If you watch movies, then you’ve probably seen (or heard of) the western, one of the most iconic genres of the Hollywood film industry.
Maybe you love them. Maybe you’ve seen one subpar western movie and thought “meh.”
I hated them…until I watched the right westerns.
The goal of this article is not to re-hash the “best western films ever” that have been written about and recycled endlessly. (You can find any number of these lists on IMDB.com.) Rather, these are 10 of the westerns that changed my outlook on the genre.
Everyone of these westerns is worth watching before you kick the bucket, or if you’re simply seeking to expand your film education, or if you are planning to write one yourself.
But enough about me. Let’s dig in…
10. The Magnificent Seven
Mexican peasants recruit seven gunfighters to defend their village from a band of vicious banditos in this classic, iconic western. Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson star in this western adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, delivering action, grit and drama on the American frontier while accompanied by Elmer Bernstein’s Oscar-nominated score.
9. 3:10 to Yuma
If you’re looking for something a little more modern, this film is it. Starring Russell Crow and Christian Bale, 3:10 to Yuma has it all: nail-biting action, big set pieces, great acting, iconic roles—all without sacrificing quality characters. Considered to be one of the great westerns of the 21st century, this remake of the Glenn Ford classic tells the story of a destitute war veteran-turned-rancher escorting a wily outlaw to the 3:10 train to Yuma. Nominated for two Oscars.
Alan Ladd stars in this small tale about a mysterious gunfighter who defends his newfound friends from a vicious frontiersman and his band of violent cronies. A departure from earlier westerns, this Oscar-winning film forgoes blood-pumping action sequences in favor of a slow boil that delivers a cathartic payoff and several iconic scenes. Particularly memorable are its breathtaking landscapes that underscore a previously-overlooked story: the struggle of the second wave of pioneers against the frontier’s first settlers.
7. Broken Arrow
Let’s start by making clear that we are referring to the 1950 film starring Jimmy Stewart, not the 1996 flick starring John Travolta or the 1950s TV series of the same name.
What makes Broken Arrow stand out is not its three Oscar nominations, but its unusually progressive approach to “cowboys and Indians.” Unlike the typical western that focuses on the struggle of white hats vs black hats or cowboys vs Indians, Stewart’s characters seeks to bring the two sides together in peace—but at great personal cost. Although Broken Arrow is perhaps the first big Hollywood blockbuster to depict indigenous Americans as sympathetic and fully human, the movie industry still had a long way to go in how they express “minorities” (read: non-white folks). They still do.
But, then again, Hollywood has a pretty dicey history when it comes to racial and gender equality, even though the majority of industry professionals are strongly pro-equality. (It remains a sad fact that Hollywood’s biggest influencers are still a bunch of rich white guys.)
6. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Hollywood legends Paul Newman and Robert Redford star in this classic by screenwriting great William Goldman about two outlaws who haven’t changed with the times—and pay the ultimate price. Not only does this classic film boast four Oscars to its name, IMDB also lists Butch Cassidy in its Top 250 films of all time.
Westerns set after the end of the American Civil War (1865) tend to express themes of changing times, technology versus human effort, and old-fashioned heroes struggling to adapt to the new status quo. Accolades aside, Butch Cassidy sits at the pinnacle of this theme. Times have indeed changed since the Civil War ended. Now, the traditional “wild west” has evolved into a strange world populated by technology and civilization, leaving the old cowboys in the dust.
5. The Gunfighter
All too often overlooked but an absolute gem, this black and white film starring Gregory Peck focuses on the plight of the gunfighter who has reached his peak, but then finds himself unable to escape his reputation. In some ways, The Gunfighter demonstrates attributes of an anti-western without fully shedding its western skin. It’s a slower, tragic character piece that illuminates a neglected aspect of the western, the gunfighter as a human being, while revealing the emotion, wisdom and ignorance that so often is left out of more traditional western flicks. Thoughtful and introspective, the cast carries the show with aplomb and magnetism, carefully circumventing devolution into a mindless shooter.
If you are a serious cinephile, then be sure to put this notch in your belt. It will stick with you.
4. The Searchers
Like The Gunfighter, this under-appreciated masterpiece will burn itself into your memory. The Searchers is nothing less than John Ford at his best. John Wayne at his most John Wayne-ness. The high point part of every western crammed into 118 minutes—although it seems much longer.
