Westerns have a long and storied history in cinema, with the genre being one of the first to dominate the silver screen. What started out as simple tales of the frontier quickly built in scope and depth thanks to the mastery of those who crafted the films year after year.
Eventually, fresh voices injected new meaning and style into the genre, pushing it to new heights in films that stand among the greatest movies ever made. While the Western genre has become much quieter in the modern era of film, there are still standout entries that are released regularly.
The backdrop of the frontier and the struggles of the men and women who populated it can be used for simple morality tales or complex narratives that draw compelling parallels to modern issues. In any case, the greatest films in the Western genre use its tropes to their advantage for stories that are both innovative and timeless. When done right, they show what makes this a genre that has defined so much of cinema.
Mosey on through the following 15 films and learn about the greatest this genre has to offer. Whether you are a longtime fan or are new to the genre, the following movies are cinematic events that everyone should experience.
15. High Noon
When a dangerous criminal is released from jail, he targets longtime marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper), the man who put him away. Knowing that the criminal and his gang will arrive the next day at noon, Kane looks for help among the town he has protected for years, but finds everyone slowly turning his or her back on him and his wife. Highly political for a Western made in 1952, writer Carl Foreman’s High Noon was written as a partial allegory for his blacklisting during the Red Scare and reflected his conservative beliefs. The film reflects every classic element of the genre while injecting it with added layers, making it a classic for anyone interested in the power of Westerns.
Best Moment: Having killed the men who threatened him and his wife in a dangerous shootout while the townsfolk watch, Kane throws his marshal’s star in the dirt and leaves disillusioned with what he stood for.
14. 3:10 to Yuma
A remake of the 1957 film of the same name and the original Elmore Leonard story, James Mangold’s 3:10 to Yuma takes a thrilling narrative and pumps it full of energy, intensity, and action. Following poor rancher Dan Evans (Christian Bale) and notorious outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe), the story follows a group of men including Evans who agree to escort Wade to a train that will take the criminal to jail. But Wade is a danger even when shackled and his gang is determined to free him before he can be sent to prison. Filled with fantastic set pieces, a strong attention to period-specific detail, and incredibly dynamic lead roles (Ben Foster is also fantastic as a psychopathic gang member), 3:10 to Yuma is easily one of the best Westerns in the new millennium.
Best Moment: Having reached a mutual respect, Evans and Wade make a break for the soon-departing train while being beset on all sides by Wade’s gang. It’s an intense and tragic climax that elevates the film as a whole.
13. The Proposition
A break from the typical Western setting (this is set in 1880s Australia) also means upheavals in the genre interpretation itself in The Proposition, which follows outlaw Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce), who is captured and told to kill his deadly older brother Arthur in order to gain his freedom. Pulling no punches and tackling the worst of humanity in a brutal time, The Proposition is an exceptionally barbaric film and not one for the faint of heart. But the shocking violence and grisly subject matter helps to drill down further into the subject at hand. Not only that, but it is an gorgeously picturesque and impeccably shot film, which offsets the violence at hand without sugarcoating it.
Best Moment: The film’s brutal climax of violence and betrayal, as well as its melancholy denouement, are what seal the deal on this devastating Western and give it greater depth.
12. The Outlaw Josey Wales
Originally a farmer, Josey Wales (Clint Eastwood) is driven to revenge against the Union militants who killed his family, leading to him joining the Confederate Army. But when the conclusion of the Civil War sees his fellow guerilla fighters slaughtered, Wales becomes an outlaw on the run who is still obsessively pursuing vengeance. By focusing on a side of the Civil War not typically seen as protagonists in movies and using a diverse cast to portray a different side of the Wild West, The Outlaw Josey Wales breaks away from the norms while still telling a Western tale of revenge. Most importantly, the anti-war stance of the film gives it a more contemporary an allegorical nature that provides greater relevance. While Eastwood would make even greater Westerns, this is a seminal entry into the genre.
Best Moment: Josey meets with the Comanche tribe and its leader Ten Bears. After tense talks, the two men bond and find peace together over their persecution by the government.
11. A Fistful of Dollars
The first Western created by master Sergio Leone and the film that popularized the subgenre of Spaghetti Western (Westerns created by Italian filmmakers), A Fistful of Dollars is a Wild West reinterpretation of Akira Kurasawa’s samurai epic Yojimbo. Tracking a gunman with no name (played by a young Clint Eastwood in one of his first theatrical roles) who wanders into a town controlled by two warring gangs, A Fistful of Dollars injected grittier realism, moral ambiguity, and rougher violence into a genre that had been known for its cleaner classic Hollywood sensibilities. Leone’s cinematic genius and Eastwood’s magnetic charisma turned what could have been a forgettable knockoff into one of the most influential Westerns ever made, and one of the greatest.
