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Ten of the Best – Western Stars

17 Dec

Well, the holidays are fast approaching, work is pretty hectic, and I didn’t feel like doing one of my usual reviews. So for a change, and a bit of light relief too, I’ve decided to do something a little different. Even the most casual perusal of this site ought to make my fondness for the western abundantly clear. I make no apologies for that; it’s far and away my favourite genre and the richness and variety contained within it mean that I continue to make new discoveries all the time. Yet for all that, there are the old familiar faces that turn up time and time again. I generally don’t bother too much with lists but thought I’d give one a go because…well, just because. Seeing as I mostly review films I reckoned I’d skip over a selection of titles and concentrate instead on the stars, the men who brought the cowboys to life. Bearing in mind that almost every major Hollywood star has at least one western to his credit, this could have been a potentially huge list. So, in the interests of brevity and sanity, I’ve pared it down to ten. I’m not placing them in any particular order, others may do so if they wish, nor am I going to claim that it’s any kind of definitive selection either. These are just ten guys who’ve lent their talents to the greatest genre of them all, and given me a lot of pleasure watching them over the years.

John Wayne

If you were to ask the average person to name the archetypical screen cowboy, then I’d lay odds Wayne would be the one most would mention. Ever since his iconic appearance in John Ford’s Stagecoach, it’s been hard to separate the man from the genre. His influence on the western is immense, and the popular conception of how a cowboy should walk, talk, shoot and ride a horse owes much to Wayne’s portrayals. You’ll often hear it said, not from me though, that the man couldn’t act but his work with Ford and Hawks in particular prove that assertion to be nonsense.

James Stewart

One of the nice guys, an apparently lightweight lead in the 1930s. Stewart seemed to undergo a transformation after his wartime experiences. The geniality was still there, but it was mixed up with a darker, more desperate quality too. Hitchcock managed to capitalize on that in his pictures with Stewart, though it was first used to great effect by Anthony Mann in the series of psychological westerns they made together during the 50s. From Winchester 73 through The Man from Laramie, Stewart and Mann produced a body of work that was and is of the highest quality.

Henry Fonda

One of the great actors of American cinema, a man whose long and distinguished career saw him excel in every genre. His partnership with John Ford saw him create some of the most memorable screen characterizations. His portrayal of Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine is a beautiful blend of the diffident and the deadly. Although his relationship with Ford wasn’t always the smoothest, he went on to do notable work with Anthony Mann and Edward Dmytryk in the 1950s. Then, in a radical and chillingly effective departure from his noble image, he played the cold and heartless killer for Sergio Leone in Once Upon a Time in the West.

Gary Cooper

Like Wayne, Cooper was another actor who has had his range as a performer called into question. And again this is a spurious allegation. Coop’s style was a subtle and naturalistic one – the fireworks may have been absent but his depth wasn’t any less in spite of that. His most famous part may well be as the increasingly isolated and desperate lawman in High Noon, and it’s a marvelous performance. However, we should not forget two late career roles that are perhaps as strong, if not stronger: the reluctant outlaw in Anthony Mann’s Man of the West, and the doctor with a dark secret in Delmer Daves’ The Hanging Tree.

Randolph Scott

Way back when I was a kid, it seemed like every Saturday afternoon saw the TV showing another western. And so many of them featured Randolph Scott. As such, Scott was an inseparable part of my earliest memories of the genre, and also one of my earliest heroes. More than anyone else, he represented the ultimate cowboy to my young self – strong, honorable and brave. As I got older, and saw more of his movies, my appreciation of his work only increased. If the years brought a greater understanding of characterization and theme to me, then it has to be said that time also brought a gravitas and greater nuance to Scott’s acting. He spent the latter part of his career exclusively in westerns and grew into them. His series of films in collaboration with Budd Boetticher, beginning with Seven Men from Now, are milestones in the genre, and his swan song in Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country provided him with a stylish and fitting exit.

Joel McCrea

Both McCrea and Randolph Scott hit late career highs in Ride the High Country, and that’s not the only parallel in their work. McCrea was another who became something of a genre specialist as the years wore on, and he carved out a comfortable niche for himself. If he’s not as celebrated as Scott, and I think it’s fair to say that that is the case, then it’s probably because he didn’t have Boetticher and the Ranown cycle forming part of his filmography. However, he appeared in a number of hidden gems, Andre de Toth’s Ramrod and Raoul Walsh’s Colorado Territory being just two.

Richard Widmark

Widmark started out in the movies as the giggling psycho in Henry Hathaway’s Kiss of Death and carried over a little of that same character into his western debut in Wellman’s Yellow Sky. Still, he was nothing if not versatile and gradually broadened his range as he went along. Over the next twenty years, he played in an assortment of westerns, becoming more heroic all the time. I especially enjoy his take on Jim Bowie in Wayne’s production of The Alamo and his handling of a complex role in Edward Dmytryk’s Warlock is a fine piece of work.

William Holden

Making a name for himself with Golden Boy, Holden soon graduated to western parts and would return to the genre a number of times. Maybe he doesn’t initially seem a natural for frontier tales but, like others, age brought him more success out west. Having worked with John Sturges and John Ford, Holden landed one of his best roles as the aging outlaw Pike Bishop in Sam Peckinpah’s visceral and poignant The Wild Bunch. Even if it had been the only western he ever made, I feel that this film alone would be reason enough to earn his inclusion on this list.

Clint Eastwood

OK, I’m going to hold my hands up and admit that I’m not much of a fan of spaghetti westerns, at least not beyond those made by Sergio Leone. However, although Eastwood had already gone west on TV in Rawhide, it’s the Euro western that made him a star. He brought an Italian macho chic to the traditional image of the cowboy, and in so doing helped breathe new life into a genre that was beginning to look slightly jaded. Along with Wayne, Eastwood has come to define the popular image of the westerner.

Steve McQueen

“The King of Cool” didn’t make all that many westerns but he certainly made an impression whenever he strapped on a six-gun. Building on his success in the TV show Wanted: Dead or Alive, he scored a hit in The Magnificent Seven. His scene stealing antics left director John Sturges bemused, co-star Yul Brynner fuming and audiences very satisfied. He returned to the genre only a handful of times, unfortunately, and his penultimate movie Tom Horn remains underrated to this day.

And there you have it, my “Ten of the Best” western stars. If I were to revisit this list tomorrow I’ve no doubt I would remove some names and add some others, but that’s the nature of such things. I would encourage readers to feel free to chip in and agree or disagree with whatever you like. It is, after all, a bit of fun and nothing more.

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85 responses to “Ten of the Best – Western Stars

  1. le0pard13

    December 17, 2012 at 12:54 am

    I can’t argue against nary a one, Colin. One fantastic set of Western players. Well done.

     
    • Colin

      December 17, 2012 at 8:55 am

      Thanks Michael. It was a struggle to pare it down to just ten.

       
  2. le0pard13

    December 17, 2012 at 12:57 am

    Reblogged this on It Rains… You Get Wet and commented:
    A more than worthy set of Western players. A wonderful list by my colleague Colin.

     
    • Colin

      December 17, 2012 at 9:00 am

      Very much appreciate that Michael.

       
  3. hawkswill

    December 17, 2012 at 1:01 am

    Heh Colin, since this is only about STARS, I will pretty much agree with you. Nice write-up. Hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. One day, perhaps you might do one on the people who bring out the most of the western cowboy. Like Steve McQueen cannot possibly invoke the cowboy image as much as say Ben Johnson or Ward Bond, (knew I would throw him in there, didn’t you?) If I don’t get back to you before, Happy Holidays! KEITH

     
    • Colin

      December 17, 2012 at 9:06 am

      Cheers Keith. Yes, I wanted to stick to leading players as any other frame of reference was going to draw in too many people. That’s not meant as any disrespect of the likes of Ben Johnson or Ward bond, or any of the vast number of other performers who all contributed to the genre.
      And the best of the season to you too.

       
  4. Rick

    December 17, 2012 at 1:17 am

    I am glad that you included Richard Widmark. He is one of the all-time greats but is often forgotten.

     
    • Colin

      December 17, 2012 at 9:11 am

      Widmark was on the list almost immediately as far as I was concerned Rick. He’s one of my favourite actors, in any genre.

       
  5. Randy Johnsonr

    December 17, 2012 at 1:48 am

    Most excellent list. I can find no fault with any of them.

    Now you need to do a spaghetti western stars list. Eastwood would head that one of course.

     
    • Colin

      December 17, 2012 at 9:15 am

      Thanks Randy. You know, despite my best efforts, I really struggle with the majority of spaghetti westerns. I think Leone was phenomenal but a good deal of the other output of the sub-genre just doesn’t work for me. And believe me, I have tried. Having said that, I may consider it for a future entry.

       
  6. Taylor

    December 17, 2012 at 1:54 am

    Very good article probably the same 10 I would have chosen Randolph Scott chose to do Westerns only in 1947′Joel McCrea not much later!!

     
    • Colin

      December 17, 2012 at 9:20 am

      Yes Taylor, it’s amazing to think how much work (and good work too) in the genre both Scott and McCrea packed into the latter part of their careers. Of course, both men had been in various westerns before they specialized in them.

       
  7. Jim Beaver

    December 17, 2012 at 2:32 am

    Wow. I could have written this myself, so closely does it match my feelings. And you used “penultimate” correctly! Bravo, all around.

     
    • Colin

      December 17, 2012 at 9:23 am

      Thanks for stopping by Jim – it’s great to hear your own choices wold fit in with mine.

       
  8. chrisk

    December 17, 2012 at 6:00 am

    I have gone through your list above and more or less agreed with it. However, I feel Glenn Ford, who did quite a number of westerns, though not all outstanding, deserves to be in the list compared to either William Holden or Steve Mcqueen.. Well as they say, one man’s meat is another man’s poison.

    I have enjoyed reading all your wonderful, interesting and insightful postings during the year and would like to wish you and your readers A Very Merry Christmas And A Happy New Year.

     
    • Colin

      December 17, 2012 at 9:28 am

      Hi Chris, always nice to hear from you. I know what you mean about Glenn Ford and it did pain me somewhat not to include him. Once I set myself the limit of ten, I knew there would be a few tough choices.

      And I’d like to wish you all the best for the holidays too.

       
  9. Mike

    December 17, 2012 at 6:19 am

    Fantastic listmanship, Colin. As a fairly recent convert to the virtues of the Western genre, it’s been a real pleasure to discover many of these stars in their frontier habit for myself, and I have to say I’ve been most surprised at the difference between the ‘perception’ of Wayne’s acting abilities and the reality. Just to name two well known titles – Red River and The Searchers – and it becomes very clear that he was fully capable of putting in fine, complicated turns when the part called for it, albeit within a body of work that often demanded little more than the classic Wayne swagger.

    How about a follow-up list covering your favourite Western directors…?

     
    • Colin

      December 17, 2012 at 9:35 am

      Hey, great to hear from you Mike! I hope everything is good with you.

      As for coming round to an appreciation of the western recently, well it’s never too late. The two examples you cite of Wayne’s acting abilities are excellent choices. I’d also highlight She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The Shootist. I’d dare anyone to watch those four back to back and then claim that Wayne was a poor actor.

      Top western directors? That’s an idea I’ll bear in mind.

       
  10. Prashant C. Trikannad

    December 17, 2012 at 6:41 am

    Colin, your list of the Ten of the Best Western Stars sums up the quintessential image of the cinematic cowboy. I agree Wayne and Eastwood have epitomised the “popular image of the westerner” certainly for a non-American film audience. Eastwood, I suspect, is more popular among Indian fans of westerns which I attribute to the continuing popularity of his 1960s and 1970s spaghetti westerns as well as his being in public memory through the many non-westerns he has made over the years. I also like the western cowboy with a negative image as essayed by Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach. Out of sheer curiosity, Colin, how would you rate western actors like Glenn Ford and Yul Brynner (notwithstanding the mention of the last in your post)? I would have mentioned Robert Mitchum too but you have illustrated very well his role in westerns in your previous review of “Blood on the Moon”. Incidentally, western is my favourite genre in books and films.

     
    • Colin

      December 17, 2012 at 9:49 am

      Hi Prashant. Any list that didn’t include Wayne and Eastwood would be seriously flawed, wouldn’t it? I reckon Eastwood is more popular/better known among younger audiences in general for the reasons you mentioned. But the image of both these men is instrumental in shaping the popular perception of the cowboy.

      I did refer in an earlier reply to how it was a tough call to omit Glenn Ford, and I might find a place for him if I were to write this post again. His work in westerns in the post-war years is considerable, especially the movies he made with Delmer Daves – Cowboy, Jubal and 3:10 to Yuma. Mitchum is another who really should have made the list. Making it a “Twenty of the Best” would have been easier on myself.

       
  11. Blake Lucas

    December 17, 2012 at 7:42 am

    Great list. I can’t argue much with it and won’t. It includes all of my four favorites and other of my favorites too. As I started reading I expected most of these stars I love to make it but was already secretly rooting for Richard Widmark and wondering if he would, so that was the choice that made me happiest.

    But I do feel bound to observe this. The omission of Robert Mitchum, after some very eloquent things you just wrote about him in your BLOOD ON THE MOON piece, seems kind of strange. He’s far more of a presence in the genre than Steve McQueen (and I definitely like McQueen–one of the last American stars who I really do like as much as many of the ones from earlier years). I would point out that THE WONDERFUL COUNTRY and PURSUED, just for starters, are essential Westerns and both among his very best roles, and even if it’s a modern subject, THE LUSTY MEN resonates deeply within the genre and Mitchum gave one of the most beautiful performances of all time in that great film. He is such a subtle actor–few ever knew better how much emotion to show and how much to just let be and the camera will pick it up.

    He would be at least one that quite honestly means so much more to me than Clint Eastwood. Yes, I know in the popular mind, Eastwood would be expected to make any list like this one–and he certainly redefined the Western hero, but toward a kind of cynicism that even if it worked in Leones $ trilogy did lead to bad tendencies in the Western, like a higher body count that any Western needs and life being very cheap. To Eastwood’s credit, he critiqued the kind of character he had played in his own Westerns and with especially profound and complex effect in UNFORGIVEN, the best film he was ever involved with either as star or director and he was both there. But moving into the 70s with the newer stars, I’m more moved by Charles Bronson and James Coburn, even in Leone.

    I’m kind of assuming that in many more comments to follow, other people will name the other stars I love and who arguably deserved a place, at least most of them, so will be fun to read on. By the way, I can definitely identify the films from which you took the images except in one case, and that’s Eastwood. I don’t know which of the three movies that is–but it says something that his reputation in the genre is so much as the Man With No Name, more than for a range of roles like the other nine actors, an indication of the relative limitations in his persona that also limit him more for me than any of the others.

     
    • Colin

      December 17, 2012 at 10:02 am

      Hi Blake. I know, Mitchum is a big omission, maybe the biggest. As I said, this is one of those lists that would vary from day to day if I were to post it again. He arguably should get McQueen’s spot, but I’ll try to justify my reasoning on that one. I added McQueen, knowing full well that some would object, mainly for the modernizing effect he had on the genre. Mitchum, I think, very much represents the old school of western stars (not that there’s anything wrong with that of course) and I already had plenty of examples from that era. I chose McQueen in the end to act as a kind of bridge between those older guys and Eastwood, as I feel he does fall somewhere in the middle.

      As for the source of the image of Eastwood, it comes from the climactic duel in For a Few Dollars More. If anyone else is curious about the movies involved, just hover your pointer over the pictures and a caption indicating the title should appear.

       
      • Colin

        December 17, 2012 at 11:08 am

        Blake, just to follow up on your comments regarding Eastwood and his work compared to Bronson and Coburn. I would agree that both Bronson and Coburn give stronger, more layered and arguably more memorable performances for Leone in Once Upon a Time in the West and A Fistful of Dynamite respectively. Eastwood’s Man With No Name necessarily remains much more of a cipher, even over the course of three movies. However, I will say this in his defense: had it not been for Eastwood’s success in the initial $ trilogy, his creation of a new style of western type, then those subtle and more interesting characters may never have made it to the screen.

         
  12. rockfish

    December 17, 2012 at 8:57 am

    Terrific list, Colin. If there was a Mount Rushmore of film westerns, I’d guess Wayne, Stewart, Cooper and Scott would be up there. My personal list would have plugged in Glenn Ford instead of Holden, maybe because I see his western output as a little heavier and layered than his pal’s. However Holden’s whole catalogue puts him among my favourite actors of all time.
    Best of the season!

     
    • Colin

      December 17, 2012 at 10:11 am

      And the best of the season to you too!
      Another vote for Glenn Ford, who seems to have his nose in front of the other contenders so far.

       
  13. Vienna

    December 17, 2012 at 9:08 am

    Colin, you are such a good writer and what great photos too.
    I’d go along with 6 of your choices and add Robert Ryan, Gregory Peck , Alan Ladd and Glenn Ford.
    Another of Widmark’s best, The Last Wagon.

     
    • Colin

      December 17, 2012 at 10:15 am

      Thanks for that Vienna. Your four additions are all worthy of consideration – ten choices really is difficult!

       
  14. jackdeth72

    December 17, 2012 at 3:29 pm

    Hi, Colin and company:

    Superb selections!

    John Wayne leads the pack. No one loses it to anger in a western like Jimmy Stewart.

    Eastwood kind of inherited John Wayne’s mantle. First with Leone and later under his own helm. Very pleased to see Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott. Who, with Budd Boetticker introduced me to James Coburn very early on.

    While Peckinpah, Holden, Borgnine, Ben Johnson and Warren Oates rocked out loud in ‘The Wild Bunch’!

     
    • Colin

      December 17, 2012 at 8:07 pm

      No one loses it to anger in a western like Jimmy Stewart.

      Absolutely. There’s something primal that goes to work inside Stewart on those occasions in his movies with Mann when anger and frustration take over. It’s almost like he’s desperately trying to keep some kind of lid on it and it’s strangling him from within. Very powerful stuff.

      Thanks for the comment.

       
  15. Bruce lander

    December 17, 2012 at 6:47 pm

    Great list Colin, maybe you should have done a Top 20 though!. How about your Top 10 (or 20)
    Western bad guys?

     
    • Colin

      December 17, 2012 at 8:13 pm

      Hello Bruce. A list of twenty would certainly have given me more room for maneuver, and I could have filled it up quite easily too.
      A list of western villains is a good idea – another to bear in mind.

       
  16. Elise Richey

    December 17, 2012 at 9:39 pm

    Anybody mention Kirk Douglas? He didn’t confine himself to only Westerns but when he did make one it was always outstanding.

