Stagecoach (1939)

You know the Western clichés— outlaw looking for revenge, doctor done in by “the drink,” prostitute with the heart of gold, smooth gambler, Monument Valley locale. This fine film set the standard. Stagecoach carries a motley group of characters en route to their destinies in Apache territory. John Wayne impresses as the outlaw; he, along with the others, boards a stagecoach into that dangerous land and circumstances that will test them all.

I thoroughly enjoyed John Ford’s direction, the framing of scenes, the panoramic longshots and personality defining close-ups. --And then you have Yakima Canutt’s oft-imitated stunt work. Watch for the wordless moments that make the stage passengers unforgettable.

Check out a TCM article on Stagecoach for a behind-the-scenes look at the film, plus the partnership between John Wayne and John Ford.

For other movies from 1939, check out Bill's spotlight on the most celebrated year in American film history. And for other classic westerns starring John Wayne, check out our list of movies.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) R

A little meandering at times, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was nevertheless an enjoyable film. Everything was very low-key and melancholic from beginning to end, which is a change of pace from the format of most modern films. It doesn't try to force the viewer to see the events in a certain light, only presents the (semi-fictionalized, I'm sure) facts so the viewer may draw their own opinions.

However, it seems as though it tries to reach the viewer emotionally but falls just short, grasping for but never quite reaching the desired connection with the audience. Additionally, it has beautiful cinematography (Oscar nominated) and a stunning soundtrack composed by Nick Cave (who makes a cameo appearance near the end of the film) and Warren Ellis.

Starring Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, and Sam Shepard.

The Whistling Season by Ivan Doig (2006)

“Can’t cook, but doesn’t bite” attracts widower Oliver Milliron to the job advertisement of a for a housekeeping position in 1909 Montana. What follows is a delightful story about the family of father and three sons, their housekeeper and her brother, who takes the job as the school teacher in the one room school. Doig’s language is breathtaking, his descriptions of eastern Montana a delight, and the reader learns a little about homesteading in the early 20th century.

Check our catalog for The Whistling Season by Ivan Doig.

Cowboys & Aliens (2011) PG-13

Cowboys & Aliens stars Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, and Olivia Wilde. It is a combination sci-fi/western picture. My initial reaction to the title and to a few previews I saw was, "Give me a break, how silly can you get?" But a few people told me it was a pretty good movie, so I decided to give it a chance. And I am now very glad I did.

This is a fun movie. It works very well as an old fashioned 1950s sci-fi movie set in the "Hollywood West." Daniel Craig gives a wonderful performance as Jake Lonergan, a bad guy turned good who sets out to right past wrongs. It's as though James Bond was sent to the past without a memory of who he was, what his mission is, or any of his special gadgets except one, which he does not know how to use. But he retains his martial arts ability and his ability to "think on his feet."

So sit back and enjoy.

Spotlight: Audie Murphy

Spotlight: Audie MurphyAs most of you know, Audie Murphy was America's most decorated soldier of World War II. After the war, Murphy went to Hollywood and began a movie career under the tutelage of James Cagney. Most of the movies he made were westerns.

Indian Prairie has acquired the Audie Murphy Western Collection, which contains four films. Sierra (1950) is the first. Murphy's inexperience as an actor shows in this, his second starring western. And his then wife, Wanda Hendrix, gives him no help due in part to her unusual voice. The film is nevertheless worthwhile because of the spectacular photography, the singing of Burl Ives (who sings a few very beautiful ballads and a very comical song for children), and the appearance in small roles of future superstar, Tony Curtis, and television's most famous western marshal James Arness.

All four films include an introduction by Turner Classic Movies' Ben Mankiewicz. The special features section of each film includes interesting facts. Also, Sierra includes a mini-biography of Murphy. One of the interesting stories about this film is a mock fast draw gunfight between Murphy and Curtis. If you watch the other films in this collection, you will note how much Murphy grew as an actor.

The other films in the collection are Drums Across the River (1954), Ride Clear of Diablo (1954), and Ride a Crooked Trail (1958). They are all solid westerns well worth watching.

In addition, Indian Prairie has three other Audie Murphy films: His autobiographical To Hell and Back (1955); Night Passage (1957), a film I previously reviewed; and No Name on the Bullet (1959). To Hell and Back was Universal Studios' biggest box office hit ever, until it was eclipsed 20 years later by Jaws.
Audie Murphy was good actor, who, unlike most actors, was a genuine hero. He stood 5’5”, had a baby face, but with his genuine humility and his life experiences he brought something special to his films. A friend said at his funeral, "Like the man, the headstone is too small." He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery and after John Kennedy, his grave is the most visited gravesite.

