The Westerns of James Coburn
Updated: Apr 19
From knifeman Britt to Pat Garrett
James Coburn came quite late to the Western. Only two of his appearances in oaters were in the 1950s, the glory days of saddle-and-sagebrush sagas, and those were non-lead parts in 1959 pictures, when he was already in his thirties. There were four movies in the 60s and eight in the 70s, when the glory had definitely departed. Nevertheless, he is well remembered for the genre, and his parts in The Magnificent Seven and two Sam Peckinpah Westerns were notably good. He also did a great number of TV Westerns, 58 episodes of 33 different shows and three TV movies, as against 15 features. So he earned the right to be considered an important figure in field.
His craggy face and sometimes roguish toothy smile were advantages, as well as his general toughness. He was well qualified to be badmen or the less saintly kind of good guy.
James Harrison Coburn III was born in Nebraska in 1928. It wasn’t an easy childhood; his family lost its money in the Great Depression. James enlisted in the Army in 1950 and afterwards studied acting.
His first professional job was on a live TV play for Sidney Lumet in 1953. His first Western was an episode of Maverick in 1957, though with the rather inglorious part of ‘Attacking Indian (uncredited)’. We all have to start somewhere. He got a better role in a Tales of Wells Fargo in 1958 when he was ‘Idaho’ to Charles Bronson’s Butch Cassidy, and the same year he appeared in episodes of Wagon Train, The Rifleman and The Restless Gun. So he was getting a good apprenticeship.
However, in February 1959 he was really noticed when he was bad guy Pernell Roberts’s slightly dim henchman Whit in the Budd Boetticher/Randolph Scott picture Ride Lonesome, which we reviewed the other day. In fact Boetticher and writer Burt Kennedy expanded his part in response to his attractive screen presence.
And he followed that up with a second big-screen Western later the same year when he was Purdy, a henchman again, in a Fred MacMurray oater, Face of a Fugitive, also for Columbia. Actually, for such a small part Coburn is electric and his entry to the dance is stunning.
Episodes of Zane Grey Theatre, The Californians, Black Saddle, The Rough Riders, Trackdown, Have Gun – Will Travel, Bronco, Wanted: Dead or Alive, Johnny Ringo, Bat Masterson, Tombstone Territory, Laramie, Wichita Town, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, The Restless Gun and Bonanza all also happened in 1959, so Coburn was now very well established as a regular on TV Western shows, and there was no shortage of work.
But it was in 1960 that his career, his Western career anyway, was really launched because when John Sturges and Yul Brynner were casting The Magnificent Seven, Coburn, who had seen the Kurosawa picture The Seven Samurai on which it was based fifteen times and longed to be one of the Western samurai, was able, thanks in part to the good graces of his friend Robert Vaughn, the slick gunfighter Lee in the movie, to land the role of the knifeman Britt. In fact Coburn deliberately incorporated Seiji Miyaguchi's performance as Kyuzo into his own acting. Coburn has fewer lines to say than any of the other six, and his character is taciturn in the best Western tradition, but he stood out as especially memorable, from his knife vs. gun fight with heavy Robert J Wilke right through to his demise in the Mexican village.
The moment when he shoots a Mexican bandit off his horse on the skyline with a six-gun, to Chico’s astonishment, was particularly notable.
Coburn said that The Magnificent Seven "was really kind of a miraculous event that took place in my life."
Many more TV shows (too numerous to mention) followed in 1960 through ’63, and of course his part back with Sturges in The Great Escape, before he returned to the big screen in a Western, when he was third-billed in Warners’ William Conrad-directed picture The Man from Galveston, released in December 1963. It was ‘big screen’, just: it had a theatrical release but in fact it was shot as a pilot for the short-lived Temple Houston TV show. It’s a tedious Texas courtroom drama.
After The Magnificent Seven Coburn might have aspired to more quality feature Westerns, but he had to wait five years, till April 1965, for that. He was one of Sergio Leone's pre-Clint choices for A Fistful of Dollars, which he turned down, but I said quality feature. Then he was cast in Major Dundee.
