Though the genre has ebbs and flows in popularity, the best Westerns of all time are a reminder of how big of an impact it has had on cinema. Though the Old West was not as long a period of time in history as it might have seemed, it set the stage for endless exciting stories to be told. From the lawlessness of the people to the conflict of the Civil War to the brutality of surviving in this world, filmmakers have always felt drawn to return to this time and created some of the best Westerns of all time.
As the genre has been a big part of cinema since its earliest days and continues on to this day, there are endless examples of Westerns to consider. But anyone familiar with the genre will immediately know the masterpieces that standout as the best of the best. These movies boast legendary filmmakers like Sergio Leone and John Ford, as well as modern auteurs like Quentin Tarantino and the Coen Brothers. They tell stories of flawed protagonists, inspiring heroes and grand adventures in the Old West. The best Westerns of all time feature more than a few selections that could be considered the best movies of any genre.
20 True Grit (2010)
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The Coen Brothers have dabbled in the Western genre before, but they took on the daunting task of retelling one of John Wayne’s most iconic Western movies with True Grit. Despite the popularity of the Wayne version, the Coens surpass it with this thrilling adventure which stars Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn, a surly US Marshal hired by young Maddie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) to capture the man who killed her father.
The movie is a more faithful adaptation of Charles Pontis’ original True Grit novel and the Coens unique sensibilities are perfect for the mix of Old West grim brutality and a lot of character-based humor. Bridges is terrific as the unlikely hero while Steinfeld turns in a star-making performance. They are joined by the likes of Matt Damon and Josh Brolin, but the movie allows each character, no matter how small the part, to pop off the screen.
19 The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (2007)
The Western genre doesn’t feel like an obvious place to tell a story of celebrity and obsession, but it works when examining one of the most complex icons of the era. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford tells the story of the titular outlaw (played by Brad Pitt) meeting Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), an aspiring outlaw who would become the man to eventually kill James.
Director Andrew Dominik infuses the story with a melancholic tone as it challenges the popular notion of Jesse James as some anti-hero of the Old West with Pitt playing him as a paranoid and chilling murderer. Affleck gives a brilliant Oscar-nominated role showing Ford’s transition from a disturbing admirer to someone who believes he can replace James.
18 3:10 To Yuma (2007)
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Adapted from Elmore Leonard’s short story, 3:10 to Yuma expands the simple tale into an action-packed Western adventure. Russell Crowe plays an outlaw who is captured and set to be transferred on a prison train by a group of escorts. However, his outlaw gang is determined to rescue him from reaching that train. Christian Bale also stars as the desperate family man who agrees to be one of the escorts on this dangerous mission.
James Mangold excels at directing grounded and practical action sequences that are still thrilling. The posse heroes is also a fun ensemble while Crowe and Bale are excellent at playing off each other as the two men who are at odds but find mutual respect.
17 Django Unchained (2012)
It is no secret that Quentin Tarantino is a lover of the Western genre and made his first full-blown take with Django Unchained. Jamie Foxx plays a slave who is freed by a bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) who he trains in his deadly trade. This leads to Django using his new skills to attempt to free his wife from the sadistic slave owner (Leonardo DiCaprio). This begins a sweeping and bloody epic filled with Tarantino’s usual mix of unforgettable dialogue, dark humor, and ultra-violence.
The love Tarantino has for the genre is very clear all the way through and it guides him to do something exciting and new. His style is perfectly suited for such a brutal yet entertaining ride. The cast is also exceptional with Foxx bringing plenty of heroic swagger, DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson never being so unlikable as the villains, and Waltz stealing the show with his charming Oscar-winning turn.
16 Red River (1948)
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Only Clint Eastwood is as synonymous with Westerns as John Wayne, and legendary director Howard Hawks’ 1948 Red River gave him one of his best characters to play. As bull-headed Tom Dunson, Wayne is an Texas cattle rancher who stakes a bold claim for his land only to fall on hard times in the years following the Civil War. With the help of his adopted son Matt Garth (Montgomery Clift), he sets out on a desperate cattle drive to Missouri.
Wayne’s Dunson becomes more and more tyrannical, prompting Clift’s Matt to split off and lead a separate drive, leading to a showdown between the father and son. Red River contains one of the classic Western movie moments, as Wayne says “Take ’em to Missouri, Matt!” Hawks follows that with the famous montage of the various cowboys, waving their hats in the air and yelling “Yee-haw!” It’s such an iconic moment that the several homages to it included in City Slickers never cross into parody.
