Few genres have the ability to capture a time and place as well as the western.
The western genre is filled with films that deliver breathtaking landscapes, unforgettable characters and some of the best stories ever brought to the screen.
Here is a look at some of best westerns ever made, in no particular order.
1 Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
John Ford and John Wayne team together again to give the western genre another classic film. Joined by the great James Stewart and Lee Marvin, the film follows the tale of Ransom “Ranse” Stoddard (Stewart) and is told through flashback.
The basic plot follows how Stoddard arrived in the western town of Shinbone; instantly clashed with outlaw Liberty Valance (Marvin, who seems to be drunk the entire time); falls for local girl Hallie (Vera Miles); and eventually becomes a U.S. Senator.
Along the way, he clashes with and befriends local rancher Tom Doniphon (Wayne) – who warns him that he needs to learn to use a gun more than a law book.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance Trailer
The film does a great job of showing how the west was tamed by law and a man who is forced to put his beliefs aside to survive. Although it is a little light on gunfights, it features some great acting from Stewart and Wayne (the first time the two had appeared on screen together).
2 The Big Country (1958)
Featuring a cast as large as its epic landscape, The Big Country saw Gregory Peck as retired sea captain trying to adjust to the expectations of his fiancée Patricia (Carroll Baker) and her overbearing cattle rancher father Major Terrill (Charles Bickford).
He also finds himself in the middle of a land war and family feud between the Major and fellow cattle rancher Rufus Hannassey (Burl Ives, who took home an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor and a Golden Glove Award for the film).
The Big Country Trailer
The film also manages to throw in an epic fist fight with Charlton Heston and a showdown with Chuck Connors. Simply put, The Big Country is a BIG western and belongs on any “best of” classic western list.
3 Red River (1948)
Howard Hawks directs a fictional tale of the first cattle drive from Texas to Kansas by way of the Chisholm Trail, and gives a rare opportunity to see John Wayne in the role of someone less than the good guy.
The film kicks off with the back story of Wayne’s character Thomas Dunson coming to Texas and building a cattle ranch by using his gun and any means necessary to keep it.
Following the Civil War, Dunson is forced to drive his beef to Kansas for a chance to get a fair price. Along for the ride are his adopted son Matt Garth (Montgomery Clift), old friend Nadine Groot (Walter Brennan), and as many cattle hands as he could sign on to the trail.
Red River Trailer
Once on the drive, things go bad quickly as Dunson is pushed to the edge and demonstrates he will get the cattle to Kansas even if it means killing every man who crosses him on the drive – even Matt. The film ends in a classic western showdown, and demonstrates how great an actor Wayne could be with a good script.
4 My Darling Clementine (1946)
While it might not be the most historically accurate version of Wyatt Earp and the shootout at the OK Corral, John Ford (that name keeps popping up on this list) crafts easily the best screen version of Earp and his story. The film remains great thanks to its use of mood, lighting and Henry Fonda’s brilliant performance as Earp.
Featuring Victor Mature as Doc Holliday, My Darling Clementine sees Wyatt and his brothers on a cattle drive to California when the youngest brother is killed and cattle rustled while the others are in the town of Tombstone. Wyatt returns to Tombstone and takes up the job of Town Marshal so he can find the rustlers responsible for the killing.
My Darling Clementine Trailer
His quest for vengeance leads him to Old Man Clanton (an evil Walter Brennan) and his gang. It also leads him to romance with the arrival of Clementine Carter, who also catches the eye of Holliday.
5 The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)
Although it isn’t the most action-packed western ever made, The Ox-Bow incident proves how the genre can deliver thought provoking drama through its tale of vigilantly justice gone horribly wrong.
Based on Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s novel of the same name, the film features incredible performances from Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, Anthony Quinn, William Eythe, and Harry Morgan. It was also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture and was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.
The film follows the events after a posse is formed to track down the murderers of a local cattle rancher, who are also believed to be the rustlers that have been stealing cattle around Bridger’s Wells, Nevada. In the posse are cowboys Art Croft (Morgan) and Gil Carter (Fonda) who were new to the town and joined the posse to avoid being suspected of the crime. After some time, the group find their suspects Ox-Bow Canyon.
The Ox-boow Incident Trailer
The posse had orders to bring the suspects back to town for trial, but circumstantial evidence convinces many in the posse the men are the killers and there is no need for a trial. The group quickly goes from a posse to a lynch mob, and Fonda’s Gil is forced to decide which side he will take since he believes the men are innocent. The film features an incredible conclusion that will leave the audience talking about it long after the end credits roll.
