This is the continuation of a series I began in January of this year that examines and remarks on The American Film Institute and its recent propensity to create Top 10 lists. Specifically, the organization’s need to gather publicity by documenting their celebration of cinema’s centennial via a series of TV specials. Each time, the AFI went about giving importance to a set of motion pictures based on criteria and judgments their groups of ‘experts’ determined. It has generated opinions among fans and film aficionados ever since in varying degrees of disagreement. If you’re unaware, the AFI is a non-profit organization created by the National Endowment for the Arts back in the 60s. One of its main charters is the preservation of American film legacy. As they put it,
“Each special honors a different aspect of excellence in American film.”
Unquestionably, their prime purpose was to get people talking about film. So be it. This series on AFI’s Top 10s (out of their 100s lists) for 2012 is my motivated response to compare their picks with a moviegoer (me) per each of their indexes. Naturally, I’m fully aware that readers’ mileage may vary (indeed, we know they will) when it comes to these selections. Fair enough. Either way, it’s going to be painful as picking one above the other always is in such endeavors. You’re invited to add your own and/or disagree all you want in the comments or your blog site (all I ask is that you leave a link so we, the readers, can peruse). Shall we continue?
AFI defines “western” as a genre of films set in the American West that embodies the spirit, the struggle and the demise of the new frontier.
- The Searchers
- High Noon
- Red River
- The Wild Bunch
- Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
- McCabe and Mrs. Miller
- Cat Ballou
- Unforgiven [AFI #4] – I was tempted to follow AFI’s lead, but my gut won out. From day one, Clint Eastwood’s film (which he directed and starred) rocked my thinking about this genre of film. And since it’s only gotten better with each viewing, the film has to be my top pick. Modern as they come, it’s both revisionist yet age-old. With touches of the widescreen visuals and conscience of those from the 50s, along with small unexpected dashes of humor to offset its violence and drama of latter decades, it remains one for the ages.
- The Searchers [AFI #1] – there’s a reason this continues to be considered John Ford’s masterwork (and why AFI put it at #1). It’s his darkest and thorniest tale as two search for the last family survivor of a Comanche massacre. Her mixed-blood cousin to bring his distant relative home; her uncle to kill her rather than see her raised a squaw. Like my #1 pick, the film’s strength is the fight for the soul of its villain (who we think is its hero): John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards.
- Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid [AFI #7] – in my mind, the AFI has undervalued George Roy Hill’s finest film. Besides being the initial platform for a legendary pairing of two one-of-a-kind actors, this was Hill’s tour de force that, like the one that follows, embodied the classic theme of outlaws in changing times. Though they were quite different in their polar opposite use of humor and violence, this film was the next one’s bookend piece.
- The Wild Bunch [AFI #6] – the Sam Peckinpah film, if there ever was one. This was the ultra-violent western that epitomized both the friendships of the last hard men in a vanishing frontier, and the stark brutality, dissolution of a country at war with itself. The story, situated on both sides of the border, has revolution-torn Mexico standing in for the U.S. during this time of the Vietnam War.
- The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly – without question, the Italian director Sergio Leone influenced U.S. and European filmmakers in the 60s and on, especially in, and through, this genre. This film, his culminating horse opera to the Man With No Name trilogy, is what I think is his best western. It cemented Clint Eastwood’s star status and contained an Ennio Morricone score that’s unforgettable.
- The Big Country – director William Wyler shot Westerns early in his esteemed career, but it was this, his final one, that had the most to say. Rightly considered the ‘thinking man’s western’, it is a film that makes grand use of the adjective in its title by virtue of the expansive landscape it captured and the subject matter the director successfully portrayed in its storytelling. Few Westerns are better.
- Red River [AFI #5] – no question, Howard Hawks has to be on such a list as this. And no disrespect intended by me lowering it two slots. For all its sense of epic, as portrayed by the film’s grand cattle drive, the film is really a character study of those living on the desperate plains. A 40s film that set the standard for the next decade over, its other secret was that John Wayne portrayed the villain.
- The Outlaw Josey Wales – Clint Eastwood’s fifth film at the helm, and his second self-directed Western, showed that he successfully mastered the teachings of his mentors (Sergio Leone and Don Siegel) and secured his place within the genre. An early achievement, the film is a modern 70s classic — primarily for widescreen imagery, cast, dialogue — that’s only grown in stature in the years since.
- The Man Who Shoot Liberty Valance – for John Ford, who influenced the likes of Akira Kurosawa, Alfred Hitchcock, and a others, this truly was his last great film in the genre. With a cast made tailor-made for the Western — John Wayne, James Stewart, Lee Marvin, Woody Strode, etc. — it remains a poignant, eloquent tale revealing the passing of old ways.
- Winchester ’73 – the John Ford/John Wayne collaborations are always noted in this genre, but almost as important will be Anthony Mann and James Stewart’s. This was the first of their five films together, and it set a standard they and others had to meet, or attempt to exceed. Their tales were the stuff of Greek tragedy, and this remains my favorite of the duo.
Note: when I began this series, it was this particular genre that was easily going to give me the most lament. It did. A long-time favorite category of film that went back to my childhood, I’d have to pare down so many great Westerns just to get down to my top ten. The breakdown of the results go like this:
Directors: two each from Clint Eastwood and John Ford. Single films by George Roy Hill, Sam Peckinpah, Sergio Leone, William Wyler, Howard Hawks, and Anthony Mann.
Featured Actors: three each from Clint Eastwood and John Wayne. Two from James Stewart. The rest included the likes of such notables as Gregory Peck, Paul Newman, Robert Redford, William Holden, Lee Marvin, Charlton Heston, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, Ben Johnson, Jeffrey Hunter, and Edmond O’Brien.
Decades: Four from the 60s, three for the 50s, and one each from the 40s, 70s, and 90s.
Let’s get to the other half of these things out of the way. It pained me no end to trim the other significant 70s Western from AFI’s tensome: McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Robert Altman’s film really was a superb and unexpected Western, and perfect for that era. Same goes for John Ford’s Stagecoach. While I certainly appreciate George Steven’s Shane, much like High Noon, I’ve always had it in my top twenty and not near my top-tier. That leaves just one, folks. Even though it’s entertaining fare, there is no way in Hell that Cat Ballou has any business being in a Western Top Ten! There, I said it.
What would be yours?
Next: Romantic Comedy
The Complete Versus AFI: 10 Top 10 Series: