Saturday, January 26, 2013


The fact is, asking me to choose my favorite western is a little like asking me which is my favorite of my four sons. Here are my three favorites, and for much different reasons.

One-Eyed Jacks

One-Eyed Jacks is a classic in that it has no true protagonist, only antagonists. Brando's character, Rio, is characterized in the first scene as an amoral son-of-a-bitch who's only loyalty is to himself and/or to those who could be of help or service to him. Maldon's character is bad, but not quite so as Brando's, until the roles reverse. Brando becomes one of those anti-heroes with whom you can't help but begin to empathize, and Malden becomes a true bad guy, but one with good motivation. The cinematography was ahead of it's time and the score was good, if not great, but very limited and not a major player in the film. As one whose written about old California extensively, see my Clint Ryan series, I can tell you that the time and place was excellent, as was the art direction generally (with the exception that many characters were much too clean). Ben Johnson was at the top of his game (and playing a bad guy), as was Slim Pickens. It's one of those great screenplays where what's not said is as important, or more, than what's said…something in storytelling that only works in a visual medium such as film or stageplay. But what is said is great as well, like, "…there's dirt between you," and "you scum-suckin' pig." The latter being the dirtiest clean line ever delivered. And after Brando knocks a woman beating bully down, "…you get up, you big tub of guts." One of my most revered compliments as a western writer was as to my Nemesis, where a reviewer said "the vernacular was worth the read." As it is in this screenplay. EVERYTHING about this script and film rings true.

The movie:
Rio (also called "The Kid"), his partner Dad Longworth, and a third man named Doc, rob a bank. The robbery is successful, but some Mexican Rurales attack and kill Doc. Dad and Rio manage to escape in the desert followed by a posse.

Rio figures the Rurales will be "swarming all over us inside an hour." One partner might take the remaining pony and ride to a little jacalito down the canyon about five miles and return with fresh mounts. They shake for it, with Rio fixing the deal so his pal Dad can be the one to go.

Dad gets to a corral, strapping the swag bag onto a fresh pony, but he gets second thoughts. He casts one eye towards a point on the ridge sure to be taken by the Rurales, and with the other he gazes off in the opposite direction out past a low-lying treeline towards the border and safety. One way leads to danger and a poor chance at surviving with half the booty, the other towards a virtual certainty with all of it. After a decidedly short moment of reflection, he takes the latter and leaves his friend to be taken by Rurales. Rio is arrested, and is transported to prison by way of the jacalito, where he learns firsthand of Dad's betrayal from the owner.

Rio spends five years in a "stinkin' Sonora prison," which allows him to concentrate on Dad's having abandoned him. When he locates his former partner in crime, Longworth has become the sheriff of Monterey, California. Dad finally gets a chance to "explain" why he left his friend back in Mexico but tries again to deceive Rio by lying about why he never returned.

Rio plans a bank robbery in Monterey with his new partners Chico Modesto and Bob Emory. But his plans are sidetracked when he falls in love with Longworth's stepdaughter, Louisa, and when Dad administers a vicious beating with a whip in front of the entire town.

While recovering from his wounds near the ocean, Rio struggles with his conflicting desires to love the girl and to kill her stepfather for revenge. He decides to forgo vengeance, fetch Louisa and leave, but Emory kills Chico and pulls off the bank job. However, the heist goes wrong and a bystander is killed. Rio is falsely accused and locked up by Longworth, who desperately wants to kill Rio in an attempt to absolve his own guilt over the earlier betrayal. Rio is due to be hanged in two days.

Louisa visits Rio in jail, first to confess that she is going to have his baby, and then to attempt to smuggle a miniature pistol. Rio bluffs his way out of jail with the unloaded pistol, and helps himself to the revolver of sadistic deputy Lon Dedrick. In the center of town, under fire and left with no choice, he kills Longworth in a final showdown.

In the closing scene, Rio and Louisa ride out to the dunes and say a sentimental farewell. Rio will now be a hunted man and tells Louisa that he's going to Oregon but to look for him in the spring.

