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Monday, July 6, 2020



Recently, a good friend asked me to recommend some good western movies. I gave her the names of a few that my husband and I enjoy. Then over the past couple of days I’ve been in the mood to watch some of those favorite westerns again. There’s a plethora to choose from on tv, but in the end I went back to favorites from our DVD library.

Since there are thousands of westerns made stemming back to the silent movies, I’m going to touch on the ones that have had a lasting impression on me. There are lots of westerns that are shoot-‘em-up action. Gunfights and posse pursuits are expected, just like car chase scenes are mandatory in the action adventure movies. What I’d like to focus on here are the ones that speak to the heart and give a glimpse of what makes our western hero and heroine tick. We writers are guilty, to a certain extent, of romanticizing westerns and that’s understandable because life in the west was hard, sweaty and dirty, with few amenities and mostly grinding work. To appeal to our fastidious 21st century sensibilities, our hero and heroine must be reasonably clean and lean on the side of honor, with good overpowering evil. I admit I’m not good at making my villains utterly evil, nor can I put my hero through too much torture, because I am, after all, a romance writer, but I admire the writers who can accomplish both. Drama and conflict is what drives a good love story.

Of the hundreds of westerns I’ve watched over the years, Dances With Wolves is my all-time favorite western—and not just because of the fabulous scenery when Lieutenant John Dunbar rides over a ridge and sees the majesty of the western frontier spread out before him (South Dakota).

I’m so glad I watched this movie for the first time in the theatre where the huge screen gave justice to the magnificent scenery. The message in this movie hit me between the eyes. Finally, Hollywood got it right, thanks to an excellent novel written by Michael Blake and Kevin Costner’s vision in directing and acting in this amazing epic that won seven academy awards, including Best Picture and Best Director.

For once the Native Americans were portrayed in a true light: not as murdering savages but instead, a normal, peace-loving people who preferred a peaceful family life and killed only to eat or in self-defense. There was humor and laughter, wisdom and acceptance. Yes, there were rogues, too, as there are in all races, but it particularly pointed out the ignorance and injustice prevalent in the settling of the West. Oh how I despised the actions of those soldiers when they reached Dunbar’s deserted outpost. And did they really have to kill Two Socks for sport? One tiny little camera shot focused on an empty tin can of beans carelessly tossed onto the prairie by the itinerant peddler. The only other things littering the prairie were the sun-bleached heads of a cow or a buffalo.  (What legacy do we leave behind with our overflowing landfills?)

I later discovered there is more than one version of the movie, the full-length, and the editor’s cut (where this scene was cut, along with a few others).

Another Kevin Costner movie we’ve watched numerous times is Open Range. This movie has the usual greedy, bigoted  scoundrel with his group of thugs and a noisy shoot-out climatic ending, but what I like best about it is the characterization of two cowhands (Costner and Robert Duval) on a cattle drive and a glimpse into the heart of a trail-hardened cowboy. One scene shows how Costner’s character is aware he’d tramped mud onto the heroine’s carpet and tries to scoop most of it up and put it under the carpet. In another scene, he accidentally breaks her china tea service and leaves money with the store merchant to order a replacement set. There is also a touching scene involving a melted chocolate bar and how precious the taste is to a cowboy when he’s used to eating dried jerky and beans.

Lonesome Dove, written by Larry McMurtry, starring Robert Duval and Tommy Lee Jones, is a fantastic movie and mini-series. It gives a gritty view of life in a small dusty Texas town and life on a long, 900-mile cattle drive. The most succinct word to describe the landscape and the clothing is: beige. Everything is coated in dusty, boring beige. Even the clothes are beige. It also shows that special bond between a man and a woman down on her luck, as well as two old friends and promises kept (and was actually inspired by a true story of two Texans, Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving who took several thousand cattle north on a 900-mile cattle drive from Texas to Montana).

Legends of the Fall is a riveting and heart-wrenching saga of a retired army colonel played by Anthony Hopkins and his three sons on a ranch in Montana at the turn of the century. Not exactly a western as in wild west, but unforgettable, set in Montana. All the actors are great, but for me, Brad Pitt steals the show in every scene he’s in (ditto A River Runs Through It). The brothers are torn apart by so many emotions with a woman at the center of the unfolding drama. An unforgettable story of love and hate, bigotry and revenge…plus amazing scenery.

