Slim Pickens
When Louis Lindley Jr. dropped out of high school at 16 to join a rodeo, he called himself “Slim Pickens” so his father wouldn’t see his name on the entry lists. In 1950, after 20 years of getting gored by bulls, thrown by horses and suffering injuries that included a crushed chest and a twice-broken back, Pickens was spotted at a rodeo by Director William Keighley, who offered the cowboy a screen test that began his career in movies.
– True West Archives –

As this special issue honors the best pictures of cowboys, it certainly seems fitting that we also honor the best Cowboy Pictures, those movies that showcased the cowboy way of life. Some even featured real-life, just-off-the-trail cowpokes including Hoot Gibson, Ben Johnson and rodeo clown Slim Pickens.

Of course, the most densely populated arena for movies about cowboys was the B-Western. From the silent days through the 1950s, studios from Republic to Monogram produced hundreds of them. Warner Archive offers eight volumes of the Monogram Cowboy Collection. But whether these silver screen cowboys were Tom Mix, Johnny Mack Brown or the Three Mesquiteers, cowboy life was usually not the focus, but rather a springboard to stories about land grabs, murder and the occasional Nazi saboteur. The most convincing portrayals of cowboy life in the B-Westerns were in the post-war films, principally Gene Autry’s self-produced titles for Columbia Pictures (Timeless Media) and Tim Holt’s remarkable RKO films (Warner Archive).

The best overall cowboy picture, hands down?  Howard Hawk’s 1948 masterpiece, Red River (Criterion Collection), featuring John Wayne, Montgomery Clift, Walter Brennan and every manly guy in Hollywood or environs. Delmer Daves’s fact-based 1958 film Cowboy (Sony) is another great cowboy flick, starring Jack Lemmon as a hotel clerk who quits to sign on with an outfit led by Glenn Ford’s character and learns the unglamorous truth about cowboy life. Another classic is 1972’s The Cowboys (Warner Archive). Who among us wouldn’t give his eyeteeth to be one of the adolescent boys who John Wayne hired for his character’s cattle drive, deadly though the assignment may be?

Best rodeo cowboy movies?  Sam Peckinpah’s 1972 classic Junior Bonner (MGM), starring Steve McQueen, and 1994’s 8 Seconds (New Line), starring Luke Perry as rodeo legend Lane Frost.

The field is crowded when one considers the aging cowboy story.  Exceptional films include 1970’s Monte Walsh (Kino-Lorber) starring Lee Marvin and Jack Palance, remade for TV in 2003 with Tom Selleck and Keith Carradine (Warner Archive). John Huston and Arthur Miller collaborated on 1961’s The Misfits (MGM), showcasing soon-to-be Western icon Eli Wallach and featuring nearly the last performances of Clark Gable, Montgomery Clift and Marilyn Monroe.  A tiny, but exceptional, film is 1975’s Macintosh and T.J., featuring the final, and maybe finest, performance by the King of the Cowboys, Roy Rogers.

For stories where a lone cowboy must make a stand, usually to protect the woman he loves, check out 1968’s Will Penny (Warner Archive), starring Charlton Heston, and 1971’s The Hired Hand (Sundance Channel), directed by and starring Peter Fonda.  Peter’s father Henry played a humorous aging cowboy better than anyone, from 1965’s The Rounders (Warner Archive), teamed with Glenn Ford, to 1970’s The Cheyenne Social Club (Warner Archive), opposite James Stewart.

On television, the 1959-65 series Rawhide (Paramount) showed a convincing view of life on an endless cattle drive and, most important, gave us Clint Eastwood. The 1962-71 series The Virginian (Timeless Media) focused on Judge Garth and his family, but James Drury as the title character, and a bunkhouse full of drovers, were an important part of the tale.

The best modern-day cowboy story, oddly enough, is a comedy, 1991’s City Slickers (MGM), a loving tribute to the cowboy life. I must admit that, between the laughs, it has made me cry for my misspent adulthood as much as 1972’s The Cowboys made me cry for my misspent youth.

Best Western Movie

This is an impossible category because as we go to press, only one notable Western, Bone Tomahawk (Caliber Media Company), has been released this year.  I thought it was a wonderfully entertaining film, by turns funny, moving and terrifying.  Written and directed by first-timer S. Craig Zahler, it was made for a paltry $1.8 million in a dizzying 21 days.  It stars Kurt Russell, Richard Jenkins, Patrick Wilson and Matthew Fox as a group of ill-equipped men trying to rescue captives from a band of inbred cannibal troglodytes. The script is smart but not smug, the action goes from demure to savage. I’m expecting great things from both The Revenant and The Hateful 8, but only select theaters will give movie buffs these gifts on Christmas, saving a full release until January 2016.

Best Foreign Western Movie

Echoes of the filmmaking sensibilities of both John Ford and Sergio Leone are felt in The Salvation (IFC Films), a remarkable Danish Western shot in South Africa. Mads Mikkelson’s character sends for his Danish wife and son to join him in the American West.  But the very day they arrive, he is helpless to stop their slaughter.  He avenges their deaths, but one of the murderers is the brother of the most powerful landowner in the territory, who vows to kill the gutless townspeople until his brother’s killer is produced. Eva Green, of Showtime’s Penny Dreadful, plays the mute widow.  Bleak, but beautiful, thoughtful, and wise, it is deeply moving, a triumph of Western cinema.

