The Western genre is not one that commands a great deal of respect amongst many, but it has had an enormous impact on cinema and many were terrific explorations of issues affecting America at the time. From the Golden oldies, through to the stylish and fun Spaghetti Westerns, all the way through to more modern explorations of the Wild West, these brilliant Westerns have all contributed a great deal to the genre and are brilliant tales that sometimes have a lot more depth and craft than many people believe. Saddle up, as here are the 10 greatest Westerns of all time.
15. Django Unchained (2012)
Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained is a highly stylized tribute to Spaghetti Westerns; in particular, the 1966 Italian film Django by Sergio Corbucci, whose star Franco Nero makes a cameo appearance. The film, which is set in the Old West and Antebellum South, stars Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, and Samuel L. Jackson, with Walton Goggins, Dennis Christopher, James Remar, and Don Johnson in supporting roles. The revisionist Western sees Foxx’s character Django Freeman, a freed slave sets out to rescue his wife from a brutal Mississippi plantation owner Calvin J. Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Django enlists the aid of a German bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Walz) and the two form an unlikely friendship.
This fantastic film was wildly successful, with universal critical acclaim and a highly profitable run at the box office. It was nominated for several industry awards including five Academy Awards with Christoph Walz winning for Best Supporting Actor and Tarantino for Best Original Screenplay. We also get a great performance from DiCaprio as the film’s central villain.
14. Blazing Saddles (1974)
This 1974 satirical western comedy was written and directed by Mel Brooks and stars Cleavon Little and Gene Wilder in the lead roles. The film’s story revolves around conniving attorney general Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman) who wants to appoints a black railroad worker (Little) as sheriff in order to ruin a western town. Much to the chagrin of Lamarr, the newly appointed sheriff Bart promptly becomes his most formidable adversary. Blazing Saddles is a hilarious film that satirizes the racism obscured by myth-making Hollywood accounts of the American West, with the hero being a black sheriff in an all-white town.
This classic western comedy was well received upon release and has become one of the most recognizable films of the twentieth century. The film received three Academy Award nominations and in 2006, Blazing Saddles was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress and was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.
13. The Assassination of Jesse James (2007)
This 2007 revisionist western film was written and directed by Andrew Dominik, and adapted from Ron Hansen’s 1983 novel of the same name. A dramatization of the relationship between Western legends Jesse James (Brad Pitt) and Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), the film focuses on the events that lead up to their eventual killing. Haunting, visually stunning and with one of the best scores in recent memory, James’ downfall at the hands of his jealous bank robbing accomplice only serves to fuel the legend of his exploits.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a classic case of a longwinded title killing public interest in a what is actually a very good film. It has been more than a decade since the film’s release and it’s just now gaining the appreciation it deserves as a fine piece of slow-burning cinema, featuring one of Brad Pitt’s all-time greatest performances. This fantastic film flew under the radar during its initial release, but word of mouth has spread and The Assassination of Jesse James is a film that shouldn’t be missed by fans of Western films.
12. Dances With Wolves (1990)
Dances with Wolves is a 1990 epic Western film starring, directed, and produced by Kevin Costner. After Union army Lieutenant John Dunbar (Costner) is transferred to the army’s most distant outpost, Fort Sedgewick, he arrives to find the post deserted and in disrepair, but chooses to stay nonetheless. Dunbar sets about restoring the fort, and he keeps a journal of his experiences and activities, which involve him befriending a tribe of Lakota Indians and the local wildlife. The film was applauded for its authenticity, as much of the dialogue is spoken in Lakota with English subtitles. In 2007, Dances with Wolves was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
Dances With Wolves won widespread admiration as well as seven Academy Awards, including that for Best Picture in 1990. The film was a massive financial success for Orion Pictures earning over $400 million on a $22 million budget, making it one of the highest grossing Western films of all time.
