Whether you are a rodeo fan or prefer other forms of entertainment, the culture from which it emerges — farming, ranching, livestock husbandry, and cattle driving — is vibrant in our part of the world, still central to our Western way of life.

Cinema has always found magic and majesty in this culture; indeed, the Western, as a movie genre, endures as a corner post of Hollywood film. From the iconic status of stars like John Wayne, Gary Cooper, and James Stewart, the television dramas of The Lone Ranger and The Ponderosa, to the more contemporary sagas of Clint Eastwood, Westerns have captured powerfully the American imagination.

Whether affirmations of the settlement of the frontier or critiques of Western macho and the suppression of Native Americans, Westerns remain a compelling exploration of the formative experiences of the settlement of the trans-Mississippi west. I grew up bedazzled by the likes of Hopalong Cassidy and Roy Rogers, and remember my first visit to the Saturday afternoon matinee for being enthralled by Alan Ladd in the legendary tale of “Shane,” who saved the town from the greedy cattle barons and then rode off into the sunset. Here are three of my favorite movies, both classic and contemporary:

‘High Noon’ (1952)

This landmark Western remains one of most consequential movies ever. Gary Cooper stars as town marshal Will Kane, who is left alone in his frontier settlement of Hadleyville, New Mexico, to protect the town from a gang of professional killers, bent on revenge. Their ringleader has come to confront Kane, who had captured the outlaw five years earlier.

Miller was scheduled for hanging. Kane has planned to shelve his badge and guns, and move away with his newlywed pacifist wife (an early appearance by a radiant Grace Kelly). His plans are stalled when Miller (newly released from prison) and his gang are set to arrive on the noon train to dispatch the marshal. Kane attempts to recruit a posse from the townsfolk whom he has long protected, but the cowardly bunch flees and leaves the marshal by himself to thwart the gang at high noon.

Torn between his duty to safeguard Hadleyville and the lure of his wife’s non-violent ways, the marshal, in the end, in a brilliant plot twist, is able to achieve both. This is Gary Cooper’s most archetypal role, and the tension felt as the town clock ticks down the minutes to 12 o’clock is palpable.

‘The Outlaw Josey Wales’ (1976)

I am an unabashed fan of Clint Eastwood, not only as a compelling actor, but as a versatile and skilled director. A few years ago, I taught a course at CWU on Eastwood’s directorial career, and all of us, students and professor alike, were bowled over by this artist’s exemplary canon. Viewers may be familiar with Eastwood’s most laureled Western, Unforgiven, so I want to call attention to a splendid earlier work, my favorite of his genre films, Josey Wales. Eastwood (brilliant and at the height of his masculine appeal) plays a peaceful Missouri farmer whose entire family was slain by a renegade Union soldier during the Civil War. After a stint with a band of Southern guerillas who are still battling the Union after the fact, and out for vengeance, Wales opts to leave violence behind and move west. Though hunted by bounty hunters for his “desertion,” and still burning inside from the sadistic murder of his family, he escapes to rescue and protect a ragtag group of frontier vagabonds, including an old Cherokee, a Kansas woman and her young granddaughter (Sondra Locke, who became Eastwood’s long paramour), and a Navajo woman. The peaceful homesteader and family man still lurks in the heart of Wales, as the group forms a social unit under his leadership and makes an armistice with the local Indians. But the brutal fighters he had deserted track him down, and the inevitable confrontation ensues. The question of whether he will die, flee, or find a way to remain in his newfound domestic unit takes up the finale of the film.

‘3:10 to Yuma’ (2007)

Based a story by Elmore Leonard, Yuma has been filmed twice, originally starring Van Heflin and Glenn Ford, and again featuring leads Christian Bale and Russell Crowe. Both versions are stellar, though the 2007 rendition is more easily accessible and enriched by a modern psychological complexity that appeals to a contemporary audience.

Bale is a forceful screen presence as Dan Evans, an impoverished rancher who had lost a leg in the Civil War and now struggles to keep his land solvent and his family together. Crowe, as notorious outlaw Ben Wade, is an equally riveting figure.

The plot revolves around Evans’ role as a member of the posse charged with escorting Wade safely across the territory so he can board the 3:10 train to Yuma, there to be hung for his savage crimes. However, the story’s chief interest lies in the tangled game of cat and mouse between the two men, as they elude wily bounty hunters, angry Apaches, and Wade’s murderous gang trying to free their leader.

As the two men hole up in a hotel room to evade those chasing them, a strange friendship evolves between these erstwhile enemies as they converse. Evans is a man of honor who has committed to this thankless task to earn the money to save his farm. Wade is no ordinary gunslinger: he is intelligent and resourceful, and harbors an unarticulated longing for the kind of familial ties that drive Evans.

The inevitable final showdown, like that of High Noon, entails a reversal of expectation that elevates this Western to a story of deeper humanity than is conventional in the genre.

Liahna Armstrong is a recently retired professor of English and Film Studies at Central Washington University.


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