5 Westerns That Capture the Essence of the American Frontier

February 13, 2016 Updated: March 12, 2016

Here’s a grab-bag of  five Westerns—two humorous, three serious, all top-notch—that sum up the fabled American West of the 1800s.

‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’

In 1969, this Western won four Oscars, was a massive hit, but got critically trounced. It’s stood the test of time. Why? Four words: Robert Redford, Paul Newman.

Butch (Paul Newman) is the amiable bank/train robbing boss of the notorious Hole-in-the-Wall Gang, based in the Wyoming Rockies.

The Sundance Kid (Robert Redford) is Butch’s best bud and partner, but really more of a lone operator; Butch is the ideas guy, Sundance the fastest gun in the west.

The gang pulls one train robbery too many on Mr. E. H. Harriman of the Union Pacific Railroad’s train. They’re warned off (to no avail) by Harriman’s hilariously loyal, nasally book-keeper, Woodcock (George Furth), who braves getting dynamited rather than let Butch into the train’s money-safe.

Runnin’ From the Law

Harriman, completely fed up, puts a crack posse of super-tough lawmen, lead by a legendary native tracker, like hell-hounds on Butch and Sundance’s trail.

The two, like a couple of harried Wiley E. Coyotes, can’t shake this posse. Which is the source of the movie’s main running gag: the two outlaws peering from behind this or that butte, head-scratching, and muttering, “Who are those guys?” Talk about “runnin’ from the law”—this is the definitive example.

Following a narrow escape, Butch has the bright idea of ditching the USA for Bolivia, taking Sundance’s school-teacher girlfriend, Etta Place (Kathrine Ross) with them. Having fantasized about arriving in a cosmopolitan place, the chicken and llama-dung-filled train station produces an hilarious slow burn from Sundance. See below … and wait for it (it’s a ’70s movie).

Old School Stars

It features the two leads in their golden era of 1970s megamovie-stardom. Brad Pitt’s a poor man’s version of the ’70s peak-career Redford, and shockingly handsome ol’ blue-eyes Newman had no peer, then or since. It features classic alpha-male buddy dialogue; the ribbing and one-upping is brilliant.

It’s got all the Western, desert-y romance (along with talking tarantulas and rattlesnakes) of the notion that the Western frontier is the place you can manifest your dreams.

Best moment: Needing to jump off a high cliff into a river to escape the hunting posse, Sundance hems and haws, and Butch says, “Would you make a jump like that if you didn’t have to?” Sundance: “Well I have to and I’m not gonna.” Sundance’s wincing look of fuming shame when he’s forced to admit he can’t swim, under the barrage of Butch’s derisive hooting—is priceless (see opening trailer).

The only false, cutesy note was Newman joy-riding a newfangled contraption called a bicycle, to the extreme-muzak-friendly tune, “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.”

‘Jeremiah Johnson’

Robert Redford, like Clint Eastwood, just looks supremely rugged and suited to portraying characters of the American West. What the hat-and-poncho-wearing, stubble-bearded Eastwood is to the high plains desert, Redford is to the mega-bearded, fur-capped, deep-snow, hunter-trappers of the Colorado Rockies.

This is the definitive lone-wolf mountain man tale. Reflecting America’s post-Vietnam war mood, Johnson, a war-weary mid-19th century U.S. Army vet, wants to get away from it all, and find some peace, living in nature in the Rockies.

A greenhorn in the ways of wilderness survival, he fortunately crosses path with a seasoned grey-beard trapper named Bear Claw (Will Geer) who teaches him primitive skills, as well as proper etiquette in dealing with the native Crow tribal warriors.

This Spirit is one of the film’s best parts—the Spirit has a hat, two-day beard, poncho, cheroot, and drives a golf cart containing a bunch of Academy Awards.

Highlights: trying to fish an icy creek, Jeremiah becomes royally frustrated with his fishing gear, jumps in the river, splashes about, trying to grab himself a trout. Looking up suddenly, he sees a taciturn Crow brave sitting on his horse a ways off in the distance, observing this clown show.

Meeting a member of the Crow tribe years later, the old trapper interprets for Johnson: “He says he knows you. He says you fish poorly.” As Bear Claw further explains, “Paints-His-Shirt-Red speaks English fine. He just does this to aggravate me.”

Johnson unavoidably violates an Indian burial ground, and winds up losing his new Indian wife and their adopted child to a vendetta between himself and the Crow tribe. Johnson, however, proves a match for their warriors in one-on-one combat.

