These are Fiddlers & Fighters’ top 30 best old western movies sorted alphabetically because ranking them at this level is a fool’s game (full reviews of each movie coming soon):
Duck, You Sucker!
A Fistful of Dollars
For a Few Dollars More
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
The Great Train Robbery
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
My Darling Clementine
Once Upon a Time in the West
The Ox-Bow Incident
Ride the High Country
Seven Men From Now
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
The Tall T
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
The Wild Bunch
An underrated Sergio Leone movie, Duck, You Sucker! stars Rod Steiger and James Coburn in a Zapata buddy western. Zapata Westerns are a subgenre of Spaghetti Westerns named after Emiliano Zapata, a leading figure of the 1913 Mexican Revolution, because they generally take place in Mexico around that time. James Coburn plays John (Seán) H. Mallory, an I.R.A explosives expert working in Mexico as a silver line blaster. Mallory runs into Juan Miranda, played by Rod Steiger, an outlaw leading a group of bandits that rob and rape wealthy passers-by. Juan and his gang are at first confrontational with Mallory but quickly see his potential value to them when he demonstrates his explosives know-how as a warning shot. Uninterested in the Revolution at first, Juan has a change of heart when he’s regarded as a ‘hero of the revolution’ after freeing political prisoners in a raid on the Mesa Verde National Bank with Mallory and other revolutionaries. A Mexican outlaw and an Irish explosives expert drawn into the Mexican Revolution, Duck, You Sucker! is every bit as entertaining as previous Leone westerns, which says a lot.
Fight Fact: The movie has two alternate titles. The first is Once Upon a Time… the Revolution because it’s the second installment in Leone’s Once Upon a Time series following Once Upon a Time in the West and preceding Once Upon a Time in America. The second is A Fistful of Dynamite but it is not considered to be related to A Fistful of Dollars or any of the “Dollars Trilogy” movies.
El Dorado, directed by Howard Hawks, stars John Wayne and Robert Mitchum. Wayne plays Cole Thornton, a gunslinger hired by a wealthy rancher to fight a range war with a small ranching family, the McDonalds, in the town of El Dorado. The sheriff of El Dorado, J.P. Harrah, played by Mitchum, is an old friend of Thornton’s who informs him that fighting on behalf of the rancher will put the two of them at odds. Unwilling to fight, Thornton turns down the rancher’s offer. Along with a young cowhand seeking revenge, played by James Caan, Thornton and Harrah defeat the rancher and his hired guns.
El Dorado recalls an earlier style of western that by the mid-to-late 1960’s had largely been replaced by terse Spaghetti Westerns and bullet-ridden yarns, notably The Wild Bunch. The chemistry between Duke Wayne and Robert Mitchum is masterful. Given their stature in Hollywood at the time and their later age, they convincingly portrayed old guns of the West. El Dorado has a somewhat playful tone throughout, zigging and zagging from classic Western dilemmas to humorous character interplay. In one scene, Wayne confronts Mitchum about his alcoholism:
Sheriff J. P. Harrah: What the hell are you doin’ here?
Cole: I’m lookin’ at a tin star with a… drunk pinned on it.
Though perhaps slightly out of time, director Howard Hawks is never out of place. The old hand has a special touch.
Fight Fact: Mississippi (James Caan) recites the poem ‘Eldorado’, written by Edgar Allan Poe.
A Fistful of Dollars is the first installment of the Dollars Trilogy starring Clint Eastwood, Gian Maria Volonté, Marianna Koch, and Wolfgang Lukschy. Eastwood plays as The Stranger who arrives in a small Mexican border town and finds himself in the middle of a power struggle between the Rojo brothers, played by Anthony Prieto, Benny Reeves, and Sieghardt Rupp, and sheriff John Baxter, played by Wolfgang Lukschy. The Stranger decides to parlay cash for himself by playing both sides against one another when a regiment of Mexican soldiers bearing gold intended for new weapons is waylaid by the Rojo brothers. In an iconic scene, the Stranger hides in a casket to escape town after being held captive by the Rojos for a period of time. He returns after hearing that Silvanito, the town’s innkeeper, had been captured by the Rojos. The Stranger faces down Ramón Rojo, challenging him to reload his rifle faster than the Stranger can his pistol. Failing the challenge, Ramón is gunned down by the Stranger.