Readers’ Choice: Slow West (A24 Films)

Best Television Western

In 2015, Justified justified our belief in Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) before bidding us adieu, Longmire rose like a phoenix from the A&E ashes to soar on Netflix and Hell on Wheels gritted its teeth and kept laying track, now with Promontory Summit in sight. With three exceptionally written and acted series to choose from, we must give the Best TV Western nod to Hell on Wheels (AMC), as the only actual period Western of the group.  The show took a new direction this season, eastward, as Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) switched sides from the Union Pacific to the Central Pacific.  It shifted eastward in another way, as the Central employed many Chinese laborers, making room for a new array of heroes and villains.  This was a seven-episode season, and next year’s seven will be the last.  Also of note, the History Channel presented the miniseries Texas Rising.  Reaction in the Lone Star State was jarringly divided, with viewers finding its story of the making of the nation and then state either strikingly faithful history, or blasphemy. A sequel about the forming of the Texas Rangers is expected.

Readers’ Choice: Longmire (Netflix)

Best Western Movie DVD

We have never seen the director’s cut of My Darling Clementine (Criterion), the story of Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda), Doc Holliday (Victor Mature) and the Gunfight Behind the O.K. Corral.  Believing John Ford’s two-hour version was too long, 20th Century Fox head Daryl Zanuck insisted on reshoots and cuts that brought the 1946 movie down to 97 minutes. While the full Ford version presumably no longer exists, Criterion now presents us with the version we know and love, plus a version that is nearly 10 minutes longer! Both are digitally restored.  Also included are a plethora of extras, including TV reports on Tombstone and Monument Valley from 1963 and 1975, and a short, silent Western comedy starring John Ford, directed by his brother Francis.

Readers’ Choice: Lonesome Dove (Mill Creek Entertainment)

Best Western Movie Collection

The John Wayne Westerns Film Collection (Warner Archive) not only includes absolute necessities for the Wayne fan—John Ford’s Fort Apache and The Searchers, and Howard Hawks’s Rio Bravo—it also features two films never before on blu-ray, The Train Robbers and Cahill: U.S. Marshal. Cahill Director Andrew V. McLaglen supplied his own commentary before his death in September 2014, while others are done by Peter Bogdanovich and John Carpenter.

Readers’ Choice: The Stranger Collection (Warner Archive)

Best Singing Cowboy Collection

The Nelson Eddy of singing cowboys, Dick Foran sang and fought his way through a dozen B-Westerns at Warner Bros. between 1935 and 1937, and they’re all included in the Dick Foran Western Collection (Warner Archive).  While the films are often built on action footage from Ken Maynard movies, which had already been recycled into John Wayne B-Westerns, Foran’s likable personality and acting skills—he supported in many Warner Bros. films at the same time —make this a delightful set.

Readers’ Choice: Gene Autry Collection #10 (Timeless Media)

Best Television DVD

The late 1950s were the prime years for the half-hour adult Western, and The Rebel, starring Nick Adams as Johnny Yuma, a drifting former Johnny Reb, is one of the best, right up there with Have Gun, Will Travel and the first seasons of Gunsmoke. Featuring top guest stars, The Rebel: The Complete Series (Timeless Media) includes all 76 episodes, the long-missing Johnny Cash theme song and interviews with Nick Adams’s children and with series creator Andrew Fenady. The set even includes an unaired pilot for a proposed companion series, The Yank, starring pre-Virginian James Drury.

Readers’ Choice: Lawman: The Complete First & Second Seasons (Warner Archive)

Best Television Blu-Ray

The wonderfully original, funny and frightening Justified series has signed off, but now all six seasons are compiled on 18 discs, in a beautiful set, Justified: The Complete Series (Sony), that includes commentary on select episodes, deleted scenes, a wealth of behind-the-scenes documentaries and, best of all, the late, great Elmore Leonard giving advice that every writer should hear.  It even comes with a commemorative hip-flask!

Readers’ Choice: Texas Rising (A&E Home Video)

Best Western Documentary

Did the Old West end with the turn of the 20th century?  Not in Klondyke, Arizona.  In 1917, the law stated that all young men must register for the draft.  When two young members of an already distrusted family refused, locals came after the slackers, triggering the deadliest shoot-out in Arizona’s history and a shocking miscarriage of justice that echoed well into the 1960s. All is fantastically captured in Power’s War (Amistad Entertainment).

Readers’ Choice: Wanda the Wonderful (Boxelder Productions)

Best Silent Western Release

William S. Hart gives one of his finest performances in 1919’s Wagon Tracks (Grapevine Video). His character leads a wagon train, knowing that one of the emigrants is his brother’s killer. The re-release boasts a remarkably clean and clear image that is beautifully hand-tinted.

Readers’ Choice: 1914’s The Virginian (Alpha Video)


Red River
The best overall cowboy picture is Howard Hawks’s first Western, 1948’s Red River, starring John Wayne as a tyrannical Texas rancher whose tensions with his adopted son (played by Montgomery Clift) grow as they oversee a Chisholm Trail cattle drive.
– Courtesy United Artists –


Henry Fonda
Peter Fonda directed and starred in one of the best Westerns to feature a lone cowboy making a stand, 1971’s The Hired Hand, while his father, Henry, was known for his humorous, aging cowboy roles, particularly in 1970’s The Cheyenne Social Club (he is shown, at left, with Jimmy Stewart).
– Courtesy National General Pictures –


Hoot Gibsion
Hog Tied
Hoot Gibson helped make the Calgary Stampede Canada’s most famous rodeo when he acted in 1925’s The Calgary Stampede, just 13 years after winning the steer roping championship at the first Calgary rodeo (the Nebraska cowboy also won the all-around championship at Pendleton Round-Up that year). His first film was the 1910 silent Pride of the Range; he didn’t become a major cowboy picture star until the 1920s.
– True West Archives –

If you want to see all of The 100 Best Historical Photos of the American Cowboy, buy our January 2016 issue here!

Henry C. Parke is a screenwriter based in Los Angeles, California, who blogs about Western movies, TV, radio and print news:

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