Last Updated on April 15, 2021 by Steve Mayhew
One of the very first, if not the first, article I wrote for Mostly Westerns concerned the John Wayne films I remembered seeing as a kid.
Having written more movie reviews than I can count over the last few years on all things JW I thought I’d return to the same theme of childhood but this time rate my top twenty non-JW Westerns in ascending order that I also saw as a kid. Feel free to comment/disagree/agree as I take a walk down memory lane once more in the name of the genre I love the most. Hope you enjoy it.
PS I think it’s safe to say my childhood was over by the time I hit sixteen which means that these reviews only feature films up to and including 1968. After that I ran away from home, roamed the range for a spell, then shot a man in Reno just to watch him die before settling down to raise a wife, eight kids and a herd of cattle.
Escape from Fort Bravo (1953)
Seeing as I was a one year-old when this film was released then it’s a pretty sure bet I caught it on re-release later on. In this relatively little-known John Sturges opus, William Holden plays Union martinet Captain Roper, tasked with overseeing a prison camp which serves as host to rebel soldiers anxious to escape and get back to fighting on behalf of the South.
The Confederate captain, John Marsh, played by John Forsythe, engineers an escape but is captured by Roper who intends bringing him back to the fort and punished accordingly. This is where the fun really starts because as they make their way towards the fort the group is set upon by a bunch of Apache warriors who don’t give a damn which side is Union or Confederate. They just want to kill everyone.
The main set-piece of the film has Roper, his fellow soldiers and prisoners boxed in behind a ridge from which neither they nor the Apaches can see each other. The Apaches decide the only way to flush their victims out is to estimate where the group are, then shoot their arrows into the air, picking off the least-known members of the cast first before hitting pay-dirt with Forsythe.
Naturally, the cavalry comes to the rescue just in the nick of time to save the good guys which is par for the course in this kind of film. I used to get really excited as a kid when a cowboy film had cavalry and Indians in it and this was definitely one of the best. If you haven’t seen it then I thoroughly recommend it, even though it’s nearly as old as I am.
Drum Beat (1954)
I saw “Drum Beat”, directed by Delmer Daves, in a tiny cinema on the Mediterranean island of Malta. I vaguely recall the hero of the film, Alan Ladd, facing down Charles Bronson, as the villain of the piece, with Ladd presumably standing on the ever-present orange box in order to give him more stature than his supposed height of 5 foot 7 inches would allow.
By a strange coincidence that happens to be my height too. Apart from that I don’t really remember anything else, what with me being only about three years old at the time. However, I’m pretty sure I knew enough to know it was a Western, with lots of accompanying cowboy / Indian action, so it obviously stayed in the memory.
Catching it later again on TV, I was surprised to find it was (loosely) based on real events. Bronson’s character, Modoc renegade chief Captain Jack, did actually murder a cavalry general during peace negotiations, for which he was hanged alongside three of his compatriots. It’s not very often you see a film later in life that turns out to be as good as you think you remembered it to be, but this is an exception to that rule.
On the face of it this is just another in a long line of shoot-em-ups barely distinguishable from the literally hundreds of cowboy films Hollywood turned out in the 1950s.
What makes “Wichita” memorable to me, though, is the scene in which a young boy, watching a shoot-out in the street below from an open window, suddenly catches a stray bullet and is thrown backward by the force of the shot.
I can clearly recall feeling very frightened for the poor kid, this still being that period in my life when I had yet to appreciate the concept of film and how it actually worked. To my young and impressionable mind, I saw a little boy being killed, and I didn’t like it one bit.
“Wichita” is yet another retelling of the story of Wyatt Earp, as played by Joel McCrea. It stands up very well to other Westerns of the same period and, like a lot of 1950s cowboy films, there’s quite a nice little supporting cast to luxuriate in, including Jack Elam, Robert J. Wilke and a certain Sam Peckinpah as a bank teller. I wonder whatever happened to him?
The Law and Jake Wade (1958)
Directed by John Sturges, “The Law and Jake Wade” features Robert Taylor as Jake and Richard Widmark playing bad guy Clint Hollister with shades of Tommy Udo from “Kiss of Death”. In the first half hour or so the film establishes the back story to the main characters with Jake as a reformed outlaw turned marshal and Hollister an unapologetic outlaw and killer with hardly any redeeming qualities whatsoever.
The action then moves to a ghost town in the middle of nowhere in which Jake has buried the twenty-thousand dollars he and Hollister had stolen a while back, Jake confessing he’d buried the money then left it where it was in an effort to try and leave the bad times behind and turn over a new leaf.
Unfortunately for all concerned the local Comanche contingency have declared war yet again on all white people resulting in Jake and his trigger happy captors including Henry Silva and Deforest Kelley finding themselves in a whole bunch of trouble.
Clint rides off in pursuit of two Comanche scouts before they can reach their fellow braves and tell them the boys are back in town. Upon his return he discovers that his faithful companions aren’t exactly that faithful anymore, especially when one of them succumbs to death by arrow as the Comanche’s infiltrate the town at night.
Bad guys Wexler and Rennie, played respectively by Kelley and Silva, are also eventually dispatched to the happy hunting grounds. Wexler goes down with one arrow in him whilst Rennie, in the scene that stuck with me from all those years ago when I first saw the film, takes two in the chest in quick succession.
Once the Comanches leave it’s all down to the inevitable face-off between Jake and Hollister and seeing as Robert Taylor has top billing he gets to gun down Widmark like the dirty dog that he is.
The Last Wagon (1956)
Handsomely filmed in Cinemascope, this is another Delmer Daves Western, starring Richard Widmark in the lead role as Comanche Todd, a white man who has thrown his lot in with the local Native Indians.
Todd is the captive of a seriously deranged sheriff by the name of Bull Harper, played in a short-lived cameo by George Matthews. Short-lived on account of Todd burying an axe in him as he attempts to escape after having been chained to a wagon belonging to a group of settlers Harper comes across.
I caught the film on re-release back in 1959 and watching it again after almost sixty years I was reminded of how violent it actually is, which is probably why it made such an impression on me when I was about 7 or 8-years-old.
Mind you, Bull Harper dies the instant the axe gets him, and Widmark dispatches Bull’s brother, played by Timothy Carey, in equally instantaneous fashion, Carey dying the minute the knife goes in.
It’s not all death and mayhem though, but mostly it is. Todd’s Comanche wife has been raped and then murdered along with their two children by the Harper’s. Todd retaliates in a fit of pique and kills three of Harper brothers, for which he is arrested by the sadistic Bull.
After axing Bull, the wagon train is attacked by Apaches and Todd unbelievably survives being thrown over a cliff with the wagon he’s still chained to.
At the time I saw the film I recognised the kid playing young Billy, Tommy Rettig, as the boy in the “Lassie” TV series which is another reason why this movie sticks in the memory.
A Thunder of Drums (1961)
I remember this film so well because it was the main feature on a double bill with an Italian sword and sandals epic “The Colossus of Rhodes”, directed by none other than a pre-“Fistful of Dollars” Sergio Leone.
“A Thunder of Drums” is what was called an “adult film” back in the day, George Hamilton as a typically green around the ears cavalry Lieutenant – the kind they used to ‘frag’ in Vietnam – learning from his ex-girlfriend how he nearly made her pregnant.
That bit obviously went way over my head at the age of nine, but watching it again many years later I’m struck by the quality of the supporting cast including Charles Bronson, Slim Pickens, Arthur O’Connell and – er – Duane Eddy.
The one scene I do remember from when I saw it the first time is towards the end when Hamilton and his superior, played by Richard Boone, go off in search of a cavalry troop that has gone out on patrol and not returned. Boone detects the smell of rotting bodies which eventually leads him to the site of the massacred troops, the camera dwelling for just a few seconds on the horrific carnage inflicted on the men by Apache warriors.
There’s one surprise at the end of the film that I hadn’t noticed until I watched it again recently. Hamilton’s character apologises to Boone for his previously inept behaviour, prompting Boone to reflect that his predecessor at the fort used to have a saying, “Never apologise, it’s a sign of weakness”.
I checked and sure enough, the script is by James Warner Bellah, who also wrote the original source material upon which “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” was partly based. So there it is. “A Thunder of Drums” is an unofficial sequel to “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon”.
The Battle of Apache Pass (1952)
Another film I obviously caught on rerelease in the late 50s, I was unaware at the time that it was a loose sequel to the James Stewart Western “Broken Arrow”, in which Jeff Chandler played the famous Apache chief, Cochise for the first time. It’s a genuine old-fashioned cavalry and Injun movie, short on fact but full of enough action to keep a seven-year-old-kid enthralled for 85 minutes.
I remember quite clearly a scene in which the supposedly benign Cochise kidnaps a friendly rancher and has him tied to the back of a horse as a hostage. When negotiations with the army fail, Cochise whips the horse and sends the poor man to his death. Not that benign, then.
