I've seen a lot of western movies in my day, and I've talked about a few of them on this site. I've gone over great westerns from recent years, like The Power of the Dog, as well as other more classic westerns like True Grit. But now, I want to talk about the less traditional westerns like Blazing Saddles, and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, because as much as I love the classics, I also have a huge soft spot for the westerns that take massive risks.
A lot of people will tell you that the western is “dead,” but that’s like saying that the musical is dead (We ranked the best movie musicals of 2021 not that long ago). The fact of the matter is, the western is far from dead and buried. In fact, some might even call shows like Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, which have some of the best characters on TV, westerns. They’re just a different, more recent, kind of western. A more non-traditional western, if you will.
And, that’s what I want to cover here today. The westerns that aren’t traditional. In fact, some of them might even be a little off-putting to somebody expecting a High Noon or a 3:10 to Yuma. So, saddle up, partner, and let’s mosey on down to the bizarre.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
The Coen Brothers have already done one of the greatest modern westerns of all time with their remake of True Grit. In fact, when we ranked every Coen Brothers film back in 2016, True Grit ended up above Barton Fink, but below O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Since then, the Coen Bros. have directed the excellent, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which is actually an anthology western, with six vastly different and interesting stories.
Starring Tim Blake Nelson, James Franco, Liam Neeson, Harry Melling, Zoe Kazan, and many others, there might be other western anthologies out there that I don’t know of, but none of them have the same Coen Brothers dark humor or style. It’s hard to choose a best vignette out of the six, but I’m going with “Meal Ticket” with Neeson and Melling. It has such a dark ending to it, that it will leave you feeling dirty after watching it, which makes it super effective. Really, there are no bad vignettes here. If you watch one western on the list, watch this one.
Paint Your Wagon (1969)
Speaking of ballads, have you ever wanted to hear Clint Eastwood sing one? Well, if you have, then Paint Your Wagon is the western musical (that’s right, musical) for you. Also starring Lee Marvin and Jean Seberg, Paint Your Wagon is about a group of men who stumble upon gold, and create a town around it.
Now, there’s more to the plot, and it’s kind of icky, as a polygamist sells his wife, and the men of the town bid on her. But, Paint Your Wagon came out in 1969, and it's possibly not as bad as Gigi, which came out in 1958, won an Oscar for Best Picture as a musical, and has a song titled, “Thank Heaven for Little Girls."
That said, it’s not the best musical in the world, and it’s nowhere near as funny as The Simpsons would have you believe. But, if you’re looking for a non-traditional western, then Paint Your Wagon is it.
Blazing Saddles (1974)
A lot of people will tell you that a movie like Blazing Saddles could never be made today, and they’re probably right. But, that just makes Blazing Saddles all the more special. Starring Cleavon Little, Gene Wilder, Slim Pickens, Madeline Khan, and Mel Brooks (as a Native American Chief, no less), Blazing Saddles is about a town with a new black sheriff (Little) whom the townspeople hold racial biases against, but they soon learn to accept him. Gene Wilder plays his drunk companion.
Blazing Saddles is a trip. As a black man who appreciates good satire, I laugh at stuff like KKK members with “Have A Nice Day” written on their backsides. Mel Brooks has made a lot of great movies, but Blazing Saddles is probably my favorite, and it’s a non-traditional western to boot. Win win!
A Million Ways To Die In The West (2014)
Keeping with the whole western comedy theme is Seth MacFarlane’s A Million Ways to Die in the West. Directed by MacFarlane and starring Liam Neeson (Again!), Charlize Theron, Amanda Seyfried, Neil Patrick Harris, and of course, MacFarlane himself, A Million Ways to Die in the West is about a wimpy guy who loses his girlfriend, but then learns to become a tough guy after a tough woman (Theron) teaches him to shoot. He then has to take on her husband, (Neeson), who plays the typical black hat type villain.
Honestly, plot isn’t all that important here. Just like with Family Guy, it’s all the little jokes throughout the film that make this movie enjoyable. That said, it’s definitely a certain kind of humor that might not be for everyone, such as a shootout that is interrupted by Neil Patrick Harris’s character having extreme diarrhea. It’s not as clever as something like Blazing Saddles, but if you’re in a childish mood (and I often am, to be honest), then you could do a lot worse than A Million Ways to Die in the West.
Cowboys & Aliens (2011)
Directed by Jon Favreau, and starring Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, and many others, Cowboys & Aliens is based off of a graphic novel of the same name, and it gives you exactly what the title tells you — cowboys and aliens. The plot centers around an amnesiac with a strange metal band around his wrist, who moseys into a town and saves it from an alien invasion.
Honestly, 2011 was around the time that we were getting a whole bunch of really strangely-titled stories, like Snakes on a Plane, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, yada, yada, yada. But, out of those weird titled films, I think Cowboys & Aliens was the most effective. It’s because it’s fun, and it doesn’t take away from the western side to give more leverage to the alien side, and vice versa. Plus, it has Harrison Ford in it as a grouchy old man. What more could you possibly want?
The Warrior’s Way (2010)
Directed by Sngmoo Lee, and starring Jang Dong-gun, Kate Bosworth, and Geoffrey Rush, The Warrior’s Way almost defies categorization. It was a huge box office bomb, but I think the film might have been better received if it had a title like Cowboys vs. Ninjas, since that’s essentially what I remember most about the film. Badass fights between cowboys and ninjas. I mean, just picture this: it’s like a samurai movie, but set in the wild west. How awesome does that sound?
Very awesome, indeed. That said, the real plot is nothing to write home about. It’s about a warrior who refuses to kill a baby, and he takes the child to a western town, and the killers come to kill him for disobeying their command. Yeah, that part of the film is pretty lame, but the actual climax itself is not to be missed!
Duck, You Sucker! (1971)
And finally, I want to talk about Sergio Leone’s final western, Duck, You Sucker! Also known as A Fistful of Dynamite, and Once Upon a Time…the Revolution. Starring Rod Steiger, James Coburn, and Romolo Valli, Duck, You Sucker! is sometimes known as a Zapata (or, a “Tortilla”) Western since it centers around events during the Mexican Revolution. This makes it feel really different from Leone’s other “Spaghetti” Westerns like his Dollars trilogy starring Clint Eastwood.
The film centers around an outlaw (Steiger) who bands with an expatriate bombs expert (Coburn), who form a friendship during the revolution. It’s definitely a western, but this dynamic makes it feel really unique, and definitely not like your traditional western.
How many of these movies have you seen? For more news on other westerns, make sure to stop by here often!
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Rich is a Jersey boy, through and through. He graduated from Rutgers University (Go, R.U.!), and thinks the Garden State is the best state in the country. That said, he’ll take Chicago Deep Dish pizza over a New York slice any day of the week. Don’t hate. When he’s not watching his two kids, he’s usually working on a novel, watching vintage movies, or reading some obscure book.