Can You Name the Classic Western From a Single Sentence Summary?
By: Zoe Samuel
7 Min Quiz
Image: C.V. Whitney Pictures
About This Quiz
Pitching is the art of summarizing a film in a single sentence. The masters of this work in Hollywood, either pitching their own scripts or pitching for others. Some pitches are so simple, they have entered show biz lore; "Die Hard" on a plane or "Lord of The Rings" meets "Lethal Weapon." There is a belief, mistaken or not, that the shorter the pitch, the better the idea. Very short pitches, especially anything shorter than a single sentence, are called "high concept pitches" for reasons known only to the studio executive who coined the term.
Laugh all you want at the idea, but movie pitches really do work. Think of your favorite films and see if you can summarize them in a single sentence. The chances that you can are excellent. A well-crafted story, however nuanced, is actually very simple. Genre films can often be described in terms of the inner plot of the story — "Star Wars Episode IV" is a story of a young man growing up in the footsteps of his absent father. Or, they can be described by the outer characteristics of the plot — "Star Wars Episode IV" is "Flash Gordon" meets "The Hobbit" by way of Japanese Chanbara cinema. How well do you know your Westerns? Do you think you would recognize the classics from such a description? Test yourself now!
Produzioni Europee Associate / United Artists
"Three gunslingers race to find a buried treasure." What movie do you think that describes?
Rounding out the Leone/Eastwood collaboration, "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly" pits three great Western actors as three great Western characters in the ultimate race to find salvation in the form of gold in the thick of a battlefield. Lee Van Cleef, Eli Wallach and Clint Eastwood star in this film in which no one in the cast spoke English, except for them.
The Mirisch Company / Alpha Productions
"This Western version of a classic film by Akira Kurosawa is a classic in its own right, showing bald cowboys can be cool." What Western will this lead you to?
The original "The Magnificent Seven" was made in 1960, and was based on the film "The Seven Samurai." "Magnificent" starred Yul Brynner as the leader of an unlikely band of protectors hired to defend a poor Mexican village from a group of bandits, lead by a villain played by Eli Wallach.
Campanile Productions / Newman-Foreman Company
"Two friends and their gang are relentlessly chased by a posse following a train robbery." Do you know what Western fits this sentence?
This classic western, starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, is the namesake of the Sundance Film Festival, and is considered one of the greatest films of all time, not just a classic western. Penned by William Goldman ("All The President's Men"), "Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid" is American cinema at its finest.
Jolly Film / Constantin Film / Ocean Films
"In a story based on 'Yojimbo,' a gunfighter arrives in a town riven by gang rivalry, playing both sides against each other." Do you know what Western this is?
Sergio Leone's brilliant "A Fistful of Dollars" begins his and Clint Eastwood's "Man With No Name" series, based on the Kurosawa film "Yojimbo," which follows a similar plot, only with samurai instead of gunslingers. In "Fistful," Eastwood plays his blonde gunslinger to ruthless, squinting perfection.
Stanley Kramer Productions
Do you know what Western is described as "A local lawman must navigate conflicts with his neighbors and wife while preparing for a showdown with a grudge-holding outlaw scheduled for noon"?
Gary Cooper has just the right qualities to pull off the role of Marshal Will Kane. In this classic, the role of Marshal Kane demands both believability as a hard-as-nails lawman capable of staring down the barrel of a gun without flinching, and the more subtle acting skills of a man navigating less polarized relationships with his friends and loved ones.
Can you name the Western best described by saying "When an aging gunfighter comes out of retirement to collect the price for a cowboy who cut up a prostitute, it results in a replay of the tragedies of his days as a young outlaw"?
Perhaps Clint Eastwood's greatest directorial effort, "Unforgiven" is a postmodern take on his earlier work as "The Man With No Name," whose story is finally given the harsh realism the earlier films always lacked. Starring Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, and Gene Hackman, the film's cast was remarkable.
C.V. Whitney Pictures
What movie can be described as "An aging Civil War veteran spends decades in pursuit of his kidnapped niece"?
Perhaps John Wayne's most iconic performance was in John Ford's masterpiece "The Searchers," in which the black and white morality of the Western genre is stretched thin and heroes are given enough time to become villains. "The Searchers" is possibly the greatest Western of them all.