Spotlight: True Grit

Spotlight: True GritThis film was made in 1969 and remade in 2010. Both films have much to recommend them, as they followed the 1968 Charles Portis novel closely; the only strong criticism is they both should have stayed truer to book. The 1969 film starred John Wayne, Kim Darby, Glen Campbell, and Robert Duvall. The 2010 film starred Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, and Matt Damon.

John Wayne received his only Academy Award for this film and Jeff Bridges received a nomination for his performance. Kim Darby gave a fine performance portraying 14-year-old Mattie Ross, who has hired Marshall Rooster Cogburn to bring her father's murderer, the nefarious Tom Chaney, to justice. But young Hailee Steinfeld gave an outstanding performance in the same role and received an Academy Award nomination.
Campbell played La Boeuf, a Texas Ranger also on the trail of Chaney, in the 1969 film (portrayed by Damon in the remake). Matt Damon's performance is far superior. I will not mention the names of the actors who played Tom Chaney, but I believe the actor from 1969 film gave a better performance and is much truer to the character from the novel.

The photography in both films is beautiful, but I give the edge to the 1969 film. With respect to the music, I give the edge to the 2010 film.

The 1969 film received two Oscar nominations, the 2010 film received 10. Whether or not you like westerns, I strongly recommend both films. There is plenty of action, comedy and pathos in both. And if you have not read the book, you should do so at your earliest convenience. It’s an American classic.


Jubal (1956)
Rancher Shep Horgan (Ernest Borgnine) saves drifter Jubal Troop (Glenn Ford) from freezing to death and takes him to his ranch. Shep is a big happy puppy dog of a man who takes an instant liking to Jubal and hires him on as a ranch hand. Jubal, who has had a troubled past, forms a friendship with Shep and later reveals the only man he ever previously trusted was his father. Eventually Shep promotes Jubal to ranch foreman.

Jubal's immediate future looks good but there are two significant obstacles to his future happiness. One of them is Shep's wife Mae (Valerie French), who has been unfaithful in the past and now sets her sights on Jubal. His other problem is "Pinky" Pinkum (Rod Steiger) a malicious ranch hand who hates everyone (himself included).

Jubal has much to recommend it. The musical score is hauntingly beautiful. The cinematography is gorgeous. And Rod Steiger gives a compelling performance. I was somewhat surprised to discover that this film did not receive any academy award nominations.

I strongly recommend this film. Check back on Friday for our spotlight on other films released in 1956.

The Lone Star Trail

The Lone Star Trail (1943)Indian Prairie recently acquired Johnny Mack Brown: classic westerns collection. Of the four movies, this is the best.

Johnny Mack Brown was a star football player at the University of Alabama in the 1920s. His good looks got him a start in Hollywood in the late 1920s. At first his career appeared to be taking off as he starred with Hollywood heavyweights such as Mary Pickford, Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow, and Clark Gable. In the early 1930s though, he began regularly making "B" westerns.

The plot for Lone Star Trail is a fairly standard one. Rancher Blaze Barker returns to the town of Dead Falls to clear his name after spending two years in prison for a robbery he didn’t commit. The actual robbers do what they can to either send him back to prison or to kill him. Comic relief is provided by veteran actor and sidekick Fuzzy Knight.

Of particular interest in this film is that one of the "bad guys" is played by a future Hollywood legend very early in his career. Even if you don't like westerns, it would be fun to watch the first few minutes of the film to see if you can identify him (if you're impatient, just click here).

Hangman’s Knot

Hangman’s Knot (1952)
Around the end of the Civil War, Major Matt Stewart (Randolph Scott) leads a successful ambush against a Union gold wagon. After wiping out the Union guards, they find out the war is over. Instead of an act of war, Major Stewart and his men will be regarded as murderers and robbers. Their last chance to prove their innocence is destroyed when Rolph Bainter (Lee Marvin) kills their liaison, a man who could have informed Major Stewart of the war's end, but chose not to because he wanted the gold for himself.

Things go from bad to worse when a collection of armed riffraff masquerading as peace officers get on their trail and trap them in stagecoach station. Molly Null (Donna Reed) and Lee Kemper (Richard Denning) are stagecoach passengers. Molly is an army nurse with a strong sense of duty. She initially despises Major Stewart as she regards him as a murderer and thief. Kemper has been wooing Molly but she has proved hesitant because she is suspicious of his character.

This is the first movie in which Lee Marvin had a significant role and he does a good job of playing a coldblooded killer, a role he would repeat many times in his film career. There is plenty of action and drama in this movie, numerous plot twists, fine acting, and gorgeous photography. I strongly recommend it.