11. The Revenant (2015)
The Revenant is a 2015 semi-autobiographical western film directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu. The film’s screenplay is based in part on Michael Punke’s 2002 novel of the same name, describing frontiersman Hugh Glass’s experiences on the frontier in 1823. The film stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter, and a big nasty grizzly bear. The story begins with DiCaprio’s character Hugh Glass leading a party of trappers through the wilderness and after Glass is mauled by a massive grizzly bear he’s left for dead. Glass begins an arduous journey through the wilderness back to civilization order to seek medical attention and revenge.
The film received glowing reviews from critics, with the highlights being the acting performances, direction, and cinematography. The film received 12 Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor for Hardy, while Iñárritu, with Emmanuel Lubezki winning the awards for Best Director, and Best Cinematography, respectively. This would also be the first Oscar for Leonardo DiCaprio who took home the award for Best Actor. The Revenant would become the fifth western film to win Best Picture in the history of the award.
10. Stagecoach (1939)
For many, 1939’s Stagecoach is the one that started it all, and this makes it the perfect film to kick off this list. Directed by John Ford, this would be the film that launched iconic figure John Wayne’s career and helped to define the Western genre. It was also the first of countless films that were shot using Monument Valley, which is what most people will imagine when they picture the American West. The story sees nine strangers board a stagecoach from Tonto, Arizona, headed for Lordsburg, New Mexico Territory.
This sees them travel through dangerous Apache territory, with each character battling their own demons that they are running from. Orson Welles considers Stagecoach to be the perfect film, and he watched it over 40 times whilst making Citizen Kane. In 1995, the film was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress.
9. The Wild Bunch (1969)
The Wild Bunch is set in a time of change, where justice was no longer delivered by rugged antiheroes, but instead by the law. It follows a group of aging outlaws who are struggling to adapt to these times, and they decide to go out with a bang. The film was controversial upon its release due to the violence, and for many people, it marked the end of public interest in the genre as times were also changing in modern America.
It is now deemed a classic, and a must-see for any fan of gun-toting and stylish Westerns, as director Sam Peckinpah did an excellent job with creating a stylish piece. This was achieved through the use of normal and slow-motion images, quick-cut editing and multi-angle shots. In 1999, the film was selected by the U.S National Film Registry for preservation in the Library of Congress.
8. The Magnificent Seven (1960)
Made in 1960, John Sturges’s The Magnificent Seven is a Western remake of the 1954 Japanese classic, Seven Samurai, directed by Akira Kurosawa. It has a brilliant cast of Yul Brynner, Eli Wallach, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson and James Coburn, and it also features a phenomenal and iconic movie score by Elmer Bernstein (with the main theme being reused countless times).
It tells the story of seven gunfighters, who are hired to protect a small Mexican village from a group of marauding bandits. The terrific cast, score, and story ensure that it is a must-see and one of the all-time great Western films, and it was also selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 2013. A highly anticipated remake of the film is also set for a 2016 release, with a cast of Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, and Ethan Hawke.
7. True Grit (2010)
The Western genre seemingly was laid to rest after the ’90s, but there has been a recent resurgence and 2010’s True Grit is a terrific example of this and a brilliant film. Directed, written, produced and edited by the Coen brothers, it is the second adaptation of Charles Portis’s 1968 novel, which was also a 1969 film starring John Wayne.
The 2010 version stars Jeff Bridges as U.S. Marshal Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn, who is hired by a young girl to track down the man that killed her father. The film also stars Matt Damon, Hailee Steinfeld, Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper, and, as always, it is masterfully told by the Coen brothers. It was nominated for a whopping 10 Academy Awards, and it helped to shine a light on the original film, the first film adaptation, as well as the entire Western genre once again.
6. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
Inspired by the lives of famous outlaws Robert LeRoy Parker (Butch Cassidy) and Harry Longabaugh (The Sundance Kid), this film is not just a brilliant Western, but also an exploration of friendship (with a few good laughs thrown in too). Paul Newman and Robert Redford have excellent chemistry as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, respectively, and the film follows them as they go on the run and try to make it in a changing world.
