Happy 88th birthday to Clint Eastwood, an icon of masculinity and one hell of a shot. The “man with no name” was born on May 31, 1930, putting his astrological sun in Gemini and moon in Leo. But if Eastwood has any astrological sign, it’s gunslinger. The American actor’s claim to fame in the Western genre shaped the classic anti-hero character we hate to love.
We’re celebrating Eastwood’s birthday in the same fashion we honored Horror’s Merchant of Menace, Vincent Price: with a movie marathon. (Accessorize with a Stetson, bandana, buckskin, and whiskey, if you care.
Here are 10 of the best classic Western films that will have you saying to that guy who cut you off in traffic: “in this world there’s two kind of people, my friend— those with loaded guns and those who dig. You dig.”
Eastwood stars as the mysterious bounty hunter referred to often as Joe in the epic 1966 spaghetti Western The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. Joe joins up with Mexican outlaw Tuco (played by fellow Western star and notorious bad guy Eli Wallach), and a series of back-stabbings, shoot-outs, rescues, hangings, and a gnarly bridge explosion ensue. The final installment in Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy, this remains one of the most essential Westerns ever made.
Never heard of it? The only film to be directed my Marlon Brando, this 1961 Western was supposed to be helmed by Stanley Kubrick, but fell into the hands of the brooding Brando, who cast himself as the lead outlaw, Rio. Rio and his mentor, “Dad,” steal gold from a Mexican bank, but Dad double crossed Rio and the young outlaw ends up in jail. Later released, he finds Dad in California and falls for his daughter. Although it doesn’t have the best reviews, there’s a hypnotic blend of visual depth, Brando mystique, and sappy romance that makes the film a classic.
Dubbed “unforgettably strange” and a “brilliant wester,” Johnny Guitar follows saloon owner Vienna, played by the classic Hollywood actress Joan Crawford. Her portrayal gives us a new vision of who the hard-nosed Western protagonist is. She’s a badass woman. Even the “bad guy” in this film is a “bad woman” (Emma Small). Considered one of the first adult Westerns, Johnny Guitar was filmed with dramatic external shots while the characters are faced with internal existential questions of self-hood. It’s not all shoot-em-up and spurs, but rather a mental gun fight, playing out in the setting of a rough and tumble saloon.
What would an Western indie film look like? Well, imagine a psychedelic ’70s Western packing bizarre characters and hallucinogenic scenes following a black-clad gunfighter, El Topo, who traverses the desert on horseback. Visually strange and unnerving, El Topo has been the topic of much critique and debate, but stands as a staple (albeit experimentation) in the Western genre. Let’s just say, David Lynch is one of its top fanboys.
Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly star in what is often considered the best Western film ever made. Marshal Will Kane (Cooper) plans to leave New Mexico with his new wife (Kelly) only to discover a local criminal seeks vengeance on him. Nominated for both Academy Awards and Golden Globes, High Noon has been preserved in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” In other words, expect traditional Western staples like chases, gunfights, and a cocky protagonist to be outshined by vulnerable dialogue. Some consider the film corny, but those critics don’t seem to understand they’re watching a Western that attempted to maintain tradition while explore the emotional landscape of its characters.
In a word: classic. An anti-High Noon response, Rio Bravo was created by Western star John Wayne and director Howard Hawks as a foil for everything “soft” and “un-American” they hated about the 1952 classic. Most notably, how Marshal Will couldn’t handle the heat alone. The response was Sheriff John T. Chance and a hyper-traditional, quintessential Western where the leading man shows no fear, has no inner turmoil, and kicks ass all day long. However, the classic, desolate Western look and witty script simply works. With a 100-percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a preservation spot in the National Film Registry, we would never curate a list of classic Westerns without Rio Bravo … despite the fact that Sherriff Chance needs to chill out and invest in a skincare routine.
For the comedy lover who can’t sit through a serious (often slow) Western, you have Mel Brooks to thank for the brilliant spoof Blazing Saddles. Starring Cleavon Little opposite Gene Wilder, the film is a satire on the racism blotted out by classic Hollywood accounts of the American Wild West.
As in Billy the Kid, duh! A popular character in the Western genre, this vintage 1943 film follows the life and loves of Billy the Kid, his partnership with Doc Holliday, and rivalry with lawman Pat Garrett. Out-starring the lot is a young Jane Russell in her breakout role, which quickly turned the actress into a symbol of lust and power, so much that in later marketing she was the only actor billed on the posters. It’s been called one of those “so bad it’s good” films … but we’d watch it over The Room any day.
It’s only right to honor Clint Eastwood with two appearances on our list of best classic Westerns. After all, A Fistfull of Dollars is pure panning gold and Eastwood’s first appearance as a leading man. The iconic Man With No Name/Joe comes upon Mexican village San Miguel and inserts himself into a power struggle between Mexican soldiers and the lording Rojo brothers. Here, Eastwood sets claim to his saddle throne, delivering a gunslinger unlike the good-willed, shoot-only-when-shot-at hero Wayne normalized. Eastwood made history by adding gruff to the anti-hero, now compelled by survival and greed as much as sort of doing the right thing. Plus, Eastwood’s cool delivery is how we wish we spoke in real life. (“Get three donuts ready … my mistake, four.”)
Nnot the vom-worthy 2016 remake that relied on big-name stars to get us into the theater. Plot: A Mexican village hires American gunslingers to protect them from evil local outlaws and eventually train the villagers to defend themselves. Vibe: Period-Western at its purest. Lore: The film was initially adapted from a Japanese film, Seven Samurais, and reformatted to the gun slinging West. Action: Killer. Score: Killer. An overall straight shot.
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