As with a lot of the cowboy films I watched as a youngster this one also sports an impressive supporting cast including the likes of Richard Egan, Hugh O’Brian, Jack Elam and James Best. Jay Silverheels, the perennially friendly and wholesome Tonto in “The Lone Ranger” TV series, is cast as the villainous Apache, Geronimo, a part he also played earlier in “Broken Arrow”.
The battle at Apache Pass is apparently famous for being the first time the army used artillery against those pesky Native Americans when they selfishly fought to keep the invading white settlers from stealing their land. I won’t insult you by revealing who wins.
Having first seen the film towards the end of the 1950s it’s one of those rare examples of a movie being just as good as I remembered it was all those years ago. Probably worth watching in a double bill with “Broken Arrow” or a triple bill if you’re up for watching “Taza, Son of Cochise” as well, what with Chandler putting in a cameo appearance as the Apache chief for the third and last time.
The Scalphunters (1968)
This is what would be categorised as a rollicking comedy-Western adventure, and as rollicking Westerns go this one’s not too bad. What makes the film an interesting addition to the cowboy genre is the addition in the cast of African American actor Ossie Davis, as escaped slave Joseph Lee.
With the civil rights movement in America running at full gallop in the mid-sixties, it was only going to be a matter of time before Hollywood saw the wisdom of addressing the question of slavery full-on, albeit wrapped inside a comedy film in order to avoid upsetting certain sections of the audience.
Although the lead character, Joe Bass, a wild hell-raising fur trapper, is played by Burt Lancaster, it’s a pre-Kojak Telly Savalas who nearly steals the film from both Lancaster and Shelly Winters, as scalphunter leader Jim Howie.
I say nearly because the whole film is actually hi-jacked by a horse that skids to a halt whenever anyone emits a high-pierced whistle, throwing its rider into the dust at every opportunity. Yep, it’s that kind of film.
It’s also the kind of movie that these days would get a trigger warning on TV about racist content, what with the Kiowa’s referred to as ‘dirty redskins’ and Burt calling our Chinese brethren by a name you shouldn’t call them by anymore. The message at the end is a bit too obvious, both Lancaster and Davis covered in mud to the point where you can’t tell them apart.
Despite this, the worthiness factor stays mostly hidden beneath the boisterous veneer of the movie as a whole. A rousing score by Elmer Bernstein also helps to ensure the film is still an entertaining watch even after all these years.
Nevada Smith (1966)
I do like a good revenge movie and this is one of the best. Steve McQueen, in top-notch cowboy form, plays the title role. It’s a prequel spin-off from an earlier movie, “The Carpetbaggers”, in which Nevada Smith was played by Alan Ladd, so consider this an early ‘origins’ film.
Smith’s parents are murdered by three outlaws, played by Martin Landau, Arthur Kennedy and Karl Malden. Nevada vows to hunt them down and, after an interlude in which Brian Keith, playing a benign gunsmith, teaches him how to shoot, he tracks down his first victim, Landau.
I remember the ensuing knife-fight between the two of them because McQueen stabs Landau multiple times in the stomach, finishing the murdering swine off like the dog he is. Next up is Arthur Kennedy.
Smith is so obsessed with revenge he goes to the inordinate lengths of getting himself banged up in the same prison as his quarry, before shooting him in the middle of a snake-filled swamp after they’ve escaped from the prison. Now for Karl Malden or Mr. Potato Face as someone unkindly christened him.
Karl Malden turns out not to be so easy to entrap, so Smith joins his gang, going undercover in order to catch him by stealth. This is the bit that slightly disappointed me when I saw it back in the 60s, because when McQueen finally gets the chance to kill Malden, he inexplicably lets him live, albeit after having pumped him full of bullets.
Rio Conchos (1964)
This was a very popular film when first released for a number of reasons. First off you had professional American football player Jim Brown as cavalry Sgt. Franklyn, which attracted a lot of attention because he wasn’t in the same mould of someone like Sidney Poitier, who up to that point was the go-to guy when it came to African American actors.
Also, tame as it might seem by today’s standards, there’s a stunt involving Brown, Richard Boone and Stuart Whitman in which they – or their stand-ins – are tortured by being dragged behind a speeding wagon. It was thought to be so impressive that I remember one of the major daily newspapers running a spread specifically on the sequence in question.
There are similarities between “Rio Conchos” and the earlier John Wayne oater “The Comancheros”, probably due to Clair Huffaker co-scripting both films. For example, Nehemiah Persoff in “The Comancheros” and Edmond O’Brien in “Rio Conchos” are both heading up secretive communities that operate outside the law, in O’Brien’s case a bunch of ex-Confederate soldier’s intent on making the South great again by selling rifles to the Apaches. And Stuart Whitman is in both films as well.
