Five Film Favorites: Westerns set in the 20th Century

When I first began writing for the James River Film Journal, the first article I came across was F.T. Rea’s “Five Film Favorites: Westerns.”  Rea’s list spanned from Stagecoach (1939) to Unforgiven (1992) and contained films from the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s.  His list demonstrated the longevity and malleability of my most favorite film genre.  Since the venerable Mr. Rea is currently on sabbatical from the JRFJ, I decided to produce a list of five favorite Westerns with a certain restriction; these Westerns must be set in the 20th Century. 

The conventional notion of the Western is one of a film that is situated somewhere in the American West of the 19th Century (usually after the Civil War), yet the West as a concept and theory that shapes American attitudes and notions of self and nation did not stop existing once the clock struck midnight on January 1, 1900, nor did it stop with the influx of the automobile, the interstate highway system, or the urbanization and suburbanization of post-WWII America.   

When John Ford was making Westerns in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, the West of the previous century was only a couple of generations removed, and some of the men and women who lived that history could have actually purchased a ticket to see a Ford film.  The history was more relevant and immediate, and the Westerns of ’40s and ’50s must have seemed more tactile to the audiences then than they do to us now. 

The more interesting, thoughtful, and provocative Westerns of the past few years have attempted to make sense of a more recent 20th Century history of the West.  Contemporary Westerns that are set in a more distant past, no matter how slick and accurate, have the feel of hollow simulacra.  I would point to the remake of 3:10 to Yuma (2007)and Appaloosa (2008) as examples of this.  These films are not necessarily “bad,” but they do not capture the power and relevancy of the history.  Instead they attempt to capture that which originally captured the history. 

After compiling my list, I retroactively noticed that it is quite contemporary, with four of the five films having been produced and released within the last six years.  I did limit myself to only one Peckinpah film.  Junior Bonner (1972) and The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) could have made their way into the list, but I wanted more directorial variety. I also decided not to re-use any of the Westerns that Rea listed among his favorites.  The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), set in 1925, could have easily displaced one or more of the films on my list, but, again, I wanted to provide new names  Such decisions obviously influenced how heavily tilted the list is toward films made in the last decade, but we all need parameters.  Without further ado, my five favorite Westerns set in the 20th Century:

The Wild Bunch (1969) – Directed by Sam Peckinpah

I am not going to write much more than this: I think that The Wild Bunch is quite possibly the greatest American film ever made. 

Brokeback Mountain (2005) – Directed by Ang Lee

Brokeback Mountain is similar to The Wild Bunch in this one respect: it has aged well and will continue to age quite well.  The film is no less powerful or amazing now than it was upon its release.  Part of the obvious initial public resistance to it was that it had “gay cowboys” and was portrayed as a film about sexual orientation and gay rights.  Yet it is much more properly viewed as a Western that examines how the changing landscape of rural America makes surviving and prospering within the traditional rural economies of agriculture and livestock difficult if not impossible.  Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger’s second greatest performance), the rugged cowbody who can handle anything, is reduced to living in a trailer home because the West no longer needs actual cowboys.  And Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), the man who literally faked being a cowboy (he worked as a rodeo clown), arrives at financial security by marrying into a family whose agri-business actively destroys the livelihoods of the cowboys like Ennis.

I would also point out that Brokeback Mountain‘s cinematography was splendid.  Lee is a gifted visual director, and his gifts were put to great use here.  The film made love to the land that it captured on film. 

No Country for Old Men (2007) – Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen

I am not certain that No Country will age as gracefully as Brokeback Mountain, and even as I put it on my list, I am less disposed to it now than I was when it came out in 2007.  Three things, though, still prompt me to include it in this list: a) the thematic influences of Peckinpah’s West as a vanishing territory that no longer has any room for the men and women who once prospered in it; b) Josh Brolin’s performance as a square-jawed man who must ultimately fail but is still worthy of admiration and respect due to his grit and resourcefulness; and c) Roger Deakins‘s cinematography.  Being able to artistically fit a vast Western landscape into the camera is, at least for me, a crucial element of the genre.


There Will Be Blood (2007) – Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

Released the same year as No Country, I had originally privileged the Coen’s film as the superior one.  I have since reversed course.  Anderson’s direction is just about perfect from a technical standpoint.  There Will Be Blood is a little tough to digest at first because there is only one character who matters, Daniel Day-Lewis‘s astounding Daniel Plainview, and the plot is essentially nothing more than the creation of capital and wealth. 

Williams Cronon’s book Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Making of the Great West essentially posits that the West was created by turning first nature into second nature and then creating commodities for the market.  There Will Be Blood is a perfect artistic rendering of Cronon’s well thought out materialist history of the American West.

The Good, the Bad, the Weird (2008) – Directed by Ji-woon Kim

This film is a blast.  Set in 1930s Manchuria, this Korean re-imagining of The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly obviously takes a lot from Asian cinematic influences: South Korea and Hong Kong most notably.  But it is still a Western; the use of rail and horses signal a debt to the traditional American Western.  Despite its occaisonal preposterousness, it does a rather deft job of commenting upon imperial, colonial, and post-colonial histories in East Asia.  For those of you who require more endorsements, The Good, the Bad, the Weird was also one of Peter Schilling’s honorable mentions for best 10 films of 2010. (I want to thank JRFJ editor James Parrish for recommending this film to me.)

About Todd Hunter Starkweather

Todd Starkweather is an Assistant Professor of English at South University-Richmond. He has a PhD in English Literature from the University of Illinois-Chicago; his interests include film, Victorian studies, sport, and post-colonialism.
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