Round ‘em up, cowpokes
Sixty years ago, the sprawling plains of America were the backdrop for gloriously oversimplified epics about good versus evil, but the western genre has come a long way since then. In fact, even in recent decades, the Wild West has been the setting for some of cinema's greatest flicks; a canvas for commentary on things like race, religion, power, greed, legacy, and family. As America continues to change and evolve, so too does this wholly American genre, ensuring that we'll probably be watching great Western movies for many years to come. Forget about the bad and the ugly, these are the best Wild West flicks of all time.
25. Dances With Wolves (1990)
Kevin Costner has made a few unfortunate career choices. This was not one of them. Dances With Wolves was his auteur project, and it told the heartbreaking tale of an American soldier who becomes friends with a Lakota Sioux tribe and fights alongside them when a huge battle ensues over their land. Costner’s work helped shed more light on this lesser-known part of the western expansion and its devastation of America’s indigenous people.
24. 3:10 To Yuma (1957)
Sure, there’s a more modern remake of this movie. And it’s excellent. But the original is even tighter and tenser. 3:10 to Yuma is at its best when it shows just two men in a room waiting out the clock. Who will arrive first: the train to cart a criminal off to prison or the gang of outlaws ready to break him free? Glenn Ford and Van Heflin star in this excellent thriller.
23. Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid (1969)
The outlaw buddy duo of Robert Redford and Paul Newman have a great run of robbing trains across the American west. They also showcase sparkling wordplay, amazing chemistry, and two of the bluest pairs of eyes to grace the big screen at the same time. It also features some iconic moments, from the charming bike ride soundtracked by Randy Newman to the final, tragic shootout.
22. Django Unchained (2012)
Who says all the best westerns are old? Quentin Tarantino brought together some of today’s best talents in Jamie Foxx and Leonardo DiCaprio for a troubling and challenging tale about an ugly chapter in U.S. history. Django (Foxx) is a slave freed by a bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) who then picks up the same trade. The duo eventually track down Django’s wife and hatch a plan to free her from an especially sadistic plantation owner (DiCaprio). It is violent revisionist take on what a western can be. We’d expect nothing less from Tarantino.
21. Shane (1953)
Alan Ladd is our central cowboy in this showdown between a land baron and some farmers. He rides up to the aid of the settlers, but he ends up staring down an unhinged Jack Palance hired by the renegades. When so many of the best Westerns focus on the ruthless side of that era, Ladd’s noble hero is a welcome change. He only turns to force when there’s no other option, and his goal of making the frontier a safe home even for its youngest residents feels downright wholesome.
20. Tombstone (1993)
The famous events of the OK Corral had to make an appearance somewhere on this list. This version of the classic history book moment stars Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp and Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday. It covers all the goings-on in Tombstone, Arizona, including the famous (infamous?) gunfight. An iconic movie for an iconic story.
19. Lonely Are The Brave (1962)
Many movies in this genre revel in the experience of looking back to a time of wide open spaces and transportation only on horseback. Lonely Are the Brave shows how that vision changes as technology moves west. Kirk Douglas looks up at jet planes overhead, refuses to get a driver’s license, and sticks doggedly to his moral code of honor. Gena Rowlands and Walter Matthau also star.
18. True Grit (2010)
It’s always a challenge to remake a western. How can you improve on the originals? What modern actors have the stoicism, the gravitas, to fill those boots? True Grit is an example of how a modern version can get it right. First step: get the Coen brothers to lead the project. Second step: get Jeff Bridges, Josh Brolin, and Matt Damon to star. Third step: profit.
17. The Magnificent Seven (1960)
The plot is one you’ve seen before, if not in Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai than in the animated movie A Bug’s Life. But this western iteration is still one of the best of them all. When the rag-tag ensemble includes everyone from Steve McQueen to Charles Bronson to Yul Brenner, you’re definitely doing something right. Add in Eli Wallach as the big bad and things can only get better.
16. Little Big Man (1970)
Dustin Hoffman isn’t the usual star you’d expect to see in this kind of movie, but his turn in Little Big Man proves just how versatile the actor is. The movie traces the entire life of Jack Crabb, who is kidnapped and raised by a tribe of Cheyenne as a child. Many movies on this list have clear sympathies toward the settlers and the military, but the satirical Little Big Man sheds some light on how they were hardly the clear-cut good guys.
15. Heaven's Gate (1980)
This is a strange little piece of cinema history. It’s a hulking, 129-minute experience of European immigrants pitted against Wyoming land barons. It was also such an expensive project that it bankrupted the entire United Artists studio and is considered one of the biggest box office flops of all time. But with some distance from the controversy around its creation, Heaven’s Gate and its ensemble cast (Kris Kristofferson, Jeff Bridges, Christopher Walken, Isabelle Huppert, and John Hurt are just a few of the stars) deliver a solid presentation of the wild west.
14. High Noon (1952)
Before it was a voice line in Overwatch, High Noon was an iconic Western. Gary Cooper steps into the leading man’s cowboy boots for this allegory made during the era of communist witch hunts. It’s an amazing movie even without the additional context. But the tension multiplies under the historical weight when Cooper walks down the empty streets, convinced that he must do what is right even if he does it alone.
