1. Glory (1989): The best and most graphic Civil War movie I’ve seen, especially the scenes of the 54th regiment's doomed assault on Battery Wagner. This movie does a superb job of presenting the contributions of African American troops and the struggles they faced within the Union Army. A definite must see and a good educational tool.
2. Gettysburg (1993): Ted Turner’s epic that features a sweeping view of “Pickett’s Charge.” I wasn’t too crazy about the casting of Martin Sheen as Robert E. Lee. He looked too short for the role. Tom Berenger as General Longstreet wasn’t bad but he looks god awful in a long beard. I did like Jeff Daniels as Joshua Chamberlain. One good thing about Chamberlain, even though you are a mutineer and a deserter, he will get you something to eat.
3. Gone With the Wind (1939): The number one movie of the Civil War film genre and among the top ten films of all time. Unforgettable scenes of Atlanta burning, hundreds of Confederate wounded, Scarlett shooting a Yankee bummer’s face off, and Rhett Butler’s immortal words, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
4. Shenandoah (1965): A little known Jimmy Stewart film about a Shenandoah Valley farmer and his six sons who manage to avoid the Confederate draft and remain on their farm until the war’s final weeks. The youngest son (played by Philip Alford, Atticus Finch’s son Jem in “To Kill a Mockingbird”) is taken prisoner by Union forces and Papa Stewart sets out to find him. Very horrifying scene when another son (Patrick Wayne) and his good looking wife (Katherine Ross) are killed by bushwhackers. A real tear jerker at the end.
5. Ride with the Devil (1999): An impressive movie on the Kansas/Missouri border conflict during the war. It does a great job of showing the conflicting loyalties that plagued Missouri and the dreadful guerrilla war that ensued. Breathtaking scene of Missouri guerrillas, clad in their colorful guerrilla shirts, descending on Lawrence, Kansas. The costumes and scenery are just first rate.
6. Drums in the Deep South (1951): A fun Civil War B-movie. A Confederate artillery unit tries to hold off Sherman’s advance by shelling Union supply trains from atop a steep mountain. For long range firing, they had to wrap the cannons with piano wire to keep them from exploding. The cool part is when they take out a huge Union railway gun.
7. Gods and Generals (2003): This is really a movie about Stonewall Jackson. Not a movie for the politically correct and a bit long for today’s movie audience. I liked it, but I would have just focused on Chancellorsville instead of the first three years of the war. That’s a lot to cram into one movie. I loved the sing-a-long where Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and John Bell Hood sang “The Bonnie Blue Flag.” My how the film critics trembled.
8. Pharaoh’s Army (1995): A well done short film about conflicting loyalties in the Kentucky backcountry. It really shows that thin line between civilized warfare and hard-handed, uncivilized warfare Union forces had to deal with. This film features top notch acting by acclaimed actress Patricia Clarkson; she lays a sweet right cross on the jaw of a Union captain played by Chris Cooper. This is more of an art film that wouldn’t have appeared at your neighborhood theater. I saw it on PBS, and then bought the DVD.
9. Cold Mountain (2003): If you want to see just one scene of this movie, I would suggest the opening scene with its macabre “Battle of the Crater.” Filmed in Romania, this movie really captures the remote feel of North Carolina's backcountry. Strong performances by Jude Law, Renee Zellweger, and Nichole Kidman. Popular actress Natalie Portman has a minor role, but offers a touching scene as a young widow with a sick baby. All alone, she has Jude Law sleep beside her. She’s not interested in sex; she just misses the comforting arms of her departed husband.
10. Red Badge of Courage (1951): A short movie that looks into the mind of the Civil War soldier, the fear mixed with sudden bursts of courage. World War II hero Audie Murphy probably gave his best performance in this black and white classic.
11. The Horse Soldiers (1959): I wasn’t all that crazy about this John Ford movie, but hey it’s John Wayne. It’s based on Grierson’s successful 1863 cavalry raid into Mississippi. The real Grierson was a tall, thin, and bearded music teacher that hated horses. He didn’t look anything like John Wayne, but he was a good cavalry officer.
