I can’t quite figure out the AFI. Their ballot for the Westerns included Blazing Saddles, The Last Picture Show and Lone Star (none of which appear here, because I consider them a comedy, a drama and a mystery), yet none of those made their top 10. If I were to rank all 116 Westerns I have seen (43 on their ballot, a low number for me), only 3 of my top 17 were not on their ballot (2 were spaghetti westerns, which aren’t American films, but neither are David Lean’s, but they tend to be on the ballots and the other was last year’s 3:10 to Yuma, which might have been too late). However, numbers 18 to 24 are completely absent from their ballot. While the AFI included such overrated films as Shane (which actually made their top 10) and How the West Was Won, and films I hate like Cat Ballou (which also made their 10) and True Grit, somehow none of the following films were even on the ballot: The Professionals, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, The Bravados, Winchester ’73, Tin Star, A Fistful of Dollars or The Proposition, all extremely good (and even though I dislike it, I find it odd that the original Cimarron, which won Best Picture in 1931, was not on the ballot.) With the additional absence of The Naked Spur, I would think they don’t like Anthony Mann films, and the fact that the only two post 1985 films on the ballot were the two best picture winners seems to indicate they don’t get films like Open Range and The Three Burials of Melquaides Estrada. Anyway, I ignored their ballot and went with my own list. Six of the films are the same and one other from their list was my number 11.
10 – The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford) – 1962
“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” One of the best remembered lines in movie history and it pretty much sums it up. A perfect way to wind down the career of John Ford, Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne, in a story that ties together the old west with the incoming society.
9 – High Noon (Fred Zinneman) – 1952
In some ways the opposite of On the Waterfront, a metaphor for not co-operating with HUAC, this is still the perfect Gary Cooper performance. It has taken some critical hits over the years, but it still stands strong.
8 – McCabe and Mrs Miller (Robert Altman) – 1971
When young Keith Carradine stands on the bridge, you think, some people can’t just help getting killed. That moment seems to sum up the whole film and especially McCabe. And the Leonard Cohen songs are so perfectly used.
7 – The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Sergio Leone) – 1966
My wife refuses to forgive me for making her sit through all 3 hours in one of the most uncomfortable theaters anywhere (Cinema 21 in Portland, OR), but it really is worth it to see the full version of the film on the big screen if you ever get the chance. The inspiration for Stephen King’s masterful Dark Tower character of Roland.
6 – Dances with Wolves (Kevin Costner) – 1990
Kevin Costner made his career playing heroes before winning an Oscar for directing. In spite of continual critical drubbings, he is a very talented director and a solid actor and was the biggest star on the planet when I was a student at his alma mater, Villa Park High School, so I will always defend him. This film suffers in retrospect because it shouldn’t have won Best Picture over GoodFellas, but it’s a good enough film to have won in most years. Just not that one.
5 – Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill) – 1969
Westerns are often overly serious. This and The Professionals are the only two films in my top 25 that could be called comedies. This was also one of the 3 Westerns in 1969 that showed the new ideas about what a Western could be.
4 – Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone) – 1969
Henry Fonda showed up on set with brown contacts and Leone told him that he wanted those deep blue eyes on screen when he cold-bloodedly killed a family. This film also has one of the all time great movie scores by the master, Ennio Morricone.
3 – The Searchers (John Ford) – 1956
Not nominated for a single Oscar, but remembered far more than any of the Best Picture nominees from the year, this is the film John Wayne deserves to be remembered for: playing a racist, violent man out searching through the old west.
2 – Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood) – 1992
One of the times the Academy got it right (although Eastwood should have also won Best Actor). When this came out, I had not seen very many Westerns and none with Eastwood. But I saw this on opening day and knew it was something amazing.
1 – The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah) – 1969
One of the great American films, bloody, dark, nihilistic, cynical. But William Holden was always at his best when he was cynical and his performance is a masterpiece, as is the film itself.