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10 Westerns to Watch Before You Die

If you watch movies, then you’ve probably seen (or heard of) the western, one of the most iconic genres of the Hollywood film industry.

Maybe you love them. Maybe you’ve seen one subpar western movie and thought “meh.”

I hated them…until I watched the right westerns.

The goal of this article is not to re-hash the “best western films ever” that have been written about and recycled endlessly. (You can find any number of these lists on IMDB.com.) Rather, these are 10 of the westerns that changed my outlook on the genre.

Everyone of these westerns is worth watching before you kick the bucket, or if you’re simply seeking to expand your film education, or if you are planning to write one yourself.

But enough about me. Let’s dig in…

10. The Magnificent Seven

John Sturges | 1960 | Runtime: 2h 8m | IMDB: 7.8 | Metascore: 74

Mexican peasants recruit seven gunfighters to defend their village from a band of vicious banditos in this classic, iconic western. Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson star in this western adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, delivering action, grit and drama on the American frontier while accompanied by Elmer Bernstein’s Oscar-nominated score.

If you like this, also watch: The Magnificent Seven (2016), The Professionals, Rio Bravo, Silverado, Vera Cruz, Young Guns

9. 3:10 to Yuma

James Mangold | 2007 | Runtime: 2h 2m | IMDB: 7.7 | Metascore: 76

If you’re looking for something a little more modern, this film is it. Starring Russell Crow and Christian Bale, 3:10 to Yuma has it all: nail-biting action, big set pieces, great acting, iconic roles—all without sacrificing quality characters. Considered to be one of the great westerns of the 21st century, this remake of the Glenn Ford classic tells the story of a destitute war veteran-turned-rancher escorting a wily outlaw to the 3:10 train to Yuma. Nominated for two Oscars.

If you like this, also watch: 3:10 to Yuma (1957), High Noon, Open Range, Rio Grande, Stagecoach, Tombstone, Winchester ‘73

8. Shane

George Stevens | 1953 | Runtime: 1h 58m | IMDB: 7.7 | Metascore: 80

Alan Ladd stars in this small tale about a mysterious gunfighter who defends his newfound friends from a vicious frontiersman and his band of violent cronies. A departure from earlier westerns, this Oscar-winning film forgoes blood-pumping action sequences in favor of a slow boil that delivers a cathartic payoff and several iconic scenes. Particularly memorable are its breathtaking landscapes that underscore a previously-overlooked story: the struggle of the second wave of pioneers against the frontier’s first settlers.

If you like this, also watch: The Big Country, The Great Silence, Johnny Guitar, Open Range, Pale Rider, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Shenandoah, Unforgiven

7. Broken Arrow

Delmer Daves | 1950 | IMDB: 7.2 | Metascore: N/A (External only)

Let’s start by making clear that we are referring to the 1950 film starring Jimmy Stewart, not the 1996 flick starring John Travolta or the 1950s TV series of the same name.

What makes Broken Arrow stand out is not its three Oscar nominations, but its unusually progressive approach to “cowboys and Indians.” Unlike the typical western that focuses on the struggle of white hats vs black hats or cowboys vs Indians, Stewart’s characters seeks to bring the two sides together in peace—but at great personal cost. Although Broken Arrow is perhaps the first big Hollywood blockbuster to depict indigenous Americans as sympathetic and fully human, the movie industry still had a long way to go in how they express “minorities” (read: non-white folks). They still do.

But, then again, Hollywood has a pretty dicey history when it comes to racial and gender equality, even though the majority of industry professionals are strongly pro-equality. (It remains a sad fact that Hollywood’s biggest influencers are still a bunch of rich white guys.)

