People have been proclaiming Westerns to be dead or irrelevant nearly as long as they’ve been in existence. Though the genre isn’t as popular as it once was, the Western is still a beloved filmmaking form, using the myths of the frontier, the gunslinger, the outlaw, and more to probe something unique about the human psyche, all set against the epic backdrop of the American West.
This month brings a new entry in the genre in the form of Jacques Audiard’s first English-language film, The Sisters Brothers, based on Patrick DeWitt’s novel of the same name. It stars John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix as the titular brothers, Eli and Charlie, as they pursue gold prospector Hermann Kermit Warmm (Riz Ahmed) across 1850s Oregon and down to San Francisco in an attempt to assassinate him. The brothers’ colleague John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Eli’s own existential crisis about their way of life complicate matters.
Certainly, the classic Western story of a cowboy hero taking down outlaws and restoring order has been out of vogue for some time, with many citing Shane as the last real entry in that vein. Nowadays, revisionist Westerns — i.e., ones that complicate the mythos of the cowboy and play in the genre’s gray areas — reign supreme. The Sisters Brothers resides in that territory, but truth be told, it’s hardly a new phenomenon. Our understanding of the Western genre is largely predicated on revisionist entries, stretching back to the 1940s and 50s.
With that in mind, here are revisionist Westerns to watch before you see The Sisters Brothers, which hits theaters Sept. 21.
Duel in the Sun (1946)
We’ll be honest: Duel in the Sun is bonkers, a hot mess with a long list of problematic aspects, not the least of which is the casting of Jennifer Jones as a half-Native American woman of Hispanic descent. But the film is so outlandish and has such strong ties to The Sisters Brothers in its tale of two cowboy brothers constantly at odds that it deserves to be on this list.
Pearl Chavez (Jones) is sent to live with her cousins when her father is executed for murdering his adulterous wife. Upon arrival, she instantly finds herself drawn into a love triangle with the gentlemanly Jesse (Joseph Cotten) and the roguish Lewt (Gregory Peck), which is complicated further when their father, Senator Jackson McCanles (Lionel Barrymore), ostracizes Jesse for siding with the railroad against his personal interests.
Producer David O. Selznick hoped the film would be an even greater success for him than Gone With the Wind, which was far from the case, but the film endures for several reasons, including the chance to watch the generally upstanding Peck play an outright villain. Much of the film’s energy is dedicated to Pearl’s inability to resist her attraction to Lewt, earning the movie the nickname “Lust in the Dust,” and this culminates in a final shootout that offered a rare chance for a woman to be one of the main participants in a Western’s climactic showdown. The emphasis on the relationship between Lewt and Pearl, relegating Jesse to a supporting player throughout, also represented a new focus on an antihero at the heart of a Western.
Available on: DVD and Blu-ray
Winchester ’73 (1950)
In the postwar era, Winchester ’73 marked a distinct departure for star James Stewart and the Western genre. Stewart, who had previously been known for comedic and romantic leading-man roles, kicked off the second phase of his career as a disillusioned, world-weary cynic named Lin McAdam. Lin’s still on the side of the law here, but he’s not a boy scout (or even a sheriff). Rather than following an outlaw or a crusading cowboy, the film takes the unique approach of following the titular gun, a rare Winchester 1873 rifle. Lin wins it in a shooting competition near the film’s opening, but when Dutch Henry (Stephen McNally) steals it from him, we follow the gun on an adventurous journey through the West as Lin’s search for Dutch runs parallel, culminating in a shootout.
The hazy morality, unflinching violence, and tale of one group of cowboys pursuing another across a Western landscape share much with the forthcoming Sisters Brothers. Director Anthony Mann lent a new mode of storytelling, cynicism, and a darker version of James Stewart to the world with this Western classic, which also features Shelley Winters, Dan Duryea, Tony Curtis, and Rock Hudson.
Available to rent on: Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, and YouTube
Johnny Guitar (1954)
The title may refer to the mysterious former gunslinger known primarily for his musical chops, but this film belongs to Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge. The actresses are locked in a lush battle for dominance throughout that borders on camp. Crawford is Vienna, a strong-willed saloon owner, who has drawn ire in her town for supporting the railroad and allowing her business to play host to outlaws. McCambridge is Emma Small, Vienna’s rival intent on running her out of town.
Audiences didn’t know what to make of the film’s heavily stylized atmosphere, lush colors, and two tempestuous leading women with queer subtext, but over the years the film has become a cult classic. Widely regarded as one of director Nicholas Ray’s best movies, the project also remains a resounding metaphor for the McCarthy witch hunts and the Hollywood blacklist. In an era when most Westerns were male-dominated, Ray crafted a bold, colorful drama with two fierce women at its center (Crawford even wears cowboy pants with zeal) that has endured as a delicious slice of mid-century filmmaking.
