THE greatest of all the western stars, the dean of cowboys, was John Wayne. Any western he played in is worth seeing (with the possible exception of "Rio Lobo" because the supporting cast is so impossibly bad). Henry Fonda played a variety of cool lawmen and one outrageous villain. Any of his westerns is also worth watching (except for possibly "Once Upon a Time in the West"). And then there was James Stewart who made an intense hero, complex, thoughtful, and even sometimes funny. Gregory Peck, Gary Coop er, Richard Widmark, and Clint Eastwood were all great westerners. The following is a short list of well-loved and still entertaining westerns. But look for any film with any of the above named stars in your local video store's westerns section.
"Stagecoach" (1939) is a kind of disaster film in which a stagecoach full of radically different types is attacked by Indians and is cut off from the cavalry. John Wayne stars as a dashing young knight-outlaw whose leadership and prowess saves the little party.
"Red River" (1948) is without doubt one of the greatest of the westerns. It has all the sweep of an epic, but the central conflict between Dunson (Wayne) and his adopted son (Montgomery Clift) on a long, dangerous cattle drive is both intimate in nature and classical in origins.
"The Searchers" (1956) offers Wayne at his most sophisticated. When his young niece is taken off by Indians, the hero sets out to find her. The search takes years, and his own racism threatens the young girl's life. Gripping and beautifully made, the film took up the issue of racism before it was fashionable.
"True Grit" (1969) offers Wayne as a cantankerous old coot of a marshall who helps a young girl track her father's killers. Also terrific is the sequel, "Rooster Cogburn," in which said crusty marshall teams up with Katherine Hepburn.
"My Darling Clementine" (1946) is one of my all time favorite westerns. Henry Fonda stars as Wyatt Earp who is out to clean up Tombstone with his brothers and Doc Holliday. Complex, beautifully made, scripted, acted, and layered with meaning, this film is the epitome of the western's virtues.