15 The Naked Spur (1953)
Jimmy Stewart is perhaps best known for his roles in movies like The Philadelphia Story and It’s A Wonderful Life, which helped define his on-screen persona as an essentially decent Everyman. He would appear in many different Westerns throughout his career, but the five films he made with German director Anthony Mann feature a darker approach to this persona. The best of these is arguably 1953’s The Naked Spur, with Stewart starring as a bounty hunter named Howard Kemp.
While hunting down a murderer (a vicious Robert Ryan) for the reward on his head, Kemp enlists the help of an old prospector and a young soldier. When the villain is captured, the head games begin, as the killer has a young girl under his spell and uses her to pit all the others against each other. The movie turns into a kind of psychological thriller, as Kemp’s demons push him nearly over the edge. It’s one of the darkest, most fascinating Westerns ever made.
14 A Fistful of Dollars (1964)
Made on a low budget and originally released in Italy in 1964, director Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars gave Clint Eastwood his first starring role and introduced his “Man with No Name” character and the beginning of the Dollars Trilogy. Essentially a Western remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, Eastwood’s character wanders into the middle of a feud between two factions fighting over control of a small Mexican border town. Then he pits the Rojo brothers against crooked Sheriff John Baxter’s gang, playing both sides off of each other to make as much money as he can.
Leone’s plots would become more intricate, but with A Fistful of Dollars, Leone reinvented a genre he believed had become stagnant while giving the world a striking new cinematic language for the Western. The film’s success led to the birth of the spaghetti Western sub-genre.
13 The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
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John Wayne and director John Ford’s legendary collaboration spanned 24 films, many of them classics. 1962’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was one of their last together, and is considered the director’s last great film. Senator Ransom Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart) returns to the frontier town of Shinbone for the funeral of farmer Tom Doniphon (Wayne) and in an extended flashback, we learn how Stoddard breezed into town as an idealistic lawyer who stands up to the vile criminal Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) and is badly beaten for his trouble.
After toying with Stoddard, Valance nearly kills him in their inevitable confrontation, but Stoddard seems to shoot him dead. It was Doniphon who actually pulled the trigger, of course, in order to secure the happiness of the woman who chose Stoddard over him.
12 Tombstone (1993)
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Kurt Russell is no stranger to Westerns and Tombstone finds him taking on the role of the legendary lawman Wyatt Earp. The story of Earp and his brothers and their shootout at the O.K. Corral with the Clanton gang is the stuff of legend and has been adapted many times, with actors like Henry Fonda, Burt Lancaster and Kevin Costner having taken on the role in various films. For a generation of fans, however, it is Russell’s Earp – and Val Kilmer’s scene-stealing Doc Holliday – that stands out.
Like every other depiction of the famous shootout, Tombstone takes plenty of liberties with the history, but by now the legend has essentially become fact. The movie is brash and entertaining, with Russell giving a strong and forthright portrayal of Earp, the retired lawman who is drawn into the conflict with the Clantons. The supporting cast is excellent, and while Kilmer walks off with his scenes as the borderline unhinged gambler and killer Doc Holliday, the film features the likes of Sam Elliot, Bill Paxton, Powers Boothe, Michael Rooker and long-time Western veteran actor Harry Carey, Jr. In a time that saw sweeping, epic dramas with Western backdrops and trappings, Tombstone was a proudly traditional throwback.
11 The Wild Bunch (1969)
The Wild Bunch follows a gang of old and worn-out outlaws in 1913, played by genre veterans like Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson and Robert Ryan. William Holden’s Pike Bishop leads his gang in the robbery of a railroad office, only to be ambushed by Ryan, his former partner who now leads a band of bounty hunters. The pointlessness of all the death and destruction and hollow betrayals become recurring themes in the film.
Director Sam Peckinpah’s Western tale of an aging band of outlaws seeking a final score after a double-cross presaged Tarantino’s ultra-violent Westerns and served as something of an elegy for a generation of old-fashioned genre stars. It caused quite a controversy when first released and, for years, it was unavailable in its uncut, 144 minute form. The complete version adds a great deal of character background and motivation, giving Holden’s Pike more dimension. Peckinpah’s film features striking violence, a brand of hopelessness not often found in a Western, and his use of slow-motion and multi-angle editing techniques were revolutionary for the time.