Available to stream on: Hulu, Amazon Prime
The Searchers (1956)
One of the most beloved and well-regarded Westerns of all time (AFI named it the greatest American Western in 2008), The Searchers follows Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) on his obsessive hunt to find his niece Debbie (Natalie Wood) after she is abducted by the Comanche following a raid on her homestead. The search or hunt is a central motif in many Westerns, including The Sisters Brothers, but John Ford’s masterpiece grappled with themes of racism and obsession in a way the genre rarely had before. Wayne regarded the film as his best work, even naming his son Ethan after his character.
From its intense examination of Ethan’s racism and the roots of his obsession to its sweeping vistas shot on location in Monument Valley, the film remains an unparalleled classic and has influenced many prominent directors, including David Lean, George Lucas, and Martin Scorsese. Wayne’s catchphrase in the film, “That’ll be the day,” even inspired a beloved Buddy Holly song. The film grapples with the myth of the West and the death of that myth, and it complicates the hero at its center. By taking Wayne, a man whose name is synonymous with the Western, and making him a more complex, melancholy, abusive character, the film readily engaged with the genre in startling new ways that still feel fresh today, despite the film’s problematic depictions of Native Americans.
Available to rent on: Amazon, iTunes, YouTube
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
“This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” This line, which comes near the end of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, probably best sums up the Western genre and the revisionist Western’s attempt to tackle myth making and legend. Jimmy Stewart stars as Ranse Stoddard, a young attorney who stands up to a ruthless outlaw named Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). John Wayne stars as Tom Doniphon, a local rancher who tries to convince Stoddard that Valance only responds to brute force, not Stoddard’s cherished law. The two men vie for the love of the same woman, Hallie (Vera Miles), while attempting to bring Valance and the town of Shinbone to order.
Come for the chance to see two of the studio era’s biggest stars on screen together, stay for the way the film complicates and plays with how American heroes are born (or created, rather). Though director John Ford was often noted for his panoramic Technicolor vistas in many of his Westerns, here, the film does something quieter and more profound.
Available to stream on: Starz
Ride the High Country (1962)
Of all the films on this list, this probably bears the strongest similarities to The Sisters Brothers, with its ties to the Gold Rush and tale of former partners at odds as they struggle to do right in an inherently unjust world. Ex-lawman Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) is hired to guard a shipment of gold from a mining camp in the Sierra Nevadas to a town in California, and he recruits his former partner Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott) to assist on the journey. The two deal with a host of trouble along the way, including Gil’s plan to double-cross Steve and steal the gold for himself.
McCrea and Scott both rose to fame as white-hat cowboy heroes in the 1930s and ’40s, making their casting and their characters’ attempts to come to grips with the end of an era and their own mortality far more poignant. With this film, Sam Peckinpah emerged as a prominent director who engaged with themes such as the death of the West, the inevitable compromise of honor by circumstance, and more — all of which are also on display in his best-known film, The Wild Bunch.
Available to rent on: Amazon, iTunes, YouTube
Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
You can’t get much more revisionist than opening with a sequence that finds Henry Fonda, a blue-eyed pillar of American screen heroism, gunning down children in cold blood. Director Sergio Leone upended expectations in this sprawling tale tackling everything from personal vengeance to the expansion of the railroad. Fonda is merciless assassin Frank, now working for the railroad company, who faces off with the mysterious Harmonica (Charles Bronson) and notorious desperado Cheyenne (Jason Robards) as they circle around the beautiful widow Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale).
While Leone’s Dollars trilogy, which includes the iconic The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, possesses more of the offbeat humor and physical antics on display in The Sisters Brothers, Once Upon a Time in the West is a more expansive meditation on the genre and its trappings, making overt references to countless cinematic Westerns and subverting their meaning by playing them in a darkly ironic fashion.
Available to stream on: Starz
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
The Sisters Brothers owes a heavy debt to this buddy film, which is responsible for one of cinema’s most indelible onscreen pairings, that of Robert Redford and Paul Newman. They star as the titular Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid, channeling their rugged good looks and charm into some of the most likable outlaw antiheroes ever put to screen. Indeed, the film takes the central tenet of the revisionist Western, the outlaw as hero, and channels it into something more playful, yet underscored by a wistful melancholy.
Directed by George Roy Hill (who would return to the duo with The Sting), from a script by William Goldman (The Princess Bride), the film centers on two outlaws who gallivant across the West and eventually to Bolivia to escape a super-posse after a train robbery goes wrong. The film mixed genuine action (Redford and Newman memorably jump off a cliff, among other moments) with witty dialogue and quirky interludes (Newman rides a bicycle to a Burt Bacharach song), making it an entirely unique entity that engaged with tropes of the West and masculinity while also laying the groundwork for a more contemporary form of buddy comedy. Redford so loved the film that he named his property in Utah and the film festival that takes place there each winter after his character.
Available to stream on: HBO Go, HBO Now