The Western genre is full of great movies, even without the works of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. When considering which films deserve to be counted as the greatest Westerns of all time, it becomes clear that a rather significant portion of them featured either Eastwood or Wayne. The biggest Western actors of their respective eras, Eastwood and Wayne contributed much to the popularity of the genre and enjoyed top billing in a multitude of highly-respected Western films.
While both Eastwood and Wayne have starred in their fair share of Western classics, they alone didn’t drive the success of the genre. When Westerns were at their peak, Hollywood had plenty of bankable stars capable of delivering critical and commercial hits. Randolph Scott, Burt Lancaster, James Stewart, Joel McCrea, and Glenn Ford were among the many names behind the most popular Western films, many of which being on par with the classics headlined by John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. Here’s ten amazing Western movies that didn’t need either of the genre’s two biggest stars.
Popular film noir star Alan Ladd starred as the titular protagonist of Shane, a 1953 Western centered on a mysterious, retired gunslinger who tries to start a new life in a crime-ridden town. He winds up having to lean on his experience as a gunfighter to deal with a cattle baron and his minions. While the plot is typical of a Western of its time, it stands out for epitomizing the ideal of what a great Western movie should be. Ladd’s appropriately stoic portrayal of the main character, combined with its relatable characters and supporting cast make it an outstanding entry in the genre.
Better known for playing daring and suave heroes in swashbuckling epics like Captain Blood and The Adventures of Robin Hood, Errol Flynn wasn’t an obvious fit for a Western movie. That said, the actor led one of the best Westerns of its era. An early installment in the genre, the 1939 film was an exciting story about a cowboy pushed into becoming the sheriff of the notoriously lawless frontier town, Dodge City. Supported by a likable cast and Flynn’s performance, Dodge City proved to be a massive success.
8The Big Country
The Big Country amassed an impressive gathering of high-profile names by featuring Gregory Peck, Charlton Heston, Jean Simmons, Burl Ives, and Chuck Conners. But a star-studded cast wasn’t all the 1958 movie boasted; with its spectacular cinematography that showed off its beautiful landscapes, The Big Country was a Western on an epic scale, complete with vibrant characters who perfectly fit the time period and setting. Burl Ives won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his layered performance as a rancher whose feud with a rival turns him into a villain.
7The Magnificent Seven
The Magnificent Seven has a well-earned reputation as one of the most influential Westerns of all time. Released in 1960, The Magnificent Seven assembled seven protagonists, all of which being characters who had their own uses to the group. Starring Yul Brynner as the leader of the Magnificent Seven, the movie was a Western driven by thrilling action sequences. Unlike some Westerns, where there was often a clear pathway to a happy ending, The Magnificent Seven kept the stakes high by gradually killing off most of its main characters.
Few Westerns have received more critical acclaim than 1952’s High Noon, a black-and-white film directed by Fred Zinnemann. The winner of four Academy Awards (and a nominee for three more), High Noon starred Western icon Gary Cooper as Will Kane, an idealistic marshall who resigns his position to enjoy married life with Grace Kelly’s Amy Fowler, but the return of an old enemy forces him to fight once more. The film’s handling of Kane’s internal struggle, as well as the action, made it a gripping story and a beloved Hollywood Western.
53:10 To Yuma
Improving on a Hollywood classic is never easy, but director James Mangold pulled off this incredibly difficult task with a 2007 remake of 3:10 to Yuma. With Christian Bale and Russell Crowe replacing the characters played by Van Heflin and Glenn Ford respectively, 3:10 to Yuma tells a story about a cowboy who has to escort a dangerous criminal to prison, but various events ultimately force a team-up between the unlikely duo. Without disrespecting the original, 3:10 to Yuma succeeds in bettering the formula of its predecessor by using dark and gritty elements that wouldn’t have worked in 1957.
4Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford as the historical outlaws named in the title, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid thrived on the dynamic shared by its two stars. Their relationship, and the comedic beats that went with it, helped make the 1969 film a fan-favorite of the genre that’s still deeply loved today. It also contained a number of classic Western tropes, including exciting gun fights, a saloon brawl, a fight on a train, and a horseback chase scene.
James Stewart is perhaps the only Hollywood actor who can come close to Eastwood and Wayne when it comes to the sheer number of iconic Western movies under their belt. He made several solid Westerns, one in particular being Winchester ’73. Released in 1950, the movie veered slightly from the standard Western formula by following a singular rifle and showcasing the various figures who came into its possession. In the film, Stewart plays against type as an outlaw determined to recover the highly sought-after gun.
2The Wild Bunch
Directed by Sam Peckinpah, The Wild Bunch was a Western ensemble film that united William Holden and Robert Ryan, two veterans of the genre and long-time Hollywood A-listers. The 1969 movie was ahead of its time in regards to its grisly violence and grim undertones, but this approach matched the period depicted in the film. The movie explored the exploits of a band of outlaws, whose nuanced character arcs transformed The Wild Bunch into a staple of the Western genre.
1Blood on the Moon
Although not as renowned as The Wild Bunch or High Noon, Blood on the Moon is a high-quality Western and an entertaining twist on the genre. Starring Hollywood “tough guy” actor Robert Mitchum, Blood on the Moon starts outs as a traditional Western tale where a heroic drifter gets hired to help a rancher deal with a threat to his lands. But as the story develops, it’s discovered that Mitchum’s character may actually be on the wrong side. By implementing this twist, the gunslinger’s dark journey was able to come across as a perfect blend of the film noir and Western genres.