12. The Undefeated (1969): This movie is loosely based on General Jo Shelby’s trek into Mexico after the war. Shelby wouldn’t surrender to Union authorities, so he took his command across the Rio Grande instead. Rock Hudson plays a former Confederate officer leading a wagon train of Southern families into French occupied Mexico. The cool parts are Hudson and John Wayne fending off Mexican bandits and French cavalry. One curious casting is former pro quarterback Roman Gabriel as Wayne’s Indian sidekick, Blue Boy. He looked too much like a stiff, hulking football player for the role and laughable in that long black wig.
13. The Conspirator (2010): This is a splendid movie about the trial and execution of Mary Surratt; the first female executed by the Federal Government. Charged with being a Lincoln assassination conspirator, her only crime was owning the boarding house where John Wilkes Booth met with his fellow conspirators. A clear case of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton wanted an example made of her. Her military trial was just a formality before her hanging. Her son, John Surratt, was a conspirator but fled the country. He was serving as a Papal guard at the Vatican before being arrested and extradited. Fortunately for him, the statute of limitations had run out and he was set free by a civilian court. Robin Wright of “Forrest Gump” fame plays Mary Surratt.
14. The Free State of Jones (2016): This movie is about noted Confederate deserter Newton Knight (played by Matthew McConaughey), who, along with other deserters and runaway slaves, led a rebellion in Jones County, Mississippi. The swamp infested terrain of Jones County was ideal for guerilla warfare and Knight used it fully to his advantage. While hiding out in the swamps, the Jones County locals provided Newt’s band with food and intelligence. Heck, in the movie, they even held a barbeque for Newt’s men. Some historians, despite the lack of documents, claim Knight declared independence from the Confederacy – the birth of the Free State of Jones. After the fall of Vicksburg, Knight’s band increased sizably because of the paroled Confederate soldiers and Jones County residents fed up with the Confederate cause. During the war, there were a number of Southerners, especially in areas with few slaves, that didn’t take kindly to the Confederate draft and the Twenty Negro Law; a law that allowed slave owners, with 20 or more slaves, exemption from military service. Knight was further enraged by the confiscation of civilian property in Jones County for the Confederate war effort. The rebellion reached its height in October 1863 with Knight’s capture of Ellisville, the Jones County seat, and the murder of Major Amos McLemore, the commander of Confederate forces in Jones County. Even more controversial was Knight’s common law marriage to his grandfather’s slave, Rachel, while still married to his first wife, Serena. They never divorced. Whether Knight is a hero or a traitorous opportunist has been a subject of debate for many years. The movie’s murder of McLemore is a bit over the top. There’s no proof that Knight even killed McLemore. McConaughey shoots him, and then strangles him with a belt, in a church, over the hanging of two teenage cousins. Actually the cousins were hanged later by Confederate forces under Colonel Robert Lowery; who later became a two term governor of Mississippi. This movie would have been better if it focused on the capture of Ellisville and Knight’s complicated relationship with Rachel. Its plodding script tries to cover too much ground during the Civil War and Reconstruction.
While growing up in Texas, there were only two Western actors that garnered all the popularity: John Wayne and Clint Eastwood.
John Wayne films were mostly good guy vs. bad guy fare where justice always prevails. Texas was his backyard and everyone was invited over for beer and gun play. He always had that same leather vest, same pistol, and same supporting actors. Wayne’s drinking buddy, Bruce Cabot (he rescued Fay Wray from King Kong), was just about in every one of them. Whether it was for a few hours or a few seconds, Bruce Cabot was going to be in that movie. As for the women, all Wayne had to do was give them a vigorous spanking and they fell head over heels for him. I’d get a broken jaw and an empty bank account if I did that. Poor Maureen O’Hara (she was in five of Wayne’s films) was dragged, fell out of a 2nd story window, dunked in a horse trough, forced to run out in public in her underwear, and then spanked. The abuses and vices didn’t matter. We loved this guy. He was John Wayne.
