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There's a wild bunch of westerns in a store near you, cowboy, and The Sunday Telegraph’s Paul LePetit nozzles into a few for this preview.

The western has gained the quality of ancient text. No longer fashionable, no longer in tune with today's dot.com dross, the western harkens to a time when men were men, some men were noble, women were either whores or housewives and everyone rode horses.

"Here’s some of my thoughts on the subject, pardner"

Several things happened in the 1970s that brought an end to the western. Television helped no end, reverting the genre to a small screen half hour format with steady characters - not at all unlike the regular features of Tom Mix, Hopalong Cassidy and their ilk who were cheered at the cinemas every weekend before then. Then there was the nasty fact that the western was mythology. And a perversion of the truth. Gunfighters were not noble or good or ethical. The Indians had their land taken from them and paid the price in blood. There was no true romance about the west (as indeed there was no true romance about the European crusades). And yet it was the western that gave the United States much of its own theatrical, cinematic and literary charisma.

Westerns have been hard to get hold of recently but now there are some good examples on the market - this latest batch from Columbia Tristar is an excellent selection - and taken from good quality prints as well.

So if you don’t want to purchase the lot here’s some of my thoughts on the subject, pardner.

Cat Ballou:
It might seem strange putting this western spoof at the top of the tree, as it were, but this is a thoroughly underrated film that never had quite the acclaim it deserves. Jane Fonda is the schoolgirl returning to daddy’s ranch only to discover he is under attack from the ruthless railroad baron and his hired gunman. Being an avid reader of western penny dreadfuls, she hires the best sharpshooter in the west - who turns out to be Lee Marvin and a useless drunk who when sober cannot hit the side of barn. The film roves through many of the classic western situations but has some beautifully quirky notions about itself. Like the way Nat King Cole (this was his last film appearance before his death) and Stubby Kaye turn up as the strolling troubadours linking the story line. A truly wonderful addition to the western library.

3.10 To Yuma:
One of the best westerns and a film that can almost make the claim that its final moments are truly in real time. Van Heflin is the local lawman who has to guard the dangerous outlaw Glenn Ford - just until the train arrives. But out on the streets Ford’s bad buddies are gathering and inside Ford is playing psychological games with his captor. A really gripping and suspenseful film that holds up to this day blessed with its fine performances and taut script.

Alvarez Kelly:
A strange tale that mixes genres somewhat - and probably mystified audiences. William Holden is the good bad guy who is Irish/Mexican and herds cattle which he then sells over the border to the Yankee army. Dallying one day the lad gets caught. Occasionally ludicrous the film is somewhat rescued by some good outdoor scenes and by Richard Widmark who plays the slightly honourable bad guy rather well. Ignore the improbable romantic interludes.

The Man From Laramie:
Rather overshadowed by its title song this basic tale of James Stewart drawling his way through a variety of situations and characters in the west to get revenge for his murdered brother is a satisfying blend of traditional components and occasionally original moments. Stewart, here in 1955, was at his languid best with enough oomph to entertain and remain credible. A standard (but good) backing cast including Donald Crisp and Arthur Kennedy add to the basic and well performed drama.

One of the classic western situations as a rustler and an honest cattleman (but both possessing the characteristics that the other should have) pursue the lovely Claire Trevor. Glenn Ford and William Holden are the protagonists in this neat if very traditional example.

They Came To Cordura:
Possibly one of the inspirations for the later great gang westerns such as The Wild Bunch or The Magnificent Seven. This sees Gary Cooper as an army officer leading his band of rather unsavoury characters across the desert - complete with prisoner Rita Hayworth. It’s not as exciting as the gangs that were to come: in fact it, is at times, more of a study of group behaviour. But it does have many good moments that fit with the classic western behaviour. It also has a cast of western ruffians including Van Heflin, Richard Conte, Tab Hunter, Michael Callan and Dick York, who are setting out to destroy the notion of heroism. Cooper was probably not the right person for this role but it’s a not a bad piece.

MacKenna’s Gold:
It was mildly typical of the fare in 1969, just when the real western was dying and no one knew what to do except excess. And this is excess – an overwrought saga with lots of stars all looking for a lost canyon of gold. Which is fair enough - we probably would join in were it not for the fact that the script is well and truly flawed and banal. The stars of the day (though some were fading) Gregory Peck, Telly Savalas, Omar Sharif, Keenan Wynn, Lee J. Cobb, Burgess Meredith, Edward Robinson, Anthony Quayle and Eli Wallach among others, maintain the pretence through the many twists, turns, red herrings and double (or even triple) crosses but the film was cut by a moron and leaves much unexplained and much more unsatisfying.

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Alvarez Kelly

Cat Ballou


WIN this cattleherd of westerns (one of 5 libraries), starring some of the biggest, coolest, fastest, meanest and nicest cowboys that ever rode the screen. Video Libraries are courtesy Columbia TriStar Just come up with a creative answer to this week's question.

Paul LePetit is the film critic and showbusiness writer for The Sunday Telegraph. He has been reviewing films since the 1960s in various parts of the world and is a former president of the Film Critics Circle of Australia.


3.10 to Yuma

The Man From Laramie


They Came to Cordura

MacKenna's Gold


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