From Robin Williams playing a psycho in One Hour Photo to Jim Carrey playing, well… a psycho in The Cable Guy, actors have always enjoyed upending expectations with their roles. Home Alone‘s Macaulay Culkin? Check (The Good Son). E.T. cutie-pie Drew Barrymore? Check (Poison Ivy). But those role reversals are particularly jarring in Westerns, where the line between good and bad is so firmly etched in the sand. Which good cowboys have most memorably gone bad?
Burt Lancaster in Vera Cruz (1954)
There are no
out-and-out heroes in this darkly humorous tale of greed, and
Burt Lancaster’s unscrupulous mercenary doesn’t come close.
He’s a wolfish lout who’s a delight to watch on screen and a far cry
from his Oscar-nominated role as Sgt. Milton Warden in From Here to Eternity.
Making him seem more despicable still is that he plays opposite Gary
Cooper, who is clearly the lesser of two evils. Critics were stunned — not necessarily for the better — and chances are, you will be too.
Henry Fonda in Fort Apache (1948)
When not filming movies, Henry Fonda was often flying kites with best friend Jimmy Stewart. (Seriously.) But that doesn’t mean he hasn’t played the villain: While his role as the evil man in Once Upon a Time in the West is flashier, his turn here as a lieutenant who leads his men to be slaughtered on the cross of his own ego deserves accolades — it’s delicious to see Fonda playing the arrogant fop.
James Stewart in Two Rode Together (1946)
This movie deserves special mention because it represents a fascinating case of reverse
casting for leads Stewart and Richard Widmark. Whereas audiences are
used to seeing Widmark giggle while throwing grannies down
stairs in Kiss of Death, here he plays the scrupulously good cop. Meanwhile, Stewart
(whose penchant for playing good-guy everymen would
color audience opinions of him for the rest of his life) is the craven,
scheming sheriff who partners up with him, for better or for worse.
John Wayne in Red River (1948)
this great clash of the generations (not to mention acting styles),
Duke plays the adoptive father to Montgomery Clift’s cowpoke. Being
abrasive and stubborn are qualities that have made the Duke the
quintessential cowboy, so it’s fascinating when those very same
attributes are called into question, in this dark role as an Ahab-esque
villain. When Wayne leads the cattle drive into deadly territory, Clift
trumps his authority. And so Wayne plots to kill Clift, his son. Over
Lee Marvin in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
Lee Marvin is probably best known to audiences for his heroic portrayals in war movies like The Dirty Dozen.
But one of his most magnetic performances is as the manic gunfighter
Liberty Valance in this John Ford Western. Full of violent energy,
Marvin’s character prefigures Alex’s in A Clockwork Orange
— a portrayal of complete freedom that spells doom for civil society.
In case you missed the symbolism of his name, there you go.
Robert Duvall in True Grit (1969)
It’s a relatively small performance, but long before Duvall was cemented as a timeless hero thanks to his performance in Lonesome Dove,
was the villainous outlaw Ned Pepper in this John Wayne classic. But
with the clarity of hindsight, it’s rather fun to watch Duvall trade
shots with The Duke, knowing that he’d play an old codger like Rooster
J. Cogburn before long. Not only that — during a climactic shoot-out, Duvall comes at an unarmed John Wayne and
nearly sends the Hollywood legend into the great hereafter.
Yul Brynner in Westworld (1973)
Surely capitalizing on his heroic turn in The Magnificent Seven, this movie from Jurassic Park
author Michael Crichton envisions Brynner as a short circuited robot
cowboy who hunts down a couple tourists in a futuristic Wild West
amusement park. Brynner is appropriately forbidding, with a steely gaze
and lack of emotion that makes him more evil than the gesticulating,
scenery chewing menace of, say, Jack Palance in Shane. He’s a black-hatted gunfighter for an age that saw another cyborg duded up in black (Darth Vader) as its biggest villain.