Category Archives: Lists

Zorro on Film

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 13, 2015

Zorro on Film

Almost as long as there have been movies, the black-clad avenger of Spanish California has appeared in them.  Johnston McCulley’s serial The Curse of Capistrano was first published in 1919 in the pulp magazine All-Story Weekly, to be followed by three more serialized Zorro stories in Argosy magazine.  The first movie Zorro was one of the best, appearing in 1920, the year after McCulley’s original publication:  the dashing and acrobatic Douglas Fairbanks.  Five years later he starred in a sequel, Don Q, Son of Zorro.

Zorro never entirely left the screen for any long periods, but the next notable cinematic Zorro was Tyrone Power, romancing Linda Darnell and memorably fighting Basil Rathbone in 1940’s The Mark of Zorro.  The 1940s also saw Zorro appearing in various serials, like Zorro’s Black Whip, Zorro’s Fighting Legion and The Ghost of Zorro.  With the coming of television in the 1950s, Walt Disney provided the Baby Boomers with their most familiar version of the masked Californian—Guy Williams as the television Zorro.


Disappearing from screens both large and small during the 1960s (except perhaps for a couple of spaghetti versions), Zorro came back in the 1970s to be played by Frank Langella and French actor Alain Delon.  He was established enough as a cultural icon to be played for satire by George Hamilton in Zorro, the Gay Blade (1981).  And most recently he came back to be played by both an aging Anthony Hopkins and Spanish actor Antonio Banderas in The Mask of Zorro (1998) and its less successful sequel The Legend of Zorro (2005).

Historical note:  Although Zorro is firmly attached to a particular time and place (pre-1820 Spanish Southern California, before Mexican independence), Zorro is not in fact an actual historical character but a fictional creation of a pulp writer in 1919.  He is fun, though, when done well.  The Banderas Zorro movies attempted to merge the fictional Zorro with the actual Mexican-era bandit Joaquin Murrieta, with limited success.  One of the problems with Zorro has always been that his primary weapon is the sword, which leads to exciting duels with the sword-wielding bad guys played by Basil Rathbone and others.  But in an era when firearms were common, Zorro would have been in trouble relying on a sword or a whip too much.


The Mark of Zorro—Fairbanks, Beery (1920, silent)
Don Q, Son of Zorro—Fairbanks, Astor (1925, silent)
The Bold Caballero—Livingston (1936)
The Californian—Ricardo Cortez (1937), in an obvious version of the Zorro story with other names.
The Mark of Zorro—Power, Darnell, Rathbone (1940)
Zorro’s Black Whip (1940s Republic serial with a woman as Zorro in Idaho; Zorro’s Fighting Legion, Ghost of Zorro et al.)
Sign of Zorro—Williams (1958; cobbled together from the 1950s Disney series)
Behind the Mask of Zorro (1965, Italian)
The Nephews of Zorro (1968, Italian)
The Mark of Zorro—Langella, Roland, Montalban (1974, MfTV and based on 1940 Power version)
Zorro—Delon (1975, French-Italian Zorro in South America)
Zorro, The Gay Blade—Hamilton, Hutton (1981)
The Mask of Zorro—Banderas, Hopkins, Zeta-Jones (1998; Dir: Campbell)
The Legend of Zorro—Banderas, Zeta-Jones (2005; Dir: Campbell)

Z–Gael Garcia Bernal (2017?; Dir:  Cuaron)



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The Crippled Gunman

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 18, 2015

The Crippled Gunman

One of the most common traditional themes of the western genre is having disputes and confrontations finally resolved in a shootout.  Typically the good guy (or the forces of righteousness, however they are represented) wins with a combination of skill with a gun (the most common), guile, personal courage and moral force against great odds on the other side.  Mostly it works; sometimes it doesn’t (see, for example, Colorado Territory [1949], with the fate of Joel McCrea and Virginia Mayo, The Gunfighter [1950] with Gregory Peck, Devil’s Doorway [1950] with Robert Taylor or Hombre [1967], with Paul Newman).

However, one of the ideas that became current in westerns beginning in the mid-1950s was that of the crippled gunman.  How far can courage, guile and moral force take you in situations involving violence and requiring unusual physical skill, when the physical part isn’t at full strength?  Even some of the greatest directors of westerns used this idea (Sam Peckinpah in The Deadly Companions; Budd Boetticher in Decision at Sundown and also in Seven Men From Now; Howard Hawks in El Dorado).

Usually, the impaired gunman goes on to demonstrate that “some things a man can’t ride around,” (see that line in Hondo, Seven Men From Now, The Tall T, Ride Lonesome and others), even if the fight isn’t fair any more—even if it appears hopeless.  This often gives a woman the opportunity to provide him with an out on the eve of his trial.  She tries to persuade him to go away with her instead of facing his adversaries, testing his moral worthiness and resolution.  (See Angela Lansbury in A Lawless Street, Katy Jurado in Man from Del Rio, Virginia Mayo in The Proud Ones, Dorothy Malone in Warlock, and many others).  Even Grace Kelly couldn’t make that work in High Noon.


Randolph Scott’s boarding house landlady explains the basics of what a man’s gotta do to his estranged wife Angela Lansbury in A Lawless Street.

Ramrod (Joel McCrea, 1947).  The ramrod of the title is Dave Nash (Joel McCrea), good with a gun but badly wounded in the shoulder before his big showdown with cattle baron Frank Ivey.  Solution:  he takes a shotgun to the showdown.

Gunsmoke (Audie Murphy, 1953).  Gunman Reb Kittredge (Audie Murphy) wins a ranch on the turn of a card, but immediately has to get his cattle to a buyer.  After the bad guys smash up his gun hand and arm, he must also deal with his enemies.

The Far Country (James Stewart, 1954).  The protagonists in westerns directed by Anthony Mann frequently had psychological impairments.  In this one, James Stewart has a physical one as well; his gun arm’s in a sling as he approaches his final confrontation with John McIntire and his band of thugs (including Robert Wilke and Jack Elam).


Corinne Calvet nurses the badly-wounded James Stewart back to health in The Far Country.

A Lawless Street (Randolph Scott, 1955).  Randolph Scott plays marshal Calem Ware, who goes up against his gunfighting nemesis (Michael Pate) with a smashed gun hand and a head injury.  HIs only advantage is that the bad guys think he’s already dead because of those wounds.  Director Joseph H. Lewis seemed to like to play with the idea of an impaired gunman (this and Terror in a Texas Town).

The Lonesome Trail (John Agar, 1955).  Cowboy and Civil War veteran Johnny Rush (John Agar) returns to find his father dead, his land gone and his girl engaged to the local land baron.  He loses the use of his gun arm in a fight with the henchman of the land baron, so he takes up the bow and arrow instead of the usual tools of violence.


Having had his gun hand shot by bad guys, James Stewart is forced to use a rifle in The Man From Laramie.

The Man From Laramie (James Stewart, 1955).  Will Lockhart (James Stewart) has been shot in the right hand point-blank, but he doesn’t let that stop him in his quest to hunt down whoever killed his brother and is responsible for selling guns to the Indians.  It does mean he has to use a rifle instead of a pistol, however.

Man From Del Rio (Anthony Quinn, 1956).  Anthony Quinn’s Dave Robles has practiced for five years to become very good with a gun, and he is.  However, in a fight before his final two confrontations, he has smashed the wrist in his gun hand.  Now he walks into a final showdown in that condition.


Randolph Scott props himself up using a rifle as a cane, against Lee Marvin in Seven Men From Now.

Seven Men From Now (Randolph Scott, 1956).  Former Sheriff Ben Stride (Randolph Scott) is disadvantaged in his final series of confrontations with miscreants because he can’t walk.  His leg was injured when one of them shot down his horse, and he can only stand using his rifle as a cane.

The Proud Ones (Robert Ryan, 1956).  Aging city marshal Cass Silver (Robert Ryan) may be proud, but he’s also very good with a gun and very experienced at taming wild towns.  However, a bullet creases his skull early in the film, leaving him with impaired vision before his battle with the much larger forces of bad guy Robert Middleton, supported only by his uncertain (but also proud) deputy Thad Anderson (Jeffrey Hunter).


Randolph Scott faces a final shoot-out with a badly wounded hand in Decision at Sundown.

Decision at Sundown (Randolph Scott, 1957).  Seeking revenge for the seduction and subsequent suicide of his wife while he was away at the Civil War, Bart Allison (Randolph Scott again) fights the entire town of Sundown, led by its corrupt sheriff (Andrew Duggan) and head bad guy and seducer Tate Kimbrough (John Carroll).  The otherwise capable Allison’s gun hand is injured before his final shoot-out with Kimbrough.

Forty Guns (Hank Worden, 1957). Hank Worden’s city marshal isn’t much of a gunman (or even a main character), but he is all but blind when he is gunned down by Barbara Stanwyck’s no-good younger brother Brockie (John Ericson).  In this case, picking on an old blind marshal early in the movie is indicative of Brockie’s moral bankruptcy, like shooting a dog or kicking a child.

Terror in a Texas Town (Nedrick Young, 1958).  This is the rare situation where the bad guy, black-clad Johnny Cale (Nedrick Young), has lost his right hand, although he is still good with his left.  The loss of a hand seems emblematic of his psychological deformities, but he doesn’t seem to feel the loss of it in his role as gunslinging enforcer—until he comes up against a whaler (Sterling Hayden) with a harpoon.


Richard Widmark has been beaten and stabbed in the gun hand but still has to go against Henry Fonda in Warlock.

Warlock (Richard Widmark, 1959).  Brave but overmatched Deputy Sheriff Johnny Gannon’s gun hand is heavily bandaged, having been brutally pinned to a table with a knife by his former boss.  Gannon (Richard Widmark) must now face both that boss and his men in the street, followed by an even greater challenge:  going against Marshal Clay Blaisdell (Henry Fonda), who was obviously much better with a gun even before Gannon’s injuries.


Brian Keith’s shooting arm doesn’t work right in The Deadly Companions.

