Last month, I gave you the bottom six in the list of my 12 favorite Western movies (click here to read that post). This month, we continue the countdown to my number one favorite. Remember, this is not meant to be a list of the best Western movies, but a list of my personal favorites. I'd love to hear in the comments below what some of your favorites are.
#6 – The Shootist
The Shootist was released in August of 1976, and of the four films on this “12 Favorite” list in which John Wayne appears, this one is my favorite. Staring along with Wayne are James Stewart, Lauren Bacall, Ron Howard, Richard Boone, and Harry Morgan.
In this film, Wayne plays an aging gunfighter by the name of John Bernard Books. Barely ten minutes into the film, we find out that Books is dying when the town doctor, played by Stewart, informs him, "You have a cancer." He describes in detail the painful death that Books has in store for him. Over the next couple of months, Books develops a relationship with the woman who runs the boarding house where he is staying (Lauren Bacall) and with her son (Ron Howard) who idolizes Books. As his time draws near, Books has no plans to die a slow and painful death. He plans to go out the way a gunfighter should.
Based on the novel by Glendon Swarthout, whose son, Miles, worked on the screenplay, the life and death of J.B. Books parallel the passing of the American west and the advent of the twentieth century. Wayne’s performance is made all the more poignant by the fact that he had cancer at the time of filming, and in less than three years, he would succumb to stomach cancer at the age of 72.
The movie was directed by Don Siegel, who directed Dirty Harry and Escape from Alcatraz. It was nominated for five awards, including an Academy Award and a Golden Globe.
#5 – Broken Trail
Broken Trail is based on the novel by Alan Geoffrion. It first aired as a two-part miniseries in June of 2006 and stars Robert Duvall and Thomas Haden Church.
The story takes place in 1898. An aging horseman named Prent Ritter, played by Duvall, and his estranged nephew, Tom Harte, played by Thomas Haden Church, hook up to drive a herd of horses from Oregon to Wyoming to sell to the British Army. Along the way, they rescue five young Chinese girls from a slave trader and reluctantly take on the responsibility of caring for and protecting the girls. Duvall develops a fatherly bond towards the girls, teaching them to ride and speak English. Thomas Haden Church – who played the dim-witted mechanic, Lowell Mather, on Wings, is a downright bad-ass as Tom Harte. The two men and the girls are being pursued by a gang of vicious killers who were hired by the madame who originally purchased the girls to work for her as prostitutes.
Broken Trail garnered 56 award nominations, winning 19 of them, including four Primetime Emmys.
4 – Windwalker
Windwalker was released in 1980 and is probably one of the best, little-known films depicting Native American life in the late 18th century. Windwalker is the name of the main character, an elderly Cheyenne warrior who remains behind to die when his family and tribe move south for the winter in what would become the state of Utah. Windwalker passes into the afterlife, but after having a vision of his wife, Tashina, who had been murdered by the Crow Indians, he is sent back by the Great Spirit to help his family survive another Crow attack and to search for his son who was kidnapped by the Crow as a baby.
The film stars several Native American actors, including Nick Ramus, Serene Hedin, and Chief Tug Smith, but the leading role of Windwalker was played (very convincingly) by British actor Trevor Howard. Native American actor Chief Dan George was supposed to star in the leading role but became ill before filming and had to be replaced.
Here’s an interesting piece of trivia about this film; It was the debut film for Bart the Bear—a Kodiak Brown Bear that would go on to star in several movies and TV shows, including The Great Outdoors, The Bear, White Fang, Legends of the Fall, and The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams, to name a few.
Windwalker only received one award nomination, winning a Special Jury Prize at the Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival in 1991. But don’t judge it by its lack of award recognition. This is a wonderful film with themes of family identity and perseverance. It was filmed on location in Utah in the Wasatch Mountains, and the outdoor cinematography is stunning.
One of the reasons that Windwalker is near the top end of my 12-Favorite list is that the story is entirely about Native Americans. There are no cowboys, no mountain men, and no fur trappers; only Native Americans.
The Revenant, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy, was released in 2015 and was directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu who also directed Birdman. It’s based on the 2002 novel by Michael Punke which, itself, is loosely based on the life of legendary mountain man Hugh Glass.
