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Newsmax's Top 50 Westerns True to the American Spirit

Newsmax's Top 50 Westerns True to the American Spirit
Settlers are guided out West by "Columbia" in American Progress, an 1872 painting by John Gast. (Rikard Larma/Newsmax)

By    |   Friday, 18 March 2016 05:31 AM EDT

The Newsmax Top 50 Film and TV Westerns True to the American Spirit presents the all-time best Westerns in a unique ranking: Not by Oscars, or box office, or popularity, but by how well they portray American self-determination and a belief in God as the guiding backstory for the adventure drama that was the American West.

Real screen legends rise right to the top in this special view. Ronald Reagan, frontier host turned president, John Wayne, iconic movie hero, and Clint Eastwood, fast-draw actor-director, are the kinds of heroes in the Westerns judged by Newsmax to be very truest to the American spirit. It's interesting that their real-life conservative patriot personas are reflections of the pure Western hero image that emerges in those films.

Living legends, and lesser Western stars, guarded their images and they influenced films to the extent they lent their names to some and rejected others, and by how much input they had in the scripts.

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Directors, though, had the most influence on films, and the Newsmax truest list shows the bonds directors forged with star heroes (or villains) who shared their philosophies. John Ford put his heroes in iconic landscapes and specialized in realistic imagery of the old West. 1939's "Stagecoach" was one of his classics with John Wayne. He liked to work with Wayne a lot, as the Newsmax list shows. 

So did Howard Hawks, but he specialized in his characters instead of settings, as when he and John Wayne made 1959's "Rio Bravo." So did Anthony Mann, who sub-specialized in tortured and flawed personalities. Sam Peckinpah overstated violence but helped bring the Western from the classic to the modern era and his 1969 "The Wild Bunch" even wrote the Western's obituary for awhile.

Actors Kevin Costner, Clint Eastwood, and John Wayne also made their own Westerns, which they acted in, and each has a film they produced or directed high on the Newsmax truest list. 1990's "Dances With Wolves" and 1992's "Unforgiven" give Costner and Eastwood the newest all-time best Western films in the last 25 years.

Another interesting observation from the re-ranked Westerns: The American spirit faded, at least on movie screens, as political and social issues invaded even the Western. You did know that 1959's "Rio Bravo" was made in answer to 1952's "High Noon," which was targeting Hollywood's blacklisting over hearings on un-American activities, right? Or that 1970's "Little Big Man" with Dustin Hoffman was all about Vietnam?

And here's something else interesting: Though it's been a quarter century since another Western film has made the all-time bests, 2015's "The Revenant" with newly-minted Best Actor Leonardo DiCaprio not only has the bona fides to some day make the Newsmax truest list, the film is much truer to the American spirit than movies made decades earlier.

So, what happened out in the West during those 150 years after Independence that was worth creating a separate genre of American film to chronicle?

What happened was what should be expected when a God-fearing young nation with boundless personal freedoms is set on the edge of a wild (and unbelieving) expanse of mountains, plains, and deserts stretching to the Pacific. It was "manifest destiny," a divine duty, that enlightened people blessed with such fruitful liberties would be inspired, driven even, to share their bounty and salvation while expanding into and remaking the West in their own image.

1962's "How  the West Was Won," at the middle of the Newsmax list, captures the American spirit at work. Spencer Tracy in 1940's "Northwest Passage" is another reminder there really was a Pacific frontier. 

The American spirit is not a phenomena of the West, though. It developed long before Americans pushed westward, while the new nation was declaring freedom and winning a revolution. It was rooted, again, in exceptionalism. Two centuries before Ronald Reagan nailed it, America already was a "shining city on a hill," an ideal example of democratic freedom for the rest of the world, preferably, to follow.