Marlon Brando as Rio
Karl Malden as Dad Longworth
Ben Johnson as Bob Emory
Katy Jurado as Maria Longworth
PinaPellicer as Louisa
Slim Pickens as Lon Dedrick
Larry Duran as Chico Modesto

Dances With Wolves

John Williams never composed a bad score, and this one is among his best. Of course Jaws, Star Wars, Jurassic Park, and many, many more weren't bad…as his many Oscars and awards testify. Interestingly, I once signed a book for Michael Blake's mother, who, when asked about the book said, "I couldn't get through it." I apologize for ratting her out and she probably couldn't get through mine either. However, I had the same problem with the book, and consequently think Costner was brilliant for digging the great story out of some not-so-compelling writing (my apologies to Mr. Blake, as you all know, opinions are like a-holes, we all have one). As I understand, Costner and Blake were roommates or frat brothers in college, so I guess he was highly motivated to find a story somewhere in the book. The fact is, it has some great vernacular and lines buried in a lot of expository. Lines such as that given by the filthy plainsman (Timmons) hired by Dunbar to transport him and his goods to the fort, and they finda arrow riddled body on the plain and Timmons says with a crazy grin, "…there's someone waiting for him to write." There's so much good about this film one could write a book about it, much less a blog. The fact the Army is portrayed as the invader is an interesting twist over most westerns, and God knows, we and our Army did some despicable things, along with many more great ones, in "winning" the west.

The movie:
In 1863, First Lieutenant John J. Dunbar (Kevin Costner) is wounded in the American Civil War. Rather than having his leg amputated, he takes a horse and rides up to the Confederate front lines, distracting them in the process. The roused Union army then attacks and the battle ends in a Confederate rout. Dunbar survives, is allowed to recover properly, receives a citation for bravery, and is awarded Cisco, the horse who carried him, as well as his choice of posting. Dunbar requests a transfer to the western frontier so he can see its vast terrain before it goes. Dunbar arrives at his new post, Fort Sedgwick, but finds it abandoned and in disrepair. Despite the threat of nearby Native American tribes, he elects to stay and man the post himself. He begins rebuilding and restocking the fort and prefers the solitude afforded him, recording many of his observations in his journal.

Meanwhile Timmons who transported Dunbar to Fort Sedgwick is killed and scalped by Pawnee Indians on his way back to Fort Hayes. Timmons's death and the suicide of Major Fainborough, who sent them there, prevented other soliders from knowing of Dunbar's assignment to the post, effectively isolating him, and he notes in his journal of how strange it is that no other soldiers accompany him at the post.

Dunbar initially encounters his Sioux neighbors when several attempts are made to steal his horse and intimidate him. In response, Dunbar decides to seek out the Sioux camp in an attempt to establish a dialogue. On his way he comes across Stands With A Fist (Mary McDonnell), who has injured herself in mourning her deceased husband. She is the white adopted daughter of the tribe's medicine man Kicking Bird (Graham Greene), her original family being killed by the aggressive Pawnee tribe when she was young. Dunbar returns her to the Sioux to be treated, which changes their attitude toward him. Eventually, Dunbar establishes a rapport with Kicking Bird and warrior Wind In His Hair (Rodney A. Grant) who equally wish to communicate. Initially the language barrier frustrates them, so Stands With A Fist, though with difficulty remembering her English, acts as translator.

