The graveyard genre of movies, the Western. Once idolised and the pinnacle of cinema in the 1960s and early 70s, Westerns faced a decline through the late 80s and 90s only to face a revival shortly after the early 2000s. What we have had since then are either huge flops or massive successes. For your flops think The Lone Ranger (2013) or The Magnificent Seven (2016), and for your successes you have Django Unchained (2012) and a surprisingly successful A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014).
For this list though, we have tried to look at what makes a truly good modern western and what tells a satisfactory tale about what life was like back all those years ago. The Wild West is a turbulent and chaotic part of America’s history often disguised under the idea of good cowboys vs bad outlaws or the rightful North versus the slaver South. In reality, these lines were far more blurred – things were not black and white but rather a much more grey area. The films we have chosen I believe display this best – that it truly was a horrible time to be alive and that the people who were unlucky enough to exist in it were a blended mix of good and evil; but all were tough as nails.
1. True Grit (2010)
A remake of it’s predecessor in 1969, True Grit (2010) was a film most people were nervous about. Who could take on a role which John Wayne mastered over 40 years ago? Well, Jeff Bridges, that’s who. True Grit is a devilish tale of an aging ruthless US Marshall who is hired by a young girl [Hailee Steinfeld] to find and kill the man who murdered her father in cold blood. The pair find themselves trekking across open plains and mountain passes in the search of the murderer. They are joined by a Texas Ranger [Matt Damon] whose views of law and justice frequently collide with the US Marshall’s own views.
Jeff Bridges plays his role excellently. A US Marshall who’s best days are behind him and is now suffering from arthritis, coughing attacks and frequently being out of breath. He is plagued by alcoholism and is the anti-hero you would expect from a truly gritty western (pun intended). His ways are violent and show the dark side of the law and order upheld in the Wild West. Jeff Bridges has a monopoly of all the quotable lines in this film, his one liners are witty and brutal at the same time – a mix only he can pull off with such ease.
The gunfights are short, to the point and impactful. Unlike most westerns, bullets mean something in this film and are taken seriously – with characters frequently having to stop to reload or choose their shots carefully. The gore is sparse, but when shown it is graphic and unapologetic.
Hailee Steinfeld brings a certain comical whimsy to the film trying to keep both Damon and Bridge’s characters in line – it certainly is her breakout role at being only 14 years old when the film released. Matt Damon is perhaps the oddest casting choice of the film given what he was known for in 2010 (Being Jason Bourne) but his portrayal of an all mouth Texas Ranger is more than adequate and you quickly forget all about that modern day spy called Bourne…
2. Free State of Jones (2016)
Newton Knight has never been a household name in America let alone the outside world. A forgotten character of history lost in the vastness of the American Civil War. However, Knight’s story has now been told through Free State of Jones. Although it didn’t reach the millions of people it wanted to, it made a sizeable dent in the box office with $25,000,000.
Free State of Jones revolves around Knight (Matthew McConaughey) and starts during his experience of the Civil War as a field medic which is as grisly and depressing as it sounds. Witnessing the reality of war Knight quickly becomes disillusioned with the South’s cause and deserts the army fleeing home where he makes friends with an enslaved girl. He sees Confederate soldiers “tax” crops and supplies from his villagers and resists a Confederate patrol leading to him running into hiding where he befriends a number of escaped slaves and rebels. From there he sets up an armed militia, raiding Confederate supplies and even capturing land known as, you guessed it, the Free State of Jones.
This is not your typical western, set in the rolling plains of Kansas or the deserts of New Mexico. Instead it is in the swamps of Mississippi where if Confederate bullets don’t kill you, diseases certainly will. Life is tough and unfair to Knight who faces numerous moral dilemmas during his reign as leader of the Free State. Not only is he fighting the Confederates but also the racism deeply woven into his own ranks of soldiers.
Free State of Jones is a film about the agents of change in history, it rarely focuses on the battles and gunfights but more on the progress of civil rights even when slavery was still legal. There are some difficult scenes to watch which add weight to the film and set the tone – this is not a fairy tale Western with gunslingers and damsels in distress: this is a real story where real people were murdered and tortured simply for the colour of their skin.
3. Hostiles (2017)
I will be the first to admit that Hostiles was completely missed by my radar until 2021. It popped up on my recommended feed and just from the title and cast alone I knew I had to watch it. Set in 1892, Hostiles, is a frank and bitter look at the final years of conflict between the US Government and Native Americans. The film follows Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) who is ordered to transport Chief Yellow Hawk and his family to their tribal lands under President Harrison’s orders. To get there they face miles of land surrounded by hostile Native Americans, bandits and angry US landowners.
Hostiles is not a happy film, in fact it is quite depressing. The group take heavy losses throughout the film with no doomed member ever meeting a particularly peaceful end. Characters are explored extensively only to be suddenly killed the next minute, with the exception of Captain Blocker you really don’t know who’s time is up next. It’s like a real life horror movie with how the group are slowly whittled down by the forces around them. The gunfights are brutal and quick, with plot armour being minimal.
The films raises a number of tough questions to the viewer. It clearly shows both sides committing atrocities with pioneers being murdered by Natives and Natives being massacred by US forces. But you never seem to blame either Captain Blocker or Chief Yellow Hawk. They have both done horrendous deeds in their lives but neither wanted to, instead they were pressured and given no choice by forces beyond their control. Their relationship grows as the film progresses and they realise that they in fact have a lot in common and would otherwise likely be good friends. Hostiles does not try to answer the question of who was morally right in these conflicts, instead it simply offers the viewer a window into the past, and they can then make their own decision.
