America can only claim a few art forms as its own. Jazz, for sure. Comic books, certainly. It’s probably safe to add the Western to that list, too, even if — like jazz and comics — the Western has roots around the globe and has since been adopted in many lands.
The history of movie Westerns more or less begins with the end of the Old West itself. Westerns thrived in the silent era, and though the genre’s popularity has ebbed and flowed ever since — largely fading from view in the ’80s but enjoy several resurgences in succeeding decades — it’s never threatened to fade away. The Western is a vital genre with the habit of reinventing itself every few years that doubles as a way to talk about America’s history while reflecting on its present. A strand of violent, psychologically complex Westerns that appeared in the 1950s, for example, captures both changing attitudes toward the settlement of the West and the treatment of Native Americans while channeling the spirit of a country still recovering from a devastating World War. And while there are certain themes and elements that define the genre, it’s also proven to be flexible, capable of playing host to many different stories and an infinite variety of characters. In Paul Greengrass’s terrific new film News of the World, for instance, Tom Hanks plays a traveling newsreader whose attempt to return a girl to her family doubles as a tour of a country whose divisions look like clear roots to some of our current national troubles.
This list of the 50 greatest Westerns reflects that wide legacy from the very first entry, a film directed by a Hungarian and starring a Tasmanian. It’s been assembled, however, working from a fairly traditional definition of the Western: films set along the America frontier of the 19th and the first years of the 20th century. That means no modern Westerns, no stealth Westerns starring aged X-Men, and no space Westerns with blasters instead of pistols. (We did, however, make an exception for a certain comedy that concludes with its stars attending its own premiere.)
That, of course, still leaves a lot of great Westerns. More, of course, than could possibly fit on a top-50 list interested in capturing the full scope of the genre. As such, not every John Ford film made the list. Anthony Mann and James Stewart made eight Westerns together. Any of them could have been included, but not all of them have been. This list is designed to double as a guide to the genre’s many different forms in the hopes it will send readers to corners they might not know and reconsider some classics they might not have seen before.
At the other end of the spectrum lies what back in the ’60s used to be called “the revisionist Western,” though its influence has so permeated the genre that it’s hard to tell where traditionalism ends and revisionism begins. Put simply, the revisionist Western steers away from, or plays against, formula, refusing to romanticize the Old West or depict it as a place with clear good guys and bad guys. It also tends to emphasize the grimier, more unpleasant aspects of life in the American West. One litmus test: If you see flies buzzing around a corpse, you’re probably watching a revisionist Western.
There’s grime aplenty, but also unexpected sweetness, in The Sisters Brothers, in which John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix play brothers who work as hired assassins, despite being temperamentally unsuited for the job. Hired by a rich man to take out an inventor named Warm (Riz Ahmed), they run into mission drift as they get to know both their target and the other man tracking him down, a private detective named Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal). Adapted by Jacques Audiard from a novel by Patrick deWitt, the film didn’t find much of an audience when it played in theaters. But it’s a cult classic waiting to happen, a cockeyed look at a time and place in America when the rules hadn’t yet hardened and seemingly anything could happen — for good and for ill. It also features a breathtaking ending that’s unlike anything another Western has dared.
Watch enough classic Westerns and it’s easy to conclude — leaving out a few exceptions — that African-Americans rarely had a role to play in the Old West, or at best kept to the margins of the stories that defined it. That doesn’t square with history, and Sidney Poitier’s directorial debut shines a light on just one underrepresented Old West story via the tale of some Black migrants fleeing the brutality of Reconstruction life to find a new life in unsettled territory — only to find that prejudice and other perils await them on their journey. Poitier stars as Buck, a former soldier who escorts wagon trains for pay but comes to find he has a deeper stake in the well being of those he protects. A virtually unrecognizable Harry Belafonte co-stars as Preacher, a scraggly, traveling man of God/con man who, eventually, throws in with Buck. Joined by Ruby Dee, they make a fun buddy team. Their chemistry provides a light counterbalance to the film’s exploration of the complicated racial dynamics that defined the West, including the party’s tense arrangement with the Native Americans who never let the migrants forget they’re only visitors as they pass through their territory.
Robert Benton enjoyed his first great success as a screenwriter with the Arthur Penn–directed Bonnie and Clyde, which made a direct connection between the restless spirit of the 1960s and a pair of Depression Era live-fast, die-young outlaws — a take on their story that had little interest in the crime-doesn’t-pay narrative attached to classic Hollywood gangster films. Benton’s directorial debut, Bad Company, brings a similar urge to demythologize the Western. The story centers on a Civil War draft dodger named Drew (Barry Brown) who falls in with some morally questionable companions led by a rapscallion named Jake (Jeff Bridges) as he makes his way West. Drew tries to stay pure of heart in spite of his new acquaintances, but the West has other plans. Benton shapes the film into a darkly funny coming-of-age story, a kind of anti–Horatio Alger tale in which good intentions and hard work never stand a chance against fast cash and well-timed betrayal.
The Western genre got a shot of new ideas starting in the early ’60s thanks to the proliferation of European Westerns, many of them made by Italian directors using stretches of Italy and Spain that mostly looked like the Old West — not to mention a mix of American and European stars. The master of what would come to be known as Spaghetti Westerns was Sergio Leone, whose breakthrough film, 1964’s A Fistful of Dollars, made a movie star out of a TV actor named Clint Eastwood and helped spark a boom that would lead to hundreds of such films in the decades that follow. (More on Leone, Eastwood, and A Fistful of Dollars below.) With their askew takes on the American mythos, twisted characters, inventive scores, vivid imagery, and florid violence, the Spaghetti Western developed into a rich subgenre that could easily fill a top 50 list of its own, one that rewards those who venture away from Leone. One example: Day of Anger, directed by Leone’s former assistant director Tonino Valerii. Giuliano Gemma stars as Scott, a lowly street sweeper whose status starts to change when Frank Talby (Lee Van Cleef, an American actor whose career got a second act thanks to Spaghetti Westerns) takes him under his wing. But he soon learns that there’s a price to be paid by those who would use a gun to move up in the world. Clearly inspired by Leone — they’d work together again on the fun My Name Is Nobody in 1973 — Valerii mixes cutting black humor with scenes of violence, blending enthrall with revulsion as we see what it means to make one’s reputation by shedding blood.
