Barry Norman’s 101 greatest films: westerns

From Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to High Noon, our critic chooses his favourite movies from cinema history

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Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid 1969 PG 105min Colour This may well be the most popular western of them all, thanks largely to the pairing of Paul Newman and Robert Redford in the title roles, William Goldman’s witty and insightful screenplay and the famous freeze frame ending. The real Butch and Sundance, who were certainly bad guys, can’t possibly have been as lovable as they are here. The film is often very funny but it remains a true western, never a spoof.   Did You Know? The Rogue river in Oregon provides the backdrop for the famous plunge (into Hellgate Canyon). Newman and Redford did jump but they landed on a mattress on a ledge two metres below   Say it Again! “Think ya used enough dynamite there, Butch?” The Sundance Kid

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Oscars William Goldman adapted screenplay

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The Outlaw Josey Wales 1976 18 135min Colour There’s only been one great western hero since John Wayne — Clint Eastwood — and this is one of his finest contributions to the genre. As played (and directed) by Eastwood, Josey Wales is a truly imposing figure, a Southerner on the run after the American Civil War, more than equal to any number of bounty hunters. As usual Eastwood doesn’t say a lot, but his presence fills the screen and the gunplay is terrific.   Did You Know? Director Philip Kaufman was dismissed by Clint Eastwood’s production company after they fell out. The Directors’ Guild of America created the so-called “Eastwood Rule” to protect its members as a result.   Say it Again! “Dyin’ ain’t much of a living, boy.” Josey Wales   Read the full review

High Noon 1952 U 84min BW A timeless classic that could easily sit in the drama section. Carl Foreman, the blacklisted screenwriter, claimed it was an allegory of McCarthyism, with Marshal Gary Cooper representing the loner standing up for his rights, the bad guys as the House Un-American Activities Committee and the unsupportive townspeople as the rest of passive America. Director Fred Zinnemann said it was no such thing. I’m with Foreman, but either way it’s a great western.   Did You Know? Gary Cooper’s pained expression as Will Kane was entirely real. As well as declining fame and a failing marriage, he suffered a bleeding ulcer on the shoot.   Say it Again! “Kane will be a dead man in half an hour and nobody’s gonna do anything about it. And when he dies, this town dies, too.” Helen Ramirez   Oscars Gary Cooper actor   Read the full review

Unforgiven 1992 15 125min Colour Western revisionism at its darkest and most absorbing. Eastwood stars (and directs) as an ageing, widowed, single parent gunfighter lured out of retirement by a bounty on the men who disfigured a whore in the town of Big Whiskey. Morgan Freeman goes with him; brutal sheriff Gene Hackman stands in their way. As it deconstructs the glamorous image of the Old West, there’s plenty of action and much food for thought in its contemplation of the nature of fear, ageing and death. This, I think, is Eastwood’s western masterpiece.   Did You Know? The boots that Clint Eastwood wears in this film are the same ones he wore in TV series Rawhide.   Say it Again! “It’s a hell of a thing, killin’ a man.” William Munny   Oscars best picture, Clint Eastwood directing, Gene Hackman supporting actor   Read the full review

The Wild Bunch 1969 18 138min Colour One of the earliest “them days is over” westerns, Sam Peckinpah’s film was originally either condemned for its excessive violence or praised for being anti-violence. You choose. Either way it’s a terrific movie, which looks at the final days of the Old West from the point of view of a bunch of bad guys — bank robbers, killers, you name it — led by William Holden, who find their destiny in Mexico in 1913.   Did You Know? According to Warner Bros publicity, director Sam Peckinpah “used more ammunition than the entire Mexican revolution”, employing 239 separate weapons and firing off over 90,000 blank rounds.   Say It Again! “If they move, kill ’em!” Pike Bishop   Read the full review

