Western Roundup: Five of my Favorite Westerns
From John Ford and John Wayne to Tim Holt and Hopalong Cassidy, Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea to George O’Brien and Johnny Mack Brown, and all points in between, I love Westerns! I’m truly delighted to have the opportunity to share my deep affection for the genre at Classic Movie Hub and hope my pieces will remind readers of some favorite viewing memories while also pointing them in the direction of new Westerns to check out. By way of introduction, here are five of my all-time favorite Westerns:
This deceptively simple film often cited as one of director Ford’s personal favorites, encapsulates everything I love about Westerns, with a great — if relatively lesser-known — cast in awe-inspiring locations, backed by beautiful music. Ben Johnson, who was still a couple decades away from winning an Oscar, and Harry Carey Jr. play a pair of nice young cowboys who sign on to guide a wagon train of Mormons headed by Elder Wiggs (Ward Bond). Things get complicated when the wagon train runs into a nasty outlaw family headed by Charles Kemper; look for a young James Arness playing one of his sons. The otherwise peaceable Mormons and their guides need to find a way to stay alive.
This movie has it all, from memorable little bits of business (Carey whipping off his hat and bowing whenever he greets beautiful Kathleen O’Malley) to the majestic grandeur of Moab, Utah, along with Monument Valley. The film has an unusually realistic feel, as if Ford and cameraman Bert Glennon just happened upon the group and started shooting, a feeling which is underscored by unplanned moments left in the film, including a horse fall and a dog shredding Bond’s pants (!). And of course, Johnson, one of the great movie horsemen, does all his own riding scenes. Yet as seemingly “natural” as it all is, this is also John Ford and company creating an exquisite piece of American art. I can’t watch a long shot of the wagon train moving forward, with the Sons of the Pioneers singing softly in the background, without tearing up at the movie’s beauty.
Saddle Tramp (Hugo Fregonese, 1950)
I have a deep love for both Joel McCrea and colorful Universal Pictures Westerns, and this movie, first seen by me at a young age, is part of the reason why. I didn’t know it when I first saw it, but offscreen Joel McCrea was a rancher who loved getting up in the morning and going to work on a horse, whether at his ranch or on a movie set; indeed, with a couple of exceptions, McCrea spent all of the ’50s making Westerns. Here he plays footloose cowboy Chuck Conner, who visits an old friend (John Ridgely) and is shortly thereafter stunned to find himself the guardian of four young boys when his widowed friend dies in an accident. Before long he also finds himself protecting a young girl named Della (Wanda Hendrix), who’s on the run from an abusive uncle (Ed Begley Sr.).
Like most Universal Westerns, this film has a great cast, including John McIntire as a child-hating rancher and McIntire’s real-life wife Jeanette Nolan as a kindly woman who whimsically believes food Chuck’s been snitching for the kids has been taken by “the little people.” John Russell, the future star of TV’s Lawman, is also on hand as a ranch foreman who clashes with Chuck. I love the way the movie encompasses humor, romance, action, and poignancy. A closing scene where Chuck, now a settled man with responsibilities, wistfully watches geese fly away is a moment of great depth; though Chuck is a good man who realizes what he’s gained is far greater than what he’s lost, the film takes time to acknowledge that he also feels a sense of loss that his traveling days are over. That’s a fully realized character and a marvelous piece of cinema in what at the time was probably thought of as “just another Universal Western.”
This movie seems to have received more critical appreciation in recent years, but I’d love for many more film fans to become acquainted with it. It’s a gripping and gritty adult Western with an outstanding lead performance by Robert Taylor and superb location filming in Utah. Taylor plays no-nonsense trail guide Buck Wyatt, whose employer (John McIntire) gives him the job of escorting 140 women from Missouri to their California valley, where the men are longing for wives. The women, including Denise Darcel, Julie Bishop, and Hope Emerson, want new lives and sign up despite being told that one in three of them won’t survive the trip. The odds get even worse when most of the men hired for the journey abandon their jobs, leaving only the Japanese cook (Henry Nakamura) and a hired hand (Pat Conway) to help Buck. The women refuse to quit and quickly pick up the basics of the rough work which is part of wagon train life.