That said, The Searchers tells the story of two men who set out to find their captured niece/sister after their family is murdered by a Comanche warband. The thing is, it takes them half a decade to find her, enduring hardship and personal sacrifice along the way. Lighter comedic moments counter-balance the heavy drama. Expect to laugh, cry, and cheer.
3. Django Unchained
Moving forward in time to modern cinema, Tarantino’s provocative film is not so much a “western” in the orthodox sense as it is a self-described “southern.” In terms of genre, Django Unchained still fits the bill for the “western” genre.
Django tells the story of a freed slave who pairs up with an itinerant German Jew to rescue his love from a charming but sociopathic plantation owner. With an all-star cast that includes Christoph Waltz, Jamie Foxx, and Leonardo DiCaprio, Django Unchained is one of Tarantino’s greatest. Viewers can expect the trademark Tarantino contrast of meticulous patience and brutal violence. By roping in a host of alluring minority characters, the movie doesn’t hold back on its tacit (sometimes blatant) criticism of the Old South.
But don’t let that fool you into thinking Django is just a revisionist apology for slavery. The film is much more than that—and nothing short of an enthralling ride from start to finish.
2. True Grit
Underrated and understated, the 2010 remake of True Grit is a small story that delivers 110%. Jeff Bridges stars as Rooster Cogburn, a hardened, gritty man who reveals his inner soft side while protecting a young girl with a powerhouse personality (played by Hailee Steinfeld). As far as remakes go, this 2010 version leaves its 1969 predecessor in the frontier dust.
While the Coen brothers’ storytelling far outstrips that of the original, Jeff Bridges delivers some of his best work. In comparison, John Wayne’s performance in the previous True Grit is, well, not great. The newer True Grit remains a personal favorite of mine for its understated delivery and eloquent filmmaking.
But don’t take my word for it—True Grit was nominated for 10 Oscars, after all. Less than 100 films in the Academy’s cinema history can claim as much.
If you like this, also watch: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, The Big Gundown, Dead Man, True Grit (1969)
1. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
If you only ever watch one western in your life, this is the movie to watch. The most famous Spaghetti Western of all time, Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo stars Clint Eastwood as the lead, Tonino Delli Colli’s breathtaking cinematography, and Oscar-winning composer Ennio Morricone’s timeless soundtrack. A three-way triad of conflict drives the story as a “good” character teams up with a “bad” and an “ugly” (read: chaotic neutral) character to uncover buried gold, all the while trying to outwit, kill or imprison each other along the way.
Nearly every visual and soundtrack stereotype pop culture associates with the western genre comes from this film. Three-way Mexican standoff? Check. Frenetic classical guitar music and blaring trumpets? Yup. Clint Eastwood? Double check. Stony-faced men of few words? Triple check.
IMDB.com ranks The GB&U as the top western and #9 in its 250 Top Rated Movies—to which Once Upon a Time in the West (another Sergio Leone film) is a distant second at slot #37.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly has to be #1 on this list not just because it’s an outstanding cinema masterpiece, but because it has inspired filmmakers, writers, actors, cinematographers, composers and wannabe cowboys for decades since. In many ways, The GB&U is unofficially considered the ultimate expression of the western as a movie genre.
Clearly, this is by no means a comprehensive list. Many gems did make the cut—not because I dislike them or find them lacking aesthetic value. Rather, I tried to stay focused on 10 stand-out works of cinematic art that not everyone may have seen.
I did not include any comedies in the aforementioned list. If you are interested in comedy-westerns, start with films like Blazing Saddles, Three Amigos!, My Name is Nobody, and (if you’re brave enough) Wild Wild West (1999).
If you want to explore film that goes against everything the western genre is and stands for, then watch No Country for Old Men, an unofficial anti-western in the most extreme and bitter sense. Warning: As with any anti-genre, if you like the genre itself, anti-genre may make you uncomfortable. If you want to start with something milder, try a Revisionist Western.
If you are interested in exploring other gems in the western genre, several IMDB users have put together helpful lists of top westerns to watch. I found this list particularly useful.
Thinking about writing your own western? Or looking for help on the next draft? I’m happy to help.