13. The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (2007)
The title might be a mouthful, but it does get the key plot across. Brad Pitt plays the part of Jesse James and Robert Ford is embodied by Casey Affleck, and both actors deliver thoughtful, memorable performances. The movie is thickly philosophical and paints a detailed look at the mythological moment from wild west history.
12. McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971)
Robert Altman has always had his own unique view on the world, and his treatment of the Western genre is no different. Warren Beatty plays John McCabe, a gambler who takes over a town in Washington. The Mrs Miller of the title is an opium-addicted brothel madam played by Julie Christie. As you might guess, these two do not get a happy ending. It’s sad. It’s poetic. It’s the “anti-western.”
11. Red River (1948)
John Wayne and Montgomery Clift star in this literary adaptation helmed by Howard Hawks. It tells the tale of the first cattle drive from Texas to Kansas. Along the route, known as the Chisholm Trail, their trip takes a mutinous and explosive turn. It’s a classic father-son story told against a striking backdrop of the great American west.
10. For A Few Dollars More (1965)
This is the central film in Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy and the best of the suite. In the follow-up to A Fistful of Dollars, Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name teams with the Man in Black (Lee Van Cleef) to bring down the dastardly El Indio. It’s a gripping story of revenge and greed that wasn’t so well received at its debut. Over time, though, appreciation for this middle child movie has grown and it now stands toe-to-toe with the others in Leone’s epic.
9. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
The John Ford classic stars some of the most iconic actors of Westerns’ golden age. John Wayne, Lee Marvin, and Jimmy Stewart all turn in amazing performances in this elegy to genre. Can law and justice prevail over force? Are the stories told about cowboy legends really true? And who will get the girl? The ending of this one is also one of the ultimate psych-outs in cinema.
8. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)
The conclusion of Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy is one of the greatest Westerns ever. Even the title has taken on a life of its own. The final outing for Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name features a trio all going after the same prize. It includes an incredible score by Ennio Morricone and one of the most intense final sequences put to film. Any devotee of Westerns worth their spurs will have seen the whole trilogy, but this last chapter is one to watch for any and all movie fans.
7. The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre (1948)
This assembled some great Hollywood talents of its day. It’s an incredible outing by Humphrey Bogart and the script by John Huston is sharp and snarling. The story of three hobos and their mad pursuit of wealth is one of the greatest psychological thrillers to come out of old world Hollywood. Huston also directed the film, and fun fact, his father played prospector Howard.
6. The Wild Bunch (1969)
It’s the classic “one last job” premise, but in Sam Peckinpah’s hands, the familiar idea becomes something special. It was controversial at the time for its level of violence (although it’s not so bad by modern standards). But The Wild Bunch holds up as a great work on technical and artistic levels for its look at the end of the frontier’s gunman era. “We’ve got to start thinking beyond our guns,” Pike Bishop says. “Those days are closing fast.”
5. Once Upon a Time in the West (1969)
Welcome back, Sergio Leone. This spaghetti western is one of the best directors in the biz, and it called on the talents of Charles Bronson as musical gunman Harmonica, and Henry Ford as his antagonist Frank. The plot points center on an argument over land ownership and a quest for vengeance. Although those are familiar territory for westerns, this take on them feels like an opera crossed with a ballet and it's just as sweeping, dramatic, and glorious as you’d expect from that combination.
4. Unforgiven (1992)
Here’s another instance of Clint Eastwood carrying the movie. His William Munny character takes one final contract as a way to atone for his past sins. Eastwood’s performance and direction are incredible, but the work done by Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, and Richard Harris is also pretty dang great. Unforgiven offers a look into the harsher realities of power, lawlessness, and the gunfighter life.
3. Stagecoach (1939)
A prostitute, a drunk doctor, a pregnant girl, a cad, a wanted fugitive, a marshal, a whiskey salesman, a crazy driver, and a banker all board a stagecoach heading for New Mexico. Not all of them make it to the final destination. This movie is another masterwork by John Ford, and is one of the most influential movies made. Its shadow has touched projects from Citizen Kane to Alien to Terminator 2. That’s quite the reach.
2. Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid (1973)
The masterpiece by Sam Peckinpah puts the familiar cowboy rogue Billy the Kid in a very different light. Lawman Pat and outlaw Billy used to be best friends. Faced with bringing Billy and his gang to justice, Pat goes about his business like he has no choice – and Billy waits for him like he doesn’t even care. Plus it gets bonus points for music and an acting cameo by Bob Dylan.
1. The Searchers (1956)
The Searchers is one of the finest entries in John Wayne’s storied career. Not only was the obsessive quest of a Civil War veteran for his kidnapped niece (played by Natalie Wood) an iconic role for him, but it was also a defining moment for the genre. There are Westerns before The Searchers and Westerns after The Searchers, but nothing comes close to straddling the genre like John Ford’s monolith of anti-heroism – saying more with one final, silent shot than most films manage with 90 minutes.