Aside from rock and roll, the Western movie is uniquely an American contribution to world culture. The Western genre is not just all about mountain ranges, cowboys, horses, saloons, bandits, outlaws, lawmen, and dusty, desolate desert towns. They’re also modern morality plays, although some of these films also expose morally ambiguous characters and situations. From the many old Hollywood classics to revisionist and modern Westerns, we compiled a list of the best Westerns of all time, in our opinion.
Unforgiven often makes it to the top of the all-time Western movies. It was written, directed, and produced by Clint Eastwood and stars Eastwood himself, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, and Richard Harris. The 1992 movie tells the story of a farmer and ex-gunfighter William Munny who reluctantly takes on one final job, with the help of an old comrade and a novice gunslinger. The movie strips away all Hollywood gloss applied to the Wild West, and instead deals directly with the uglier side of violence. The movie won four Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director for Eastwood, Best Supporting Actor for Gene Hackman, and Best Film Editing.
Winchester ’73 is just one of the many remarkable Western collaborations between actor James Stewart and director Anthony Mann. Released in 1950, it follows the tale of an enduring blood feud. Stewart’s Lin McAdam rides into Dodge City, Kansas, where he joins in a Fourth of July shooting contest with his bitter enemy “Dutch Henry” Brown to win a prized Winchester rifle.
With big stars Paul Newman and Robert Redford, William Goldman’s perky, Oscar-winning screenplay and the classic Burt Bacharach score, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is one of the most iconic films to come out of the late-1960s American cinema, being released in 1969. Loosely based on real events, the movie follows the exploits of outlaws Butch and Sundance who migrate to Bolivia while running away from the law.
Called as “psychedelic Western” by its director Jim Jarmush, Dead Man is a 1995 dark comedy Western film that stars Johnny Depp, Gary Farmer, Billy Bob Thornton, and Iggy Pop, among others. An accountant turns himself into a gunfighter and encounters an enigmatic Indian man for his journey into the “other world.”
In director Quentin Tarantino’s antebellum period-Western action/drama, it follows African-American slave Django who sets out to rescue his wife from her cruel plantation owner. The film stars Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, and Samuel L. Jackson. The film was a big critical and commercial success upon its release in 2012, and was later nominated for five Oscars.
The 1952 Western movie High Noon is rated as one of the all-time best Western films ever made. It stars Gary Cooper, in his Oscar-winning role, as the marshall who is forced to face a gang of killers by himself, after his own town refuses to help him. The cast also includes Grace Kelly, Thomas Mitchell, Katy Jurado, and Lloyd Bridges.
Johnny Guitar is a 1954 Western drama film directed by Nicholas Ray and starring Joan Crawford, Sterling Hayden, Mercedes McCambridge, and Scott Brady. In this film, a strong-willed and aggressive saloon keeper named Vienna is mistakenly suspected of murder and bank robbery. Towards the end of the film she gets to square off with her bitter rival Emma Small, who wrongly accuses Vienna for her brothers’ death.
The film’s director Robert Altman called it the “anti-Western” film because the film neglects or breaks several Western conventions. McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) tells the story of a gambler who wants to establish a fancy casino-brothel-bath house, and a prostitute who helps him achieve his goals. Eventually, their business prospers until a bigger corporation comes to town, posing as a threat to their success.
Directed by John Ford and starring Henry Fonda, Victor Mature, Linda Darnell, and Walter Brennan, this 1946 film is another retelling of the shoot-out at the OK Corral. My Darling Clementine is hardly one of the most accurate film adaptations of the Wyatt Earp legend, nevertheless that doesn’t strip the film’s entertainment factor and overall greatness.
Once Upon a Time in the West is a spaghetti Western movie directed by Sergio Leone and starred Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Jason Robards, and Claudia Cardinale. To seize prime railroad land in Sweetwater, crippled railroad baron Morton hires killers, led by a notorious sadist named Frank, who murdered the owner of the land Brett McBain. However, McBain’s new bride (and just-widowed) Jill arrives and becomes the new owner of the land. A mysterious man who plays harmonica and an outlaw join forces together to protect the beautiful widow and frustrate Frank’s plan to overtake the land. One of the classic films of the Western genre, this masterpiece is also highlighted by the unforgettable score from Italian composer Ennio Morricone.