If you like this, also watch: Dances with Wolves, The Far Country, Giant, The Man from Laramie, Legends of the Fall, Little Big Man, The Naked Spur

6. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

George Roy Hill | 1969 | Runtime: 1h 50m | IMDB: 8.1 | Metascore: 66

Hollywood legends Paul Newman and Robert Redford star in this classic by screenwriting great William Goldman about two outlaws who haven’t changed with the times—and pay the ultimate price. Not only does this classic film boast four Oscars to its name, IMDB also lists Butch Cassidy in its Top 250 films of all time.

Westerns set after the end of the American Civil War (1865) tend to express themes of changing times, technology versus human effort, and old-fashioned heroes struggling to adapt to the new status quo. Accolades aside, Butch Cassidy sits at the pinnacle of this theme. Times have indeed changed since the Civil War ended. Now, the traditional “wild west” has evolved into a strange world populated by technology and civilization, leaving the old cowboys in the dust.

If you like this, also watch: Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Last Train from Gun Hill, My Darling Clementine, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Wild Bunch

5. The Gunfighter

Henry King | 1950 | IMDB: 7.7 | Metascore: 94

All too often overlooked but an absolute gem, this black and white film starring Gregory Peck focuses on the plight of the gunfighter who has reached his peak, but then finds himself unable to escape his reputation. In some ways, The Gunfighter demonstrates attributes of an anti-western without fully shedding its western skin. It’s a slower, tragic character piece that illuminates a neglected aspect of the western, the gunfighter as a human being, while revealing the emotion, wisdom and ignorance that so often is left out of more traditional western flicks. Thoughtful and introspective, the cast carries the show with aplomb and magnetism, carefully circumventing devolution into a mindless shooter.

If you are a serious cinephile, then be sure to put this notch in your belt. It will stick with you.

If you like this, also watch: The Bravados, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Shootist, Yellow Sky

4.  The Searchers

John Ford | 1956 | Runtime: 1h 59m | IMDB: 8.0 | Metascore: 94

Like The Gunfighter, this under-appreciated masterpiece will burn itself into your memory. The Searchers is nothing less than John Ford at his best. John Wayne at his most John Wayne-ness. The high point part of every western crammed into 118 minutes—although it seems much longer.

That said, The Searchers tells the story of two men who set out to find their captured niece/sister after their family is murdered by a Comanche warband. The thing is, it takes them half a decade to find her, enduring hardship and personal sacrifice along the way. Lighter comedic moments counter-balance the heavy drama. Expect to laugh, cry, and cheer.

If you like this, also watch: El Dorado, Fort Apache, Jeremiah Johnson, Nevada Smith, Red River, Ride the High Country, Rio Lobo

3. Django Unchained

Quentin Tarantino | 2012 | Runtime: 2h 45m | IMDB: 8.4 | Metascore: 81

Moving forward in time to modern cinema, Tarantino’s provocative film is not so much a “western” in the orthodox sense as it is a self-described “southern.” In terms of genre, Django Unchained still fits the bill for the “western” genre.

Django tells the story of a freed slave who pairs up with an itinerant German Jew to rescue his love from a charming but sociopathic plantation owner. With an all-star cast that includes Christoph Waltz, Jamie Foxx, and Leonardo DiCaprio, Django Unchained is one of Tarantino’s greatest. Viewers can expect the trademark Tarantino contrast of meticulous patience and brutal violence. By roping in a host of alluring minority characters, the movie doesn’t hold back on its tacit (sometimes blatant) criticism of the Old South.

But don’t let that fool you into thinking Django is just a revisionist apology for slavery. The film is much more than that—and nothing short of an enthralling ride from start to finish.

If you like this, also watch: Duck, You Sucker, The Hateful Eight, Hell or High Water, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Revenant

2. True Grit

Ethan Coen, Joel Coen | 2010 | Runtime: 1h 50m | IMDB: 7.6 | Metascore: 80

Underrated and understated, the 2010 remake of True Grit is a small story that delivers 110%. Jeff Bridges stars as Rooster Cogburn, a hardened, gritty man who reveals his inner soft side while protecting a young girl with a powerhouse personality (played by Hailee Steinfeld). As far as remakes go, this 2010 version leaves its 1969 predecessor in the frontier dust.