6 John Ford’s ‘Cavalry Trilogy’ – Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), Rio Grande (1950)
If John Wayne is the western genre’s most iconic cowboy, then John Ford is its most iconic director. Ford brought the Old West to life through his vast landscape and brilliant story-telling.
He also gave audiences a glimpse into the life of a U.S. Calvary man through his ‘Cavalry Trilogy’ – three films based on James Warner Bellah’s stories and featuring many actors from Ford’s ‘Stock Company’ – including John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Ward Bond, Victor McLaglen, Mae Marsh, Francis Ford, Frank Baker, and Ben Johnson.
Fort Apache sees Wayne in the role of Captain Kirby York and clashing with Fort Apache’s new commander Lieutenant Colonel Owen Thursday (Fonda) over his treatment of the Native Americans in their area – which leads to a disastrous showdown with the local Apaches and their leader Cochise (Miguel Inclan).
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon finds US Cavalry Capt. Nathan Cutting Brittles (Wayne) on the verge of retirement at Fort Starke and dealing with breakout of Cheyenne and Arapaho, who left the reservations following the Battle of the Little Big Horn.
Rio Grande is easily the best of the three films with Wayne playing Lt. Col. Kirby Yorke, who is tasked with defending settlers along the Texas border against raiding Apaches. The Apaches are attacking and then crossing the river to find safety in Mexico where the Calvary can’t follow.
Yorke’s life gets more complicated with the arrival of his wife Kathleen (Maureen O’Hara) who is there to take back her son Trooper Jeff Yorke (Claude Jarman Jr.). The film is the perfect blend of western action with a sharp sense of comedy and some of the best scenes are where Wayne is put in his pace by O’Hara.
7 The Magnificent Seven (1960)
A western remake of Akira Kurosawa’s incredible Seven Samurai (1954), The Magnificent Seven is not the greatest western ever made, but it is easily one of the most entertaining.
Featuring a stellar cast that included Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Robert Vaughn, Brad Dexter, Horst Buchholz, and Eli Wallach, the film follows a simple plot of a small Mexican village hiring seven gunfighters to save them from the raids by the bandit Calvera (a brillantly over-the-top Wallach).
The gunfighters are led by Chris (Brynner) and all fight for their own reasons – not for the small amount of money and beans offered.
Director John Sturges makes the most of his large cast and makes sure that each of the stars have plenty of time to shine on screen. The film also features a thumping musical score by Elmer Bernstein that adds to the drama of the shootouts and keeps the audience hooked on all the action from the opening moments of the film.
Released in 1960, Magnificent Seven went on to spawn a franchise, although the subsequent films failed to live up to the greatness of the original.
8 The Man with No Name Trilogy (A Fistful of Dollars / For a Few Dollars More / The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
The western landscape was forever changed with the arrival of director Sergio Leone’s “Man with No Name Trilogy” and the Spaghetti Western.
The three films, A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) made Clint Eastwood a star and a western icon on the same level as John Wayne.
They showcased a haunting soundtrack and shocking violence – which featured the “hero” not thinking twice about shooting someone in the back. Eastwood’s character is mythical and the films take on a sense of epic storytelling with the over-the-top violence, Leone’s filming style and the musical score that became as big a character to the films as the actors on the screen.
Although the three films really have nothing to do with each other, Eastwood plays the three roles as basically the same gunfighter (sporting the same kind of outfits, smoking the same cigars and having the same bad attitude) and the style of the three films help to make it feel like one story – even though that was never Leone’s intention.
A Fistful of Dollars plays as an unofficial remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 film Yojimbo, and follows the basic elements of that story with Eastwood’s gunfighter playing both sides of a feud between two families in a Mexican town to make some money.
For a Few Dollars More sees Eastwood’s gunfighter tracking down one of the most dangerous fugitives in the west for the bounty reward, but having to compete with another hunter (Lee Van Cleef) on the outlaw’s trail.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is the best of the three films and features a good blend of humor thanks to the performance of Eli Wallach as Tuco: The Ugly. The film fits in with the other two films in the trilogy but seems to have a larger scope and feel to its story thanks to the three main stars.
9 Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
Directed by George Roy Hill and written by William Goldman (who took home an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for the film), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid works on multiple levels and is simply one of the greatest westerns ever made. The film features career making performances from Paul Newman and Robert Redford, and a screenplay that is filled with memorable lines and moments.
It is impossible to not like this film, and it all kicks off with a subtle introduction to its characters and quickly shows that the movie is going to be as much a buddy comedy as a gritty western – they are train robbers and outlaws after all. No matter how many times you see it, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid always entertains. Newman and Redford own the roles and it is impossible to think of anyone else as the characters.