John Wayne starred in some great westerns, which could easily be a blog all about him. Classic McLintock…we’ve watched it so many times we know key passages let alone know what happens next. This movie has everything, big rancher, big money, great chemistry between JW and Maureen O’Hara, and lots of humor. It also shows good relations between the rancher and Native Americans and how people want to be and need to be treated.

I enjoy Rio Bravo for so many reasons, but probably mainly because of the jailhouse scene where Dean Martin resides on a cot and warbles My Rifle, My Pony and Me, accompanied by Ricky Nelson strumming his guitar. And loveable Walter Brennan, with his famous toothless cackle, joining in with his harmonica. Not something one would expect in the middle of a western, but unforgettably entertainment, especially when juxtaposed between Martin’s alcohol addiction and hired thugs terrorizing the town.
Three days before I saw the movie in the theater, I quickly read the The Horse Whisperer, a debut novel by Nicholas Evans. My biggest anticipation was how would Hollywood create the scene where the horse rose up to fight off the semi. I wasn’t disappointed. In fact the entire movie followed the book until the last quarter of the movie. Then it reversed the story line, which annoyed and disappointed me because it’s such a great movie with amazing scenery filmed in Montana. Still, I have watched it several times and not just because Robert Redford plays an amazing part. According to writer Nicholas Evans, Tom Booker is modelled after horse whisperers Tom DorranceRay Hunt and, in particular, their younger disciple Buck Brannaman. Evans has said, "Others have claimed to be the inspiration for Tom Booker in The Horse Whisperer. The one who truly inspired me was Buck Brannaman. His skill, understanding and his gentle, loving heart have parted the clouds for countless troubled creatures. Buck is the Zen master of the horse world."

I bought the bio about Buck Brannaman and the wonderful work he does with horses and also riders. He held clinics to help people understand horses. A worthwhile read.

This next movie is an oldie from the late 1950s but is a classic that we’ve watched several times. Has a great cast, too, as well as breathtaking scenery. The Big Country stars Gregory Peck who goes west to marry his fiancée and finds himself embroiled in a feud between his future father-in-law and a neighbor over water rights. Burl Ives takes a departure from singing to play a feisty, lawless father who has a weak, yellow-bellied son up to no good. Probably the only time I didn’t like Chuck Connors who was definitely not like his Rifleman image <grin>. This movie, as all the ones I mention underscore human decency pitted again human greed.
Tom Selleck and Sam Elliot are my favorite western actors and thus, for me, I’ve saved the best for last. Not everyone may agree with me, but then we can politely agree to disagree, eh? The last two nights we’ve watched several of their movies and thus that kinda inspired my idea to write this blog about westerns. Both actors have a terrific portfolio of great movies and a theme is quite prevalent in them all: good, honest, decent men with great human qualities of knowing what is right and acting upon it.

Conagher is a winner on so many levels and is my favorite of Sam’s 70+ movies. It’s a moving story giving us a poignant view of the loneliness of a widow’s life on the prairie and the heart of a weary saddle tramp who is moved by slips of poetry attached to tumbleweed that he finds on the prairie.

Sam has teamed up with Tom Selleck in many westerns and with their big stature and amazing moustache, perfectly play bigger-than-life heroes. We have watched The Sackets so many times we can lip sync many of the lines and know the scenes. As in The Sackets, the two actors teamed up again with Jeff Osterhage to play three brothers at the end of the Civil War in The Shadow Riders, another Louis L’Amour novel with all the elements that make a great action western.

Tom Selleck sure knows how to pick a good role. Last Stand at Sable River is about a man thought dead, who returns from the Civil War only to find his wife angry with him for choosing to go to war instead of staying home with her and their three children. Now he has to fight to regain  the ownership of his land as well as win back his wife’s love. A nice twist is a strong woman brought down by grief and one who has a special skill. She makes rifles and knows how to use them.

The beautiful foothills mountain scenery outside Calgary, Alberta, is the setting for another great Louis L’Amour movie, Crossfire Trail, starring Tom Selleck. I have lost track how many times we’ve watched this movie. Rafe Covington makes a death-bed promise to a dying friend to look after his wife. With two friends, they head to Wyoming and discover the ranch neglected and the widow living in town with a merchant and his wife. She is being deceived by a greedy  businessman who wants to marry her (for her land, of course). This is the only time I haven’t liked Mark Harmon who always plays a good guy in NCIS.

