Westerns do death like nobody else. It wasn’t until the age of the action-movie, and its resolutely cool one-liners (“I’ll be back,” “Yippe ka yee,” et al) that they had any real competition. Still, while some Westerns sport the cliche of the cowpoke clutching his chest and soliloquizing to his bent partner before quietly expiring, others are, shall we say, more elaborate. They run the gamut from over-the-top bloodbaths to demises so sad they’d draw tears from a mule. So, before I go, please, behold… the most dramatic… western… (gasp)… deaths…
[Warning: Spoilers ahead!]
In Mel Brooks’ typically satirical fashion, villain Lamarr and Sheriff Bart (Cleavon Little) break all the
Western rules as their fight spreads from the frontier to a Hollywood backlot and ultimately concludes in front of
Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood! There the dastardly Lamarr gets his
comeuppance when he gets shot in a place where guys don’t like to
get shot. Or kicked. But definitely not shot.
9. Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
Marvin’s wonderfully evil Valance plays his death scene out twice — and you relish every minute, given how malicious he is throughout the scenes that precede it. But in a nice twist, he kicks the bucket Quentin Tarantino-style: From different vantage points! The first time, in a confrontation with an exceedingly meek James Stewart, it trumps our expectations. The second time — in a beautifully filmed flashback — it changes history.
8. The Edwards family, The Searchers (1956)
Few deaths are more terrifying than the Indian assault on a frontier home that sets the stage for John Ford’s The Searchers. In a scene worthy of Hitchcock, we watch a father, mother and daughter each slowly realize they’re going to die. The horror of that moment is as unbearable to watch as it is strangely moving — and fuels the quest of revenge that drives the rest of the movie.
7. Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant), The Great Silence (1968)
Superficially, this gunfighter’s death ain’t all that special. He stands outside a saloon wanting to settle a score and the foes inside shoot him through the window. But
this one is a punch-to-the-gut because the viewer isn’t expecting it. See, this guy that gets shot is the hero. And the moment this comes is at the end
of the movie — when we’re expecting him to triumph. Ah, leave it to cynical directors like Sergio Corbucci to let you down like a ton of bricks.
6. J.B. Books (John Wayne), The Shootist (1976)
It’s pretty clear that Books is going to die in this movie: He’s
got incurable cancer. But as an aging legend, there are still plenty of young
bucks angling to get him in their sights. It all concludes in a Mexican standoff of sorts as Wayne’s character goes against not one, but a
trio of gunslingers and triumphs. Sort of. Wounded but living, he gets offed by the barkeep standing behind him. An aptly ironic way for a seasoned gunslinger to perish…
5. Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) and the Sundance Kid (Robert Redford), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
Destined by history to go out in a blaze of glory, Cassidy and the Sundance Kid don’t have a lot of choices when the Bolivian army pins them down during a bank robbery. But rather than cruelly show our beloved anti-heroes mowed down a la Bonnie and Clyde, they are frozen in a final freeze-frame as they go out to face their fates cowboy style — with guns drawn. The scene became so famous that Ridley Scott cribbed it for a movie about another pair of outlaws — Thelma and Louise.
4. Pike Bishop (William Holden) and his men, The Wild Bunch (1969)
The same year as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, we have a suicidal standoff that ends far more explicitly. Rather than merely alluding to the fate of Sam Peckinpah’s cadre of outlaws, The Wild Bunch shows every moment of their deaths in excruciating detail and hypnotic slow motion. It’s one of the most
exciting — and revolting — pieces of cinema ever, complete with stabbings, explosions, and one giant Gatling gun.
3. Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer), Tombstone (1993)
In Tombstone, the most dramatic death comes not during the shootout at
the O.K. Corral, but when the pesky tuberculosis claims the life of Doc Holliday. His old buddy Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell) comes in to pay his respects, and can barely contain his emotions as his friend lies on his death bed. It’s made more poignant by Holliday’s still robust sense of humor — and sadder by the fact that Holliday dies alone, muttering to himself the words: “Oh, this is funny.”
2. Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef), The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)
does director Sergio Leone make the ultimate Western showdown? He builds it up with rotating, whirling cameras, wailing
trumpets, and endless closeups of darting eyes and sweaty, sweaty
faces. The build-up here is over five minutes long, but it’s worth it when il buono, il brutto, and il cattivo
draw their pistols — and Angel Eyes gets sent sliding into a freshly
dug grave! Few things can beat such a demise, but Clint Eastwood always
outdoes himself, as evidenced by the death of…
You know the type: The whole movie you’re waiting for them to die.
That about says it for Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman) who rules his
town with a Draconian fist. Enter Clint
Eastwood: He and Hackman
come together in a saloon showdown that shows the odd calculus of the West, and it’s the Mexican strandoff to end all Mexican standoffs.