ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Cowboys are back. Movie fans have ponied up over $100 million so far to see the Coen Brothers' "True Grit."
Earlier this week, a member of the ALL THINGS CONSIDERED staff made this embarrassed confession during our morning editorial meeting. He said he had seen "True Grit" and was surprised to find that he liked it. Surprised because as he admitted, he didn't think he liked westerns.
Needless to say he grew up a post-Gunsmoke, post-Rawhide, and post-Bonanza decade, and we reckoned that he wasn't alone. So for those of you who roll your eyes at the thought of a drunken saloon brawl or a ride into the sunset, we have invited Bob Mondello, our movie critic, to give us a little starter kit for the multiplex tenderfoot. Howdy, Bob.
BOB MONDELLO: Howdy.
SIEGEL: Let's start with some basics. What makes a western a western?
MONDELLO: Well, white hats, black hats, guns, frontier codes of honor, big sky country, I guess.
SIEGEL: There are a lot of westerns that have been made, and we asked you to pick a few. Let's start with the earliest pick on your list, it's from 1953, "Shane."
(Soundbite of movie, "Shane")
Mr. ALAN LADD (as Shane): I've heard about you.
Mr. JACK PALANCE (as Jack Wilson): What have you heard, Shane?
Mr. LADD: (as Shane): I've heard that you're a lowdown Yankee liar.
MONDELLO: Now, this is a classic western. You've got a good guy, Alan Ladd, and the bad guy there was Jack Palance. And it's about being pure in the way that America was pure. It's about going out there, and it's the frontier, and you're going to make everything right somehow.
SIEGEL: Now, a starter kit wouldn't be complete without at least one movie from the director who singlehandedly built the western from the ground up, John Ford, and his favorite star, John Wayne.
But the film that you've picked which was released just three years after "Shane," is not typical of Ford, Wayne, or the genre. Tell us the movie, "The Searchers."
MONDELLO: Right. "The Searchers" is complicated. It's about something more than just good and bad. The good guy, John Wayne, is an unrepentant racist in this. He hates the Comanches, and it's very much about how the settlers treated the Native Americans in that period. It's a very complicated, gorgeous, epic western.
SIEGEL: It's about gray hats.
MONDELLO: That's exactly right.
SIEGEL: Now, for the next pick, Bob, one which re-wrote the rules of the western a bit, and which can be summed up in one quick line.
(Soundbite of movie, "The Wild Bunch")
Mr. WILLIAM HOLDEN (as Pike Bishop): If they move, kill 'em.
SIEGEL: It's actor, William Holden, the ringleader of "The Wild Bunch" by director Sam Peckinpah. Why "The Wild Bunch"?
MONDELLO: Well, if the western can be about something in the wild West, it can be about other things, too. And Peckinpah decided to make this picture about violence. It is much more violent than the previous pictures. A lot of blood on the screen, a lot of slow motion violence. And he intended that as a comment on Vietnam. This came out in 1969, and so he meant this to be about other social issues, not just the ones from the wild West.
SIEGEL: And it was that vivid violence that turned off a lot of people, but that changed the rules of making a western.
SIEGEL: On your list, proving that you're not too predictable, you've added a comedy. One of my favorites, Mel Brooks' "Blazing Saddles," and this is not John Ford's western.
(Soundbite of movie, "Blazing Saddles")
UNKNOWN MAN: How about some more beans, Mr. Taggart?
Mr. SLIM PICKENS (as Mr. Taggart): I'd say you've had enough.
MONDELLO: I'd say he'd had enough, too. They'd all had enough. That's the campfire scene from "Blazing Saddles." I should warn people that this is definitely rated R. The subject matter and the language tend to be pretty adventuresome for the age. But it was a very, very funny picture.
SIEGEL: And finally, no list would be complete without at least one film from Clint Eastwood. Which one did you pick?
MONDELLO: Oh, now, this was hard because you want to pick one of the spaghetti westerns, but I finally decided that I had to pick something from a little later. It's as if the westerns stopped coming out in 1970, so I picked "Unforgiven."
(Soundbite of movie, "Unforgiven")
UNKNOWN MAN: I thought they was gonna get us. I was even scared a little, just for a minute. Was you ever scared in them days?
Mr. CLINT EASTWOOD (as Bill Munny): I can't remember. I was drunk most of the time.
MONDELLO: It is a magnificent western from 1992, really epic. It's about the old outlaws. This is the end of the era. A lot of people thought actually that it was a sort of a eulogy for the form. It ended up not being a eulogy for the form, because they made a whole lot of other pictures after it. It sort of inspired a western revival.
SIEGEL: That's a very interesting list you've compiled.
MONDELLO: And it's by no means complete, and I know that. I mean, this is five pictures. I've got about 20 on our website, npr.org. If you go there you can -maybe even somebody could give us their own starter kit for people who don't like westerns. I think if you look at these five pictures, though, and you still don't see anything you like, you really don't like westerns.
SIEGEL: Okay. Bob Mondello, thanks for providing us with a starter kit for liking westerns.
MONDELLO: Always a pleasure.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.