Few genres have captivated the public more than the Western. Originating during the silent film era of the late 19th century, it quickly became America’s most beloved and popular film genre early in the 20th century.
Westerns weren’t just the pinnacle of entertainment in the early days of film. They were a rallying cry to revitalize the soul of our nation after one of the darkest chapters in human history that included the Great Depression and the catastrophic conflicts of World War I and World War II.
Westerns aren’t just about good guys fighting bad guys or westward expansion in the uncharted frontier. They are emblematic of the American dream, of the independence of the American spirit.
10. Shane (1953)
Directed by: George Stevens
Starring: Alan Ladd, Jean Arthur, Van Heflin
Not all Westerns are inherently brutal and full of grit. Some tug on the heartstrings. Shane is one of those films.
With a moral obligation to do good and make things right in life, the film follows the account of, you guessed it, a Wyoming Territory grifter named Shane (Ladd) who is looking to settle down and put the life of a gunslinger behind him. In order to make a living, Shane gets a job as farmhand for Joe (Heflin) and Marian (Arthur) Starrett and their son, Joey, who have acquired a plot of land courtesy of the Homestead Act.
While Shane’s initial time with the family is filled with pleasantness and tranquility, the tide of the film changes to worry and despair when a band of outlaws and henchmen seek to take the land for themselves and scare off the Starretts. This prompts Shane to revert to his old gunslinging ways and use his past in order to try and save a family who gave him a second chance in life. In a classic battle of good versus evil, which will reign triumphant?
9. Death Rides a Horse (1967)
Directed by: Giulio Petroni
Starring: Lee Van Cleef, John Phillip Law
Death Rides a Horse is the ultimate Italian Western, providing an impeccable allegory of revenge and redemption. It follows the stories of two men. The first is named Bill (Law), who after 15 years of training and preparation is ready to take action. The task? Finding those responsible for the murder of his family, which he witnessed as a boy, and avenging their deaths. However, all he knows are the physical characteristics of the assailants he remembers from the attack.
On his quest to find the outlaws in question, Bill forms an unlikely alliance with the film’s second main character — a gunslinger named Ryan (Van Cleef), who coincidentally is after the same men who killed Bill’s family. After spending 15 years in prison being framed by those men for a crime he didn’t commit, he too is hellbent on vengeance.
As the two make their way through the Old West and Mexico hunting down those responsible, Bill recognizes something from his past that threatens their common pursuit and pits them at odds against each other. Can the past be forgiven, or will Bill’s revelation change the outcome of their adventure in the most drastic way imaginable?
8. Stagecoach (1939)
Directed by: John Ford
Starring: John Wayne, Claire Trevor
A top 10 list of the best Western movies wouldn’t be accurate if it didn’t include an appearance from the man who became an icon and helped the genre become as popular as it remains today. Like many movies of its time, the plot isn’t overly complicated, but don’t let that simplicity dissuade you from seeing it.
John Wayne, playing recent prison escapee Ringo Kid, is one of nine strangers who come together for a common purpose in the multiple Academy Award-winning black-and-white film. On an escapade from Arizona Territory to New Mexico, the film portrays how people from different backgrounds can put differences aside to overcome obstacles and adversity.
In this instance, the common purpose is keeping the riders of the stagecoach and their possessions safe from Geronimo and his band of Apache warriors. The major question is whether or not Ringo Kid’s status as an outlaw and his desire for retribution will imperil the journey altogether.
7. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
Directed by: Andrew Dominik
Starring: Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Rockwell
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford delves into the waning months of James’ life and career as an outlaw in the Wild West. Specifically, it highlights the relationship he had with Charley (Rockwell) and Robert (Affleck) Ford.
In nearly a decade-long stretch of running from state to state causing nothing but trouble along the way, most of James’ associates and fellow outlaws have either been captured or killed. There were even some that attempted to take his life in exchange for freedom and the substantial bounty that had been placed on him — dead or alive. This prompted James into hiding along with his family back in Missouri, where he grew up, and contemplating giving up organized crime for good.
With very few people left that he could trust, Jesse forges a stronger relationship with Charley, who persuades him to allow his young brother Robert to be a part of what was left of their lawless syndicate. With the belief that only the Ford brothers are loyal to him, he decides to plan one last big robbery before changing his mischievous ways. But James’ misplaced trust in the Ford brothers ultimately becomes the biggest mistake of his life.
6. Django Unchained (2012)
Directed by: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson, Christoph Waltz
There is no question that Django Unchained was one of the revisionist Western films that helped recharge the genre’s importance in Hollywood. Even more certain is that, under Tarantino’s direction, it is guaranteed to be filled with copious amounts of violence and action — which makes for a very entertaining film.
Taking place in the Old West and pre-Civil War South, the film follows the endeavors of Dr. King Schultz (Waltz), a German bounty hunter, and a slave named Django (Foxx). In a serendipitous turn of events, the unlikely pair team up in a relationship of mutual benefit. In exchange for information and helping Schultz find Django’s former overseers and the plantation owner (Schultz has a bounty on him), he offers to help Django find his wife, Broomhilda.
Knowing that saving Django’s wife won’t be easy, Schultz insists on acquiring several more bounties in order to have the supplies and means necessary to develop a realistic plan. In turn, this leads them to locate her whereabouts, only to find out she is in the hands of Calvin J. Candle (DiCaprio) and his loyal house slave Stephen (Jackson).
But in a land filled with treachery and deceit, the attempt to save a long-lost love becomes a dangerous and deadly mission with unintended consequences.
5. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
Directed by: Sergio Leone
Starring: Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Jason Robards, Claudia Cardinale
Directed by the father of the spaghetti Western, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West is largely considered to be one of the greatest Western movies of all time. In fact, it was considered so influential that it was chosen to be preserved in the nation’s National Film Registry by the Library of Congress due to its cultural and historical importance.
Staged in the fictional town of Flagstone, the film depicts an all-out battle for Sweetwater — a nearby land that is home to the area’s only other environment rich in natural resources and a highly desirable location for the railways that are expanding westward. Though simple in its plot, the depth of the characters and the slow pace of the film build up eagerness and anticipation for the viewer that reels them in from the beginning scene.
A railroad tycoon’s hired gun (Fonda), a mourning widow (Cardinale), an outlaw on the run from a crime he didn’t commit (Robards), and a mysterious gunman (Bronson) all face off in this epic showdown. Will the desires, ambition, and greed of those involved jeopardize what they are fighting for? Or will certain players in what is at stake be able to unite and coalesce in a land of lawlessness and despair for a common cause?
4. Dances with Wolves (1990)
Directed by: Kevin Costner
Starring: Kevin Costner, Mary McDonnell, Graham Greene
Based on the Michael Blake novel, Dances with Wolves is set during the time of the Civil War and follows the journey First Lt. John J. Dunbar (Costner), who takes up a post out West in the Dakota territory after the war’s end in pursuit of a new life.
After reaching his destination alongside a fellow soldier, Dunbar soon realizes the fort he is tasked to revitalize has been a source of conflict between soldiers and Native American tribes at odds. When his partner is killed by the Pawnee Indians, he is forced to man the post alone and begins to lose hope when he realizes reinforcements aren’t coming to help him.
That charges Dunbar to create a dialogue and relationship with a band of Lakota Indians in the area, who seem indifferent to his presence. But after saving the life of Stands with a Fist (McDonnell), a white woman who was adopted into their tribe, he slowly begins to gain the respect of the Lakota.
The story that ensues is not your typical Western. It becomes not only a tale of love, but a story of a man who is torn between who he was and who he wishes to become. Dances with Wolves makes the list due to its uniqueness in the genre, but moreover, its important cultural and historical undertones.
While most Westerns had painted Native Americans in a negative light, Costner’s endeavors, as both a director and actor, to highlight the plight of Native Americans and recall their struggles in America’s expansion westward are admirable and notable. So much so that the film was the recipient of seven Academy Awards, including one for Best Picture, which a Western had not obtained in nearly 60 years.
3. Tombstone (1993)
Directed by: George P. Cosmatos
Starring: Kurt Russell, Val Kilmer, Sam Elliot, Bill Paxton
Tombstone is legendary in the genre and the quintessential good-guys-versus-bad-guys flick. Not only that, it provides an exhilarating theatrical rendition of some of the biggest historical events of the Wild West.
The film follows the story of main protagonist Wyatt Earp (Russell), a former lawman looking for a new life in Arizona after putting aside the badge. Upon reaching Tucson, he meets up with his brothers Virgil (Elliot) and Morgan (Paxton), who plan to retire in Tombstone. He crosses paths with longtime friend Doc Holliday (Kilmer), who has chosen the area for a climate more conducive to his health situation, which is deteriorating at a rapid pace due to tuberculosis.
Though their plans to settle in Tombstone were imagined with peace and prosperity, the four men are obligated to get back in the fight and stand up to a lawless, disparate group of vigilantes dubbed the “Cowboys” who are wreaking havoc in the area. The countless run-ins and alleged assaults on Wyatt’s brothers by the gang lead to the famous and memorialized events at the O.K. Corral and its aftermath — the fever-pitch climaxes of the film that will have watchers at the edge of their seats.
2. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)
Directed by: Sergio Leone
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Eli Wallach
Another Leone film, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is the third and final installment of his famous Dollars Trilogy, this one set during the Civil War. It chronicles the events surrounding three eclectic individuals all in pursuit of the same thing — $200,000 worth of buried treasure in a mysterious location. Partners Tuco (Wallach) and Blondie (Eastwood) happen to know the two details about the treasure’s location, but a rift in their relationship sets them at odds.
However, their frayed relationship isn’t the only worry to deal with, as a third mysterious character named Angel Eyes (Van Cleef), knowing nothing other than the fact that the treasure exists, employs his excellent tracking skills and cunning wit to get to the treasure before the others do.
But which of these three characters in quest of fortune is The Good, or The Bad, or The Ugly?
1. Unforgiven (1992)
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, Gene Hackman, Jaimz Woolvett
In the old frontier of Wyoming in the 1880s, Unforgiven follows the life of William Munny (Eastwood), a retired gunslinger who grudgingly goes against his better judgment and settles back to his old ways for one last rodeo. The spark of Munny’s decision? Seeking justice for a prostitute who was brutally assaulted and on death’s doorstep. Facing corruption and a lack of action from the local town’s sheriff (Hackman), Munny must enlist the help of his former partner Ned (Freeman) and an aspiring cowboy named “The Schofield Kid” (Woolvett) and take matters into their own hands.
At its core, Unforgiven is an homage to two directors who helped establish Eastwood as one of Hollywood’s all-time greatest icons: Sergio Leone and Don Siegel (director of Dirty Harry). While many Westerns have no issue with vengeance, this critically acclaimed film challenges our preconceived notions of it. Moreover, it philosophically straddles the fine line between justice and revenge, and what actions delineate a hero from a villain.