The Real Reel West – Seven Gritty Westerns You’ve Probably Never Seen

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.

The ubiqitous Geoffrey Lewis (here, in High Plains Drifter) – you know the face, if not the name.

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) –

I particularly like this poster.

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.

Lee Marvin gives The Spikes Gang a vital lesson.

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.

Warren Oates and Peter Fonda in ‘The Hired Hand.’

Michael J. Pollard as Billy Bonney in ‘Dirty Little Billy’

Edward James Olmos in ‘The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez’


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17 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. […] for getting me back into American Westerns with some goodies to get started with. Check out his “Seven Gritty Westerns You’ve Probably Never Seen.” Ed and Len (Mills Watson and Alex Wilson) guarding the street outside of Goldie's saloon. […]

  2. Thanks again for recommending me Wild Rovers. I really enjoyed the heck out of it, and was particularly inspired by the saloon layout, an hour and a half way in.

    Last night I saw Charley One-Eye (1972), with Richard Roundtree and Roy Thinnes. Aldo Sambrell appears in it briefly. It’s worth a look-see. It has a very interesting ambiance, largely thanks to Thinnes (as the Indian), its lack of characters, and the locations. It was shot in Almeria, to boot. I picked it up along with Kid Blue (1973) from Shocking Videos:

    • Looks interesting! I’ll see about tracking them down. I’m a Richard Roundtree fan and I’ll watch Warren Oates in pretty much anything as well. Thanks for the tip!

  3. Thanks again for recommending me Skin Game (1971). I thoroughly enjoyed it. It maybe fluffy, but it sure is fun. The story was a damn good idea, too. I owe you a Western.

  4. Hiya, Ed! Remember that Western I still owe you? I was just wondering if you’ve seen The Hunting Party (1972) with Oliver Reed, Candice Bergen, Gene Hackman, L.Q. Jones, Simon Oakland, and G.D. Spradlin. I just finished watching and enjoying the hell out of it just now. Here’s a trailer:

  5. Yeah! Saw that one! Hackman is SADISTIC!

  6. Bad Company is gritty and violent? Boring…

    • I would say yes to both. It’s pretty realistic and a ten year old kid gets the top of his head blown off.

  7. Great topic— I stumbled on this when I Googled “gritty realistic western movies”. I agree that the 70’s was a golden age, and we’ve had some others with a “real feel” to them since then, as well. Here are some of my favorites:

    The Assassination of the Outlaw Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
    Bad Company
    Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee
    Cold Mountain
    The Cowboys
    The Culpepper Cattle Company
    Dirty Little Billy
    The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid
    Going South
    The Long Riders
    McCabe and Mrs. Miller
    The Missouri Breaks
    The Outlaw Josey Wales
    Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid
    The Shootist
    Will Penny

    • I still haven’t seen The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid. But yeah, these are all good picks. I love Ravenous -especially the soundtrack. There is a Gene Hackman movie, The Hunting Party, I discovered since writing this. Pretty good, but very brutal. Bury My Heart’s good? I haven’t seen that one either. From the Indian perspective, I’d recommend Little Big Man, Windwalker, Chato’s Land, and Hombre.

      • Ed, you’ll love Great Northfield Minnesota Raid— Robert Duvall and Cliff Robertson… it has a real “old timey” feel to it.

        Also, I forgot to include The Professionals and, more recently, Ride With the Devil.

      • I tell everybody I know to see Ride With The Devil. It’s brilliant.

      • Agreed— Ride with the Devil is absolutely brilliant.

        Some of these movies, like Ride with the Devil, have a special appeal because they really try to capture the period language, with its ornate syntax and homely idioms, such as you might see in the written language of the times. So in that particular regard, I’d also salute The Assassination of Jesse James, Bad Company, Cold Mountain, Culpepper Cattle Company, Great Northfield Raid, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and Tombstone as more good examples.

      • I hear you. It approaches Shakespearian speech…..I LOVE this exchange (it’s a great novel too, Woe To Live On by Daniel Woodrell, the writer of Winter’s Bone)

        “My father’s under the dirt to stay. Like that’s gone to stay, too.”

        “My finger? Well, so it is. And it makes me notable by the loss.”

        “You sound pleased… as if that finger’d been pesterin’ you for rings.

        “No. It was a fine finger and I’d rather have it still, but… it was took from me and it’s been et by chickens for sure. And I say, what is the good side to this amputation? And there is one.”

        “Name it, Jake.”

        “Well, you say one day some Federals catch up to me in a thicket. They would riddle me and hang me and no Southern man would find me for weeks or months and when they did I’d be bad meat pretty well rotted to a glob.”

        “That’s scientifically accurate, I’m afraid. I’ve seen it.”

        “I’d be a mysterious gob of rot. And people would say, “Who was that?” Then surely someone would look up and say, “Why it’s nubbin fingered Jake Roedel.” Then you could go and tell my father that I was clearly murdered and he wouldn’t be tortured by uncertain wonders.

        “And that’s the good of it?”

        “Yes sir, that’s the good.”

        Haha. Open Range had some well done period speech too. Naturalistic, yet slightly more formal than our own.

  8. Yep, Woe to Live On is in my personal library— I just had to read it after I first saw Ride with the Devil… I remember NPR doing a report on how Ang Lee used Woodrell’s period language as a distinct feature of the movie.

    Hey, it’s wonderful to talk with a kindred spirit on this subject— now I’m off to search out some of those movies I haven’t seen yet: The Spikes Gang, Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, and Harry Tracy… great anticipations! 🙂

  9. Was looking to watch Harry Tracy and couldn’t find it. So I googled realistic westerns, and saw your list. Bad company was a great almost forgot about that too. I remember at a young age 19 I believe how realistic the costumes the muddy streets and cobbled together structures were, down to the last detail amazing the set and costumes made the movie for me I will try out your list I see you have good taste in the ones I do know

    • Thank you, Bill! I think I caught Harry Tracy randomly on Netflix Instant years ago. It’s gone now, but you never know what’ll pop up on there.

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