It’s a real high, wide and handsome Twentieth Century Fox Cinemascope production that features great performances from all the principals, most notably Richard Boone as an embittered ex-officer out to avenge the death of his family at the hands of the Apaches.
Stuart Whitman is reliably granite-jawed as the army captain leading Boone, Brown and Tony Franciosca, who plays a Mexican knife-throwing scoundrel, in pursuit of O’Brien’s lawless Confederate organisation.
A thoroughly entertaining widescreen Western, directed by Gordon Douglas, that every discerning cowboy film fan should be familiar with.
Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957)
The 1950s ushered in a wave of so-called psychological Westerns, the main requirement being overwrought performances from the principal actors and some kind of subconscious motivation buried deep within the psyche that pushes the characters over the edge.
The perennially tense and jittery Kirk Douglas was therefore well-equipped to play the highly-strung and agitated Doc Holliday in yet another in a long line of Wyatt Earp / OK Corral movies churned out by Hollywood on a regular basis.
Burt Lancaster as Earp competes for acting honours with Douglas, and of course it helps that John Sturges, who’s already been mentioned in despatches in part one of this article, is calling the shots behind the camera. To be honest it’s really Kirk’s film, even if he doesn’t go the whole hog and cop it at the end in the OK corral gunfight like Victor Mature did in “My Darling Clementine”.
Sacrificing historical accuracy for good old-fashioned dramatic license, the film effectively builds up the tension over a fairly long running time of two hours and twenty minutes before the screen eventually explodes into action. There’s a stellar supporting cast at work here as well including the Queen of Technicolor herself, Rhonda Fleming, playing the fictional love interest of Earp, as well as an interesting collection of cowboy regulars such as John Ireland, Jack Elam, Lee Van Cleef and a very young-looking Dennis Hopper as the doomed Billy Clanton.
One can also find lurking in the background other familiar faces including DeForest Kelly as Morgan Earp, Earl Holliman and Kenneth Tobey.
Dimitri Tiomkin provides a stirring soundtrack whilst Frankie Laine warbles the theme tune. Combine all of the above and you have the ingredients for a classic Hollywood Western, which the director and cast deliver with aplomb.
In 1967 Sturges revisited the subject of Earp in “Hour of the Gun”, with James Garner playing the famous lawman, the film dealing with the aftermath of the shootout at the OK corral. Now if that’s not the making of a great double bill then I don’t know what is.
Old Yeller (1957)
I guess this qualifies as a Western, seeing as it’s set in the 1880s. I must have caught it at some point back in the 1950s, but probably on rerelease towards the end of the decade. Not content with traumatising a whole generation of kids back in 1942 with the death of Bambi’s mother in the classic Disney cartoon, old Walt then foisted on my generation another harrowing lesson in the inevitability of death.
Knowing your mother might one day fall off the perch is one thing, but discovering the family domestic pet also had its card marked for an early demise left me and a whole bunch of other kids psychologically scarred for life.
Just in case there’s a lot of you out there reading this right now who don’t have the faintest idea what I’m talking about, I’ll give you a brief overview of the plot.
Two kid brothers, played by Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran, adopt a runaway dog who romps around the countryside getting into all kinds of loveable Disney situations such as helping the family to trap feral hogs, saving one of the kids from being ripped apart by a bear, then being bitten by a wolf from which the dog gets rabies after which it has to be locked in a shed before the older brother blows its brains out.
I personally don’t watch too many Disney movies these days but I’m fairly sure they definitely don’t make them like this anymore.
Cast members wandering in and out of the proceedings include Fess “Davy Crockett” Parker who bookends the film as the father of the two kids with Chuck Connors turning up as the original owner of ole’ Yeller. The film isn’t all doom and gloom though. Not at the beginning anyway. For example, what about that great theme tune? You know, the one that goes:
“Here Yeller, come back Yeller, best doggone dog in the West”
Still can’t get that last scene out of my head though.
Trivia note: A sequel was filmed a few years later, “Savage Sam”, which reunited Kirk and Corcoran as the brothers but it didn’t have the same impact at the box office as the original. I’m guessing this time around they decided not to shoot the dog again.
Duel at Diablo (1966)
Directed by Ralph Nelson, who went on to helm the infamous “Soldier Blue” a few years later, the film stars James Garner as scout Jess Remsberg, another of those ‘cowboy seeks vengeance for the death of their wife’ roles, a part that Randolph Scott played almost to the hilt in quite a few of his Westerns.