The Deadly Companions (Brian Keith, 1961). In director Sam Peckinpah’s first movie, Yellowleg (Brian Keith) has a rifle ball near his collarbone from the Civil War, and it often impairs the functioning of his right arm.  At the start of the movie, it causes him to accidentally shoot saloon girl Maureen O’Hara’s son, and you know it will come up again in a critical situation.

The Gun Hawk (Rory Calhoun, 1963).  Blaine Madden (Rory Calhoun) goes up against the conscienceless gunman Johnny Flanders (Robert J. Wilke) even though his gun hand is all but useless because of a bad wound to that arm.  Not entirely convincingly, he does it by beating him in a fist fight.  Ultimately, however, Madden does not win his bigger fight.


John Wayne’s gun arm goes numb because of an old bullet near his spine in El Dorado.

El Dorado (John Wayne, 1966).  Expert gunman Cole Thornton (John Wayne) has his gun arm occasionally go numb, due to a wound in his back near the spine.  You know this will happen at a critical time.

Arizona Bushwhackers (Howard Keel, John Ireland, 1968).  This laughably bad A.C. Lyles production features the only saloon brawl on film between two one-armed battlers.  One is a wounded sheriff (Howard Keel) and the other is his deputy crippled in the Civil War (John Ireland).

The Shootist (John Wayne, 1976).  Aging gunman J.B. Books (John Wayne) is dying of cancer in turn-of-the-century Carson City.  He arranges to go out on his birthday, in a shoot-out with three of the area’s deadliest gunmen at once.

One-Armed Bad Guys

Dean Jagger in Pursued

Tom Tryon in Three Violent People

Dean Jagger in The Proud Rebel

Clifford David in Invitation to a Gunfighter

David Dukes in Last Stand at Saber River


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Shooting Stars, Part 3

Nicholas Chennault ~ May 14, 2015

Shooting Stars:  A Ranking of the 29 Greatest Western Actors Since 1939
Part 3—Eleven Through Fifteen

Here we continue with our ranking of the top actors in westerns since 1939.  For the top ten such actors, see our posts Shooting Stars Part 1 and Shooting Stars Part 2.


11.  James Garner [Shoot-Out at Medicine Bend, Hour of the Gun, Duel at Diablo, Support Your Local Sheriff, Support Your Local Gunfighter, Skin Game, A Man Called Sledge, The Castaway Cowboy, One Little Indian, Murphy’s Romance, Sunset, Maverick; on television, Maverick, Bret Maverick and The Streets of Laredo]

Oklahoma native James Garner is best known for his roles as an amiable western con-man, first demonstrated in the Maverick television series of the late 1950s.  He was better at that kind of role than anybody else (see Support Your Local Sheriff, Skin Game and Support Your Local Gunfighter).  He successfully played variants of that role in movies set in more modern times, including a couple of good ones set in World War II (The Great Escape [1963] and The Americanization of Emily [1964]) and a number of 1960s romantic comedies (Boys’ Night Out with Kim Novak, Cash McCall with Natalie Wood, The Thrill of It All and Move Over, Darling, both with Doris Day).  But that wasn’t the limit of his talents.  He could also do well at a kind of grim, humorless role, as he showed in Duel at Diablo (1966) and while playing Wyatt Earp in John Sturges’ Hour of the Gun (1967).  It was his misfortune that mainstream westerns were starting to decline in popularity when he was at his peak, and by the mid-1970s he was showing up in light, Disney-produced westerns with Vera Miles that haven’t been much seen (The Castaway Cowboy, One Little Indian).  More successful was his venture back into television as private detective Jim Rockford in The Rockford Files (for six seasons, starting in 1974).

In the later stages of his career, he was very good in a modern romantic western with Sally Field in Murphy’s Romance (1985), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe.  He showed up in two more westerns, once again as an aging Wyatt Earp in Hollywood of the late 1920s in Sunset (1988), and in the Mel Gibson Maverick remake (1994).  He returned to television with a short-lived series reprising his original Maverick character in Bret Maverick (1981) and with a credible turn playing an aging Capt. Woodrow Call in the television miniseries The Streets of Laredo (1995), based on a sequel to Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove.  (One story has it that he had been offered the role of either Woodrow Call or Gus McCrae–his choice–in the original Lonesome Dove miniseries but was sidelined by health problems.  Lonesome Dove, of course, went on to become a classic with Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall in those roles.)  An interesting sidelight of his late career was to see him together with fellow westerns star Clint Eastwood as aging astronauts in Space Cowboys (2000).

Like Paul Newman and Steve McQueen, Garner was long interested in automobile racing.  He was a good enough driver that he did his own driving stunts in The Rockford Files because he was better at it than any stuntman they could find.   In a 1973 interview, John Wayne called James Garner the best American actor.  Of all his films, The Americanization of Emily, with Julie Andrews (1964), was said to be Garner’s favorite—an excellent movie, wonderfully written and superbly acted but unfortunately not a western.


12.  Burt Lancaster [Vengeance Valley, The Kentuckian, Vera Cruz, Gunfight at the OK Corral, The Unforgiven, The Hallelujah Trail, The Professionals, The Scalphunters, Valdez Is Coming, Lawman, Ulzana’s Raid]

Burt Lancaster was one of the biggest movie stars of his time, from the late 1940s well into the 1970s.  Known especially for a vigorous brand of physical athleticism (he had once been a circus acrobat), an equally vigorous growth of hair and a large grin showing off a full set of very white teeth, he was willing to take any role that interested him.  He won an Academy Award as Best Actor for his performance in Elmer Gantry (1960).  For an early performance in a western, see him as the grinning unscrupulous quasi-outlaw Joe Erin in Vera Cruz (1954), playing with and against the more traditional and stolid Gary Cooper.  One of many to play Wyatt Earp, he did a credible version in John Sturges’ Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957), and he could also play a certain kind of comedy convincingly (The Hallelujah Trail [1965], The Scalphunters [1968]).  He was not afraid of taking a role secondary to lesser star Lee Marvin in The Professionals (1966), and his strong performance alongside Marvin made for an excellent western.

By the 1970s, as westerns faded in popularity as a cinematic genre, Lancaster was doing some of his strongest work in westerns as old scout Bob Valdez in Valdez Is Coming (1971) and as old scout Archie McIntosh in Ulzana’s Raid (1972), probably the last really good cavalry movie.  He’s even good as the central figure in the revisionist Lawman (1971) with Robert Ryan, which otherwise has some problems with its writing and direction.


13.  Gregory Peck [Yellow Sky, Duel in the Sun, The Gunfighter, Only the Valiant, The Big Country, The Bravados, How the West Was Won, The Stalking Moon, Mackenna’s Gold, Shoot Out, Billy Two Hats, The Old Gringo]

Gregory Peck shared Joel McCrea’s ability to project a basic American style of decency, although his brand of that quality was a little flintier and less self-effacing than McCrea’s.  His ultimate cinematic expression of that quality is probably as southern lawyer Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962).  It made him convincing in playing reforming outlaws (Yellow Sky [1948], The Gunfighter [1950]), but less so in portraying bad guys (Duel in the Sun, 1947).  He was a big star, both comfortable and convincing at the center of a large-budget production (The Big Country [1958]).

He didn’t make many westerns in the 1960s, part of his period of greatest stardom—only appearing in How the West Was Won (1962), as one among many stars.  Toward the end of the decade he appeared in a fairly good western thriller (The Stalking Moon [1968]), but like others he didn’t fare well as the genre, and his career generally, moved into a twilight period.  He showed up in such turkeys as Mackenna’s Gold (1969) and Billy Two Hats (1974).  Shoot Out (1971), which is watchable but not remarkable, is probably his best western from this period.  In his last western, he starred as crusty writer Ambrose Bierce, the titular character in The Old Gringo, during the period of Mexican revolutions in the 1910s, with Jane Fonda (1989).  He is justly praised for The Gunfighter and The Big Country; Yellow Sky and The Bravados are probably the most underrated of the westerns in which Peck appeared.


14.  William Holden [Arizona, Texas, The Man From Colorado, Rachel and the Stranger, Streets of Laredo, Escape from Fort Bravo, The Horse Soldiers, Alvarez Kelly, The Wild Bunch, The Wild Rovers, The Revengers]

Like Burt Lancaster and Gregory Peck, William Holden is not remembered first for his westerns.  He is remembered first for his roles as the young writer found floating face down in a swimming pool in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, and for Wilder’s World War II drama Stalag 17, for which he won his Best Actor Oscar.  But his slightly acid modern-seeming persona translated well enough to westerns if the material and directing were right.  He starred in them from his earliest days in the movies, beginning before World War II with Arizona, with Jean Arthur and Edgar Buchanan (1940), and Texas, with Glenn Ford and Edgar Buchanan (1941).  After service in the war, he resumed his film career generally, and westerns specifically, with such good films as The Man from Colorado, again with Glenn Ford (1948) and with the colonial western Rachel and the Stranger, with Loretta Young and Robert Mitchum (1948).

Even with his success and elevation to stardom with Sunset Boulevard and Stalag 17, he made the occasional good western during the 1950s, working with director John Sturges in the underrated Escape from Fort Bravo (1953) and with John Ford in the Civil War cavalry story The Horse Soldiers, playing an army doctor continually feuding with John Wayne (1959).  Even as Holden’s alcoholism took its toll on him, Holden’s work in the 1960s included the good Civil War story Alvarez Kelly, with Richard Widmark (1966), and the western for which he is best remembered now:  Sam Peckinpah’s landmark The Wild Bunch (1969), in which Holden very effectively plays Pike Bishop, leader of an aging outlaw gang trying to pull off a last job amid the Mexican revolutions of the 1910s.  His career in westerns ended on an ignominious note with The Wild Rovers (1971), although the seldom-seen The Revengers (1972) is slightly better.