While the Coen brothers’ storytelling far outstrips that of the original, Jeff Bridges delivers some of his best work. In comparison, John Wayne’s performance in the previous True Grit is, well, not great. The newer True Grit remains a personal favorite of mine for its understated delivery and eloquent filmmaking.

But don’t take my word for it—True Grit was nominated for 10 Oscars, after all. Less than 100 films in the Academy’s cinema history can claim as much.

If you like this, also watch: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, The Big Gundown, Dead Man, True Grit (1969)

1. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Also known as: Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo | Sergio Leone | 1967 | Runtime: 2h 58m | IMDB: 8.8 | Metascore: 90

If you only ever watch one western in your life, this is the movie to watch. The most famous Spaghetti Western of all time, Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo stars Clint Eastwood as the lead, Tonino Delli Colli’s breathtaking cinematography, and Oscar-winning composer Ennio Morricone’s timeless soundtrack. A three-way triad of conflict drives the story as a “good” character teams up with a “bad” and an “ugly” (read: chaotic neutral) character to uncover buried gold, all the while trying to outwit, kill or imprison each other along the way.

The result?

Nearly every visual and soundtrack stereotype pop culture associates with the western genre comes from this film. Three-way Mexican standoff? Check. Frenetic classical guitar music and blaring trumpets? Yup. Clint Eastwood? Double check. Stony-faced men of few words? Triple check.

IMDB.com ranks The GB&U as the top western and #9 in its 250 Top Rated Movies—to which Once Upon a Time in the West (another Sergio Leone film) is a distant second at slot #37.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly has to be #1 on this list not just because it’s an outstanding cinema masterpiece, but because it has inspired filmmakers, writers, actors, cinematographers, composers and wannabe cowboys for decades since. In many ways, The GB&U is unofficially considered the ultimate expression of the western as a movie genre.

If you like this, also watch: A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, High Plains Drifter, Once Upon a Time in the West

Honorable Mentions

Clearly, this is by no means a comprehensive list. Many gems did make the cut—not because I dislike them or find them lacking aesthetic value. Rather, I tried to stay focused on 10 stand-out works of cinematic art that not everyone may have seen.

I did not include any comedies in the aforementioned list. If you are interested in comedy-westerns, start with films like Blazing Saddles, Three Amigos!, My Name is Nobody, and (if you’re brave enough) Wild Wild West (1999).

If you want to explore film that goes against everything the western genre is and stands for, then watch No Country for Old Men, an unofficial anti-western in the most extreme and bitter sense. Warning: As with any anti-genre, if you like the genre itself, anti-genre may make you uncomfortable. If you want to start with something milder, try a Revisionist Western.

And lastly, I did not include any of the TV show westerns that litter the history of the small screen, like Lonesome Dove, Bonanza, and Deadwood, to name a few.

If you are interested in exploring other gems in the western genre, several IMDB users have put together helpful lists of top westerns to watch. I found this list particularly useful.

Thinking about writing your own western? Or looking for help on the next draft? I’m happy to help.

Capote, a film by Bennett Miller

Austere, brilliantly-acted, and full of contrast

The late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman once again demonstrates his acting mastery in this biopic about Truman Capote during the writing of his non-fiction book, In Cold Blood—the book that defined Capote’s career. In fact, Hoffman brings the character so much to life that one can’t help but feel that he is more “Capote” than Capote himself.

But existential debate aside, Hoffman fills the role naturally and without artificial affect as he portrays a character unlike any other in his repertoire. It paid off: Hoffman won an Oscar for his performance.movie poster for philip seymour hoffman's masterfully acted movie Capote

The idea of “In Cold Blood” permeates Capote as it progresses in a reserved but naturalistic and non-distractedly spare manner with patient, steady pacing. A heavily restrained earth-tone color palette paints a stark picture supported by a similarly spare soundtrack that is at times cool and unmelodious, at other times contrasting with a tender piano score to complement the idea of human emotion and sympathy.

But the austere tone of the film is also counter-balanced with an interesting theme of humanizing the inhuman—a task the source material handles exceedingly well. The book itself (In Cold Blood) explores the human aspects of even the most cold-blooded acts of cruelty.

The plot focuses on the relationship between the ambitious but friendly and persuasive Capote and the accused murderer Perry Smith. As the story develops, the film draws clever and subtle parallels between their emerging friendship on the surface and the contrasting desires nested within: Capote’s search for book material and Perry’s heartless desires for self-gratification.

Perry’s full sociopathy finally surfaces toward the end once the veils are cast aside to reveal the harsh but ultimately human truth that lies beneath. The sequence portraying Perry’s confession illustrates this best, climatically depicting the heartbreaking humanity inherent in his brutality.

What could they have done better?

While the film demonstrates excellence in many regards, the story does have a few areas that could have been improved.

1. Where’s the Other Killer?

The book In Cold Blood depicts Perry Smith and Dick Hickock as a pair of cold-blooded killers—Dick coming across as particularly unfeeling and brutal compared to the warmth exhibited by Perry. While Dick is included in the film, his character lacks meaningful presence. Sure, the heart of Capote centers around the Truman’s relationship with Perry, but that doesn’t excuse his absence, particularly because Dick’s character provides an incredible opportunity to draw further contrast between the humanness of Perry and Dick’s inhumanness.

2. Act Three Pacing

The slow and steady pacing works for the film…except in the final act. Capote builds up the potential to push toward a riveting climax, but instead falls into the typical biopic pitfall of slowing down to end on a low note. Capote’s third act slows down an already andante step even more, practically to the point of boredom.

Still, all-in-all, a film worth seeing, particularly if you are fan of either Truman Capote or Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Rating: 4 / 5

 

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Top 10 Lit Books No One Reads (But Everyone Should)

1. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

1ataleoftwocities

The first thing that comes to mind for most people when they hear “Dickens” is “boring.” Wrong. A Tale of Two Cities is anything but. Beginning with one of the most famous story openings of all time, Dickens takes us through a visually stunning web of historical stories taking place during the bloodiest part of the French Revolution. Themes, imagery, and motifs are so thickly distributed in the novel an entire book series could be dedicated to their analysis. But don’t just take my word for it – “Cities” is one of the bestselling novels of all time, and for good reason!

2. The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane2redbadgeofcourage

An early war novel depicting life in the American Civil War by Stephen Crane. The Red Badge of Courage follows the emotional journey of a young man through realistic action, powerful themes and heavy symbolism in an eerie, surreal atmosphere. It’s a short book, so if you haven’t read it, maybe it’s time you did.

3. Dracula by Bram Stoker3dracula

Not only is it the definitive vampire novel that inspired big-time franchises such as Anne Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles (starting with Interview with the Vampire) and Twilight, it’s also a patient, haunting tale of evil reawakened. Read this and you’ll understand why Bram Stoker‘s Dracula stands the test of the time and remains one of the greatest horror novels ever written.

4. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte4janeeyre

While many consider the classic Jane Eyre to be an early piece of chick lit, it is anything but. Introspective, emotionally robust and progressively feminist, Bronte’s gothic tale is a coming-of-age story featuring a strong-willed woman who survives the brutality of the age to achieve her desires on her own terms. Themes of atonement, forgiveness, and success through independence and morality lend this classic some serious gravitas as a work of timeless art.

5. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck5ofmiceandmen

A novella about two migrant workers who dream of greater things, only to be thwarted by their own flaws, social and economic status. Steinbeck‘s unflinching honesty about the unchangeable fate of those destined to fail because of their own disadvantages paints a harsh picture, but an emotional effective one concerning certain aspects of human nature. The ending is sure to make you wring your hands out of frustrated futility but Of Mice and Men is absolutely worth a read if you’re serious about literature.

6. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell6nineteeneightyfour1984

1984” meticulously explores the future of communism, censorship, privacy, and thought control through the eyes of man who believes himself one step ahead of the government. More than anything, Orwell’s novel is a stunning thought experiment warning us about the fate of society without freedom of speech. If you love plots that feature plans within plans, intrigue, and thoughtful social commentary then pick up George’s book. Who knows? It might be your new favorite book.

7. Lord of the Flies by William Golding7lordoftheflies

Brutality and humanity collide in this survival tale about a group of normal school boys stranded on an island. Together they build a new society which brings out dormant primitive instincts and ultimately plays out as an embodiment of Darwin’s Survival of the Fittest. Individuality and mob mentality clash in this provocative thought experiment in novel form. William Golding‘s Lord of the Flies will haunt you with it’s accurate depiction of unrestrained primal human instincts descending into violence and chaos.

8. The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas8thethreemusketeers

Everyone’s heard of them, but have you actually read the book? Unlike the realism or religious-themed works set in the same time period, Dumas’s novel is pure adventure, a story in which boys will be boys and have a hell of lot of fun doing it. The Three Musketeers is no stuffy piece of dense literature; it’s a fun romp from beginning to end. It only takes a few pages to understand why Dumas’s book inspired so much timeless acclaim.

9. Camille by Alexandre Dumas fils9camille

Written by Alexandre Dumas’s son, Camille explores a love affair between a gentleman and high class prostitute in a way that makes the book impossible to put down through a clever use of cliff hangers at the end of nearly every chapter. The novel takes us through a man’s descent into uncontrollable obsession with a woman willing to give up her glamorous life for him, only to be thwarted by the meddling of family over worries about damage to their reputation. Also known as La Dame aux Camélias or “The Lady of the Camellias.”

10. (TIE) To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee AND Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote10a-tokillamockingbird

A classic which highlights culture and race in the American South, To Kill a Mockingbird stands up for human rights and equality at a time where doing so could get you killed. Capote’s book takes us through a more laid-back exploration of an even more rural, isolated area of the Gothic South.10b-othervoicesotherrooms

These books are paired together for a reason. Both Mockingbird and Other Voices, Other Rooms deal with children coming-of-age through the loss of innocence. Not only were they written by real-life best friends Harper Lee and Truman Capote, both are also featured as major supporting cast members in each other’s novels.

 

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Rights to the book covers used in this article are not owned or licensed by Story Science. They are simply used as an expedient means for readers to acquire inexpensive copies of these books if so desired. This is not a sales pitch on behalf of anyone or any party. These books are truly amazing in their own right, regardless of version, publisher, or book cover.

Act of Valor, a film by Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh

By James Gilmore

Act of Valor is a ballad of the unsung heroic deeds of Navy SEALs in clandestine operations.

Although neatly structured the film feels less like a coherent story than a series of military reenactments with a few specks of story spliced in between action sequences. Valor is generously laden with fan service for military aficionados, but at times the ultra realistic use of military jargon crosses the line from necessity to extraneous masturbation. Action sequences deliver impressive intensity and speed while skillful POV camerawork immerses the audience inside each mission, lending a sort of video game feel to the advancement of the plot.

The acting is as wooden as it gets and not just in terms of line delivery—no surprise, considering the principal characters are played by real Navy SEALs and not professional actors. Unfortunately this means that emotional tangibility with the main characters is difficult to establish, even with the repeated use of artificial filmic constructs employed to build personal empathy.

Actor Jason Cottle’s uncanny intensity makes his performance stand out among the cast.

If Act of Valor teaches us anything, it’s that “actual” does not equal “dramatic.” For a stellar example of how dramatizing reality improves its filmic qualities, see Seal Team Six: The Raid on Osama bin Laden. In spite of its painful dialogue and feeble plot, Act of Valor is a realistic, tense experience that military and action enthusiasts will love.

Rating: 3 / 5

Argo, a film by Ben Affleck

By James Gilmore

Ben Affleck’s Argo takes a clumsy script and transforms it into a seat-riveting filmic experience.  He and his skillful editors successfully impress artificial tension upon the audience in spite of the script’s many shortcomings.  Script problems magnify when translated to the big screen, and such issues become very evident as characters reveal their lives to each other in standalone cutaway scenes that serve no plot purpose.  Affleck’s protagonist character, Tony Mendez, is poorly written, making him too weak and impotent in comparison to his fellow cast members.

Minimalist Review of Argo, a film directed by Ben AffleckThe audience will feel a sudden jolt as they are thrust into and out of a tongue-in-cheek Hollywood sequence that is not in keeping with the tone of the rest of the film, and ultimately comes across as a series of inside jokes among Hollywood types more than a cohesive story segment.  The final confrontation between protagonists and antagonists proves to be the most artificial construct of all, where editing alone creates the tension, not the clash of goal and obstacle, desire and counter-desire.

In short, Ben Affleck should quit acting and direct full-time, but he needs to learn to push the script to a final polish before jumping into making the film itself.  With such spectacular directing talent it is a waste to not use equally judicious judgment in finishing the screenplay, as is evident in both Argo and his feature film directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone.  Still, audiences eagerly await his next work.

Rating: 3.5 / 5

1632, an alternative history novel by Eric Flint

By James Gilmore

Eric Flint’s 1632 is an alternative history science fiction novel about a small town in present day West Virginia that is suddenly transported back in time to Germany during the devastating Thirty Years’ War in the year 1632.  At its heart, 1632 is a romantic view of classic American ideals clashing with and conquering those of the oppressed, war-torn 17th century continental Europe, pushing normal small town folk into extraordinary circumstances.

Book cover for 1632, an alternative history novel by Eric Flint, on Minimalist Reviews.

Eric Flint executes the unusual and exceptionally difficult premise with marvelous ease and methodical reasoning, exploring the promise of the premise with detailed thoroughness.  Despite reviews which misleadingly describe the book as “action packed”  1632 is mostly a relationship-oriented piece with a few periods of intense action counterpointed against extended laconic sections of blossoming romance.

The plentiful characters populating the novel surprise the reader with their variance, color, and very human likeability, which makes the exploration their relationships a pleasure, even if the story does get bogged down in a disproportionate amount of romance during the second act.  The large cast prevents great depth in character development.  Regardless, it’s obvious to the reader that Flint is an author who genuinely loves his characters.

One of the greatest shortcomings of 1632 is its failure to live up to the high stakes generated by the premise.  Main characters have things pretty easy and rarely (if ever) actually lose anything of value, while any obstacles that do arise are circumvented without great difficulty.  Greater challenges and higher stakes conflict are needed in a world where innumerable dangers lurk in the shadows.  Unfortunately, the dangers threaten but seldom actually emerge from the periphery.

Eric Flint’s 1632 may be an acquired taste for most, but don’t hesitate to pick up a copy if you are in the mood for something new, unique and quasi-historical.

Rating:  3.5 / 5

Zelig, a “Quickie” Review of the film by Woody Allen

Movie poster for Zelig a film by Woody Allen, a quickie review on Minimalist Reviews.by James Gilmore

Woody Allen’s Zelig is a light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek mockumentary told through a veritable 1930s-style news reel.  Despite being a simple love story at heart, Allen’s film demonstrates remarkable subtlety of theme about a common man who expresses his desire to fit in to society by literally adopting the characteristics of others. Zelig not only entertains, but manages to expose the desires of every human being through the fantastic journey of one human chameleon.


Rating:  4 / 5