Along the way Garner rescues Bibi Andersson as Ellen Grange from a bunch of marauding Apaches and takes her back to her husband Willard, played by Dennis Weaver, that nice Chester from “Gunsmoke”, or “McCloud” if you prefer. This kicks off a whole heap pf trouble involving rape, torture by fire, miscegenation, violent death, you name it this movie has it all.
The film has what I can only describe as a rather eclectic cast, including Swedish actress Andersson, English actor Bill Travers as cavalry Lieutenant Scotty and Sidney Poitier in his first Western playing an ex-Buffalo Soldier who also turns out to be pretty handy with a six-shooter.
What’s quite gratifying is that Poitier’s character is not defined by his colour which is kind of refreshing in an era when, if a black actor did figure in the cast, it was usually more of a token gesture than anything else.
The title of the movie refers to the climax of the film in which all of the main characters end up under siege from Apache warriors in Diablo canyon. Remsberg manages to ride off and get help from a nearby army fort where he learns that Willard was the one who killed his Comanche wife.
Returning to rescue the others he finds Willard barely alive, tied upside down on a wagon wheel after the Apaches kidnapped and tortured him with fire. He pleads with Remsberg to shoot him but the scout gives him a gun instead so that Willard can do the job himself. Which he does. Then everyone lives happily ever after, except Scotty, who gets killed by the Apaches during the siege.
A bit of an underrated Western in my opinion. I liked this film a lot. In fact, I even bought the poster.
The Professionals (1966)
“The Magnificent 7” was the first of a number of films released in the 1960s that featured a team of hired hands each specialising in a certain skill. James Coburn was good with a knife and the other six were all good with their guns, so a bit thin on the ground to be honest in terms of individual skill sets, but I’m sure you get my drift.
“The Professionals” offers more choice in the deadly expertise stakes, with all of the main cast members specialising in their own specific talent for mayhem, death and destruction. The hired professionals comprise Burt Lancaster as an explosives expert, Lee Marvin as a weapons specialist, Robert Ryan as a horse wrangler and Woody Strode as an expert killer with a bow and arrow.
A Mexican bandido, played by Jack Palance, kidnaps the beautiful wife, played by Claudia Cardinale, of a rich old man. The rich old man, played by Ralph Bellamy, subsequently hires a bunch of mercenaries to rescue and bring Claudia back to his rich old arms.
Seeing as the twist is that Claudia wasn’t actually kidnapped but went quite willingly with Jack, we can only surmise that Palance’s area of expertise is wooing the ladies. This is admittedly a bit of a stretch considering he looks like he’s been whacked in the face with a very heavy frying pan, whilst Claudia’s main talent is to just look absolutely stunning, which of course she manages to do quite magnificently in every single frame she graces.
As they’re professionals, the mercenaries decide to honour the agreement with the rich old man, and re-kidnap Claudia, hot-footing it back to a train they have previously liberated from Jack’s gang who follow in quick pursuit.
The professionals find the train has been retaken – I hope someone’s taking notes at the back there – so they ride off into the mountains, each one using their individual skills to delay the bandidos via the indiscriminate application of explosives, guns, arrows, etc., before eventually returning a not-so-happy Claudia to her husband. They throw in a bonus by capturing Palance and giving him to the old guy as well.
The more I think about this film, the more it comes to resemble “The Wild Bunch”, the ending in particular pre-echoing that of Peckinpah’s film in which a band of reprobates reveal a hitherto unknown streak of morality that makes them do the right thing, even though, in the case of “The Wild Bunch” anyway, they may die in the process.
In this instance, Marvin and the others help to reunite the lovelorn Jack and Claudia, sending them back to Mexico against the wishes of the rich old man. It kind of makes everything else that has gone before somewhat redundant but as they say, it’s all about the journey rather than the destination.
“The Professionals” is definitely worth seeing if you’ve not caught it before. The Academy thought so too, nominating Richard Brooks for both his direction and script.
Winchester 73 (1950)
Filmed in black and white and with a co-writing credit for Borden Chase, who contributed to a number of other Anthony Mann Westerns as well as “Red River” for Howard Hawks, the story follows the travails of Lin MacAdam, played by James Stewart, who along with his riding partner High Spade, played by Millard Mitchell, arrive in Dodge City on the trail of someone, but at that point, we’re not exactly sure who they’re looking for, or why.
They chance upon a shooting competition to win a brand new Winchester rifle which is being held to commemorate the centennial year of American Independence. They are immediately relieved of their handguns by Wyatt Earp, played here by Grandpa Walton himself, Will Geer.
