I am an immense western fan. I remember watching The Lone Ranger and The Cisco Kid as a kid on Sundays, but moved away from the genre for a long time. Like most people do nowadays, I just thought it was a dead end, with nothing to offer me, just white hats/black hats and Indian stomping. When I was in high school I got on a Dirty Harry kick, and that led me to The Good The Bad and The Ugly, which changed the way I saw westerns forever, and in turn led me to re-evaluating John Wayne, and even Roy Rogers. I finally found Louis L’Amour, Larry McMurtry, and Cormac McCarthy.
I can safely say that now I’m an avowed fan of all things western. I rabidly absorb any movies I haven’t seen, usually thanks to the wonders of Netflix Instant.
In recent years I’ve come across a bevvy of pictures I had never even heard of. I believe they’re a part of the cinema verite movement that hit in the 70’s, in which you see a lot of naturalistic lighting and set ups, meant to evoke a more realistic experience in movie watching. I’ve heard them called ‘acid westerns,’ intended to subvert the sort of top shelf Randolph Scott/John Wayne kind of vehicle, but I don’t entirely agree with that appellation – at least not for all of these.
I thought seven was a nice ”magnificent’ number to list the best I’ve seen of this particular style. I’m sure I’m leaving some out (Buck And The Preacher comes to mind, late in the game). While not always historically accurate, they ‘feel’ pretty dang real. So if you’re interested at all in The Old West, and you’re looking for a movie that does a pretty decent job capturing what it must’ve been like without the Hollywood gloss (and I’m talking hardcore here – ‘Unforgiven’ seems like a Busby Berkely musical compared to the movies on this list), you could do a lot worse than these pictures…
1. Bad Company (1972) – Supposedly Paul Rodgers took the name of his band from this movie, which is my favorite of this bunch. Starring Jeff Bridges and Barry Brown (and including some familiar faces – Geoffrey Lewis, John Savage, David Huddleston) as a pair of teens dodging the Civil War draft and heading out West with a gang of orphans who wind up outlaws. The movie’s pretty stark and realistic, almost without musical accompaniment. It’s basically about the loss of innocence or the attainment of maturity (which is pretty much the same thing). It’s got a couple of anachronisms (cartridge revolvers and mention of the Curly Bill spin in the 1860’s), but it’s quite authentic. I would swear Jeff Bridges skins a real rabbit just offscreen (otherwise he’s an even better actor than I thought). Bridges is brilliant as Jake, the b.s.’er who is out-b.s.’ed by Barry Brown’s Drew, who provides the movie’s infrequent narration in the form of letters home to his mother (which I think are never sent). The cast is winsome, the story engaging, the violence (some of it involving children) at times soberingly brutal. A great western, readily available on DVD. Check it out.
2. The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez (1982) – Edward James Olmos stars as the titular character, who is embroiled in a revenge killing and becomes the fugitive in a massive manhunt in 1901 Texas, all due to a mistranslation of Spanish. An engrossing tragedy. You’ll forget you’re watching a narrative.
3. The Culpepper Cattle Company (1972) – Gary Grimes leaves the family farm and his could-care-less mother to sign on with a cattle drive bossed by Billy Green Bush, and quickly finds the life of a cowboy is a lot of hard work and drudgery, even though he’s nothing more than the cook’s assistant. When Grimes’ frequent screw ups result in the loss of some horses to rustlers, Mr. Culpepper enlists the aide of some old friends of questionable morality (including again, the great unsung Geoffrey Lewis) to help out. When they come across a religious sect being bullied off their ‘chosen land’ by a local land baron, a bloody climax is in the works. Bo Hopkins is particularly good as one of Lewis’ gunfighter cronies.
4. Dirty Little Billy (1972) –
Michael J. Pollard stars as Billy Bonney in this realistic (and amazingly muddy) picture loosely based around the early years of Billy The Kid, prior to his departure for the Southwest. Pollard plays Billy as a bit of a bumbler, who leaves an abusive stepfather to basically live in the back room of a ratty saloon with a gunfighter and his prostitute. Slow paced, but enthralling. When Billy finally picks up a gun, it’s like seeing ‘Wart’ draw the sword from the stone.
5. Harry Tracy (1982) – I just watched this one last night, and it got me thinking about others of its ilk. Bruce Dern (who, if you remember, famously killed the Duke in ‘The Cowboys’) gives a great performance as real-life Pacific Northwest bank robber and former Hole-In-The-Wall-er who in the opening sequence literally collides with Helen Shaver while on the run from Gordon Lightfoot (yes, the singer)’s posse of US Marshals. The two hit it off in the brief moments they’re together, and he promises to visit her later (in Seattle, I believe). Numerous robberies and escapes later, he and his partner arrive at last in town to seek her out, but are double and triple crossed by a conniving lawyer with political aspirations and wind up incarcerated. But then they escape…fairly slow, but engaging and nice to look at. Dern made the movie for me, and it had a good ending.
6. The Spikes Gang (1974) – Ron Howard, Gary Grimes (again), and Charles Martin Smith (who, amusingly, appears in Culpepper Cattle Company as a friend of Grimes who does not leave home) leave the boredom of their respective farms with a mind to make themselves notorious after they hide a wounded outlaw named Harry Spikes (the incomparable Lee Marvin) in Howard’s barn.
They seek out and find trouble pretty quickly, and run into Spikes again, who agrees to take them under his wing. Gunplay and ultimately betrayal ensues. Great flick.
7. The Hired Hand (1971) – I guesss if there really is an ‘acid western’ on this list, this is probably it. Peter Fonda’s follow-up to ‘Easy Rider’ stars himself and the always entertaining Warren Oates as a pair of saddle tramp cowboys who along with a third, stop off in a nowhere town to plan their next outing. When their friend is brutally murdered by a bunch of outlaws led by the settlement’s boss, Fonda and Oates shoot the boss’ legs up and depart, heading to the ranch of Fonda’s long estranged wife, Verna Bloom. Basically a romance, The Hired Hand depicts Fonda and Oates working the ranch, while Fonda and Bloom gradually become more comfortable with each other again. Of course, by that time, the boss of the town and his gang show up and kidnap Oates….this is a beautiful piece of art and a good western to boot. Amazing cinematography.