Revising the West; or (Bucko’s) Top 10 Revisionist Westerns

Revise what? Nothing less than the ideals of Manifest Destiny, which proclaimed the superiority of European white manly manliness. As soon as westerns became awesome, they began revising, folding, mutilating, and spindling this textbook tripe.

A little western history: The heroes in pre-1939 Westerns had to follow five commandments:

  1. Thou shalt be white, male, heterosexual asexual.
  2. Thou shalt wear white hats.
  3. Thou shalt help a sweet-faced, useless female in distress.
  4. Thou shalt gallop horse at high speeds, preferably while shooting guns at a Native American tribe, Mexican bandits, or well-known character actors.
  5. Thou shalt be reluctant but victorious in shootouts/fisticuffs with thine nemesis.
  6. Thou shalt have a contract with a studio who will film for as little money as possible.

And lo, the western was a cardboard cutout of a film genre until…

1939 and John Ford’s Stagecoach and its sympathetic characters, believable drama, excellent production values, and a young John Wayne. (I so heart the Ringo Kid!!!)

Fast-forward through the next couple of decades, during which westerns portrayed the hero as selfless do-gooder or self-aware isolationist, the twin faces of Americans. And lo, there came a time when respect for authority and traditions was shaken, and the western changed.

  • Native Americans stopped becoming props and plot devices. (Little Big Man, 1970)
  • The life of the monumental individual was revealed to kind of suck; he was lonely, had a lack of empathy and fear of commitment, and was out of synch with the community-oriented West. (Hud, 1963; Lonely Are the Brave, 1962)
  • The West was shown as a brutal place that could squish the naive hopes of the proud, the foolish, and/or the unlucky. (McCabe and Mrs. Miller, 1971)
  • Being a gunslinger, or a lawman, was not glamorous and in fact, was filled with tough choices between former friends and money, the law, or civilization. (Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, 1973)
  • Much, much, much later, women and gay men were shown in heroic roles—heroic in a more real than reel sense of the word, as they had to overcome threats to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—which isn’t textbook tripe. (The Ballad of Little Jo, 1993; Brokeback Mountain, 2005)

Without further ado, my top revisionist westerns.

Oh wait—some major ones I haven’t included because I haven’t seen them yet (I know, I know) (Buffalo Bill and The Indians (or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson, 1976; Posse, 1993); I couldn’t sit through them (The Missouri Breaks, 1976); they could be called revisionist but I think they’re just super complex classic westerns (The Searchers, 1956); they are weird but full of reverence for the form (The Tears of the Black Tiger, 2000), or I think they’re dumber than a box of hammers (Dances with Wolves, 1990).

Top 10 Revisionist Westerns (Bucko’s)

10. McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) A rich complex town setting full of relatively realistic townspeople, and an upended showdown.

9. Little Big Man (1970) I had to put my fingers in my ears whenever Dustin Hoffman spoke, but the glimpse into life on the plains was worth it.

8. Hud (1963) The old versus the new in the New West. Nobody wins. From Larry McMurty’s Horseman, Pass By.

7. Unforgiven (1992) The more I learn about westerns, the more I appreciate Eastwood’s take on the high and bloody price of being a gunslinger.

6. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) Apart from the over-the-top Christ-like death at the end, it’s Pat Garret’s story, and the passing of the Old West, done on an epic scale.

5. Lonely Are the Brave (1962) Also a passing of the Old West, done on a smaller scale, which means more poignancy, more tragedy. From Edward Abbey’s The Brave Cowboy.

4. Midnight Cowboy (1969) I know people will scream about this one, but I think it’s the West as a state of mind in old-school New York City, setting up a naïve buckaroo’s conflict with the big, bad modern world.

3. Brokeback Mountain (2005) A revisionist take on cowboy love, the New West, and sheepherding.

2. Dead Man (1995) An anti-western on acid.

1. The Ballad of Little Jo (1993) So subversive it isn’t on any top-ten lists. To save herself, a woman lives life as a man on the frontier. Based on a true and truly Wild West story, the life of Josephine Monaghan. The movie poster read: “In the Wild West, a woman had only two choices. She could be a wife or she could be a whore … Josephine chose to be a man.”

“The Western is like jazz. It’s an American creation, but it belongs to the world. Everyone has had their say on the West, and they’ve been twisting it however they like.” –Michael Medved, radio commentator and co-author of The Golden Turkey movie award guides

Any others to add?

3 comments to Revising the West; or (Bucko’s) Top 10 Revisionist Westerns

  • bucko

    Just got prodded to remember No Country for Old Men. A true revisionist western: yes, new westerners with double-wides can dream, shoot, and, well, die too.

  • Katherine Miller

    Excuse me… the Ringo Kid is sharing my bunkhouse in my next life….

  • bucko

    Hi, K! I had dibs on that guy. Well, maybe I’ll call up James Stewart….

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