"A nation founded in liberty and freedom gives its citizens the opportunity and incentive to build on the great foundations of the past," was still the thinking 200 years later of entertainment entrepreneur extraordinaire Walt Disney, whose often-uncredited vision of the West helped shape everyone's version of it through 80 years of film, theme parks and, mostly, television. As hokey as it seems now, his 1955 TV episode "Davy Crockett Goes to Congress" is a highly cited bridge from back East to out West.

The American spirit was re-distilled out West, where self-determination often boiled down just to self-survival for generations of Americans who sought stakes there. Their eastern-bred virtues helped, but they had to learn to be self-dependent, resilient, and resourceful — like the Ingalls family in "Little House on the Prairie," judged by Newsmax to be the all-time best TV Western truest to the American spirit.

The award-winning 1974-1983 TV series starring Melissa Gilbert and Michael Landon, based on a series of books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, gives a realistic account of the hard-scrabble life awaiting settlers. It was recognized in 1975 for fictional television drama by the Western Heritage Awards, which sparingly honor works in literature, music, film, and television that reflect significant stories of the American West ("Little House" also topped Newsmax's 50 Best TV Shows That Reflect American Values).

The new breed of Americans were virtuous, rugged individualists who were extremely hardworking, strongly believed in God, idealized family, loved the land they lived from, and were intensely loyal to the young nation where their freedoms allowed their pursuit of happiness. Stories of life on the frontier captivated folks back East, and were just in time for a new invention: the moving picture show ("talkies" would come much later, but one of the new "movies," 1903's "The Great Train Robbery," at only 10 minutes, is now called the first Western film).

The film and TV heroes who best fit the West's new spirit were strong, silent enforcers of good vs. bad, virtue vs. evil, the essence of self-determination, standing alone in the face of conflict, like Alan Ladd in 1953's "Shane." They reflected everything needed to perpetuate this new American way of life: courage, physical prowess, knowledge of the land and nature, and self-sufficiency. They were the pure Western hero personality.

(Probably the reason famous quotes from Western movies resonate is a subconscious expectation that anything said by these men-of-few-words beyond "yep," "nope," and "draw!" must be really-condensed wisdom, humor, whatever.)  

Being an all-time best Western means being around long enough to be recognized as better than most others, as measured sooner by critical acclaim, ratings, box office success, Oscars and Golden Globes and, later, by maintaining a lasting cultural impression and influencing what follows (Westerns on the Newsmax truest list are favorites for complimentary remakes). All-time bests also often get folded into the mythos of a legendary character or event, like Rooster Cogburn and Davy Crockett, or the gunfight at O.K. Corral and Custer's last stand.

Which Westerns make the cut for all-time best is determined by consensus, and it's simple. Dozens of credible all-time best lists create a preponderance of consensus that narrows the top movies and TV shows down to several dozen of each. It's important, though, to keep what's favored today from cheating on the best-picks of more-focused audiences 30 or 40 years ago. Except for "Dances With Wolves" and "Unforgiven," the film landscape has been bare since. Only two television mini-series, 1989's "Lonesome Dove" and 1993's "Return to Lonesome Dove," broke through on the small screen while dozens of made-for-TV feature films were trying to substitute for television series and big screen projects.

Which Westerns are truest to the American spirit is subjective. It can be seen clearest in the early all-time bests and in later movies and television hewing to realism in a simpler frontier and sticking with the pure Western hero personality. The American spirit can always be found in the work of visionaries, producers, and directors who ascribe to it, and it can usually be found somewhere in Westerns with stars who, as "Great Western Performers," perpetuate the West's legacy and enduring mythology, and project the traditional Western ideals of honesty, integrity, and self-sufficiency over a lifetime in film and television.

Clint Eastwood, paradoxically, typifies the more-nuanced heroes needed as the West begins to fall apart, at least so filmmakers can fixate on deterioration and revision. Many of those Westerns are all-time bests, too, but it's hard to glimpse the American spirit in them as you get further down the list.