I cannot end this list without mentioning a movie that for me almost ties with Dances with Wolves. And it stars my favorite actor in what I think is one of his very best westerns: Monte Walsh. It, too, was filmed in the Calgary foothills with fabulous views of the Rockies. What makes this particularly a favorite, much-watched movie is how the life of a cowboy is so well portrayed during the dying days of open range ranching. This movie has everything and vividly shows you the grueling life of a real cowboy at the turn of the century. If you want to know more about a cowboy’s life, this is the perfect movie to watch because it has it all: scenery, horses, cowboys, grit, sadness and love, devotion and despair, and Monte’s wonderful sense of mischief which you see in the opening scene. The scene with the ranch cook is hilarious! Never rile the bunkhouse cook.

One theme that ties all the above movies together is the heart of the western man. He  fights for what is right and although he may be rough around the edges, he has a soft spot for a special lady…and often a deep love of his mother. There is such a touching scene in The Sacketts where Orrin Sackett (Tom Selleck) says goodbye to Ma (beautifully played by Mercedes McCambridge). It tugs at  my heart to see her almost beside herself with grief yet must be strong to send her sons west to be safe. And you feel Orrin’s sadness as well because she believes she’ll never see him again even though he says he’ll send  money to bring her out west. Her  oldest son, Tell (Sam Elliot), has been gone for over ten years and she doesn’t even know if he’s alive. Sometimes all a woman can do is not give up hope and listen to her heart.

That being said, we have to give a tip of the hat to the western ladies. Most of them did not have an easy life in basically a man’s world where they had little “voice”. Perhaps that’s grist for a blog for a tip of the hat to our Western heroines, eh? After all, they had to be brave and strong to be a good match for the hero.

In Beneath A Fugitive Moon, Mike Sutton is a big, U.S. deputy marshal who uses his appearance to outsmart the outlaws he seeks. His 6’5” height can be intimidating, especially with the help of a striped poncho that makes him look even bigger. I love this scene that shows his gentle side when he stops to speak with one of the heroine’s students who waits outside the doctor’s home:

          Mike was surprised to find a small crowd hovering outside the white picket fence. Mostly young males, black-clad widows and a few schoolchildren. They gathered around him like squawking chickens at feeding time.
          “Is Teacher sick?”
          “What happened to Miss Jolene?”
          “Is Miss Jolene gonna be all right?”
          “Was she really chased by outlaws?”
          Sensing their genuine concern, especially from the little ones, Mike couldn’t be rude. Considerate of protecting Jolene’s reputation, he didn’t want to divulge all the details, either. A little girl with freckles and bright coppery pigtails tugged on his poncho, her blue eyes shimmering with unshed tears. She looked no older than six or seven, probably one of Jolene’s students. In one hand she clutched a limp bouquet of wildflowers, obviously intended for Jolene. He dropped down to one knee and smiled at her reassuringly. “Miss Jolene’s gonna be just fine.”
          “But why did Teacher get hurt?” she whispered.
          Mike noticed a hush had fallen around them, people straining forward to hear. He kept his voice deliberately low. “Because outlaws tried to steal her horses. She was very brave.”
          The child looked at him searchingly for a moment, her eyes thoughtful. Seemingly satisfied with his answer, she nodded, rose on her tip toes and slid her arms around his neck. “You’re brave, too.”
          Snickers greeted her comment, but Mike was so touched and surprised by her sweet honesty that for once his quick wit failed him. All he could utter was a husky, “Thank you.”
          She drew back a bit and looked him over and then leaned closer. “People said mean things about you. They’re wrong. You don’t look at all like poor Nancy. And you’re not a mountain man because they don’t wear these…shawls?” She pointed at his striped poncho.
          Mike almost smiled but was intrigued by her intelligence. Did his long rope of yellow hair somehow confuse her? It was easier to confine his curly hair by pulling it back tightly with a length of rawhide to keep it out of his eyes. “Who is Nancy?”
          “She’s a grizzly the railroad people used to keep caged up in Medicine Hat. I saw her once before she died. She looked lonely and sad.” The child reached up and touched the wavy rope of hair that had fallen over his shoulder and dangled against his chest. “You’re not a grizzly, just big and golden, like papa bear in the story about Goldilocks that Teacher read to us.”
          Was it coincidence that Jolene had nicknamed him Huggy Bear from some children’s story? Mike couldn’t stop a chuckle. “Well, Little One, that’s the nicest thing anyone has said to me. You’re a fine and lovely young lady.” She rewarded him with a dazzling smile and scampered toward the doctor’s house.
           Smiling, he rose and headed toward the gate.
          “Is it true you killed them outlaws?” A young dandy dressed in a royal blue suit and fancy gold brocade waistcoat barred Mike’s way. “I heard you killed two men. What did they do to Jolene?” he demanded in ringing tones.
          Mike’s good mood vanished. He glared right back. “Git your paw offa my arm afore I shove it down your throat.”
          The man stumbled in his haste to back away. A red tide swept into his pale face. “I-I demand an answer.”
          “She ain’t got a husband, or brothers or uncles. So I reckon since you ain’t kin...mind your own damned business.” Ignoring the outraged gasps, Mike mounted Blue and rode toward the newer part of town, all the while wondering what that puffed up rooster meant to Jolene.