Although the film is defined by Newman and Redford, it also features a great performance from Katharine Ross as Etta Place, the love of both Butch and Sundance. Ross truly makes Place the heart of the film and it is easy to see how she had both outlaws wrapped around her finger.
10 Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
The greatest of all revenge-themed westerns, Once Upon a Time in the West broke the mold for how to make a western and continues to be one of the best movies ever made.
Director Sergio Leone crafted a film that continues to get better with multiple viewings and saw Henry Fonda break type as the film’s villain who is willing to do whatever is needed to fulfill his job with the railroad. This leads him to kill the family of Claudia Cardinale (Jill McBain), and puts him on the road to a collision with the killers Cheyenne (Jason Robards) and Harmonica (Charles Bronson) she hires to even the score.
The film is long, filled with atmosphere, and not for everyone – even some western fans might not like what they see. It is also one of the greatest revenge films ever made and ranks at the top of many lists.
11 Stagecoach (1939)
Director John Ford makes the most of the Stagecoach’s straight forward plot and gives John Wayne a chance to become a screen legend with his breakthrough performance as the Ringo Kid.
The film follows the events of a group of strangers traveling by stagecoach from the Arizona Territory to the New Mexico Territory. The stage is carrying nine strangers, ranging from a prostitute and alcoholic doctor to a whiskey salesman and a gambler. On the road the group picks up an extra passenger as Wayne’s Ringo Kid comes onto the screen in true iconic style.
Taken into custody by a local marshal who is riding shotgun on the stage, Ringo becomes very needed as the group is attacked by Apache and even has time to fall for Dallas (Claire Trevor), the prostitute who was run out of town by some its more upstanding citizens.
Once again, Ford is a master at his craft using the confined setting of the stage for some great character moments, but peppering the film with enough action and tension to keep the audience glued to what Ringo will do when they finally reach their destination.
12 High Noon (1952)
This western belongs on any “best of” list thanks to giving the screen the very images of the western lawman as seen through Gary Cooper’s brilliant performance as town marshal Will Kane, and the film’s ability to prove the western genre can work beyond a simple good guy shooting the bad guy plotline.
The film opens to Tex Ritter singing the equally iconic song “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin'”, and with Kane hanging up his guns to marry Quaker Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly). Their plans for the future are put on hold when word reaches that outlaw Frank Miller is on the noon train with plans to get revenge on Will for sending him to prison.
Although his wife begs him to leave, Will feels it is his duty to protect the town from Miller and his gang. He spends most of the film trying to get help from the townspeople, but finds he will have to stand alone. The final moments of the film features an incredible shootout and pays off all the tension that has been building since the opening minutes.
No matter how many times you see it, High Noon remains one of the best westerns ever filmed, and Cooper remains as one of the genre’s greatest lawmen.
13 Shane (1953)
Westerns simply don’t get more classic than 1953’s Shane and the noble gunfighter has never been brought to the screen better than in Alan Ladd’s performance as the title character. Ladd’s gunfighter arrives on the screen and quickly finds himself forced to take a stand with local homesteader Joe Starrett (Van Heflin) against cattle baron Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer) and his gang of cattle hands.
Shane wants to hang up his guns and leave the violence behind him, but he can’t turn a blind eye to how the farmers are being run out of the valley by Ryker.
The film may seem dated by today’s standards, but it remains a great western and a cornerstone of the genre. It moves at a traditional pace as Shane becomes part of the Starrett family; the idol of Joe’s son; and even falls slightly in love with Joe’s wife. He leaves all his new found happiness behind to ride into town and face down Ryker and his men. He does this knowing he might die, but it also means Joe will live.
14 The Wild Bunch (1969)
Gritty and ultra-violent, director Sam Peckinpah shattered everything audiences thought they knew about the western genre with his 1969 masterpiece The Wild Bunch. The movie continues to hold up against any western that has made it to the big screen since its release, and it is easy to see its massive influence on both the western genre and filmmaking in general.
Featuring an aging cast that included William Holden, Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine, Ben Johnson and Warren Oates, The Wild Bunch followed a group of killers in the final days of the Old West as they plan one last robbery before retirement. Things go horribly wrong, and the group finds themselves in Mexico with no money to show for it. With a posse on their trail, the group agrees to rob a military train for a Mexican Federal Army general, who is just slightly mad.
The Wild Bunch starts with violence and instantly makes the audience uneasy about what they are seeing on the screen. Unlike classic westerns, none of these men are the “good guys” and several of them are simply despicable and deserving of their fates.