Fistful introduced this alternate style of western to many Americans, often credited with birthing the Spaghetti Western. Quentin Tarantino, in a press release prior to the 67th Cannes Film Festival, described the film as “the greatest achievement in the history of Cinema.” Quite the endorsement. We won’t go as far that, but we will say that Fistful is a seminal work in the genre and filmmaking generally. Taking cues from Akira Kurosawa, Leone redefined the use of the close-up, expanding its role beyond reaction to examination. His use of satirical humor blended with machine-gun paced violence was groundbreaking.
Fight Fact: There’s lingering controversy over whether Leone plagiarized Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, a film whose main character and plot closely resemble Fistful. At the time when this came to a head, Leone stated that, “Kurosawa’s Yojimbo was inspired by an American novel of the série noire so I was really taking the story back home again.”
For a Few Dollars More is the unofficial sequel to A Fistful of Dollars and the second installment of the Dollars Trilogy. Few Dollars More again stars Clint Eastwood as The Man with No Name, this time known only as “Manco”, and Lee Van Cleef as Colonel Douglas Mortimer, the “Man in Black”, two bounty hunters in search of “El Indio,” a wanted fugitive. After embedding themselves in El Indio’s gang, Mortimer and Manco are caught attempting to steal bank money. The two escape captivity, freed on orders of El Indio, but the gang leader is left befuddled after one of his enterprising men points out the two ran with the money. El Indo tracks Mortimer and Manco, and the two gunslinger systematically kill each member of the gang. Manco notices Mortimer carrying a pocketwatch containing the same picture as El Indio’s watch. Mortimer guns down El Indio. Manco asks about the resemblance in the photo as he hands Mortimer’s pocketwatch back, to which the bounty hunter replies, “Naturally, between brother and sister.” Mortimer, revenge achieved, declines his portion of the bounty and rides away. Manco finds the bounty short and hears one of El Indio’s men, wounded but not dead, creep up behind him. Manco guns down the remaining gang member, recovers the balance, and rides off.
One of the themes For a Few Dollars More spotlights is vengeance, a theme found throughout Western. Manco and Mortimer are at first in competition to find the bounty. Eventually they collaborate, and Mortimer, like Manco, appears to be a hired gun motivated simply by money. He, in fact, is driven by revenge for his family who were slaughtered by El Indio.
This is a solid Western. It goes without saying because it made this list, but I’ll say it anyway – it’s required viewing.
Fight Fact: Manco hands El Indio a 1854 Jennings Rifle Company Volcanic Rifle before his standoff with Mortimer.
Fort Apache, the first of John Ford’s unofficial “Calvary Trilogy”, stars John Wayne as Captain Kirby York, a well respected former Civil War commander at an isolated U.S. calvary post in the heart of Apache territory, Fort Apache, who many expect to replace outgoing leadership. Command of the regiment is instead given to Lieutenant Colonel Owen Thursday, an arrogant, glory hungry commander played by Henry Fonda. Thursday has little direct experience with Indians yet is expected to oversee a regiment tasked with such dealings. After corrupt Indian agent Silas Meacham, played by Grant Withers, forces the Apache off the reservation by selling them poor grade food and cheap whiskey, Thursday insists that he meet Cochise, chief of the Apaches, to issue a decree of return. Having dealt previously with Cochise, York requests that Thursday allow him to meet with him first, sensing an opportunity to return the Apache to the reservation peacefully. Yore succeeds but is sabotaged by Thursday who orders the regiment to intercept Cochise, disarm the Apache and forcibly return them to the reservation. York confronts Thursday:
York: Colonel Thursday, I gave my word to Cochise. No man is going to make a liar out of me, sir.
Thursday: Your word to a breach cladded savage – illiterate, uncivilized murderer and treaty breaker. There’s no question of honor, sir, between an American officer and Cochise.
York: There is to me, sir.
Undeterred by York’s plea, Thursday marches toward Cochise and commands him to return to the reservation. York intercedes and attempts to negotiate, but his attempt is in vain as Thursday viciously insults Cochise and forces war. Thursday, blinded by ambition and unwilling to share in what he perceives to be impending glory, instructs York to remain behind. He rides into an Apache ambush and most of his men are killed. He escapes to the supply wagons and takes a spare horse from York to the remaining survivors, earning respect from York and the men left behind. Thursday and the survivors are subsequently massacred. Cochise and his Apache approach York, but seeing him an honorable man, give York Thursday’s banner and ride off. Recalling the story to reporters years later, York substantiates the narrative that Thursday gallantly led men into battle.
Fort Apache is a somber meditation on national mythology.
Fight Fact: In one scene, two of the recruits assembled for the second time (in uniform) are wearing Levis. As you can probably guess, Levis weren’t around during this time.