This is a surprisingly tough film for the era, with a fairly high body count; Buck meting out instant “trail justice” is a particularly shocking moment, as is the unseen yet disturbing crime which precedes it. There are great roles for a number of people, including Nakamura as the insightful, spunky cook, Emerson as a hearty seaman’s widow, Lenore Lonergan as a quiet girl with glasses who has amazing aim with a gun, and Beverly Dennis as a young unwed mother; the film’s incorporation of the latter storyline, of a girl seeking a new life for herself and her unborn child, is another aspect which makes the film different from typical early ’50s fare. The film’s finale has a profound emotional impact, having accompanied these brave women on their journey. A superb film from start to finish.
Bend of the River (Anthony Mann, 1952)
It could be argued that Anthony Mann made even better Westerns than the fine Bend of the River, but for me, this film defines that funny yet evocative term, “movie comfort food.” It’s a movie I’ve seen time and again, yet rather than tiring of it, each time I love and appreciate it more. In a fast-paced opening sequence, cowboy Glynn McLyntock (James Stewart) saves a stranger, Emerson Cole (Arthur Kennedy), from a hangman’s noose. Each man has a violent past, but while McLyntock is determined for a new start, heading to Oregon with a wagon train, the love of Laura (Julie Adams) may not be enough to keep Cole on the straight and narrow. Eventually, McLyntock and Cole’s friendship will be irreparably ended with a betrayal.
This is another Universal Pictures Western which has a tremendous amount going for it, starting with the performance of James Stewart; he may be an outdoorsman who knows what to do even in the direst of circumstances, but that’s also real fear you see in his expressive eyes. The script by Borden Chase is excellent (“You’ll be seeing me!”), and there are marvelous set pieces including an Indian fight, a saloon shoot-out, and an exciting escape from town, racing horses onto a paddlewheeler. The film also boasts gorgeous Oregon locations and a typically deep Universal cast with great faces like Rock Hudson, Lori Nelson, Jay C. Flippen, Harry Morgan, Chubby Johnson, and Frank Ferguson, among others. It’s grand entertainment start to finish.
Ride Lonesome (Budd Boetticher, 1959)
Ride Lonesome is my favorite of the “Ranown” films starring Randolph Scott and directed by Budd Boetticher, just managing to edge out Seven Men from Now (1956). To my way of thinking, the compact 73-minute Ride Lonesome is a perfect Western in every regard. It features the classic Western theme of a group of disparate travelers forced by circumstances to band together, including bounty hunter Ben Brigade (Scott) and Billy John (James Best), a killer Brigade is going to turn in for a reward; Carrie Lane (Karen Steele), who’s been waiting for her husband to return to the stagecoach station he manages; and nice guy outlaws Sam (Pernell Roberts) and Whit (James Coburn), who wants to turn in Billy John themselves so they can receive amnesty and start a new life as ranchers. Mescalero Indians and Billy John’s brother Frank (Lee Van Cleef) are all after the group.
The Burt Kennedy script is outstanding, with Brigade revealed to be a man with a tragic past whose capture of Billy John is part of a larger plan only made clear near movie’s end. Roberts is almost shockingly good in a charismatic performance as the genial Sam, a revelation for anyone mainly familiar with him as dour Adam Cartwright, and Coburn, in his film debut, is so delightful that the unselfish and canny Scott recommended that lines be added to the script to give him more screen time. There’s not a wasted moment in the movie, which builds to an unforgettable ending. I really love this film and revisit it regularly, and I hope anyone not yet familiar with it will give it a look.
– Laura Grieve for Classic Movie Hub
Laura can be found at her blog, Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings, where she’s been writing about movies since 2005, and on Twitter at @LaurasMiscMovie. A lifelong film fan, Laura loves the classics including Disney, Film Noir, Musicals, and Westerns. She regularly covers Southern California classic film festivals. Laura will scribe on all things western at the ‘Western RoundUp’ for CMH.