Some all-time best Westerns just lose touch with the American spirit because of too much foreign influence, whether from director, film location, or plot. "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" represents all lesser spaghetti Westerns not on the Newsmax list. Sorry, Clint. "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and "The Magnificent Seven" are two other all-time favorites that just don't fit.

The all-time best Western films aren’t just favorite movies scattered along a 112-year timeline. They’re compleat theatrical motion pictures mostly concentrated in a bulge from the 1940s to the early 1980s and capping the whole Western genre below: rich, early fiction literature; a nurturing popular press and public fascination with Wild West shows and folklore; a long silent-movie era that satisfied swaths of the Western audience right through widescreen color, before sound, and at the bottom countless B movies, matinee features, singing cowboys, and early TV shows.

"The Covered Wagon" in 1923 and "The Iron Horse" in 1924 were epic silent Westerns and 1929's "Redskin" was shot in silent Technicolor. With mostly only visuals to work with, the extended silent era imprinted an exaggerated vision of a West filled with simpler personalities struggling with natural forces and human impulses in a beautiful but stark and unforgiving landscape. Endless props and settings, from white hats to barrooms, were stereotypes worth a thousand words in subtitles.

The image stuck and persisted for 50 years, and it only began to evolve as the Western gained voice to express its complexities. By then the American spirit was embedded in the Western and the question became how long would it take Hollywood to "unbed" it and sully the pure Western hero.

The all-time best Western film truest to the American spirit has to be 1960's "The Alamo," produced by and starring John Wayne. It’s further down on many all-time best lists but, as a story of ultimate patriotic sacrifice, it can’t be denied. And it has that mythical American quality ("Remember the Alamo!").

Led by folklore heroes Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie, a cast of characters steeped in virtue surrender their lives, eyes heavenward, fighting impossible odds against invaders trying to seize their new republic of Texas. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture. "The Alamo" was the first film to win a Western Heritage Award. It suggests that embellished fact best conveys the American spirit.

Thirty years later, 1992's "Unforgiven," directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, rescued the straying Western genre by returning to characters and themes better explained by the American spirit than a therapist’s couch. If the West was not dead by 1880, it was dying, and it was time for an elegy, said Roger Ebert in leading almost unanimous acclaim for "Unforgiven." It was the last Best Picture Western and the last to make most all-time best lists.

Two years earlier the second Best Picture Western, "Dances With Wolves," directed by and starring Kevin Costner, showed a dimension of the American spirit denied to Native Americans in most film and TV Westerns (at least until "The Revenant").

The American spirit is on clearest display in classics that try hardest to replicate the real West and genuine Western personalities — "Shane," "High Noon," "Stagecoach," "The Searchers," and "Rio Bravo" — and in other all-time bests in realism and Western personality: "My Darling Clementine," "The Oxbow Incident," "The Return of Frank James," and "Northwest Passage."

Next down the list are earlier films of the 1930s that are strong on realism but lack personality — "Drums Along the Mohawk," "Geronimo," and "Cimarron," the first Best Picture Western — and then come the revisionist Westerns of the 1960s and 1970s that center around the discounted Western personality.

TV Westerns had an advantage. All but three on the Newsmax truest list are series, which usually get to develop their plots and characters over many, many episodes in an evolution responding to season after season of ratings, criticism, awards, etc.

There were 452 television episodes of "Death Valley Days" and, in 1961, the first year of Western Heritage Awards and the TV show's ninth, it was cited for factual television programming with its "The Great Lounsberry" episode (it won again for another episode in 1963, the year before Ronald Reagan took over as narrator and also starred in multiple episodes — the last acting he ever did).

If an early TV Western is rooted in authenticity and realism, it's because of people like Gene Autry, first producer of "Death Valley Days" and a champion of the real West, whether in singing and songwriting, acting in hundreds of films and TV episodes, producing hundreds more, or assembling valuable collections of Western history, including firearms. Many of his production and content assets became part of the Disney world, as did his professional baseball team.