Walking into the nearest saloon MacAdams recognises the man he’s been looking for, Dutch Henry Brown, played by Stephen McNally. Earp intervenes before an altercation can take place after which MacAdams wins the marksmanship contest. Brown comes second and then steals the Winchester from MacAdams, after which it all kicks off.
The ensemble of actors that come into contact with the stolen rifle include John McIntire, almost stealing the show as a sleazy gambler and gun runner who wins the Winchester from Dutch Henry in a card game. His luck runs out though when he refuses to sell it to an Indian chief played by Rock Hudson, appearing here early on in his career, pre-nose job. Tony Curtis also pops up as a cavalry soldier along the way.
In the final last half hour of the film the story gears up a notch by the introduction of Dan Duryea as Waco Johnny Dean, channelling his inner Richard Widmark as a giggling gun happy psychopath, or as Shelley Winters remarks, the ‘lowest thing standing in a pair of boots’.
It is eventually revealed that Lin MacAdam is tracking down Dutch to kill him for shooting Lin’s father in the back. Lin eventually encounters Waco and, aware that Dutch is supposed to be meeting this gentleman, finally loses whatever studied cool he may have displayed up to that point.
In a scene that apparently drew gasps of astonishment from audiences at the time, he nearly breaks Waco’s arm, clawing at his face as he tries to get him to tell where Dutch is. On the way out of the saloon Waco foolishly turns to shoot but Lin beats him to the draw.
The big reveal is then made: Dutch is actually Lin’s brother, so it’s been a family affair of betrayal and revenge of almost Greek tragedy proportions right from the very beginning, almost like “The Searchers” but with an even unhappier ending. Lin and Dutch, whom Lin now insists on calling by his real name, Matthew, shoot it out atop a tower of rocks in the middle of the landscape, Lin ironically finding himself under fire from the very rifle he won at the beginning.
Good triumphs in the end, as it should, with brother shooting brother, Dutch / Matthew falling to his death from a great height, but it’s not all doom and gloom as Lin gets the girl at the end.
This film is not your standard Western oater crowd-pleaser, not by a long shot, but the partnership of Stewart and Mann gets off to a flying start with “Winchester ’73”.
Yellowstone Kelly (1959)
“Yellowstone Kelly” was originally mooted as a starring vehicle for John Wayne with John Ford as director, both of them eventually going on to make “The Horse Soldiers” instead. After Duke and Pappy took a powder the project landed in the lap of Clint “Cheyenne Bodie” Walker and director Gordon Douglas, reuniting the two of them a year after they had worked together on another Western, “Fort Dobbs”.
Edd “Kookie” Byrnes co-stars alongside a supporting cast that also includes John “Lawman” Russell and Warren “Do I die in this one?” Oates. Throw in Claude “Joe Burdette” Akins and I’d say that’s a first-rate cast.
This being a Warner Brothers production they were eager to showcase two of their TV celebrities in the main roles, which probably accounts for its success, taking nearly 2 million dollars at the box office. Throw in a script by Burt Kennedy and the result is an entertaining and engaging late 1950s pedigree Hollywood Western, beautifully shot in Technicolor on location in Arizona..
Kelly is a scout for the U.S. army and a trapper in his spare time. He and his side-kick, Anse, played by Byrnes, end up looking after an Arapaho woman, Wahleear, played by Andra Martin, who’s been shot and needs the application of a very large hunting knife wielded by Dr. Kelly in order to remove the bullet.
Wahleear falls for Kelly, Kookie falls for her then, before it can all go Fifty Shades of Threesome in a Cabin, Kookie ends up with an arrow in the belly. He expires in Kelly’s arms, although his quiff holds out a bit longer.
After that it’s the usual cavalry versus Sioux story with the Sioux, for once, getting the upper hand before Kelly prevails on Chief Gall, played by a somewhat miscast John Russell, to ride away and leave the cavalry to lick their wounds. I saw this film as a kid and absolutely loved it. Watching it again after almost sixty years it still impresses so someone must have been doing their job properly.
The Magnificent 7 (1960)
What a great start to the decade. One of the most popular cowboy films ever made – and not one pesky Injun in sight.
As we all know, it’s a remake of Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai”, transplanted from medieval Japan to bandit-ridden Mexico. Yul Brynner is ostensibly the main star but the film belongs of course to the likes of Steve McQueen, James Coburn and Charles Bronson who, along with Robert Vaughan, Brad Dexter (the one no one can ever remember) and Horst Bucholz, plus Eli Wallach as the dastardly Mexican bandit leader, Calvera, collectively make this one of the best casts assembled for a Western.