15.  Kirk Douglas [Along the Great Divide, The Big Sky, Man Without a Star, Last Train from Gun Hill, The Indian Fighter, Gunfight at the OK Corral, Lonely Are the Brave, The Last Sunset, The Way West, The War Wagon, There Was a Crooked Man, Posse, The Man from Snowy River]

One of the biggest stars of his time (the prime of which was the late 1940s into the early 1970s), Kirk Douglas appeared in a surprising number of westerns. But many of them weren’t all that good, and in some of them his persona seemed to be fighting with the traditional western ways of looking at things.  Like Burt Lancaster, he liked to not wear a hat, or to wear it only pushed back on his head.  He experimented with especially tight and unlikely wardrobes (The Last Sunset, The War Wagon) which emphasized his robust physique and athleticism.  He played a gunfighter who improbably only used a derringer (The Last Sunset).  He didn’t really need the theatrical gimmicks, though.  If you look only at his best work in westerns, you find one of the best mountain man movies (The Big Sky), his athleticism and physical strength (not to mention real acting ability) used to good effect without gimmicky costuming in Last Train from Gun Hill, the bitter edges of his personality being used effectively as Doc Holliday in Gunfight at the OK Corral, and as an isolated loner in the modern west in Lonely Are the Brave.

His ego was extraordinarily large (not unusual in Hollywood), but he managed to team well with Burt Lancaster (Gunfight at the OK Corral) and John Wayne (The War Wagon) when those two were in the dominant roles.  As the 1970s came in, he starred in less effective revisionist westerns (There Was a Crooked Man, Posse), which would probably not have been made without him.  In his last western, he chewed the scenery in dual roles in The Man from Snowy River.


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Shooting Stars, Part 2

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 16, 2015

Shooting Stars:  A Ranking of the 29 Greatest Western Actors Since 1939
Part 2—Filling Out the Top Ten

For the top five, see our post Shooting Stars, Part 1.


6.  Joel McCrea  [Barbary Coast, Wells Fargo, Union Pacific, Buffalo Bill, The Virginian (1946), Four Faces West, Ramrod, The Oklahoman, Colorado Territory, The Outriders, Frenchie, Stars in My Crown, Cattle Drive, Saddle Tramp, The San Francisco Story, The Lone Hand, Black Horse Canyon, Border River, Wichita, The Tall Stranger, Gunsight Ridge, The First Texan, Stranger on Horseback, Trooper Hook, Cattle Empire, Fort Massacre, The Gunfight at Dodge City, Ride the High Country, etc.]

For current audiences, McCrea can be the most underestimated actor on this list.  In the early stages of his career during the 1930s he made all kinds of movies.  By 1939, when he made Foreign Correspondent with Alfred Hitchcock and Union Pacific with Cecil B. DeMille, he was a significantly bigger star than John Wayne, and he was about to appear in brilliant comedies with such directors as Preston Sturges (Sullivan’s Travels, Palm Beach Story) and George Stevens (The More the Merrier).  He had always made some westerns, but by the late 1940s, like Randolph Scott he began to concentrate almost entirely on the genre.  His quiet demeanor projected a basic decency, even when he was playing an outlaw (Four Faces West, Colorado Territory).  Neither he nor Scott worked with the very greatest directors of westerns of their time until very late in their careers, but McCrea did have a productive relationship with director Jacques Tourneur (Stars in My Crown, Stranger on Horseback, Wichita).  He appeared in the first of Andre de Toth’s two best westerns (the underrated Ramrod) as well.

McCrea had his own ranch, and he always described himself in his tax returns as a rancher.  He and Scott were among the very best riders in westerns, and he always looked like he knew what he was doing on a horse.  (Watch him in Colorado Territory and Gunsight Ridge, for example.)  His very best western was also Randolph Scott’s best, and the last significant western for both of them:  Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country.  McCrea’s unbending Steve Judd is remembered for his resonant line in that film:  “All I want is to enter my house justified.”  He does, always playing it straight on.


7.  Randolph Scott  [Heritage of the Destert (1932), Last of the Mohicans (1936), The Texans (1938), Frontier Marshal, Western Union, Jesse James, Virginia City, When the Daltons Rode, The Desperadoes, The Spoilers (1942), Belle Starr, Belle of the Yukon, Gunfighters, Abilene Town, Badman’s Territory, Trail Street, Albuquerque, Coroner Creek, Return of the Bad Men, The Doolins of Oklahoma, Fighting Man of the Plains, Santa Fe, The Walking Hills, Sugarfoot, The Cariboo Trail, The Stranger Wore a Gun, The Man Behind the Gun, Thunder Over the Plains, The Bounty Hunter, Hangman’s Knot, Ten Wanted Men, Man in the Saddle, The Nevadan, Colt .45, Fort Worth, Carson City, Riding Shotgun, Tall Man Riding, Rage at Dawn, 7th Cavalry, Shoot-Out at Medicine Bend, Seven Men from Now, The Tall T, Decision at Sundown, Westbound, Buchanan Rides Alone, Ride Lonesome, Comanche Station, Ride the High Country, et al.]

At mid-century (1950), Randolph Scott was the top male movie star at U.S. box offices—not because he appeared in big blockbusters, but because his lower-budget and sometimes formulaic westerns played well in rural America.  Like Joel McCrea, he had always done some westerns (Last of the Mohicans [1936], Frontier Marshal, Jesse James) but in the 1930s he played a wide range of roles.  In larger-scale westerns (Western Union, Virginia City), he tended to play an unusually principled semi-bad guy who didn’t get the girl because he died before the end of the movie.

By the late 1940s, he had decided to concentrate almost exclusively on westerns, much like Joel McCrea.  Also like McCrea, he seldom worked with top-flight directors during this stage, although he worked frequently with Andre de Toth (The Bounty Hunter, Thunder Over the Plains, Carson City) and Lesley Selander (Tall Man Riding).  There were always some very good westerns (Hangman’s Knot, Ten Wanted Men, The Bounty Hunter) among the more formulaic work.  He would not be nearly this high on the list except for an amazing burst of great work near the end of his career with two great directors—Budd Boetticher (Seven Men From Now, The Tall T, Decision at Sundown, Ride Lonesome, Comanche Station) and Sam Peckinpah (Ride the High Country, Scott’s last film).

With his courtly North Carolina accent, his riding ability, his weathered good looks as he aged and his ability to project stern rectitude, Scott just needed the right team to work with and was lucky enough to find it in the last seven years or so of his career.  In the 1950s and Ride the High Country, look for him wearing his trademark worn leather jacket, often riding his beautiful dark palomino horse Stardust, who always went uncredited.  In the sheer number of westerns he made, he’s remarkable, and most of them, even the formulaic ones, are pretty watchable.

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8.  Kevin Costner  [Silverado, Dances With Wolves, Open Range, Wyatt Earp]

Kevin Costner is the youngest actor on this list, and he hasn’t made that many westerns.  But of his four westerns, three of them are on the list of 55 Great Westerns and the fourth (Wyatt Earp) is a notable addition to the impressive list of westerns telling the Wyatt Earp story.  Like Robert Duvall, he has both been lucky and has chosen well when selecting his movie roles in westerns.  Like Clint Eastwood, he has been unusually successful in directing himself in westerns (Dances With Wolves, Open Range).

Costner has always connected well with the western sensibility.  His first large-scale film role was as the scapegrace younger brother Jake in Silverado, adept with two guns, physically restless and gymnastic but impulsive.  He next showed up as both director and principal actor in Dances With Wolves, with its extraordinarily long running time.  This was the first western in more than 60 years to win the Best Picture Oscar.  He went on to work with Lawrence Kasdan again in the interesting but not-entirely-successful Wyatt Earp, and finally to direct himself and Robert Duvall in Open Range.  In fact there are those who would say that many of his films are westerns regardless of their supposed settings: the futuristic Waterworld and The Postman, for example, and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, with his abominably American accent in the title role.  On the down side of his career now, he may not make more westerns, but he has been extraordinarily successful in those he did make.


9.  Henry Fonda  [Drums Along the Mohawk, Jesse James, The Return of Frank James, The Ox-Bow Incident, My Darling Clementine, Fort Apache, The Tin Star, Warlock, A Big Hand for the Little Lady, How the West Was Won, The Rounders, Firecreek, Once Upon a Time in the West, The Cheyenne Social Club, There Was a Crooked Man, My Name is Nobody, Welcome to Hard Times]

With his All-American looks, demeanor and speaking voice, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that Henry Fonda was a superb actor.  Yes, he did seem to be playing a version of himself as Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath and in The Ox-Bow Incident, but those are carefully-edited versions.  After service in World War II, he played it more laissez-faire as Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine (possibly the best Wyatt Earp on film) and much more tightly wound as the martinet Col. Owen Thursday in Fort Apache.  His version of outlaw Frank James, played in two films (Jesse James, The Return of Frank James), may also be definitive.

In the first half of his career, he worked with some great directors: Fritz Lang (The Return of Frank James), John Ford (Drums Along the Mohawk, Young Mr. Lincoln, My Darling Clementine, Fort Apache), William Wellman (The Ox-Bow Incident), and Anthony Mann (The Tin Star).  After the excellent Warlock (1959), his career in westerns went into a long, slow fade, although he was usually worth watching.  The most notable of his westerns in the post-Warlock period is probably Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, in which he plays (effectively) against type as a remorseless, blue-eyed killer.  After that, he took what he was offered, including the occasional spaghetti western, but the era of great westerns was fading along with his career.  Fonda’s career arc, normal for his time, demonstrates by comparison why John Wayne was so unusual in his ability to produce the occasional great western even at the end of his life.


10.  Glenn Ford  [Go West, Young Lady, The Desperadoes, Texas, The Man from Colorado, Lust for Gold, The Redhead and the Cowboy, The Man from the Alamo, The Violent Men, 3:10 to Yuma, The Fastest Gun Alive, Jubal, Cowboy, The Sheepman, Cimarron (1960), The Rounders, The Last Challenge, Heaven with a Gun, A Time for Killing, Day of the Evil Gun, Santee]

Canadian-born actor Glenn Ford was a very durable and versatile leading man, beginning in the early 1940s.  Among his earliest westerns were Texas (1941), where he was paired with William Holden, and The Desperadoes (1943), with Randolph Scott, before he left for service in World War II.  Upon his return, he made his mark with several movies in the new film noir genre (see especially Gilda [1946], for one classic example).  But he also moved back into westerns (The Man from Colorado, Lust for Gold), showing that he was not afraid to play against his generally wholesome image.  Indeed, in one of his very best westerns (the original 3:10 to Yuma) he plays outlaw chieftain Ben Wade, making the unlikable more attractive, and being attracted to the code of good guy Van Heflin more than he expected.

