After a year of advertising, Cowboys and Aliens finally arrives in theaters June 29. With a sci-fi western starring the coolest James Bond ever (Daniel Craig) and our favorite scoundrel/spice smuggler Han Solo (Harrison Ford), our current favorite actress on-the-rise, Olivia Wilde (Quorra in Tron: Legacy, Thirteen in House M.D.), and the coolest director cranking out hits, Jon Favreau (Iron Man, Elf), this movie is going to really have to screw it up to not be the biggest blockbuster of the year–even competing against Green Lantern, Thor, Captain America, another Harry Potter movie, another Pirates of the Caribbean movie, another Planet of the Apes movie, another X-Men movie and another Transformers movie.
And what do you look forward to the most? The first big western in years? Harrison Ford finally in a genre movie again? Daniel Craig playing another cool as ice character? That Boba Fett-style gauntlet blaster? Favreau is on a roll with his recent films, and the trailer looks like it came out of a Philip K. Dick short story. So while we’re waiting, eagerly, for Cowboys and Aliens to premiere, let’s run down a list of the all-time best westerns and alien movies. We’ll start with the westerns and in two days we’ll look at the best alien movies.
1. STAGECOACH (1939). The best western director, John Ford, shooting in the best western location, Monument Valley, with the best western movie star, John Wayne. A character study more than a standard shoot ‘em up, the relationship of people trapped and how fear affects a small group dynamic and how each deals with an unseen threat just around the next turn. Heroics and prejudice and good guys and bad guys. Cowboys and Aliens is an obvious play on Cowboys and Indians, and this film follows a stagecoach ride under a threat of Geronimo and his posse–a real story of cowboys vs Indians in frontier America. The source of the modern cool customer Han Solo-type, Wayne plays a tough but valiant Ringo Kid.
2. FORT APACHE (1948). Horse soldiers of the frontier, a mix of dying and dealing with command and authority, another John Ford and John Wayne partnership with a tough as nails Henry Fonda and the Ford/Wayne ensemble B-team of Victor McLaglen and Ward Bond. Co-starring the no longer just a kid actor Shirley Temple. This must have been what it was like to spend your years living out of a military fort. Wayne grows in acting skill, develops his own persona and defines his swaggering hero with the confident and cocky Captain York.
3. HIGH NOON (1952). The rarity of a true hero in the face of real danger with no help from anyone. Gary Cooper’s Marshal Kane must decide whether he is a runner or whether he must take a stand. With Thomas Mitchel and a brilliant but frustrating Grace Kelly as the new Mrs. Kane. Those who don’t like High Noon are usually frustrated with everyone but Cooper. That’s because you’re supposed to be frustrated–sometimes people just don’t do the right thing until someone comes along and shows them the way. Most of the film doesn’t make you feel good. That’s why High Noon is not a garden variety western but a stand-out masterpiece.
4. HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER (1973). Clint Eastwood directs himself in his best western role as the mysterious stranger. I’m a big fan of genre bending and like Cowboys and Aliens bridges sci-fi and westerns, here we see a natural bridging of western meets ghost story. Or does it? Paint the town red? Right on. Seek a little revenge? You bet. Where Eastwood’s other westerns seem to blur together, Drifter stands out as a film that seems to go a little crazy from the desert heat.
5. THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (1962). More John Ford directing John Wayne? Yep, it’s because they were that good together. And here we add on Jimmy Stewart as honest, frustrated but determined lawman turned senator, Ransom Stoddard. Stewart’s Stoddard is a bit of High Noon’s Gary Cooper, but without the skill and edge. Liberty is played by an oily, vile Lee Marvin in one of his best film roles. And believe it or not, John Wayne again builds on his performance as the swaggering early Han Solo-type, including even a plotline pretty much stolen for the original Star Wars. Whose steak did Liberty kick to the floor? That was my steak, Valance. Who shot Liberty Valance? Watch and find out.
6. MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (1946). Yep, another John Ford directed masterpiece, again with Henry Fonda along with Ward Bond, but minus Wayne. Walter Brennan is top-notch here playing the mouth flapper that made him famous. The story is the most well known legend of the west: the gunfight at the OK Corral. Fonda plays Wyatt Earp, Victor Mature plays Doc Holliday. Even if you know the story, Ford shows us how the streets of Tombstone were painted in blood more than a century ago. Others have tried but no version of the story comes close to this classic.
7. SHANE (1953). Alan Ladd and Jean Arthur are perfect here, with real-life cowboy Ben Johnson along for the ride. Neither a farmer nor rancher, Ladd’s Shane has his own code and his code is about being kind and reserved, despite his gunslinger past. Like Wayne in Stagecoach, Cooper in High Noon, Stewart in Liberty Valance, and Eastwood in Drifter, Shane’s loner with the hidden past is sewn from the same cloth. Not cool in a modern way, but in an example-setting way, Shane shows a young boy what kind of a man to grow up to be. Like the triumph of the human spirit in several other great westerns, Shane is about looking out for the other guy.
8. SILVERADO (1985). My favorite western. Lawrence Kasdan’s masterpiece that reintroduced the western genre and proved that you can make a western today every bit as good as decades ago. The best ensemble western ever, yet it honestly pulls bits and pieces from all the other classics. Kevin Kline’s Paden is an everyman just trying to get by, pulled into something he wants no part of. Scott Glenn and Kevin Costner are brothers on their way to California who stop off on one last visit to their sister. Too bad that the man who runs Silverado now is the son of the guy Glenn’s character went to jail for killing, and he just won’t let it go. Enter Brian Dennehy as the sheriff and the Old West’s most perfect bartender named Stella, played by Linda Hunt. “Cobb can’t hurt me if he’s dead.” With Danny Glover, Patricia Arquette and John Cleese. Where’s the dog, Paden?
9. THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960). John Sturges directs an all-star cast in the best remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Robert Vaughn and Charles Bronson are each skilled with their own special powers. They must team up to complete a simple task–and selecting the team for the job is just plain fun. Charles Coburn is solid as the expert in knife throwing. A rollicking, exciting western. Sturges’ line-up of heroes and familiar images of an up-and-coming western town is classic Old West.
10. BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969). Paul Newman, Robert Redford and Katherine Ross star in the other most famous story of the west. Bank robbers and the best ever buddy movie. The trio play off each other so naturally you really miss these people after the movie is over. Great fun, with popular music of the day. “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” as a pop song behind Newman and Ross’s bicycle ride reflects a carefree spirit that must have accompanied the actual risky band of gunslingers. The film stands strong today and on multiple viewings Newman and Redford only seem to get better.
HONORABLE MENTION: RIO BRAVO (John Wayne in a low-key performance, with some classic gunfight scenes, including a slick dive and rifle throw and catch scene you’ll have to rewind and watch again and again), BEND IN THE RIVER (Jimmy Stewart and the best western scenery outside of Monument Valley), ANGEL AND THE BADMAN (John Wayne’s quiet anti-hero/hero and the innocent Gail Russell have chemistry and somehow manage to come off as made for each other).
MUSICAL WESTERNS YOU SHOULD NOT MISS: OKLAHOMA! (“the farmer and the cowman can be friends”), PAINT YOUR WAGON (Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin singing a good musical under backdrop of the sudden growth of a western town)
Delve further into the genre and check out these other actors from classic westerns: Gene Autry, Dale Evans, Glenn Ford, Gabby Hayes, Tom Mix, Audie Murphy, Roy Rogers, Randolph Scott, and the Sons of the Pioneers.