Category: Classic Westerns


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When I think of John Ford, I think of the wide open Western expanses that define practically every shot of classics like The Searchers. When I think of John Wayne movies, I think of the straightforward moralism of The Cowboys. When I think of James Stewart (barring the final act of Vertigo), I think of the archetypal “Aw, shucks” All-American of It’s a Wonderful Life. So, when all three combine to make such a jarringly out-of-character film for all involved, it should be no secret that I found The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance to be among the most interesting of the “classic” Westerns this side of High Noon.

Far more a commentary on the death of the Wild West than a traditional oater, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is unlike any Western of the era or, honestly, any other film of John Ford’s career. Removing itself from the iconic Western vistas that are Ford’s metier and placing itself in crowded homes and claustrophobic streets, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance captures the transformation of the West from a lawless frontier to the first stirrings of civilization and law & order. And most surprisingly of all, the film has something honest and fresh to say on ethics that remains fresh 52 years later.

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After his stagecoach is robbed by the brutal bandit and bully Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) and he’s beaten within an inch of his life, East Coast lawyer Ransom Stoddard (Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation‘s James Stewart) is rescued by the rough but generally decent gunslinger and rancher Tom Doniphan (The Longest Day‘s John Wayne). Ransom has had every penny to his name and every last worldly possession stolen by the untouchable Liberty Valance and as he has to start from scratch to recover his assets and make a name for himself in the dangerous town of Shinbone.

Shinbone’s Marshall, Link Appleyard (Andy Devine), is a fat, slovenly coward and even though everybody in town knows Liberty Valance is a crook and a murderer, he won’t lift a finger to bring him to justice. Tom is the only man in town with enough nerve and talent with a gun to stand up to Liberty, but Liberty knows well enough to stay out of Tom’s way to avoid taking a bullet from him. But Ransom wants Liberty brought to justice. However, unlike every other Western hero ever, justice to ransom doesn’t mean a shoot out in the streets. It means a trial and jail. But, in a town without a competent criminal justice system, Tom’s way of the bullet could be the only true answer.

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The film’s framing device is that decades later, Ransom Stoddard has returned to Shinbone for Tom’s funeral. Ransom is now a U.S. Senator and he could be the Vice-President of the United States if he wished. And, through a story given to a local newspaperman, we hear the real story of the legend that shot him into political stardom. But, in actuality, it gives the film an example to delve into one of the most important philosophical debates of all time: What is more valuable, truth or results? And, to an extent, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance comes down on the utilitarian side of that equation.

I can’t explore those themes too deeply without ruining the film (although, considering the fact that it’s 52 years old, I wouldn’t feel too guilty if I did), but time and time again, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance proves itself to be more psychologically and philosophically minded than the vast majority of its late 50s/early 60s peers. The film is essentially an argument that the American West that Ford himself helped to mythologize in the American conscious had to end, and that the typical John Wayne heroes of the past didn’t have a place in the modern world.

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James Stewart plays a character that is simultaneously a deconstruction of the Mr. Smith Goes to Washington typical Stewart idealist as well as an argument for why society needs men like him. I’ve probably said this before on this blog, but James Stewart is one of my all-time favorite actors (not necessarily one of the ones I think is the best), and along with Vertigo, this is certainly one of his most complex and demanding roles. And as we Ransom struggling to balance his desire for law & order and due process against the brutal realities of the old West, Stewart captures all of the character’s frustration and desperation.

John Wayne and Lee Marvin also shine in the two primary supporting roles (even if Wayne gets top billing in the film, Ransom is the main character). Tom may ultimately be a good man, but he’s also a bitter roughneck who isn’t afraid to be a bully when he needs to make a point. Along with The Searchers, it’s one of the more complicated characters of Wayne’s usually pure white hat career. And Lee Marvin might not have the most fully-written character in the titular Liberty Valance, but he makes the man drip venom and anger, and he steals every scene he’s in, even if he’s not afraid to chew the scenery a little bit.

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I wrote half of this review last night and True Detective is coming on in five minutes (seriously, watch that show; it’s the best new HBO show since The Wire and easily the best show on TV right now) so I’ll draw this review to a close. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is the Western that even non-Western fans can get behind. In fact, it’s so drama-driven that fans of more traditional, action-driven old West epics may find it to be a bit of a bore. But for everyone with an open mind for the possibilities of Western storytelling, it’s a must see classic deserving of the title.

Final Score: A-

 

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The moral spectrum of pre-Clint Eastwood Westerns (High Noon being a notable exception) is fairly easy to delineate. The criminals wear black hats; the heroes wear white hats; and all is right at the end of the day. If there are Indians, they are the bad guys as well. 1953’s Hondo attempts to be a thematically complex film in the vein of High Noon, and while what it believes to be its own enlightened attitude is actually dated and somewhat offensive by today’s standards, Hondo‘s take on the eternal Western conflict between white settles and Native Americans is years ahead of its time. With a constantly surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of the Apache, despite their place as the film’s villains, Hondo is a frustrating film that makes steps forward in Native American portrayal in American cinema while also still indulging in racist Hollywood stereotypes.

John Wayne (The Searchers) plays “Hondo” Lane, a half-Apache loner making a living riding dispatch for the United States army in the Western territories as the peace treaty between the U.S. and the Apache has fallen apart because the U.S. broke the treaty and killed Apache without cause. After being ambushed by an Apache patrol, Hondo loses his horse and wanders on foot with his loyal dog Sam into the ranch of abandoned wife Angie Lowe (The Pope of Greenwich Village‘s Geraldine Page) and her young son Johnny (Lee Aaker). Angie’s husband is a worthless layabout and months ago he left Angie and Johnny behind to drink and gamble away his days in a nearby town, leaving Angie to the mercy of any natives who would happen upon her ranch.

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Despite Hondo’s warnings to abandon their ranch because the Apache are on the warpath, Angie and her son stay and Hondo rides off to continue his job. In his absence, an Apache war party led by the noble Vittorio (Michael Pate) invades the Lowe ranch. Angie tries to invoke the friendly relationship her family has had with the Apache in the past but it is to no avail. She and her son are only saved when her son tries to kill one of the Apache warriors to save his mother. Vittorio recognizes the courage of the young boy and makes him an official Apache warrior and leaves mother and son in peace though he tells Angie that she has until the next planting season to choose an Apache husband. And when Hondo realizes that the Lowe’s are in the path of the Apache, he makes his way back towards their ranch with Angie’s jealous husband in his wake.

I say that this film is progressive for the early 1950s but still terribly offensive by modern standards because it gives context for the Apache being pissed off and murdering people as well as creating an almost heroic Apache figure, but it also indulges in many of the worst “noble savage” stereotypes of Western storytelling and once Vittorio disappears from the film, the Apache devolve into a crazed murderous horde with seemingly no direction. But, when Vittorio is around and he’s testing both the Lowe family as well as the values of the half-Apache Hondo, the film seems like it actually has something to say. That thematic energy not only disappears upon his second act death, but the film loses any sense of context or meaning.

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Geraldine Page was nominated for an Academy Award for this film, and although I don’t know if I thought there was anything particularly Oscar-worthy about her performance, she was certainly a better performer than John Wayne. The only thing John Wayne’s ever had going for him was presence, and unlike The Searchers, he doesn’t get the opportunity to put his presence to a more subversive effect. The film also has Gunsmoke‘s James Arness in a smaller bit part, and it was clear just from his few lines that he was going to be somebody later on. John Wayne’s status as one of Hollywood’s most enduring icons has always been something that’s confused me. He’s not a great actor or even a particularly good one, and Hondo most certainly doesn’t rank in the top tier of Wayne roles.

Hondo starts off ponderously slow although it does thankfully take that time to establish the details of life on the Lowe farm as well as Hondo’s past living with the Apache. The action does eventually kick up once Hondo leaves the farm for the first time and realizes that Angie and Johnny being in danger isn’t something he can turn his back on (especially since her husband won’t be doing anything to help them). And for a while, Hondo becomes a surprisingly enjoyable old-fashioned oater. But, it sadly falls apart by the film’s end and the progressive stances it was trying to make early on become merely an interesting afterthought in the story of Hondo. For fans of Westerns, it’s worth a watch. Everybody else can skip out.

