When people think of westerns, they think of the Wild West of the American Frontier, which is only logical of course. After all, that is where the vast majority of such movies were set. Indeed, at their heart, all western films are about the pioneer spirit and the forces that try to strip that spirit away. But most of all, they’re about survival against wilderness and the things that wilderness can do to your fellow man. And that’s why some of my favorite movies could be classed as westerns by capturing the same spirit as the traditional movies of that genre, all while setting their story away from the Western frontier.
Westerns are my favorite genre, however, so I never like to stray too far from the archetypes: wide shots, tense moments, and of course, gunfights. Still, if you are looking for a movie that carries all the gut-wrenching excitement of a Western, but doesn’t have quite as much dust, check out the carefully curated list of all the best Westerns not set in the West, below.
TAXI DRIVER (1976)
In my opinion, “Taxi Driver” is Martin Scorsese’s best film. Set in New York City, we follow the disillusioned Vietnam veteran Travis Bickle as he becomes more and more disgusted by the corruption that has overtaken his city. Bickle sees the pimps and politicians of NYC as a wilderness that needs to be tamed, and himself as the sheriff that will tame them. Consider the famous “Are You Talking to Me” scene; Bickle is practicing his quick draw, hoping that his superior gunplay will help rid the city of evil.
Unsurprisingly, Scorsese was heavily inspired by another classic The Searchers. In both situations, the glorified gray morals of the main characters drive the narrative. The film is shot as brooding as any John Ford film. Bickle drives his taxi around like any noble steed, though the setting is a tad less sweeping. Bottom line, it involves prostitutes, six shooters, gunfights and is one of the best films of all time. If you’ve already seen, the good news you can watch it again.
7 WOMEN (1966)
Speaking of John Ford, he made of one of my favorite non-western Westerns of all time with the last film of his illustrious career, 7 Women. 7 Women is set in China, but it’s no wonder after 50 years of making westerns that he still managed to make it feel like the Wild West. The story follows the pious women of a Chinese mission and their reaction to the chain-smoking doctor assigned to them (played by Anne Bancroft). Tension is high, especially in the hilarious scene where Anne tries to get everyone to drink Whiskey.
Tensions really escalate when a Mongol warlord takes over the Mission and kills all its inhabitants except for the 7 American Women, who he plans to hold as ransom. In this film, the mongols are the savages, and the women of the mission are the civility fighting off a threat. I won’t give it away from there, but I will say it’s an astonishingly challenging and chilling movie for its time.
LONE STAR (1996)
Twenty years before the ‘McConaissance’, audiences were given a peek into Matthew’s complex dark side in the 1996 film, Lone Star. Through flashbacks, he plays the father of our hero, who must reflect on his dad’s cruel ways as he tries to straighten out a small Texas community. Despite enlisting other stars like Chris Cooper and Frances McDormand, this John Sayles directed Neo-western only made $13 million. It’s a mystery that it’s slightly lost in film history considering Roger and Ebert gave it two thumbs up at the height of their influence. It basically acts as a precursor to No Country for Old Men, which went on to Best Picture a decade later.
In the end, Lone Star’s sheriff spends just as much time trying to decide what is right as he does paying attention to what the law actually is. Consider this a cross between Chinatown and No Country for Old Men. High praise I know, but this is John Sayles at his best with some terrific performances.
ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (1976)
Where are all the John Carpenter fans at? ‘Assault’ actually came out the same year as Taxi Driver, but has a completely different rise to prominence. The interesting story here is the fact that Carpenter was approached to make a film for under $100,000 in exchange for having complete creative control. Upon release, it received a mixed reaction, but a shining review from a British newspaper started its journey into becoming a cult classic.
If you don’t already know, let me tell you the basic plot. Lt. Bishop is tasked with watching a Los Angeles precinct the night shift with a skeleton crew before it closes for good there following morning. Concurrently, a local gang is upset that six of its members were killed in a raid by officers from the precinct. They gang swears vengeance on the city and decide to storm the precinct and massacre everyone in it. When you think about it, it’s kind of like an LAPD-based version of the classic Western tale, The Alamo.
Taking cowboys and putting them in space is a tried and damn-true concept, but no one has been able to do it quite like Joss Whedon did back in 2005. After his cult space cowboy show Firefly was canceled having only aired 13 episodes, Whedon was able to get the funds to bring the beloved characters into a feature film format. I am not as big a fan as Whedon as other 90’s kids tend to be, but rewatching clips of this movie always gets me excited. True Story: I remember my dad taking me to see this. We were the only two people in the theater and we both walked out saying it was the best movie we’ve ever seen.
I won’t even walk that back, because this one does everything a good movie, and western, should. The cast is impeccable; The bad guys are the good guys and vice-versa; The action is beautifully choreographed; It’s funny; The landscapes are diverse; The dialogue is quick and clever; It’s got gunmen and women, law guys and gals, rogues, prostitutes, a dust planet. You get the point. It’s great.
What movies would you add to this list? Let us know in the comments section below.
Top Image Credit: Fox