Clint Eastwood’s characters were more complex. Sometimes they didn’t have a name. Sometimes they weren’t human, just apparitions. Wayne’s West was a fun, adventurous romp. Eastwood’s West was dark, depressing, and R-rated. He was the anti-hero. He was there to collect a bounty or avenge a past murder, sometimes his own. The West was a not so great place to be.
1. The Searchers (1956): The best of all Western films and considered by many to be John Wayne’s best performance. Director John Ford shot this film in Arizona’s Monument Valley which really adds to the film even though the book’s setting was on the open prairie of West Texas. You get a good idea of how cunning and terrifying the Comanches were.
2. The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966): A visually stunning film set during the Confederate invasion of New Mexico during the Civil War. The best of the Italian made Spaghetti Westerns with an unforgettable musical score. Clint Eastwood is at his manly, tough guy best.
3. The Wild Bunch (1969): Director Sam Peckinpaugh’s violent masterpiece set during the Mexican Revolution. A group of aging Western outlaws become engaged in the most intense, gripping, and graphic shoot out you will ever see on film. Wow ! What an ending.
4. Unforgiven (1992): Dark, depressing but an artistic masterpiece for Clint Eastwood. This is not your father’s Western movie. This is the Anti-Western answer to the Western film genre. I mean really! How often do you see a nearsighted gunfighter trying to collect a bounty so he can buy a pair of glasses? How many Western screenwriters would have thought that up? When confronted over the shooting of an unarmed man, Eastwood gives a most memorable response, “Well, he should have armed himself.”
5. Dances with Wolves (1990): Kevin Costner’s majestic epic depicts the struggle Native Americans faced in the late 1800’s. Native Americans aren’t simply barbaric savages, but real people trying to survive a changing environment. Kind of like we are all trying to do in this day and age.
6. Red River (1948): Impressive Wayne performance as a tough (and I mean tough) tyrannical Texas cattleman on the Chisholm Trail. Wayne's adoptive son played by Montgomery Cliff rebels against him, takes the herd and drives it to Abilene, Kansas. Wayne confronts him in the end. It's the definitive cowboy movie and basis for the popular TV western "Rawhide" which featured a little known cow hand named Rowdy Yates. He was played by Clint Eastwood.
7. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962): John Wayne’s gun toting toughness versus Jimmy Stewart’s book toting law and order out on the Western frontier. Stewart wins out and reveals how he got his reputation after shooting that nasty Liberty Valance played by Lee Marvin. An interesting twist in the end.
8. Director John Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy [She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), Fort Apache (1948), and Rio Grande (1950)]: Out of the three, Fort Apache is the best. Henry Fonda stars as an arrogant cavalry commander fighting Apaches led by the cunning Cochise. Like General Custer, he mounts a last stand against overwhelming odds. This was one of the first movies to take a more sympathetic view toward Native Americans. John Wayne stars as Fonda’s more sensible subordinate.
9. True Grit (1969), True Grit (2010): Even though John Wayne won his only Oscar for playing Rooster Cogburn, the 2010 remake is a slightly better film. It’s grittier and does a better job of following the Charles Portis novel. Hailee Steinfeld is terrific as the precocious Mattie Ross. She looks like she crawled right out of the book. The 1969 version's Mattie, Kim Darby, was too old and some would say too annoying. She was in her twenties (the character in the book was fourteen) and just had a baby when she was in the first “True Grit”. Jeff Bridges is a more disagreeable Rooster Cogburn than Wayne. Could you picture John Wayne in an outhouse? If I drank like this Rooster, I’d have a lot of “True Grit.” You’re too drunk to be afraid and just drunk enough to shoot somebody. The chief bad guy, "Lucky Ned" Pepper, looks creepy with his lips shot off and a mouth full of rotten teeth. You wouldn’t want this guy on your daughter’s Facebook page.