Peckinpah makes the most of his cast ensure every actor has a chance to shine in the film. He also uses their age as a way to demonstrate the death of the Old West. It is a perfect western that works on several layers and once again proves how rich the genre can be when it is done right. A film that is not easy to watch and even harder for some audiences to like, The Wild Bunch makes no apologies for its violence and leaves it all on the screen.
15 The Searchers (1956)
Arguably the greatest western ever made, The Searchers sees John Ford at his best as he directs John Wayne in the tale of a man obsessed with rescuing his niece following her kidnapping during an Comanche raid on his brother’s farm.
Following the end of the Civil War, Ethan Edwards (Wayne) returns to Texas to visit his brother and try to start his life over. Ethan is welcomed by his brother’s wife, their two daughters and young son. The reunion is cut short when a group of Texas Rangers arrive to get Ethan’s brother to join them tracking down some cattle that were stolen by Comanche.
Ethan takes his brother’s place with the Rangers, but soon learns it was all a trick to lure the men away from the homes. Returning, Ethan discovers the farm burnt and his two nieces missing. The rest of the film is a five-year quest by Ethan and his adopted nephew Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) to bring his niece Debbie (Natalie Wood) home.
Although he starts out wanting to save Debbie, it becomes clear that Ethan is also motivated by a hatred of the Comanche, and it is less certain if he will rescue Debbie or kill her when he sees her.
Watch a Clip from The Searchers
Once again, Wayne delivers an incredible performance and walks a fine line between good guy and bad. Ethan is noble, but cruel. He doesn’t think twice about killing and cares little about what the law or religion has to say about it (you have to love the line at the funeral of his family where Ethan shouts “Put an amen on it” and storms off to track the Comanche). No matter how many times you see it, The Searchers has the ability to capture the audience and keep you glued to see how Ethan’s quest to find Debbie will end and what that outcome will be.
After the 1960s, the western genre changed in many ways, but it continued to be one of the riches genres for storytelling, unforgettable characters, and great action sequences. Many times, the modern western rose above its conventional trappings to a film that worked as a social commentary or could leave the audience talking long after the credits rolled.
Many of the modern westerns also continued to change the genre, such as adding more comedy elements or continuing to blur the traditional ideas of the “good guy” or “bad guy.” Here is a look at 15 of the greatest western films from 1971 to 2014. Tell us which films you think also deserve to be on the “best of” list.
16 Blazing Saddles (1974)
Who says westerns need to be serious? Mel Brooks brings a western to the screen that shows just how funny the genre can be and just how far the envelope can be pushed with the hilarious and less than politically correct Blazing Saddles.
Nominated for three Academy Awards and on the American Film Institute’s 100 Years…100 Laughs, Brooks is firing on all cylinders in his tale of the Old West where the town of Rock Ridge falls under the scheme of evil State Attorney General Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman), who wants to buy the town’s land cheap so he can make a fortune from the railroad when it comes through the area.
To make sure the town folk are in the mood to sell, Lamarr sends a gang of thugs to terrorize the citizens and then goes even further by convincing Governor William J. Le Petomane (Brooks) to appoint black railroad worker Bart (Cleavon Little) as the new town sheriff. The town is less than thrilled when they discover their new sheriff, but he gains the assistance from Jim (Gene Wilder), a drunk gunslinger who also goes by “The Waco Kid.”
No matter how many times you see it, Blazing Saddles will make you laugh until it hurts. Brooks and company make sure to offend just about everyone with the film’s raunchy dialogue and questionable dinner choice (they do eat a lot of beans after all). It may not be a perfect western or the best example of the genre, but it is probably the funniest western ever made.
17 Appaloosa (2008)
Based on Robert B. Parker’s incredible novel, Ed Harris handles dual roles as director and star for the big screen adaptation of Appaloosa. The film has some issues, but does an excellent job of filling the screen with classic western elements – including the unwavering lawman, the “black hat” villain, and the woman who could cost the lawman everything. The film moves at a slow pace, but Harris makes the most of his setting, talented cast, and fills every frame with authenticity.
As lawman Virgil Cole, Harris reminds of Gary Cooper in High Noon. He will do what s right at all cost, will die for his beliefs and never break his word. He is joined by a quiet but equally great performance from Viggo Mortensen as Cole’s deputy and only friend Everett Hitch.
The two men have been protecting each other and working in the gunfighter profession for so long they barely need to speak to each other to have a conversation. The friendship is put at somewhat of a risk with the arrival of Allie French (Renée Zellweger), who falls for Virgil but is willing to trade-up for the next powerful man. The film also benefits from a snarling performance from Jeremy Irons as the film’s villain Randall Bragg.