Consider this: When Edwin S. Porter made The Great Train Robbery, using New Jersey as a stand-in for the American frontier, the Old West wasn’t even that old. Most historians use 1912, when Arizona and New Mexico became states, as the closing of the frontier. But, as with the dime novels that made heroes and legends out of its inhabitants, the West was already passing into myth when Porter made this violent, crisply edited film in which bandits meet a bad end after robbing a telegraph office (but not before thrilling audiences with their daring and ruthlessness, like so many heroes and villains to follow them). The final shot, in which the lead bandit takes aim at the audience, is its own kind of wonder, implicating viewers in both the threat and the thrill of what they’d just seen.
If the Western genre has an original sin, it’s the portrayal of Native Americans, treated by many films alternately as buffoons and subhuman savages. The demeaning depictions have ties to some of the ugliest chapters in American history. And just as the country at large is still reckoning with the consequences of its conquest of the West, the Western genre will always have to grapple with its most thoughtless and hateful portrayals. Some films tried to offer correctives, though they usually weren’t without their own sorts of awkwardness. Directed by Delmer Daves, Broken Arrow loses points for casting white actors in most of its Native American roles, a once-common practice that now seems baffling. But it scores points for weaving a message of tolerance into an effective, fact-inspired adventure story in which James Stewart plays Tom Jeffords, an ex-Army scout who befriends the Apache chief Cochise (Jeff Chandler) and works to defuse tensions in the area. The film both helped nudge the Western’s depiction of Native Americans in a more sympathetic direction (though not every film responded to that nudge) and — with Winchester ’73, released the same year — helped confirm Stewart as one of the key stars of the new decade, thus bringing about a more complex, conflicted sort of Western hero.
Marlon Brando only directed one movie and it didn’t exactly do his career any favors. He went over schedule, and over budget with One-Eyed Jacks, which premiered to mixed reviews and commercial indifference. The release of a restored print in 2016 — shepherded by admirers like Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg — helped confirm what the film’s partisans had argued all along: Brando knew what he was doing behind the camera. Scorsese described it as “represent[ing] a sort of bridge between two eras in moviemaking: the production values of old Hollywood and the emotional values of the new Hollywood,” an apt summation of a classic-looking Western anchored by Brando’s tortured performance as Rio, an outlaw determined to exact revenge on an older partner he calls Dad (Karl Malden) who’s gone straight and become a lawman — a plan made all the more complicated when Rio falls for Dad’s stepdaughter (Pina Pellicer). The production was dogged by stories of Brando wasting time waiting for just the right waves to appear for a shot, but the film itself bears out his instincts. Sometimes you just have to wait for the right wave to suggest the roiling emotions of a bad guy trying to decide if he wants to follow his instincts to their violent ends.
Few revisionist Westerns took the task of demythologizing the West as literally as Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man, which is narrated by the 121-year-old Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman, under extremely impressive aging makeup) who tries to set the record straight by telling a historian what really happened in the Old West. Crabb has an unusual perspective. A white kid raised by the Cheyenne, he bounces back and forth between the white and Native American worlds over the course of the film, finding abundance of absurdity on both sides but an overabundance of hypocrisy and cruelty on only one. Penn balances comedy against tragedy, depicting Crabb bungling his way through stints as a gunslinger and a soldier then refusing to look away from the massacres he witnesses, scenes Penn fills with echoes of the Vietnam War. Even those who remember the past sometimes live long enough to see it repeated.
Speaking of Penn, years before he made Bonnie and Clyde sympathetic outlaws, he did much the same for Billy the Kid with The Left Handed Gun. As played by Paul Newman, William Bonney is a trigger-happy hothead who’s more misunderstood than evil. Taken in by a cattle boss, he becomes enraged when a competing bunch of cattlemen kill his mentor. The anger ultimately leads to his downfall, but not before he starts to see his own short life start to become legend. Working from a take on Bonney originated by Gore Vidal, Penn and Newman treat him as a rebel with an overdeveloped sense of justice and underdeveloped impulse control. It serves as a showcase for a complex, twitchy performance for Newman, who was just coming into his own as a major movie star, and for Penn, whose directorial debut captures a director ready to question received American myths from the start.
A similar impulse drives Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, but rather than fill the film with restless energy, as Penn did, Dominik opts for a more meditative approach. Brad Pitt plays James opposite Casey Affleck as Robert Ford, an admirer and gang recruit who ultimately turns against his idol. Aided by stunning Roger Deakins cinematography and an entrancing score from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, Dominik’s film locks into the rhythms of another time, letting sharp moments of violence interrupt long, slow passages that wouldn’t be out of place in a film by Terrence Malick (one of Dominick’s obvious reference points). The film had a difficult journey to theaters where it drew only small but devoted audiences, yet even then it seemed destined to be regarded as a classic unappreciated in its time.
