A movie doesn’t have to star John Wayne or take place in the Old West for it to be a western. There are plenty of movies that fall into the western category that are set in modern times or the future or even on different continents, but they still most definitely fit the pattern of classic western stories.
Let’s take a look at 10 amazing westerns that aren’t actually set in the Old West.
1. Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
John Carpenter is a huge Howard Hawks fan, and when he got the chance to make a second film after Dark Star, he jumped at the chance to pay homage to Hawks’s classic western Rio Bravo. Assault on Precinct 13 pits a cop and an outlaw in a poorly supplied police department against dozens of relentless foes who will stop at nothing until their enemies are dead. It’s a classic setup for a great western, like The Alamo or, of course, Rio Bravo. Except that it takes place in a 1970s suburb.
2. City Slickers
About 40 years after portraying one of the most notorious western villains ever in Shane, Jack Palance showed up as an old, grizzled rancher in the 1991 sleeper hit City Slickers. He even won an Academy Award for his performance of Curly. This movie is all about a bunch of middle-age men in the ‘90s coming to terms with their own mortality by experiencing the free and expansive Wild West. There’s a lot to love about this movie, but Palance’s presence is what makes it particularly memorable as a western.
3. The Horse Whisperer
Again with the old guys returning to their western roots. Nearly 30 years after portraying the Sundance Kid in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Robert Redford gives a soft-spoken performance as an old rancher in this sweet western-type film set in the present day. I love the first two-thirds of The Horse Whisperer. Watching an extremely young Scarlet Johansson and her horse overcome serious trauma is surprisingly engaging and entertaining. The story derails a bit in the end, but the first part is amazing.
4. Lone Star (1996)
Long before Matthew McConaughey became a respected, Oscar-winning actor, he gave an extremely complex and layered performance in this intriguing film. We follow a modern-day Texas sheriff as he attempts to uncover a murder mystery that spans decades reaching back to his father (played by McConaughey) when he was a young man. The answers he finds are shocking and they completely redefine all of the relationships of the people in town. It turns out that some mysteries are best left buried.
This is one of my favorite films from writer/director Peter Hyams. Outland follows a pattern similar to High Noon, trading an Old West town for a mining colony on Jupiter’s moon Io. Sean Connery plays a Gary Cooper-type character who is in charge of security at the colony. When he uncovers a nasty secret about the colony’s corrupt business practices, he is forced into a shootout in which he is outnumbered and outgunned. He has to use his brains and an unlikely ally to fight them off and save the day.
6. Quigley Down Under
This is a fairly traditional western, taking place in the late 1800s. The twist is that it isn’t in America but Australia, and the Native Americans are replaced by Australian aborigines. I love this movie. Its highlights include the catchy theme song, Tom Selleck’s effortlessly charming performance, Alan Rickman’s tragic villain, and, of course, Quigley’s awesome rifle. I wish this movie would have been more successful at the box office because I would’ve loved to see more adventures with Matthew Quigley on other continents.
7. The Road Warrior
This movie has a classic setup just like Shane and The Magnificent Seven. A group of peaceful people are under fire by some local outlaws, and they ask a tough guy for help in dealing with their problem. In The Road Warrior, some people have access to huge quantities of petrol in the post-apocalyptic Australian Outback where gasoline is one of the scarcest and most valued commodities out there. They’re threatened by a brutal gang, and their only hope is a cop-turned-nomad by the name of Max Rockatansky. Instead of a shootout, the film ends with a climactic car chase, but it still clearly follows the western tradition.
Let’s see. Outlaws? Check. Gunslingers? Check. Bar fight? Check. A last stand? Heck yeah! The only thing is that all of these are on other planets in the future. Serenity and the TV series that led up to it are definitely westerns at heart. This film has a lot of fun with the genre, adding brilliant touches of humor and futuristic twists that add up to a lot of fun. If you haven’t seen this movie, you are in for a major treat. You don’t even need to see every episode of Firefly before watching it because it works as a standalone piece of entertainment. The Avengers (2012) is great and all, but Serenity is my favorite Joss Whedon movie so far.
9. Three Amigos
Three Amigos has everything you could want in a comedy: Three fantastic comedians at the top of their game (Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, and Martin Short) and a plethora of jokes, musical numbers, and over-the-top villains. It takes place during the Silent Film era and it is mainly set in a fictional village in Mexico.
I know I keep bringing up Shane, but this movie definitely feels like a parody of that classic western. The people of Santa Poco hire three men who they assume are hardened gunmen to defend them against the evil El Guapo and his gang of outlaws. But they get stuck with three actors who run at the first sign of trouble. In the end, the amigos improvise and find a creative solution to their problem so everyone can live happily ever after.
10. Westworld (1973)
Westworld is kind of like The Terminator meets Jurassic Park. That’s probably not a coincidence because it was written and directed by Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton. It’s about some vacationers in a futuristic theme park full of androids. One of the main attractions is a western setting in which patrons can challenge an android gunslinger to a duel and always win. But when something goes wrong and the power goes out (sound familiar?) the gunslinger goes on a rampage killing one patron and hunting another one through the park. It’s kind of a horror movie, but its setting and villain scream western.
Movie genres are interesting things. They can be bent in many ways to produce something fresh and interesting. I wasn’t exactly raised on westerns, but I do respect good entertainment, no matter which genre it’s found in. I hope I’ve given you at least one overlooked film to go back and watch as we close out 2014.
This has been an incredible year, and I’m really looking forward to 2015 and all of the articles I have planned. Have a happy New Year, everyone!
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.
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John Carpenter’s “Vampires” is another example. Scorsese said that “Taxi Driver” was inspired by “The Searchers” shot by John Ford.
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