Well, I’ve given myself another tough task here. Having tried something similar with actors before, I thought I’d have a go at the men behind the cameras. Once again, the sheer number of westerns produced, especially during the classic era, means that almost every director of note made a few. As such, picking my top ten represents something of a challenge. I decided to stick as far as possible with specialists, those whose names tend to be closely associated with westerns, or those who made a significant contribution to the genre, either stylistically, thematically, or through their work with particular stars. The first half-dozen or so are easy, more or less picking themselves. The problems start to become apparent further down the list though, resulting in a bit of soulsearching on my part to determine who would and wouldn’t make the cut. Anyway, for what it’s worth, here’s my selection.
Clearly, the man who identified himself as a maker of westerns has to occupy top spot. It’s truly impossible to overstate the importance and influence of the extraordinarily complex old Irishman. So much of the imagery popularly associated with the genre stems directly from Ford’s films. From myth maker to myth buster, Ford dominated the development of western filmmaking like no one else before or since.
Starting out in film noir, Antony Mann brought some of that dark ambiguity to the western. His series of movies throughout the 1950s demonstrated how the genre was the ideal vehicle for the examination of tortured and flawed personalities. If Ford placed his characters in an iconic landscape, Mann went a step further and merged that landscape with the characters themselves.
Boetticher’s reputation has grown over the years, to the point where the Ranown cycle with Randolph Scott must be regarded as an essential component of the canon. Those beautifully crafted films fold into one another, their lean directness providing a masterclass on how to produce high art on a budget. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that Boetticher was making these mature little gems at the point when the western was just reaching its peak.
More than anyone else, Peckinpah exemplifies the western’s transition from the classic to the modern era. Tales of his battles with the studio bosses and his own inner demons are legion, but the result was a handful of masterpieces of cinema. Maybe we didn’t always get to see exactly what Peckinpah had originally intended, and the emphasis on his depiction of violence tends to cloud the appreciation of the man’s artistry. However, he kept the western moving forward and pushed it in new directions at a time when it was threatened by stagnation.
While I remain ambivalent about the spaghetti western in general, my respect and admiration for Leone is unshakeable. He tends to be popularly characterized as the man who brought about a sea change in the way the genre developed, a new broom if you like. I’ve argued before that I don’t believe that’s entirely true – he was steeped in the mythology of the western and owed a huge debt to Ford, paying unashamed homage to the old man in his greatest works. If you take the time to look, there’s clear evidence that the western was already starting to move towards the place that Leone ultimately took it. Nevertheless, he did reinvigorate the western and his influence on filmmaking continues to be felt.
A recent post of mine led to a long and fruitful discussion of Eastwood’s contribution to the genre. A variety of opinions ended up being expressed but the one thing everybody seemed to agree on was the fact that the western would be a lot poorer without Eastwood. Personally, I feel he’s owed a huge debt of gratitude for almost single-handedly keeping the genre I love the most alive during its leanest years.
The man who gave John Wayne his first big break, and according to some stories even gave him his name, returned to the western again and again throughout his career. Walsh tends to be regarded primarily as an action specialist, and there’s no doubting his flair for that aspect of the job. However, he also understood the importance of strong characterization and knew how to fully exploit the potential of his actors – he managed to draw the best out of Errol Flynn for example.
The best directors seem to have a knack for hitting their stride at the just the right time. John Sturges was an unquestioned master of widescreen composition and took full advantage of that skill just as the process was becoming established. I guess Sturges’ best known western is still The Magnificent Seven, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. Personally, I tend to prefer his smaller, tighter efforts from the 50s – even if he’d only ever made Last Train from Gun Hill, he’d still be on this list.
I mentioned the spaghetti western earlier, alluding to the fact that such developments don’t just spontaneously appear. Hollywood could be said to have first glanced furtively in that direction in 1954 when Aldrich made Vera Cruz, but the genre wasn’t yet at a point where a leap into fully fledged amorality was either desirable or possible. Still and all, it can be argued that Aldrich had laid the groundwork.
My final pick is a man whose work has risen progressively in my estimation over the years. I’ve come to deeply appreciate what I regard as the essential optimism that permeates his westerns of the 50s. His finest films contain moments of understated intimacy that are enormously powerful and unashamedly poetic.
So there you have it. I doubt if anyone would seriously argue with the inclusion of the first six names on my list. As for the others, I’m sure they won’t meet with everyone’s approval. There are strong cases to be made for directors like Hathaway, de Toth, Wellman, Tourneur, Ray and Hawks. Ultimately though, I had to whittle it down to ten and it was inevitable they couldn’t all make the cut. Feel free to drop in and add your own thoughts.