Dunbar finds himself drawn to the lifestyle and customs of the tribe and begins spending most of his time with them. Learning their language, he becomes a hero among the Sioux and is accepted as an honored guest after he locates a migrating herd of buffalo and participates in the hunt. When at Fort Sedgwick, Dunbar also befriends a wolf he dubs "Two Socks" for its white forepaws. When the Sioux observe Dunbar and Two Socks chasing each other, they give him his Sioux name "Dances with Wolves". During this time, Dunbar also forges a romantic relationship with Stands with a Fist and helps defend the village from an attack by the rival Pawnee tribe. Dunbar eventually wins Kicking Bird's approval to marry Stands with a Fist, and abandons Fort Sedgwick.
Because of the growing Pawnee and white threat, Chief Ten Bears (Floyd Red Crow Westerman) decides to move the tribe to its winter camp. Dunbar decides to accompany them but must first retrieve his journal from Fort Sedgwick as he realises that the journal is the blueprint to the army for finding the tribe and that he knows too much about their ways. However, when he arrives he finds it occupied by the U.S. Army. Because of his Sioux clothing, the soldiers see him as a native and a threat and open fire, killing Cisco and capturing Dunbar, arresting him as a traitor. Sgt Bauer (Larry Joshua) with the generals and major, interrogate him, but Dunbar cannot prove his situation, as Corporal Spivey (Tony Pierce) had secretly stolen his journal. As a result, along with Dunbar's refusal to serve as an interpreter to the tribes, he is put on trial for treason and transported back east as a prisoner to be hanged. While travelling in the armed caravan, the soldiers shoot Two Socks when the wolf attempts to follow Dunbar despite Dunbar's attempts to intervene.

Eventually the Sioux track the convoy, killing the soldiers and freeing Dunbar. At the winter camp, Dunbar decides to leave with Stands With A Fist, since his status will put the tribe in danger. As they leave, Wind In His Hair shouts across to Dunbar, reminding him of their friendship. U.S. troops are seen searching the mountains but are unable to locate them, while a lone wolf howls in the distance. An epilogue states that thirteen years later the last remnants of Sioux were subjugated to the American government, ending the conquest of the Western frontier states and the livelihoods of the tribes in the plains.

Kevin Costner as Lt. John J. Dunbar / Dances with Wolves / Narrator (Lakota: ŠuŋgmánitTȟáŋkaÓbWačhí)
Mary McDonnell as Stands With A Fist (Lakota: NapépȟečaNážiŋWiŋ)
Graham Greene as Kicking Bird (Lakota: ZiŋtkáNagwáka)
Rodney A. Grant as Wind In His Hair (Lakota: PȟehíŋOtȟáte)
Floyd Red Crow Westerman as Chief Ten Bears (Lakota: MatȟóWikčémna)
Tantoo Cardinal as Black Shawl (Lakota: ŠináSápaWiŋ)
Jimmy Herman as Stone Calf (Lakota: ÍŋyaŋPtehíŋčala)
Nathan Lee Chasing His Horse as Smiles A Lot (Lakota: IȟáS’a)
Michael Spears as Otter (Lakota: Ptáŋ)
Jason R. Lone Hill as Worm (Lakota: Waglúla)
Charles Rocket as Lt. Elgin
Robert Pastorelli as Timmons
Larry Joshua as Sgt. Bauer
Tony Pierce as Spivey
Kirk Baltz as Edwards
Tom Everett as Sgt. Pepper
Maury Chaykin as Maj. Fambrough
Wes Studi as the fiercest Pawnee
Wayne Grace as The Major

Open Range
This is one of those films, like the two above, that one just can't turn off when surfing channels. It's a classic tale of big interests and small, and the conflict between them. The gunfight is, I think, the most realistic in film…much better, for instance, than the Oscar wining Unforgivenof Eastwoods (whose best movie, in my opinion was his Play Misty For Me, which he also directed.

The movie:

In 1882, veteran cowboy, retired gunslinger and widower "Boss" Spearman (Robert Duvall) is now an open range cattleman, who drives his herds across the vast prairies at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains without care of barbed wire, ranches or civilization. His decade-long right-hand man is Charley Waite (Kevin Costner), a mostly reticent former soldier quietly battling his own inner demons and who struggles with guilt over his past as a saboteur/killer in the American Civil War. Also among Spearman's other hired hands are the jovial gentle giant Mose Harrison (Abraham Benrubi), a young Mexican orphan the others refer to as Button (Diego Luna), and Waite's aging guard dog Tig.