Shane 1953 PG 112min Colour On the face of it a traditional western — gunslinger Shane (Alan Ladd), weary of his trade, takes a job as a farmhand and then, reluctantly, becomes involved in the conflict between farmers and a ruthless cattle baron. It’s what goes on beneath the surface that makes this so fascinating — the attraction, never openly expressed, between Shane and his employer’s wife (Jean Arthur) and her son’s adoration of him. Certainly Ladd’s best film, and the little boy’s cry of “Shane! Comeback!”isunforgettable.   Did You Know? The scene with Ladd practising his shooting took 119 takes.   Say It Again! “Do you mind putting down that gun? Then I’ll leave.” Shane   Read the full review

Red River 1948 U 127min BW Pig-headed, authoritarian, cold-blooded — can that really be John Wayne? Yep, in Howard Hawks’s great classic he’s hero and villain, the unbending rancher ruthlessly at odds with his adopted son Montgomery Clift (and most of his hands) on the first cattle drive along the Chisholm Trail to Missouri. Roughly speaking this is Mutiny on the Bounty set in the West and the film that caused his regular director John Ford to say of Wayne: “I never knew the big son of a bitch could act.”   Did You Know? Texas Longhorn cattle were nearly extinct at the time of the shoot, so the few available had to be carefully placed for each new angle.   Say It Again! “We brought nothing into this world and it’s certain we can carry nothing out.” Thomas Dunson   Read the full review

The Searchers 1956 U 113min Colour The big son of a bitch again proved that he could act, this time with Ford directing, in what is probably the greatest of westerns. It’s the story of Wayne’s remorseless five-year search for his niece who has been abducted by Indians. Wayne, an unapologetic racist, wants to kill both the Indians and the “tainted” girl; his young companion, Jeffrey Hunter, wants to save her. It’s a deeply complex, subtle tale magnificently done. Do check out the iconic opening and closing doorway shots.   Did You Know? The Searchers may be a classic of American cinema, but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. Look out for the motorcar that appears in the right-hand corner of the shot of the cavalry crossing the snow-covered river.   Say It Again! “That’ll be the day.” Ethan Edwards   Read the full review

No Country for Old Men 2007 15 117min Colour The Coen brothers’ movie could be seen as drama or action/adventure, but works best as a modern western. In 1980 Vietnam veteran Josh Brolin happens upon a fortune, abandoned in the blood-soaked carnage of a drug deal gone wrong in the West Texas desert. He grabs the money and runs, only to be pursued by veteran sheriff Tommy Lee Jones and a terrifying psychopath, Javier Bardem. It’s violent, shocking, surprising and, with a few minor twists, would have been just as effective if set 100 years earlier.   Did You Know? The Coen brothers modelled the hairstyle of Javier Bardem’s character on a photo of a brothel patron taken in 1879.   Say It Again! “I knowed you was crazy when I saw you sitting there. I knowed exactly what was in store for me. ” Carla Jean Moss
Oscars best picture, Ethan & Joel Coen directing, adapted screenplay, Javier Bardem supporting actor   Read the full review

The Magnificent Seven 1960 PG 127min Colour Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai translates effortlessly to the West with the samurai transformed into assorted gunslingers and the like, led by Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen, as they come to the rescue of Mexican villagers threatened by Eli Wallach’s bandits. The motives of Brynner’s men are not so clear-cut as in the Japanese original, but the characters and the gunplay more than make up for that.   Did You Know? You may notice that the villagers look exceptionally well turned-out for desperate peasants. Mexican censors demanded that their clothes be spotless in return for location filming permits.   Say It Again! “The old man was right. Only the farmers win. We lost. We always lose.” Chris  

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Barry Norman’s 101 Greatest Films of All Time part 1 was first published in Radio Times magazine (21-27 January 2012)

Barry Norman’s 101 Greatest Films of All Time part 2 was first published in Radio Times magazine (28 January-3 February 2012)

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Help choose Barry’s 101st film and give yourself a chance to win a Sky Go package with an iPad and Sky Movies free for a year

Barry Norman’s 101 Greatest Films of All Time part 1 was first published in Radio Times magazine (21-27 January 2012)

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Barry Norman’s 101 Greatest Films of All Time part 2 is available in the new issue of Radio Times magazine, on sale from Tuesday 24 January