Thursday, January 31, 2019

The Five Best Western Directors

Stewart in Winchester '73.
1. Anthony Mann - Mann helped define the "Adult Western" of the 1950s with his seminal work Winchester '73. His output included five outstanding Westerns with James Stewart and classics with Gary Cooper (Man of the West) and Henry Fonda (The Tin Star). His heroes were often hard men with a questionable past seeking redemption (e.g., Bend of the River). He painted his tales against a backdrop of an American West in transition, in which budding towns would compete with the cattle empires.

2.  John Ford - Ford was a dominant figure in the Western genre for four decades. He brought prominence to the Western with Stagecoach, paved the way for Adult Westerns with his Cavalry Trilogy, and directed two iconic films late in his career (The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance). Ford's incorporation of Western landscapes (he shot several masterpieces in Monument Valley in Arizona) became his trademark. In fact, a popular lookout was named after him: John Ford Point. I suspect many film fans would have Ford at No. 1.

Eastwood in For a Few Dollars More.
3.  Sergio Leone -With Mann, Ford, and Hawks in the twilight of their careers in the '60s, Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone reinvented the Western genre visually and thematically. His protagonists were morally questionable men who usually did the right thing, even while portraying themselves as profiteers (e.g., Clint Eastwood in For a Few Dollars More). He showed the big towns, but also the decrepit shacks amid the dusty, windswept plains--where a bounty hunter or an outlaw could buy a shot of cheap whiskey. Like Mann and later Peckinpah, Leone was intrigued with the last days of the Old West and the men who didn't want to tame it.

4.  Sam Peckinpah - An uneven director, Peckinpah was at his best when working in the Western genre. While his films also took place in the dying days of the Old West, they focused on the relationships among the characters:  two old friends in Ride the High Country, a band of outlaws in The Wild Bunch; and an unlikely businessman, a prostitute, and a would-be preacher in his masterpiece The Ballad of Cable Hogue. In the former two films, most of the characters are unwilling to adapt to the coming of civilization. However, the hero of Cable Hogue embraces it and finds happiness in doing so (though the ending is bittersweet).

Delmer Daves' The Hanging Tree.
5.  Howard Hawks and Delmer Daves (tie) - A tie may be a bit of a cheat, but it was impossible to omit either of these two from our list. Neither director specialized in Westerns, but they made important contributions to the genre. Hawks' Red River (1948) paved the way for Mann's dark Westerns. His Rio Bravo is one of the most fondly remembered Westerns of the 1950s. And after other Western directors had hung up their spurs, Hawks continued to make Westerns with John Wayne up until 1970. Delmer Daves, another versatile director, dabbled in the Western genre often, his films ranging from intriguing (the Shakespearean Jubal) to unique (Cowboy with Jack Lemmon and Glenn Ford). He secured his place on this list, though, with two beautifully-crafted classics: the thriller-like 3:10 to Yuma and The Hanging Tree, a tale of redemption and love.

Honorable Mentions:  Budd Boetticher, John Sturges, Clint Eastwood, and Henry Hathaway.


  1. Can't argue with this list, though I would replace Boetticher with Daves. All great choices!

  2. A great list. In many ways, John Ford invented the adult Western with Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine etc., and Anthony Mann perfected it in the 1950s.

  3. I have not been able to get into Leone's westerns, no matter how many times I have tried. They don't feel organic to me, but more like a pastiche.

    You know - if you bucked tradition and made a Top 6 list, you would have to have that "bit of a cheat."

    Might you work something up someday on folks like William Witney, Joseph Kane and Lesley Selander?

  4. I'm not a huge fan of Sergio Leone's westerns, but I heartily agree with the other choices on your list.

  5. I looked up Henry Hathaway to make sure that he directed The Sons Of Katie Elder. I find it interesting that he directed John Wayne in his first movie after Duke had a lung removed plus Hathaway directed him in True Grit that Duke won the Academy Award. I looked up Don Siegel(not on the list) to see if he directed The Shootist which he did. That was Dukes last movie as most people know. Siegel also directed Richard Widmark, Clint Eastwood, Audie Murphy, Elvis Presley, and Fabian. That is certainly a wide variety of men.

  6. Good choices above. I'd honorable mention Richard Brooks since he made two of my favorite westerns: "Bite The Bullet" and "The Professionals." Your choices for western directors almost mimics mine for war movies, which is another interesting subject I hope you explore, if you haven't already.

    1. Ron, I'm with you on the two Richard Brooks films. Both are excellent--and feature memorable endings.

    2. I'd like to add The Last Hunt as another interesting western from Richard Brooks.

  7. A solid list, right down to the excellent choice of honorable mentions. I've watched most of the Boetticher/Randolph Scott westerns in the last couple of years, and they hold up very well against some of the other films you mention. Also, I heartily agree with Ron's comment that the Richard Brooks movies "Bite The Bullet" and "The Professionals" are truly worth seeing. Great work!