Hollywood Pictures / Cinergi Pictures
This classic Western is "The story of how the friendship between a gambler and a family of lawmen is tested by their conflict with a gang of outlaws." Which of the following Westerns do you think matches this description?
Another classic Western, "Tombstone" is also another telling of the story of the events surrounding the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. This version was also a modern action/adventure film made in the 1990s, combining the cinematic traditions of both Westerns and modern action. Starring Kurt Russell, Val Kilmer and Powers Boothe, the powerhouse cast even includes small roles for actors like Charlton Heston and Billy Bob Thornton.
The Malpaso Company
"An undead gunslinger sells his services to the town of Lago to help defend them against a crew of brigands." Can you name that Western?
Few people remember the seemingly small detail of the protagonist's return from the dead, but that's just one of the twists in this incredibly enjoyable Western. In the film, Clint Eastwood plays the titular character, training the townsfolk of Lago, people who killed him in a past life, to fight local bandits with whom he also has beef. One of Eastwood's most violent Westerns, the film also has more than its share of Eastwood one-liners.
The Malpaso Company / Warner Bros.
Which of the following titles do you think matches the pitch "When a Civil War veteran joins a local community to protect them against dangerous men, he has to make a final reckoning with his past as a guerrilla fighter against the Union"?
In "The Outlaw Josey Wales," Clint Eastwood plays one of his least sympathetic heroes, at least by contemporary standards, being an ex-Confederate guerrilla fighter. In the film, the titular gunslinger finds himself opposing an old enemy from the war, only this time, they're out west, on opposite sides of a war over land.
"This send-up of the western genre sees a black sheriff put in charge of a town, laying down the law and challenging the preconceptions of his constituents and the film's audience." What movie do you think that describes?
Mel Brooks' masterpiece "Blazing Saddles" is an authentic Western classic. Shot on the same backlot as many cowboy serials, the film takes every trope of the Western genre and uses it for comedy and social commentary. The film's brilliant cast includes Cleavon Little, Gene Wilder and Western veteran Slim Pickens.
Warner Bros.-First National
"Two Americans, down on their luck in Mexico, team up with a prospector to find gold in the mountains, but bandits, the elements and their own greed stand in their way." What movie do you think that describes?
Legendary director John Huston ("The Maltese Falcon," "The African Queen") wrote and directed this fantastic western. "The Treasure of The Sierra Madre" stars Hollywood icon Humphrey Bogart and Walter Huston, the father of the film's writer/director.
"When a future U.S. Senator stands up to a violent thug, a legend is born." Which Western is it?
"The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" is a story that has been told in book, film, and song, but this film is the definitive version in the popular imagination. In the film, John Wayne plays the tough guy killed by violent criminal Valance, played by Lee Marvin, and Jimmy Stewart plays Ransom Stoddard, the ordinary man who took up arms against Valance when his reign of terror threatened to lead to him obtaining legitimate state power.
Sanford Productions (III)
This Western is described as "The story of a mountain man whose wife and child are killed by their tribe when the tribe learns the mountain man violated their burial ground, beginning a battle." What classic Western do you think this is?
Jeremiah Johnson is the hero played by Robert Redford in "Jeremiah Johnson", a 1972 movie with a decidedly old fashioned conflict that felt a lot like a parable about the Vietnam War at the time it came out. Directed by Sydney Pollack, "Jeremiah Johnson" is a great Western made with an artist's eye.
1957 saw the arrival of the classic Western described as "The true story of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday's adventures against the lawless cowboys of Tombstone, Arizona." Which Western was it?
The classic true story about law versus lawlessness in the old West has been made several times, but many fans of the story consider this version to be definitive. Starring film legends Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster as Holliday and Earp, respectively, the film's cast gave its performances tremendous weight.
"A desperate rancher is hired to escort a suspect to his train to court, but the suspect's gang want the suspect released, testing the rancher's resolve." Can you name that Western?
The original 1957 version of "3:10 to Yuma" was a dark psychological Western. In it, Van Helfin and Glenn Ford face off as the rancher and suspect, respectively, in a story by none other than Elmore Leonard, author of "Get Shorty" and other brilliant stories.
The Malpaso Company
"When an extra-judicial hanging fails, the accused becomes a lawman and hunts down the vigilantes who tried to kill him." Do you know what western this sentence describes?
A classic Clint Eastwood Western, "Hang 'em High" is a classic revenge tale, in which several colorful bad guys get their comeuppance when Eastwood's U.S. Marshal is ordered to arrest them, not kill them. Of course, not all the bad guys go peacefully, and Eastwood's character has to lay down the law.
