Growing up in Oklahoma in the late ’70s and early ’80s, we didn’t have cable television in our house because I grew up in an anti-TV house. But we did have the four channels: the public television channel, ABC, NBC and CBS. And on Sunday afternoons, they’d have Westerns on because it was Oklahoma. There was a Sergio Leone movie on every weekend on one of the channels. And I just became obsessed.
Tim Blake Nelson is an actor whose credits include O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Lincoln and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Below are six of his favorite Western films. Click here to read about his latest project, a Western titled Old Henry.
I love really problematic, flawed characters with whom we can’t help but identify. The first of my favorite Westerns would be The Searchers with John Wayne because this is a nasty guy. He’s racist and he’s a chauvinist. There’s a real ugliness to him. And those guys weren’t afraid, when they made that Western in 1956, to put that guy at the center of the film, but also to use the Duke to portray him. And John Wayne wasn’t afraid to exploit aspects of who he was in our culture at the time, to show you a flawed character.
I really love the Sergio Leone Westerns because almost everybody in those movies is nasty at some level. My favorite is Once Upon a Time in the West. All those guys are pretty brutal and filthy and heartless and mean. And you, of course, identify most with Charles Bronson’s character. Henry Fonda is ultimately the black hat in that movie, but Charles Bronson’s character is, for lack of a better way of putting it, not a nice guy. And Cheyenne [Jason Robards] is a motherf—er. So, in that movie, it’s sort of “darkness to darkness soaring,” which is a line from a poem by William Pitt Root I really like. It’s a really grim look at westward expansion.
Sergio Leone gets two. I love the way this movie is structured. I love the setting, which is Texas in the aftermath of the Civil War, and how cynically Blondie and Angel Eyes and Tuco—the three main characters, the good, the bad and the ugly—exploit the confusion in postwar, never taking a side, ethically or morally, only taking sides because of what’s in it for them. The opportunism of the characters and the constant deception of one another in the context of America right after the Civil War … is just staggering. And all the set pieces are great. There’s a long section at the end that takes place around the blowing up of a bridge, which is great. The movie is, from its opening frame to the gunfight in the circle at the end, just spectacular. There’s humor in it, tragedy, the ugliness of racism and misogyny. It’s a really deep and brutal film.
Again, you have a flawed central character and flawed characters all around him, including the women who hire Clint Eastwood and want revenge. And you completely get it. It’s almost a perfectly made film. There’s not a word in there that doesn’t belong.
I don't know why, maybe because I also love the Kurosawa movie [Seven Samurai]. I think John Sturges introduced a level of violence into the Western that allowed for what violence costs to enter into how we perceive the genre.
That’s another favorite. It’s about the building of a town, and famously, and to great effect, Robert Altman and his team built the town while they were shooting, and therefore shot chronologically. So there’s a texture to the production design that you couldn’t have gotten any other way. They never cheat stuff or put stuff up temporarily and flimsily because they have to take it down the next day to go back in the schedule. It makes its point about how the West was civilized, with towns being built really, really well.
And Warren Beatty’s just fantastic in that film. Again, another deeply flawed guy. He’s just got all the hubris of a tragic figure and he goes down because of it. The final image of that film is unlike any other final image in any other Western because you’re on a woman, not a man. And she’s not staring wistfully into the sunset while the cowboy rides away, she’s doing something else altogether. I don’t want spoil what the final image is, but it’s just gorgeous and heartbreaking. It’s a revisionist Western, so rather than Aaron Copland-esque music, or an Ennio Morricone score, you have songs by Leonard Cohen throughout the movie that were contemporary. And it really, really works usefully.