Beneath A Horse Thief Moon:

Link for Diamond Jack’s Angel/Hot Western Nights Anthology


  1. What a great list. You have all my favourites in there. Especially Dances with Wolves. This was lots of fun.

    1. Thank you, Christine. You are always so supportive. I love Dances With Wolves and remember being in awe of the scenery. That was probably 25 years ago and time hasn't dulled my memory.

  2. Great list of movies of the west here. Thanks for posting this. I only have to disagree with one thing and it's that you stated the movie Dances with Wolves was adapted from an "excellent novel written by Michael Blake." I guess you read a different novel--I thought it was a very poorly written piece of fiction and Kevin Costner worked a miracle bringing it to such cinematic heights!

    1. I bought the book but confess I never had a chance to read it as my son needed it for a book report, so I don't know about his writing. I just know Kevin urged him to write the book first and get it published, then he'd read it. Michael even stayed in Kevin's guesthouse to write the book rather than live in his car. I don't know if he also wrote the screenplay, although it won an Oscar for that, too. And you're absolutely right--Kevin Costner worked a miracle. He's a gifted director and actor. Thank you for stopping by.

  3. Elizabeth, what a great blog! So many great movies here--I love all the John Wayne movies and like you and your hubby, Gary and I have bits and pieces of the dialogue memorized and we know what's coming. Some other favorites of mine are Shane (and the book ends differently than the iconic movie ending--"SHANE! Come back!") LOL Also, I love many of the Clint Eastwood movies, and another one I really love that's "western" in a sense is Tom Selleck in Quigley Down Under. Probably my favorite movie is The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance--and it's quite a departure from the short story written by Dorothy M. Johnson. (A rare case where the movie is much better than the story/book it was taken from.) Gosh, it's hard to choose favorites from the western movie genre, isn't it? There are so many! You did a great job of narrowing them down!

  4. Thanks, Elizabeth. What a great list! There's some I haven't seen, so will have to check them out.

  5. Cheryl, I'm so delighted you stopped by. I hoped you would because we both love western movies. I've only seen Shane once and ditto for the Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, so that's why I didn't include them because they're not repeats of mine. But I realize they popular classics. I was tempted to include Quigley Down Under, which we have watched so many times. Such an awesome movie in so many ways showing the plight of the Aborigines of Australia. Alan Rickman played such a good part as the evil rancher, so different from Sense and Sensibilities. You're so right, it was tricky trying to narrow down my many favorites, hence I had to concentrate my most-viewed favorites.

  6. I enjoyed all these films, but I have always had a soft spot for the original 'Red River' with Wayne and Cliff. Nice list and Westerns are the best. Doris

    1. Red River is a classic I haven't watched in years but would like to again. I think westerns are my go-to more often than any other genre. These movies I like because they went a little deeper into the heart and mind of a cowboy than the depth of his tan. Thanks for stopping by Doris.

  7. I'll have to look for some of these movies, Elizabeth. I also love "Dances with Wolves" and the so-called spagetti westerns. I also liked The Outlaw Josie Wells, with the wonderful Chief Dan George

    1. The Outlaw Josie Wells is one of Doug's favorite movies. Just last night we watched an oldie: Once Upon A Time in the West. One has to admire those spaghetti westerns After all, they made Clint Eastwood's career. I agree with you about Chief Dan George. Thanks for stopping by, Lindsay.

  8. Wonderful post. "Dances with Wolves" is my favorite.

    1. Thank you, Ann. I could talk movies for hours, thus it's a miracle my post wasn't twice as long. I've lost count how many times I've watched Dances With Wolves. It's an awesome movie on so many levels. In one way one can compare it to an old comfortable pair of slippers that one wants to slip in and enjoy the feeling. Thanks for stopping by, Ann.