Ladies and gentlemen, the biggest video game of the year has finally arrived. No, not Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey (a beautiful game in its own right), not Spider-Man (a game which almost convinced me to buy a PS4) — we’re talking about Red Dead Redemption 2, the third installment in Rockstar’s long-running and highly successful “Red Dead” franchise.
Simultaneously leaning into and deconstructing the tropes of the mythic Old West, the Red Dead series has proven arguably better than Hollywood that the Western genre is as viable as ever. While its heyday has long since passed us by, there was a time when Westerns were the equivalent of today’s superhero/comic book genre, with new ones coming out seemingly every other week and entertaining crowds across America.
While there have been some Westerns recently, and some outstanding ones among them, we here at Nerd It Here First took it upon ourselves to enlighten our readers on some of the best examples of the Western genre. And, more specifically, how they relate to Red Dead Redemption 2.
[nextpage title=”The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”]The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Until relatively recently, when Westerns became post-modern and started to dig into the ugly truths of frontier life, the Old West was mythologized to a great deal. Brave cowboys, beautiful dames, mustache-twirling villains, noble sheriffs, and often ugly portrayals of Native Americans. But even among those who lived through that time, certain individuals were mythologized to such an extent that they had fan followings and pulp fiction books written about them.
Jesse James was one of those men, an outlaw both feared and admired by the American public. Andrew Dominik’s 2007 film sees James (Brad Pitt) through the eyes of Robert Ford (Casey Affleck, in an Oscar-nominated performance). Ford joins James’ gang because of all the great stories he’s heard of James and practically worships the man. Ford eventually becomes a friend and confidante of the elusive and temperamental James, but as the title suggests, things don’t stay rosy between the two.
This is a great film, period, not just a great Western. As a character study, as a deconstruction of the Old West, as an analysis of honor among themes, and as a showcase for the most exquisite cinematography of Roger Deakins’ career, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a nigh-perfect film, and one that adds several new layers to one’s understanding of, and appreciation for, Westerns.
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Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
If the previous movie showcases the uglier side of life in an outlaw gang, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid shows what people are probably more familiar with: a fun time, with shootouts and showdowns, train robberies and horse chases, and a beautiful girl caught between two of Hollywood’s all-time great leading men in Paul Newman and Robert Redford. There’s not a lot to say about this movie other than that it epitomizes much of what people expect from a Western. It delivers action, romance, laughs, and a moving finale that goes a long way to setting genre expectations.
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Few things say “Old West” like bounty hunters do, and bounty hunting certainly plays into the Red Dead video games. While some Westerns feature this well-worn trope, arguably the best is Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 “spaghetti Western.” While the movie can be enjoyed as a darkly comic romp through the Antebellum South, Tarantino’s Oscar-winning script is a blatant denouncement of both American slavery and lingering racism, the latter of which he would more incisively dissect in the superior The Hateful Eight (also a great Western).
With great performances (Christoph Waltz won an Oscar for his work here) and stunning cinematography, Django Unchained is one of the better recent Westerns and is well worth your time.
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Cited by President Bill Clinton as his favorite movie, High Noon is arguably the perfect distillation of the Western’s ability to define what is good, what is bad, and pit them against each other in a final gun-blazing showdown. Gary Cooper won an Oscar for playing the no-nonsense Sheriff of a small Western town who refuses to leave when he discovers that a violent gang of outlaws is arriving at noon the next day. Featuring Grace Kelly as Cooper’s new bride, High Noon investigates what it takes to be a good man in a bad world, and if such a thing is even possible (spoiler alert: it is).
Sadly, such a message is probably more timely now than it was in the 1950s, which is why the film continues to resonate even today. And hot take: Die Hard is High Noon in a skyscraper, and I say that with all the love in my heart.
Shane could make a case for being the most classic example of the prototypical Western. It has it all: the mysterious loner riding into town, gunfights in a saloon, a great movie star in Alan Ladd, and so much more. But mainly, it focuses on a simpler version of life in the Old West and the sacrifices that had to be made to ensure some level of peace and civility in what was mostly a lawless land. One of the most iconic films of the genre, its impact is still felt to this day (see: Logan).
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The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
One of the foundational tropes of the Western genre focuses on greed, and what greed can drive good men to do. No movie showcases that trope with more ferocity than The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which involves three gold prospectors striking pay dirt in South America, only to slowly turn against each other as it dawns on them just what they’ve uncovered. Humphrey Bogart gives the best performance of his career in his John Huston-directed classic, which also features Huston’s father, Walter, in a performance that won him an Oscar.
Ever heard the line “Badges? We don’t need no stinkin’ badges!”? That’s from this movie.
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The Wild Bunch
Violent movies about violent men in violent times defined Sam Peckinpah’s career. No stranger to Westerns, his best work was The Wild Bunch, a film that examines a group of outlaws in the latter years of the Old West, as their way of life slowly crumbles around them and they’re forced to reconcile if they can exist in a world that seems to be moving on from them.
A stunning character study, stirring ensemble effort, and thrilling genre movie, The Wild Bunch has it all and is easily one of the ten best Westerns ever committed to film. It also features some of the best shootouts you’ll find in any movie from the 1960s. (Peckinpah also directed Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, a Western focusing on two of the most famous men of the era, but it’s marred by behind-the-scenes issues and a generally lackadaisical pace.)
If you ask people what the greatest Western ever made is, many would say The Searchers (great movie) or another film on this list. For me, it’s Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winning, post-modern Western masterpiece that thoroughly deconstructs the myth of the Old West. Eastwood plays a former ruthless gunslinger who went straight when he married his late wife. Barely subsisting as a farmer, he takes up a call to collect a bounty on two outlaws who cut up a prostitute, slowly reclaiming a mantle he thought he’d left behind for good. Unforgiven probably has the most to do with the “Red Dead” series, as it has to do with what a man chooses to be for himself, the idea of violence begetting more violence, and the mythical type of man who ran roughshod over the Old West in both fiction and reality. It’s a stunning film, and one that everyone should see regardless of their feelings towards Westerns, “Red Dead,” or video games in general.