Best Moment: The Man with No Name confronts Ramon Rojo in the film’s final shootout, but is quickly taken down with a rifle shot to the chest. But when he somehow gets up again and again after multiple bullets, the hero shows his mind is just as deadly and his quickdraw.
10. Rio Bravo
Created partially as a response to the perceived “un-Americanness” of High Noon, Howard Hawkes’ Rio Bravo is the story of Sheriff John Chance (John Wayne), who teams up with town drunk Dude (Dean Martin) and young gunslinger Colorado Ryan (Ricky Nelson) to fight a gang headed to town. Rather than deal with issues of cowardice and responsibility, High Noon is about the goodness of people, with many townsfolk coming together to fight the gang that threatens the town. Complete with numerous musical numbers, a fun sense of humor, and the thrills of big Hollywood Westerns, Rio Bravo is great fun in the Wild West. The film would be remade starring John Wayne twice more in El Dorado and Rio Lobo, and eventually as the police thriller Assault on Precinct 13.
Best Moment: A trade of two prisoners quickly gets complicated due to multiple exploding sticks of dynamite and the sudden aid of many townsfolk in the film’s thrilling climax.
9. True Grit
A remake of the classic John Wayne film of the same name and an interpretation that skews closer to the Charles Portis’ novel on which it is based, True Grit benefits from the strength and style of the writing and direction of the Coen Brothers. With Jeff Bridges as Marshal Rooster Cogburn, Haliee Steinfeld as young Mattie Ross, and Matt Damon as Texas Ranger LaBoeuf, the story follows Mattie, who enlists their help to track down the man who murdered her father. While the original has the appeal of Wayne, the 2010 version improves upon the story’s style, message, and quality in nearly every way. Bridges’ version of Cogburn may get the most attention from critics, but the film as a whole is fantastic, carrying on the tradition of modern Westerns that stand toe to toe with the classics.
Best Moment: Faced with a group of outlaws, Cogburn charges on horseback at them in a wild shootout despite being largely outnumbered. It’s a thrilling scene that shows off Bridges’ great work as the character.
8. The Wild Bunch
Possibly director Sam Peckinpah’s defining work, The Wild Bunch is a brilliant work of violence and cruelty. Tracking a group of outlaws at the very end of the Wild West era, we find men who are past their prime but pulled into ever more desperate acts of crime. Make no mistake, these are very bad individuals who are quite unsympathetic, but whose tragic natures appeal to the audience. There’s a sense of inevitable tragedy that pervades The Wild Bunch and its escalating violence. In addition, the film’s shootouts are wonderfully shot, with Peckinpah using slow motion just right to punctuate the deaths in ways that both shock and appall due to their graphic nature.
Best Moment: The final shootout, where our titular anitheroes take on an entire armada of Mexican soldiers. Slow motion gore, brutal deaths, and an inescapable sense of fatalism pervade this climax, which is easily one of the all time great movie shootouts.
7. Blazing Saddles
One of director Mel Brooks’ funniest films in a long string of great comedies, Blazing Saddles is a zany upending of the Western genre that places a 1970s attitude into the 1800s. Long story short, some political shenanigans leads to railroad worker Bart (Cleavon Little) appointed sheriff of a small and very racist town. Along the way he teams up with the washed up gunslinger known as the Waco Kid (Gene Wilder) to fight back against the crooked politicians who look to take over. While Brooks’ film uses a grab bag mentality for its comedy and devolves into insanity by the end, the jokes fly fast and hit hard. Not only does Blazing Saddles’ humor still hit the mark today, but the film’s pointed take on racism is sharper than ever.
Best Moment: Picking a best moment out of Blazing Saddles is nearly impossible, especially since each person’s style of comedy means that the jokes hit each viewer differently. But the arrivals of newly appointed sheriff Bart is most certainly one of the greatest.
6. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
It’s one of the Hollywood classics of the Western genre, but Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is far from a conventional Wild West adventure. Rather, William Goldman’s script and George Roy Hill’s direction make the story of two legendary outlaws into a strange mashup that stays unpredictable from start to finish. It’s also propelled by the lead performances of Robert Redford and Paul Newman, two of Hollywood’s finest whose charisma works even better together than it does on their own. The charm, wit, comedy, and thrills throughout make this one of the best unconventional Western films out there, with the story’s tragedy making it even better.
Best Moment: Butch and Sundance execute their big train heist, which involves blowing up the safe in order to get the money inside. “Do you think we used enough dynamite there, Butch?”