John Wayne might not have known the end was near when he agreed to make The Shootist for Don Siegel, but he must have had his suspicions. Wayne, who died in 1979, had fought cancer since the early ’60s and had been finding it increasingly hard to work due to his physical limitations. The story of a gunfighter facing down death, The Shootist didn’t begin as an elegiac tribute to the star — a number of other, younger actors passed on the part — but it works beautifully as Wayne’s swan song, giving him a character who’s lived long enough to become a Western legend only to learn that that status has more detriments than benefits. Filled with familiar faces — James Stewart and John Carradine among them — and set in 1901, it also captures the passing of one era and the coming of another. Wayne’s character, J.B. Books, becomes the idol of a teenage boy named Gillom (Ron Howard), but the film’s ultimately about how the sort of life Books lived has no place in the world that’s coming. Nor did Wayne, but Siegel’s film gives him a fitting good-bye.
Filled with deep knowledge of and affection for the classic Western, and a willingness to blow raspberries at it anyway, Blazing Saddles finds Mel Brooks (and a writing team that included Richard Pryor and Andrew Bergman) deploying every sort of gag known to comedy, from dark, anachronistic asides (“I must’ve killed more men than Cecil B. DeMille”) to a concerto of bean-assisted farts. But it might just have been a fun romp were it not for the social commentary central to the story of Bart (Cleavon Little), a black man sent by the corrupt Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman) to stir up trouble in the town of Rock Ridge so it can be demolished to make way for a railroad line. It’s silliness with a purpose, and the film weaves the jokes and the pointed jabs together brilliantly. Brooks directs with an understanding of how classic Westerns work, but the film is driven by a need to tell the sort of story they never could.
Between 1956 and 1960 director Budd Boetticher, writers Burt Kennedy and Charles Lang, and star Randolph Scott teamed up for six films that came to be known as the Ranown Cycle — tough, tight, morally complex stories of the Old West and the difficulties of being a person of conscience while living within it. All beautifully crafted and carefully considered, any of them would make a fine addition to this list (and there’s one more a little further up the line). Adapted from a story by Elmore Leonard, The Tall T casts Scott as a down-on-his-luck cowboy who ends up in the middle of a scheme to ransom a wealthy woman (Maureen O’Hara) newly wed to a coward. Boetticher keeps the suspense high in a film deeply interested in what it means to be an honorable man under impossible circumstances, a struggle Scott depicts less through words than actions and the emotions he feels but never expresses.
Undoubtedly the most influential Spaghetti Western not directed by Sergio Leone, Django takes the ugliness and violence of Leone’s films up several notches for a story that pits an ex-Union soldier named Django (Franco Nero) against the Klan and other foes. Sergio Corbucci — who also contributed memorable entries like Navajo Joe and The Great Silence to the Spaghetti canon — directs like Leone without the lyricism, putting the emphasis squarely on violence and absurdity. But his approach, and Nero’s performance, serve the lean, mean, bloody story well. The film has one official sequel but dozens of unofficial follow-ups with titles like Django, Prepare a Coffin and A Few Dollars for Django. It also has even more imitators who found varying degrees of success by combining a mysterious hero with ever-escalating violence. The original, however, remains a dark delight.
The ’50s and ’60s found international filmmakers engaging in a fascinating cultural exchange. For his 1954 classic Seven Samurai, Akira Kurosawa looked to the American Western — especially the films of John Ford — for inspiration. The American Western repaid the tribute with this remake of Seven Samurai directed by John Sturges. Sturges’s film lacks some of the surprise and depth of Kurosawa’s film, but it’s as entertaining as big Hollywood Westerns get, putting Yul Brynner in charge of a mismatched band of gunfighters (whose ranks include Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, and James Coburn) as they defend a Mexican village plagued by bandits under the command of a sadistic leader played by Eli Wallach.
The West held the promise of reinvention, serving as a place where those who wanted to start a new chapter in their lives could forget the past. But does a fresh start always change the contents of a person’s heart? That’s the question at the center of this Anthony Mann Western in which James Stewart and Arthur Kennedy both play former border raiders who, in the years after the Civil War, have started to create new lives for themselves on the frontier. For Stewart’s character, that means helping a wagon train find its way to Oregon. For Kennedy’s that maybe means the same thing. But maybe not. Mann’s film explores what it takes to redeem the bad actions of the past while depicting the corrupting influence of wealth, watching as the discovery of gold turns almost everyone into monsters and the Edenic Oregon Territory into a land ruled by greed. It’s a complex, gripping drama that’s unafraid to send some likable characters down dark paths, and it all plays out against stunning Pacific Northwest scenery (some less-convincing-than-usual soundstage sequences aside).
The Spaghetti Western’s offshoots include the Zapata Western, which set stories against the background of the Mexican Revolution. This often provided filmmakers the chance to offer coded (and sometimes not so coded) commentary on the politics of the 1960s. Among the first of its type, Damiano Damiani’s A Bullet for the General mixes rousing action with a story of betrayal and political assassination that ends with an unambiguous call for the underclass to take up arms. Unsurprisingly, its screenwriting team includes Franco Solinas, the Marxist co-writer of The Battle of Algiers, but Damiani effectively folds the film’s political agenda into an exciting narrative filled with memorable action scenes that exemplifies how popular entertainment can often be the best way to deliver a message.
Spaghetti Westerns didn’t come out of nowhere. Their precursors include this Robert Aldrich film, in which a financially struggling plantation owner named Ben (Gary Cooper) seeks to bail himself out any way he can by seeking his fortune in Mexico. There he teams up with Joe (Burt Lancaster), the morally suspect leader of a band of outlaws (a band that includes Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson and others), to make off with a fortune in gold coins. Aldrich brings a surplus of visual flair to a sweat-soaked film in which Cooper’s character looks like a good guy only in contrast to the even worse guys around him. Cooper’s tight-lipped performance leaves Lancaster plenty of room to play the colorful rogue, a man who can keep up a charm offensive up to the moment he puts a bullet in your back.