10. Big Jake (1971): John Wayne at his meanest. Everyone in this movie is mean: Wayne, Maureen O’Hara (probably still smarting from all those spankings), bad guy leader Richard Boone, an obese, machete wielding psycho, and Wayne’s mangy Collie. Just say “Dog !” and it’ll chomp off your manhood. Wayne goes after Boone’s gang who kidnapped his and O’Hara’s grandson. When Wayne goes after you, it’s not hard to figure out the outcome. You get to see two of John Wayne’s sons in the movie: Patrick Wayne and the Duke’s youngest son Ethan Wayne who plays Big Jake’s kidnapped grandson.
11. Silverado (1985): Ah ! The all star Western. A fun popcorn eating movie where we get to see Kevin Costner’s breakout role. I like the slightly crazed, fun-loving, “Field of Dreams” Costner.
12. Open Range (2003): Open range cattle herders face a local town boss played by Michael Gambon of “Harry Potter” fame. A pretty good Western featuring Kevin Costner and one of my favorites, Robert Duval. This movie has a terrific shoot out at the end where Duval tells the badly wounded Gambon, “I wouldn’t waste a bullet to ease your pain you son of a bitch.”
13. The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976): One of Eastwood’s best. He plays a former Confederate Missouri guerrilla with a score to settle. After Kansas Red Legs kill his wife and son, Eastwood joins up with Bloody Bill Anderson. His comrades are executed after the war and Eastwood has a bounty placed on him. He flees to Texas where he takes on Union soldiers, Comancheros, bounty hunters, and the Red Legs sent after him. Cool scene where Eastwood shoots up a Union encampment with a Gatling gun. Watch out for the tobacco spit.
14. Hang ‘Em High (1968): Eastwood’s first U.S. made Western after his Spaghetti Western sojourn. Even though the movie is U.S. produced, it has a Spaghetti Western feel to it. Eastwood goes after the vigilantes that tried to hang him and left a wicked scar around his neck. The movie does a good job of showing the carnival like atmosphere that surrounded public hangings back then.
15. Little Big Man (1970): One man’s long journey through the Old West while assuming the roles of a Cheyenne warrior, gunfighter, missionary, army scout, and muleskinner. Richard Mulligan plays a demented George Armstrong Custer. Very horrifying scene of a Cheyenne village massacre where Dustin Hoffman’s wife and baby are shot by U.S. cavalrymen. If you despise Custer, this is the movie for you.
16. The War Wagon (1967): What boy growing up in Texas would not like this movie? Out of all the John Wayne movies, I probably saw this movie the most. It had everything: John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, crazy bad guy Bruce Dern, Indians, Mexican bandits, a big barroom fight, a quick draw gunfight, nitro explosions, a super cool armored wagon, and that most alluring of Wild West weaponry, the Gatling gun. Bruce Cabot finally gets a big John Wayne movie role as a mining tycoon that occupies Wayne’s ranch. The gold found on the property is transported by armored wagon and the Duke goes after one of the shipments.
17. The Alamo (1960): John Wayne's epic that he financed (he almost went broke), produced, directed and starred in. From a historical standpoint, this movie is overly dramatic, political and inaccurate (there was no giant Mexican cannon or commando-style theft of Santa Anna's cattle). On the big screen, however, the massive, charging columns of Mexican troops and the Texan's heroic defense makes up for the inaccuracies and long winded dialogues. Besides, you gotta love John Wayne as Davy Crockett. Look at it as entertainment, but not as a factual historical account. The 2004 version was more accurate but it bombed big time at the box office.
18. 3:10 to Yuma (2007 remake): This is the best Western film to have come out since Eastwood’s “Unforgiven.” Christian Bale of “Batman” fame plays impoverished rancher and one-legged Civil War vet Dan Evans who is hired to guard stagecoach bandit Ben Wade played by Russell Crowe. The plot concerns getting Wade to the silver mining town of Contention (today it's a ghost town) and placing him on the 3:10 PM train to the notorious Yuma Territorial Prison. Along the way, they encounter Apaches, sadistic miners, and Wade’s gang that is trying to free him. The fun begins when Wade’s gang offers a $200 bounty to the whole town of Contention to free their leader. Evans has to run through a gauntlet of gunfire to get Wade to the train station.