The two hours and eight minutes of pure unadulterated cowboy action is helped of course by the famous soundtrack composed by Elmer Bernstein. The music is practically the eighth member of the Mag 7, Bernstein composing what is now probably the most famous Western soundtrack of all time.
The final gunfight between the seven and Calvera’s band is definitely the most memorable sequence in the film but the one that stayed with me as a child was the face-off between the luckless Robert J. Wilke and James Coburn, who turns out to be an expert knife-thrower. Another case of instantaneous death Hollywood-style but Coburn is so imperturbable in that scene he gives Steve McQueen a real run for his money in the “who’s the coolest dude?” stakes.
Talking of McQueen, I read in one of his biographies that the producers of the TV series he was starring in at the time, “Wanted – Dead or Alive”, wouldn’t give him time out to appear in the film. He got around this by crashing his car and then faking an injury so that he could take the role of gunfighter Vin Tanner, which basically made him a star. Now that’s cool.
The Good the Bad and the Ugly (1966)
As Quentin Tarantino maintains, “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” is ‘cinematically perfect’ and I wholeheartedly agree. Sergio Leone’s final entry in the Dollar trilogy is without doubt the best Western he ever made. It runs just short of 3 hours and I could watch it multiple times and never get bored. It’s got a great cast and is also blessed with the best soundtrack Ennio Morricone ever wrote, bar none.
The opening sequence is very similar to the beginning of Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in the West”, with Al Mulock, the actor who also plays one of the ill-fated trio in the later film, facing into the camera as he and two other killers close in on the bandit Tuco, played by Eli Wallach.
Tuco blasts all three of them then jumps through a glass window, his image freeze-framed along with the description as “Ugly”. Lee Van Cleef as bounty hunter Angel Eyes turns up next, and we know he’s going to be “Bad” after he shoots someone in the face through a pillow four times. It’s a whole seventeen minutes before Clint, as Blondie, finally graces the screen, and within sixty seconds he’s already shot three men. And he’s supposed to be the “Good” one?
Although there’s an attempt to restrain the annoying constant laughter of the villains that on occasion blights the earlier films in the trilogy, Eli Wallach takes it upon himself to deliver lots of out of context giggling in a shamefully scene-stealing role as Tuco. Van Cleef is not as benign as bounty hunter Mortimer in “For a Few Dollars More”, but Clint’s character Blondie displays a bit more compassion than usual.
We see him stroking a kitten, helping a mortally wounded Union colonel by blowing up a bridge just as the colonel passes away, and giving away his coat to a dying soldier. In the process Blondie exchanges the coat for the poncho he wore as Joe and Manco in the previous Dollar entries.
Another familiar face is Mario Braga, the guy who gets crushed by a huge wooden barrel in “A Fistful of Dollars”, stabbed in the back by psycho bandit leader Indio in “For a Few Dollars More” and here having his head smashed on a rock before being run over by a train. He and Sergio must have been really good friends.
Apparently Leone used demo versions of Morricone’s music to choreograph the two sequences at the end of the film, the first in which Tuco frantically runs around Sad Hill cemetery to the strains of “Ecstasy of Gold”. The second scene, in which Blondie, Angel and Tuco face off in a gunfight with the winner taking the money, is accompanied by a Morricone composition called “The Trio”. Considering the magnificence of Morricone’s soundtrack I’m surprised no one has yet put on a showing of the film with a live orchestra. I’d be first in line if that ever happened. The late Mr. Morricone was a bona fide genius, as was Sergio Leone, and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” is their finest collaboration bar none.
I must have seen this when it was rereleased back in the late 50s, and when you’re watching a movie with a ten-year-old kid in it and you’re only a few years younger than the kid up there on the screen then it tends to stay in the mind. Someone once commented that the film is almost telling the audience they’re watching a classic Western, and defying you to think otherwise.
Therefore, all the standard conventions of the cowboy film are present and correct from lone gunfighter to land-grabbing hornswagglers, evil hired killers, fistfights and showdowns.
To me, however, just like “The Searchers” and “Rio Bravo”, it’s also one of the many cowboy films my dad took me to see when I was growing up which is why it means so much to me.
Viewing it again in later years I started to realise how brutal the film is, especially the scene in which Elisha Cook Jr., as a dirt farmer, is shot to death by Jack Palance, here playing hired gun Jack Wilson.
When Palance, or Walter Jack Palance as he’s credited in the film, beats the eternally doomed Cook to the draw, the film breaks with Hollywood Western tradition by showing both killer and victim in the same frame.
