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Cowboy Icons Across Three Generations

High_plains_drifterToday, AMC presents an opportunity to trace the development of the Western, and the genre’s cowboy icons, across three films and four decades. Well on his way to becoming America’s most famous Western star, John Wayne is the uncomplicated hero of Lawless Range, a film notable mostly for its stunts (by both men and horses) and the fact that Wayne "sings." Also worth mentioning is that the villain is not a corrupt marshal or a sadistic outlaw but a greedy banker. The wealthy and presumably anti-populist elite made for compelling scoundrels in the 1930s, as they do today.

The Far Country, James Stewart’s fifth and final collaboration with director Anthony Mann ( Cimarron ), traverses two borders, the one between Canada and the United States, and the one separating the 19th and 20th centuries. As Jeff Webster, Stewart exhibits a few villainous traits, although not nearly as many as the actual bad guy, Sheriff Gannon (John McIntire). This shifty lawman kills (and not in self defense), steals (albeit his own cattle), and generally puts profit before purity. Like the film itself, he’s right on the cusp.

High Plains Drifter, Clint Eastwood’s sophomore directorial effort (after A Fistful of Dollars a decade earlier. The plot – a stranger is recruited to protect a town – recalls earlier classics like The Magnificent Seven and High Noon .  But Eastwood’s character is defiantly unlikable, and the film’s style, less revisionist than trippy and supernatural, is pure 1970s: dream sequences, shifting perspectives, and a scene in which Eastwood has the residents of Lago paint the town red—literally.

Evolution or deconstruction? You make the call. Lawless Range plays today at 6 a.m. EST | 5C; The Far Country at 11 a.m. | 10C; and High Plains Drifter at 3:15 p.m. | 2:15C.

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