It is a beautiful film, the scenery is outer worldly and you can feel the heat of a New Mexico summer radiate from your TV. There is not a huge amount of dialogue, with much of the communication coming from the expressions and actions of Captain Blocker and Chief Yellow Hawk. The ending is bitter and appropriate for the film, but I won’t dare spoil it for you.
Special shout out to Timothee Chalamet and Jesse Plemons who are excellent in their castings.
4. 3:10 to Yuma (2007)
Out of all 5 films on our list this one is definitely the most reminiscent of a spaghetti western, with elaborate characters and lengthy bullet fuelled gunfights it is a film which could easily be mistaken for an easy Sunday viewing. But it has earnt it’s spot on the list because it is oh so much more than that. Much like the original, 3:10 to Yuma follows the wounded Civil War veteran Dan Evans (Christian Bale – Yes the second time he’s featured in our list) who has become a sheep rancher in 1884 Arizona. A meeting of faith allows Evans to meet the film’s villain, Ben Wade (Russel Crowe), assisting in his capture with the railroad men. Evans is then offered a reasonable sum to help transport Wade under prisoner escort to the 3:10 train to Yuma where he will be tried and hung. Evans agrees and faces a perilous journey meeting hostile Apaches, Wade’s gang and facing Wade himself who manages to get free multiple times. The remnants of the group finally reach the train station where they have a prolonged siege and shoot out with Wade’s gang as Evans tries to get him to the prison train.
3:10 to Yuma is a true Western story, filled with colourful characters armed to the teeth ready for a fight to the death at a moments notice. The towns they arrive in are what you would expect, long open high streets flanked by saloons, sheriff’s offices and brothels – with every point of interest being only a 2 minute walk from the bustling train station. The guns in the film lack a punch, with some characters able to take a few bullets before finally giving in – but where they lack in punch they make up for in the sheer number of splinters and shrapnel they make on impact, it is quite a feast for the eyes.
Russel Crowe and Christian Bale make an intriguing duo in this film. Although Bale’s character is “good” and Crowe’s is instinctively “bad” it is not as simple as that by the end when their characters fulfil their arcs. 3:10 to Yuma explores the motives behind these men, be it money, pride, greed or honour. It quickly transpires that despite being the villain of the film, Ben Wade is much more pragmatic and realistic than the others and sees the world through his own tinted veil. Dan Evans on the other hand, is a bit of a romanticist who goes far beyond his call to duty even when faced with a likely death.
The sets and locations where 3:10 to Yuma was filmed are fantastic, bright and full of life. The world they have created rarely feels empty. It is unlikely that 3:10 to Yuma will surprise or shock you, by following the age old western storyline it is easy to predict the ending. However, this film is definitely one where you watch it for the journey rather than the destination.
5. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is one of my favourite films of all time and I didn’t really expect it to be when I first sat down to watch it. Much like it’s title, it is a long epic of a film with a total running time of 160 minutes. It follows Robert Ford, the infamous murderer of Jesse James who was vilified by history as a coward who killed off the great gunslinger without it being a fair fight – shooting Jesse in the head whilst his back was turned. The film starts from when Robert and his brother Charley sought out to join Jesse for a train robbery he was planning, they were both great fans of his, completely star struck. As the film progresses Robert becomes disenchanted with both Jesse and the life of being an outlaw; he murders and robs but is ultimately left feeling empty and depressed. Eventually, Robert agrees with the governor of Missouri to capture of kill Jesse in exchange for a full pardon for the murders Robert had committed. Robert and his brother become incredibly close with Jesse and his family at their new home until the assassination. Once the deed is complete, both brothers struggle to adapt to their new life and do not get the admiration from the public they had expected for killing the most notorious outlaw. Their stories are ultimately tragic and grisly.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is an epic which focuses on the agents of history and the personal impacts of big historical events such as this. It is a completely in depth look at the emotions both felt by Jesse and Robert, along with those around them, throughout the build up to the assassination. Despite it’s name, the film shows Robert in a balanced light and gains sympathy for his cause, he is a small fish trying to survive in a very big ocean. He is surprisingly kind, thoughtful and wanting to do good, his main flaw is in his search for stardom among the public. Jesse is also shone in a light you would not expect, he is charismatic but not overbearing, he is not the gun slinging outlaw you would expect to see – he is quiet, trusting and takes time when making decisions, he is the opposite of impulsive.
There are no fancy gunfights or crazy horseback rides in this film, it is realistic and to those wanting a thrill seeking western I would avoid this as you may end up disappointed. Guns are a last resort for most persons and they are not easy to get hold of with a limited number of characters having them throughout the film. Even when Robert kills Jesse he does not get into a massive chase with the authorities, he simply leaves the area quite quietly with his brother. Even the train robbery we see is relatively mellow, with little money being found and the train coming to a stop when commanded to – there is no man on a horse jumping onto the side of a moving train. Characters seem to genuinely appreciate their lives in this film and do not throw them away needlessly at the first sign of conflict.
The cinematography of this western drama is where it shines the most, especially with the narration in the background. It shows a part of the west many of us are not used to, cold mountains, small forests and a lot of wheat fields. The final “eulogy for Bob” narration is rather impactful and one that I re-watch on occasion. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford explores just how unfair and fickle the public can be. Here we have Jesse James, a man who has murdered scores of civilians and stolen countless amounts of money, by his victims he is considered the devil. Yet when Robert Ford finally kills him the public cry out that he was unjustly killed, and that Robert Ford deserves death himself. Humans do seem to have that habit, think of how many murderer TV shows there are on Netflix, think of Bonnie and Clyde, Butch Cassidy, Ted Bundy or Pablo Escobar – we seem to almost honour these monsters and not really care about who caught them or brought an end to their rampage. It’s something which this film makes you think about.