"When a woman comes between two brothers, bullets are used to settle the dispute." What movie does this sentence describe?
"Duel in the Sun" is unusual among classic Westerns in that it isn't about a posse chasing criminals or an outlaw looking for his final score. Instead, "Duel in the Sun" follows heroine Pearl Chavez, as when she goes to live with relatives in the wake of her parents' murder-suicide, she falls for a pair of brothers who settle their love triangle with a duel.
Walter Wanger Productions
This Western is described as "A group of cross-country travelers' caravan winds up in a war zone inhabited by Geronimo and his warriors, with only one gunslinger to keep them alive." Can you name that Western?
John Ford's "Stagecoach" was his 1939 collaboration with John Wayne who, being young enough, played "The Ringo Kid," a young gun on the stagecoach full of misfits headed west. There, they find out that Geronimo and his warriors are in the area, making their trip suddenly dangerous. While they navigate this dangerous frontier, the group bonds, becoming vulnerable to each other along the road.
Scott Rudin Productions / Mike Zoss Productions
"When a man decides to take the cash from the site of a drug deal gone wrong, a cartel hitman chases him across the countryside while a sheriff desperately tries to catch up to the mounting crime spree." What movie do you think that describes?
Considered a modern classic, "No Country For Old Men" follows an ages-old plot with archetypal characters in a modern era, while remaining utterly a Western. In the film, Javier Bardem's "Anton Chigurh" cuts a bloody swathe through the American southwest, hunting the $2 Million in posession of Josh Brolin's "Llewelyn Moss," while Tommy Lee Jones's "Sheriff Bell" is in hot pursuit.
The Alamo Company / United Artists / Batjac Productions
Do you know what western is best described as "The true story of a group of Western legends who died in a doomed battle"?
Although the story has been told numerous times and under a variety of titles, "The Alamo," starring John Wayne, remains the iconic, classic of the class. In this version of the Alamo story, Wayne plays Davy Crockett, Richard Widmark plays Jim Bowie, Laurence Harvey plays William Barret Travis, and John Wayne's son Patrick plays James Bonham.
Warner Bros.-Seven Arts
A widely-known classic Western can be described as "A gang of aging outlaws take one last shot at the big score before the old west, and their way of life disappear." Which western is it?
Sam Peckinpah is renowned for this violent film, in which fighting and gunplay are portrayed with grim realism, and "The Wild Bunch" is considered the zenith of his work in the Western genre. In this film, Ernest Borgnine and William Holden lead a cast in the roles of their lifetimes.
"A white soldier connects with the indigenous tribes of the frontier and is redeemed by love and by nature." Do you know what Western this is?
Directed by and starring Kevin Costner, "Dances With Wolves" was the first Western to win the Best Picture Academy Award since 1931. The story follows John Dunbar, a Civil War soldier sent to watch over a remote area, where he becomes friendly with the native Lakota and, surreally, the local wolves.
"A weary gunslinger who tries to settle down finds that perhaps it's too late, and his destiny to remain fighting for the remainder of his days," is how one classic Western is described. Can you name it?
"Shane" is the story of a gunslinger who wants to settle down, tries to, but is forced to resume his life of violence when justice calls upon him to take up arms against evil. The film is best remembered for the ending, when Joey, the son of the woman Shane loves, calls out to him as he rides away, dead on his horse.
Paramount Pictures / Dino De Laurentiis Company
"This film from the director of 'Dirty Harry' follows a gunfighter dying of natural causes who wants to go out in a blaze of glory." What movie do you think that describes?
Made in the waning years of the life of Western legend John Wayne, "The Shootist" feels like a parable about his life. In the film, Wayne's gunfighter is too good to get killed, but this means he is condemned to a slow and painful death at the hands of nature. Made just three years before Wayne's death, this Don Siegel film's amazing cast includes a young Ron Howard, Jimmy Stewart and Lauren Bacall.
"Subverting some of the themes of the genre, this film follows several young men who go west only to discover the frontier isn't what they dreamed of." Which Western is it?
"Bad Company" is a classic western of the 1970s, and very much embraces the themes of the decade's films, including tragic irony. In the film, a group of young men (including one played by a very young Jeff Bridges) set out to become masters of the frontier, only to find their lives devolve into violence and death.