The 1961 Western film One-Eyed Jacks is the only film that actor Marlon Brando ever directed. Stanley Kubrick was originally slated to direct the film, but disputes ended up with Brando taking the directorial duties. Brando also played one of the principal characters of the movie, Rio.
In this movie, Rio is betrayed by his mentor Dad Longworth (Karl Madsen) who deserts him after they both have just run away from their bank heist in Mexico. Because of this betrayal, Rio gets caught and is sent to prison. Years later, Rio escapes from prison and is out to hunt down Dad for revenge. Dad has become a sheriff in Monterey, California, and is apprehensive about Rio’s return.
Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid is a 1973 Western film directed by Sam Peckinpah. With a cast consisting of James Coburn, Kris Kristofferson, Bob Dylan (who wrote the music and the songs for the movie), Slim Pickens, and Jason Robards, it follows the story of an aging man who is employed by a group of wealthy cattle barons to bring down Billy the Kid — who also happens to be his old friend.
Red River is a 1948 film produced and directed by Howard Hawks. It presents a fictionalized account of the historic first cattle drive to Kansas from Texas via the Chisholm Trail. Thomas Dunson (John Wayne) and his adopted son Matt (Montgomery Clift) are having a growing dispute over the control of the cattle drive, escalating to more terrible events that follow.
Stagecoach is a 1939 Western that solidified John Ford’s status as one of the most important directors in American cinema and also propelled John Wayne to stardom. The screenplay was written by Dudley Nichols, adapting it from a 1937 short story “The Stage to Lordsburg” by Ernest Haycox.
Set in the late 19th century, a group of strangers rides on a stagecoach bound to New Mexico Territory from Arizona Territory. While in the middle of the journey they face the threat of Geronimo and his Apaches. The story further unravels when the passengers begin to discover and learn something about each other in the process.
Another epic spaghetti Western by director Sergio Leone, this 1966 film is the last and (probably) the best part of the Dollars trilogy (following A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More). “The Good” is on the hunt for a cache of stolen gold against his rivals “The Bad” and “The Ugly,” in the middle of the chaotic violence of the Civil War. Arguably, this is the greatest of all spaghetti Westerns, and one of the most influential films in this genre.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a 1962 film directed by John Ford and stars James Stewart, John Wayne, and Lee Marvin. A senator, who initially rose to fame for killing a notorious outlaw named Liberty Valance, returns to the little frontier town to attend the funeral of a local rancher. When a reporter asks him why he would bother to attend the funeral of an ordinary individual, the senator tells a flashback story. There, he reveals the truth about his late friend’s good deeds in the process.
Clint Eastwood directed and starred in this 1976 film, the first of his greatest Revisionist Westerns. The film is an adaptation of the novel The Rebel Outlaw: Josey Wales, and recounts the title character’s treacherous journey westward after the American Civil War. Seeking revenge for the murder of his wife and son, a Missouri farmer (Eastwood) joins a group of pro-Confederate Missouri Bushwhackers but ends up on the run from a band of pro-Union Jayhawkers — the ones who killed his family.
Directed by John Ford, this 1956 Western involves a middle-aged Civil War veteran and his long journey to find his niece, who was abducted by an Indian tribe. The film stars John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, Ward Bond, and Natalie Wood. Although it received no Oscar nominations during that time, the film became a box-office success and is now considered a masterpiece. Wayne’s role as the Civil War veteran searching for his long-lost niece is considered one of the most interesting and compelling roles he had during his career.
Displaying a rather idiosyncratic kind of Western, The Shooting is a 1966 film directed and co-produced by Monte Hellman, and written by Carole Eastman (aka “Adrien Joyce”). It stars Warren Oates, Will Hutchins, Millie Perkins, and Jack Nicholson, who also served as co-producer. The film is about a mysterious woman who hires two cowboys to help her on her own road to revenge. The film received no theatrical release and had limited showings on the television, thus making it an obscure and cult item (although the film was finally released on DVD in 2000).
An aging outlaw gang heads for one last big push as the traditional “American west” dwindles during the “modern” era (the film was set in 1913). Directed and co-written by Sam Peckinpah, this 1969 film garnered much controversy due to its use of graphic violence. The film is also noted for its use of slow-motion technique, which is seen as a cutting-edge cinematic technique during that time. Nowadays, The Wild Bunch holds the distinction as one of the “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant” films by the US National Film Registry.