1 The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). Based on the 1927 novel by the mysterious and reclusive B Traven, this was another successful teaming of director John Huston and Humphrey Bogart. They’d done it before with The Maltese Falcon (1941) and would do it again with The African Queen (1951).
Bogart and Huston were drinking buddies and seemed to bring out the best in each other. The film tells the story of two down-and-out Americans stranded peso-less in Mexico who team up with an old prospector to look for gold in the Mexican badlands.
Huston’s father Walter played the prospector and Tim Holt, who otherwise only appeared in B-grade westerns as far as I know, played Bogart’s partner. As in The Maltese Falcon, Bogart used his experience as bit-part bad guy in his early films to play Fred C Dobbs, who becomes malevolently affected by gold fever.
In black and white the Mexican mountains appear harsh and unforgiving; the sweat of the three miners is palpable and the threat posed by hard-pressed bandits chills the blood. A group of bandits is executed in a scene more graphic than usual in the period, presumably because the censors thought Mexicans were dramatically dispensable.
There are a number of twists in a gripping story, none more powerful than the last. Huston gave himself a cameo part. Sentimentality, which disfigured many films at the time, is almost entirely absent.
2 The Magnificent Seven (1960). Based on the Kurosowa classic Seven Samurai (1954), which I found intolerably boring, this film directed by John Sturges ticks all the boxes – character, action, romance and setting – that distinguish the best westerns.
Yul Brynner plays Chris, a Christ-like figure who kills judiciously. Steve McQueen, in one of his best parts, is Vin, a cynic’s cynic. Two other actors who were to join with McQueen in The Great Escape (1963) – James Coburn and Charles Bronson – are at their best here: one long, lithe and lethal, the other a human force field.
Robert Vaughan, in a flowered waistcoat and fetishistic black leather gloves, is tormented, tested and triumphs. Horst Bucholz as a Mexican tag-along wannabe gunfighter is frankly an embarrassment to all concerned, including the viewer, but then he is meant to be. He adds light and shade.
The seven defend a Mexican village against the depredations of bandits led by Calvera, played perfectly by Eli Wallach. A review of a pallid sequel, Return of the Seven (1966) lamented that, apart from Brynner being the only returnee, the film lacked the energy given to the original by Wallach. There never was a better Mexican bandit.
Dying, Calvera says to Chris, who has apparently deserted the villagers, only to return in force, ‘A man like you. Why you help these people, huh? Why?’
It’s the crucial question and Calvera gets no answer. We know that it was a matter of pride and honour, which he wouldn’t understand anyway.
Elmer Bernstein’s stirring score has been paid homage in many westerns since.
3 Unforgiven (1992). Clint Eastwood bought the rights to the screenplay and it took seven years for him to bring it to the screen. Some of the resistance apparently stemmed from the script calling for the second lead to be black. A would-be wag said it should be called ‘Unfo’given’.
But, showing better judgement than in his support for Mitt Romney, Eastwood persisted as producer and director, and was vindicated. The film is powerful and won four Oscars, including one for Eastwood as director.
Eastwood plays William Munny, an ageing one-time outlaw, who, with two kids in tow, has taken unsuccessfully to farming. He recruits Ned Logan, played with his customary dignity by Morgan Freeman, to collect a bounty offered by a group of prostitutes, one of whom has been cruelly abused.
Money is the motive, but as the story develops other forces come into play – the recovery of rusty skills, racism, loyalty between old comrades and solidarity among resourceful women.
Gene Hackman won a deserved best supporting actor for his portrayal of Sheriff Little Bill Daggett. The scenes between Daggett and gunfighter English Bob, played by Richard Harris, are a mixture of black comedy and extreme violence that no other western I’m aware of has ever pulled off. The sequence is a tribute to the scriptwriter and director.
In the final confrontation between Munny and Daggett there occurs a piece of offbeat dialogue that characterises the film’s style:
‘I don’t deserve this … to die like this,’ Daggett says. ‘I was building a house.’
‘Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it,’ Munny says.
In its unrelenting violence, shabby settings and amorality, Unforgiven has echoes of Tom Horn (1980) which would make my top ten list. Horn, played by Steve McQueen, undercuts all glamorous depictions of the Old West when he says, ‘Do you know how raggedy-ass and terrible the Old West really was?’
* Hombre (1967) just missed out.