Set your sights on free Western films

If you were putting together a Western film series for the main branch of the library, you could go the straight route and program films with the great John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart, Roy Rogers and Charlotte's Randolph Scott.

Or you could go for the oddball likes of Ricky Nelson and Buster Keaton, Joan Crawford and Dustin Hoffman.

Or you could be especially cool and shove them all in together. That's what Sam Shapiro has done for his summer series, “Once Upon a Time in the West: Great Hollywood Westerns (and one Italian).”

Shapiro will introduce the free screenings, which start Sunday. This series sprawls across 67 years, from the earliest surviving plotted Western to a counterculture antiwar film from the hippie days.

Here's what you'll see:

Sunday: “Rio Bravo” (1959). Director Howard Hawks' last great film is about a sheriff (John Wayne) who's trying to keep a rancher from breaking his brother out of jail. The lawman gets help from a drunken deputy (Dean Martin), a disabled old coot (Walter Brennan) and a guitar-strumming gunslinger (Ricky Nelson).

June 22: “The Great Train Robbery” (1903) and “Go West” (1925), both silents. The first is a short famous for the moment when a robber points his gun at the audience and fires; women fainted when this occurred. The second is a comedy starring Buster Keaton and Brown Eyes the cow, and Charlotte favorite Ethan Uslan will provide a new piano score.

June 29: “Johnny Guitar” (1954). Rival landowners Mercedes McCambridge and Joan Crawford try to shove each other out of the wilderness in Nicholas Ray's over-the-top drama. Sterling Hayden is the guy who comes between them in more ways than one.

July 6: “The Searchers” (1956). Perhaps John Ford's masterpiece, and probably Wayne's. He is Ethan Edwards, a Civil War veteran (on the Confederate side) who searches for years to find a niece abducted by Indians. His rabid hatred of them means he may find it better to kill her than rescue her, if she's “turned.”

July 13: “Once Upon a Time in the West” (1968). Sergio Leone, the greatest non-American director of westerns, gave Henry Fonda a rare villainous role as a hired killer clearing the way for a railroad. Equally taciturn Charles Bronson plays a gunman out to avenge the murder of his brother.

July 20: “Utah” (1945) and “Idaho” (1943). Roy Rogers made 33 B-westerns during the World War II years with horse Trigger, occasional songs, sidekicks (such as Smiley Burnette and Gabby Hayes) and, near the end, future wife Dale Evans. These are two of them.

Aug. 10: “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962). This was the last Ford-Wayne collaboration, an exploration of the best ways to subdue lawlessness in the old West (embodied by Lee Marvin). Wayne goes after him with a gun, Jimmy Stewart with a lawbook.

Aug. 17: “Little Big Man” (1970). This raucous comedy stars Dustin Hoffman as 121-year-old Jack Crabb, who claims to have been the lone white survivor of Custer's Last Stand, to have lived among the Cheyenne and kicked around with Wild Bill Hickok.

Aug. 24: “Ride the High Country” (1962). ImaginOn is less than a mile from Randolph Scott's burial place (Elmwood Cemetery) and boyhood home (West 10th Street). This was his final film (at 64); he and Joel McCrea play lawmen hired to guard a shipment of gold. Director Sam Peckinpah was halfway between his years in TV and “The Wild Bunch,” and he turned out a classic.

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