     
    • Colin

      December 17, 2012 at 9:49 pm

      I think you’re the first to throw Douglas’ name out there Elise. He wouldn’t be regarded as a western specialist I guess, but you’re right that his contributions were always worthy. While his portrayal of Doc Holliday is very memorable, I personally feel he was near his best in another feature for John Sturges: Last Train from Gun Hill.

       
  17. Rod Croft

    December 17, 2012 at 10:09 pm

    Colin,

    As an older fan, I, personally prefer Robert Mitchum and Glen Ford to Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood – that, in no way is any criticism of McQueen’s and Eastwood’s abilities, however I feel that they did better work in other genres/pursuits, especially in the case of Eastwood whose recognition as an award-winning Director will possibly eventually eclipse his notoriety as an actor. I should mention that I am not a fan of “spaghetti westerns”. Wishing you the Compliments of the Season.

     
    • Colin

      December 17, 2012 at 10:19 pm

      Hi Rod. For myself, I like them all and can find things to admire in all their contributions. I do tend to lean towards the classic westerns, and stars, particularly those from the 1950s when the genre really came into its own.
      You may be right that Eastwood’s career as a director will eventually take precedence over his acting work. But then again, I have to say that his on-screen presence has always been so strong that it’s hard to imagine that fading any time soon.

      Wishing you all the best for the holidays too Rod.

       
  18. Blake Lucas

    December 17, 2012 at 11:33 pm

    Your earlier comment about McQueen being a bridge between the older stars and Eastwood helped me make more sense of the list and makes it work very well. Like you and Rod, I don’t like Italian Westerns much other than Leone. Really, though there are Westerns I love in all periods, by far the heaviest concencentration is in the postwar classical 1946-1962 period when the genre was clearly at its height. And that’s why I’d pass over both McQueen and Eastwood, without disputing the talent of either, for more people from those years, all of whom I know from your pieces you do appreciate.

    I expected Glenn Ford to be named–he’s a strong contender, but how about his co-star (who played the hero) in 3:10 TO YUMA, Van Heflin? Add in SHANE, GUNMAN’S WALK, THE RAID and that’s a mighty contribution. Robert Ryan has been named too–like Richard Widmark, he could play the bad guy or the (often bitter) hero equally well–even if we might first think of THE NAKED SPUR among his Westerns, he’s awesome in DAY OF THE OUTLAW and no less than William Holden in THE WILD BUNCH in which he is a co-star and just as important to the whole. As for Kirk Douglas not being a Western specialist, in addition to the ones you named, ALONG THE GREAT DIVIDE, THE BIG SKY and MAN WITHOUT A STAR are all major Westerns and honestly, I have a weakness for THE LAST SUNSET that I know you don’t share but I’ve seen it many times.

    Basically, almost any male star with some masculinity quotient (but who could also project vulnerability and sensitivity when needed) tended to get Westerns in the 50s, and the stars who were getting older, as often noted, were much better in these movies than they had been when they were younger stars–somone like Robert Taylor for example.

    Really tough to name ten as you said. But you noted, it’s fun to try to do it.

     
    • Colin

      December 18, 2012 at 6:19 am

      There’s a common perception that a kind of yawning chasm exists between the classic western and the spaghetti variety, and those that followed in turn, yet that’s not really true. It is possible to see how the genre was developing as it went along, though more in terms of movies as a whole rather than stars. I wanted to at least try to acknowledge that when I was making the list and it wasn’t easy to do to be honest. There were younger actors who were involved in the transition, but few who had the staying power to go on and become major stars or leads in their own right. Essentially, I found it came down to a toss up between McQueen and James Coburn. I plumped for the former largely based on the fact that he had the bigger part in The Magnificent Seven and I feel he remains more of an iconic figure in cinema generally. Mind you, seeing as Coburn went on and worked extremely well with Leone very nearly tipped the balance in his favour.

      I had both Van Heflin and Robert Taylor in mind as peripheral choices for their terrific roles in the 50s. Robert Ryan is certainly worth considering too but, in the end, I thought that the two leads from The Wild Bunch was maybe overdoing it. Also, I intend to do something similar with film noir stars sooner rather than later, and Ryan is likely to make the cut there. By the way, I agree with those roles you highlighted and I’d also add The Proud Ones. It’s been a while since I saw the movie, and I probably need to watch it again, but I remember being quite impressed by it.

      Like you, lots of people seem to have good things to say about The Last Sunset but I was disappointed with it – perhaps my expectations were in the wrong direction. Anyway, I’ll give it a chance again at some point.

      As has often been the case Blake, I think you and I are broadly in agreement, not only in terms of assessment of individuals and films but also of the overall take on the genre. It’s always great to get feedback from you on these matters.

       
  19. chrisk

    December 18, 2012 at 1:42 am

    I totally agreed with you that Kirk Douglas was near his best in Last Train From Gunhill. I have continued to enjoy this movie since it first came out. Still as evergreen as ever. Regards.

     
    • Colin

      December 18, 2012 at 6:22 am

      To be honest Chris, I’d actually say Last Train from Gun Hill has not only remained evergreen but has improved with age.

       
      • Blake Lucas

        December 18, 2012 at 7:23 am

        I watched LAST TRAIN FROM GUN HILL again recently and I agree with you. It’s never looked better. And I say that as one who was enthralled with it on first release.

        Colin, you’ll recall we discussed the transition when you wrote on RIO CONCHOS, and I think we agreed about a lot of things. I wouldn’t go so far as to say there is ever a “yawning chasm” and that’s why I always hasten to say there are Westerns I like in all periods. But for me there’s no question that after the transition, life no longer has the same value in Westerns so deaths (and this means villains too in the best films) do not have the same weight. The themes of renewal, reconciliation and redemption become very far away. Revenge–soul-destroying if carried out in so many great Westerns–becomes no big deal. I partly liked UNFORGIVEN because, in its way, it did recover some of these spiritual themes and gave weight to killing once again, though in a challenging and provocative way. So that was a great Western for me.