Tracing the true story of Wyat Earp (Kurt Russell) and Doc Holiday (Val Kilmer), who fought crime in the Wild West’s most famous shootout at the OK Corral, Tombstone is a very straightforward and unpretentious Western, but it’s executed incredibly well. Full of great gunfights, memorable characters, and everything that a fan of the genre could want in a classic Western film, Tombstoneis impeccable from start to finish. Best of all, Kilmer turns in one of the all-time great performances as Holiday, throwing off classic lines with panache scene after scene. Fun fact, while the film is credited to director George P. Cosmatos, rumor has it that star Russell actually directed the movie.
Best Moment: While it’s only the midpoint in the film, the famous Shootout at the O.K. Corral is the highpoint of Tombstone due to its intensity and realism, which results in a chaotic and startling shootout between the two sides of the law.
The seminal deconstruction of the Western genre starring and directed by Clint Eastwood, Unforgiven pays homage to the legend of the Wild West while dismantling its clichés at the same time. As outlaw William Munny (Eastwood) looks to score some money by taking down a bounty, he is confronted with legends that have spread about him throughout the West. In his way is local sheriff Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman), who isn’t afraid to kill and maim to impose the peace in his town. While Unforgiven is firmly set in the Western genre, it drains the romance and mythology out of the setting, replacing it with a harshness and realism that reevaluated the many films that came before. In many ways, this is the final word on Westerns, as this film is the ultimate revisionist take on the genre and has influenced the films that came afterward in many different ways.
Best Moment: Munny walks into a bar filled with men that were about to hunt him down, igniting a bloody firefight in a small space that relies on keeping calm under pressure instead of a quickdraw. It’s the final note in Unforgiven’s massive upheaval of the genre.
3. Once Upon a Time in the West
A man known only as Harmonica, a brutal and evil man named Frank, an unpredictable outlaw called Cheyenne, and a woman named Jill whose money and power can change all their lives. These four pursue their mysterious agendas as their lives collide in a slowly forming Western town. Once Upon a Time in the West deals with the taming of the West thanks to the arrival of trains in the area, which signals an end to the lawlessness and violence that defined it for years. Violent men find their time coming to an end as civilization creeps in, but old scores will need to be settled before the country can grow past its old ways. Through the use of long, quiet scenes and sudden punctuating violence, Leone creates an artfully done and challenging Western that both embraces and breaks conventions. It’s a must for anyone looking to dive deeper into the genre and the director’s work.
Best Moment: The beginning of the film is easily one of the greatest openings ever in cinema. Tracking three men who arrive at a train station, the film opens on 10 minutes of tense silence as the three wait for a man to arrive. When he finally does step off the train, terse words and unrelenting tension erupt into a split second shootout that punctuates the long wait with death.
2. The Searchers
A tale of obsession, racism, and redemption, The Searchers is John Wayne’s greatest film and the greatest work of director John Ford. Sweeping vistas and an epic journey are the backdrop for the story of cowboys Ethan Edwards (Wayne) and Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), who spend years searching for their young niece who was kidnapped by a Cheyenne tribe. Pawley is determined to bring her back to the life she once had while Ethan is motivated by his hate toward Native Americans, including being ready to kill her for what she has become. The Searchers can be enjoyed on many different levels, with the film being entertaining thanks to its vibrant storytelling while also having many things to say about the toll of racism and the lingering tensions of the Civil War. Consistent revistiting and reevaluation of the film only deepens the experience.
Best Moment: The final moment. Matching the very beginning, it says volumes about the message of the film without a single word.
1. The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
Could it be any other? Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly is a titan in the Western genre and one of the all-time great films. A truly epic Western adventure, this third and final entry into the Dollars Trilogy finds Eastwood’s Man With No Name in search of $200,000 in buried gold, along with filthy but complex criminal Tuco Ramirez (Eli Wallach) and heartless assassin Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef). Along the way, they double cross one another, do battle in numerous shootouts, and find their journey unexpectedly intersecting with the raging Civil War. The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly is a masterpiece that combines stellar cinematography, a classic score by composer Ennio Morrione, and complex characters brought to life by performers at the heights of their talents. This is the Western that shows the true power of the genre and how the best of its films can be among the greatest films of all time, no matter the genre.
Best Moment: The climactic three-way standoff between Blondie, Tuco, and Angel Eyes in the graveyard. Not only is it the culmination of a three-hour wild ride, it’s one of the greatest shootouts in film history.
Honorable Mentions:For a Few Dollars More, High Noon, Open Range, Stagecoach, Shane, The Magnificent Seven, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre