Red Dead Redemption 2 is here at long last, so you can spend dozens of hours fighting off cattle rustlers, riding off into sunsets and confronting an ugly legacy of colonialism — once the massive game finishes downloading and installing, anyway.
If you want to get in the proper mood for Red Dead (or rest your thumbs between sessions), there are plenty of classic Westerns you can watch to pass the time, from classic tales of white hats versus black hats to superheroic reimaginings of the whole genre. So, saddle up, holster your six-shooter and pour yourself some rotgut whiskey while you experience some of the greatest Westerns in Hollywood history.
High Noon (1952)
On the surface, High Noon may look like a straight-up tale of vengeance in the Old West, but dig a little deeper, and you'll find a poignant allegory for McCarthyism in the 1950s U.S. Will Kane (Gary Cooper) is a marshal in a small town called Hadleyville and has recently married Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly), an observant Quaker. The two are ready to live a quiet life, when outlaw Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald) threatens to exact his long-awaited revenge on Kane. No matter where Kane turns for help, he's met with indifference or hostility. High Noon is not only a fantastic character drama; it's also a poignant commentary on how we often rely on others to maintain a veneer of civilization without pitching in ourselves.
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The Searchers (1956)
I don't want to be the bearer of bad news, but most John Wayne films are not as good as you remember them. They tend to be arch, at best, and simplistic, at worst. That's not the case with The Searchers, though, which critics routinely praise as one of the best Westerns ever created. Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, a Civil War veteran who returns to his estranged family in Texas, only to find that his warlike nature doesn't mesh well with the peaceful settlers. When Comanches kidnap his 8-year-old niece, Edwards sets out to find her, even though his search will take years to complete. One of the big draws in the film is Chief Cicatriz (Henry Brandon), a ruthless Comanche war chief with a sensible rationale for his actions.
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Hombre is based on a novel by Elmore Leonard, and it shows. The film is dark, complex and morally gray, with a plot that takes a hard look at all of its characters and doesn't let any of them off the hook. John Russell (Paul Newman) is a white man who was raised by the Apache, and he doesn't feel quite at home in either world. He takes a job guarding a stagecoach transporting a diverse band of travelers, none of whom takes a particularly kind view of the Apache or the tribe's protégé. When Mexican bandits target the stagecoach, Russell tries to coordinate a defense, but doing so will require the prejudiced passengers to put their trust in him. Naturally, not everyone is willing to do that.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is based on a true story, from the larger-than-life characters to the climactic ending. In the film, Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) is the charismatic leader of the Hole in the Wall Gang, while his trusty sidekick, the Sundance Kid (Robert Redford), is arguably the best shot in the West. But when their robberies attract too much attention, Butch and the Kid flee the country, along with Butch's girlfriend, Etta Place (Katharine Ross). The three flee to Bolivia but find that a robber's lifestyle isn't so easy to leave behind. The film balances snappy dialogue and laugh-out-loud jokes with plenty of action and a legitimately moving ending.
Little Big Man (1970)
Westerns don't often examine the story from a Native American perspective, but if Little Big Man is any indication, they should try it a little more often. Dustin Hoffman plays Jack Crabb, a 121-year-old veteran of the Great Sioux War. Having been rescued by the Cheyenne as a child, Crabb lived about half his life as a white man and half his life as a Native American, astutely observing the absurdities in both ways of life. During his long life, Jack does it all, from fighting off soldiers as a Cheyenne brave to selling snake oil in frontier towns. Jack's adventure comes to a head, though, when Gen. George Armstrong Custer (Richard Mulligan) enlists him as a pathfinder just before the rout at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
Blazing Saddles (1974)
Blazing Saddles is one of those rare, perfect satires that also works as a legitimate example of the genre it's parodying. Bart (Cleavon Little) is an unassuming railroad worker, until dastardly Attorney General Hedley (yes, Hedley) Lamarr (Harvey Korman) contrives a land-grab scheme. As the first-ever black sheriff of Rock Ridge, Bart realizes that the gentle townsfolk in his charge are actually a bunch of racist yokels. But with the help of the sharpshooting Waco Kid (Gene Wilder), Bart fights back against Lamarr and the corrupt Gov. William J. Lepetomane (Mel Brooks, naturally, who also directed the film). Crass, politically incorrect and vulgar in both English and Yiddish, Blazing Saddles is nevertheless one of the funniest films ever made and a delightful love letter to the classic Western.
The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)
Clint Eastwood is a fantastic actor, but film buffs know that he does his best work in the director's chair, as he did with this film. In The Outlaw Josey Wales, Eastwood also stars as the titular character: a simple farmer who swears revenge on the bloodthirsty Union Army Capt. Terrill (Bill McKinney). As Wales traverses the country, he picks up a bizarre array of sidekicks and hangers-on, including Cherokee rifleman Lone Watie (Chief Dan George) and addled settler Laura Lee (Sondra Locke). The main thrust of the story is about family — the one Wales lost and the one he inadvertently makes for himself. But the film also has a lot to say about greed, honor and racism, particularly the baseless dehumanization of Native Americans.
Credit: Bettmann Archive
The classic Western makes the cowboy into a larger-than-life hero and the gunfight into a climactic battle between the forces of good and evil. But what if the Old West wasn't the staging ground for a grand moral conflict? What if, instead, it was just an ugly, dirty, nasty place where everyday people did ugly, dirty, nasty things — for no real reason? In Unforgiven, director Eastwood strips all the romance out of the traditional Western narrative, producing a film that's just as unsettling as it is gripping. Eastwood stars alongside Morgan Freeman, Gene Hackman and Richard Harris. When two small-time crooks assault a prostitute in Big Whiskey, Wyoming, Eastwood's Will Munny takes on a contract to punish the attackers — which doesn't sit well with Sheriff "Little" Bill Daggett (Hackman).
Credit: Everett Collection
True Grit (2010)
In 1969, Henry Hathaway directed a competent adaptation of Charles Portis' novel "True Grit," starring John Wayne. The film was fine but eschewed a lot of the weirdness and dark comedy that made the book so memorable. But no one knows weirdness and dark comedy like Joel and Ethan Coen, who directed a different version of the film in 2010. Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) is a tough-talking 14-year-old girl who hires a U.S. marshal called Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to avenge her father's murder. The only problem is that Mattie views her quest as a righteous, even holy, obligation, while all Rooster sees is one more job to fund his liquor habit. The film offers lots of laughs but also has something to say about faith and loyalty.
Credit: Lorey Sebastian
While "superhero" and "Western" are not two genres that go together that often (please, no one bring up the disastrous Jonah Hex adaptation), they do share some similarities. They're often about a lone man, right on the edge of the civilized world, willing to do the right thing, even though he has nothing to gain and everything to lose. That's definitely the case with Logan, the definitive(ish) ending to the X-Men film series. In the not-too-distant future, Wolverine, aka Logan (Hugh Jackman), must escort young mutant Laura (Dafne Keen) across the blasted Texas/Mexico border, up through Oklahoma and beyond. Pursued by both his past and unscrupulous agents who want Laura dead, a weary and weakened Logan must make one last stand against the bigots, abusers and predators of the world.
Credit: Ben Rothstein