The 1980s have been largely forgotten in the history of Western cinema. The genre was on the verge of collapse after the ’70s and was given new life in 1992 with Unforgiven, but that doesn’t mean the ’80s lacked Western substance. On the contrary, the decade was filled with critically acclaimed Westerns that deserve a second viewing for their mastery of the genre. From Pale Rider to Young Guns to more obscure fare like Near Dark, these are the best (and some of the worst) Western movies of the 1980s!
Pale Rider Was The Highest-Grossing Western Of The Decade
Produced, directed by, and starring Clint Eastwood, Pale Rider was released in 1985 and became the highest-grossing Western of the ’80s. The actor plays a character named “Preacher” who shows up in a California town just at the right time.
Pale Rider is most notable for being one of the first big Westerns released after the failure of Heaven’s Gate. Roger Ebert was effusive in his praise of the movie, “Pale Rider is, overall, a considerable achievement, a classic Western of style and excitement.”
An epic Western released in 1980, Heaven’s Gate cost a whopping $44 million to make and only made $3.5 million theatrically worldwide. Even with a star-studded cast that included Sam Waterston, Christopher Walken, Jeff Bridges, and Kris Kristofferson, the movie failed to make an impact other than crippling the Western genre.
Reflecting on the movie in 2008, Joe Queenan of The Guardian wrote, “This is a movie about Harvard-educated gunslingers who face off against eastern European sodbusters in an epic struggle for the soul of America… This is a movie that has five minutes of uninterrupted fiddle-playing by a fiddler who is also mounted on roller skates. This is a movie that defies belief.”
The year 1985 was a big one for ’80s Westerns. Not only did Pale Rider come out to critical acclaim and financial success, so did Silverado. Written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan, the film starred Kevin Costner and Kevin Kline and earned $32 million at the box office.
The exciting film was hailed by Peter Stack of the San Francisco Chronicle. “[The film] delivers elaborate gun-fighting scenes, legions of galloping horses, stampeding cattle, a box canyon, covered wagons, tons of creaking leather and even a High Noonish duel.” It was nominated for Best Original Score and Best Sound at the Academy Awards.
The second film directed by Kathryn Bigelow, Near Dark was a modern-day mash-up of the Western and horror genres. Described as a Neo-Western horror film, the plot follows a man in the Midwest who gets mixed up with a band of nomadic vampires.
At the time of its release, Near Dark failed to find an audience. Critics were fans, but the odd multi-genre exercise was left out to burn in the sun. Years later, Near Dark would find an audience as a cult classic. Bigelow would go onto become the first woman to ever win Best Director at the Academy Awards for The Hurt Locker.
Released in 1988, Young Guns was the first film to be produced by Morgan Creek Productions. Looking to catch a younger audience, the core cast included Emilio Estevez, Kiefer Sutherland, Dermot Mulroney, and Lou Diamond Phillips.
The plot is a retelling of Billy the Kid’s adventures during the Lincoln County War from 1877 until 1878. Made for $11 million, it went on to gross $45 million at the box office despite receiving mixed reviews from critics. A sequel was released in 1990.