The Best Gun Movie Ever: Westerns

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The Western film is not only the most recent common ancestor for all of shooter cinema, but arguably the original action film genre, and as uniquely American as the single action revolver, lever action rifle and side-by-side shotguns that star in them. Fueled by the genre’s popularity in pulp magazines and novels, the Silent Film era was wall to wall Westerns, to the point where the genre became worn out and tarred with the reputation as lowbrow schlock by the time sound technology became widespread. Dead for a few decades, the Western enjoyed a revival in the late 1930s with major Hollywood productions like Dodge City, Jessie James and Stagecoach. Moviemakers were unable to resist the setting as a vehicle to examine the bare metal of the human psyche, unencumbered by the institutions of civilization.

So out of the entire century of Western films, how do we decide which ones belong in the shooter cinema catalog? Apart from the Potter Stewart test (“I know it when I see it”), a base criteria is that the central story conflict be resolved with gunfire. This doesn’t narrow it down much, but a gun movie Western requires memorable gunfights, unique gun props and heroes who know how to work their shootin’ irons.

As with our previous Best Ever roundups, we polled friends and colleagues, argued and debated, watched and re-watched, and finally scored the survivors on a 50-point scale for the quality of acting, writing, and general filmmaking artsmanship. We also score the film on how well the firearm props are used and portrayed. Did they just pick out generic cowboy guns from the prop room, or did they make an effort to use them to tell the story? Finally there’s a 10-point bonus round for sheer entertainment and re-watchability.
Ready? Saddle up and let’s count them down.

#5: Tombstone

One of two movies about legendary and controversial lawman Wyatt Earp to debut in 1993 (the other being Kevin Costner’s poorly received Wyatt Earp), Tombstone went through a troubled gestation that was plagued with delays, rewrites, personnel changes and other drama that resulted in an uneven film that lacks polish and coherence but makes up for it with sheer movie magic. The movie wastes no time in introducing loathsome villains and likeable, charismatic heroes and setting them up on a collision course, culminating in the near mythical shootout at the OK Corral between the Earps and the Clanton gang.

TombstonePoster The last half hour of the movie falls apart into a mélange of repetitive gunfights, but everything up to that point is terrific. Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp portrays the lawman as world weary and withdrawn, but ultimately unable to abide by repeated injustices. Val Kilmer positively sparkles as Doc Holliday, exuding a joyful, maniacal fatalism in every scene. Sam Elliott is of course Sam Elliott and utterly owns his role as the elder, wiser Earp brother.

The gun props are mostly perfunctory with some oddballs in the mix to keep an eye out for, like Smith & Wesson Schofields and a Webley British Bulldog that Holliday’s girlfriend Big Nosed Kate (Joanna Pacula) produces from her bodice. Of course Colt’s 1873 Single Action Army (SAA) is well represented in several models including 4.75-inch “Quickdraw” models and of course a replica of the 12-inch Buntline Special gifted to Earp after his service in Dodge City.

Running a close second in popularity to the SAA are side-by-side shotguns of all sorts, most notably a Belgian 10-Gauge Meteor that Holliday uses at the OK Corral that we first see in the hands of scorned faro dealer Johnny Tyler (an almost unrecognizable Billy Bob Thornton). Another unique double barreled street howitzer is the triple triggered Stevens 10 Gauge that Wyatt Earp uses at the train station shootout and later on in the Iron Springs confrontation.

While not Oscar material, Tombstone is impossible to dislike on the strength of delicious one-liners delivered with earnest gravity, and thrilling gunfights and showdowns between dedicated lawmen and ruthless outlaws. It delivers exactly what a Western promises, despite its flaws.

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#4: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

We thoroughly covered Sergio Leone’s entire Dollars trilogy in the October 2014 issue and I knew the final movie in the series would have a spot in this list. The Good, The Bad and The Ugly singlehandedly redefined the genre and exerted heavy influence on every Western that came after it.

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While the other two movies in the series are worth your time and it’s fascinating to watch Leone’s craft grow in expertise and confidence, it’s the third where it all came together. The interplay between Blondie (Clint Eastwood), Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef) and Tuco (Eli Wallach) and the lengths to which they go to beat other to a lost cache of Confederate gold is timelessly entertaining and continues to hold up as a classic character study almost 50 years after it was filmed. The characters have depth without mucking around in endless backstory, and as morally questionable antiheroes, the audience believes they are capable of anything.

Leone invested considerable effort in making a more accurate period piece, and set on the frontier during the American Civil War, we’re treated to cap and ball Colts and Remingtons instead of the ubiquitous SAA’s and Winchester 1873s of the previous two movies. A personal favorite scene is Tuco taking the time to disassemble a trio of Colt 1851 Navy revolvers and select the parts that best work together, then using his new custom piece to rob the store keeper.

The film doesn’t measure up as well to more modern Westerns in the soundwork and audio department. Despite a mesmerizing score by Ennio Morricone, the audio is limited by the technology of the day and is a tinny, mono track that fails to convey the thunder of the gunfire and the nuances of the dialog. Another quibble is that Leone clearly went for dramatic, stylized gunfight choreography and effects that don’t seem realistic or authentic to current audiences.

Still, there’s no denying the fantastic cinematography and visual tricks the director employs to not only set the scene but build up the action. The climactic three way Mexican standoff in the desert graveyard remains iconic and groundbreaking, something we’ve never seen before and haven’t since.

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#3: Open Range

A decade after his epic 1993 film Wyatt Earp flopped to lukewarm critical reviews and poor box office receipts, Kevin Costner revisited the genre with a touch of humility and perspective and produced this marvelous little film. A smaller scale morality play filmed at the feet of the Canadian Rockies, Open Range takes its time as the story slowly develops and the brewing conflict comes to a head.

Open Range 2What begins with “Boss” Spearman (Robert Duvall), an open range cattle rancher and his hired hand Charley (Costner) unable to make a peaceful agreement with monopolistic land baron Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon) in a frontier town gradually and with a sense of inexorable doom escalates into an explosive gunbattle on the streets of the quiet town.

There’s some sporadic gunplay on the way to the climactic showdown, but the final gunfight is one of the finest Western showdown set pieces ever put to film. Unfolding at real time with a bare minimum of jump cuts and slow-motion effects (refreshingly remarkable at a time that everyone expected Matrix style effects) the violence is realistic, thrilling, terrifying and ultimately cathartic as Baxter and his gang meets their end. A couple of movie tropes prevent a clean sweep; politely ignore the bottomless revolver and the double-barrel coach gun launching a man through the air and you’ll enjoy it more.

Open Range earns its spot on this list by being a terrific, intimate example of the ideal that justice exists wherever men are willing to make a stand for it, despite what the authority or mob insist. When the edifice of the law has run amok and no longer can be trusted, it takes hard men to say “No.” and back it up with cold steel and gunpowder.

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#2: Quigley Down Under

QuigleyDownUnderComing in a period in Tom Selleck’s long running career where he was trying to parlay his tremendous success as TV private eye Thomas Magnum (see our April 2014 issue) into a movie career and reinvigorate the Western genre, Quigley Down Under emerged from over a decade in development hell and rewrite after rewrite to indifferent reviews and a box office performance that just barely broke even. Wincer’s film suffered critically from being excessively earnest in a climate that later fell over themselves fawning over Clint Eastwood’s cynical, revisionist Unforgiven (1992).

But the film deserved better, and thankfully developed a following on home media sales and broadcasts. It’s quite possibly the last classical Western ever made, and in an age of morally questionable antiheroes and disdain for traditional values and stories Quigley stands out like finding a brand new 1966 Impala fastback on the lot at your local Chevy dealer. Matthew Quigley (Selleck) strides onto the screen broad shouldered and confident, speaking in plain language and guided by an unapologetically straight moral compass.