        It’s interesting that McQueen, Coburn and Bronson all had roles in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, all good roles too though McQueen certainly had the biggest and best role of the three. And these three guys all did make a mark. I give Coburn points not only for Leone’s DUCK YOU SUCKER in which he is just wonderful but also Peckinpah’s PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID, in which he is perhaps even better in what is perhaps the best performance of his career. Bronson is an exceptionally soulful hero in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, so different in some ways from the Dollars trilogy in which Eastwood starred, and it remains my favorite post-classical Western.

         
        • Colin

          December 18, 2012 at 7:43 am

          I know you don’t buy into that idea of the spaghetti westerns or later Hollywood pictures being as far removed from those of the classic period as some would like to have us believe. Nevertheless, it is a view that gets posited from time to time and I wanted to address it, at least in passing, by alluding to the evolution as opposed to the revolution of the genre.

          On Bronson and Coburn: I think Coburn had the greater talent of the two but he also used it better and made wiser choices. I like Bronson a lot, though he tended to be typecast and I think also took the easy (more lucrative) option as time went on.

           
  20. Cavershamragu

    December 18, 2012 at 11:38 am

    Well, no disagreements there really (though, predictably perhaps, I am more of a ‘spaghetti’ fan than you) – how about a top 10 for female stars though? Admittedly I might stumble a bit after Joan Crawford though … maybe Doris Day and Betty Hutton? Maybe not … If I had to drop one I suspect it would be McQueen just for one fo the other performers more readily associated with the genre – but then the final entry in such a list should be the wild card! Really enjoyed this mate, thanks.

     
    • Colin

      December 18, 2012 at 2:30 pm

      Well with your background, and your name too, I’m not surprised you’re more into the spaghetti western than I am. I have the greatest respect for Leone but, despite having seen a considerable number of other titles, I’ve been unable to really get into them. I think it’s a combination of what Blake mentioned earlier about their tendency to play up the less human aspects and also the kind of stylized world they suggest that never feels all that authentic to me.

      A list of female western stars would be challenging indeed – Barbara Stanwyck, Dorothy Malone, Julie Adams and Virginia Mayo would surely be there.

       
      • Cavershamragu

        December 18, 2012 at 3:28 pm

        Love FORTY GUNS especially (saw that at the NFT once – brillaint use of ‘Scope) – what about Maureen O’Hara?

         
        • Colin

          December 18, 2012 at 7:43 pm

          what about Maureen O’Hara?

          Yes, I think I’ll go off and hang my head in shame.

           
  21. Rod Croft

    December 18, 2012 at 6:26 pm

    Colin,

    What were you thinking ? Not to mention Maureen O’Hara as top of the list of female western stars is truly heresy! Must be all that Christmas good cheer! Agree with the others mentioned though, but would include Joanne Dru, Felicia Farr, Rhonda Fleming, Claire Trevor, and who could forget Crawford in one of her arguably best performances in “Johnny Guitar”????

     
    • Colin

      December 18, 2012 at 7:45 pm

      Well Sergio’s already pointed out my forgetting Maureen O’Hara – so that doubles my shame. :)

      Good suggestions there Rod. Felicia Farr is a big favourite of mine.

       
      • Cavershamragu

        December 18, 2012 at 11:43 pm

        Well, if Rod gets Felicia Farr, then I get to add Katy Jurado …

         
        • Colin

          December 19, 2012 at 7:37 am

          Excellent pick.

           
  22. Elise Richey

    December 18, 2012 at 11:00 pm

    I have a fondness for Kirk Douglas’s, Lonely Are The Brave. It’s a very unconventional western in that it was not of the post civil war era but the 1950′s. Kind of reminds me of Monte Walsh because the characters in that film (Lee Marvin and Jack Palance) have to leave a way of life behind, the same way Douglas’s character does in Lonely Are The Brave.
    Speaking of Lee Marvin, I guess he was not a major star to qualify for the top ten list but he often stole the scene from the top stars.
    Haven’t seen Last Train from Gun Hill but I will look for it for sure with your recommendation. Thanks Colin.

     
    • Colin

      December 19, 2012 at 7:36 am

      Yeah, Lonely Are the Brave is a fine modern western, and Douglas is very good in it.
      If you haven’t seen Last Train from Gun Hill then you have a genuine treat in store.

       
  23. Samuel Blaquet

    December 19, 2012 at 9:12 am

    Objectionable list? Of course not. All around the world, I guess, people will always associate the Western genre (the greatest of all movie genres, I do agree with you, Colin) with such screen icons as John Wayne (the ultimate Man of the West), Jimmy Stewart, Gary Cooper, Randolph Scott, Henry Fonda, Clint Eastwood, Joel McCrea, Richard Widmark… I personally would favor Kirk Douglas and Bob Mitchum instead of Holden and McQueen. Just a matter of taste, I think, since William Holden’s Pike in “The Wild Bunch”, in particular, or any Steve McQueen’s western character linger in anyone’s memories. A Merry Xmas, Colin.

     
    • Colin

      December 19, 2012 at 9:29 am

      Holden & McQueen seem to be the two selections that most people have raised doubts about, which I suppose I expected, your replacements are also among the more popular suggestions. But like you say, it’s all down to different people and different tastes.
      Joyeux Noël, Samuel.

       
  24. Vienna

    December 19, 2012 at 10:01 am

    Colin, I look forward to your take on film noir stars.
    And if you see THE PROUD ONES again, I would welcome your review . Lots to talk about in this western.
    I can’t see beyond 50s westerns, all my favourites come from that decade.

     
    • Colin

      December 19, 2012 at 10:55 am

      Noir is another area that’s pretty wide and will likely need some juggling to fit in the most representative stars.

      I recall The Proud Ones as being a fairly rich film that ought to offer some scope for discussion/analysis so I definitely have it earmarked for a rewatch and, hopefully, a post too.

       
  25. billyriel1971

    December 19, 2012 at 5:54 pm

    An interesting seasonal list, Colin….have you told those in your life that you would like a movie with each of the actors for a holiday gift? ;)

    It is a solid listing and the only one I am lukewarm about is McQueen…..I think he was interesting in Tom Horn and his straight-up action movies are good but I have always found him a “showy” actor….i.e. lots of little pauses and mannerisms before doing something and I find that distracting….as if he is playing past the camera to the audience (i.e. like the actual Western character knows he is being filmed, as strange as that may sound).

    He has an accomplished body of work but I don’t particularly associate him with Westerns and when I do (perhaps it was because it was for the most part, some of his earlier work), I don’t connect to the performances for the above reasons.

    For those that have visited my westernsreboot blog, you will know that I am fan of AMC’s ongoing Western series, Hell on Wheels, and I would put forward Anson Mount, who plays lead character Cullen Bohannon, as a very, very solid actor within the genre. For those interested, this link talks about the character and Mount’s approach (including an interview clip)….to lead a new Western series onto television is a formidable dramatic task (one that is helped by the show’s strong ensemble cast ):

    http://westernsreboot.com/2012/02/15/westward-southern-man-anson-mount-in-hell-on-wheels/

    Thanks for an interesting topic, Colin, and for letting me share my links – much appreciated.

    Take care,
    Chad
    http://www.westernsreboot.com

     
    • Colin

      December 19, 2012 at 8:04 pm

      Chad, I know exactly what you mean about the showy, mannered thing with McQueen. It’s both a strength and weakness of his acting at the same time – it’s quite individual and recognizable but it can also draw attention to the fact that you’re really watching a performance.

      I’ve commented on your posts in the past on Hell on Wheels, saying how interesting it sounded, and I
      still
      haven’t had a chance to see the show! Sooner or later I guess.

      Thanks, as always, for the comment.

       
  26. tonyg

    December 19, 2012 at 7:39 pm

    Colin:
    Lists like these are fun to read and review, and it’s a great list. I especially like your comment about William Holden – if The Wild Bunch was the only western he’d made, he absolutely would deserve a place on this list.

    If I had to limit this list to 10 actors, I would eliminate McQueen, Widmark, Fonda, and Cooper and replace with: Ben Johnson, Robert Duvall, Burt Lancaster, and Robert Mitchum. I see that several other folks have mentioned Mitchum, I’d rank order them like this:

    James Stewart
    Ben Johnson
    Robert Mitchum
    Randolph Scott
    Robert Duvall
    Burt Lancaster
    John Wayne
    Joel McCrea
    William Holden
    Clint Eastwood

    Among my reasons for including Ben Johnson and Robert Duvall (besides their overall greatness) – I’ve always feel like I could watch these two guys for 90 minutes if all they did was sit on their horses. Think about it – as good as everyone mentioned is, who else can you say that about?

    Lancaster – what a presence. And much like your comment about Holden and The Wild Bunch, if all Burt had done was Ulzana’s Raid, he’d belong on this list.

    This is a great blog! Please keep it up.

     
    • Colin

      December 19, 2012 at 8:20 pm

      Hi Tony. I think you’re the first one to mention Lancaster, and I was wondering how long it would take for someone to get round to him. A little like Douglas, he worked in so many genres that it’s easy to forget how many good westerns he starred in. Ulzana’s Raid is an exceptionally strong movie and Lancaster was so comfortable and believable in his role. I’m also very fond of Vera Cruz.

      Duvall is an interesting pick. He was excellent in True Grit and Open Range, and his TV roles in Lonesome Dove and Broken Trail are memorable.

      I have a lot of time for Ben Johnson, a real class act, but he just never played the lead very many times. You’re right though about how watchable he is – I guess the fact he was a genuine cowboy helps too.

      And thanks very much for the kind words about the site.

       
      • tonyg

        December 20, 2012 at 8:44 pm

        Another great Duvall role is in “Geronimo: An American Legend”, an underrated Walter Hill movie worthy of repeated viewings. Beautifully photographed. Unfortunately, only available in pan-n-scan here in the US, but available in widescreen DVD from the UK. (I’ve got the UK version and it’s very nice) Check out the shoot-out in the cantina.

        Regarding Lancaster – Vera Cruz, Ulzana’s Raid, The Professionals, Valdez is Coming, Gunfight at the OK Corral…. over a long and varied career, you’re right it is easy to forget the number of really good westerns he was in. I’m trying to think of any movie in which he didn’t give 110%. Burt makes even a piece of dreck like Lawman (Duvall was in that as well) worth re-watching on occasion.

         
        • Colin

          December 20, 2012 at 9:12 pm

          Gah! Geronimo completely slipped my mind, and I have that UK disc you mention sitting on my shelves too. You’re right, it is a very underrated movie.

          Lawman is a real waste of talent, isn’t it? Aside from Lancaster and Duvall, Robert Ryan and Lee J Cobb are featured too. I don’t think it’s a total flop but it ought to be an awful lot better when you think of the people involved.
          I’m glad you mentioned Valdez is Coming since I’m quite fond of that. Of course the fact that it’s based on a very good Elmore Leonard novel doesn’t hurt any.

           
  27. Rod Croft

    December 20, 2012 at 1:26 am

    Colin,
    In defence of Bill Holden’s inclusion in any list of top western stars, I would point out his incredible record of successes in this genre. Begining with the popular “Arazona” (1940); “Texas” (1941); The Man from Colorado (1948 his second film with Glen Ford and a very interesting film, at that); followed by an additional 6 westerns from 1948 to “The Wild Bunch” (1969) and ending with “The Revengers (1972), his credentials are solid.

    Although many of his earlier successes are now almost forgotten/neglected and he has achieved great success in a number of other genre, I believe that film historians will continue to recognise his substantial contribution to the Western.

     
    • Colin

      December 20, 2012 at 9:26 am

      Absolutely Rod. The Man from Colorado is a first class western, Escape from Fort Bravo is half of a great movie at least, and I have a soft spot for Streets of Laredo too.

       
  28. John Knight

    December 21, 2012 at 2:39 pm

    I have been meaning to join in the fun on this blog for a long time now so here goes.
    In the early Sixties I had just started work and with one of my first pay packets
    I purchased a book simply called “Westerns” I think.
    What I really liked about the book were the beautiful colour plates and the list of the 10
    great Western stars.
    Strangely enough the first six were more or less identical to Colins choice.
    It was too early for Eastwood or McQueen to be included and Holden was certainly not
    included.; Mitchum was and also Murphy.
    What is remarkable is that in a period of 50 years only Eastwood has emerged as a
    major Western star.
    I like Eastwood but in my view only two of his Westerns are bona fide “classics” JOSEY
    WALES and UNFORGIVEN. The spaghetti stuff I feel belongs in its own genre.
    I like PALE RIDER a lot (many do not) but would hardly call it a classic.
    When people say he is a more important Western star than Wayne they are full of “Road Apples”
    Its interesting that Henry Fonda only made two Westerns in the Fifties. There was his 6 year
    lay off from films from 1949-1955 then his serious bust up with John Ford while making
    MISTER ROBERTS. A very sad end to one of the most creative partnerships in the history
    of film.Fonda was a natural for Westerns its a pity he never made more when the genre
    was at its zenith;for me he is the prime contender for The Dukes “crown”. Its just a shame
    the genre was in decline when he started making Westerns again on a regular basis.
    As a footnote regarding Bronson I love his early (pre-stardom) work as much as I dislike
    his later work.
    All in all Colin a great and really well thought out list.
    Any chance of a follow up the 10 greatest “second string” Western stars.