The Westerner

The Westerner (1940)
I am not usually a fan of Gary Cooper, but he shows a wry self-deprecating humor in this western about the classic struggle between homesteaders and cattlemen. Judge Roy Bean, played by Walter Brennan, hates homesteaders and loves the actress Lily Langtry. Cooper, a drifter enamored of a local girl, uses Bean’s adoration of the actress to save his own hide from the hanging judge and help out his homesteading friends.

For more on the film and its impact on Cooper's career, check out this TCM article.

Night Passage

Night Passage (1957)Night Passage is an action packed western about former railroad troubleshooter Grant MacLaine (Jimmy Stewart), who lost his job after letting his outlaw brother, the Utica Kid (Audie Murphy), escape. After spending five years wandering the west and earning his living playing the accordion, he is given a second chance by his former boss. The train has been robbed several times by Whitey Harbin (Dan Duryea), the Utica Kid and their gang.

This film is like a wonderful meal that is full of both contrasts and surprises. There’s the obvious contrast between MacLaine and the Utica Kid of good vs. bad and older vs. younger. In addition, Whitey is nervous and constantly on edge while the Kid is calm and collected. MacLaine's former loves are also a contrast. Verna, a blonde, chose an older and wealthier man over MacLaine preferring security to romance, and Charlotte, a brunette, has chosen the younger and wilder Utica Kid over MacLaine.

There is one unintended contrast in the film. Two TV dads have small roles in the film: Hugh Beamont, the Beaver's dad in Leave it to Beaver and Herbert Anderson, Dennis' dad in Dennis the Menace. Both men play railroad employees but one of them is honest while the other is not.

Among the surprises, the film features two wonderful songs, a beautiful romantic ballad "Follow the River" and a lively jig "You can't get far without a railroad." Stewart plays the accordion and sings the latter song. Besides Duryea, the film also features character actors Robert Wilke and Jack Elam. All three of these actors made careers out of playing sadistic killers. And the photography is gorgeous.

There is a lot to like in the film. So check it out, get some popcorn and sit back and enjoy.

The Searchers

The Searchers (1956)
John Wayne, actor, and John Ford, director, have collaborated successfully for more than a dozen films. The Searchers offers a realistic view of the West after the Civil War. The acting, the scenery, and the music produce a touch of the innocent beauty and of the awful brutality of life in the old west. Big John Wayne is the macho king, driven to find his niece, a captive of the Comanche. This film is a classic of its kind.

For more on the movie, check out and TCM. If you want to see a special event on TV, TCM will be airing the film on Wednesday, December 22 at 12:45.

Welcome to Hard Times by E.L. Doctorow

Welcome to Hard Times by E. L. Doctorow (1960)
If you’ve read Doctorow’s recent novels, you may want to go back and read his first novel Welcome to Hard Times. If you like westerns, you’ll enjoy this book. The story is set in a Dakota mining town and recounts the lives of people going west to find their fortunes. The hard times of western towns is portrayed though the characters' personalities and  and past experiences. The plot is suspenseful and the ending completes the circle from the beginning of the story. You’ll especially enjoy Doctorow’s wonderful words describing the scenes and people throughout the story.

Visit the author's website and read a  New York Times review.

Ride the High Country

Ride the High Country (1962)
In this beautiful and poignant story, two old lawmen take on one last job, bringing the gold down from a mining camp in the California mountains. Along the way, they pick up an unhappy young woman who thinks her happiness can be obtained my marrying a good-looking miner she had once met. When the miner is less than a prince, they must get both the girl and the gold back to town safely. The cinematography is matchless and the acting by two western veterans, Joel McCrae and Randolph Scott, was never better. Directed by Sam Peckinpah who later directed the ultraviolent western classic The Wild Bunch.

Check out the original New York Times review; read a recent review on the Western Wednesdays column of The Flick Cast; and visit TCM's website to watch a movie clip, watch a trailer, or view photos.

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry (1985)
McMurtry has written 29 novels (and more than 30 screenplays). Predominantly set in the American Southwest, McMurtry’s novels are as much about the place as about the people who live there. His depictions of harsh, rugged landscapes are beautifully written and give a balance to his hapless, roguish heroes and villains.
Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry's vast, wild tale of a cattle drive is full of action and unforgettable characters. The western epic won him the Pulitzer Prize. The story follows two longtime friends and former Texas Rangers, Woodrow Call and Augustus McCrae, at the end of the 1800s. Their lives as cattle ranchers along the Rio Grande have lost the excitement of their younger lawman days, so they set off on a long and difficult cattle drive to Montana.

McMurtry's immense talent takes the myth out of the cowboy legend with such a master’s touch that the reader never feels the sting. His has the ability to create believable and lovable characters no matter what the setting. Larry McMurtry is one the finest writers in the world of American fiction. His novels are compelling, unforgettable, and fun.

Check out the television drama based on the novel, read a review and preview the novel.