I love Westerns. It's something I inherited from my father, with whom I used to watch them while I was growing up. In recent years the Western has fallen into disrepute, increasingly being seen as an archaic and irrelevant genre. When done well, however, few films are as thrilling and emotionally satisfying as a good Western.
|My dad and I in Tombstone, AZ.|
I've been pleased that Quentin Tarantino's recent effort Django Unchained has been restoring, in the public's eyes at least, credibility to the genre. Django‘s large box office earnings and Oscar nominations (for Best Picture, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, and Best Supporting Actor) have been opening the eyes of modern audiences to something many of us have always known: Westerns are awesome.
Here's the thing: Django Unchained is rated R, a rating that many (but not all) Latter-day Saints avoid due to a talk given given by late church president Ezra Taft Benson in 1986. A good number of Mormons believe that avoiding R-rated movies is a commandment given by a prophet of God, which they obey on principle, while others have a different perspective…
|Avoid R-rated movies? I thought that was more “guidelines” than an actual rule.|
For what it's worth, my position on media standards is summed up here. Now, for those of you who are considering seeing Django Unchained, Mormon Media Reviews has a great review of it to help you decide. For those who're staying away, I've got twenty-five terrific Westerns, rated PG-13 and under, that'll help you get your fix. I'll cover the 1930's to the present. There's truly something for everyone, with action, romance, comedy, animation, science fiction, martial arts, and even musicals mixing it up with the Old West.
STAGECOACH (G, 1939)
One has to start here, for not only did Stagecoach give John Wayne his big breakthrough role, but the film established much of the Hollywood mythos surrounding the Wild West. Almost every Western since has been influenced in some way by this masterpiece which, I might add, is sitting pretty with a 100% score at Rotten Tomatoes.
THE TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE (PG, 1948)
“Badges? We don't need no stinkin' badges!” Yep, that line comes from this movie, in which American gold prospectors search for treasure in 1920's Mexico, running into danger from bandits along the way. Humphrey Bogart (Casablanca) is at the top of his game here.
HIGH NOON (PG, 1952)
SHANE (PG, 1953)
Iconic tale about a drifter who helps protect a Wyoming family from a cattle baron and his ruthless henchman (Jack Palance, City Slickers) who're trying to force the family off of their own land.
SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS (G, 1954)
Sweet and funny musical about rough n'tumble mountain men that kidnap their sweethearts, whose fathers won't let them marry. Sealed in the mountains by an avalanche, the understandably angry ladies grow fond of their captors once again, teaching the men responsibility, tenderness, and (some) civility in the process. Of course, once the snow melts and their fathers come looking, the fun really begins. The barn-raising scene is terrific.
OKLAHOMA! (G, 1955)
It's so good they put an exclamation point in the title! Full of terrific songs and lovely romance, this tale of cowboys feuding with farmers is plenty of fun, with just enough menace to provide some interesting drama along the way.
THE SEARCHERS (PG, 1956)
Entertainment Weekly called it the best Western of all time. The American Film Institute placed it 12th on their list of the top 100 American movies ever made. John Wayne's most critically-lauded film is a masterpiece. He plays a Civil War vet who, along with his adopted nephew (Jeffrey Hunter), spends years searching for his kidnapped niece, whose abduction Wayne blames on the Native Americans. As a blistering examination of racism, The Searchers was far ahead of its time, as it was in its portrayal of Indians as more than the savages they were often made to be in earlier Westerns. Fun trivia: Hunter played Jesus Christ in King of Kings, a big-budget MGM epic whose musical score was performed by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
RIO BRAVO (PG, 1959)
John Wayne romances Angie Dickinson and joins forces with a drunk (Dean Martin), a crippled man, and an inexperienced gunfighter to make a stand against the corrupt criminals of their town. Well-acted, taking its time to establish its characters and give the audience a chance to connect with them.
THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (PG, 1960)
This Western remake of Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai finds a small Mexican town terrorized by a bandit and his gang. The townspeople enlist seven warriors (including Yul Brynner of The King and I and The Ten Commandments, Steve McQueen of The Great Escape, and Charles Bronson of The Dirty Dozen). The characters are nicely rounded, with each of the seven starting as men plagued with various imperfections but growing into selfless heroes as they connect with and have compassion for the villagers. The film was later parodied in Three Amigos!
THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALLANCE (PG, 1962)
James Stewart (It's a Wonderful Life, Vertigo) and John Wayne share the screen as a rough cowboy and a learned city-slicker who compete for the same girl but team up to fight Liberty Vallance, a criminal terrorizing their town. It'd be worth watching just to see these two in the same film, but the story is actually pretty solid as well.
CAT BALLOU (PG, 1965)
Here's a unique one: it's a musical Western with a female lead (Jane Fonda, in what I think is her best role). Lee Marvin won an Oscar for his dual role as a psycho killer and the comically drunken gunfighter hired to take him down, while Nat King Cole co-narrates with some great tunes. This one's lightweight but loads of fun.
BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (PG-13 on re-release, 1969)
Robert Redford and Paul Newman star in the ultimate buddy adventure, as outlaws with hearts of gold whose high-rolling lifestyle of robbing trains and enjoying the wealth ultimately catches up to them. There's some truly great dialogue here, and the friendship between the two actors translates well onscreen.
THE MAN FROM SNOWY RIVER (PG, 1982)
One of the great love stories in movie history as far as I'm concerned, with a poor cattle driver falling in love with a rich rancher's daughter and trying to prove himself worthy of her. Has a gorgeous musical score, beautiful scenery, and awe-inspiring cattle-driving footage (I know, it sounds hokey, but wait until you see it).
I've lost track of how many times I've watched this uproarious family favorite. Three silent-film cowboys (Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, and Martin Short) are mistaken for actual heroes and recruited to save a Mexican town from the villainous El Guapo. The problem is, they think they're just there to perform. Chock full of classic comedy.
SILVERADO (PG-13, 1985)
BACK TO THE FUTURE PART III (PG, 1990)
QUIGLEY DOWN UNDER (PG-13, 1990)
DANCES WITH WOLVES (PG-13, 1990)
MAVERICK (PG, 1994)
Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, and James Garner (who originated the character decades earlier) charm in this terrific comedy revolving around a big riverboat poker tournament. Double-crosses and dazzling one-liners abound. Alfred Molina (Spider-Man 2) co-stars as the villain. Directed by Richard Donner (Superman, Lethal Weapon).
SHANGHAI NOON (PG-13, 2000)
This is Jackie Chan's most accessible film, combining his trademark kung-fu razzle-dazzle and physical humor with a fun script, solid production values, and the laid-back wit of Owen Wilson (a vast improvement over Chris Tucker; Rush Hour has nothing on this). Chan plays an Imperial guard sent to America to rescue a kidnapped princess (Lucy Liu), teaming up with Wilson's hapless outlaw along the way. There are plenty of nods to classic Westerns in the clever screenplay, and Chan's brand of action proves a surprisingly good mix with the universe of cowboys and Indians.
TRUE GRIT (PG-13, 2011)
REDEMPTION (PG, 2011)
This is a thoughtful, well-acted, and powerfully understated independent film that was a hit at both the Heartland Film Festival and the LDS Film Festival. Set in the Utah Territory in the 1860's, Redemption is a compelling true story about an impoverished immigrant-turned grave-robber who's exiled and left for dead on a barren island in the Great Salt Lake as punishment for his crimes. The bitter sheriff who arrested him takes pity on him, bringing him food and water, to the disgust of the still-grieving community. Striking up a slow-building friendship, the two men help one another to take responsibility for their past mistakes and allow God into their hearts. More character-driven than action-driven, fans of intelligent storytelling will want to give this a look. Read my full review here.