Appaloosa is simply a great film that reminds what made the classics of the western genre so entertaining. It doesn’t break new ground in the genre like some modern westerns, but it manages to entertain and capture the audience with every viewing. Parker went on to write several more books and it would be great to see Harris and Mortensen saddle up for another ride as Cole and Hitch.
18 3:10 to Yuma (2007)
A remake that proved to be more entertaining than the 1957 original, director James Mangold combines traditional western elements with modern popcorn action entertainment for a film that sees the outlaw Ben Wade (played with a viciousness by Russell Crowe) and good guy rancher Dan Evans (Christian Bale) playing a deadly game of cat and mouse as they ride to reach the train.
Crowe makes sure that his Wade is not simply a “black hat” wearing villain, but also far from the good guy. Bale seems to be channeling the stoic farmer Van Heflin brought to the screen with the Joe Starrett character in 1953’s Shane.
Down on his luck and against his better judgment (not to mention wife’s wishes), Evans signs on to escort Wade to the train that will take him to Yuma Prison so he can be hanged. Along the way, Evans will face off against Wade’s gang, his own doubts as a father and husband, and finally find some common ground with Wade.
The film belongs on a modern “best of” western list for its ability to remind audiences what made the genre great while matching the huge action sequences many modern audiences expect from an action film. It also showed westerns could be blockbusters.
19 Open Range (2003)
Kevin Costner stepped back into the director’s chair for a film that feels like it belonged in the classic days of the genre, but also felt rooted in a sense of realism. The film benefited from the touching romance between Costner’s Charley and Annette Bening’s Sue Barlow. It also featured brilliant performances from Robert Duvall and Michael Jeter, in his final on-screen appearance.
Set after the Civil War, Open Range features a slow-moving plot that sees open range cattle driver “Boss” Spearman and his three cattle hands Charlie, Mose (Abraham Benrubi), and Button (Diego Luna) crossing paths with Irish land baron Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon) when the four men come to the town of Harmonville for supplies.
Baxter hates cattle drives taking advantage of open range feeding and his wealth allows him to pretty much own the town and its law. Boss and Charlie (who has a checkered past as a gunhand and fought in the war), are forced to take the law into their own hands after Mose is killed and Button critically injured by Baxter and his men.
Like all great westerns, Open Range takes its time with the pacing of the story and gives the characters a chance to truly matter to the story. The audience grows to like Boss and his eccentric ways, and wants to see if a romance can develop between Charlie and Sue. Costner fills the film with incredible detail (such as Charlie embarrassingly picking up mud he tracked into Sue’s house) and an epic scope to its filming (the final shootout features stunning cinematography). When the final shootout finally arrives, it is fast, violent and feels incredibly real.
20 Silverado (1985)
Featuring an outstanding ensemble cast and with the perfect blend of action and comedy, Silverado is simply a blast to watch and showed not all modern westerns had to be deadly serious to be good. Directed by Lawrence Kasdan (who wrote the screenplay with his brother Mark), Silverado featured Kevin Kline, Scott Glenn, Danny Glover, and Kevin Costner as a group of men who come together on a journey to the town of Silverado.
Emmett (Glenn) and Jake (Costner) are heading to the town to see their sister before moving to California and Mal (Glover) is going there to reunite with his family. Paden (Kline) ends up tagging along simply because Emmett comes across him in the desert after Paden has been robbed of all his money and clothes.
The group has a few short adventures on the way to Silverado (such as a jailbreak after Jake is thrown in jail for kissing a girl). Once in Silverado, the group finds things aren’t much better thanks to a corrupt town marshal with ties to Paden and an old family score that ended Emmett up in prison for several years.
Along with a great soundtrack, exciting action sequences, the film featured solid performances from John Cleese (who seemed both out of his element and perfect for his part), Jeff Goldblum (as a gambler named Slick), a villainess Brian Dennehy, and a scene-stealing Linda Hunt.
Silverado may not have been the best western ever made or a groundbreaking film in the genre, but it is one of the most entertaining westerns you could ever hope to watch.No matter how many times you see it, the film keeps you hooked on the action and laughing every time Paden is asked “Where’s the dog?”
21 Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973)
Like he did with The Wild Bunch, director Sam Peckinpah shattered how audiences thought of the western through his use of casting, music and violence in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. The film featured an outstanding cast that included Kris Kristofferson, James Coburn, Bob Dylan, Luke Askew, Jason Robards, Jack Elam, Slim Pickens, Harry Dean Stanton, and Charles Martin Smith.