Normally the convention is to cut back and forth between the protagonists before showing the killer firing his gun, then cutting to the victim as they react to being shot. In his biography on Sergio Leone, Christopher Frayling maintains that this cinematic taboo was first broken in “A Fistful of Dollars”. This scene in “Shane” suggests otherwise.
“Shane” sports a great supporting cast including Ben Johnson, Edgar Buchanan, John Dierkes and the aforementioned Elisha Cook. Victor Young’s score is right up there with the likes of “The Big Country”, “The Magnificent 7” and “The Searchers”.
At the end of the film the kid with the bad haircut, played by little cross-eyed Brandon DeWilde, famously runs after Shane, calling out to his gunfighter hero to come back. Wounded in the climactic shootout with Wilson, Shane heeds the call of those faraway hills instead. There’s been an ongoing discussion over the years as to whether he’s actually alive or not at this point, having been wounded in the gunfight with Wilson, something for all you cowboy movie aficionados to ponder next time you watch it. Definitely Ladd’s finest performance.
The Man from Laramie (1955)
Anthony Mann certainly saved the best for last in his five Western film collaborations with James Stewart. The theme tune, which was a big hit in America for Al Martino, and over here in the UK for Jimmy Young, tells of a ‘man with a peaceful turn of mind, he was kind of sociable and friendly’.
Talk about disparity between character in film and the song. I certainly don’t feel the man from Laramie, as portrayed by Stewart, is anywhere near having a peaceful turn of mind, and when he’s riled – and he gets riled a lot in this one – he’s not what I would call sociable and friendly either, no sirree.
What makes this film stand out from the other Stewart / Mann Westerns is that it was shot in Cinemascope, which really accentuates the vast wilderness in which the action takes place, in this case the flat desert country of New Mexico. Stewart plays Will Lockhart, who Is ostensibly delivering goods and materials to the town of Coronado, but who is actually on an undercover mission to find the varmint selling weapons to the local Apache tribe.
He has a personal interest in all of this as his younger brother, a cavalry officer, has been massacred along with his troop by the self-same Apache renegades. It all really starts to go wrong for Lockhart when he loads up a cargo of salt and encounters the resident psycho, Dave Waggoman, played with evil relish by Alex Nicol.
Dave goes all Norman Bates on Lockhart and his companions by burning the wagons and shooting their mules. Lockhart is roped and literally subjected to an ordeal by fire when he is dragged through the flames. Luckily Dave’s carer, Vic, played by Arthur Kennedy, turns up and orders Dave, the son of Vic’s boss, to lay off.
Later on, back in town, Lockhart spies Dave herding cattle into a corral. Marching defiantly towards his nemesis Lockhart yanks Dave from his horse and proceeds to beat the living daylights out of him. Lockhart is so wired that when Vic pulls him away from Dave, Lockhart is still full of anger and lays into Vic as well, the rage etched on his face. It’s the second best sequence in the film.
The best sequence comes later on when Mad Dave accuses Lockhart of stealing cattle, whereas he’s only separating his own stock from some strays. A gunfight ensues and Lockhart hits Dave in the hand with a lucky shot. Dave exacts revenge by ordering two of his men to hold Lockhart by the arms before shooting him point blank in the hand. It’s an act of such outrageous brutality that you’re left open-jawed for a moment.
It should be obvious by now that the brutality is more pronounced than in the other Stewart / Mann efforts. Vic goes on to kill Dave, who was responsible for helping Vic sell the guns to the Apaches, and also attempts to kill the father, Alec, played by Donald Crisp, by pushing him off a mountain slope. A number of film writers have suggested that the Alec / Dave / Vic trio has echoes of Shakespeare’s King Lear which may or may not ring true but there are definitely elements of tragedy, whether Greek or Shakespearean, underscoring the storyline.
At the end of the film Lockhart can’t kill Vic any more than Stewart’s character could sell Robert Ryan’s body for the bounty in “The Naked Spur” or leave the townsfolk to fend for themselves against Judge Gannon in “The Far Country”. Vic eventually gets his courtesy of the Apache renegades who shoot him then put an amen to it with an arrow in his back.
Alex Nicol as Dave is the most memorable villain of all of the Stewart / Mann Westerns, and quite possibly one of the best cowboy bad guys ever. In my humble opinion “The Man from Laramie” is a true classic cowboy movie that rubs shoulders with other great Westerns such as “Rio Bravo”, “The Searchers” and “The Wild Bunch”.
That’s my top twenty non-JW Westerns from my childhood. Hope you enjoyed the article and don’t be backward in coming forward with your own nominations for films that impressed you from the same era.
In the mean time check out our top 10 ultimate favourite John Wayne movies.