Today, for no reason in particular, I was attempting to make a list of my top five cowboys. It was a mental exercise, really, meant to occupy my mind during a long drive. I thought the exercise might be a challenge, but I never imagined that it would twist my brain into a pretzel. My drive is long over and I am still struggling with this question: Who are my top five western film heroes?
This was my first list.
- Randolph Scott
- Clint Eastwood
- John Wayne
- Joel McCrea
- Audie Murphy
I was reasonably happy with the list until upon a second look, I realized that there were several names missing from the list. Absent from my list were James Stewart, Henry Fonda, Gary Cooper, and Alan Ladd. I am also a huge Gene Autry fan; where was he? What about William Boyd? Should I include side- kicks? Harry Morgan? And what of the Cowboy villains. Jack Palance anyone? What about Lee Van Cleef?
I realized that I had better re-think this list. As much as I like Audie Murphy, he can’t seriously be mentioned in the same conversation as some of these men. I had some thinking, or rather, RE-thinking to do.
Clearly the criteria were simply too broad. The question is unwieldy, so perhaps a narrowing of the criteria is in order. I also decided that five was just too few. In addition to narrowing the criteria, I needed to expand the list. Twenty becomes worthless, as it includes everyone. Ten is a good number, but then makes the exercise too easy. The purpose was to really have to think about the people on the list. Seven is a number in the middle and also the number Yul Bryner takes into the Mexican village to protect the peons in the great film, The Magnificent Seven.
So, the question now is: Who are my Magnificent Seven? These would be heroes I would hire to fight Eli Wallach, ne to watch Eli Wallach. These cowboys are simply favorites and are chosen because they are recognized for their work in westerns, but not necessarily recognized because of the body of their work. The list excludes singing cowboys, villains, Saturday matinee cowboys, and side-kicks. With that in mind, my Magnificent Seven:
- Randolph Scott remains at the top of my list. Early on, Scott’s star was over taken by John Wayne, who went on to become THE Western film star. However, I always preferred Scott’s charm, toughness, rugged good looks, and sense of humor to that of Wayne. The Tall T is one of my favorite Scott films and I believe showcases all of those qualities.
- As a child of the 1960’s and 70’s it would be difficult NOT to have Clint Eastwood on this list. For my generation Eastwood defined the Western. “A Fist Full of Dollars” changed the Hollywood western forever and the two follow-up films, For a few Dollars More, and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, remain the best of what became known as the Spaghetti Western. Eastwood went on to make so many other terrific films including the Oscar winning Unforgiven. However, Eastwood is on my list because of The Outlaw Josie Wales. As good as Unforgiven is, if it a choice between the two, I watch Josie Wales every time.
- James Stewart is my number three. The four Anthony Mann films, Winchester ’73, Bend of the River, The Naked Spur, and The Man from Laramie, are four of my favorite films and four of the best ever made. I would also argue that these films represent some of Stewart’s best work, which is saying quite a bit considering how many films Stewart made and how good he is in all of them.
- John Wayne. What more is there to say? If you are a western fan, you are almost automatically a fan of the Duke. The Searchers, Red River, the Sons of Katie Elder, True Grit and on and on. Wayne’s persona simply dominated the genre. Wayne defined the term “riding tall in the saddle.” What would westerns be without the swagger of John Wayne?
- Joel McCrea. I have never thought McCrea an actor with a large range, but the range he had, I liked. He had a quiet strength and a simple delivery that was always honest. So, I guess in that sense, McCrea had all the range that was necessary. My three favorite McCrea films are: The Virginian, Ramrod, and Ride the High Country in which he starred with Randolph Scott.
- Henry Fonda comes in at number six because of one line in the film Warlock. In this picture, the town of Warlock hires a gunman – Fonda – to clean up the town. In the process he crosses a group of cowboys from one of the local ranches, which leads to a showdown in the streets. The Cowpokes are over matched, a fact that seems clear to everyone except the cowboys. Before the shooting starts, Fonda says, “Don’t make me kill you boys.” His delivery is so simple and yet so strong. THAT is what I loved about Fonda in his Western roles. In fact, it is Fonda’s quiet authority that made me a fan of Fonda whatever role he played.
- Finally, I just don’t think any list would be complete without Audie Murphy. I don’t think Murphy’s filmography includes a film on par with High Noon, Ride the High Country, or even The Tall T. In fact, I think it safe to say that most of Murphy’s westerns are all rather B Reel. Still, there was something wild about Murphy. That wildness is most evident in The Unforgiven, which is, in my opinion, Murphy’s best work. Murphy plays the hot-headed brother of the Zachary family. When it is revealed that the Zachary’s daughter – Murphy’s sister – is actually a Kiowa, Murphy’s character becomes violent and abandons the family. The violence in Murphy is almost uncontrollable. There are always flashes of that danger in Murphy’s performances and that is one of the reasons I love Murphy so much. Besides, I will never forget watching Audie Murphy with my father, who also loved Westerns.
Honorable mention go to Burt Lancaster and Glenn Ford.
So, there are my Magnificent Seven. Who are your magnificent seven?