Dylan also provided the film’s haunting music, which at times is just as an important character to the film as the actors. The music also saw Dylan nominated for a GRAMMY Award for Best Original Score and a BAFTA Award for Film Music.
The film is also known for the huge problems that developed between the iconic director (who added his own touches to the story), and the studio that had lost faith in him. The clash resulted in the film having more trouble in the editing room, which has led to various cuts now being available.
With all of Peckinpah’s skills at work, the film follows the basic storyline of the history between Garrett (Coburn) and Billy the Kid (Kristofferson), from their early friendship to Garrett agreeing to take up the badge so he could hunt down the outlaw.
The film moves at a sometimes brutally slow pace, but is filled with incredible performances that keeps the audience engaged with the story. There are also some brutal action sequences that more than meet the bloody requirements Peckinpah was known for in many of his films.
22 High Plains Drifter (1973)
Directed by Clint Eastwood (who would also handle the role of the mysterious Stranger), High Plains Drifter helped to continue to cement his legacy as a new version of the western hero (if you can honestly call the character the good guy of the film). The film also shows how Eastwood (who was handling directing chores for the first time on a western) was influenced as a director by the films he made with Sergio Leone and Don Siegel.
The film’s plot follows the arrival of a stranger in the small mining town of Lago. Within hours of arriving in the town, the stranger has killed three men and raped a woman who insulted him. He isn’t arrested for his crimes and is offered anything he wants if he will protect the town.
The town’s leadership hides a dark secret and is under threat from a gang of gunfighters that have been released from prison. The men are headed to town for vengeance. The stranger also seems to have ties to the town and spends the rest of the film punishing the people in various ways (such as painting the town red and renaming it Hell).
High Plains Drifter is not a western for everyone and has a harsh tone running through much of the film. Fellow western icon John Wayne reportedly hated the film so much he felt the need to write Eastwood a letter about it. Eastwood would go on to direct better westerns, but High Plains Drifter also plays as a thank you to the directors who helped shape the actor and his western image.
23 The Shootist (1976)
Directed by Don Siegel, The Shootist belongs on any “best of” western list simply for being the last film appearance of John Wayne and because it is a great western. The film also features Lauren Bacall, a young Ron Howard, Harry Morgan, and James Stewart. It received an Academy Award nomination for Best Art Direction, a BAFTA Film Award Best Actress nomination for Bacall and a Best Supporting Actor Golden Globe Nomination for Howard.
Telling the story of legendary shootist John Bernard, the movie opens up with a clip montage of great western moments from John Wayne’s equally legendary films. The audience is then introduced to an elderly Brooks who arrives at Carson City in 1901. It seems both the Old West and Brooks are dying.
Brooks has cancer and not long to live so he rents a room from local widow Bond Rogers (Lauren Bacall) and her son Gillom (Ron Howard). His legend also follows him as he is plagued by visits from the town marshal (Morgan), reporters, old enemies, and others wanting to find fame by killing him.
Like all the best westerns, the film ends in a final glorious shootout with Wayne taking on three other gunfighters so he can go out in a blaze of glory. The film also features a strong storyline between Howard and Wayne as Howard’s Gillom idolizes the gunfighter and later sees the man die.
The film is a fitting end to Wayne’s incredible career in the western genre, and featured the actor giving one of his best performances. In a genre that had changed greatly since his career began, Wayne reminded audiences just why he was a screen icon.
24 The Long Riders (1980)
Directed by Walter Hill, The Long Riders tells the story of the James-Younger gang and features a cast of brothers including James and Stacey Keach; David, Keith and Robert Carradine; Dennis and Randy Quaid; and Christopher and Nicholas Guest.
Set after the Civil War, the film follows the James and Younger brothers, who are joined by Ed Miller (Randy Quaid), as they carry out a number of train and bank robberies. The gang is led by Jesse James (James Keach), who’s violent tendencies to take risk are tempered by his more level-headed brother Frank (Stacey Keach).
The film kicks off after there is already a bit of tension in the gang between Jesse and Cole Younger (David Carradine) that eventually causes the group to disband following the disaster during the attempted robbery of the bank in Northfield Minnesota.In addition to covering their crimes, the film also chronicles the men’s private lives with their families. It also explores their backwoods ties (which gave them the ability to hide from the law) and sensationalized newspaper reporting (which gave them the ability to walk a fine line between outlaw and folk hero).
Hill wraps the film in authentic feeling music, costuming and action sequences. The Northfield raid is one of the best western shootouts ever filmed. It also features a great performance from David Carradine as Cole Younger.