Some of his best work during this middle period of his career was done with the excellent director Delmer Daves (3:10 to Yuma, Jubal, Cowboy), who obviously liked working with him.  He fought Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson and Brian Keith (The Violent Men), and spent a whole movie trying not to fight Broderick Crawford (The Fastest Gun Alive).  As film noir faded in popularity, he was sometimes cast in romantic comedies (The Courtship of Eddie’s Father) and military comedies (The Teahouse of the August Moon, Don’t Go Near the Water, Imitation General), and he brought some of that restrained comedic talent to the westerns The Sheepman and Advance to the Rear as well.  If given a choice, through the 1950s and 1960s, he always wore the same beat-up hat, which was looking pretty disgusting by the early 1960s.  The remake of the western epic Cimarron (1960) with director Anthony Mann and Ford in the lead didn’t really work well, but that wasn’t Ford’s fault.

His later career followed an arc similar to Henry Fonda’s, where the quality of the westerns he was offered declined.  As he played out his string (The Last Challenge, Heaven With a Gun, Santee), he often effectively played a kind of father-figure.  But the scripts weren’t as good, and the popularity of westerns as a genre was fading generally.

To continue the list, see Shooting Stars, Part 3.


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Shooting Stars, Part 1

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 13, 2015

Shooting Stars: A Ranking of the 29 Greatest Western Actors Since 1939
Part 1—The Top Five


1.  John Wayne  [The Big Trail, Stagecoach, Red River, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande, Angel and the Badman, The Searchers, Rio Bravo, The Horse Soldiers, The Alamo, North to Alaska, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, McLintock!, The Sons of Katie Elder, The Comancheros, El Dorado, The War Wagon, Chisum, Cahill US Marshal, Rio Lobo, The Train Robbers, Big Jake, The Cowboys, The Shootist, et al.]

Wayne’s image is the first that comes to mind when we consider westerns between 1939 and the present.  He made many forgettable westerns while learning his craft during the 1930s in low-budget quickies, but beginning with Stagecoach in 1939 he made a surprising number of appearances in really good westerns.  While his career in westerns included a number of duds and clunkers, particularly toward the end (The Undefeated, Rio Lobo, The Train Robbers, etc.), for a long period he was consistently good—and often great.

Although, like most male stars, he sometimes seemed to show up in roles too young for him as he aged, he was more successful than most at playing age-appropriate roles as he grew older.  He successfully played older than he was in Red River and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and he moved into more mature roles naturally in The Searchers and Rio Bravo.  (He’s probably too old for Angie Dickinson in Rio Bravo, but somehow it works.)  He even made a couple of great westerns during the final stage of his career (The Cowboys, The Shootist).

Some of his position at the top of this list is due to his long-time relationship with John Ford, the greatest director of westerns, which helped both of them earn their pre-eminence in the field.  But he also made very good westerns with directors Howard Hawks, John Farrow, Don Siegel and others.


2.  Clint Eastwood  [A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Hang ‘Em High, Paint Your Wagon, High Plains Drifter, The Beguiled, Joe Kidd, Two Mules for Sister Sara, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Bronco Billy, Pale Rider, Unforgiven; Rawhide on television]

Eastwood is the greatest living star in westerns, although he is now in his 80s and is unlikely to make any more westerns either as a leading man or as a director.  Remarkably, he accomplished this mostly during a period when westerns were out of cinematic fashion; although he didn’t appear in nearly the number of westerns John Wayne did, his high position on the list results from the unusually high quality of the few westerns he did make.  Beginning with his central role in Sergio Leone’s influential Man With No Name Trilogy in the 1960s, he went on to appear in good westerns in the 1970s (Hang ‘Em High, for example) and to direct better ones with himself as the star (High Plains Drifter, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Pale Rider, Unforgiven).  Director Eastwood benefited from having an iconic western star (actor Eastwood) at the center of his films, and he knew how to use him.


3.  James Stewart  [Destry Rides Again, Winchester ’73, The Naked Spur, The Man from Laramie, Night Passage, Two Rode Together, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Bend of the River, The Far Country, Shenandoah, How the West Was Won, Firecreek, The Rare Breed, Bandolero!, The Cheyenne Social Club, The Shootist, et al.]

Before leaving for World War II, he made his reputation in modern films by Frank Capra and The Philadelphia Story (1940), directed by George Cukor.  His only western in that period was 1939’s Destry Rides Again.  Upon returning from the war, he revived his film career once again with Capra (It’s a Wonderful Life) and by working with such directors as Alfred Hitchcock, Delmer Daves and Anthony Mann.  His high position on this list is due to the five films he made with Mann, in which he usually played a character on the psychological edge in some way.  Between them, Mann and Stewart re-defined in many ways the world of western movies and the stories they told.  The quality of westerns he made in the 1960s after his relationship with Mann fell apart tails off noticeably, although he made three late westerns with John Ford, one of which is particularly memorable (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance).


4.  Gary Cooper  [The Virginian (1930),The Spoilers (1930), Fighting Caravans, The Plainsman, The Westerner, Along Came Jones, Dallas, High Noon, Garden of Evil, Springfield Rifle, Vera Cruz, Man of the West, The Hanging Tree, They Came to Cordura, etc.]

Dave Kehr sees him as John Wayne’s principal rival.  “Cooper, for whom the words lanky and laconic seem to have been invented, was identified by the Department of the Treasury as the nation’s highest paid wage earner in 1939….the mildly satiric Westerner (William Wyler, 1940) already finds Cooper playing an inflated archetype — the Man of the West — rather than a character, much as he would in his most overrated film, Fred Zinnemann’s didactic political fable High Noon (1952).”

In his biography of Gary Cooper, Gary Cooper, American Hero (Robert Hale, London, 2001), Jeffrey Myers quotes Robert Warshow’s essay on westerns:  “The romantic image of the cowboy as the embodiment of male freedom, courage and honor was created by men who had lived a rugged life in the West:  in words by Teddy Roosevelt and Owen Wister, in art by Frederic Remington and Charles Russell, and in film, preeminently, by Gary Cooper.”  Cooper was an authentic westerner from Montana, and he had a natural way with western roles.  Cooper would challenge John Wayne for the top spot on this list, except that he didn’t make many westerns during the 1940s when his career was at its peak.  His reputation in westerns was substantially made by movies released before 1939, until he revived his career in the 1950s beginning with High Noon.  One consequence of this career arc is that in several of his best westerns from the 1950s he seems too old for the roles in which he’s cast.  He’s good enough that we mostly look past that, though.


5.  Robert Duvall  [True Grit, Lawman, The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, Joe Kidd, Tender Mercies, Lonesome Dove, Geronimo: An American Legend, Broken Trail, Open Range]

His position on this list comes from what Duvall refers to as his Trail Boss Trilogy (Lonesome Dove, Broken Trail, Open Range).  In all of them he plays a trail boss moving his herd somewhere against considerable obstacles.  These three are of surprisingly high quality, despite the fact that two of them were not movies but were made-for-television miniseries.  Like Wayne, Eastwood and Stewart, Duvall has benefited from working with unusually capable directors of westerns, John Sturges, Simon Wincer, Walter Hill and Kevin Costner among them.  His Augustus McCrae (Lonesome Dove) is one of the most indelible characters in the history of westerns.

At an age similar to Eastwood’s, his career also took place largely during a period when not many westerns were made.  His Best Actor Oscar comes from a modern western of sorts; he played country singer Mac Sledge in Tender Mercies (1983).  If you like him in more traditional westerns, give Tender Mercies a try.  He is one of the pre-eminent movie actors of his time generally, not just in westerns.  Unlike the others this high on the list, he has seldom played a conventional romantic lead.

To continue the list of top stars in westerns, see Shooting Stars, Part 2 and Shooting Stars, Part 3.

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European Women in Westerns

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 14, 2015

European Women in Westerns

In the days of silent movies, it was common to see European actors playing American (or any other) parts, because moviegoers obviously couldn’t hear the accents.  Silent movies transplanted well from country to country, with film kind of a universal language.  With the coming of sound, however, an actor’s accent usually had to be explained.  As a land of immigrants, there were always people with foreign origins on the American frontier, although those immigrants were not often the leads in westerns as Mads Mikkelsen is in the recent Danish western The Salvation.  As one of the most American of film genres, Americans felt proprietary about these stories in particular, and they had to appeal to American audiences first, at least until the coming of spaghetti westerns, when most voices were dubbed.


Lili Damita (a French actress married consecutively to Errol Flynn and to director Michael Curtiz) and Gary Cooper in Fighting Caravans; and Sophia Loren, Italian, in her only western, Heller in Pink Tights, about a troupe of actors in the west.

With the popularity of Italian actresses Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida (among others) in the 1950s, and with Americans becoming more aware of foreign cinema during that period, there began to be increasing interest in Hollywood in using exotic actresses in westerns, too.  Although there had been a few showing up since the early days of sound (see Lily Damita in 1931’s Fighting Caravans, for example), it was usually thought to be necessary to have some explanation of the accent.  Sometimes that was dealt with by having the actress speak a rudimentary version of English, and not very much of it, because she was an Indian; see Elsa Martinelli as Red Cloud’s daughter in The Indian Fighter, for example.  More often, they were said to be Mexican (Claudia Cardinale in The Professionals, Luciana Paluzzi in Chuka) or were encountered in Mexico (Denise Darcel in Vera Cruz, Senta Berger in Major Dundee).  Sometimes the character was said to have originated in Louisiana with Creole roots, where French was still spoken (Hedy Lamarr in Copper Canyon, Capucine in North to Alaska, Claudia Cardinale in Once Upon a Time in the West).  Most inventively, the actress may have had no lines of dialogue at all because her character’s tongue had been cut out by Indians (Eva Green in The Salvation).  And sometimes no reason at all was given for the character’s accent, as with Bibi Andersson in Duel at Diablo.  The peak of this fashion of using European actresses appears to have been in the second half of the 1960s, from 1965 to 1970.