Budd Boetticher moved on from movie Westerns after Comanche Station in 1960, focusing instead on TV work and a documentary about matador Carlos Arruza. Randolph Scott, on the other hand, made one more Western, the 1962 film Ride the High Country. The first Western film directed by Sam Peckinpah, it plays a bit like the passing of the torch. Scott and Joel McCrea co-star as aging cowboys who take on the job of guarding a gold shipment. They’re men past their prime in a world that’s passing them by, and they know it, but they’re determined to make the most of their last ride. Peckinpah would soon make movies that would upend the Western genre with their balletic violence and dirt-caked vision of the West. Ride the High Country finds him exploring some of his pet themes — particularly the end of the West and what it means to be a man out of time — via a much more traditional style and using major stars of a not-quite-but-almost-bygone era. A lovely, quietly mournful film, it, too, would be one of the last of its kind
Some films never fully give up their mysteries. The Shooting, one of two low-budget Westerns that Monte Hellman made back-to-back in Utah for an uncredited Roger Corman, is one such film. Working from a script by future Five Easy Pieces writer Carole Eastman (working under a pseudonym), Hellman turns the story of two gunslingers (Warren Oates and Will Hutchins) accompanying an unnamed woman (Millie Perkins) through an unforgiving desert while being trailed by a man in black (a menacing Jack Nicholson). Artful and at times almost abstract, it strips the Western down to its fundamental elements and then strips away some more as it builds to an ending as mysterious in its own way as the end of Don’t Look Now (or Hellman’s own Two-Lane Blacktop). For a long time, The Shooting seemed almost more like a rumor than a film. It never played theaters and aired just a few times on TV. But those who saw it kept its flame alive, and it’s rightfully received a second life thanks to home video. The film’s more conventional companion piece, Ride in the Whirlwind, also starring Nicholson and Perkins, is also very much worth a look.
Clint Eastwood’s fifth film as a director has tangled origins. It began as a film by Philip Kaufman, who took on the job of adapting a book by a man who called himself Forrest Carter, who’d later write the memoir The Education of Little Tree recounting his upbringing in the Cherokee tradition. Kaufman lost his job while shooting the film and Carter would later be exposed as a fraud — a former member of the Klan and a speechwriter for George Wallace. Despite how it got started, The Outlaw Josey Wales ended up as very much a Clint Eastwood film, and a more mature consideration of the genre than he’d managed with its dark, violent, and deeply satisfying predecessor High Plains Drifter. Trading in a story of revenge for one of reconciliation, Eastwood stars as Josey Wales, a member of a pro-Confederate militia who heads West to escape a bounty on his head. Having lost his wife and child to pro-Union forces, he expects his journey to be a lonely one, only to pick up a kind of surrogate family that includes an aged Cherokee man (Chief Dan George), a mute Navajo woman, and others. Eastwood doesn’t skimp on the violence, but the film ultimately cares more about what happens after violence ends, and how a country patches itself together after a divisive war, a theme that resonated with mid-’70s America.
A tight, chilling cautionary tale about the dangers of mob mentality and rushed judgment, this William Wellman film stars Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan as cowboys who drift into a new town and find themselves drawn into a posse seeking justice for the murder of a rancher. They find some likely suspects, or at least suspects that seem likely enough to a bloodthirsty crowd. Always efficient, Wellman’s film is short and to the point, but it moves to deliberate rhythms, conveying the speed and urgency of the posse’s hunt but slowing down as their suspects endure the torture of knowing that their time on Earth may have reached an end. In a genre with no shortage of blazing guns and casual killing, The Ox-Bow Incident makes every death sting.
The middle entry in Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy — we’ll be hitting the others a little further up the list — For a Few Dollars More sometimes gets overlooked, sandwiched as it is between the tight, revelatory breakthrough A Fistful of Dollars and the sweeping The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. In many respects, it falls squarely between those two poles, but it’s also the most emotionally rich of the three. Eastwood returns, this time playing a bounty hunter who joins forces with a former Army colonel who keeps his reasons for seeking revenge to himself until the film’s finale, reasons that add a poignant undercurrent to a film that ups the violence and grunginess of its predecessor and sets up an even more ambitious follow-up.
James Stewart didn’t have the easiest time returning to work after World War II. The charming comedic parts he’d specialized in before his time in the Air Force, an experience he had difficulty discussing, didn’t seem to suit him anymore, and his first film back, It’s a Wonderful Life, flopped even though it showcased a skill at playing troubled characters rarely glimpsed before. However, 1950 was a breakthrough year. He dazzled in Harvey, but it was a pair of Westerns that confirmed that he’d be a major force in the genre for years to come: Broken Arrow (see above) and this first pairing with Anthony Mann. Here Stewart plays Lin McAdam, the central figure in the story of a rare, coveted gun’s journey through the Old West, as it passes from Lin’s hands to that of an outlaw, a Native American (Rock Hudson), and others. It’s a clever device that allows Mann to explore several corners of the West and, in the process, tell a variety of stories while setting up both director and star as important voices in the genre.
John Wayne shook up his image with the 1969 film True Grit, an adaptation of a Charles Portis novel in which Wayne played the cantankerous, usually drunk U.S. Marshal “Rooster” Cogburn. It’s a fine film in its own right, but Joel and Ethan Coen’s second pass at the story is even better. Jeff Bridges takes on the Cogburn role, playing him as equal parts curmudgeon and hero as he helps the spirited, teenaged Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) track down the villain (James Brolin) who killed her father — with some help from a boastful Texas Ranger (Matt Damon). The results, which bring more of the novel’s eccentric touches to the screen, suggest Portis’s book was always meant to be a Coen brothers movie, creating a vision of the West as a weird, darkly comic place, one that requires an almost inhuman amount of dedication to bend it to its will. It gets points for keeping Portis’s bittersweet ending, to..