Final Score: B-

 

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I have a confession to make. I am a Westerns junkie. I obviously don’t think it’s the best film genre, but whether I can intellectually rationalize it or not, Westerns are my ultimate guilty pleasure genre. The elegant simplicity of the Old West mixed with gorgeous on-location shooting and the most mythic of American heroes, the Western gunslinger, make for a reassuring and consistently enjoyable experience. Even when it’s a by the books “oater,” I still find myself able to sit down and enjoy a movie and turn off the critical faculties that I’ve trained myself to have on at every juncture with other films. 1957’s Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is very much a traditional and conventional Western with virtually no regard for historical accuracy, but as far as classic Westerns go, it’s a fun take on the Wyatt Earp/Doc Holliday legend.

I really can’t overstate enough just how little historical accuracy is portrayed in this film. It’s virtually non-existent. Other than the fact that Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp were real people (as well as Wyatt’s brothers) and the fact that there was indeed a gunfight at the O.K. Corral with the Clanton brothers, I’m pretty sure that most of the stuff that happened in this movie was totally made up. That didn’t actually bother me any when I was watching it because at the end of the day, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is a fun little “oater.” But, if you want a little historical accuracy in your films about real people, you should probably keep that in mind if you sit down to watch this movie.

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In the late 1800s, lawman Wyatt Earp (Burt Lancaster) finds his way into the town of Fort Griffin chasing criminal rustler Ike Clanton. While there, Earp saves gambler/gunman Doc Holliday (Kirk Douglas) from a lynch mob after Holliday kills a man in self-defense. Later, Earp settles down in Dodge City, Kansas where becomes the town Marshall and it isn’t long before Doc Holliday makes his way there as well. Doc Holliday feels he owes Wyatt Earp his life, and he repays his debt by becoming Earp’s deputy and saving Wyatt’s neck on more than one occasion. After catching wind the Clantons have set up shop outside of Tombstone, Arizona, Earp and Holliday make their way to Tombstone which sets up the titular gunfight that serves as the film’s historical climax.

Kirk Douglas was fantastic as Doc Holliday. I’m not sure if his performance was as great as Val Kilmer’s almost effete take on the character in Tombstone (which became arguably the finest performance of Kilmer’s career), and it’s weird to me (as a kid bred on Tombstone) to never hear anybody say “I’ll be your huckleberry,” but Kirk Douglas finds the darker and mercurial side of the Holliday character. As opposed to Wyatt Earp’s more moralistic traditional hero, Kirk Douglas plays up how much of an anti-hero Doc Holliday really was. And there are scenes where he allows himself to become angry with his prostitute girlfriend Kate (Jo Van Fleet) where Douglas becomes legitimately menacing. It’s easy to see where his son Michael got his acting chops. Burt Lancaster was good as well although the part of Wyatt Earp required much less.

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I’ll keep this review short because I want to maybe try to finish Season 1 of Star Trek: The Next Generation today and I honestly don’t have much more to say about this movie than I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it a lot although I also recognize that there’s nothing special or unique about it (other than Kirk Douglas’s performance). So, if you’re a fan of classic Westerns and white hats versus black hats (though ironically enough, Wyatt Earp wears a black hat the entire film), Gunfight at the O.K. Corral doesn’t break any new ground, but it’s a fun way to pass two hours. And on one last side note, I just did some quick research about the actual events leading up to and surrounding the titular fight, and it’s kind of hilarious just how inaccurate this film is.

Final Score: B

 

I feel like I say this at least two or three times a month but it bears repeating. I’m not generally a fan of dramas before the 1960s (film noir is the major exception to that rule). 95% of the time, the Hays Code just kept them from being interesting. They’re all too (especially in comparison to modern dramas) clean and sterilized. So, it’s always great when I come across a non-noir drama from that era that still holds up really well even by today’s standards. Thanks in large part to a phenomenal performance from James Dean and a shockingly progressive story about racism against Mexicans in the 1920s-1950s, George Stevens’ inter-generational epic Giant was a fascinating (if flawed and extraordinarily too long) look into a time when the cinematic form was finally able to be a little more aware of the tragedies going on in the world around them (rather than serving as a reflection of the societal ideal and ignoring the uglier truths of American society) as well as taking an opportunity to tell a more morally complex and mature tale than the usual Hollywood fare of the time. If we only take the films nominated for Best Picture into account (because The Searchers wasn’t nominated but was easily the best film of that year), Giant was easily better than the over-the-top adventure tale of Around the World in Eighty Days.Giant’s not a perfect film, but I was shocked by how rarely my more cynical side wanted to come out to heckle the more idealistic/romantic side of period dramas of this era.

Taking place over nearly three decades on a nearly 600,000 acre cattle ranch in Texas, Giant is a sprawling film that unveils its ultimate message on greed and pride over the course of three and a half hours. On a trip to Maryland to buy a stallion, Jordan “Bick” Benedict (Rock Hudson) meets the beautiful and independent-minded Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor), and after only knowing each other for two days, they marry. Bick takes Leslie back with him to his family’s massive Texas cattle ranch which Bick runs along with his masculine and domineering sister Luz (Mercedes McCambridge). Bick maintains a rivalry with a surly and shiftless cattle hand named Jett Rink (James Dean) who inherits a small plot of land on the Benedict estate when Luz dies in a horse accident. Jett’s infatuation with Leslie as well his unwillingness to sell back his inherited land to the Benedicts causes an unspoken strife among the families. When, several years later, Jett strikes oil on his plot of land (and becomes one of the wealthiest men in Texas), Jett’s fortunes rise while the Benedicts slowly begin to decline and their class snobbery suddenly begins to reverse. Faced with either selling his land to Jett or giving up the family trade of cattle to pursue the oil business, Bick decides to enter the oil game even though he doesn’t achieve the same kind of wealth as Jett. Throughout this, we get a recurring subplot about the horrendous conditions that the Mexican ranchhands working Bick’s land must face and the complete lack of empathy from all of the white ranchmen (and eventual oil barons) considering their plight. Only Leslie seems to have any sympathy for them, and twenty years later (when she and Bick have grown children), the eldest son Jordy (Dennis Hopper) marries one of the local Mexican girls causing a local scandal which forces Bick to come to terms with his own prejudice.

Despite the film’s absurdly exhaustive length (serious cuts could have and should have been made to this film. Just because you’re movie is about Texas doesn’t mean it needs to be as big as Texas), Giant had plenty going for it. First of all, James Dean could have had a career as huge as Marlon Brando’s if he hadn’t died in a car accident at the age of 24. Giant was the second film he received a Best Actor nomination for (though, honestly, he was a supporting player in this film) and (despite being in the wrong category) it was well deserved. He brought a wounded, brooding sensitivity to the role. Their was such a fierce naturalism and realism to his performance that he was acting in an entirely different style and class than everyone else in the film. This was the turning point from the classical Laurence Oliver style theatrical acting of the past to the more modern, method style employed by a lot of the top actors of the 60s and 70s (Brando, Nicholson, Hoffman, etc). James Dean was at the forefront of that, and it’s hard for me to believe that Yul Brynner was better in The King and I. James Dean was acting circles around everyone else in the movie. That’s not to insult the performances of Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor. They just came from an entirely different school of acting. Rock Hudson also had a more sophisticated sensitivity and Elizabeth Taylor’s intellectual ferocity was a refreshing mix-up from most of the women of the day. However, there was zero romantic chemistry between Hudson and Taylor (though perhaps I’m reading too much into that because I know that Rock Hudson was gay. However, James Dean was bisexual and he just dripped with sexuality).

While the Best Director Oscar certainly should have gone to John Ford for The Searchers (he wasn’t nominated. The Academy really fucked it up that year in that regard), George Stevens’ win that year is at least bearable. Giant is full to the brim of breath-taking shots of the Texas plains, and his camera (and film) patiently capture the transformation of these plains from tens of thousands of cattle to an endless lane of giant oil rigs. Similarly, the film captures the dichotomy between the ever-growing wealth of the Benedicts and Jett compared to the endless poverty and subjugation of the peasant Mexican farmers. It manages to accomplish all of this without going into huge grand speeches and when Bick realizes the error of his ways, it comes at a natural pace (and he isn’t completely cured so to speak). As mentioned, George Stevens’ wrested brilliant performances from his leads and knew better than to try and restrain the fiery James Dean with the contemporary conventions of that age. At the end of the day (and I don’t know how much credit to give to Stevens and how much to give to the cinematographer), Giant is simply a gorgeously shot film. If only he had known to put the same sort of care into editing it down to a manageable length.

Seriously though. This movie is more bloated than Lawrence of Arabia (the next movie in my instant queue, Doctor Zhivago, is another three and half hour David Lean film. Oy vey). If George Stevens (and his editor) had shaved like forty five minutes or so off the 201 minute running time, this could have been an “A-” film. As it stands, it’s full of scenes that drag on a couple minutes too long. It can be repetitive, and there are just simply a ton of moments that could have been excised and not lost any of the film’s magic. Regardless, it’s still a good movie even if its excess keeps it from greatness. If you enjoy older films, it’s easy to recommend. James Dean only has a credited role in three films (he had tiny parts in a couple of other films), and unlike say Marilyn Monroe, he is an American sex symbol/icon/film legend deserving of the title. He was just a raw, natural talent that was taken from us too soon and for fans of good acting, his performance is worth the price of admission alone.

Final Score: B

I’ve opined in the past on here about films that have been deemed “classics” over the years that I feel are undeserving of that title. Lawrence of Arabia and 2001: A Space Odyssey are arguably the two most high-profile films I’ve dubbed as being over-rated throughout this last year, but there are plenty of other films from the pre-1980’s era whose legend I have never been able to fully appreciate. As a matter of fact, when it comes to pre-1970’s dramas, only foreign films from masters like Kurosawa, Fellini, and Bergman have really been able to impress me as our American body of work seems too “safe” and conventional by modern standards. Isn’t it exciting then when you finally watch movies that are deserving of the legend that surrounds them? 1952’s High Noon is always brought up in conversations for “the greatest Western of all time” and while I may still feel as if that award should go to Unforgiven (and if books/TV are permitted in the discussion, then Lonesome Dove), High Noon remains a refreshing and (remarkably still) radical take on the most American of film genres.

On the day that he has married his young bride Amy (Grace Kelly in her film debut) and is set to retire and move away, Marshall Will Kane (Oscar winning Gary Cooper) faces the unexpected return of notorious criminal Frank Miller (Ian McDonald) on the noon train. As Frank’s friends and fellow outlaws (including a young Lee Van Cleef) wait at the train depot for Frank’s arrival, Kane tries to find a group of deputies to help him keep his town safe one last time. Taking place almost entirely in real time (with constant shots of clocks to remind how close it is til noon), we spend Kane’s last hour or so in town as slowly but surely, the cowardly residents he had spent his life protecting begin to turn their back on him. Whether it’s his top deputy Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges), a smooth-tongued politician, a gung-ho glory hound who chickens when he realizes it would be just him and Kane, or any of the other men in town who are too afraid to put up a fight, it quickly becomes apparent that it will just be Kane versus Frank Miller and his men. As the clock rushes down to high noon, will Kane turn tell and run like everyone in town (including his wife) begs him or will he stay and fight (and most likely die) to be the hero this town doesn’t even deserve.

It’s really hard to even begin discussing the technical brilliance of this movie. At a time when black and white was just starting to lose its hold over mainstream cinema, High Noon remains one of the most gorgeously shot films in history. Every shadow and play of light was intentionally staged for ultimate dramatic effect. Whether we’re speaking about gritty close-ups of the bad guys at the train station or the long aerial shots of Gary Cooper striding alone through town, each shot was set up to perfection. The film’s editing was a marvel and at a mere hour and a half running time, High Noon remains one of the best Hollywood examples of delivering an intellectually and emotionally satisfying story in an efficient length. With plenty of great dramatic cuts back and forth between people and locations in this small town, the camera never stayed stationary for too long, and while this is certainly not the most fast-paced Western ever made (it’s arguably one of the slowest), people who appreciate the ins and outs of movie making can get lost in the craftsmanship on display here while still appreciating one of the most impressively psychological and suspenseful Westerns ever made.

