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The Lens: Western roundup

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: John Ford (“The Searchers,” “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” “Stagecoach,” “My Darling Clementine”), Howard Hawks (“Rio Bravo,” “Red River”), Clint Eastwood (“Unforgiven,” “The Outlaw Josie Wales”) and Sergio Leone (“The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” “Once Upon a Time in the West,” “For a Few Dollars More”).

One can argue that two other major directors of Westerns, Sam Peckinpah and Anthony Mann, are shorted with only a single film each (“The Wild Bunch” and “Winchester ’73,” respectively) – where’s “Ride the High Country” or “Bend of the River”? – and some would make a persuasive case for including a work by the lesser-known Western specialist Budd Boetticher. But if Holleman had taken those options, he would have been equally criticized for excluding such crowd-pleasing and/or canonical work as “High Noon,” “Shane,” “The Ox-Bow Incident,” “The Magnificent Seven” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”

Holleman’s two real wild cards are “The Gunfighter” and “Tombstone.” I’ll shamefacedly confess to never having watched “The Gunfighter,” which surfaced on DVD this week, but I’ll give it props sight unseen for having partially inspired one of my favorite Bob Dylan songs, “Brownsville Girl,” co-written by a man who knows a thing or two about the West, Sam Shepard.

“Tombstone” had an infamously troubled shoot – screenwriter Kevin Jarre was replaced as director mid-shoot, first by star Kurt Russell and then by the credited George P. Cosmatos – but it’s certainly grand fun, and Val Kilmer gives a gloriously over-the-top performance as Doc (“I’m your huckleberry”) Holliday. Ranking it in the Top 10 of Westerns, however, is a clear indulgence of the critic’s own enthusiasms.

And that’s just fine. Every list should have a film or two that marks it as the work of an individual rather than a committee. The Western is such a fecund genre that it manages to cater to even the most esoteric tastes, providing plentiful choices for those who prefer the transgressive or revisionist to the traditional. If I were to compile my own Top 20 Westerns, several popular faves would disappear – e.g., the vastly overrated “The Magnificent Seven” – and some quirkier post-’60s films would take their place: Robert Altman’s “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” Walter Hill’s “The Long Riders,” perhaps even Michael Cimino’s unfairly maligned “Heaven’s Gate.”

And my own choice for best Western? “The Wild Bunch,” a film that brilliantly yokes a rueful evocation of a dying West (“We've got to start thinking beyond our guns. Those days are closin' fast!”) to a distinctly modern filmmaking sensibility. Gorgeous and hyper-violent, grandly romantic and relentlessly bleak, inspirational and despairing, “The Wild Bunch” contains Whitman-esque multitudes.

Cliff Froehlich

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