     
    • Colin

      December 21, 2012 at 7:51 pm

      Great to see you here John, you’re most welcome and I hope you’ll visit regularly.

      You mention Audie Murphy there in passing – I think you’re the first to do so too – and he was also in my mind when I was compiling this. That’s not a bad idea actually, to do a piece on “second string” stars. There are a large number of actors who worked away in westerns and never, or rarely anyway, made it into the A pictures. That’s not meant to suggest they were second rate performers by the way. I think Murphy would come top of such a list, and there’s plenty of others to consider. Noted, and thanks.

      I agree with you on Pale Rider too. I quite like the film, but I’d never consider it a major work. I don’t know whether High Plains Drifter qualifies as a classic or not, but I feel it’s one of Eastwood’s more interesting, and important, films.

       
  29. Blake Lucas

    December 21, 2012 at 11:21 pm

    Hey, John, glad to see we’re kind of in agreement about Eastwood. He’s good, does what he does well–he isn’t even in the shadow of John Wayne to me. A much narrower persona, and his roles not nearly as complex as so many of Wayne’s, especially those Wayne did for Ford–he had to be a really great actor to handle those. Like Colin, I kind of like HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER–an interesting film, interesting mood, with Eastwood rethinking the Leone hero somewhat into this perhaps mystical
    figure (as in PALE RIDER too but that isn’t nearly as good). THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES and UNFORGIVEN are more substantial but I just can’t seem to love the first of those though I do consider UNFORGIVEN a masterpiece surpassing anything Eastwood did even for Leone so as both director and actor he has to be credited with contributing something late in the genre.

    Nice to see Audie Murphy mentioned. I’m sure others of us had thought about him. I know I had.

    And meanwhile, though missing from Colin’s list, Glenn Ford and Van Heflin are both actors that I know he does like and thought about when making it up, so nice to see them both get some glory, along with great Western director Delmer Daves, for 3:10 TO YUMA just chosen for the National Film Registry. And yes, Felicia Farr, also mentioned several times here when actresses came up, has arguably her greatest role in this film–relatively brief, but once seen never forgotten.

     
    • Colin

      December 22, 2012 at 8:26 am

      Glenn Ford and Van Heflin… so nice to see them both get some glory, along with great Western director Delmer Daves, for 3:10 TO YUMA just chosen for the National Film Registry.

      I couldn’t agree more. It’s a long overdue recognition of everyone involved in the film.

       
  30. Jim Beaver

    December 22, 2012 at 10:31 am

    For fun, I’ve run the numbers on everyone mentioned here who had a substantial number of leading man roles. That includes just about everyone but Ernest Borgnine, who was rarely ever first or second billed. First I ran the total Westerns each actor appeared in and got this list:

    John Wayne – 87
    Randolph Scott – 62
    Lee Van Cleef – 53
    Ben Johnson – 40
    Audie Murphy – 33
    Joel McCrea – 32
    Gary Cooper – 32
    Robert Mitchum – 30
    Glenn Ford – 24
    James Stewart – 20
    Charles Bronson – 20
    Lee Marvin – 20
    Robert Ryan – 18
    Henry Fonda – 17
    Richard Widmark – 16
    James Coburn – 15
    Burt Lancaster – 14
    Kirk Douglas – 14
    Alan Ladd – 14
    Clint Eastwood – 14
    Gregory Peck – 12
    Van Heflin – 12
    Robert Taylor -12
    William Holden – 11
    Robert Duvall – 7
    Yul Brynner – 5
    Steve McQueen – 4

    Then I looked at the percentages of total films which were Westerns, to see who had the greatest concentration of Westerns in their career by percentage. This is what I got:

    Audie Murphy – 73%
    Lee Van Cleef – 64%
    Randolph Scott – 59%
    Ben Johnson – 58%
    John Wayne – 52%
    Joel McCrea – 35%
    Lee Marvin – 33%
    Gary Cooper – 29%
    Glenn Ford – 27%
    Robert Mitchum – 26%
    Richard Widmark – 26%
    James Stewart – 24%
    Charles Bronson – 24%
    Robert Ryan – 24%
    Gregory Peck – 23%
    Clint Eastwood – 23%
    James Coburn – 21%
    Van Heflin – 21%
    Henry Fonda – 19%
    Kirk Douglas – 19%
    Burt Lancaster – 19%
    William Holden – 16%
    Robert Taylor – 16%
    Alan Ladd – 15%
    Steve McQueen – 14%
    Yul Brynner – 12%
    Robert Duvall – 8%

    Interesting that the same actors comprise the top 6 in both categories, but after that there’s a lot of diversity between the lists.

    I have no idea what purpose this served.

    (For the record, 4 of my own movies, or 10%, have been Westerns. Of course, that’s a useless comparison, because I’ve never had a substantial number of leading roles in films! :-)

     
    • Colin

      December 22, 2012 at 11:15 am

      That makes for interesting reading. It shows just how much of a western specialist Audie Murphy was for one thing, not to mention Lee Van Cleef. For another, it’s an indication of how varied the work of a lot of these guys was. I kind of expected the percentages would have been higher for some.

      As for your own western output Jim, there’s some impressive credits such as Geronimo. If you factor in your TV credits, not least Deadwood, the numbers increase significantly.

       
  31. Laura

    December 23, 2012 at 1:46 am

    Just want to thank Jim for taking the time to do that tally of total Westerns made and the overall career percentages for various actors — it made for an interesting read!

    Enjoyed both your post and the ensuing discussion, Colin!

