by Dan Smith
This year the crop of movies that took the Oscars seemed to me to be especially predictable and mostly very ordinary. As a movie fan that caused me to yearn for the days when westerns filled the screen. Don't get me wrong, I never enjoyed the shoot-em-ups. Nope, it was the quirky, slightly weird films that happened to be set in the old west that really moved me.
One of the best in that genre was "Going South." The movie starred the young Jack Nicholson in his first try at directing and was universally panned by the critics. It begins with Jack being locked up as a horse thief and waiting his turn to be hanged in a small, dusty town. As he sits in his cell he notices a steady procession of ladies coming by to gawk at him. Jack calls them buzzards and chases them off before he finds out the town has an ordinance where a property holding woman may save a crook from the gallows by marrying him.
Of course, Jack then changes his tune and tries to apologize, telling the ladies he meant nothing by calling them buzzards. After all, he says, they do keep the desert clean. If you are a fan of Nicholson, you have to see this. Jack is at his mugging best and you can tell he is really enjoying himself. John Belushi has a small part as the deputy. Funny film.
In "Monty Walsh," Lee Marvin and Jack Palance are ranch hands in the rapidly changing west. As they stumble around from job to job, the realization that their way of life is over sets in.
The two are forced to hire on for meals and, as it turns out, the food there is delicious. The only problem is the cook hasn't bathed in years and as he serves over each man's shoulder the smell is sickening. All of the ranch hands get together and give the cook a good scrubbing and the next day the meal is decidedly better. The cook, who has not said a word, has a different plan. Soon all of the men are in a race to get to the single outhouse having eaten the doctored food. This movie is beautifully understated and depicts a unique period in American history. The score is great and the signature song by Mama Cass Elliot is worth the price of admission.
"The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean" is a great turn for Paul Newman. As the boozy criminal who sets himself up as the law west of the Pecos, Newman is just about perfect. From his saloon/courthouse he dispenses his own kind of justice aided by a whiskey swilling grizzly bear. There have been several films done on Judge Bean but this is by far the best -- and most fun.
"The Great Scout & Cathouse Thursday" is another romp for Lee Marvin. He and his partner, an Indian played by the great British actor Oliver Reed, have been wronged by a partner in a gold mine. Their attempts at revenge are hilarious. Kay Lenz plays the lady of ill repute to a "T."
Jeremiah Johnson is the story of a soldier who is tired of war and retreats into the Rockies to live off the land. The only problem is that Johnson (Robert Redford) has no idea of how to survive in such a harsh environment. He learns from each person he encounters, including his Indian wife who was a surprise gift from a Flathead chief. While this movie is not a comedy, it certainly has its moments. Once Redford happens upon a man buried with only his head showing. When he asks how the man is, the fellow says "oh, it's not so bad. At least I have a good horse under me." This film is a poignant story of survival in the old west by a man who just wants to be left alone.
Last on my list is "Paint Your Wagon." Most of you have probably seen this one but it is worth a re-do. It is based on a Lerner and Loewe Broadway musical but don't be put off by that. This is a good old-time western. It begins with a Mormon fellow coming through town and deciding to sell one of his wives. The drunken Lee Marvin (do you notice a trend?) turns out to be the winning bidder. With the shortage of women Lee soon has to share the lady with Clint Eastwood. The two battle to see who spends the most time with their community wife, who is played by the beautiful Jean Seberg. Of course, she has a lot to say about that. The following conflict is a scream. This movie was the only one on my list to enjoy much box office success. If you want a rollicking good time, see it again.
Well that's my list of great non-cowboy movies that are set in the old west. Each one has a story so good they could have been transferred to modern times very easily. Save this column and when you have the time check them out, let me know your thoughts.
Dan Smith is on the board of directors for the Ormond Beach Historical Society and The Motor Racing Heritage Association and is the author of two books, "The World's Greatest Beach" and "I Swear the Snook Drowned." Email questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org or call (386) 441-7793.