We are not so far removed from a time when Westerns were inescapable, from serials meant to keep kids busy for a few hours to the towering John Ford classics topping critics’ polls today, only to vanish in earnest. These days, every respectable Western that sees release is labeled ‘revisionist’, marked apart from the supposedly uncritical vision of the frontier seen in classic westerns. But how true is this idea really?

7 Westerns Picked At Random

Consider this sampling, selected at random from a pool of notable Westerns:

  1. The Searchers (1959): An American Civil War veteran embarks on a years-long journey to rescue his niece from the Comanches after the rest of his brother’s family is massacred in a raid on their Texas farm.
  2. The Ox-Bow Incident (1942): When a posse captures three men suspected of killing a local farmer, they become strongly divided over whether or not to lynch the men.
  3. The Gunfighter (1950): Notorious gunfighter Jimmy Ringo rides into town to find his true love, who doesn’t want to see him. He hasn’t come looking for trouble, but trouble finds him around every corner.
  4. Winchester ’73 (1950): A cowboy’s obsession with a stolen rifle leads to a bullet-riddled odyssey through the American West.
  5. Ride Lonesome (1959): A bounty hunter escorts a killer to be tried for murder, but allows the man’s outlaw brother to catch up with them to have a showdown over a previous shocking murder.
  6. Silverado (1985): A misfit bunch of friends comes together to right the injustices which exist in a small town.
  7. The Mark of Zorro (1920): A seemingly idiotic fop is really the courageous vigilante Zorro, who seeks to protect the oppressed.

These have been ranked in prominence (adjusting for recency bias) but may as well be placed in order of quality (at least from a modern perspective). Curiously, nearly all of the films, and the entirety of the top 5, concern themselves with the emptiness of life as an archetypal cowboy, lawman or outlaw in the wild west, most especially through the futility of revenge or frontier justice.

The plots of several of the films betray their cynicism, but nothing quite quantifies this melancholy better than the closing image of The Searchers, likely the most iconic of its genre. The film is over, the job is done, what is there for him?

Among the random selection, none of the classics bowed to pulp stories about how ‘fun’ it must have been in the old west, with all that adventure and impunity. Take the Durango kid serials starring Charles Starret, an hour a piece, all 65 wrapped up neatly when the hero swapped outfits into his alter ego to exercise his near divine justice. There is right and wrong, good and bad, cowboy and crook (or, often, Indian). Have you heard of the Durango kid?

Western gunmen are wanderers, and the best Westerns, often the ones which carved a place for themselves in film history, embraced a streak of tragedy, and maintained perspective.

7 Westerns Picked at Random
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