Euro International Film / Paramount Pictures / Rafran Cinematografica / Finanzia San Marco
Do you know which Western is best described as "Two outlaws defend a widow from a ruthless assassin working for the railroad"?
Considered by many fans of Sergio Leone to be his finest Western, "Once Upon A Time In The West" stars one of the best casts of the era. Jason Robards is "Cheyenne," and Charles Bronson is "Harmonica," two outlaws (one wrongfully accused). The two come to the defense of Claudia Cardinale's Jill, a widow whose husband and family were killed by Frank, the assassin played by screen legend Henry Fonda.
Warner Bros. Pictures
Do you know what Western is best described as "In the run-up to the Civil War, old classmates from West Point face off over ideals, betrayals and love"?
"Santa Fe Trail" (1940) saw the changing of the guard in Hollywood, with stars of the old and new both taking part. The film stars iconic action movie actor Errol Flynn, famed movie star Raymond Massey and even midcentury journeyman and future U.S. President Ronald Reagan.
A Western of the late 1940s is best described as "When a mutiny erupts during a thousand mile cattle drive, the young cowboy put in charge earns the enmity of his mentor, now his antagonist." Do you know what Western this sentence describes?
In the popular imagination, John Wayne always plays heroes. Some of them are twisted, but all are protagonists. In "Red River," Wayne's character is a cruel man who drives his cowboys to turn on him, putting Montgomery Clift's "Matt" in charge, changing Matt's relationship with Wayne's "Dunson" from that of mentor/student to enemies.
What movie is described best by the sentence "When a young criminal is on the run, he encounters an older outlaw who shows him the ropes, and involves him in his own feuds, before returning him home"?
"Barbarosa" is both the title of this film and one of its star characters, played by none other than Willie Nelson. In the film, Karl Westover, a man played by a very young Gary Busey, is on the run having accidentally killed a man, finding himself in a strange action comedy in the old west.
"When one outlaw abandons another and makes off with their stolen lucre, the abandoned outlaw chases down his former comrade, for revenge." What movie do you think that describes?
"One-Eyed Jacks" is a classic Western with a classic American actor: Marlon Brando. Directed by Brando, the film took years to shoot, and, slipping into his heavier phase, Brando put on weight during the shoot, making his character "Rio" look heavier coming out of jail than when he went in.
What movie could be said to be about "Three Hollywood actors called upon to become the characters they played in movies, defending a town of poor Mexicans"?
"¡Three Amigos!" stands as one of the greatest Western comedies of all time, with the genius of Chevy Chase, Steve Martin and Martin Short leading the cast. In the film, the three play early Hollywood stars whose on-screen exploits are believed to be real by the people of a Mexican village, and when the trio fall on hard times they take on what they think is an acting job, facing the bandits terrorizing the village, only to find out they've bitten off more than they can chew.
Sherman Pictures / Enterprise Productions
Can you name the Western best described by "When a woman's rancher husband is murdered by a rival, she takes on the ranch and the murderers, using the law and a few guns to take on the bad guys"?
Released in 1947, "Ramrod" follows heroine Connie Dickason as she hires Dave Nash (played by western movie star Joel McCrea) to help her defend her inheritance against Frank Ivey, a ruthless cattleman who will stop at nothing to get his hands on her property. Of course, it pays to have the right gunmen defending the good guys.
What film matches up with "A bad seed grates on his rancher father, inspires his impressionable nephew and threatens to break apart the fragile family because he and his nephew both love the same woman"?
"Hud," named for Paul Newman's bad-boy character, is a typical "aren't young people just awful" movie of the 1960s. Still, it's also a wonderful portrayal of a dysfunctional family in the old west, with pressures coming from the environment, as well as the social circle. In the film, Hud is portrayed as the irredeemable young man who cares only for his own pleasure, in the face of a father whose principles are to be admired, not rebelled against, despite them doing nothing to avert family tragedies.
"A nameless man squares off with criminals when it turns out that the schoolteacher he has fallen for is also the object of desire for a criminal." Do you know what Western this sentence describes?
"The Virginian" is both the name of this 1946 film and the name of its protagonist. In "The Virginian," a schoolteacher from the east arrives in a western town, and two cowboys fall in love with her. One is involved in a gang of thieves, and the other, The Virginian, has to step in to stop them while protecting the woman he loves.
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