Hollywood made its name on the great westerns directed by the likes of John Ford, Howard Hawks, Anthony Mann, Monte Hellman, John Sturges, Raoul Walsh, Nicholas Ray, Budd Boetticher and Sam Peckinpah until that classic iconography was adopted by the likes of Sergio Leone for his classic series of “spaghetti” westerns with Clint Eastwood. This month, Streampix celebrates one of filmdom’s most enduring genres with a curated selection that spotlights some of the best “horse operas” on the site.
Here’s a list of the Top 10 Streampix Westerns::
“The Searchers”: This 1956 John Ford classic is the granddaddy of all westerns, the one where John Wayne put “that’ll be the day” into the country’s vernacular back before things went viral. It’s a classic odyssey in which Wayne’s bigoted ex-Confederate soldier Ethan Edwards and his adopted nephew (Jeffrey Chandler) set off to rescue his niece who was kidnapped by Comanches back before they were referred to as Native Americans, but were instead “cowboys and Indians.” Natalie Wood and her younger sister Lana portray Debbie as a child, then a grown-up. Remarkably, the film received no major Oscar nominations (“Around the World in Eighty Days” was Best Picture, Yul Brynner Best Actor [“The King and I”] and George Stevens Best Director [“Giant”]), but has since been named the Greatest American Western of all time by the American Film Institute in 2008.
“Joe Kidd”: Veteran director John Sturges helmed this 1972 movie in which Clint Eastwood plays a trapper-guide, a former bounty hunter turned gunslinger for hire, caught between landowners and evicted Mexicans in turn-of-the-century New Mexico, heading a top-flight cast that includes Robert Duvall as a wealthy landowner who forms a posse to catch a revolutionary bandito played by John Saxon, who has organized a peasant revolt against him. Memorable moment: When Eastwood drives a steam engine through the town saloon.
“High Plains Drifter”: This 1973 film is Clint Eastwood’s first Western as both director and star, a revenge tale that centers on a mysterious stranger who arrives at a lakefront settlement, where the citizens beg him to defend them against a group of murderous outlaws with a score to settle after dazzling them by winning a series of blazing gun battles. Check the stunning cinematography by Bruce Surtees, while the original screenplay was by Ernest Tidyman, who had just won an Oscar for penning “The French Connection.” Memorable moment: Eastwood’s Stranger riding off into the distance, his image absorbed by a mirage, as he seemingly vanishes into thin air.
“Brokeback Mountain”: Not a Western, perhaps, in the time-honored genre sense, but Oscar-winning director Ang Lee’s 2005 adaptation of Annie Prouix’s short story broke new ground, with Oscar-nominated turns from Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal as long-time lovers who discover one another set against the unforgiving early ‘60s. Remarkably, underdog “Crash” bested the movie for Best Picture that year, but the script by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, as did Gustavo Santaolalla for Best Original Score.
“The Border”: British director Tony Richardson’s 1982 study of a border guard, played by Jack Nicholson, caught up in the trafficking of illegal Mexican immigrants, probably isn’t a Western in the strict sense of the word, but did add a modern touch in its depiction of a social issue that is still a hot-button topic to this day. The impressive supporting cast includes Valerie Perrine as his wife, along with Harvey Keitel and the late Warren Oates as corrupt colleagues who run an illicit smuggling operation on the side. The film’s most memorable aspect may well be its brooding blues score by Ry Cooder.
“Rooster Cogburn”: This 1975 sequel to John Wayne’s 1969 Oscar-winning turn in “True Grit” finds the veteran actor returning to the title role. Because of his drunkenness and questionable use of firearms, the aging U.S. Marshal is stripped of his badge, but given a chance to redeem himself after a village in Indian territory is overrun by a gang of violent, ruthless criminals, who’ve killed an elderly preacher. The minister’s spinster daughter, played by the great Katherine Hepburn, convinces him to help find her father’s killer and recover a stolen shipment of nitroglycerin. Note: the screenplay was written by Martha Hyer, the wife of the film’s legendary producer Hal. B. Wallis, under the pseudonym Martin Julien.
“The Cockeyed Cowboys of Calico County”: This light-hearted 1970 western comedy revolves around a town which tries to replace the local blacksmith’s no-show mail order bride with a local dance-hall girl. The all-star cast includes Dan Blocker, of “Bonanza” Hoss Cartwright fame, along with Nanette Fabray, Mickey Rooney, Jim Backus, Wally Cox, Jack Elam, Jack Cassidy, Stubby Kaye and Marge Champion.
“Dead Noon”: This weird 2007 western horror hybrid is about a long-dead, revenge-bent outlaw who comes back to terrorize a modern day town and the descendants of the sheriff who sent him to hell in the first place. Think “A Nightmare on Elm Street” relocated to the wild west, directed by Andrew Wiest, who also portrays the Devil and co-wrote the script. No, we’ve never heard of him, either.
“Left for Dead”: Another strange cross between a western and a horror film, this 2007 film finds a desperate criminal and a merciless posse trapped in a remote Mexican ghost town named Amnesty by a demon called Mobius hellbent on revenge who kills everything in its path. The movie was directed by Albert Pyun, who has been compared with the infamous Edward D. Wood in his fascination with the bizarre in films like “The Sword and the Sorcerer,” Cyborg,” “Omega Doom” and “Kickboxer 4: The Aggressor.”
“Mustang County”: This 1976 feature is the perfect family western with the gorgeous Canadian Rockies locations a highlight, as Joel McCrea plays an aging cowboy’s pursuit of Montana’s last wild stallion with a runaway Native American boy. This was the final film directed by veteran western auteur John C. Champion, who produced the ‘50s TV series, “Laramie.”