10 McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)
The Western genre is traditionally all about confrontation, either literally in the form of brawls, shootouts and gunfighter showdowns or figuratively as characters with large personalities spend their time trying to outwit or intimidate each other. With this in mind, Robert Altman’s 1971 McCabe & Mrs. Miller has been called an “anti-Western” due to how Warren Beatty’s dandified gambler McCabe often talks his way out of a fight.
After arriving in a mining town in the Pacific Northwest in 1902, McCabe quickly establishes a brothel, and when Julie Christie’s Mrs. Miller arrives shortly thereafter, the two become business partners. When McCabe refuses a buyout from a ruthless mining company, they send three bounty hunters to kill him. Altman’s naturalistic style, complemented by the Leonard Cohen songs on the soundtrack, was arguably a major influence on modern-era takes on the genre, such as HBO’s Deadwood.
9 Shane (1953)
In director George Stevens’ 1953 Shane, the title character (Alan Ladd) is a mysterious gunslinger who arrives in a small valley town in Wyoming. Shane attempts to stay out of the troubles brewing between family of homesteaders (Van Heflin and Jean Arthur) and a repellent cattle baron (Emile Meyer) who wants to drive them off their land, but in true Western fashion he gets drawn into the fight.
Shane ends up saving the day, defeats the cattle baron’s gang and rides bleeding out of town. The audience and the homesteaders never learn anything about him, and the little boy crying “Shane! Come back!” as the possibly dead gunslinger rides away is one of the most iconic scenes in American cinema. Much of Shane features idealized versions of a frontier America that probably never existed, from the famous landscape to the forthright townspeople to the apple pie. The lone gunslinger model perfected in Shane is one which directors like Sergio Leone would upend but never reduce.
8 Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid (1969)
As Italians were busy reinventing the Western, legendary screenwriter William Goldman was pioneering a whole new tone for the genre. Director George Roy Hill just barely avoids injecting too much self-awareness while creating a world around the charismatic central performances of Paul Newman as Butch and Robert Redford as Sundance, roles which propelled them to the status of superstars.
Goldman’s script took the real-life pair of famous outlaws and added a 1960’s-era subtext to their exploits – both outlaws call Katherine Ross’s Etta their girlfriend, for instance. The film might be one of the funniest Westerns ever made, revolving around the famous chemistry between Redford and Newman. As Butch and Sundance lose their gang, try to go straight and end up surrounded by the Bolivian army, they handle a tough spot the same way every time: by never talking about the present. As in The Wild Bunch, they are outlaws whose place in the world is fading, but their grim gallows humor sets them apart and made them film legends.
7 Unforgiven (1992)
Clint Eastwood’s celebrated and prolific career as a star and director has spanned decades and several different genres, but 1992’s Unforgiven marks his final Western and arguably his finest. Eastwood’s William Munny is a reformed killer who has become a pious farmer. After losing his wife and falling on hard times, Munny accepts one last job from the upstart, too-ambitious Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) and reunites with his old partner Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman). They follow the Kid as he hunts down a pair of cowboys on the behalf of an abused prostitute in Big Whiskey, Wyoming, a town run by Sheriff Little Bill Daggett (the towering Gene Hackman).
Unforgiven examines the toll a lifetime of killing has taken on Munny, who discovers he doesn’t have a stomach for such violence anymore. David Webb Peoples’ script breaks down many Western myths in the form of the pulp magazine writer (Saul Rubinek) who follows around gunslinger English Bob (Richard Harris), an old rival of Little Bill’s and also on the trail of the reward. Eastwood’s Munny claims to be a changed man, but it doesn’t seem to ring true. His final rampage against Little Bill is a savage display of violence and an act of retribution that sees Munny embrace his true nature one last time before giving it up for good.
6 The Magnificent Seven (1960)
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The great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s samurai films were such fertile ground for Westerns that before Sergio Leone mined Yojimbo for A Fistful of Dollars, John Sturges had already turned The Seven Samurai into 1960’s The Magnificent Seven. Indeed, the tale of a Mexican village hiring a gunslinger (Yul Brynner) – who hires six more gunmen of varying personalities – to help protect them from marauders has proven to be such a resilient premise that it spawned a short-lived television series and Hollywood remakes.
