesome Dove...)

    1. I adore Lonesome Dove, both the book and the mini-series. It makes my top five Westerns of all time along with The Good, the Bad & the Ugly; Little Big Man; Deadwood and Dances with Wolves.

  3. Oh, and I would add The Assassination of Jesse James, more for its direction and cinematography than the actual story (it's got the same plaintiff soundtrack as the Proposition - Nick Cave and Warren Ellis make a formidable pair). And Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee. Those are the only ones that I would say are missing. Of course, if we're talking guilty pleasures there's always that 3.10 to Yuma remake...

    1. Assassination had a great cast and look but I found it a tad slow. 3.10 made me mad on account of the unbelievability of so many aspects. E.g. character riding horse after getting gut-shot, character surviving being stampeded by cattle and – worst of all – the volte-face of the main baddie who totally abandons his pards. Grrr.

    2. I actually loved the slow pace of 'The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford' (to give it the full and rather magnificent title)..

  4. Debbie Watley6:50 PM

    Have you read the Longmire books or watched the tv series on TNT? It's about a lawman in Wyoming--now.

    My favorite tv western is The Lone Ranger (Clayton Moore & Jay Silverheels).

    1. Debbie we tried three eps of Longmire and got bored. Really wanted to like it but not enough to grab us. Are the books better?

  5. Debbie Watley7:31 PM

    I haven't tried the books, but we're about 5 episodes into the series. I suppose it's really more of a cop show that's set in the rural West. A couple weeks ago, we were in Wyoming and I happened to be in a bookstore as the author was finishing a book signing. I enjoyed hearing him talk about his characters and the tv series.

    Also, congrats on your new book!