Glenn Ford as Ben Wade and Van Heflin as Dan Evans in 3:10 to Yuma
The two are inseparable, because it’s the tension between them and the opposite ideas they represent that make this movie work. In large part, that’s because neither of them is quite what he seems. Ford’s Wade claims to be an unrepentant outlaw, but he’s drawn to the decency he sees in Heflin’s Evans. Evans is decent, but by the end of the movie he has shown the development of a quiet heroism that no one else in the movie will step up to. And that makes a difference even to Wade. For other really good performances by these two, look for Ford in Cowboy, Jubal (both with excellent director Delmer Daves) and The Sheepman and Heflin in Shane.
Christian Bale as Dan Evans in 3:10 to Yuma
It’s somewhat the same story, but there are differences, especially in how things end. Russell Crowe is excellent as the captured outlaw leader Ben Wade, but the Dan Evans role as a desperate honest rancher is harder. How do you make quasi-ineffective decency attractive, both to the movie audience and convincingly to the other characters? Evans gradually becomes less ineffective and more heroic, to us, to Wade and to his own son. He doesn’t ask for their admiration, but by the end of the movie he has it.
Alan Ladd as Shane in Shane
Movie roles don’t come any more iconic than Shane, the mysterious gunfighter in the film with his name as its title. The entire movie revolves around him, as its title implies. As an actor, Ladd has some drawbacks to overcome: his small size works against him in a couple of fight scenes; his urban-seeming reserve nevertheless works to lend him some mystery as a western gunman; and he was not a natural either with guns or horses. Maybe some of his success in this role is due to brilliant direction by George Stevens, who was into an amazing string of movies at the time Shane was made. But when the film ends, it’s Ladd as Shane that we remember. He makes almost as big an impression on us as he does on young Brandon de Wilde in the movie. Ladd made a number of westerns during his career, although none of them are as strong as Shane. The next best is probably Branded; after that try The Badlanders, Red Mountain and Saskatchewan.
Bruce Dern as Asa Watts (Long Hair) in The Cowboys
The role of demented ex-con Asa Watts gave Bruce Dern the chance to both kill John Wayne and to chew the scenery in one of the best bad-guy performances ever in a western. He’s exactly what’s needed in this role—never quite convincing in his belated attempts at sincerity, and clearly psychotic as he takes on Wayne and his boys. In Dern’s long career as a supporting actor, this is one of the roles that defines him. For a similar role, see him as a villain fighting Charlton Heston in Will Penny. For a comedic variant on this role, see him as ne’er-do-well miscreant Joe Danby in Support Your Local Sheriff. He plays an outlaw who may be more sympathetic than any of the lawmen in the revisionist Posse. In a more sympathetic role late in his career, catch him as an aging lawman on a manhunt south of the border in the made-for-television Hard Ground.
Gary Cooper as Will Kane in High Noon
Cooper was too old for the part, and presumably for the young Grace Kelly as his romantic interest, when he played Will Kane. But his particular style of underplaying worked magnificently in this role, and it revitalized his career. Besieged on every side by a resentful deputy, by old relationships, by evasive townspeople, and most of all by the advancing hour with its approaching confrontation with evildoers, Kane takes the strain and steps up to do what a man’s got to do. This, Alan Ladd’s Shane and John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards are the iconic roles of the western in the 1950s. A westerner from Montana himself, Cooper always had both a good feel for playing western roles and a Gregory Peck-like way of projecting a basic decency. See him also in Man of the West, a later role for which he was also too old, The Hanging Tree, Vera Cruz and Garden of Evil. For a younger Gary Cooper, see him as Wild Bill Hickok in The Plainsman and as a friend of Judge Roy Bean in The Westerner. He’s even good as a quasi-comic singing cowboy in Along Came Jones, although he clearly can’t sing.
Yul Brynner as Chris Adams in The Magnificent Seven
One of the most memorable roles in Brynner’s long and varied career is as the enigmatic Chris Adams, the leader of the Seven. His accent is hard to place, and Brad Dexter refers to him, not entirely convincingly, as “You old Cajun.” In the end, we go with him, though, through the tryouts, the planning, the initial confrontations with the bandits, and the outright battles. We don’t really know him any better as he and Steve McQueen ride out of the village they have saved, though. But there’s a reason he reprised this role at least twice—once in the first of the sequels and again as a robotic version of his character in Westworld. And it’s a version of this role he plays in the spaghetti western Adios, Sabata and in Invitation to a Gunfighter. The role had become iconic, although Brynner didn’t make many westerns.
Steve McQueen as Vin in The Magnificent Seven
This was McQueen’s breakthough role in movies, although he had become a television star of sorts as the moral bounty hunter Josh Randall in Wanted: Dead or Alive. Seemingly a natural for westerns, he nevertheless didn’t make very many of them; his career flowered as the genre was going through one of its numerous fades. Vin is a rootless cowboy who steps up to help Chris Adams drive a hearse with an unwanted Indian corpse to Boot Hill, in one of the movie’s most memorable scenes. It’s even more interesting if one considers that McQueen didn’t get along well with Brynner and was looking for ways to make Vin more noticeable with bits of business (shaking shotgun shells, taking off his hat to scan the horizon, etc.). It works for him; he pretty much steals the scene, and it’s interesting to watch from that perspective. Notwithstanding the lack of personal chemistry between the actors, the relationship between the characters works, too. The only other westerns in his body of work were Nevada Smith (1966) and Tom Horn (1980, when the actor was already dying). McQueen and director Sturges would have another significant success with the non-western The Great Escape,1963.
Kevin Kline as Paden in Silverado
Silverado is really an ensemble movie, but the character most at the heart of it is Kevin Kline’s Paden. He never actually loses his temper or composure, even in the most threatening or dire circumstances. He has a native elegance and competence, but we never learn as much about his backstory as we do about the other major chatacters. We discover that Paden rode with Cobb’s outlaws for a time and has a quixotically humane streak along with a fondness for saloons, but that’s all we know. The result is that he’s a bit enigmatic. For all we know, after the action shown in the movie, Paden lives out his days as a saloon proprietor with Linda Hunt in the town of Silverado, although he’s been instrumental in wiping out the largest rancher in the area. The character works, although in a way it cries out for a real romantic relationship, aside from his friendship with Hunt’s character. There’s an allusion to an attraction to Rosanna Arquette’s settler character, but it’s not very developed or persuasive, with the feeling that much of it was left on the cutting room floor. Kline’s film career largely took place during a period when not many westerns were made, and this may be his only such movie. For other roles showcasing his sly humor, see Soapdish, Princess Cariboo (in a minor role with wife Phoebe Cates as the lead) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, not to mention The Big Chill, another ensemble movie by Lawrence Kasdan from the early 1980s.