7 Movies That Inspired ‘Cowboys & Aliens’

By  · Published on December 1st, 2010

We’ve taken you behind the scenes of Cowboys & Aliens and into the mind of director Jon Favreau, and today we dig deeper into the films that the filmmakers talked most about during the set visit.

Cowboys & Aliens may be the only Steven Spielberg film that Steven Spielberg isn’t directing. From the conversations I shared with Jon Favreau and co-screenwriter Bob Orci on the set of the film, a select group of movies kept returning to the fold as titles that had a lot to do with the shaping of tone and storytelling.

A theme quickly emerged. While Executive Producer Steven Spielberg was busy inviting the filmmakers to private screenings of new prints of The Searchers, the filmmakers were drawing on their childhood love of Amblin and the films of Spielberg himself.

Still, even though it lacks diversity in the directorial column, this is one seriously formidable list of inspirational films.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Directed by: Steven Spielberg

Genre: Science Fiction

The Pitch: An absolutely beautiful movie about a man torn between grand discovery and the love of a family. It showcases deft dramatic writing, stirring acting performances, and the most memorable giant keyboard solo of all time.

What Jon Favreau Has To Say: “…what’s happening on the outside usually reflects a lot of what’s going on internally with the characters in the classic sci-fi. You know, Close Encounters was about a guy who was somehow estranged from his family. And if you remove the alien element, you could still make a drama based about Richard Dreyfuss and him coming apart, and that could have been another woman or his career.”

The Professionals (1966)

Directed by: Richard Brooks

Genre: Western

The Pitch: This movie is one of my all-time favorite westerns because it pulls together the man on a mission mentality so perfectly. It’s difficult to imagine a better ensemble with Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, Woody Strode, Claudia Cardinale, and Jack Palance (doing his best Mexican accent). The men are hired by a Texas millionaire whose wife has been kidnapped and taken deep into the rifle-hipped dangers of Mexico. It’s gritty and sweaty and always holding a cigar just a few inches from a trail of gun powder.

Jaws (1975)

Directed by: Steven Spielberg

Genre: Nautical Horror

The Pitch: Attempting to even talk about the genius of Jaws is probably incredibly foolish. You already know how great it is because you’re still afraid to go in the water.

What Bob Orci Has To Say: “Whenever you can do whatever you want, is when you really get in trouble. Whenever you’re, you know ‐ and Spielberg teaches us this ‐ when he says, ‘The only reason I had that great scene in Jaws at the pier is because a shark didn’t work. So all I could show was the pier. So instead of using a shark, we showed the pier going all over the place.’ And it’s great. And if you have that mindset, you actually find that you actually improve the story whenever you come up against the walls.”

The Searchers (1956)

Directed by: John Ford

Genre: Western

The Pitch: There’s a descent into madness that weaves itself with ease through this film as John Wayne’s character Ethan Edwards seeks the niece who was captured by Native Americans. Instead of the simplicity of grabbing his shotgun and blazing a trail, Edwards is forced to spend years looking for her. A sledgehammer to the chest, John Wayne loved this film so much that he named his son Ethan after the role.

What Bob Orci Has To Say: “[Spielberg] got a new print of The Searchers, and he took me and Jon and Alex [Kurtzman] and Damon [Lindelof] to the Warner Brothers Theater. And he ‐ it was just a DVD commentary live, with Spielberg behind us. It’s like, ‘Okay, where’s the horizon? Why do you think the horizon is there? What is the horizon’s relationship to the actors mean about the scene?’ You know, just ‐ and we’re like taking notes…Of course it’s film school. I would have paid for that class.”

What Jon Favreau Has To Say: “I definitely watched and went through the whole John Ford, you know, all the John Ford films I could get my hands on.”

E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

Directed by: Steven Spielberg

Genre: Science Fiction

The Pitch: The Amblin legacy that most recognize is perhaps best encapsulated by E.T. More than just an extended commercial for Reece’s Pieces, the movie creates a doomed bond between a young boy in search of a father figure and an alien that truly can’t remain in our world. Plus, it creates a stark divide between the wonderment of youth and the cynicism of adulthood. There are few things more exhilarating than a getaway on a bicycle or more frightening than grown men in bio-hazard suits trying to steal our friend away.

The Magnificent Seven (1960)

Directed by: John Sturges

Genre: Western

The Pitch: A remake of Seven Samurai set in the late 19th century Mexico, this film focuses on the troubled village that hires a group of gunmen to protect itself from marauders. It’s an unbridled masterpiece of western filmmaking. Earlier, when I said it would be difficult to imagine a better ensemble than the one in The Professionals, this film’s cast was in the back of my mind. Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Eli Wallach, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn, and James Coburn. They’re all captured here by the legendary vision of Sturges who already had two decades of incredible filmmaking under his gun belt.

Alien (1979)

Directed by: Ridley Scott

Genre: Science Fiction Horror

The Pitch: Nothing beats the atmosphere of this film or the threat of the unseen. What quickly moves in shadows has bad intentions. Here is the rare example of a film that uses an audience’s imagination against it, and then delivers something even more terrifying when it comes out from the shadows.

What Bob Orci Has To Say: “[Cowboys & Aliens] goes from a Western to a little Close Encounters and then it becomes a little darker; it goes to Alien. And then it goes into its own thing. So there is a little bit of wonderment in there, but it’s a mix of Close Encounters and Alien in a way.

We’ll have to wait until the dust settles next year to see Cowboys & Aliens, but we’ve got a week’s worth of features from our set visit to drop you into a rusty UFO in the middle of the desert.

Related Topics:

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector [email protected] | Writing short stories at Adventitious.