With legends like Billy the Kid and Jesse James, America’s Old West has captured our collective imaginations for over a century. Westerns dominated Hollywood from the 1900s to the 1960s. Later revisionist filmmakers introduced a stark moral ambivalence to its outlaws and cowboys and, beyond Hollywood, “Spaghetti Westerns” took things in a darker and bloodier direction. Today, directors like Tarantino and Rodriguez continue to play with the Western.
In Robert Redford’s The West, Redford (aka “The Sundance Kid”) explores this fascinating history, with the help of other famous “cowboys”, including; James Caan, Burt Reynolds, Tom Selleck, Kiefer Sutherland, Kris Kristofferson, Mark Harmon and Ed Harris. To get you ready for the eight-part docudrama, here are five incredible films from this timeless cinematic tradition that feature some of the 'cowboy' contributors.
One of Reynolds’ earliest roles, Navajo Joe (1966) was a major influence for Tarantino’s 2012 Django Unchained. Directed by Sergio Corbucci – a name synonymous with Spaghetti Westerns – the film follows “Joe” (played by Reynolds, who is said to have Cherokee roots) and his one-man war against the sadistic gang who murdered his tribe.
Powered by Redford and Paul Newman's incredible onscreen chemistry, the multiple-Oscar-winning Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) catapulted Redford into megastardom. The film tells of the incredible friendship between legendary train robbers Butch Cassidy (Newman) and The Sundance Kid (Redford). In its ending, the pair go down in a blaze of glory under Bolivian soldiers’ fire, though in real life some claimed they actually escaped to the US to live long and happy lives.
With a soundtrack and cameo by Bob Dylan, the making of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) was almost as dramatic its plot. Director Sam Peckinpah, a known alcoholic, wielded a gun on-set, and allegedly shot his reflection repeatedly a mirror, just like Sheriff Pat Garrett (James Coburn) does at the end of the film. Heavily cut by MGM, Peckinpah’s original version was released 1988, leading critics to hail it a mistreated classic. The bleak “Western-noir” tells of how Garrett comes to kill notorious outlaw Billy the Kid (Kristofferson), his former friend. BAFTA-nominated for his performance, Kristofferson also brought Dylan (also BAFTA-nominated for his score) into the project.
Described as a “misfit Western”, Comes a Horseman (1978) takes a slow and reflective tone which is unusual in the genre. Its World War Two setting is a striking departure from the traditional Old West backdrop. It also stands out for its strong female lead, Ella Connors (Jane Fonda). Fighting to protect her ranch from evil land baron J.W. Ewing (Jason Robards), Ella joins forces with war veteran Frank "Buck" Athearn (James Caan) and romance blossoms. Harmon stars as Ella’s ally, Billy Joe Meynert.
Brat Pack do Wild West, Young Guns (1988) brought the legend of Billy the Kid and his associates to a new generation. Lauded for its humour and vitality (if not always its historical accuracy!), the film tells of Billy the Kid (Emilio Estevez) and his gang, as they seek to avenge the murder of their benefactor John Tunstall (Terence Stamp). Its star-studded cast includes Sutherland as Doc Scurlock and Lou Diamond Phillips as José Chavez y Chavez.