They first fled to Bolivia in hopes of finding a more successful criminal career, but whilst here they become surrounded by Bolivian forces. The film’s ending is now iconic and a huge part of what makes this a powerful, charming and entertaining film. It is often titled a buddy Western flick due to the relationship the two have being such a key factor, and it certainly inspired many other buddy films that came after.
5. High Noon (1952)
Another hugely influential film, 1952’s High Noon is a master-class in building tension and is told in almost real time. Directed by Fred Zinnemann, it stars Gary Cooper as a town marshal who plans to retire to a peaceful life with his wife (Grace Kelly), but he then hears that a criminal he brought to justice, Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald), is due to arrive on the noon train for revenge. Instead of fleeing, he knows he has a job to do and decides to stay and defend his town, even though the cowardly townsfolk refuse to help.
The presence of the clock develops tension throughout, finishing with a suitably dramatic shootout. Contextually, this was also a key film and particularly the iconic scene where Cooper throws his marshal star in the dirt (rejecting authority). This helped to create the vigilante antihero character that was so prevalent in ’60s Westerns.
4. The Searchers (1956)
Another John Ford and John Wayne combination, 1956’s The Searchers is considered a masterpiece and has inspired countless other films. It tells the story of a man, Ethan Edwards, who is attempting to rescue his niece who was taken by kidnappers (sound familiar?). It is much more complex than this, however, with Wayne playing Ethan Edwards, who is also an extremely racist and vengeful war veteran. The kidnappers are an Indian tribe, and the dark yet utterly fascinating character of Ethan Edwards ensures that this is a much more ambiguous and intriguing film than your average cowboys vs. Indians flick.
The film is widely praised largely due to the characterization of Ethan Edwards (and phenomenal portrayal by Wayne), and many beleive it to be one of the greatest and most important American films ever created. This makes it a great example of how the genre is not thin and formulaic.
3. Unforgiven (1992)
Clint Eastwood’s remarkable contribution to the Western genre is not confined to him in front of the camera, it is also as director for the 1992 classic Unforgiven (he also played the lead role). He would dedicate the film to his director mentors Sergio Leone and Don Siegel, and he certainly did a fine job with the film, riding off with four Academy Awards (including Best Director). Unlike many of the older Westerns, Unforgiven is particularly dark, graphically violent and ambiguous, and this makes for a fascinating and powerful watch.
It tells the story of an aging former outlaw who gets pulled into one more job, and it deals with the ugly and gritty side of violence and death (not previously explored much in the genre). In addition to an intriguing story and excellent direction, it features an impressive cast of Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman and Richard Harris.
2. The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966)
Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy is essential viewing for any film fan, but it is the third installment, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly which is the most celebrated. The 1966 release best epitomizes everything that is so fantastic about the Spaghetti Western, featuring an iconic theme, a mixture of sweeping widescreen cinematography and tight close-ups, stylistic gunfights, violence, Clint Eastwood as the rugged cigar smoking antihero, gun-slinging villains and much more.
It may not have as much depth as a number of other entries, but it is very stylish, great fun and an important film both in the genre and in cinema history. The film follows three cowboys during the Civil War who are in search of Confederate gold, and they double-cross each other to try and gain the upper hand. When discussing the genre, this film and its distinctive style are usually what first springs to mind.
1. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
Following the release of The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, Spaghetti Western master Sergio Leone decided to retire from Westerns and go in a new direction. Fortunately, this did not happen, as he was offered a bulging budget and the chance to work with Henry Fonda for one last gun-toting adventure. The result was the 1968 epic Once Upon a Time in the West, which is considered by many to be one of the greatest films ever and a Western masterpiece.
The film follows a mysterious stranger (Charles Bronson) and a bandit (Jason Robards), who work together to protect a widow (Claudia Cardinale) from an evil hired gun (Henry Fonda). Much like a love letter to the genre, Leone references dozens of other Western classics throughout. Some of the greatest filmmakers of all time cite this as a hugely influential piece, including Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, John Carpenter and John Lucas.