Filmed on location in Australia, the movie substitutes the red sand and Outback vistas for the American plains and Rockies, but the rest of the formula remains. Quigley arrives in Australia on a job offer from local land baron Elliot Marston (Alan Rickman), but as soon as he discovers it involves slaughtering any Aborigines that are encroaching on Marston’s ranch, Quigley rejects the offer and sets up the conflict of the movie. Hunted down by Marston’s men, Quigley hunts them right back with the real costar of the movie, the lovingly described custom Shiloh Sharps 1874 in .45-110. The state of the art in sharpshooting in the late 1800s, Quigley’s Sharps positively bellows righteous fury from the screen, and a tip of the hat to the sound crew for capturing the thunder of this mighty weapon from an age when hitting farther meant a big lead bullet and as much powder as you could stand.

Negative notes are few. The subplot of Crazy Cora (a breathtakingly gorgeous Laura San Giacomo) is very well acted but feels tacked on and her mental illness is wrapped up a little too neatly. Another nit is that the transfer to DVD or Bluray from film wasn’t the most competent and the colors and focus seem off at times.

Call it sentimentality, call it reactionary, but Quigley Down Under is one of the best “man with a rifle” movies and if nothing else, a note to a newer audience about how things used to be done. Perhaps we ought to look into it.

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#1: 3:10 To Yuma (2007)

YumaJames Mangold’s 2007 remake of the 1957 classic 3:10 To Yuma (based on a short story by staggeringly prolific wordsmith Elmore Leonard) checks off all the great movie boxes: Tight well-written script with pitch perfect dialog, an all-star cast playing interesting, well-developed characters, outstanding visual and audio effects and production values, and of course a confident, well-paced direction style from Mangold. But two things elevated this flick past the competition.

First, of course, the gun props. See the April 2014 issue for more details, but not only do the guns help tell the story, every gun in the movie has a story. The reluctant hero Dan Evans (Christian Bale) carries a surplus Spencer 1860 repeating rifle from his Civil War service, just as thousands of other settlers did in the antebellum era, not only taming the west but literally bankrupting the Spencer Rifle company as it was unable to compete with its own products. He and his son William (Logan Lerman) also carry Colt 1851 Navy cap and ball revolvers with metallic cartridge conversion cylinders, not the first choice for a sidearm but a frugal one by subsistence farmers on the frontier. The movie even makes the most of villain Ben Wade’s (Russell Crowe having a grand time) Colt 1873 SAA by giving it a reputation of being a cursed gun, and outfitting it with a custom Will Ghormley quick-draw rig.

Charlie Prince’s dual Smith & Wesson No. 3 Schofields (again in a custom Ghormley rig), Mexican sharpshooter Campos’ (Rio Alexander) scoped Colt 1855 revolving rifle, Byron McElroy (Peter Fonda) and his Colt 1878 double barrel coach gun shotgun, even the Colt crank fired Gatling gun on the armored stagecoach raided at the beginning of the movie, every gun prop has a story to tell, if you’re listening.

The other detail that makes 3:10 To Yuma a shining example of the genre is the hero. Civil War veteran and farmer Dan Evans isn’t a highly skilled, unstoppable warrior or lawman, but rather a quite ordinary and mortal man who gets roped into a situation he didn’t want and wasn’t fully equipped to deal with, but decides to muddle through it anyway for no other reason than because it’s the right thing to do. Through bribery and betrayal, Apache raiders and bandits, against the cowardice of others and finally a hail of bullets that he doesn’t survive, Dan Evans delivers outlaw Ben Wade to justice for no other reason than because he said he would. A promise made is a promise kept, if you are a man of the West. In this age of venal cowardice and looking the other way when evil is afoot, we could use a little more Dan Evans in our lives. And for that reason, 3:10 To Yuma is the best gun movie Western ever.

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By Peter Barrett. Originally published in the August 2015 issue of GunUp the Magazine.