The Searchers

It’s a home, but not his home.

In the end, John Wayne walks away, his battle-hardened soldier a hero to some, a villain to others, his shadow his only companion as he departs.

Community grows in the Old West, but there is no place left for the rough and tumble men who helped make it possible.

The ending of this landmark film is bittersweet, featuring a celebration over the return of Natalie Wood’s kidnapped character, but also a silent, hardly-noticed farewell, as Wayne fades into the sunset.

He got his Oscar years later, but this was his finest work.

 

The Magnificent Seven (1960)

“You’re like the wind, blowing over the land and passing on…”

Death hangs heavy over this classic Old West tale, which replaces samurai with gunslingers and knife-throwers.

The men who ride into immortality protecting farmers from bandits are rough, violent dudes of few words — warriors redeemed by one act of courage and sacrifice.

All seven of the “good guys,” from Steve McQueen down to Brad Dexter, have died in real life in the years since director John Sturges had them saddle up.

But, like the characters they played, they live on forever in the movie theaters of our minds.

 

Red River

Saddle up.

Things get heated on the trail, as John Wayne and Montgomery Clift clash in an Old West classic.

The Duke is a rough man, soft edges erased by tragedy, while the younger actor is his adopted son, sole survivor of a massacre.

Midway through a crucial cattle drive, Clift leads what some would see as a mutiny, others as a necessary intervention against a father figure drifting into madness, setting up a fiery confrontation.

One of Wayne’s best films, it made legendary director John Ford blurt out, “I didn’t know the big son of a bitch could act!”

 

The Hateful Eight

Not the friendliest bunch.

Just about everyone gets shot, slapped, hit in the face with a gun butt, or otherwise roughed up in a slow-burn mystery set in the snowy backcountry.

Identities change, often in a flash, and allegiances are fluid, as a group of vicious back-stabbers (and front-shooters) warily circle one another.

It’s a gorgeous-looking film with a haunting Ennio Morricone musical score, and almost cries out to be viewed multiple times.

First time, you’re caught by surprise each time the story flips or a cast member dies horribly, while future viewings allow you to marinate in the moment.

True Grit (2010)

“I mean to kill you in one minute, Ned!”

Ask a man to step into the role that won John Wayne his Oscar, you better choose right, and once again the Coen brothers score big.

Jeff Bridges, with a few more burrs under his saddle than during his days as The Dude, is note-perfect, and he’s matched by Hailee Steinfeld, who delivers a knockout debut performance.

He’s a thoroughly-soused lawman with a still-deadly gun, she’s a revenge-seeking farm girl.

The result is a film which copped 10 richly-deserved Oscar nominations.

That it lost to the very-pedestrian The King’s Speech? Bullpucky.