Westerns are what your grandfather grew up watching. He’d walk four miles (uphill, both ways, no shoes, one sock) to the only theater in town, plunk down his 25 cents, and watch John Wayne do his stuff. As a whole, Westerns unabashedly rely on shootouts, tough guys, and sometimes a conflicted protagonist who has to find his moral compass.
They were the manly man’s movie genre for a good couple of decades, but now… well. Sure, Hollywood still makes one every couple of years or so, but as we compiled this list, it became clear that the golden age of Westerns went out with the milkman. No matter; these films will always represent a unique period in cinema history when good vs. evil was decided by a six shooter in the hand of a man with a belly full of whiskey.
Dust off your spurs and saddle up to our list of the 25 best Western movies of all time, in no particular order.
The legendary Clint Eastwood dedicated Unforgiven to his director mentors, Sergio Leone and Don Siegel, and he surely made them proud with this Best Picture winner. Eastwood plays William Munny, a onetime gunslinger who hung up his pistols for life as a hog farmer, but gets pulled into one more job for justice. With its delightfully ambiguous morals and a hall of fame cast (Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman, among others), this is a contender for greatest western ever.
When it comes to real-time storytelling, way before there was 24, there was High Noon, the legendary film with Gary Cooper as a town marshal who’s forgoes retirement (and a honeymoon with the gorgeous Grace Kelly) to defend his town against some notorious bandits waiting to rob an inbound train. The suspense steadily builds with each glance at the clock, as Cooper tries to muster up a posse to help him, but gets no takers. We also love the way the theme softly plays in the background each time Cooper walks in town.
As is the case with many westerns that put Native Americans in the crosshairs, The Searchers might have you scratching your head about who you really should be rooting for. John Wayne is Ethan Edwards, a Civil War veteran on a quest to rescue his niece from an Indian tribe. There’s no denying this is an American classic, one with a hallmark performance by Wayne and masterful direction by John Ford that yields some truly beautiful visuals, but be warned: You might find yourself grappling with the issue of rooting for a racist.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Amazing stat: Over six hundred European Westerns were made between 1960 and 1980. Damn. Many of those were “Spaghetti Westerns,” and the king of that genre was undoubtedly Sergio Leone. The final chapter in Leone’s Dollars Trilogy, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly once again stars Clint Eastwood as The Good, with Lee Van Cleef as The Bad, and Eli Wallach as The Ugly. Leone’s mix of widescreen long shots and tight close-ups has passed into icon status by now, and the final shootout more than still stands up.
Director: George Stevens
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Alan Ladd is the enigmatic drifter who tries to settle down in a nice little homesteading community, but gets dragged into a settler/rancher mess that only brute force will solve. A very smart, well-made tale of good vs. evil with some juicy depth beneath the surface, Shane is unquestionably one of the greatest Westerns ever, and also one of the best American films ever.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Riding high on the chemistry between Robert Redford and Paul Newman, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid delivers more laughs than anyone would ever expect in a Western. Outlaws Robert LeRoy Parker and Harry Longabaugh are forced to run from the law all the way to Bolivia in this very likable buddy action flick.
The Outlaw Josey Wales
Clint Eastwood is Josey Wales, a post-Civil War Missouri farmer who seeks revenge after Union soldiers murdered his family. Eastwood also directed this widely respected gem based on the novel Gone to Texas by Forrest Carter, and has actually said it might be better than Unforgiven. We’re not sure about that one, but we are sure this is a classic.
3:10 to Yuma
50 years before Russell Crowe and Chrstian Bale starred in the remake (which is also a fine film), Glenn Ford and Van Heflin headlined the original 3:10 to Yuma by Delmer Daves. Like with High Noon, an arriving train drives the suspense, and the psychological tension mounts. The much-maligned ending is its only weak point.
The Magnificent Seven
If your starting point is Akira Kurosawa’s legendary Seven Samurai, you’re assured of at least a solid film. But The Magnificent Seven rises above solid, thanks to a spectacular cast (Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn), and the awesome score by Elmer Bernstein. Instead of taking place in Japan, the setting is a small village in Mexico in which the seven American gunmen must protect its residents.
Dances with Wolves
If you’ve heard people compare Avatar to Dance of Wolves, they’re right—plot-wise. They’re also seriously disrespecting Dances with Wolves. Kevin Costner’s sprawling epic took five years to wrangle together, but it was worth it. The story of a Union Army lieutenant who befriends a band of Sioiux Indians won seven Oscars, including Best Picture. Well worth the three hours.
