Westerns for Dads
Updated: May 8
Happy Father's Day Notes from the Frontier Dads!
On this Father's Day, we wanted to celebrate dads in Westerns. Being a dad is a lot like being a pioneer or native American in the early west: uncharted territory, tremendous responsibility, hard work, sleepless nights, struggling to explain to children the hard facts of life, guiding a family through sometimes unimaginable hardships. But also great joy and adventure.
There are so many great movies that celebrate manhood, fatherhood and father-figures. Below is just a fun random selection from a thousand favorites. What are yours?
Happy Father's Day to all dads--today and bygone, like my own—but forever cherished.
PHOTOS: (1) The 1953 iconic movie, Shane, is all about manhood and about fatherhood and standing up to bullies. Quiet but strong drifter-gunfighter, Shane (played by Alan Ladd) tries to outrun his dark past and works for a homesteader who is threatened by a bad-guy cattle baron. Shane comes to the rescue, then taking the high road, leaves behind the boy who idolizes him with a less glamorous but good dad. A story about honor and sacrifice, dads and father-figures. Jack Palance's first movie!
(2) True Grit was made twice and both versions are classics, featuring famous tough-guy leads: the first in 1969 with John Wayne, the 2010 version with Jeff Bridges. An over-the-hill U.S. Marshall, Rooster Cogburn is hired by 14-year-old Mattie Ross to find the killer of her father. Everyone has "true grit" in this film, especially the little girl! Glen Campbell, plays a Texas Ranger, also trying to find the killer. The 2010 remake, by the Coen brothers, also stars Matt Damon and villain Josh Brolin.
(3) Sergio Leone's classic 1966 spaghetti western, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, revolutionized westerns in which even "the good" (Clint Eastwood) was ambiguously not all that good. Make no mistake, there aren't any father figures in this movie! Just a lot of bad guys duking it out in the middle of nowhere. But it's terrific entertainment and Lee Van Cleave and Eli Wallach play two of the nastiest villains in western cinema! Ennio Morricone's was nominated for Best Film Score for his haunting soundtrack with whistling, gunfire, yodeling, and howling coyotes but was beat out by Doctor Zhivago.
(4) City Slickers is about male bonding out in the frontier, modern-style, with city-slicker Billy Crystal trying to find his inner cowboy. Jack Palance who played a very crusty "Curly" won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in one of his last films. He was also nominated for Best Supporting Actor in his first film, Shane, but was beat out by Frank Sinatra in "From Here to Eternity."
(5) OK, we're cheating a little by including a TV series, but we can't mention westerns without Lonesome Dove. Based on the best-selling book by the great western writer, Larry McMurtry, it features greats Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, Danny Glover, Anjelica Huston, Steve Buscemi, and other biggies. Lonesome Dove is about manhood, changing times, and young men coming of age against a hard-bitten frontier landscape.
(6) Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood's spectacular 1992 revisionist western portrays William Munny, a washed up, once famous outlaw and gunslinger who traded in his gun for a plow, became a poor pig farmer, had a family and lost his beloved wife. He's come to a dead-end and takes one more gun slinging job. He and an old buddy, retired black outlaw, Morgan Freeman, take on the job for a group of prostitutes who want revenge from cowboys who have cut one of their friends. He leaves his two children behind alone, possibly never to return, in an effort to give them a better future than their failing pig farm. The movie, with an all-star cast that includes excellent bad-guy Gene Hackman and smarmy, glory-seeking British pantywaist, Richard Harris, won four Academy Awards.
(7) The Searchers, directed by John Ford in 1956, consistently makes it on top ten western lists. Featuring John Wayne, Natalie Wood, Jeffry Hunter, and Vera Miles. The niece (Natalie Wood) of Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) has been kidnapped by Comanches and has essentially become an Indian woman. John Wayne's character is overtly racist. He hates Native Americans and vows to find Debbie, the white girl-turned Indian woman and kill her. But a young man Wayne saved from an Indian attack and has bonded with turns out to be part Comanche himself. He advocates for not killing her. John Ford considered The Searchers his best film, in part because it struggles with the concept of manhood and the strength to overcome hatred.
(8) Gary Cooper, one of America's leading Hollywood men, grew up in Montana and was like the dad next door, quiet, modest, no nonsense, just trying to do the best job he could. In High Noon, he plays a town marshal who has just married his Quaker bride and turned in his tin star to leave town when he gets word a killer he sent to prison is out and coming with a gang of outlaws for revenge. He is torn between his sense of duty and love for his new bride who begs him to walk away from the fight and leave town. When the townspeople cower from protecting their own town, he is left alone, outnumbered and sure to die, but he must do his duty. In the end, his pacifist wife stays behind, and while her lawman husband is shooting it out with a bunch of bad guys, she shoots the last one in the back, saving her husband. The moral of the story: sometimes doing the right thing is a thankless job!
(9) Dances with Wolves, the 1990 seven-time Academy Award western directed by a Kevin Costner, is a simple story beautifully told. A cavalry officer, John Dunbar is sent to an isolated outpost in Dakota territory where he is the only white. He is introspective curious and keeps a journal. He has the humanity to see beyond the ignorance, fear, and racism of the time to appreciate Native American culture and the frontier's natural world. In a series of poignant scenes, he and a wolf share a curiosity about each other and eventually develop some trust. (The white impulse in those days would have been to shoot the wolf as a feared predator.) So too the Sioux Indians Dunbar encounters, eventually befriends, and joins when he marries a woman of the tribe.
Many Native actors were used in the film and much of the dialogue is spoken in Lakota with English subtitles translated by Lakota scholar Albert White Hat. The movie was heralded for its authenticity depicting daily native life, the natural world of the prairie, spectacular scenes such as the buffalo chase, and the heartbreaking clash of cultures on the horizon.
(10) We thought it appropriate to end with Blazing Saddles because, hey! we can't celebrate fatherhood without at least one fart joke. Blazing Saddles is a spoof on the classic western. But there's still plenty of truth in the film. The hilarious scene of crusty cowboys sitting around the campfire after eating beans is classic low-brow, male humor. Pull my finger?
You may also enjoy these related posts:
-Gunfight at the OK Corral
-The Greatest Gunslinger: It May Surprise You!
-Dances with Wolves (Part 1)
-Dances with Wolves (Part 2-Native Perspectives)
-Dances with Wolves (Part 3-Scouting Locations)
Father's Day "Westerns for Dads" was originally posted June 16, 2019 on Facebook and NotesfromtheFrontier.com
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