19. Chisum (1970): John Wayne plays the iconic Texas cattle baron, John Chisum, who owned an enormous spread in Lincoln County, New Mexico. The movie is about the Lincoln County War between the Tunstall and Murphy factions. Both were fighting for economic control of Lincoln County, sort of like a war between two Mafia families. Chisum was with the Tunstall faction along with the West's most celebrated outlaw, Billy the Kid. The movie is a fictional account and definitely should be viewed as such; I doubt Billy the Kid was an avid Bible reader and carved little crosses for his sweetheart. Billy the Kid was just that; a kid who happened to be very good with a gun. Like many delinquents today, he lived fast, played hard, and died very young. Despite John Wayne's portrayal, the real John Chisum was not one to go looking for a fight. He actually left Lincoln County when all the shooting started.
20. Pale Rider (1985): Another Clint Eastwood Western where the main character doesn’t have a name and has a very mysterious past. Is he a ghost or a living, breathing man ? He’s called “Preacher” because he dons a preacher’s collar. In the movie, Eastwood protects a community of gold miners squatting on land wanted by a big mining company. Cool gunfight between Eastwood and the mining company’s hired guns.
21. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969): Probably the most popular Western of the late sixties. I think everyone had a Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid poster tacked on their bedroom wall. The pairing of Paul Newman and Robert Redford was inspired. Redford’s career took off like a cruise missile after this film. It’s about two aging outlaws being pursued by a six man super posse, the ultimate force in Wild West law enforcement. Trying to find new outlaw opportunities, they leave the U.S. and end up in Bolivia. The pair is so likeable you quickly forget their outlaws; you want to buy a round of beers and hang out with them at the saloon. The character Sheriff Bledsoe gives a memorable warning that could be applied to all Western outlaws: “I never met a soul more affable than you Butch or faster than the Kid, but you’re still two-bit outlaws on the dodge. It’s over, don’t you get that ? Your time is over and you’re gonna die bloody, and all you can do is choose where.”
22. The Magnificent Seven (1960): This movie is basically a U.S. version of a classic Japanese film entitled “The Seven Samurai.” Instead of feudal Japan, the setting is the Old West and the samurai are hired mercenaries packing six guns. The film is about seven hired guns employed to protect a Mexican village from ruthless bandits. Big kudos for Steve McQueen and Yul Bryner as the main characters. Eli Wallach is terrific as the bandit leader.
23. The Long Riders (1980): This is the best of all the Jesse James films. I liked the use of actual brothers to play the James Brothers (James and Stacy Keach) and the Younger Brothers (Steve and David Carradine). This film covers the outlaw period of the James and Younger Gang. Pinkerton detectives go after the gang but usually end up shot to pieces, a real embarrassment for Allen Pinkerton’s heralded agency.
24. Tombstone (1993): One of the better films about the West’s most celebrated gunfight, the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Like most of these films, it’s a fictional account where U.S. Marshal Wyatt Earp (played by Kurt Russell) is the hero trying to rid Tombstone, Arizona of those backward, drunken cowboys. In reality, the gunfight barely lasted thirty seconds. You either like or not like the Earp brothers. Were they icons of law enforcement or tools of Tombstone’s affluent business community ? I liked Sam Elliot as Virgil Earp. With that wonderful gruff voice and big mustache, he should be in every Western. He's just a natural for Western roles.
25. The Homesman (2014): Next to "Unforgiven" and "Little Big Man," this is one of the most disturbing Westerns you'll ever see. It's also one of the few that shows how tough frontier life could be on a young woman - married or single. Tommy Lee Jones (in one of his better performances) plays a low-life drifter who helps a pious Hillary Swank transport three young women, driven insane by frontier life in the Nebraska Territory, to an Iowa minister's wife who agrees to care for them. With hostile Indians, bandits, disease, insects, harsh weather, and just flat out loneliness, you could only imagine how life was back then. Very shocking suicide close to the end of the film.