This Peckinpah picture was either an overblown, meandering, too long movie or a masterpiece cut to ribbons by the studio (Columbia), depending on your point of view. However, one thing is sure: James Coburn was the best actor in it. The two top stars, Charlton Heston and Richard Harris, overdid it by miles (competing to upstage each other) while Coburn, fourth-billed as the one-armed scout Samuel Potts, is superb (even compared with those fine Westerners Ben Johnson, RG Armstrong, LQ Jones and Slim Pickens in character parts). It is said that Peckinpah first wanted Lee Marvin as Potts, and I get that, but Marvin wanted too much money. If so, his loss was Coburn’s gain. Although Coburn and Harris got along very well (they often went out drinking together and Coburn recalled of Harris, "When he wanted to, he could hit the liquor like no one I knew") it wasn’t a happy set. Heston threatened the drunken director with a saber and Coburn is said to have remarked to Peckinpah at the end of principal photography, "Goodbye, you rotten motherf***er." If true, it didn’t stop Sam casting Coburn eight years later in perhaps his greatest Western role, as Pat Garrett in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid.
But there were several Westerns before then (and more TV shows of course). In 1967 Coburn finally got to lead in one, even if it was only a zany comedy, almost a spoof Western, Waterhole #3. Coburn is a drifting cardsharp and occasional highwayman. It is actually quite funny, in parts, even if reviews were slightly less than ecstatic. Roger Ebert said, “Waterhole No. 3, advertised as a Western comedy, is approximately as hilarious as a pail of limp grits. I think I've figured out why. James Coburn is not funny. What's more, he's actively unfunny, and what he does to a funny line shouldn't be done to a dog, although it often is.” The New York Times remarked, “Some of it is mad and funny. A lot of it is forced and dull.”
In 1971 Coburn worked for Sergio Leone in his Mexican revolution picture Giù la testa, also known as A Fistful of Dynamite and Once Upon a Time... The Revolution, which Leone bizarrely insisted on calling Duck, You Sucker in English. Coburn played a former Irish terrorist, an explosives expert, as the gringo-in-Mexico that all such pictures seemed to be obliged to feature (mostly it was Robert Mitchum). Coburn could ham it up to his heart’s delight and still look restrained because he was paired with Rod Steiger as the Mexican, and Steiger was never known to hold back in Westerns, to put it mildly. The picture was shot in Spain, and had all the failings of Leone’s other spaghetti/paella westerns, and the sub-genre in general, though this one had a bigger budget than usual – unfortunately, actually, because Leone’s brakes were off (Once Upon a Time in the West in 1968 having made him a lion). It was way too long for one thing. Still, Coburn was clearly enjoying himself.
It was back to Spain in the summer of 1972 to film another spaghetti, this time for director Tonino Valerii, Una ragione per vivere e una per morire, not released in the US until June 1974 as A Reason to Live, a Reason to Die. Coburn headed the cast list, with Telly Savalas next, and then Bud Spencer. The IMDb synopsis says, “Branded a coward for surrendering his New Mexico fort to the Confederates without firing a shot, a Union colonel [Coburn] attempts to redeem himself by leading a band of condemned prisoners on a suicide mission to recapture it.” So it was hardly original. And like most of these movies, it was very bad.
But in May 1972 United Artists released a contemporary rodeo picture, The Honkers, with Coburn as an over-the-hill champion – also hardly original; most rodeo movies seemed to go for this trope, and Arena (1953), for example, was very similar in plot. Coburn’s good, though, as an egotistical type ready to sacrifice anyone and anything to get what he wants. Rodeo pictures were all the rage at this time, with Junior Bonner, JW Coop and When Legends Die all coming out. In fact, though, Slim Pickens (who had once been a rodeo clown) steals the show with a marvelous performance as Coburn’s best friend.
The following year Coburn took the lead (even over Kris Kristofferson, and the picture was interestingly not called ‘Billy the Kid & Pat Garrett’) in what many regard as Peckinpah’s chef d’œuvre. It was a superb performance and Coburn transmitted the ‘sensitive toughness’ of Garrett supremely well.
