I’m not a fan of Westerns particularly. The mythological images created by Hollywood seldom bear any resemblance to reality and their political leanings are often less than honorable. But those wide, open spaces and America’s dramatic past (even filtered through Hollywood’s gauze) arguably have inspired more great film scores than any other cinematic subgenre.
As always, with so many great scores to choose from, narrowing down a list to nine is a typically foolish task. Some composers specialized in Westerns, so to make this list more equally balanced, I only allowed one score per composer. Otherwise, I could have populated the entire list with scores by Elmer Bernstein and Dimitri Tiomkin. So strap on some spurs and saddle up for a wild ride across the rich, fertile ground of Western film music.
9. DANCES WITH WOLVES (1990)
By all rights, Kevin Costner’s directorial debut should have been a colossal flop. But if you can forgive the actor’s anachronistic mullet and Mary McDonnell’s inexplicable lack of personal hygiene, you will get lost in a truly moving story, beautiful cinematography and a stellar John Barry score. The music is occasionally a tad too lethargic and elegiac, and we’ve heard these rhythms and chord progressions in nearly every late-period Barry score. But Barry’s long-flowing melodies were made for the endless vista of the American plains.
8. HIGH NOON (1952)
Cinema’s answer to the McCarthy hearings set in the American West. Not a frame or word is wasted, all the while Dimitri Tiomkin endlessly recycles and dissects his theme song “Do Not Forsake Me (Oh My Darlin’)” to great effect in the underscore. When once asked how a real-life Slav could convey the American West so well in such classics as RED RIVER, GIANT, etc., Tiomkin replied, “Because a steppe is a steppe!” ‘Nuff said.
7. THE COWBOYS (1972)
The John Williams of today would probably take a different musical approach to a traditional Western such as this. But back in the early ’70s, with Westerns tanking at the box office, the Maestro combined the expected Western harmonies and rhythms with a little period instrumentation and some trademark sweeping Williams-isms to make a sound all his own. The main title is a staple on film music pops concerts and makes for a rip-roaring opener, closer or encore.
6. CHEYENNE AUTUMN (1964)
John Ford’s cinematic apology for his treatment of Native Americans in his earlier films doesn’t always succeed, as a film or an apology. But no one made Westerns like Ford and his firm, sure hand with the genre is evident once again in this film. Ford moved away from the traditional sounds of Max Steiner and Alfred Newman and let Alex North‘s biting harmonic language speak for itself. The music is as harsh as the story it accompanies, but there is a spare, simple dignity that underscores the long, humiliating trek of the Northern Cheyenne Exodus of 1878-79.
5. THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES (1976)
Only a star of Clint Eastwood’s stature would dare to make a Western at a time when cinema was focused on more gritty urban dramas. But Eastwood’s star power took the film to number one at the box office for two weeks in the weeks surrounding the country’s Bicentennial. Jerry Fielding‘s score mixes his own spare harmonic language with military musical quotes and Civil War-era tunes as Josey Wales, a peaceful Missouri farmer, seeks revenge for the brutal murder of his wife and son by a band of pro-Union Jayhawkers.
4. HOW THE WEST WAS WON (1963)
The American West was made for Cinerama and no film in that clunky photographic process was a bigger hit than HOW THE WEST WAS WON. The film follows four generations of a family as they move ever westward, from western New York state to the Pacific Ocean, between 1839 and 1889. Alfred Newman‘s rousing main title is one of the alltime great film music themes. Newman mixes typical underscoring with period vocal selections (arranged with the help of trusted collaborator Ken Darby) for a patchwork of musical Americana that is as awe-inspiring as some of the stunning visual set pieces throughout the film.
3. THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960)
This remake of Kurosawa’s SEVEN SAMURAI may be missing that film’s visual poetry, but is certainly entertaining in its own right, thanks in no small part of Elmer Bernstein‘s classic score. With one of the most famous themes in film music, fans of a certain age will remember the melody as the backdrop for Marlboro cigarette ads. But Bernstein’s score bristles with energy, rhythm and vitality that extends far beyond that famous theme. A pure classic from top to bottom.
2. SILVERADO (1985)
If the ’70s saw the dying of the Western, the ’80s were a veritable ghost town. Director Lawrence Kasdan failed to resuscitate the genre, but the film is a witty, tongue-in-cheek homage to the great Westerns of the past, and so is Bruce Broughton‘s fantastic score. Employing every tried and true trick in the book, Broughton creates a Western score that combines musical genre traditions with his own skill as a composer and orchestrator, all the while never once feeling like pastiche.
1. THE BIG COUNTRY (1958)
When it comes to Western film scores, there’s THE BIG COUNTRY and then there’s everything else. Jerome Moross‘ quintessential musical take on the American West is, like many others on this list, so much more than its classic main theme. The muscular score is never shy about stating its intentions, on its own or in the film, and the music bristles with energy and vitality, constant melodic invention and sly wit. One of the alltime great film scores…in any genre.
What are your favorite Western scores?