The only other television work recognized in 1961, for fictional television drama, was an episode of "Rawhide," starring Clint Eastwood. Three more episodes were cited in its six-year run. Much later, in 1990, "Lonesome Dove" was recognized as a "television feature film."

After these four TV Westerns truest to the spirit, follow five mainstay series of the 1950s, some of which also had 10 to 20 seasons to develop their story lines and characters:  "Gunsmoke" (1955-1975), "Bonanza" (1959-1973),  "Have Gun Will Travel" (1957-1963), "Maverick" (1957-1962), and "The Rifleman" (1958-1963).

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Next are the mounted solitary heroes with personalities, though pure, that seem forced — "The Lone Ranger," "Hopalong Cassidy," "Zorro" — and then the sagas of '60s and '70s TV, like "The Virginian" and "The Big Valley," in which personality and realism start to fade as plots and casts thicken.

In a zone all its own is probably the first ever mini-series. Five of the early 1954-55 episodes of Walt Disney's hour-long "Disneyland" involved real-life frontiersman Davy Crockett, and the first three of them, within a month of each other, were such a tight fit (and fantastic success) that they were edited into the 1955 theater film "Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier." Those are the three being singled out: "Davy Crockett, Indian Fighter" (actually peacemaker), "Davy Crockett Goes to Congress," and "Davy Crockett at the Alamo."

The remainder on the Newsmax list are a mix, including the shows of real-life cowboy personas Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. Like film, there haven't been any all-time best TV Westerns in decades.

The 2016 Academy Awards were perfectly timed to close a piece about Westerns truest to the American spirit. Had “The Revenant” won Best Picture, it would have been only the fourth Western in a century of filmmaking to do so. But it is already being measured for greatness by its 12 Academy Award nominations and the ubiquitous box office ($443 million as of March 2016).

The partly true story of trapper Hugh Glass beset by French-English-Indian violence and natural cruelty in the lush bounty of the upper Missouri River (which was also told in a 1966 episode of "Death Valley Days")  is winning praise for adding dimension to the American spirit.

"I think it was a great story and it cohered with an American vision of the West," said Notre Dame historian and professor Jon Coleman, as quoted by The Telegraph. "Through this encounter with wild nature, men’s bodies were changed and became something else. They were no longer European or British — they were American.”

The depiction of Glass emotionally invested in Native American life — as in "Dances With Wolves" — sets this film apart from too many Westerns which, no matter how spectacularly cast and produced, still celebrated destruction of Indian culture. Complex ethnic and racial tensions infected the West — as evidenced in "The Searchers" — but the cruel antipathy toward Native Americans and insulting portrayal of Hispanics in Westerns are the second and third hardest parts of the American spirit to look back on, the first of course being slavery.

(Walt Disney, a political conservative still under attack by liberal Hollywood, sympathized with Native Americans. His 1959 "Tonka" tells the story of Little Big Horn from the Sioux perspective. He also produced one of the first popular Mexican-American heroes in 1959's "The Nine Lives of Elfego Baca," starring Robert Loggia. No one talks about 1946's "Song of the South.")

Not so hard to rationalize as part of the American spirit is the gun as phallic extension of the self-empowered hero or villain; still, the exaggerated violent machismo in most Westerns is decidedly unspirited. There was already enough natural violence to go around. Ask Hugh Glass.

Top Western films truest to the American spirit:

1. "The Alamo" (1960), produced by and starring John Wayne 

2. "Unforgiven" (1992), directed by and starring Clint Eastwood

3. "Dances With Wolves" (1990), directed by and starring Kevin Costner

4. “Shane” (1953), directed by George Stevens, starring Alan Ladd

5. “High Noon” (1952), directed by Fred Zinnemann, starring Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly

6. “Stagecoach” (1939), directed by John Ford, starring John Wayne

7. “The Searchers” (1956), directed by John Ford, starring John Wayne

8. “Rio Bravo” (1959), directed by Howard Hawks, starring John Wayne, Dean Martin