The film was shot on location in Italy, Argentina, and Montana. The cinematography for The Revenant is stunning and earned the film one of its three Academy Awards. All told, The Revenant was nominated for an astounding 276 awards and won 90 of them, including three Academy Awards, three Golden Globes, and one Screen Actors Guild Award.
DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, a mountain man who, in 1823, suffered a brutal attack by a grizzly bear. Badly injured but still alive, he is abandoned by his companions in the wilderness and left to die. Instead, Glass rallies all of his strength and survival instincts to stay alive and embarks on a wintry trek to track down John Fitzgerald (played brilliantly by Tom Hardy), the man who killed his son and left him to die in the wilderness.
Note: The word “Revenant” comes from the French word for “ghost” and means someone who has come back from the dead.
Dances with Wolves is an epic Western first released in 1990. It stars Kevin Costner, Mary McDonnell, Graham Green, and Tantoo Cardinal. Three prominent directors were offered the project, but each one turned it down. Finally, Costner decided to direct the film himself in his directorial debut.
Costner plays Army lieutenant John Dunbar, who, through a heroic act during the Civil War, is offered his choice of a duty post, and surprises his superiors by choosing a remote post on the Western frontier. Through an unusual set of circumstances, Dunbar finds himself the sole member of the detachment to the remote outpost of Fort Sedgwick. He enjoys the solitude and goes about repairing and restocking the outpost. During his time there, he gets to know his neighbors—a tribe of Lakota Sioux—and grows to appreciate and respect their lives and culture. Eventually, Dunbar leaves his old life behind and joins the Lakota. This will cause problems for Dunbar when the army learns about him.
The film was based on a novel by Michael Blake, who was a friend of Costner’s. Blake wrote Dances with Wolves as a novel after Kevin Costner convinced him to do so. Blake originally tried to sell the idea as a screenplay, but Costner believed that it would generate more studio interest as a novel.
The cinematography and the musical score for the film were both outstanding and accounted for two of the seven Academy Awards that the film won in 1991. It also won the Oscar for Best Picture, becoming only the second Western film to earn that honor—the first being Cimarron (1931). In total, the film was nominated for 88 awards, winning 51, including seven Academy Awards and three Golden Globes.
Number one on my “12 Favorite” list is the epic miniseries, Lonesome Dove, based on the book by Larry McMurtry. It stars Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, Ricky Schroder, Danny Glover, Diane Lane, and a host of others. Lonesome Dove was released as a four-part miniseries in February of 1989. McMurtry based the book on a screenplay that he had written with Peter Bogdanovich. The original plan was to make a movie starring John Wayne, Henry Fonda, and Jimmy Stewart, but the project never panned out.
Duvall and Jones play a pair of aging Texas Rangers, Captain Augustus "Gus" McCrae and Captain Woodrow F. Call, who operate a livery in the town of Lonesome Dove. The two men decide to go into the cattle business. They plan to drive a herd of Longhorns from Texas to Montana to start a ranch. All of the expected dangers are there along the way; Indians, bandits, weather, prairie fires, treacherous river crossings, horse thieves, and cattle rustling. The film is a pleasant mix of drama, humor, action, and romance. Duvall in particular gives the performance of a lifetime. His character, Gus McCrae, is tough as they come when dealing with enemies like the half-breed Indian bandit, Blue Duck (Frederic Forrest), or surly bartenders, but he is tender-hearted toward the prostitute (Diane Lane) that wants desperately to get to San Francisco. He often waxes philosophical with his partner, Captain Call, and the other members of the Hat-Creek outfit.
Lonesome Dove was nominated for 35 awards, winning 18, including seven Emmys and two Golden Globes.
Mike is an award-winning Western author currently living in a 600 square foot cabin in the mountains of Western Montana. He has been married to his redheaded sweetheart, Tami, since 1989. He is a Western Fictioneers Peacemaker Award Finalist three years in a row and his short stories have been published in numerous anthologies and are available through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other online retailers as well as brick and mortar bookstores. His first Western novel, The Sons of Philo Gaines, was released in November of 2020. It is available everywhere books are sold. Mike is a member of Western Writers of America and Western Fictioneers. You can find him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/MichaelRRittAuthor, or at his website https://michaelrritt.com.