Through the years there have been numerous Westerns nominated as best picture and several that, arguably, should have been. Of the three that have actually won Oscars, one was not very good, one featured actual Native American actors playing Native Americans, and the last was actually an anti-western.
An epic covering the forty year period following the opening of the Oklahoma Territory, Cimarron was based on Edna Ferber's novel of the same name. The story revolves around lawyer-frontiersman-newspaper man Yancey Cravat (Richard Dix), who suffers from wanderlust, and his wife Sabra (Irene Dunne).
The highlight of the film happens early on with the recreation of the 1889 Oklahoma land rush. Even today it is worth watching, although it suffers occasionally from obvious rear projection. From that point, the movie goes downhill, descending into a morass of poor acting and racial stereotyping.
Dix, although nominated for best actor, gives an over-the-top performance that results in his Yancey being more a caricature than an interesting character. Dunne, who was a fine actress, has little to work with and her transformation from prairie wallflower to one of the most powerful people in Sooner land is not very believable.
Although by far not the worst movie ever made, it is probably one of the worst to win best picture.
Dances With Wolves (1990)
Kevin Costner directed and starred in this three hour movie of a white soldier, Lt. John Dunbar (Costner), who is assigned to a frontier fort that turns out to be deserted. While there he meets a tribe of Sioux Indians who he eventually lives with. In doing so, he develops a friendship with a tribe member, Kicking Bear (Graham Greene) and a white woman (Mary McDonnell) who has been raised by the tribe.
The film is beautifully photographed and the story, although slow moving at times, is, for the most part, well told. Costner, also, added an air of authenticity to the film by casting actual Native Americans in Sioux roles, and having them speak Lakota and not English. Costner, Greene, and McDonnell were all nominated for Oscars, but did not win.
Alongside its slow pace, another flaw in the movie is its depiction of whites (Costner and McDonnell excepted). When new soldiers arrive at the fort, they are all pictured as ignorant, drunken racists. The story simply substitutes Native American stereotypes with white stereotypes.
Unforgiven may be the finest anti-Western ever made. In it, director and star Clint Eastwood shattered many of the myths and icons of the traditional "oater." There are no white hats vs. black hats in this film, just the latter.
When a bounty is put on two cowboys who have brutalized a prostitute, ex-gunfighter and train robber William Munny (Eastwood) comes out of retirement. Barely making it as a pig farmer, Munny needs the reward money to support his farm and two motherless children. He is helped in this endeavor by his old partner Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) and a macho would-be gunslinger, The Schofield Kid (James Woolvett). Together, the three head for the town of Big Whiskey where they meet a corrupt sheriff, "Little Bill" Daggett (Gene Hackman).
Unforgiven is intensely, and deliberately, grim and violent. It's theme is not typical of many Westerns: Violence begets more violence, and those who are most involved in it are all destroyed in one way or another. Munny is no Shane coming to protect the weak and innocent. Instead, under his thin veneer of "civility," there is a man who, unknowingly, is controlled by his past.
Gene Hackman won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor and Eastwood won as Best Director. At the awards ceremony, he dedicated the movie to Italian director Sergio Leone, the creator of the "spaghetti westerns" that Eastwood was long associated with.