Revising the Wild West 100 Greatest Westerns

The primary benefit of a “best” or “greatest” list is as a conversation starter, and I take Wild West magazine’s recent 100 Greatest Westerns list as just that rather than as something definitive or objective. In the interest of continuing the conversation, I offer my own list of “Top Three Films Missing from Wild West‘s 100 Greatest Westerns,” and I invite you to submit your own lists of missing films (or lists of films that shouldn’t be there) either through the comment link at the end of the post or via email to westernlitblog@gmail.com
The Wild West top ten is listed in an earlier blog post below, or you can follow this link for the entire Wild West 100 Greatest Westerns list.

Top Three Missing Westerns

The Wild West list overemphasizes westerns produced in the 1950s and 1960s, includes too many contemporary films that may be solid but aren’t “great,” and does so at the expense of half a century of film history. The films on my list address several categories of western that are under-represented on the top 100. I wouldn’t necessarily place any of these films in a top 10 list, but certainly they deserve a place in the top 100.

1. The Bronze Buckaroo (1938): Although Wild West nods to the presence of African American cowboys in the American West and in the western film through the choice of director Mario Van Peebles’ Posse (1993) and of El Diablo (1990), starring Lou Gosset, Jr., the series of all-black-cast films starring Herb Jeffries (billed as Herbert Jeffrey) is historically more important and deserves a place on the list. Of the four films in the series, including Harlem on the Prairie (1938), Two-Gun Man from Harlem (1938), and Harlem Rides the Range (1939), I would choose The Bronze Buckaroo for the list. Black-cast films, or race movies, were an important part of twentieth-century cinematic history, as were the segregated theaters where these films were mostly screened for African American audiences. Also, Herb Jeffries is the perfect model of the singing cowboy, a type that dominated westerns of the 1930s (and despite that dominance, singing cowboys are shorted on the 100 Greatest Westerns list). The Bronze Buckaroo includes not only the Jeffries-penned signature song of the series (“I’m a Happy Cowboy”) played in the background behind the opening titles, but there’s also a great scene in the bunkhouse where Jeffries and his band perform “Pay Day Blues” (another tune written by Jeffries), a hot number made all the hotter by an impromptu tap-dance performance by one of the bunk mates, and how often do you see a tap-dancing cowboy in a western? That scene alone earns The Bronze Buckaroo a place on the 100 Greatest Westerns list.

2. The Last of the Mohicans (1920): If singing cowboys are under-represented on the 100 Greatest Westerns list, the entire silent film era is even more undeservedly ignored. Although a few silents make their way onto the list, too many deserving films have been left off. Although director Michael Mann’s contemporary version (1992) of Cooper’s novel (starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Madeleine Stowe) is an accomplished film, the 1920 silent directed by Clarence Brown (and taken over by Maurice Tourneur who finished it) is a classic, and it makes little sense to include the contemporary film at the expense of excluding the silent film. Barbara Bedford’s portrayal of Cora Munro as a kind of 1920-style New Woman on the frontier is  at the center of the film, and her Cora is a hallmark in the on-screen representation of strong western women (unlike Madeleine Stowe’s passive Cora).

I also love Henry Woodward’s portrayal of Major Heyward, which involves what has to be one of the most effective uses of a wig in a western film. Heyward begins the film as a proper and properly bewigged British soldier, his wig carefully powdered and not a hair out of place. Then, in what I can only describe as a perfectly realized depiction of the Turnerian process of frontier transformation made visually concrete through hair styling, Heyward begins to change from a British soldier to an American-in-the-making. Strands of hair begin to come loose; more hair comes loose; his wig grows increasingly disheveled; and, finally, in the midst of a fight, his wig is completely pulled off, and the next time we see him, he is wig-less, decked out in buckskins, wearing a coonskin cap, and, as a fighter, he is hell on wheels.

3. Serenity (2005): The 100 Greatest Westerns list is not very adventurous in considering the ways that the western has changed form over the years. Films with contemporary western settings are under-represented, as are films that re-imagine the western genre in innovative ways, and, surely, any list of 100 Greatest Westerns should include at least one film (if not more) that explores the “final frontier” of space. For my choice of representative “space western,” I would pick director Joss Whedon’s Serenity, which was based on the short-lived television series Firefly. Although predominately a science fiction narrative, Serenity makes us aware throughout of that genre’s roots in the western, particularly through choice of music and costuming, and, oh yeah, choice of weapons carried by the outlaw heroes.

So, that’s my list of top 3 films left off the 100 Greatest Westerns list. I hope that others will share their own lists.

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