He is the aging and world-weary survivor who is, despite himself, prepared to compromise with the corporations and politicians and hunt down his old friend – a character not unlike that Robert Ryan played in another earlier Peckinpah Western also regarded by many as his best, The Wild Bunch. "This country is growing old," he says, "and I intend to grow old with it." Peckinpah’s Garrett is the good guy who sells his soul and lives long, but in self-disgust, and it is the outlaw who perishes who is the noble one. Coburn said his Pat Garrett was his favortite role ever.
Bite the Bullet (1975) was Richard Brooks’s last Western (he wrote and directed it) and it was perhaps not his best. It starred Gene Hackman in the tale of an epic horse race in 1905 (it’s another end-of-the-West picture with a motor-cycle showing how out of date horses are) and Coburn was a competitor, a gambler out to win the purse at any or all costs. The picture was nominated for two Academy Awards and won the 1976 Western Heritage Bronze Wrangler Award for best Theatrical Motion Picture, probably unjustifiably, if truth be told.
The next year Coburn was reunited with Charlton Heston in a rather unpleasant Western, The Last Hard Men, with Heston as an old-school lawman, again in a dying West scenario, and Coburn (the best thing about the picture) as his quarry – for escaped convict Provo (Coburn) has kidnapped Heston’s daughter. Written by the excellent Brian Garfield, it really ought to have been better, but it wasn’t very good, and at times rather salacious.
There was a Western pause now before in 1984, when he was 56, Coburn did a TV movie, with Kirk Douglas, Draw! This time, in yet another end-of-the-West tale, Coburn was the lawman come out of retirement charged with hunting down old gunfighter Douglas. But this one was played for laughs, so Coburn was back to a genre he didn’t really excel in, the comedy Western (a notoriously difficult kind of picture to get right).
Coburn suffered as he aged from severe rheumatoid arthritis, and this limited his choices. In 1990 he did a cameo in Young Guns II as rancher John Chisum, in which he re-uses his “set fire to it” line from Pat Garrett. It was mildly amusing.
Much better was his Commodore Duvall in the big-screen Maverick in 1994. He is commander of the riverboat upon which the high-stakes poker game that Bret (Mel Gibson) seeks to win, beating all comers. The Commodore is there to ensure fair play and referee disputes. However...
It was huge fun and an entertaining performance in rather a good film. There were just two TV movies to come, but he was excellent in the first, TNT’s The Avenging Angel (1995), as the famous (or infamous) Porter Rockwell, ‘The Destroying Angel of Mormondom’, in an 1870s Utah story (with Charlton Heston as Brigham Young at risk of assassination). Rockwell had been told by Joseph Smith that, Samson-like, he would be invulnerable as long as he never cut his hair, so Coburn goes for the full-flowing locks. Rockwell is supposed to be the original utterer of the ‘justification’, "I never killed anyone who didn't need killing". Quite a few needed killing, though, according to him.
In 1996 Coburn did HBO’s The Cherokee Kid, yet another comedy. It’s quite interesting in that it features the great Nat Love, aka Deadwood Dick (played by Ernie Hudson). It’s not terribly good, but the saving grace is Coburn, enjoying himself and hamming it up as the villain. He is killing people and stealing their land for the railroad, then he gets to own the railroad. We also get Burt Reynolds as mountain man Otter Bob. Coburn and Reynolds do have a lot of fun and, to be fair, do just about save the picture.
In 2001 Coburn did some narration, in that unmistakable voice of his, on Texas Rangers, which seems to have been a straight-to-video affair in the US, though it got a theatrical release in some countries.
But as far as Westerns went, that was all she wrote. He died of a heart attack in 2002. His craggy mug and gravelly voice graced Westerns for nearly forty years and lovers of TV Westerns in particular got to know him most affectionately. But his Pat Garrett and Britt the knifeman on the big screen in particular mark him out as one of the great Western actors.