While it might not be the most historically accurate account of the James-Younger gang, The Long Riders is extremely entertaining and one of the best screen adaptions of the Jesse James story.
25 Django Unchained (2012)
Director Quentin Tarantino shows his love for the Spaghetti Western with the revenge-fueled Django Unchained – which saw the director mixing his own unique style of filmmaking with traditional elements of the western genre for something as groundbreaking as what Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone did for the genre in the 60s and 70s.
With a sharp sense of dark comedy thanks to Best Supporting Actor Academy Award winner Christoph Waltz’s Dr. Schultz and enough blood on the screen to make Peckinpah proud, Tarantino’s Django Unchained takes on slavery, racism and love in former slave turned bounty hunter Django’s quest to free his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from the monster that owns her, “Monsieur” Calvin J. Candie (a truly evil Leonardo DiCaprio). To accomplish his quest, Django (Jamie Foxx) teams with Schultz in pretending to be looking to buy “Mandingo” fighters from Candie at his famed Candyland.
Like most Tarantino films, Django Unchained is a film you love or completely hate. The director isn’t shy about pushing the racial boundaries or being politically correct. He also doesn’t mind extreme amounts of violence in his films. Django Unchained is not an easy film to sit through, but it shouldn’t be. Like The Wild Bunch, it is hard to find a truly good person in the film (even Django has some faults), and at times the violence, language and racial slurs are a tad too much to endure.
Still, the film belongs on any “best of” modern western list due to its ability to both pay homage to the film’s western influences (even some of its epic settings remind of early John Ford westerns) and create something new for the genre through its use of music and Tarantino’s style of filming.
26 Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)
Eastwood steps into the director’s chair for the second time on a western and brings to the screen one of his greatest characters and one of the western genre’s best films. The strength of the movie is from how it works on several levels – a straight-forward western, a revenge film, a commentary on the Vietnam War’s effect on the country, and even a look at the treatment of Native Americans.
The film saw Eastwood stepping into the shoes of Missouri farmer Josey Wales, whose world is turned upside down following an attack on his farm by pro-Union Jayhawkers from Kansas at the start of the Civil War. Wanting revenge, Wales joins Confederate bushwhackers led by Bloody Bill Anderson and spends the rest of the war in bloody battle. His world is turned upside down again after his unit is betrayed and many are killed.
The movie also shifts from Wales’ desire for revenge to his want to simply be left alone – despite the fact he seems to be gathering more and more people to him. Fleeing to the Indian Nation and then deeper into Texas, Wales guns down soldiers and bounty hunters as he gathers a new family until once again coming face to face with the Jayhawkers.
Although Wales is the center piece of the film, the movie can be seen as an ensemble western thanks to the talent of its supporting cast. With his dry line delivery and quick one-liners, Chief Dan George steals almost every scene he is in and manages to even outshine Eastwood’s deadly charm from time to time. You also have to love how the deadly Josey Wales is constantly put in his place by the outspoken Grandma Sarah (a feisty Paula Trueman) – who also just happens to be from Kansas and isn’t fond of trash from Missouri.
27 Jeremiah Johnson (1972)
A film that saw man against nature as much as man against man, director Sydney Pollack’s Jeremiah Johnson saw Robert Redford as a mountain man who chose the lifestyle simply because he wanted to live away from the rest of the world in peace and finds himself in a personal war against the Crow Indians after his family is killed.
The audience is first introduced to Johnson as a man who has had his full of fighting in the Mexican War and heads to the Rocky Mountains to become a trapper. He quickly discovers he is not ready for the winters or has much of a chance to feed himself. His luck starts to change after he finds a .50 caliber Hawken rifle in the frozen hands of a dead mountain man and is taught the proper way to trap by “Bear Claw” Chris Lapp (Will Geer).
Although he chose the mountain man lifestyle for the solitude it provided, Johnson soon finds himself with an adopted son after he comes across a crazed widow whose husband and other children were slaughtered by Blackfoot. Next he finds himself married to a Flathead chief’s daughter named Swan due to a misunderstanding. Both the wife and son grow on Johnson and it seems he has finally found true happiness.
His world is shattered when he agrees to scout for the U.S. Army, who are trying to reach a stranded wagon train. The soldiers ride through a Crow burial ground, which results in Johnson’s family being killed by the Crow for the crime. The rest of the film is a fast-paced revenge tale as Johnson hunts down any Crow he can find. It has an incredible ending that brings the film full circle to the beginning.
With its mountain man setting, Jeremiah Johnson might not be considered a traditional western, but the themes and story make it an important part of the genre and one of the best westerns to come out of the 1970s.
