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Cowboy Movie Composers and Themes

From the very beginning of the silent film era, music has been an integral element of movie making. When you think of it, silent films weren’t really silent at all. The music was a main ingredient of the storytelling. It made the audience “feel” what was happening on the screen. By the time the “talking films” came along, audiences were not only used to music, but they relied on it to move the file along and it better. Can anyone see an image of Darth Vader and not hear John Williams’s musical accompaniment? While all genres of film have had their share of great musical scores, I’ll focus on the importance of music in creating the atmosphere of the western genre, or what I’ll refer to as “cowboy movies.”

Possibly more than any other genre, western films heavily rely on scenery and overall imagery to add credence to the story. Certainly, scenes of a bustling city, dense jungle or galaxy far, far away can also do the same, but for me, there’s nothing like the vast vistas of western films that take the viewer away to an unassuming place in time. Keep in mind, this isn’t a structural breakdown of the music as I’m not qualified to attempt such a thing. It’s just an opportunity to explore the composers and their compositions that made good movies even better. Okay, let’s get started.

A fair number of film fans think the western, or “cowboy movie” is extinct. They harken back to images of black and white grainy films with poor audio tracks and such. Okay, maybe not that far back, but certainly films from yesteryear. Not so! The western film genre is alive and well and I’ll visit that topic another time.

Let’s begin with one of my all-time favorites from not that long ago. Bruce Broughton’s energetic full sound of horns and percussion come thundering through in his 1985 theme to the film Silverado. Director Lawrence Kasdan captured the feel of old time westerns with sharp action heroes, villains and beautiful scenery. Broughton takes these elements a step further with his high powered score taking the audience on a wonderful melodious horseback ride that was second to none.

That same year, Clint Eastwood’s mysterious Pale Rider score, composed by Lennie Niehaus was in contrast to the high energy of Broughton’s work on Silverado. Pale Rider, about a mysterious preacher who comes to the aid of Colorado gold miners called for music that would augment the mood of the main character. Niehaus does this with deep horns and the more subdued sound of the orchestral instruments at his disposal. The music serves to create tension in a haunting fashion.

Pushing back a couple of decades brings us to a much different sound for a different type of cowboy movie. Ennio Marricone’s theme to the 1966 Sergio Leone film, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly plays more like a song than a traditional theme. The use of Spanish guitars, wind instruments and resonances made from other technology continued the unique sound he had created two years earlier in the Leone film A Fistful of Dollars.

For me, the cowboy movies made from 1960 to 1969 produced most of my favorite musical themes. The reason for this falls to one man, Elmer Bernstein, who is without a doubt, my favorite Western film composer of all time.

I’ll start with my choice for the greatest western movie theme of all time, The Magnificent Seven from 1960. One of the most popular westerns that didn’t feature a fella by the name of John Wayne, the story of seven gunfighters coming to the aid of Mexican farmers being terrorized by a ruthless bandit and his gang was elevated to stratospheric heights by Bernstein’s upbeat energy driven strings and horns. Cast member Eli Wallach once said had he been able to hear Bernstein’s music while filming, he would have done a better job in his role. Other Bernstein favorites of mine include the 1961 Michael Curtiz film The Comancheros and 1965’s Henry Hathaway effort The Sons of Katie Elder. Both themes start fast and gain momentum as they charge along. The opening music sets the tone for each of the films letting the audience know they are in for a rollicking ride. Finishing out my Bernstein favorites in the decade is the score from another Hathaway vehicle, 1969’s True Grit. For this story, about an aging U. S. Deputy Marshal hired by a spunky young girl to track down her father’s murderer, Bernstein tones the energy down with a slower haunting and pleasant piece that accents the characters and the majestic scenery of the film.

Alright, alright, enough of my infatuation with Mr. Bernstein. I feel I’d fail my readers if I didn’t recognize a few more outstanding efforts by remarkably talented composers and their music that made these western movies more memorable. Let’s go all the way back to 1948 with maybe the man who started it all, Dimitri Tiomkin’s score for Howard Hawks’ Red River. The “cavalry” rich sound sets the period and the wide open spaces of an ill-fated cattle drive from Texas to Missouri.

Max Steiner hit the mark in John Ford’s 1956 The Searchers with a score that sets a somber mood in this post-Civil War story of a young girl’s abduction by Comanche Indians after a raid on her family’s ranch. The story takes the audience on the five year journey of the girl’s uncle and adopted brother. Their relentless search to rescue the girl is more than enhanced by Steiner’s melodious maneuvering score.

The composers and movie themes listed here are only a few of my personal favorites. There are, of course many more musical virtuosos out there that not only complement the film we’re watching, but make watching far more enjoyable. Give their efforts a listen. You won’t be disappointed.


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