If you like your Westerns full of energy and with names you know like Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, you’ll love Tombstone. Kurt Russell is Earp, a retiring lawman, whose plans get F-ed up. Val Kilmer is great as Holiday, and as long as you put any issues of historical accuracy aside, a great time can be had here.
Charles Portis’ famous novel was first put on celluloid by Henry Hathaway, and it’s known for being the only film John Wayne won an Oscar for. Wayne is the crusty old-timer with a soft center who helps a stubborn girl track down her father’s murderer in Indian territory.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
Two screen legends, Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne, get matched up in this John Ford-directed classic about a senator who owes his career and life to a rugged gunslinger. One of the last classic black and white Westerns, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance also gave us a great quote: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
No Country for Old Men
Is No County for Old Men really a Western? Ehh. It’s debatable. But this stomach-tightener from the Coen brothers delivers suspense in spades. The film is basically one big chase scene, with Josh Brolin as a man who finds a huge stash of cash and then gets hunted by the ruthless Javier Bardem. The nastiest Best Picture winner ever.
My Darling Clementine
Director: John Ford
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The infamous Shootout at the O.K. Corral gets the Hollywood treatment in this John Ford classic starring Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp. A really entertaining script is fleshed out wonderfully by Fonda and the supporting cast, and the tender touch Ford applies to the characters works quite well.
A darker and noticeably more offbeat John Wayne stars as a Texas rancher who’s forced to deal with flak from his adopted son (Montgomery Clift) during the first cattle drive from Texas to Kansas along the Chisholm Trail. Director Howard Hawks executes perfectly here, crafting a film that has proven to have staying power.
The Wild Bunch
You could call Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch “Tarantinoesque,” if you needed to describe this violent classic to someone unfamiliar with it, but it’s more than that. The story focuses on an aging gang of outlaws who’re struggling with the changing nature of the American West, and features an ensemble cast, but it’s Peckinpah’s trailblazing quick-cut edits and slo-mo that steal the show.
McCabe & Mrs. Miller
When you think Westerns you don’t think Robert Altman, but the famed director pulled off a sleeper classic with McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Warren Beatty and Julie Christie star as a gambler and a prostitute who team up for business purposes in an Old West mining town, and are then challenged by a local mining company. Altman called the film an “anti-western” for its non-traditional themes of the American dream and feminism.
Perhaps the granddaddy of all Westerns, and the film that put John Wayne on the map, John Ford’s Stagecoach had a wide-ranging influence on not only future Westerns, but many other Hollywood movies to come. Orson Wells said he watched this story of “9 strange people” who have to ride through dangerous Apache territory more than 40 times as he was making Citizen Kane. It’s
Of all the movie genres women usually don’t go for, Westerns might be at the top of the list. But when you make your Western a comedy-musical with Jane Fonda the star, now you’ve got something for the fairer sex. At least you did in 1965, when Cat Ballou raked in a very solid $20 million at the box office. Worth watching for Lee Marvin’s Oscar-winning turn as both the good guy and bad guy.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
John Huston’s classic adaptation of B. Traven’s novel stars Humphrey Bogart and Tim Holt as two down-and-out Americans who’re looking for work in Mexico, and convince an aging prospector (Walter Huston, the director’s father) in Mexico to help them mine for gold. One of the finest dissections of human greed ever put on film.
Once Upon a Time in the West
Considered by some to be Sergio Leone’s true masterpiece, and perhaps the finest Western ever, C’era una volta il West reaches far and wide with its epic story of a mysterious stranger (Charles Bronson) and a desperado (Jason Robards) who team up to protect a widow (the smokin’ Claudia Cardinale) from a nasty assassin (Henry Fonda). Full of Leone’s trademark widescreen vistas and spikes of violence in an otherwise slowly paced film.
Mel Brooks’ genius spoof of the Old West stands as the greatest Western comedy of all time. Brooks’ finest are all here – Gene Wilder, Madeline Kahn, Harvey Korman – and the charming Cleavon Little plays it mostly straight as the black sheriff in an all-white town. You might be surprised at how many N-bombs you’ll hear, but not if you know with Richard Pryor was one of the co-writers.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Yes, the runtime (159 minutes) is as long as the wacky title, and it’s hardly aided by the film’s slow pacing, but if you’re in the mood for a character-driven Western that’s beautifully shot and acted (Brad Pitt and especially Casey Affleck here), this one is a keeper. An intriguing look at celebrity that that seems to show not much has changed over the years.
Jimmy Stewart, Shelley Winters, Dan Duryea, and Stephen McNally star in this classic about a blood feud and a prized Winchester rifle. The first so-called “psychological western,” Winchester ’73 features a standout job by the legendary Stewart and one of the earliest performances by Rock Hudson as an American Indian.