28 Lonesome Dove (1989)
Perhaps one of the best adaptations of a book ever put onto to film, Lonesome Dove takes everything epic in Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and matches it with great performances from its incredible cast. Although the film never appeared on the big screen, it belongs on any “best of” western list thanks its incredible level of realism and detail.
The mini-series won seven Emmy awards and featured an ensemble cast that included five Oscar winners. The film’s plot was a story of the Old West that was truly a unique masterpiece of characterization, adventure, and epic proportions.
The basic plot involved two former Texas Rangers, Gus McCrae (Robert Duvall) and Woodrow Call (Tommy Lee Jones), who live in the town of Lonesome Dove on the border of Texas and Mexico. Call decides he wants to drive cattle all the way to Montana, which just might be the last frontier. Jones’ straight-forward Call is the perfect foil for Duvall’s scene-stealing Gus, easily the best reason to watch the film. With his performance as Gus, Duvall gave the western genre one of its most memorable and charismatic characters.
Thanks to the mini-series format, the story is able to take its time and makes every character matter. There is a lot of story in Lonesome Dove, and the audience is in for a long haul before the drive is finally finished. It is a ride well-worth taking no matter how many times you have seen the film.
29 Dances with Wolves (1990)
The winner of seven Academy Awards and selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the United States National Film Registry, Dances with Wolves is truly an epic and helped to bring the western genre back to greatness. Based on Michael Blake’s novel and directed by Kevin Costner, the film paints a beautiful and tragic picture of the American frontier and the U.S. Army’s dealings with Native Americans, represented by a tribe of Lakota Indians for the film.
Opening on the horrors of the Civil War, First Lieutenant John J. Dunbar (Costner) attempts suicide rather than lose his foot. Instead of dying, Dunbar is rewarded for his bravery and given the posting of his choice (along with the horse that carried him safely through the Confederate gunfire). Dunbar chooses the most remote posting on the edge of the frontier and arrives to discover it deserted.
Rather than leave, he decides to stay and before long befriends the local Sioux through their attempts to steal his horse and his discovering the injured woman Stands With A Fist (Mary McDonnell). Although Stands With A Fist is white, she has been raised with the Sioux and quickly becomes Dunbar’s way into the tribe. As he spends more time with them, Dunbar’s ties to the military and his own culture lessen and he starts to see the dangers that are coming to the Native American way of life.
Dances With Wolves matches the epic feeling of those great John Ford U.S. Calvary films. Costner makes the most of his setting to capture the look and feel of the Old West, but also to ensure the film treated the Native American influence with great respect.
A longer cut of the film has also been released which adds in details that happened before Dunbar arrives at the fort and more with Stands With A Fist. Of the two versions of the story, the richer story makes the longer edition the one to see.
30 Unforgiven (1992)
Without a doubt director Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven is the greatest modern western ever made and one of the best films of the entire western genre. The film is a richly layered look at the genre itself and the effects the violence of the Old West had on the people who lived during the time.
Unforgiven took home four Academy Awards – including Best Picture (only the third western to ever win the award), Best Director, Best Actor in a Supporting Role, and Best Film Editing. The film has an incredible ensemble cast including Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, Richard Harris, Jaimz Woolvett, Saul Rubinek, Frances Fisher, and Anna Levine.
Unforgiven is framed with a realistic feel to its western setting with every character seeming to be weighed down by the hard life of the time. It opens with extreme violence and ends the same way. As Eastwood says, “We all got it coming.” The plot follows three gunmen who head to Big Whiskey to claim a bounty by killing two men who cut up a prostitute.
The gunmen are led by Eastwood’s Will Munny, a reformed killer who agrees to the job out of a need for the money. He is joined by his old killing partner Ned Logan (Freeman), and wannabe killer the ‘Schofield Kid’ (Woolvett). Once they arrive at Big Whiskey, they discover they will also be up against somewhat famous lawman Little Bill Daggett (Hackman).
Unlike famous western screen lawmen like Burt Lancaster’s Wyatt Earp or Gary Cooper’s Will Kane, Daggett is just slightly better than the gunmen he faces and has an intense level of violence that seems to be always bubbling just under the surface. Like other Eastwood westerns, there doesn’t seem to be any traditional “good guys” to be found in Unforgiven.
Unforgiven is Eastwood at his finest. The actor/director creates a character that feels like a continuation and aging of some of his early western creations (such as The Man with No Name) and how the genre itself had grown from the classic black/white hat characters to something grounded in reality and weighing the effects of the violence that surround its world.
Do you have a favourite westernor have something to say about the list? Please leave a comment below, we do read them!