The 20 Greatest Western Movies of All Time

The western is one of the most popular genres out there.

There seems to have been a comeback of sorts in recent years. Chloé Zhao released her outstanding rodeo film just a few years ago The driverwhile Western minds had to grapple with Antoine Fuqua’s 2016 remake of The glory seven. The well-loved original by John Sturges was itself a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 classic. Seven samurai.

Below is a reminder of some of the greatest entries in western canon.

20. Drive lonely (Budd Boetticher, 1959)

The selection of Boetticher and Randolph Scott’s stellar seven-film collaboration follows stone-faced loner Scott’s obsessive quest to avenge his wife’s murder. Shot entirely on stunning Sierra Nevada locations, it’s also memorable for the classic Western line: “There are things a man just can’t dwell on.”

19. Vera Cruz (Robert Aldrich, 1954)

Double and triple crosses aplenty as mercenaries Burt Lancaster and Gary Cooper team up in revolutionary Mexico to steal a cache of gold. Fairly dismissed upon its release, Vera Cruz can now be seen as a heady precursor to the spaghetti westerns of the 1960s.

18. Winchester ’73 (Anthony Mann, 1950)

James Stewart showed he could ride, shoot ’em, and trade blows with the West’s finest icons as he episodically attempted to recover his stolen fabled rifle. Big screen villain Dan Duryea almost steals the film as the taunting, sadistic Waco Johnnie Dean.

17. One-Eyed Jacks (Marlon Brando, 1961)

(Paramount Pictures)

Brando fell out with original director Stanley Kubrick, leaving the star to helm the only film he directed, a take on the legend of Billy the Kid. Single-Eyed Bushings made famous by Brando’s excesses with an original running time of over four hours, it is now considered a fascinating, thoughtful masterpiece and, thanks to its breathtaking locations in Monterey and Big Sur, one of the most aesthetically pleasing westerns ever made. A restored version was screened at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

16. Rio Bravo (Howard Hawks, 1959)

John Wayne’s sheriff faces an army of villains with only a drunk, a young gunslinger and a crippled old man at his side. The interaction between Wayne, Dean Martin and Walter Brennan is a delight and Dino even gets to sing. Great fun all round.

15. My dear Clementine (John Ford, 1946)

A highly romanticized version of Wyatt Earp and the events of the OK Corral, starring Henry Fonda as Earp. Lyrical, poetic and featuring many iconic scenes that will long be remembered, such as Fonda sitting on a porch overlooking the city and his stiff-legged dance with his “Dame Fair” at the dedication of Tombstone’s new church.

14. The Ox Bow Incident (William A Wellman, 1943)

(20th century fox)

Henry Fonda’s hero is at a loss when three innocent men are lynched by a mob for a crime that never happened. Social commentary in a Western setting, given added poignancy and resonance by knowing that Fonda had witnessed a lynching as a youth.

13. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill, 1969)

An Oscar-winning sidekick film about the wonderful chemistry between Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Add in William Goldman’s scintillating dialogue and Burt Bacharach’s famed soundtrack, and we have an irresistible slice of late sixties cool tempered with newfound revisionism.

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12. The Gunslinger (Henry King, 1950)

With a theme akin to a Greek tragedy that has become one of the great Western clichés, aging gunslinger Gregory Peck tries to put his bloody past behind him, only to find there’s still a little squirt that needs to be tricked.

11. Drive through the highlands (Sam Peckinpah, 1962)

An elegiac lament for the death of the old west, and a perfect parting gift for two faithful of the genre, Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott, as two veteran lawyers who have outlived their usefulness.

10. The Magnificent Seven (John Sturges, 1960)

A great story, a great cast, unforgettable music and a number of unforgettable scenes including the hearse opening scene by Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen and the knife and gun duel by James Coburn. What more can you ask for in a Western?

9. Red River (Howard Hawks, 1948)

Epic western from a master filmmaker that gave John Wayne the kind of role he excelled in as the hard-bitten, driven rancher determined to see a cattle drive to the bitter end, even if it means killing the foster son (Montgomery Clift) who takes his herd away from him.

8. High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952)

Known as an allegory of the McCarthy witch hunts in Hollywood, Midday intended to be enjoyed primarily as a crushing western set in more or less real time, with tormented lawman Gary Cooper being abandoned by his town while facing the villains alone.

7. Stagecoach (John Ford, 1939)

A seminal western that defined the genre and launched John Wayne into stardom. Partial character study mixed with gripping action sequences courtesy of famed stuntman Yakima Canutt, with stunning use of Monument Valley on the Arizona-Utah border, the most recognizable location in Western movies.

6. Once upon a time in the west (Sergio Leone, 1968)

(Paramount Pictures)

After getting over the shock of Henry Fonda as a cold-hearted killer, audiences witnessed a Western full of astounding visuals unparalleled in scale, scope and ambition. Leone drew on virtually the entire history of Westerns in this breathtaking epic about the advent of the railroad and the modernization of the West. Ennio Morricone’s wonderfully atmospheric score has seldom been surpassed.

5. Shane (George Stevens, 1953)

Beloved adaptation of Jack Schaefer’s wonderful novel, starring Alan Ladd perfectly as the buckskin gunslinger who tries to hang his six-shooter but realizes “there’s no life in killing”. Unforgettable for so many reasons, from the Oscar-winning cinematography and Jack Palance’s cheerful villain to the ending with a lump in his throat that still resonates when little Joey begs, “Come back Shane!”

4. Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood, 1992)

A ruthless killer-turned-pig farmer reluctantly accepts one last job, and slaughter ensues. Eastwood deconstructs the myths and legends of the western, and the result is a revisionist masterpiece that rightfully won Oscars for best picture and best director

3. The good, the bad, and the ugly (Sergio Leone, 1966)

The most famous spaghetti western is a stylish, extravagant visual treat centered on Ennio Morricone’s famous soundtrack. Innovative and hugely influential, with several memorable set pieces including the authentic and moving Civil War sequence.

2. The wild bunch (Sam Peckinpah, 1969)

(Warner Bros. – Seven Arts)

Upon release, Peckinpah’s visceral masterpiece provoked shame for its level of violence, and even now the amount of blood and gore on display still shocks. But look beyond the balletic beauty of the slow-motion carnage and it’s clear that Peckinpah clings to his recurring themes of Old West death and men not keeping up with the times confronting their own impending doom.

1. The Seekers (John Ford, 1956)

The story of a racist misfit’s search for his kidnapped niece still amazes in its dark power, beauty and all-encompassing splendour. Complex, layered and unsettling, with a monumental portrayal of Wayne as the bigoted anti-hero, the film is well worth watching over and over again. The 20 Greatest Western Movies of All Time


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