Few other Westerns capture the confrontational spirit as well as The Magnificent Seven and its combative ensemble. The Magnificent Seven‘s basic plot has been co-opted time and again, as seen in the comedy Three Amigos! which again celebrates this plot without diminishing it. Beyond the rousing Elmer Bernstein score and vibrant cinematography and direction, part of the fun is watching a young Steve McQueen steal all his scenes without any dialogue or direction, just to show up star Yul Brynner.
5 The Searchers (1956)
The great John Ford directed John Wayne in more than just Westerns – 1952’s The Quiet Man is an example of both of them at their best, with not a saloon or cowboy to be found. In The Searchers however, Ford explores the darker parts of Wayne’s onscreen persona. The film contains some of the most gorgeous and widely-poached shots of any movie in history, but Wayne’s Civil War veteran Ethan Edwards was a challenging central character when the film was released and remains so today.
An unrepentant former Confederate, Edwards is a wanderer to gives himself a sense of purpose after Comanches murder his brother’s family and abduct his niece Debbie (Natalie Wood). With the help of the part-Comanche Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), Edwards spends five years searching for Debbie – in order to kill her. The twisted personal quest at the core of the story is fascinating and The Searchers is possibly the darkest popular Western ever made.
4 Rio Bravo (1959)
If The Searchers is John Wayne at his darkest and most conflicted, Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo is the apex of the onscreen Wayne persona fans love. As Sheriff John T. Chance, Wayne is good-hearted, tough, unquestionably in charge. Wayne’s John Chance accepts only the help of a trusted few after jugging the brother of a prominent rancher for casually murdering a man he didn’t even know. The alcoholic former gunslinger the Dude (Dean Martin), the cool younger gunman Colorado (Ricky Nelson), and the old codger deputy Stumpy (Walter Brennan) are who he trusts.
Rio Bravo moves into a now-classic siege movie model as Chance and his partners hole up in the jail with the killer until the local U.S. marshal can arrive to claim him. The final shootout with the enemy gang is so brilliantly staged and edited that other directors keep stealing from it – John Carpenter essentially remade the film as Assault on Precinct 13. Rio Bravo represents the classic Western setup at its height, and there is not a wasted moment in it.
3 The Good, The Bad And The Ugly (1966)
Sergio Leone caps off his “Man with No Name” trilogy with 1966’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, famous for its immortal theme by Ennio Morricone and the movie just may represent the spaghetti Western subgenre in its peak form. The sprawling plot finds Eastwood’s “Blondie” (the “Good”), Eli Wallach’s Tuco (the “Ugly”) and Lee Van Cleef’s Sentenza (the “Bad) all competing to find a buried cache of Confederate gold during the background chaos of the Civil War in 1862.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly follows a long and winding story of double-crosses, one-upmanship, and duels as Leone hones his cinematic language of using long takes and close-ups to build tension. The three desperados all need each other alive just long enough to find the gold… and then all bets are off. The movie transcends its genre to become the monumental Western that directors like Tarantino are still chipping away at.
2 High Noon (1952)
If Westerns are all about confrontation, then director Fred Zinneman’s 1952 High Noon is one of the genre’s high-water marks. As played out in near real-time, Gary Cooper’s Will Kane is a former marshal who has just turned in his badge and married the pacifist Quaker Amy (Grace Kelly). A criminal named Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald), put away by Will and sentenced to hang, has been exonerated through a technicality and he and his gang is headed toward Will’s town of Hadleyville with nothing but revenge on their mind.
High Noon is a pressure cooker of a Western and is often regarded as more of a 1950s melodrama than a straight genre piece. Cooper’s Will Kane grows more and more desperate as he pleads for help from his fellow townspeople and is denied at every turn. HighNoon‘s powerful subtextfaces the reality of confrontation itself: if someone relies on others who let them down, what do they have left, and where do they stand?
1 Once Upon A Time In The West (1968)
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While Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy is certainly iconic, stepping outside of that series showed he still had some brilliant Western masterpieces up his sleeve. Once Upon a Time in the West is an epic Spaghetti Western that brings a fun collection of characters together for a thrilling ride. The movie follows a widow, an outlaw and a mysterious gunslinger who join forces to take on a ruthless killer.
From the opening train station sequence, the movie hooks audiences with its engrossing style and inventive filmmaking. The cast is also superb with Charles Bronson cementing himself as the silent hero type while Henry Fonda is chilling in a rare villain role.