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I love cowboy movies, but at the risk of being labeled a cowgirl heretic, I have to admit I like new Westerns better than old ones. Newer Westerns have all the elements of the classics, from laconic cowboys and wise Native Americans elders to desperate women and magnificent landscapes, but there’s a little less mythology and a lot more of the grim realities of frontier life.
Here are five of my favorites. I know old-fashioned cowboy purists might not agree, but you’re more than welcome to make your own list in the comments section below!
Stars: Clint Eastwood – and that’s Old Clint, as opposed the Young Clint of spaghetti Westerns and Dirty Harry shoot-‘em-ups. I think of this as Old Clint’s first movie, and it’s a doozy.
Story: An outlaw quits his gunslinging ways for the sake of his young wife, but when she dies of smallpox his reason to live dies with her. When a local prostitute is victimized, bringing the perpetrator to justice feels like a cause she would approve of, so he dusts off his six-shooters, saddles up his played-out nag and heads straight into trouble.
Why I Love It: In this movie, the white hats and black hats have all gone gray; the line between right and wrong is blurry and faint. There’s no sentimentality, either; it’s a simple morality tale about an outlaw with a shred of conscience and a sheriff with none.
Bonus: Gene Hackman plays the crookedest, evilest sheriff in the West.
Favorite Line: “Jesus, Clyde, you have three pistols and you only have one arm.”
Stars: Jeff Bridges, who is a genius, and Hailee Steinfeld, who is pretty brilliant herself.
Story: A young girl searching for her father’s killer needs a man with “true grit” to assist her. Doggedly, she insists U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn is her man, despite his disheveled, drunken, dissolute state. Maddie faces every trial with courage, but her youth and naiveté barely survive the realities of the Wild West, even with Rooster as her protector.
Why I Love It: Taking on a classic John Wayne role required “true grit” from Jeff Bridges, but his balanced portrayal of the hard-nosed, soft-hearted Cogburn proved it was time for a new interpretation. And young Maddie’s erudite speeches are lifted straight from the novel, showing proper respect for a great book.
Bonus: Matt Damon, almost unrecognizable as a tagalong Texas Ranger.
Favorite Line: “I always go backwards when I’m backing up.”
Stars: Viggo Mortensen and Ed Harris
Story: Two lawmen-for-hire sign on as marshal and deputy in a town victimized by a newly arrived rancher, who hires a gang of thugs to harass the townspeople. To complicate things, a cultured, piano-playing widow proves a distraction for the marshal.
Why I Love It: Ed and Viggo bring Robert B. Parker’s spare dialogue to life, along with a convincing vision of the small-town West. The acting is great, the characters are layered, and the plot is anything but predictable.
Bonus: Renee Zellweger plays an outwardly respectable woman with a hankering for powerful men.
Favorite line: “She speaks well, she dresses fine, she’s good-looking, she can play the piano, she cooks good, she’s very clean, chews her food nice; but it appears she’ll f`**k anything that ain’t gelded.”
Stars: Viggo Mortensen and lots of horses
Story: In 1890, U.S. Cavalry dispatch rider Frank Hopkins pits his tough little mutt of a Mustang against some of the finest Arabian horses in the world in a 3,000 mile race across the Arabian desert. The prize: Survival.
Why I Love It: I’m partial to Arabian horses, and to Viggo, too, but nothing beats the pluck and courage of a sturdy, strong-hearted mustang. Viggo Mortensen proves it—and he looks danged good doing it, too..
Favorite Line: Arabian Princess: “It is said that you captured (your horse) in the wild… How did you tame him?” Hopkins: “I didn’t.”.
Days of Heaven
Stars: Richard Gere, Sam Shepard
Story: Bill and Abby are lovers who pretend to be brother and sister so that Abby can romance and eventually marry their rich but dying boss. When his expected death fails to arrive, chaos ensues.
Why I Love It: More than any film I remember, the images from this movie have stayed with me. Lyrical and dreamlike, they seem to show the past through a veil. That elegiac quality is at odds with the sometimes tawdry storyline, and the contrast is riveting. Plus, Sam Shepard can do no wrong in my world.
Favorite Line: “Wasn’t no harm in him. You’d give him a flower, he’d keep it forever.”
What are your favorite Westerns? Do you prefer classic Westerns, or more modern ones?
The last thing this cowboy expected
Inner-city veterinarian Lindsey Ward always loved visiting her grandfather’s Wyoming ranch, so it breaks her heart to have to sell it. She’ll miss the scent of hay and sagebrush under the wide-open sky, but at least the sale will help fund the clinic she’s always dreamed of.
Was to get roped by a city girl
Ruggedly handsome foreman Shane Lockhart and his adorable son aren’t making it any easier for Lindsey to focus on what has to be done. It’s exhilarating going toe to toe with a rough, tough cowboy whose stubborn idealism matches her own, but it’s Shane’s tenderness that might tip Lindsey’s heart over the fence.
About the Author: Joanne Kennedy is the RITA-nominated author of ten contemporary Western romance novels, including Cowboy Trouble, Tall, Dark and Cowboy, and the Cowboys of Decker Ranch series, which began with How to Handle a Cowboy, one of Booklist’s “Best Romances of the Decade.” Joanne lives in a secret mountain hideout on the Wyoming/Colorado border with two dogs, a cat named Earl, and a husband who is an airline pilot, military officer, and volunteer fireman. When not loving a man in uniform, she occupies her obsessive personality with cowboys, quarter horses, hiking in the mountains, and squirrels.