“Well, there was this movie I seen one time about a man riding ’cross the desert and it starred Gregory Peck,” Bob Dylan sings on his 1986 track “Brownsville Girl,” a song co-written by Sam Shepard. Then, without warning, he goes on to spoil the plot of this 1950 Henry King film, in which Peck plays a gunfighter whose prowess with a gun has made him a legend while putting a target on his back for any young gun hoping to make a name for himself. Dylan can’t quite remember the name of the movie, but it’s clearly made a deep impression on him anyway, no doubt in large part thanks to Peck’s haunted performance as a man for whom fame has become a trap and the reasons for that fame a source of shame that stands between him and the righteous, settled life he wants to live. It’s yet another 1950 Western that signaled a shift in the genre. Drawing on noir, it helped set the stage for a decade filled with haunted men shadowed by a past they can only dream of escaping.
That same sense of fatalism hangs over every frame of Jim Jarmusch’s journey through an old, weird American West, which alternates between gritty revisionist sequences and increasingly surreal passages as it sends a Cleveland-born accountant named William Blake (Johnny Depp) on a journey toward death. Along the way he encounters everyone from a pitiless industrialist played by Robert Mitchum to a cross-dressing trader played by Iggy Pop — and, most importantly, a Native American man named Nobody (Gary Farmer) who guides him on his journey in part because he suspects Blake is the reincarnation of the poet who shares his name. A languorous Neil Young score sets the tone for a film in which Jarmusch uses starkly beautiful black-and-white images, dry humor, and Depp’s deadpan performance to create a dreamlike journey beyond the boundaries of Old West myths.
The first Budd Boetticher, Burt Kennedy, and Randolph Scott collaboration set the pattern for those that followed, and a high standard for them to match. Boetticher reportedly described their unifying feature as common setup: “Here comes Randy. He’s alone. What’s his problem?” Here Randy’s problem’s especially tough. Once the sheriff of Silver Springs, he now hunts for the seven men responsible for a robbery that left his wife dead, a pursuit that puts him in conflict with a tough character played by Lee Marvin and a young married couple whom he suspects might not survive their journey West without his help. Whether or not that’s his problem proves central to the plot, and more complicated than it first appears. The subsequent twists allow Boetticher and his collaborators to explore the complex matter of what it means to live justly in a dangerous world while still surviving to see the next day — a question they try to answer with this and the brisk, action-packed, but always reflective films that followed, rarely arriving at any easy answers.
The film that made Clint Eastwood a movie star, revealed Sergio Leone as a peerless stylist, and inspired hundreds (thousands?) of imitators, this breakthrough Spaghetti Western offers a bloody, enthralling reinterpretation of the American Western as viewed from afar, with a plot on loan from Akira Kurosawa’s samurai hit Yojimbo. (The cultural exchange between Kurosawa and the Western didn’t end with The Magnificent Seven.) Eastwood plays the Man With No Name (though he’s known here as “Joe”), the character he’d spin variations on in the film’s two (loosely connected) follow-ups. A drifter and gifted gunslinger, he strolls into a town controlled by two warring factions and proceeds to play them against each other to his own benefit, saying as little as possible and letting them make assumptions about his plans. Though he ultimately takes a stand for good, the Man With No Name seems happily amoral for much of the film, less a white-hatted good guy than a disillusioned anti-hero with no interest in propping up a corrupt system or the men who run it. It’s no wonder the ’60s embraced him and Leone’s irreverent, thrilling take on the genre, one scored by Ennio Morricone’s equally groundbreaking music.
Playing older than his years, John Wayne stars in the middle chapter of John Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy (sandwiched between Fort Apache and Rio Grande) as a soon-to-retire captain whose final days in service find him reflecting on what it all meant as he tries to prevent a new outbreak of fighting in the days after Custer’s defeat at Little Bighorn. Shooting in stunning Technicolor in his favorite location, Utah’s Monument Valley, Ford fills the film with lyrical passages while valorizing a soldier whose primary concern is preventing bloodshed rather than facilitating it. Short on plot but no less memorable for it, the film inspired critic Dave Kehr to call it “perhaps the only avant-garde film ever made about the importance of tradition.”
The fundamental conflict at the heart of the classic Western pits civilization against lawlessness and the notion that might makes right against order and justice. But not all those who fought to make the West safe for law-abiding citizens got to live in the world they helped shape. Characters who realize they have no place in the changing West float through many of the greatest Westerns (including a bunch further up, and atop, this list).
If there’s an archetypal version of that character, it’s Shane, the hero of George Stevens’s film of the same name. Played by Alan Ladd, Shane has a past he’d rather not talk about but sees the possibility of a better future in the Wyoming Territory, where settlers find themselves harassed by a land baron with no respect for their legal claims on the land. It’s there Shane befriends a local family (headed by Van Heflin and Jean Arthur) and tries to put his gunfighting ways behind him but is forced to call upon his old skills for the sake of his new friends and the life they’re trying to forge.
Stevens makes beautiful use of location photography while asking whether it will be a plough or a gun that defines the West in the years that come. A veteran of World War II, Stevens returned from the conflict determined never to make movies that glorified violence. Even while making Shane’s choices seem unavoidable, Ladd brings a tragic heaviness to his defense of the settlers and a sense that even necessary violence goes against what’s best in the human spirit. The final shot is one of the Western’s most famous images — and one of its saddest.