    Best wishes,
    Laura

     
  32. Judy

    December 24, 2012 at 11:23 pm

    I see nobody has mentioned Paul Newman. I know he didn’t make that many Westerns, but three great ones – The Left-Handed Gun, Hud, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Very interesting posting anyway, and makes me realise how many Westerns I still need to see!

     
    • Colin

      December 25, 2012 at 6:55 am

      Hi Judy. While Newman did make a number of westerns – I quite like Hombre and The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean myself – I’ve never really thought of him as a western star. Hud maybe works best since the modern setting is well suited to Newman’s more contemporary air.

      And I hope you have a wonderful Xmas Judy.

       
      • Judy

        December 25, 2012 at 8:02 am

        Thank you, Colin, a wonderful Christmas to you too! I haven’t seen those two Newman films, but do hope to do so.

         
  33. Jeff Flugel

    December 25, 2012 at 6:19 am

    Well, I know you don’t do many “list posts” Colin, but when you do, you do it up proper! All great choices – can’t fault any of your top ten – though I’d maybe swap Holden out for the likes of Mitchum, Coburn, Bronson and Van Cleef.

    Thanks for all the wonderful reading and insightful analysis on your site over the past year, and for being the first to reach out a friendly hand as I started up my own blog – always much appreciated! Best wishes to you and yours for the holidays, Colin, and here’s to a grand 2013!

     
    • Colin

      December 25, 2012 at 7:02 am

      Thanks Jeff. I was amazed by the response this drew, very gratifying indeed. It’s certainly made me consider compiling some more in future.

      Cheers for the compliments too, and can I just return them by saying that your own site is a great addition to the blogging world and one I always enjoy visiting.

      Wishing you and the family all the best of everything over the holidays and the coming year.

       
  34. Rockfish

    December 26, 2012 at 8:56 am

    Hope your Christmas was bountiful with warmth and good times, Colin. Your ‘controversial’ list sure got people talking, and my appetite is whetted for that Noir one – where I imagine a great and interesting debate will emerge, too (put me down for a Glenn ford fan – and what do you think of TCM’s next vault release?)… Lancaster, Mitchum, Murphy – just goes to show the quality that Hollywood was churning out, oater-wise, between 1946 and 1966.

     
    • Colin

      December 26, 2012 at 10:47 am

      Thanks very much – yesterday was spent very pleasantly indeed.
      I’m looking forward to putting together that noir list and there’s a lot of candidates to consider. I’m pleased with the titles included in the recently announced TCM/Sony Glenn Ford set – I already have the Spanish release of Undercover Man but the rest are new to me, and I”m especially happy to see Framed included.

      Returning to westerns, I agree that the caliber of actors who I ended up having to omit speaks volumes for the level of quality to be found in the genre during its golden period.

       
  35. muriel

    January 5, 2013 at 3:46 am

    Actors who did both Noir and Western made me think of Cagney in “White Heat” and “Tribute to a Bad Man”. I’d love to see your take on “Tribute to a Bad Man”. As a horse lover and horse breeder himself, Cagney could really get into a character who loves his horses so much he would take a very nasty revenge on someone who hurts them.
    I’d also love to read your thoughts on White Heat!

     
    • Colin

      January 5, 2013 at 9:48 am

      You know., I’ve yet to feature any kind of Cagney movie on this site! I haven’t seen Tribute to a Bad Man yet, but White Heat is a definite possibility for a future write-up.

       
  36. filmcamera999

    February 11, 2013 at 5:04 pm

    Reblogged this on filmcamera999.

     
  37. John

    April 9, 2013 at 5:00 pm

    Here’s Daniel Day-Lewis, from an interview with the NY Times a couple of years back:

    “Daniel Day-Lewis’s All-Time Top Westerns
    I don’t particularly like westerns as a genre, but I do love certain westerns. ”High Noon” means a lot to me – I love the purity and the honesty, I love Gary Cooper in that film, the idea of the last man standing. I do not like John Wayne: I find it hard to watch him. I just never took to him. And I don’t like Jimmy Stewart as a cowboy. I love him, but just not as a cowboy; ”Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” is one of my favorite films. I love Capra. I love Preston Sturges. But we’re talking about westerns. … I have always admired Clint Eastwood’s westerns. The spaghetti westerns were a great discovery. And ”Pale Rider.” As a child, the John Ford film ”Cheyenne Autumn” made a big impression on me. And ”Five Easy Pieces.” It’s not really a western, but it is about the possibilities that can be found in the West. Jack Nicholson is sublime in that film, just sublime. It’s the most stultifying portrait of middle-class life. You want to flee from that world and head anywhere less civilized. Which is, of course, the appeal of the West: It’s not tamed yet.”

    Thought it might be of interest, since he is clearly outside the mainstream on westerns and actors associated with the western. Coming from such an extraordinary talent, even more intriguing.

    Thanks for all of your work, your effort, your passion, an utter delight to read and mull over.

     
    • Colin

      April 9, 2013 at 6:48 pm

      That’s very interesting to see DDL’s views on the western, even if they don’t fit in with my own. If anything, I’d say that those observations of his are likely to be commonly held by many. I think that’s actually a little unfortunate as it reflects a tendency to dismiss large swathes of the genre. Also, I can’t agree with his preferences regarding the work of James Stewart; I feel Stewart really found himself, or at least found something new and powerful within himself, when he moved into westerns. An Pale Rider is an odd choice to highlight as one of Eastwood’s better westerns. Different strokes for different folks I guess.

      Thanks too for your kind words about the site John.

       
  38. Gareth Cross

    May 8, 2013 at 3:25 am

    Hard to disagree with your list, Wayne and Stewart will always be the two guys I most identify with the genre and I think the quality of their work backs that up. I really must take another look at Randolph Scott as outside of the films he made with Duke Pittsburgh/The Spoilers iv’e never really given him a look. If you every fancy doing another list the 10 best Western character actors might be an idea, the likes of Walter Brennan, Ed Begley, Ward Bond etc

     
    • Colin

      May 8, 2013 at 8:18 am

      I would be impossible not to have Wayne and Stewart on there. Whatever the merits of including or excluding some of the others, those two are, as you say, so closely linked to the genre. And I definitely recommend checking out more of Randolph Scott’s work, especially his 50s output – the films he made with Boetticher are sublime and represent some of my favorite westerns.

      Character actors? Good call, and I’ll keep it in mind.

       

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