9. “My Darling Clementine” (1946), directed by John Ford, starring Henry Fonda

10. “The Oxbow Incident” (1943), directed by William Wellman, starring Henry Fonda

11. “The Return of Frank James” (1940), directed by Fritz Lang, starring Henry Fonda

12. “Northwest Passage” (1940), directed by King Vidor, starring Spencer Tracy

13. “Drums Along the Mohawk” (1939), directed by John Ford, starring Henry Fonda

14. “Geronimo” (1939), directed by Paul Slone, starring Preston Foster, Andy Devine

15. “Cimarron” (1931), directed by Wesley Ruggles, starring Richard Dix

16. “How the West Was Won” (1962), directed by John Ford, starring John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Gregory Peck

17.  “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962), directed by John Ford, starring John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart

18. “True Grit” (1969), directed by Henry Hathaway, starring John Wayne, Kim Darby, Glen Campbell

19. “Will Penny” (1967), directed by Tom Gries, starring Charlton Heston, Joan Hackett

20. “A Man Called Horse” (1970), directed by Elliot Silverstein, starring Richard Harris

21. “Jeremiah Johnson” (1972), directed by Sydney Pollack, starring Robert Redford

22. “Little Big Man” (1970), directed by Arthur Penn, starring Dustin Hoffman

23. “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” (1971), directed by Robert Altman, starring Warren Beatty, Julie Christie

24. “The Outlaw Josey Wales” (1976), directed by and Starring Clint Eastwood

25. “The Shootist” (1976), directed by Don Siegel, starring John Wayne

Top TV Westerns truest to the American spirit:

1. "Little House on the Prairie" (1974), starring Melissa Gilbert, Michael Landon

2. "Death Valley Days" (1952-1970), hosted by and starring in part Ronald Reagan

3. "Rawhide" (1959-1965), starring Clint Eastwood

4. "Lonesome Dove" (1989), starring Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, Danny Glover

5. "Gunsmoke" (1955-1975), starring James Arness

6. "Bonanza" (1959-1973), starring Lorne Greene, Michael Landon, Dan Blocker

7. "Have Gun Will Travel" (1957-1963), starring Richard Boone

8. "Maverick" (1957-1962), starring James Garner

9. "The Rifleman" (1958-1963), starring Chuck Connors

10. "The Lone Ranger" (1949-1957), starring Clayton Moore, Jay Silver Heels

11. "Hopalong Cassidy" (1952-1954), starring William Boyd

12. "Zorro" (1957-1959), starring Guy Williams

13. "Stoney Burke" (1962-1963), starring Jack Lord

14. "The Virginian" (1962-1971), starring Doug McClure,

15. "The Big Valley" (1965-1969), starring Barbara Stanwyck

16. "The High Chaparrel" (1967-1971), starring Leif Erickson

17. "The Monroes" (1966-1967), starring Michael Anderson, Barbara Hershey

18. "Hec Ramsey" (1972-1974), starring Richard Boone, Harry Morgan

19. "Centennial" (1978-1979), starring Raymond Burr, Richard Chamberlain

20. "Davey Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier" (1955), starring Fess Parker

21. "The Gene Autry Show" (1950-1955), starring Gene Autry

22. "The Roy Rogers Show" (1951-1957), starring Roy Rogers, Dale Evans

23. "Wild Wild West" (1965-1969), starring Robert Conrad

24. "Return to Lonesome Dove" (1993), starring Jon Voight, Barbara Hershey

25.  "Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman" (1993-1998), starring Jane Seymour

Dates, titles, spellings, and links, unless noted, try to be consistent. We will be happy and quick to fix any factual misinformation, pardners.

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Newsmax presents the all-time best Westerns in a unique ranking: Not by Oscars, or box office, or popularity, but by how well they portray American self-determination and a belief in God as the guiding backstory for the adventure drama that was the American West.
westerns, american, spirit newsmax, film, tv
Friday, 18 March 2016 05:31 AM
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