The Big Country

9 Favorite Western Film Scores

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.

dunbar neels 300x191 9 Favorite Western Film Scores

9. DANCES WITH WOLVES (1990)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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?

About Jim Lochner

Jim has been writing about film music for over a decade. He holds a Bachelor of Music from The University of Texas at Arlington and a Master of Music from The University of Texas (Austin), both in Clarinet Performance. He has written soundtrack CD liner notes for Intrada, Varèse Sarabande Records, Film Score Monthly, La-La Land Records and Disques Cinemusique. Jim has been a bimonthly guest on BBC-Kent’s Drive Home at the Movies radio program and has been interviewed by a number of online and print outlets, including The Toronto Globe and Mail and the Los Angeles Times. Jim served as the managing editor of Film Score Monthly Online (FSMOnlineMag.com) and is currently writing a book on Charlie Chaplin's film music. For more information, visit JimLochner.com.

14 comments

  1. pierre-yves houle
    Reply

    the magnificent seven
    once upon a time in the west
    shane
    the unforgiven (1960)
    the searchers

    It’s all I can think for now without repeating composers…mmm.

  2. As always Jim, your taste is impeccable. I’m not sure I could have a list without Once Upon a Time in the West in however I certainly agree with The Big Country being top of the list! I’m always exposed to new music in these articles, so kudos for using clips :)

    • Thanks for the kind words, Wendell. Let me state for the record that I’ve caught my share of flack today for not having Morricone anywhere on the list. Even though I’ve heard most of his spaghetti Western scores, usually it’s only once (if at all) and I’ve yet to make it through any of the films. (Yes, I know, shame on me.) So until I get to that point, I can’t in good faith add those scores until I know how they function within the context of the film. And thankfully lists are always fluid. I can change my mind an hour from now. LOL

      • Well it’s all subjective anyway Jim and that’s what I come here for, YOUR favourites.!I can certainly understand you not being able to get through some Westerns, they are fairly lengthy affairs.

        It’s interesting to note how many foreigners to the country capture the American spirit in the above scores, it’s an interesting question to pose. Elgar’s music is inexplicably woven in to the English countryside. Copland’s style is distinctly American. But for film music, can a foreigner to a country capture the sound of that country the same as a native can? Because in terms of languages, an Englishman can never master the language of Spain as well as a native. Just throwing my thoughts out there!

  3. No arguement with your picks. I find it interesting that Goldsmith and Herrmann don’t make any ones list, and I cannot disagree, although Garden of Evil and Bandolero, to name two, are fine scores.

    Although not a film seen in the theater, is there any reason not to add Lonsome Dove by Basil Polidarius? It is an example of my belief that most composers have at least one great score in them.

    • LONESOME DOVE and Goldsmith’s LONELY ARE THE BRAVE were both on the original long list. I don’t remember LD that well, and I don’t own it. And I was too lazy to go back and rewatch the miniseries. :) Goldsmith damn near made the list though. I also forgot Beltrami’s 3:10 TO YUMA, which probably would have knocked out DANCES WITH WOLVES. Oh well. The beauty of a fluid list…

  4. I would top my list with THE BIG COUNTRY too, and I’ve always been very fond of Rozsa’s western excursion for TRIBUTE TO A BAD MAN, but I thought I’d throw out there nine off-the-beaten trail, non-Coplandesque titles, that make for some groovy listening when in a Western mood:

    DUEL AT DIABLO – Neal Hefti
    HOUR OF THE GUN – Jerry Goldsmith
    THE WILD BUNCH – Jerry Fielding
    BLUE – Manos Hadjidakis
    MISSOURI BREAKS – John Williams
    WILL PENNY – David Raksin
    VILLA RIDES! – Maurice Jarre
    WATERHOLE #3 – Dave Grusin
    BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID – Burt Bacharach

  5. Seems you’re not a Morricone fan but I really love the Fistful of Dollars score. It was innovative, well-suited, and just great to listen to. The Good, The Bad and The Ugly seems to get all the attention.

    Anyway, nice list, and did you know the band Yes based one of their songs around the theme from The Big Country? Look up ‘No Opportunity Necessary, No Experience Needed’.

    Cheers.

    • Thanks for commenting, Matt. Sorry you had problems with the comment form. Sometimes it gets weird. And if it’s a first comment, it has to be approved before it gets posted. Helps stop spam. Then again, sometimes it’s just WordPress being wonky. :)

      As for Morricone, nothing against him. But I’m not nearly as exposed to his spaghetti Western scores as I should be. I’ve never seen any of the movies yet (believe me, I’ve tried) so I can’t in good faith add them to the list until I see how the music works within the films. Eventually I’ll get to them.

  6. Glad you mentioned Bruce Broughton, the man is unfairly and Supremely Underrated! And he also provided the Score for the Western “Tombstone”! :)

  7. ALL very fine but how, how could you exclude The Searchers ??? My taste only…just sayin !!

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