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.
50. Dodge City (1939)
Some of the greatest Westerns ever made tweak the genre’s traditions and expectations — traditions and expectations created by countless films that like their good guys to wear white hats, their bad guys to be instantly identifiable villains, their saloons to play host to barroom brawls, and their climactic shoot-outs to be rousing. Dodge City has no interest in subverting any of that. Directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland — a team that had recently enjoyed great success with films like Captain Blood and The Adventures of Robin Hood — the film wants nothing more than to be a traditional Western on the grandest scale imaginable. Flynn plays a man compelled to clean up the lawless cattle town of Dodge City. De Havilland plays the woman who loves him (eventually), and Bruce Cabot plays a lawless tough guy. The rest, as the saying goes, writes itself, but the film’s so entertaining that the familiarity of it all doesn’t matter. Flynn and de Havilland transport the chemistry of their swashbuckling adventures to the Old West, while Curtiz makes brilliant use of Technicolor and a big budget. Anyone new to the Western or just wanting to see a Hollywood Western in its most basic form executed at the highest possible level should start here.
49. The Sisters Brothers (2018)
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.
48. Buck and the Preacher (1972)
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.
47. Bad Company 1972
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.
46. Day of Anger (1967)
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.
45. The Great Train Robbery (1903)
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.
44. Broken Arrow (1950)
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.
43. One-Eyed Jacks (1961)
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.
42. Little Big Man (1970)
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.
40. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
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.
39. The Shootist (1976)
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.
38. Blazing Saddles (1974)
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.
37. The Tall T (1957)
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.
36. Django (1966)
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.
35. The Magnificent Seven (1960)
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.
34. Bend of the River (1952)
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).
33. A Bullet for the General (1966)
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.
32. Vera Cruz (1954)
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.