“Jeremiah Johnson” features gorgeous wilderness scenery, humor, and, like the recent “The Revenant,” an appreciation of the comforts of modern life. The only problem with “Jeremiah,” similar to “Butch Cassidy,” is the cheesy ’70s music, and the long pauses, which, in the 1970s seemed normal. Now, if a pause goes longer than 10 seconds, the fingers itch for smart-phone checking.


Of all the Clint Eastwood Westerns, “Unforgiven” carries the most gravitas. It’s also the movie Eastwood starts spoofing his age to hilarious effect, trying to catch pigs and falling in the mud, attempting to mount his horse and falling off, and, as a former gunfighter with a reputation not to be messed with (probably his “High Plains Drifter” self)—no longer able to shoot straight.

William Munny (Eastwood) is a widower with two young kids, who gave up shooting and drinking after marrying. His wife died of smallpox in 1878, but he continues to scratch out a living on their hog farm, and trying to be the kind of man his wife would have wanted him to be.

It harks to the lessons of the sages, that life on earth is for the sole purpose of paying back karma through pain.

When a prostitute is disfigured by a pair of cowboys in Big Whiskey, Wyoming, her fellow house-of-ill-repute workers offer a reward to kill them. Big Whiskey Sheriff Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman) is not happy about this arrangement, disallowing, as he does, vigilantism in his town.

Two groups of gunfighters, one led by Munny, the other by a Brit, Bob (Richard Harris), come to collect the reward, clashing with each other and the sheriff.

This is Eastwood’s tribute to realism, cutting out the romance of the Western (that he himself fueled more than any other actor) down to the harsh, bare-bones, existential struggle of suffering that was, by and large, the diet of the American frontier.


This little recommendation of Westerns would not be complete without one cartoon entry, and this is it. It’s got all the Western, desert-y romance stuff (along with talking tarantulas and rattlesnakes drinking in saloons), and supports the early American myth that the western frontier was the place you could manifest your dreams.

In an aquarium situated in the back of a car, lives a nameless, green chameleon (Johnny Depp). Eventually to be named Rango, his is the unlikely cartoon story of a pet chameleon’s hero’s journey to the West.

He has a tremendous imagination, this lizard; he sees himself as an actor, but pretending the inanimate objects in his aquarium are his friends and fellow actors, has grown boring—he knows he needs a challenge, he’s having an identity crisis, you see. It’s the height of the existential quandary particular to the chameleon: he wonders how to stand out, when it is deeply within his nature to blend in.

His aquarium is jolted out of the car, and he’s off on his transformational hero’s journey, accidentally winding up in a frontier town called Dirt, where he becomes the town’s new sheriff. After seeing the word “Durango” on a bottle of cactus juice, in a bar filled with all manner of drinking vermin, the chameleon claims that his name…is Rango.

Being a classic goofy Johnny Depp character, Rango fakes it till he makes it, with all manner of bluster and mishap. When someone asks if he killed some outlaws known as The Jenkins Brothers, Rango claims to have done it with just one bullet. And so on and so forth.

Eventually exposed as a sham, and disgraced, he makes his way back to the two-lane highway he came from, and collapses. This part is, believe it or not, deeply sad and moving. He is then carried over the desert, in a dream that cannot be called a dream, where he encounters The Spirit of the West. The Spirit gives Rango some more courage.

This Spirit is one of the film’s most inspired concepts, for the Spirit has a hat, two-day beard, poncho, smokes a cheroot, speaks in a husky whisper, and drives a golf cart containing a bunch of Academy Awards.

Rango eventually grows into his new role (it was his challenge, you see) and brings sustenance to Dirt in his role as sheriff. Which is known in the parlance of the hero’s journey as, “bringing the gold back to the village compound.”

‘The Revenant’

The main reason that “The Revenant” is on this list is that it depicts more than any Western to date, the miasma of suffering that hung over humankind, pre-industrial revolution. When it was freezing, there was no central heating, when it was boiling-hot in the summertime, there was no air conditioning (or bug-spray), when food was scarce—which it always was—hunger hung about like a vulture; and when people took ill, they were dead and buried in no time. It harks to the lessons of the sages, that life on earth is for the sole purpose of paying back karma through pain. “The Revenant” depicts this, as mentioned, more than any other film.

The second reason this film is on the list is that you can read my review of it here: