With “The Lone Ranger” galloping into theaters on Wednesday, there are some questions. Will this big-budget cowboy flick usher in a Western movie revival? Will Johnny Depp once again prove his cultural invincibility by not getting censured for going “redface” and playing a Native American, which he most assuredly is not? And will this big-screen incarnation of the Ranger enter the pantheon of iconic screen cowboys?
Answers: 1. No, it will not. 2. Johnny’ll be fine — Americans worship celebrity above such petty concerns as the dignity of an entire race of people. And 3. Not a chance. His name’s “Armie,” it’s clear that Johnny “White Guy” Depp is going to get to do all the cool stuff (and is billed first), and I’m getting a definite Klinton Spilsbury vibe from this guy. (Google it.)
So who are the legendary movie cowboys who would punch Armie in the face and steal his hat? My picks:
Shane (Alan Ladd) in “Shane” (1953) — Despite clocking in at a Tom Cruise-esque 5-foot-6 or so, Ladd’s Shane was the exemplar of Western manliness for a generation of moviegoers. Riding into the requisite lawless frontier town, the mysterious Shane acts as buckskin-clad guardian angel to decent but dull rancher Van Heflin and family from glowering, towering baddie Jack Palance (candidate for iconic Western villain). Like many on this list, Shane is emblematic of the death of the traditional screen cowboy and the lawless frontier: As he rides off (possibly to die), Heflin’s young son Brandon De Wilde’s cry, “Shane! Come back Shane!” echoed audiences’ farewell to the iconic Western hero.
Fifty-seven percent of “The Magnificent Seven” (1960) — No offense to Robert Vaughn, Horst Buchholz and Brad Dexter, but I think Steve McQueen, Yul Brenner, Charles Bronson and James Coburn could have handled things on their own in this eternally rousing Western remake of “The Seven Samurai.”
The Man With No Name (Clint Eastwood) in “A Fistful of Dollars,” “For a Few Dollars More” and “The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly” (1964-66) — Another lift from Akira Kurosawa (“Yojimbo” this time), Eastwood’s grim, clench-jawed, cheroot-chewing anti-hero elevated the Western hero to mythological status in these Sergio Leone-directed Italian “spaghetti Westerns.” Never explicitly stated to be the same guy in each movie, nonetheless Clint was always the epitome of the nameless, wandering, quick-triggered soul of the (cinematic) West.
Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) in “The Searchers” (1956) – Of course there had to be a John Wayne character of this list, so I’ll choose his unexpectedly ambiguous turn as the anti-hero of this classic Western from Portland’s own John Ford. As the violent, racist cowboy obsessed with rescuing (or killing) the young niece captured by Indians years before, Wayne’s Edwards represents the atavistic soul of the Old West, whose brutal skills might get the job done but mark him as unwelcome as the frontier is civilized. Rescuing the girl and knowing his time has passed, Edwards rides off, away from a new world that has thankfully evolved beyond him.
Honorable mentions: Franco Nero as the original Django, Jimmy Stewart going dark in five excellent Anthony Mann Westerns, Sheriff Bart and the Waco Kid from “Blazing Saddles,” and Randolph Scott. Because he’s Randolph-freaking-Scott.
Dennis Perkins is a Portland freelance writer.