Whilst attempting to catch up with a free-grazing cattle herd in Montana Territory, Spearman sends Mose to the nearby town of Fort Harmony for supplies, only for Mose to discover it has been renamed Harmonville. The town is controlled by a ruthless Irish immigrant rancher, land baron and cattle baron, Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon), who hates open-rangers because they are not compatible with his own controlled ranches. Mose is set upon and badly beaten by Baxter's cattlemen in the general store, and jailed by the corrupt local lawman, Marshal Poole (James Russo), who is on Baxter's payroll. Spearman and Waite become concerned when Mose does not return. They go to Harmonville to look for Mose and get pointed toward the jail by Percy (Michael Jeter), the livery stable owner. Spearman and Waite retrieve Mose from the jail but not before getting a warning from Baxter about free-grazing on "his" land, and get a hint as to what has happened to previous free-grazers in the area. Spearman and Waite take Mose to doctor Walter Barlow (Dean McDermott) to have his broken ribs reset and wounds tended to; there they meet Sue Barlow (Annette Bening). Waite is attracted to Sue immediately, but assumes that Sue is the doctor's wife.

After catching ghostly-masked riders scouting to rustle their cattle, Spearman and Waite sneak up on their campfire in the night, ambush them and disarm them, before learning they are working for Baxter. At the same time, some of Baxter's other roughnecks led by a hired gun and wanted outlaw named Butler (Kim Coates) attack Spearman's wagon, shooting dead Mose and Waite's guard dog Tig. Spearman and Waite discover Button barely alive and struggling for life with a gash in his head, and Spearman digs a bullet out of his chest. After burying Mose and Tig, Spearman and Waite vow to avenge this injustice. They leave Button at the doctor's house and go into town, where they lock Poole in his own jail. Boss knocks him out with chloroform he has stolen from the doctor's office. The deputies are locked up as well.

Sue tells the open rangers that it will take a federal marshal over a week to get there, and Spearman and Waite decide to take matters into their own hands. Waite learns that Sue is the doctor's sister, not his wife. He declares his feelings for her, and she gives him her locket, a family heirloom, for luck. Waite leaves a note with Percy, in which he states that if he should die, money from the sale of his saddle and gear are to be used to buy Sue a new tea set (he previously complained about the handles being too small). After riding together for a decade, and now knowing that it is probably their last day, Spearman and Waite finally confess their true names to each other. They also spend $5, a month's wages, on luxuries such as Swiss chocolate as their last meal.

Waite begins the ending gunfight by shooting Butler through the head, and soon after Poole. An intense gunfight erupts in the street, with Spearman, Waite, Percy and an injured Button outnumbered before the oppressed townspeople begin to openly fight against Baxter. Most of Baxter's men are killed in the gunfight and Spearman stops an enraged Waite from killing Baxter's surrendering and injured. It ends with Baxter alone in the jailhouse, mortally wounded, with Spearman stood over him. Spearman tells Baxter that he will not use a bullet to end his suffering.

Sue's brother Doc Barlow tends to the wounded townspeople and open-rangers. Waite clears out the (now-ownerless) saloon and speaks to Sue in private, telling her he is going back to the open range. She counters that she has a "big idea" about their future together and that she will wait for him to return. He does return, and proposes to Sue. Spearman and Waite agree that their whole way of life is ending, and maybe it is time to settle down; Spearman says that he longs for warmth in his aging years. They decide upon giving up the cattle business for good and taking over Harmonville's saloon, but not before going off to get their cattle on the free range one more time.
Robert Duvall as Bluebonnet "Boss" Spearman
Kevin Costner as Charles Travis Postlewaite / Charley Waite
Annette Bening as Sue Barlow
Michael Gambon as Denton Baxter
Michael Jeter as Percy
Diego Luna as Button
James Russo as Marshal Poole
Abraham Benrubi as Mose Harrison
Dean McDermott as Walter Doc Barlow
Kim Coates as Butler
Herb Kohler as Cafe Man
Peter MacNeill as Mack
Cliff Saunders as Ralph
Patricia Stutz as Ralph's Wife
Julian Richings as Wylie
Ian Tracey as Tom
Rod Wilson as Gus
Alex Zahara as Chet

My All Time Favorite Movies:
Master & Commander
Out of Africa
Lawrence of Arabia
The Quiet Man
The African Queen
Rear Window
Dr. Zhivago

My thanks to Wikipedia for information used in this blog.

