Since Westerns of the silent era are barely rated at all but uncritically treasured as precious artifacts, I have limited my choices to the talkies. Wesley Ruggles’s Cimarron (1931), with Irene Dunne and Richard Dix, was the only Western to win an Oscar for Best Picture until Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992). Except for a rousing Oklahoma land rush in the beginning, Cimarron is a soggy Edna Ferber family saga smothered in molasses and Dix’s hammy emoting. My runner-up overrated Western is Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952), with its mannered, fussy performance by Gary Cooper and the pallid presence of Grace Kelly. Also, this is the favorite Western for people who hate Westerns.
John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) and Howard Hawk’s Red River (1948) established John Wayne, and not Gary Cooper, as the genre’s iconic beacon. Also, there is nothing pallid about Natalie Wood and Vera Miles in The Searchers or Joanne Dru and Colleen Gray in Red River . The most underrated Western icon is Randolph Scott, particularly in Budd Boetticher’s Seven Men From Now (1956), with Gail Russell, and Comanche Station (1960), with Nancy Gates, the last of six collaborations between Scott and Boetticher. The most underrated Spaghetti Western is Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), with Charles Bronson, Henry Fonda, Jason Robards, Jr., and Claudia Cardinale, plus a haunting score by Ennio Morricone. And let us not forget the unjustly neglected Westerns of Anthony Mann, Raoul Walsh, and John Sturges.