There are probably other actresses of European origin who don’t appear on this list.  Please leave a comment if you know of one such.  As a general matter, this list does not include English or Irish actresses, such as Maureen O’Hara, who appeared in several westerns, usually playing a character of American origins (Buffalo Bill, Rio Grande, War Arrow, The Deadly Companions, McLintock!) rather than English or Irish (The Rare Breed), Maureen O’Sullivan (The Tall T) or Jean Simmons (The Big Country, Rough Night in Jericho).  Nor does it generally include actresses in spaghetti westerns, whose voices were almost always dubbed along with those of most actors.

For more information on women in westerns generally, see the posts on Women in Westerns and Great Women’s Performances in Westerns.


Denise Darcel and Robert Taylor in Westward the Women; and Capucine and John Wayne in North to Alaska.

Lily Damita [French] in Fighting Caravans (1931, with Gary Cooper)

Hedy Lamarr [Austrian] in Copper Canyon (1950, with Ray Milland)

Denise Darcel [French] in Westward the Women (1951, with Robert Taylor)

Denise Darcel [French] in Vera Cruz (1954, with Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster)

Sara Montiel [Spanish] as Sarita Montiel in Vera Cruz (1954, with Gary Cooper)

Corinne Calvet [French] in The Far Country (1954, with James Stewart) and Apache Uprising (1965, with Rory Calhoun)

Anna Maria Alberghetti [Italian] in The Last Command (1955, with Sterling Hayden at the Alamo)

Elsa Martinelli [Italian] in The Indian Fighter (1955, with Kirk Douglas)

Ursula Thiess [German] in Bandido (1956, with Robert Mitchum)

Anna Maria Alberghetti [Italian] in Duel at Apache Wells (1957)

Anita Ekberg [Swedish] in Valerie (1957, with Sterling Hayden)

Valerie (film) poster.jpgThe Hanging Tree (1959)

Sara Montiel [Spanish] as Sarita Montiel in Run of the Arrow (1957, with Rod Steiger)

Gia Scala [Italian] in Ride a Crooked Trail (1958, with Audie Murphy)

Nicole Maurey [French] in The Jayhawkers (1959, with Fess Parker and Jeff Chandler)

Maria Schell [Austrian] in The Hanging Tree (1959, with Gary Cooper) and Cimmaron (1960, with Glenn Ford)

Audrey Hepburn [Dutch-English] in The Unforgiven (1960, with Burt Lancaster and Audie Murphy)

Capucine [French] in North to Alaska (1960, with John Wayne and Stewart Granger)

Sophia Loren [Italian] in Heller in Pink Tights (1960, with Anthony Quinn)

Anita Ekberg (Swedish) and Ursula Andress (Swiss) in 4 for Texas (1963, with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin)

Elke Sommer [German] in Frontier Hellcat (1964, with Stewart Granger)

Senta Berger [Austrian] in The Glory Guys (1965, with Tom Tryon)

Senta Berger [Austrian] in Major Dundee (1965, with Charlton Heston)


Senta Berger enjoys the river in Major Dundee; and Bridget Bardot, unlike Berger, is overdressed in Shalako.

Bridget Bardot [French] and Jeanne Moreau [French] in Viva Maria (1965)  Not really a western, it takes place in Central America in the era of early 20th century revolutions, like The Wrath of God.

Claudia Cardinale [Italian] in The Professionals (1966, with Lee Marvin and Burt Lancaster)

Bibi Andersson [Swedish] in Duel at Diablo (1966, with James Garner)

Luciana Paluzzi [Italian] in Chuka (1967, with Rod Taylor)

Bridget Bardot [French] in Shalako (1968, with Sean Connery)

Elsa Martinelli [Italian] in Il Mio Corpo Per un Poker (1968, as Belle Starr)

Camilla Sparv [Swedish] in McKenna’s Gold (1969, with Gregory Peck and Omar Sharif)

Claudia Cardinale [Italian] in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968, with Charles Bronson and Jason Robards)

Jeanne Moreau [French] in Monte Walsh (1970, with Lee Marvin)

Giovanna Ralli (Italian) in Cannon for Cordoba (1970, with George Peppard)

Gina Lollobrigida [Italian] in Bad Man’s River (1971, with Lee Van Cleef)

Ursula Andress (Swiss) and Capucine (French) in Red Sun (1972, with Charles Bronson, Toshiro Mifune and Alain Delon)

Liv Ullman [Swedish] in The Emigrants (1971, with Max von Sydow). More a Midwestern than a western; a tale of emigration from Sweden.

Liv Ullman [Swedish] in Zandy’s Bride (1974, with Gene Hackman)

Catherine Spaak [French] in Take a Hard Ride (1975, with Jim Brown and Fred Williamson)

Isabella Rossellini [Swedish-Italian] in Monte Walsh (Made for television, 2003, with Tom Selleck)

Penelope Cruz [Spanish] in Bandidas (2006, with Salma Hayek)

Eva Green [French] in The Salvation (2014, with Mads Mikkelsen)


Claudia Cardinale being Mexican in The Professionals; and Camilla Sparv messing around behind the scenes in McKenna’s Gold.
European Women Directors of Westerns

Lina Wertmuller [German], co director of Il Mio Corpo Per un Poker (1968)





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Musical Westerns

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 19, 2015

Big Budget Musical Westerns


Or are they western musicals?  The two movie genres of musicals and westerns make for an uneasy mix (see, for example, the ballet sequence in Oklahoma!), but it has been done several times.  It appears to have been most successful in the early 1950s, when Howard Keel was the king of the mixture, partnering with Betty Hutton (Annie Get Your Gun), Doris Day (Calamity Jane) and Jane Powell (Seven Brides for Seven Brothers).  Some of the biggest names in the American musical theater, such as Rodgers and Hammerstein and Lerner and Leowe, tried their hand at these.  Finally, as big musicals were fading from cinematic favor in the late 1960s, one of the last of them was Paint Your Wagon.  For hard-core fans of westerns, these are not usually the sort of thing they like, even if they do star Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin.

Some westerns have a significant musical number, usually provided by a dance hall performer, like “See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have” sung by Marlene Dietrich in Destry Rides Again (1939) or “Some Sunday Morning” sung by Alexis Smith in San Antonio (1945).  But they don’t have enough of them to qualify as musicals.  Howard Hawks liked to throw in an occasional musical number as an indication of male bonding, as he did with the duet featuring Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson in Rio Bravo.  But musicals weren’t really his genre, although he had an unusually wide range as a director.


Marlene Dietrich as Frenchy in Destry Rides Again: “See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have.”


Alexis Smith as Jeanne Star in San Antonio: “Some Sunday Morning.”

Girl of the Golden West (1938).  Nelson Eddy is an improbable Mexican bandit and Jeannette Macdonald his romantic interest in old California.

Go West, Young Lady (1941).  This comedy/musical follows the new sheriff (Glenn Ford) in Headstone, as he romances the niece (Penny Singleton) of the owner of the Crystal Palace saloon.  Ann Miller sings and dances as the principal entertainer at the saloon.  And Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys show up as well.  Some of the songs are by Sammy Cahn and Saul Chaplin.

Belle of the Yukon (1944).  Set in the gold-rush Yukon in northwestern Canada at the turn of the last century, most of the music is provided by a young and dark-haired Dinah Shore as a dance hall entertainer.  The main action is provided by stars Randolph Scott and Gypsy Rose Lee.

The Harvey Girls (1946).  Not much of a western, but it is set in the southwest as the railroads extended into that part of the country.  And what list of musicals would be complete without Judy Garland somewhere on it?

Two Guys from Texas (1948).  Two vaudevillians (Dennis Morgan and Jack Carson) on the run from crooks try to pass themselves off as cowboys.  With Dorothy Malone.

Annie Get Your Gun (1950). Judy Garland was originally slated to star in this, but her star was just beginning to fade at MGM and the role of Annie Oakley went to Betty Hutton in the film.  She and Howard Keel as Frank Butler cavort their way through Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show.


Calamity Jane:  Which is the real one?

Calamity Jane (1953).  In appearance, it would be hard to get farther from the actual Martha Jane Canary of Deadwood, Dakota Territory, than Doris Day.  And Howard Keel doesn’t look or act much like Wild Bill Hickok, either, but in 1953 you couldn’t make a musical movie based in the west without him.

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954).  Set in Oregon in 1850, this is one of the biggest hits of Howard Keel’s career, as he plays Adam, the oldest of the seven brothers, who marries Jane Powell and inspires his six brothers to abduct their own intended brides.

Oklahoma! (1955).  One of the first of the string of successful Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals on Broadway, this took its time making it to film with Gordon McCrae and Shirley Jones.

Paint Your Wagon (1969).  Set in gold rush northern California of 1850, Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood demonstrate that while they rank among the best actors in westerns, they’re not entirely comfortable in a musical, especially when they have to sing.



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Current Westerns

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 26, 2015

Westerns Current and In Production (2014-2022)

It will be no news to fans of western movies that not many of them are made by the big studios these days.  Such big-budget mainstream westerns last enjoyed a minor vogue in the first half of the 1990s, when Dances With Wolves and Unforgiven won Best Picture Oscars.  But the occasional such western continues to be made, and we look forward with hope when we hear about a new western in production with major talent.  Those listed below were released, or at least seen at film festivals, in 2014, or are currently in production and scheduled for release in 2015 or 2016.  Of course, statistically speaking only one or two of these are likely to be any good, but until we see them we can hope they all will be. This list is probably incomplete, and we’ll update it from time to time as we hear of others; if you know of another such major western production not included, leave a comment.  In due course, each of these will probably have its own post, unless it turns out to be terrible—and maybe there’ll be a post for it even then.

Having said all that, a recent publication referred to 2016’s Outlaws and Angels as part of a “wave of revivalist Westerns including The Hateful Eight, Bone Tomahawk and The Revenant that demonstrate how the Western, like all genres, really works as a way of reflecting the times in which it is made.”  So something larger may be happening, too.


A Million Ways to Die in the West (released in May 2014; DVD out in October 2014).  Seth MacFarlane writes, directs and stars in this coarse and bawdy western comedy, with Neil Patrick Harris, Charlize Theron, Amanda Seyfried, Liam Neeson, Sarah Silverman, and Giovanni Ribisi.  It did not get good reviews generally.

The Keeping Room (September 2014).  As the Civil War winds to an end, three southern women (Brit Marling, Hailee Steinfeld and Muna Otaru) take up arms to defend themselves against two deserters (Sam Worthington and Kyle Soller) from the fast-approaching Union army in this feminist empowerment quasi-western.  Daniel Barber directed, and Julia Hart wrote the screenplay.

The Homesman (released in November 2014; with the DVD out in February 2015).  Directed by and starring Tommy Lee Jones, with Hilary Swank in the other key role.  Based on a novel by Glendon Swarthout (The Shootist, They Came to Cordura), it met with a mixed critical reception and played only in art cinema houses, so it was not much seen.  The story of a woman (Swank) taking several mentally deranged women east from Nebraska to receive care, she is accompanied by a seedy ne’er-do-well (Jones) and a relationship of sorts develops in the course of their adventures.

The Salvation (seen at film festivals in 2014, including Cannes; slated for release in the U.S. in theaters and video-on-demand in late Feb. 2015).  Mads Mikkelsen and Eva Green star in this Danish production about a former Danish soldier in the American west who seeks revenge for the murders of his family.


Echoes of War (said to be in theaters in May 2015).  A former Confederate soldier (James Badge Dale, one of the brighter spots in the recent The Lone Ranger) returns home to Texas after the Civil War to find that all is not right there.  He becomes involved in a conflict with a brutal neighboring cattle rancher (William Forsythe) who has been harassing his family in his absence.  Described as “a western-thriller,” directed and co-written by Australian Kane Senes.

Slow West (screened at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2015 and released in May 2015).  Kodi Smit-McPhee stars as a 16-year-old Scottish boy who befriends a mysterious bounty hunter (Michael Fassbender) on the Colorado frontier of 1870 while in search of the woman he loves (Caren Pistorius).  A coming-of-age and coming-of-death story filmed in New Zealand.


Kurt Russell in costume (and whiskers) for Bone Tomahawk.

Bone Tomahawk (released in theaters and video-on-demand in October 2015).  In this western with supernatural/thriller overtones, Kurt Russell stars as a sheriff leading a small band to rescue captives from cannibalistic cave dwellers.  Also starring Richard Jenkins, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox, David Arquette, Lili Simmons and Sean Young.

Jane Got a Gun (looking for a distributor in mid-2015; originally set for release in September 2015, now looks like it will be out in Jan. 2016 from The Weinstein Company.  Available on DVD and VOD in late April 2016).  Natalie Portman tries to get a former lover (Joel Edgerton) to help her in rescuing her husband (Noah Emmerich) from the Bishop Boys, outlaws led by Ewan McGregor.  After a sometimes-troubled production, the film (directed by Gavin O’Connor) is now finished.


The Revenant (filming in early 2015 near Calgary, Alberta; currently scheduled for general release in January 2016.  Available on DVD and VOD in April 2016.)  Leonardo Di Caprio stars as mountain man Hugh Glass, mauled by a grizzly bear and left for dead by his companions in 1823.  Glass struggled alone more than 200 miles back to civilization in that condition, to find the men who had abandoned him.  With Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson and Will Poulter; by Mexican director Alejandro G. Iñárritu, who did (and won the Best Director and Best Picture Oscars for) Birdman in 2014.  Based on a novel by Michael Punke.


Director Alejandro Inarritu, at work on The Revenant.

The Ridiculous 6 (Netflix -produced western comedy, to be released on Netflix in Dec. 2015).  This Adam Sandler-penned work is said to be a satire on westerns generally and on The Magnificent Seven in particular.  In addition to Sandler, it stars Will Forte, Taylor Lautner, Steve Buscemi, Danny Trejo, Terry Crews, Luke Wilson, Nick Nolte, Rob Schneider and Jorge Garcia.  Western comedies in general are hard to pull off well, and Sandler’s recent cinematic work does not inspire confidence.

The Hateful Eight (released in December 2015; available on DVD and VOD in April 2016).  Quentin Tarantino directs Kurt Russell and Samuel L. Jackson in this hard, gritty tale about eight individuals, including bounty hunter Russell and a murderous female captive being brought to justice, all trapped together during a Wyoming blizzard.  The eight also include Tim Roth, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bruce Dern, Walton Goggins and Michael Madsen.  Available in some locations in a 70 mm. version, it’s almost three hours long.


Quentin Tarantino directs Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Tim Roth in The Hateful Eight.

Diablo (released in theaters and VOD in Jan. 2016).  In this first western for Scott Eastwood (son of legendary western star Clint), he is a Civil War veteran in 1872 Colorado Territory, tracking Mexicans who have abducted his wife.  Walton Goggins, Danny Glover and Adam Beach co-star.  Rated R for violence.

Forsaken (released in Feb. 2016, in theaters and VOD).  Actors Kiefer and Donald Sutherland star in this story of a reforming gunslinger trying to remake a relationship with his preacher father.  In 1872, Civil War veteran and gunslinger John Henry Clayton (Kiefer Sutherland) returns to his Wyoming hometown to patch things up.  But a local gang led by Brian Cox won’t quit pushing the father and son.  Demi Moore plays a former romantic interest, now married.  Directed by Jon Cassar, best known for his work on Kiefer Sutherland’s television series 24.  Rated R for violence and Brian Cox’s mouth.


Real-life father and son Sutherlands play father and son in Forsaken.

The Duel (in theaters and VOD in late June 2016).  Woody Harrelson, Liam Hemsworth and Alice Braga star in this R-rated tale of a Texas ranger (Hemsworth) investigating a series of unexplained deaths in the town of Helena, and the secrets of the town’s leader (Harrelson).   Directed by Australian Kieran Darcy-Smith.

Outlaws and Angels (shown at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival; scheduled for release in July 2016).  Another Eastwood offspring in the family business (see Diablo).  “A western-thriller hybrid starring Chad Michael Murray, Teri Polo, Luke Wilson and Francesca Eastwood.  For the Tilden family, a home invasion turns into an even more dangerous game.  J T Mollner wrote and directed.”  (NY Times)

In a Valley of Violence (scheduled for release in 2016).  Ti West wrote and directed this revenge western set in the 1890s, with John Travolta, Ethan Hawke and Taissa Formiga.


The Magnificent Seven (scheduled for release in Sept. 2016).  Antoine Fuqua directs this remake of the 1960 classic with a more racially diverse cast for the seven, still defending a town against dozens of bandits.  With a cast headed now by Denzel Washington in the Yul Brynner role, with Chris Pratt and Ethan Hawke among those joining him, this is now in production.  This big-budget version, with a director known for action movies, is nevertheless a considerable risk.

Brimstone (shown at Venice Film Festival and Toronto International Film Festival in 2016; still looking for a U.S. distributor in Sept. 2016; finally released in March 2017).  Kit Harington, Dakota Fanning and Guy Pearce in a dark story of revenge with horror overtones.  Martin Koolhoven directs from his own screenplay.

Far Bright Star (pre-production announced in Nov. 2015).  Casey Affleck directs brother-in-law Joaquin Phoenix in this tale of an aging cavalrymen leading green troopers in the fruitless 1916 pursuit of Pancho Villa across northern Mexico.  Based on a novel by Robert Olmstead.  (Echoes of They Came to Cordura.)

Z (production to begin in fall 2016 at Pinewood Dominican Republic Studios).  Director-writer Jonas Cuaron heads this remake of the Zorro story set in the near future, to star Gael Garcia Bernal.

The Legend of Ben Hall (2016).  Australian bushrangers, fighting the authorities and betrayal from within.


Wind River (August 2017).  A modern western set in western Wyoming’s mountainous Shoshone-Arapaho reservation.  A young Arapaho woman is found murdered, and a tracker-hunter (Jeremy Renner) who has also lost a daughter is drawn into the investigation with an inexperienced female FBI agent (Elizabeth Olson).  It has a good feel for western wilderness and the interfaces of white-Indian cultures, along with some excellent performances by Indian actors, including Graham Greene and Gil Birmingham.


Hostiles (December 2017)  Christian Bale and Rosamund Pike star in this slow-moving revival of the cavalry western subgenre.  Bale is a cavalry captain taking Cheyenne chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) to Montana in 1892.  On the way, they pick up Pike, whose family has just been slaughtered by Comanches.  Director Scott Cooper is being touted by the studio for a Best Director Oscar nomination, but that seems doubtful.  The San Francisco Chronicle’s Mick LaSalle observed that “Apparently being home on the range, in those days, amounted to long, long stretches of nothing happening, interspersed with brief spasms of violence and horror.”

The Ballad of Lefty Brown (December 2017)  The Lefty Brown of the title is an old cowboy played by Bill Pullman, who seeks justice for the murder of his old partner (Peter Fonda), with the help of a young would-be gunslinger and an aging, alcoholic U.S. marshal.  Directed by Jared Moshe.

Damsel (June 2018)  This western comedy is set in the west of 1870, starring Robert Pattinson and Mia Wasikowska.  Samuel Alabaster, an affluent pioneer, ventures across the American frontier to marry the love of his life, Penelope.  As his group traverses the west, the once-simple journey grows treacherous, blurring the lines between hero, villain and damsel.  Directed by David Zellner and Nathan Zellner.

Damsel PosterWoman Walks Poster

Woman Walks Ahead (June 2018)  Widowed Catherine Weldon (Jessica Chastain), a portrait painter from 1890s Brooklyn, travels to Dakota to paint a portrait of Sitting Bull and becomes embroiled in the Lakota peoples’ struggle over the rights to their land.  Based on the true story of Catherine Weldon.  A socially-conscious attempt to revise traditional thinking about both Indians and women, directed by a woman (Susanna White).  Also starring Michael Greyeyes and Sam Rockwell.