A similar conflict between a desire to live a quiet, settled life and the need to do whatever it takes to survive plays out in Delmer Daves’s 3:10 to Yuma (the first adaptation of an Elmore Leonard story that inspired a strong remake in 2007). It even shares a cast member with Shane, Van Heflin, who plays Dan, a rancher who witnesses a stagecoach robbery but just wants to stay out of it. He’s desperate for money, however, and thus susceptible to the promise of a reward for helping ensure that Ben Wade (Glenn Ford, leering but charming) doesn’t escape before boarding a train that will take him to jail for his crimes. As they wait for the train, and the arrival of henchmen determined to set Wade free, the film explores the nature of justice and morality in an untamed land and the possibility of redemption for even the worst of men, all building to an explosive finale that takes some unexpected turns.
One of the most divisive of all the classic Westerns, High Noon inspired Howard Hawks to make Rio Bravo because he “didn’t think a good town marshal was going to run around town like a chicken with his head cut off asking everyone to help.” (You’ll find Hawks’s film a little higher on this list, but don’t take that as a slight to High Noon.) Others’ reasons for disliking it were more complicated, wrapped as they were in the politics of the day, which led screenwriter Carl Foreman to leave the country for Britain before its release, rightly assuming he’d soon be blacklisted for failing to cooperate with HUAC. That same political environment undoubtedly inspired the film, in which Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper), just as he’s about to retire, discovers that no one will help him against a gang of outlaws out for revenge. Letting the action unfold in something close to real time, director Fred Zinnemann builds the tension slowly, letting Kane’s mounting desperation, rather than gunfights and acts of heroism, push the film along. By the climax, it’s become a drama about a brave man — never mind Hawks’s reading — who learns just how cowardly everyone else can be when they have something to lose, and how quickly a nice town can revert back to savagery no matter how much work has been put into taming it.
Director Samuel Fuller loved big emotions and shocking imagery. Forty Guns unites those passions, pitting a former gunslinger named Griff (Barry Sullivan) against a local landowner who holds power by controlling a cadre of men, the 40 guns of the title. It’s a classic Western setup complicated by the landowner being the commanding and beautiful Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck), who inflames Griff’s passions and he hers. Fuller fills the film with heated drama and bold flourishes — like a dinner table where Jessica shares a meal with all 40 of her enforcers — as well as some deeply Freudian gun talk with a beautiful gunsmith, a tracking shot that seemingly runs the length of a town, and a showdown filled with extremely tightly close-ups. (Leone was doubtlessly taking notes.) It’s brash and satisfying on every level, from the action scenes to the complex, sexually charged central romance.
Then again, when it comes to sexual chemistry and fluid gender roles, Forty Guns looks pretty tame compared to Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar, released a few years earlier. Joan Crawford plays Vienna, a saloon owner who dominates everyone she meets with her imperious attitude. (“I never met a woman who was more man,” her bartender says.) Well, almost everyone. The film puts Vienna up against Ward Bond’s John McIvers, but McIvers mostly seems to act as a cat’s-paw to Emma (Mercedes McCambridge), who hates and obsesses over Vienna. It’s all quite overheated even before the arrival of the eponymous Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden), when director Nicholas Ray turns up the heat even further — almost literally in a fiery climax. The film confused audiences at the time, but it’s rightly emerged as one of Ray’s most daring attempts to push the boundaries of film drama via heightened emotions and brash visuals. In a , Roger Ebert dubbed it “one of the most blatant psychosexual melodramas ever to disguise itself in that most commodious of genres, the Western.” Ray discovered just how beautifully the two could fit together.
Westerns tell some stories again and again, few as often as the confrontation between the Earps and the Clantons at Tombstone’s O.K. Corral. Though John Ford claimed to have based the fight on Earp’s account, an account Ford heard from Wyatt Earp himself, My Darling Clementine fudges a lot of the details in the interest of good storytelling. Starring Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp, Ford regular Ward Bond as his brother Morgan, and Victor Mature as “Doc” Holliday, it’s very much a “print the legend” version of the Tombstone story, to borrow a phrase from a later Ford film.
But what a legend: In Ford’s hands, Earp’s story embodies the clash between order and chaos at the heart of the Western, a tale in which the courage of a few brave souls makes the West safe for civilization. Ford shapes it into a film filled with rousing sequences, but also lyrical asides and gentler moments that establish why the struggle matters. The title reveals a lot. Where other versions of the story bear names like Tombstone and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Ford’s emphasizes the character who symbolizes civility and the possibility of a better world to come, even if that world might have no place for men like Earp in it.
Some films were even more explicit about how changing times left some with nowhere left to call home. Released at the end of a tumultuous decade and deeply concerned with how eras end, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid brings a light touch to a story of a pair of outlaws who find themselves headed toward a dead end they didn’t see coming. Butch (Paul Newman) and Sundance (Robert Redford) have grown accustomed to living well as renegades but find that the closing of the frontier and the arrival of powerful businessmen with the deep pockets to fight back against outlaws have limited their options. Directed by George Roy Hill from a script by William Goldman, it’s a film so charming — those stars help a lot — that its fatalism sneaks up on you.
The final entry in Leone’s Dollars trilogy takes everything that’s come before and makes it bigger, bolder, meaner, and even more breathtakingly exciting. Telling the story of three men — played by Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and Eli Wallach — who alternately team up and betray each other in the hunt for a fortune, the film finds Leone seeing how far he can take his trademark aesthetic. Sometimes it plays like a pop-art Western, reducing the genre’s iconography to its splashiest imagery. Sometimes it plays like the Western as opera, building arias of violence and suspense with editing timed to the rhythms of Ennio Morricone’s score. It’s also ridiculously entertaining from start to finish, packing seemingly everything Leone ever wanted to do with the Western into one movie. Leone wasn’t quite done with the genre, however, as this list will attes
John Ford made all sorts of movies, but he kept circling back to the Western. Maybe that’s because he kept finding more to say with the genre, and finding more ways to express himself through it. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance feels like no other Ford film. A return to black-and-white photography on soundstages, it’s a more intimate, psychological drama than Ford’s other Westerns. The choice suits the material, a study in contrasts between two men trying to tame the West: Ranse Stoddard (James Stewart), an idealistic young lawyer, and Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), a tough rancher. Both find themselves at odds with local cattle barons who hire the blackhearted gunfighter Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) to prevent Stoddard’s attempts to earn statehood for the unnamed Western territory that serves as the film’s setting. The film lets Ford pair two of the Western’s most iconic stars as they play their personas off one another while considering how the stories that shape our understanding of history get written, and who gets forgotten in the process.
Kelly Reichardt’sradically unromantic tale of survival on the Oregon Trail sweats the details, focusing on the arduous day-to-day routines involved in moving across the Oregon high desert in search of a better life. It’s a tough existence even when things are going well, and in Meek’s Cutoff they’re not going well at all. A party led by Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) starts to suspect that their leader doesn’t know what he’s doing but does nothing until the situation has already started to spin out of control. Reichardt makes their lives look exhausting, conveying the high stakes that play into every decision and the panic that sets in when those decisions seem to be leading everyone astray. In her second collaboration with Reichardt, Michelle Williams delivers a complex performance as Emily, a woman who seemingly has no say in her fate — at least at first. Reichardt’s film works both as the story of a specific wrong turn with terrible consequences and as an expression of the awful feeling created by following leaders who seem to have lost their way. (She wasn’t done with the genre, either: Reichardt returned to the West just this year with the excellent FirstCow, a story of friendship and hardship among two marginal characters watching civilization take over the far frontier.)
In Anthony Mann’s The Naked Spur, Ralph Meeker plays a character dishonorably discharged from the cavalry on the grounds of being “morally unstable.” (That’s a label that might easily apply to most of the characters in the film, not to mention Mann’s other Westerns.) Meeker plays one of several characters drawn into bounty hunter Howard Kemp’s (James Stewart) attempt to collect an enormous bounty on Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan), a murderer and rapist wanted for killing a marshal. Vandergroat’s awful, but Kemp’s no less twisted up inside, driven by revenge, manipulating others into helping him, and unsure what to do about his attraction to Vandergroat’s companion Lina (Janet Leigh), who has conflicts of her own. No one’s purely on the side of good here, and the characters torture each other as Kemp’s obsession grows more intense and his chances to start over begin to dim. Mann and Stewart made eight raw, psychologically complex Westerns together, but none quite match The Naked Spur in intensity, or embody so thoroughly how Mann’s ’50s work transformed the genre.
Howard Hawks worked in virtually every imaginable film genre, but in each he tended to favor stories about camaraderie between disparate groups of people united for a common cause. In Rio Bravo he found a story he liked so much that he more or less remade it two more times, as El Dorado and Rio Lobo, both of which also starred John Wayne and both scripted, like Rio Bravo, by Leigh Brackett. Here, Wayne plays the wonderfully named Sheriff John T. Chance, whose defense of his drunken friend Dude (Dean Martin) pits him against some less-than-law-abiding ranchers. The film builds to an exciting climax but takes its time getting there, letting Chance and Dude rebuild their relationship as Dude crawls out from under the bottle; bringing in colorful supporting characters played by Ricky Nelson, Angie Dickinson, and others; and occasionally pausing the action for a song or two. Yet Hawks never wastes a moment. It’s the time spent getting to know Rio Bravo’scharacters that lets us worry about their fates, and that reveals what matters most to them in the life they’re fighting to protect and the laws they’re determined to uphold.
Released the same year as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a far more genial if no less doom-laced story of outlaws facing the end of the road as the Old West era draws to a close, Sam Peckinpah’s landmark Western attracted controversy for its graphic violence, some of it depicted in agonizing detail through slow motion. Was he making audiences consider the ugliness of taking a life? Making bloodshed look disturbingly beautiful? Could he be doing both at once? Ugly, brutal, but not without its dark allure, this was the vision of the West that Peckinpah had been building toward since Ride the High Country.Here he populates the film with a band of outlaws, led by William Holden and Ernest Borgnine, charming enough to make it easy to forget — at least for long stretches — how they make their living and why they’ve come into such dire straits as they try to make one last score before calling it a day. Yet beneath the violence and gritty atmosphere — aspects of the film that would be much imitated in the years that followed — The Wild Bunch builds a story about how honor matters even to those on the wrong side of the law, and the ways even bad men can be haunted by the moments during which they’ve let greed and fear overwhelm their sense of duty.
Like Rio Bravo, Red River is a film only Howard Hawks could have pulled off. Set largely during a long, troubled cattle drive from Texas to Abilene, the film stars John Wayne as Thomas Dunson, a cattle rancher with a tragic past who grows increasingly stern and unforgiving as the drive progresses. As he threatens to turn into an Old West Ahab, his adopted son Matt (Montgomery Clift) grows increasingly concerned, and more resistant to his authority, until a confrontation becomes inevitable and a tragedy the likely outcome. Ultimately, however, Hawks has other plans, and it’s Red River’s humanity — in addition to its sweeping action — that makes it extraordinary. Hawks plays with Wayne’s persona, drawing out the shadows beneath his heroic persona while also emphasizing its tender side via Dunson’s relationship with Matt. It’s one of the most complex characters Wayne would ever play, and here he gets to play it against a backdrop of tremendous danger that threatens to destroy everything he’s built — or push him to tear it apart himself.
Many of Robert Altman’s films, particularly in his first run of success in the early ’70s, find him putting his own spin on famous genres, be it the detective film or the war movie. With McCabe & Mrs. Miller Altman turned his attention to the Western and made one like no other before, a wistful, funny, heartbreaking film about one man’s doomed pursuit of happiness in the remote Washington town of Presbyterian Church. Warren Beatty plays McCabe, a drifter and fast-talker who falls in with, and falls in love with, Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie), a madam who offers to improve business at his low-rent brothel. They find success, but their newfound wealth attracts the attention of a mining company that initially wants to buy him out but uses even stronger tactics to take what it wants. Filmed in snowy Vancouver and set to some of the most melancholy songs Leonard Cohen ever recorded, the film lets a sense of fatalism hang over even its lightest moments. Beatty plays McCabe as a character too charming to lose all the time, but destined to lose big when he does. His short time on top in Presbyterian Church captures the freedom and possibilities of the American frontier, and the promise of America itself. His fate suggests that there might be less to that promise than advertised.
Is there such a thing as a perfect movie? If not, Stagecoach comes pretty close. John Ford’s film made a star of John Wayne as the Ringo Kid, a fugitive from the law who’s called upon to protect a stagecoach traveling through dangerous territory. That it contains nothing less than a cross section of Old West humanity — from an alcoholic doctor to pregnant Army wife to a prostitute and so on — suggests that Ford has ambitions beyond merely staging an exciting story. Stagecoach works first as just that, but it brilliantly weaves its characters’ personal journeys into the action as the journey becomes ever more perilous. This was Ford’s first trip to Monument Valley, which would become his favorite Western location, and his first important collaboration with Wayne, whose onscreen presence he’d help shape and change over the years, giving him more complicated characters as he aged. Here he lets him play the white-hatted hero to tremendous effect in the middle of one of the most influential Westerns ever made, a tremendously entertaining, richly realized film that laid the groundwork for Ford’s future efforts in the genre and inspired countless others to take the Western in new directions.
After completing the Dollars trilogy, Leone returned to the Western minus his signature star but with a renewed sense of ambition, twisting together an epic story of greed and revenge bigger than anything he’d attempted before. Charles Bronson plays a gunslinger known only as Harmonica (thanks to his musical instrument of choice) who’s locked into a battle of wills with Frank (Henry Fonda), a merciless hired gun with whom Harmonica has a mysterious history. Without losing his trademark dark humor, Leone couples the stylistic bravado of the film’s predecessors to a sense of tragic somberness, focusing on the sacrifices asked by the West and what gets lost as history moves on. He also brings a sense of patience, letting the story play out at a stately pace (at least in the director’s preferred cut) and giving space to co-stars Claudia Cardinale and Jason Robards to develop what might otherwise have been stock characters. It’s audacious, too, casting Fonda as not just a bad guy but a sadist and opening with a wordless showdown for which the term “slow burn” is an understatement. It’s Leone’s masterpiece, the film in which he packed everything he wanted to say about the West and its myths.
In his Best Picture–winning 1992 film, Clint Eastwood plays William Munny, a gunfighter who, inspired by his late wife, has abandoned his old ways for the righteous life of a farmer. Financial troubles compel him to again take up bounty hunting so he can collect a reward posted by a group of prostitutes, who are seeking justice after a pair of ranch hands mutilate one of their own. Working from a screenplay that he’d held on to until he had aged enough to play Munny, Eastwood delivers a meditative, morally complex Western filled with characters who sometimes commit awful acts for righteous reasons, those who commit horrific crimes for no reason at all, and those who just do what they have to do to survive. Munny has been, at varying points, all of the above, and he’s haunted by each experience. It’s left him wondering what all the killing he’s seen and done means, if it means anything at all. Eastwood dedicated Unforgiven to the two directors who’d most shaped his career: Sergio Leone and Don Siegel, neither a stranger to this list. But while their influence can still be seen in Unforgiven, it’s an Eastwood film in every frame, the culmination of his career-long relationship with the genre, and his mixed emotions about the way it mixes heroic iconography, violence, and the sense that a man with a gun can deliver justice.
John Wayne and John Ford made great movies — together and apart — after The Searchers, but that doesn’t make it any less of a culmination. Both had worked in, and thought about, the Western for years by the time they shot this haunting film. Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, a man driven by a hate that’s inflamed when Comanches murder Ethan’s brother and other members of his family before kidnapping his two nieces. Ethan and his companions soon find one, Lucy, dead. The other, Debbie (Natalie Wood), they can’t find at all, leading Ethan to scour the West for her as he becomes increasingly twisted by his rage.
Wayne delivers a terrifying performance as a lost soul who uses revenge to excuse the darkness and prejudice already inside him. Through that prejudice, Ford began to address the genre’s treatment of Native Americans, not by softening the actions of the Comanches but by having Ethan respond to monstrous acts with even more monstrous behavior. In one chilling scene, he mutilates a corpse, thus condemning his victim, by Comanche belief, to travel the afterlife blind. But as Martin Scorsese observes in his documentary A Personal Journey Through American Movies, Ethan is just placing his own curse on the corpse because “he’s a drifter, doomed to wander between the winds.”
Can a hero so awful really be called a hero at all? A few years later, Ford would contribute a segment to the Cinerama omnibus film How the West Was Won, but The Searchers, and Ford’s best films, and the most enduring Westerns made by anyone treat that title less as a statement than a question. How was the West won? What did it mean? What can we learn from it? Who profited? Who suffered? How did the stories we created from it shape our understanding of it all? They’re questions that lead to no answers, only more questions, and that’s part of the reason why the Western has proved so enduring. It’s a place where searchers go.
By Keith Phipps