Top Five: Westerns with Edge

A list of Westerns with something more to say than “bang bang! your dead!” by Sean Callaghan

Still from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
Still from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

I love running down a list and checking off the things I’ve done.  I also love Westerns.  So here’s something that joins these two loves together.  This list is not organized based on general watchability, though.  In each film I’ve found something deeply troubling – a kind of revolutionary kernel at the level of aesthetic or narrative expression – that I thoroughly admired.  If there is any film form out there that will help us think the dangers and possibilities of utopian thinking and its inherent violence, the Western is the place to go.  This is not an exhaustive list, though, and I welcome suggestions for other contenders in the comments section below.

1. Django Unchained (2012), directed by Quentin Tarantino

The Rolls-Royce of Westerns with an edge.  See the article “Violence Unchained” for details.

2. The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), directed by Clint Eastwood

If you want to figure out how Clint Eastwood ended up at the Republican National Convention talking to a chair listen to his exchange with Native leader Ten Bears near the end of the film.  This film is anti-state right down to its bones.  But its anti-state without the austerity measures rhetoric.

3.The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), directed by John Ford

Possibly one of the most complex Westerns in how it charts out the relationship between politics, violence, and the law.  Working like the inversion of a bildungsroman, it has us watch Ransom Stoddard go from ideal-driven lawyer at the edges of civilization to vainglorious politician working in the midst of an established status quo.  This is not the Jimmy Stewart we know from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

4. The WIld Bunch (1969), directed by Sam Peckinpah

The child often comes up as a key figure in most conservative rhetoric on why we need to maintain the status quo.  Every time I hear talk about the need to protect the innocence of children, and “oh! the children!” I want to throw up Peckinpah’s iconic opening scene to this film, and say this is a child.

5. Django (1966), directed by Sergio Corbucci

The hero is corrupt, the villains are cruel and inhuman, and the leading lady is ambiguous in her love.  So what is it about this film that keeps us coming back for more with each new revision?  Violence, of course.  Of any other Western, I think this one is absolutely faithful to our desires to watch violence, and so throws up a mirror on this desire so we can confront it head on without ambiguity.  Considering the history of violence in Italy that precedes  films like this, you can’t help but wonder if the two Sergios didn’t think Westerns up until that point were too anodyne, too steeped in a kind middle-class morality they found intolerable.  I can’t help but wonder if they wanted to show their audiences how their violent desires betrayed whatever post-war liberal ideals were being touted, that despite the passage of time, all our desires were still organized – to borrow a phrase from Italian intellectual Giorgio Agamben – “under the sign of fascism.”  Looked at in this way, Django, like the Tarantino reboot, tries to obliterate this sign by appealing to its excesses.  And still, the question remains, why do we keep coming back for more?

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