Gary Cooper won the second Oscar of his illustrious career for this movie (the other was Sergeant York), and it’s very easy to see why. Will Kane may not necessarily be the most complex part for an actor. He’s an almost archetypical heroic Western lawman. As far as one can surmise from the movie (having not read the short story the film is based on), he was virtually without flaws. So, it says something about Cooper’s performance that such a flat character as Will Kane can be so emotionally engaging. Like a hero out of an ancient Greek morality play, Will is this force for good in a town where no one else is willing to do what’s right. Gary Cooper seems to embody the classic leading man virtues and heroic strengths while at the same time letting us see into those moments when Will is starting to doubt if this road is the right one. And as it begins to dawn on Will that no one else in this town is going to support him, Kane’s heartbreak and frustration is etched on every single line of Gary Cooper’s face. Gary Cooper’s performance in this film is perhaps the prime example of great acting transforming an otherwise average character.

Unlike most Westerns out there, High Noon avoids the normal conventions of cowboys versus indians, man against nature, or even the genre staple of regular action sequences. The film does end with one of the most satisfying shoot-outs in the genre, but the ending works because you spent the rest of the movie waiting for all hell to break loose. When the criminals finally come striding into town, you care more about what happens to Will Kane (and the inevitable fates of his foes) because you saw every desperate second of the build-up to this fight. There is only one action sequence in the movie (unless you count a fist fight between Will and Harvey), and that is okay because the film has made it such a sweet payoff. After watching this whole town turn its back on Will and yet he manages to bear this burden even when he could have easily skipped town and no one would have blamed him, there is a catharsis that one bland gunfight after another would never have been able to provide. The film has a very deliberate ethical and moral message that it wants to make, and while I usually find such moralizing in “classic” films stale and boring, the film wisely lets you understand why the men of the town wouldn’t want to go on the same suicide mission that Will has chosen to undertake and therefore it manages to not come off as too preachy.

For fans of Westerns, this is one of the seminal entries in the genre (along with others such as The Outlaw Josey Wales, Unforgiven, andThe Searchers), and if you’ve managed not to see this classic deserving of the name, you need to make it a top priority. Even for non-fans of the Western genre, this film does away with so much of the bloated action, excess that bogs so many of those films down (and that results in them being guilty pleasures of mine rather than films I can celebrate enjoying) that you, too may find something to appreciate in this brilliant work of popular fiction. The fact that this film lost to The Greatest Show on Earth (the worst film to ever win Best Picture at the Oscars) for Best Picture remains one of the greatest crimes of the Academy Awards. As a Western fan, this is one of the movies that reminds me why I fell in love with the genre in the first place and there aren’t many movies in this realm of cinema that can come close to topping its delights.

Final Score: A

The Searchers

 I’ve reviewed over 80 films for this blog. I mean that’s a ridiculously small percentage of the several thousand films that compromise the master list for this blog, but you’d think that at some point during these 80 films, I would have reviewed a movie that had John Wayne in it. He’s one of the biggest movie stars of all time, and you’d think he’d have popped up by now. Well, he hadn’t, until today that is. I just re-watched what is probably his best movie, John Ford’s all-time classic, 1956’s The Searchers. I kind of think John Wayne films are a wee bit on the over-rated side, but this is one of the best Westerns ever made. Even if you aren’t a fan of Westerns, this is a must see classic.

Taking place in the years immediately after the end of the Civil War, The Searchers is about Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), a veteran of the Civil War who has returned home to his family in Texas. Almost immediately upon his return, Ethan’s family is viciously murdered by a group of marauding Comanches. The whole family is murdered except for the youngest daughter, Debbie (Natalie Wood), who is kidnapped by the tribe. Ethan spends the next five years of his life, along with the only other man willing to help him out, Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), trying to find Debbie and battling the wilderness and Comanche in his quest to get his niece back.

I don’t think that John Wayne is a particularly talented actor. The fact that he won an Oscar for True Grit is just dumb beyond belief. I know he’s one of cinema’s most beloved leading men but his movies just don’t really do it for me. He’s great in this movie. He’s absolutely spectacular. Ethan Edwards is a complex and downright unlikeable guy. He’s racist as hell and treats everybody around him poorly. John Wayne always plays the “white hat” in Westerns, but he makes a stunning anti-hero in this picture. You really believe that he might shoot his niece for becoming one of the tribe. If John Wayne was ever going to win an Oscar, it should have been for this movie, not the caricature of himself that was True Grit. John Ford knows how to get the most out of The Duke.

This is often cited as one of the most influential films of all time, and it’s easy to see why. As a technical accomplishment, it’s inspiring. The cinematography in the film is breath-taking and there are so many wide vista shots that you can easily just soak in the beauty of the film. This is a Western epic, and the various shots and techniques used to make the film would influence the genre for the next 50 years. John Ford was probably the best man to ever make Westerns and this is his magnum opus. It may have dragged at times and the script could have used some editing, but from a direction stand point, it’s just phenomenal.

If you’re a fan of Westerns, I’m guessing that you’ve probably already seen this film. It’s often cited as being one of the greatest Westerns ever made, and while I can name a handful of Westerns that I think are better, it definitely deserves that reputation. Even if you think Westerns are trite, cliché, and overly romantic affairs, this is a fairly dark and (at the time) controversial Western picture. This is easily the best movie that John Wayne ever made (the only other one that I put near its league is The Cowboys), so if you consider yourself a real movie fan, you need to check this one out.

Final Score: A

Before high school, for reasons that were probably no more rational than me just being difficult, I hated Westerns. There was something about watching men ride around in black and white movies on horses fighting Indians that just held no favor for me. However, during my sophomore year, my dad sat me down and forced me to watch Lonesome Dove, and I’ve been in love with Westerns ever since. Not all of them are great, and a lot of them tell practically the same black hat vs. white hat story over and over again, but if you put a half-decent Western in front of me, I can pretty much guarantee that I can sit down and enjoy it in some way. The movie I just watched, the original 1957 version of 3:10 to Yuma wasn’t a great Western, but it was still entertaining enough and original in its own way for me to enjoy it.

3:10 to Yuma is the story of two entirely different men. One is Dan Evans (Van Heflin), a farmer whose family is suffering due to an extreme drought, and he doesn’t have the money to keep his cattle watered and alive. The other is Ben Wade (Glenn Ford), a notorious bandit that has terrorized the county with his gang. Dan witnesses Ben and his gang robbing a stagecoach and murdering the coachman. Dan and some of the town’s locals capture Ben, and due to the reward money, Dan volunteers to take Ben to another town to put him on a train to a prison. When Dan finally realizes how tough the odds are of finishing this assignment, he must decide whether his honor is worth as much as his life.

 The story and pacing of the film aren’t anything particularly special, although it was refreshing to watch an older Western that was as intent on exploring the character and psychology of the men on screen as it was on big shoot-outs or fight scenes. This is honestly probably the slowest moving Western I’ve watched since High Noon, but I mean that as a compliment since it wanted to be more than just an action movie. Glenn Ford did a spectacular job as the charming and fast-talking Ben Wade. I think this might be the first Western I’ve watched that had him in a leading role, but I can’t wait to see more. Despite the fact that he was a cold-blooded murderer, you couldn’t help but like him.

If you like Westerns, you should check this one out. My dad tells me that the remake from the 2000’s with Russel Crowe and Christian Bale was better, but I haven’t had a chance to see that one yet, so I can’t make that judgment call. This was no Unforgiven or The Outlaw Josey Wales, but not every movie can be an all-time classic. If you’re just wanting to see an old time good guys and bad guys action-drama, you could do a lot worse than this one.

Final Score: B