L. J. Martin is the author of over 30 book length works, including a dozen westerns, mysteries, thrillers and a number of non-fiction works, including one on killing cancer and a cookbook. He's married to NYT bestselling, internationally published, romantic suspense author Kat Martin. The Martin's live on a small ranch in Montana and winter in California. L. J. is also a screenwriter, with one script optioned to an NBC approved producer. For more see,,, facebook: his Amazon author page:


  1. Hi L.J.--I know what you mean about not being able to choose just one favorite. I have not seen One-Eyed Jacks--so now I have a new movie to add to my list to watch.

    Dances With Wolves is also one of my faves, as is Open Range. The muscial score adds so much to DWW, as well as the cinematography. I'm a Kevin Costner fan, but I think I'd have liked the premise of both of these movies no matter what. Thanks for kicking off our Saturday Matinee feature here at the Western Fictioneer Blog!

  2. I agree that Open Range has the most realistic Old West gunfight ever shown onscreen- I was thinking that as I watched it the first time in theaters. And I'm very fond of all the films on your all-time lust at the end!

  3. So many gunfights show a man getting shot and falling dead. I've never had the displeasure of shooting a man, but have hunted all my life. When an animal is shot he rarely hits the ground dead. I'm always proud when that happens, but my last deer ran 200 yards with four bullets in him. Of course, as in Open Range, when one is taken to the forehead, one goes down like a sack of rocks.

  4. I really did love that movie. I especially liked the relationship developments amongst all the characters.

  5. Good picks. L.J.
    Troy, I remember thinking that about the fight in Open Range in the theater as well. Very realistic. I once had a friend shot in a gun battle while trying to stop a robbery. He fell during the fray and banged up his knee but didn't realize he'd been shot until he went home to change uniform pants.

  6. I like all three of your choices. I also like Costner in about everything he does. Two Westerns that I watch every time they come on - The Outlaw Josey Wales and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

  7. Larry, thanks for the picks. (pics?) Love the One-eyed Jacks. Liked the line where Rio threatens to "tear your armpits out." So many to choose from, but one of my favorites is "Ride the High Country." And I always have to add "Last Stand at Saber River." But, as you mention, everyone has his own opinion. Thanks for the great post.

  8. The more I think about it, the more I might have put SHANE up there in lieu of one of the others. I worked with Jack Palance some in the real estate biz and he was really an impressive guy. And many scenes from that movie stick with you. It, too, had a very realistic fight scene, when Ladd goes into the saloon, grabbing an ax handle and then putting it to good use against the odds. And the scene chopping the tree stump out was one of the great characterzation scenes of all time. Great writing, and great novel-to-film screenplay work.

  9. I remember the first time I shook hands with Palance and wondered if my hand would fit across his palm. He was a big, powerful guy. He had a ranch in the Cumming's Valley near Tehachapi and I often stopped by and had a beer or brought up some chili verde burritos to his ranch manager.

  10. Loved Dances, although I'm not always a Costner fan -- I prefer Duke. Still have Open Range on my pile to watch. Loved Dr. Zhivago and the others on your list too!

  11. I enjoyed your post, Larry. Those are some great movies. Lara's theme from Dr Zhivago is hauntingly beautiful. And Shane is just such a fantastic movie. As for Jack Palance, he really looked every inch the cowboy. I remember watching him do those one-handed push-ups when he won the best-supporting actor Oscar for City Slickers. Amazing!

  12. "The Wild Bunch" is still my favorite film of all time, regardless of genre. Other Westerns on my personal favorites list: "Unforgiven," "Hombre," "High Plains Drifter," and "Tombstone" (historical errors notwithstanding).

  13. Larry, loved your post! Open Range is a favorite of mine, and Dances With Wolves was my son's favorite for many years. DWW is so good, Avatar copies the plot and the characters. Haven't ever seen One-Eyed Jacks.

  14. Seen them all. Dances With Wolves was on tv over Christmas - my wife enjoyed it but it also made her angry.

    My favourite is 'The Magnificent Seven' great dialogue. And Jack Palance in 'Chato's Land' - just reviewed that - as his dialogue is quite revealing.