The Sisters Brothers (Fall 2018)  Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly star as the brothers Eli and Charlie, assassins in 1851 Oregon on the trail of a prospector (Jake Gyllenhall) who has stolen from their boss.  Based on the darkly comic novel of the same name by Patrick DeWitt and directed and co-written by Jacques Audiard.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (November 2018)  Written and directed by the Coen brothers (see the True Grit remake), this is an episodic collection of six tales set in the old West, with common themes.  Among the cast members are Liam Neeson, James Franco and Tim Blake Nelson.  Released Nov. 9, and available for streaming on Netflix a week later.


The Kid (First half of 2019)  The title seems to refer to two people:  New Mexico outlaw Billy (Dane DeHaan) and a boy who witnesses his fatal encounter with Sheriff Pat Garrett (Ethan Hawke).  Billy, like Jesse James, never seems to go completely out of style.  The cast includes Vincent D’Onofrio, who also directs, and Chris Pratt.

True History of the Kelly Gang (2019)  George Mackay stars as Ned Kelly in the latest version of the Australian bushranger’s story, along with Charlie Hunnam, Nicholas Hoult and Russell Crowe.  Based on a novel by Peter Carey and directed by Justin Kurzel.  “This is an edgy, bleak and fantastical account of Ned Kelly’s life. The film is not a rote adaptation of the novel by Booker Prize winner Peter Carey.”  “There’s a lot of intensity without substance.”

Image result for true history of the kelly gang review

Hell on the Border (in theaters and VOD, December 2019)  Based on the exploits of Bass Reeves, a black deputy U.S. marshal in Indian Territory (later Oklahoma), with David Gyasi as Reeves.  Also starring Ron Perlman, Frank Grillo and Zahn McClarnon.  Written and directed by Wes Miller.

HellBorderPosterNews of the World (film) - Wikipedia

News of the World (December 2020)  Tom Hanks stars with Helena Zengel in this adaptation of a best seller by Paulette Jiles, about an intinerant news reader and his rescue of a young girl in Texas who had been a captive of the Kiowas.  Directed by Paul Greengrass.

The Harder They Fall (Netflix, November 2021; also the title of a 1956 Bogart film).  Idris Elba stars as Rufus Buck in this heavily-romanticized recasting of the multi-racial gang’s exploits as a black power revenge narrative.  The film gathers a variety of historical black characters from the west (Stagecoach Mary, Jim Beckwourth, Bill Pickett, Bass Reeves et al.) who never actually met for Buck to fight the supposed rival gang of Nat Love.  Also starring Zazie Beetz, Jonathan Majors, Regina King and Delroy Lindo.  Directed by Jeymes Samuel.

the harder they fall netflix western movie

Poster featuring a man holding a gun and the tagline: "You can't bury the past."

Old Henry (October 2021) “An action western about a widowed farmer and his son, who warily take in a mysterious injured man with a satchel of cash.  When a posse of men claiming to be the law come for the money, the farmer must decide who to trust. Defending a siege of his homestead, the farmer reveals a talent for gun-slinging that surprises everyone calling his true identity into question.”  Directed by Potsy Ponciroli, with Tim Blake Nelson, Stephen Dorff, Trace Adkins.

Bounty hunter Christoph Waltz in Dead for a Dollar.

Dead for a Dollar (in post-production, late 2021; scheduled for theatrical release in late September 2022)  The attraction here is the director (Walter Hill) and the cast (Willem Dafoe, Christoph Walz, Hamish Linklater, Rachel Brosnahan).  Director Hill co-wrote this bounty hunter story and is one of the greatest living directors of westerns.  In late October 2021, he was looking for a distributor for this.  The plot is reminiscent of The Professionals, with bounty hunter Christoph Waltz heading south of the border for an improbable rescue, only to encounter elements of his past, including gambler/outlaw Willem Dafoe.

The Power of the Dog (released in late 2021)  This takes place in the Montana of 1925, so it is a western kind of like A River Runs Through It, except that it deals not with fly fishermen but with a ranching family, the Burbanks.  Directed by Oscar-winning New Zealander Jane Campion, and starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst and Kodi Smit-McPhee (previously seen in Slow West), it is a family saga full of conflict and themes redolent of Brokeback Mountain.  In early 2022 it is getting heavy award-season push; Benedict Cumberbatch was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of “toxic masculinity,” as one reviewer put it.  Images from the movie are dominated by Cumberbatch’s peculiar beat-up hat.  In fact, the movie received twelve Oscar nominations, the most of any film, including Best Picture and Best Direction for Campion, along with three Supporting Actor nominations for Dunst, Jesse Plemons and Kodi-Smith.  Available on Netflix and in theaters.  Rated R for nudity and brief sexual content.  Adapted from a 1967 novel by Thomas Savage.

The Power of the Dog | Art House Cinema - Downtown Billings Alliance

Butcher’s Crossing (premiere at Toronto Film Festival, Sept. 2022)  A bleak frontier epic about an Ivy League drop-out (Fred Hechinger) as he travels to the Colorado wilderness, where he joins a team of buffalo hunters on a journey that puts his life and sanity at risk.  Sometimes described as an “anti-western”, whatever that means (usually transplanting modern attitudes back to a time they didn’t really belong).  Based on the highly acclaimed novel by John Williams.  Directed by Gabe Polsky, starring Nicolas Cage and Rachel Keller.  Rated R for language, some violence/bloody images and brief sexual content.

'Butcher's Crossing' Film Review: Nicolas Cage in a Bleak Western

The Old Way (Jan. 2023)  Former gunfighter Colton Briggs (Nicolas Cage) must deal with elements of his past and reverts to his former skills as he seeks revenge for the killing of his wife.  Along the way, he teaches his 12-year-old daughter (Ryan Keira Armstrong) about the old ways.  Also starring Clint Howard and Noah LeGros.  Rated R for violence.


Nicolas Cage and daughter Ryan Keira Armstrong seek revenge.

Two Sinners and a Mule (April 2023)  Two ladies of pleasure (Chantelle Albers and Hannah James), kicked out of a Nevada town, run across a bounty hunter (Cam Gigandet) shot to hell. After nursing him back to health, the ladies decide he needs their help to track down Gila Grimes, a ruthless, murdering bandit, for half of the bounty.  Directed by Raliegh Wilson.  Rated R for violence, sexual assault and other sexual material.

Watch Two Sinners and a Mule (2023) Full Movie Online - Plex

Apacheria (In development, 2018)  Based on Paul Andrew Hutton’s history The Apache Wars.  Starring Charlie Hunnam as a mixed-race warrior.

Empire of the Summer Moon (In development, 2018)  Based on S.G. Gwynne’s history of the late Comanche period, the film is said to focus on Kwahadi Comanche band chief Quanah Parker.  Derek Cianfrance co-wrote and directs.


Writer-director Thadd Turner is clearly at home with westerns, having portrayed Wyatt Earp in the documentary series Cowboys and Outlaws for the History Channel.

Palominas (supposedly scheduled for release in February 2017).  Wes Studi, Ryan Merriman and Michael Parks star in writer-director Thadd Turner’s story of a rancher and a down-trodden sheriff confronting outlaws on the Mexican border at the end of the 19th century.

The Hard Ride (said to be “in development” for a potential release in late 2017).  Like Palominas, this is also written and directed by Thadd Turner.  It is said to involve action around a “legendary gunfighter” and his friends in Deadwood in 1876.  Stars include Ryan Merriman and Buck Taylor.  At one time Val Kilmer (as Bill Hickok) and Elizabeth Shue were attached to the project, but apparently no longer.


















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Colonial Westerns

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 22, 2015

Colonial Westerns

It’s a stretch to call these “westerns” in the usual sense, since geographically they mostly take place somewhere east of the Mississippi—or even in eastern Canada and Paraguay (South America) in the case of Black Robe and The Mission.  They take place earlier than 1800.  But they are all stories set on the frontiers of their times, involving contact with often-hostile Indians and the hardships of life on the frontier, in a largely untamed natural setting.  They take place in the “west” of their times, on the frontier where white settlers are few and the interface with Indians is critical to their survival.  To sum up, then, these all (1) take place during the colonial era of their respective nations’ history (before 1800, in the case of the U.S.); (2) are set on the frontier of their respective colonies at the time, usually a western frontier; and (3) almost invariably involve Indians, usually as the primary antagonists.


Last of the Mohicans (1920 and 1936)  A story based in upstate New York during the French and Indian War, around the British surrender of Fort William Henry in 1757 to the French and its aftermath.  Based on the famous 1826 novel by James Fenimore Cooper.

Drums Along the Mohawk (1939)  Takes place in upstate New York during the American Revolution (specifically, the Battle of Oriskany), showing the effects of Indian warfare on the settlers, including Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert.  Based on the 1936 bestseller by Walter Edmonds, directed by John Ford.

Allegheny Uprising (1939)  A story set in Pennsylvania, based on the uprising of James Smith (John Wayne) and his Black Boys in 1760.  They fight the British authorities more than they do Indians.

Northwest Passage (1940)  Set in the French and Indian War, this is mostly the story of Roberts’ Rangers (led by Spencer Tracy) and their raid on the Abenaki settlement of St. Francis in what is now eastern Canada.  Based on the 1936 bestseller by Kenneth Roberts.

Unconquered (1947)  Indian warfare in the area of Fort Pitt (Pittsburgh) in western Pennsylvania in 1763, with Gary Cooper and Paulette Goddard fighting Guyasuta’s Iroquois.  Based on Niel Swanson’s novel The Judas Tree.

Last of the Redmen (1947)  First color version of Last of the Mohicans, with Jon Hall as Major Duncan Heyward and Michael O’Shea as a chatty, Irish-accented Hawkeye.  Buster Crabbe is the villainous Magua.

Rachel and the Stranger (1948)  Takes place at an unspecified time either before or after the Revolution (probably after) in an unspecified Kentucky-Ohio frontier area; mostly a domestic melodrama but also with some fighting of Shawnees.

When the Redskins Rode (1951)  Jon Hall plays Delaware Prince Hannoc in 1753 colonial Virginia, mixing with Col. George Washington, Christopher Gist and French spies.

Battles of Chief Pontiac (1952)  Lex Barker leads the fight against the legendary Ottawa chief.

Many Rivers to Cross (1955)  On the Kentucky-Ohio frontier after the Revolution, with fur hunter Robert Taylor and liberated Eleanor Parker fighting Shawnees and each other.  Based on, but more comic in tone than, a novel by Steve Frazee.

The Last Tomahawk (1965)  German version of Last of the Mohicans.

Guns for San Sebastian (1967)  A Franco-Mexican production set in northern Mexico of 1746.  Murderer, thief and deserter Anthony Quinn impersonates a priest and defends the village of San Sebastian against hostile Yaquis and Charles Bronson.

The Mission (1986)  Written by English playwright Robert Bolt, this is the story of Spanish Jesuits in South America trying to prevent a remote Indian tribe in Paraguay from falling under the rule of pro-slavery Portugal.  With Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons.

Black Robe (1991)  The story of a young Jesuit priest on a mission among the Hurons of eastern Canada in the early colonial period of the 1600s.  Based on a novel by Brian Moore.  Not a peaceful tale, although the principal white character is a priest.

Last of the Mohicans (1992)  An updated version of James Fenimore Cooper’s venerable 1826 tale of the French and Indian War, told this time with modern cinematic tools, standards and actors, including Daniel Day Lewis and Madeleine Stowe.

1492:  Conquest of Paradise (1992)  Director Ridley Scott’s version of the earliest of colonial stories, that of Christopher Columbus (Gerard Depardieu).  Also starring Armand Assante, with Sigourney Weaver as Queen Isabelle of Spain.

The New World (2005)  Terence Malick’s story of the settlement of Jamestown in the early 1600s by the English, and their relations with the Powhatan Indians of Virginia, including Pocahontas.  Stars Colin Farrell as Capt. John Smith and Christian Bale as John Rolfe.  Well-received by reviewers and cineastes, but slow going for regular audiences.


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Wagon Train Westerns

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 26, 2014

Wagon Train Westerns


Since the classic silent epic The Covered Wagon in 1923, some western stories have been based in the American movement westward that began in earnest on the Oregon Trail in the 1840s.  With the fading of the fur trade, some mountain men became scouts for wagon trains (Kit Carson, The Way West).  Groups like the Mormons (Brigham Young, Bad Bascomb, Wagon Master) had their own epics of western movement during the wagon train era.  Indeed, director James Cruze of The Covered Wagon, was the son of such Mormon emigrants.

At their peak in the 1940s, wagon train westerns were, like technological westerns, another way to express the nation’s progress toward its triumphant Manifest Destiny, although sometimes the wagon train was in reverse (Virginia City, The Outriders).  The biggest names among directors of westerns have done wagon train westerns (John Ford, Anthony Mann, Howard Hawks, Raoul Walsh et al.).  Although it featured less star power in its cast than most Ford westerns, Ford’s own favorite among his movies was said to be 1950’s Wagon Master.  Most of the biggest stars in westerns did a wagon train at one time or another:  see a very young John Wayne in The Big Trail (1930), a young and skinny Gary Cooper in Fighting Caravans (1931), James Stewart in Bend of the River (1952), and Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum and Richard Widmark in The Way West (1967), for example.


As the glow of Manifest Destiny faded during the Vietnam era, there were consequences for the western as well as for movies generally.  Although there were efforts to recast westerns in revisionist ways during the 1970s, their popularity as a genre was fading.  One casualty was the cavalry western, which waned with the decreasing popularity of the military in society, especially among the young.  Another was the wagon train western, as Americans rethought Manifest Destiny generally and the treatment of the Indians specifically.

The list below includes the most prominent westerns that feature wagon trains, although some of them (such as Red River and Silverado) may have wagon train sequences and not be primarily wagon train westerns. (Red River, for example, is primarily a cattle drive western.)  The best movies among them are indicated with an asterisk (*).  Any proposals for additions to the list are welcome.


Filming The Covered Wagon in Utah,1923.

*The Covered Wagon (1923; Dir: James Cruze).  In the year of The Covered Wagon‘s release, only fifty westerns were made.  The next year, there were three times as many.

*The Big Trail—John Wayne (1930; Dir: Raoul Walsh).  An epic experiment in 70 mm. that was supposed to be young John Wayne’s breakthrough as a star.  He had to wait for Stagecoach, almost ten years later.

Fighting Caravans—Gary Cooper (1931).  Cooper stars as a wagon train scout in a Zane Grey story, leading a wagon train from Independence, Missouri, to Sacramento.  They seem strangely to be hounded by Kiowas most of the way across, although Kiowas were generally far to the south of their trail west.

Wagon Wheels–Randolph Scott (1934).  A low-budget remake of Fighting Caravans with Randolph Scott in the Gary Cooper role, using extensive stock footage from the earlier film.

The Oregon Trail–John Wayne (1936)

3 Faces West—John Wayne (1940)

Wagon Train (1940)

*Virginia City—Errol Flynn, Randolph Scott, Humphrey Bogart (1940; Dir: Michael Curtiz).  Primarily a story of Union vs. Confederate partisans out west, with Flynn as the primary Union spy and Randolph Scott as the Confederate leader.

Kit Carson (1940).  John Hall as the legendary and highly fictionalized mountain man and pathfinder, leading a wagon train to California during the 1840s.

Brigham Young—Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell (1940; Dir: Henry Hathaway).  The young lovers from The Mark of Zorro are back as young Mormon lovers led by Dean Jagger in the title role.

Bad Bascomb—Wallace Beery (1946).  Outlaw Zeke Bascomb (Wallace Beery) hides out as a guide to a wagon train of Mormons, only to be brought to the good side by young child Margaret O’Brien and her grandmother Marjorie Main.

*Red River—John Wayne (1948; Dir: Howard Hawks).  John Wayne heads to Texas on a wagon train in 1851.  When he leaves the train and heads south, he loses his love to Comanches and never entirely recovers from that.


A Swedish Kit Carson, and a German Wagon Master.

*Wagon Master—Ward Bond, Joanne Dru (1950; Dir: John Ford).  Mormons led by Ward Bond get Ben Johnson and Harry Carey, Jr. to guide them through obstacles such as rough trails, raiding Indians, seductive medicine show women and an outlaw clan.

The Outriders—Joel McCrea (1950).  As the Civil War draws to an end, Confederate scout Joel McCrea helps a wagon train laden with secret gold make its way back up the Santa Fe Trail.

*Westward the Women—Robert Taylor (1951; Dir: William Wellman).  Robert Taylor is the wagon master taking a train full of women to California to find new lives and new husbands in this surprisingly good western.

Passage West–John Payne (1951; Dir:  Lewis R. Foster).  In 1863, six convicts led by John Payne escape from a Salt Lake prison and take over a wagon train headed to California across the desert.

*Bend of the River—James Stewart (1952; Dir: Anthony Mann). Former Missouri border ruffian James Stewart leads a wagon train to their Oregon destination against considerable odds.

Jubilee Trail–Vera Ralston, Joan Leslie, Forrest Tucker (1954; Dir:  Joseph Kane).  A trader and his New York bride encounter his former lover and illegitimate child on the trail westward to California.

Arrow in the Dust–Sterling Hayden (1954; Dir:  Lesley Selander).  Fake cavalry officer Sterling Hayden fights off Indians while trying to get a wagon train to Fort Laramie.

The Indian Fighter—Kirk Douglas (1955; Dir: Andre DeToth) Scout Kirk Douglas romances Indian maiden Elsa Martinelli and has his loyalties questioned.

The Last Wagon—Richard Widmark (1956; Dir: Delmer Daves).  Most of the wagon train has been wiped out by Indians, but luckily the few young survivors have Richard Widmark to get them through inhospitable terrain.

Westward Ho, the Wagons–Fess Parker (1956; Dir:  William Beaudine)

The Tall Stranger–Joel McCrea (1957; Dir:  Thomas Carr).  Returning from the Civil War to his brother’s valley in Colorado, Joel McCrea encounters a wagon train led by a land-grabber and rustler.  But on the good side, it has Virginia Mayo.

The Oregon Trail–Fred MacMurray (1959; Dir:  Gene Fowler, Jr.).  In 1846 reporter Fred MacMurray heads west with a wagon train, encountering Indians both hostile and friendly (Gloria Talbot).

Thunder in the Sun–Susan Hayward, Jeff Chandler (1959; Dir:  Russell Rouse).  A group of French Basque immigrants make their way across the country to California in 1850, with the guidance of old scout Jeff Chandler..

How the West Was Won (1962; Dir: Henry Hathaway et al.).  A large-scale epic with a little of everything, including wagon trains.

The Way West—Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum, Richard Widmark (1967; Dir: Andrew McLaglen).  A glossy Hollywood version of the A.B. Guthrie novel about the first wagon train headed west to Oregon’s Willamette Valley in 1843, featuring a mountain man character from his earlier novel The Big Sky.

Buck and the Preacher–Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte (1972; Dir:  Sidney Poitier).  A former slave and buffalo soldier, Sidney Poitier now guides wagon trains of blacks headed west.  But they have to fight off night riders and those who would head them back to the south.

*Silverado (1985; Dir: Lawrence Kasdan).  Most elements of traditional westerns, including a wagon train of emigrants, show up in this entertaining modern western.

Wagons East (1994).  Western comedy starring John Candy and Richard Lewis, with a wagon train heading back to civilization.

The Donner Party (2009).  A cinematic version of the story of the doomed emigrant party now remembered principally for cannibalism when it was snowbound in the Sierra Nevadas.

Meek’s Cutoff (2011).  A wagon train is misled in Oregon by a feckless mountain man-scout but rescued by strong-minded women (especially Michelle Williams) in this fact-based feminist drama.


Wagon Trains Featuring Women

Westward the Women (1951)
Meek’s Cutoff (2011)

Civil War Wagon Trains

Fighting Caravans (1931)
Virginia City (1940)
The Outriders (1950)


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