Western Movies Throughout Time
Westerns are the epitome of man’s harshness and the beauty of the wilderness. One scene you’re rooting for the outlaw and the next you’re in awe at the gorgeous mountains of the Old West. It’s a juxtaposition that makes the western genre perfect for all film lovers. Our top 20 list is a great start so… let’s go.
#20 THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES (CLINT EASTWOOD, 1976)
To start off our list, The Outlaw Josey Wales was one of Clint Eastwood's most-remembered Western film that he both directed and played the titular character. The story is set during the American Civil War and follows a farmer from Missouri whose wife and son were murdered by Union militants. Wales becomes an outlaw seeking revenge for his family’s death.
#19 HIGH NOON (FRED ZINNEMANN, 1952)
This "adult" Western stars actors Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly. Cooper won the Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal of a marshall who must take down four killers riding in on the noon train. The film's slogan was "Time was his deadly enemy!" and with its lone cowboy theme saving a terror-stricken town makes it a classic.
#18 BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (GEORGE ROY HILL, 1969)
From knife fights to bank robberies, this film was heavily praised for putting together two incredible leads: Robert Redford and Paul Newman. This clip is from a hilarious back-and-forth between the two who have to decide whether they're taking on their posse of pursuers or plunging off the cliff into the river below. They take the latter option.
#17 THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (JOHN STURGES, 1960)
Usually, when a film gets a remake, it's because it truly is a classic. The Magnificent Seven is no different. The whole concept of the film is actually based on legendary filmmaker Akira Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai". The 1960 film starred Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Horst Buchholz, Charles Bronson, Robert, Vaughan, Brad Dexter, and James Coburn as the "seven, seven, seven"!
#16 THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY (SERGIO LEONE, 1966)
This Italian Western (or Spaghetti Western) is best known for its long shots and close-up shots that were all led by Tonino Delli Colli. The film follows three gunmen seeking gold: Clint Eastwood as Blondie, or the Man with No Name, Lee Van Cleef as "The Bad", and Eli Wallach as "The Ugly", or "The Rat" if you're asking Blondie.
#15 DANCES WITH WOLVES (KEVIN COSTNER, 1990)
This epic Western film led, directed, and produced by Kevin Costner is an adaptation of Michael Blake's 1988 novel of the same name. The notable part of this film for its portrayal of the Sioux tribe and for revitalizing the Western genre in Hollywood. The film made $184 million in the U.S. and $424 million globally.
#14 BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (ANG LEE, 2005)
Compared to the other classics on this list, you might be questioning Brokeback Mountain on the list. There aren't any bank robberies or shoot-outs, but its ability to make viewers question the true definition of a cowboy. In addition to its cowboy themes, the screenplay was written by Pretty Boy Floyd's co-novelists Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry.
#13 DJANGO UNCHAINED (QUENTIN TARANTINO, 2012)
Quentin Tarantino's revisionist Western was inspired by the work of Italian director Sergio Corbucci. Led by Jamie Foxx as the title character, the Tarantino film was an exaggerated and overly violent take on the classic Western, making it a classic in itself. The movie grossed a worldwide total of $425.4 million.
#12 THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD (ANDREW DOMINIK, 2007)
The plot isn't a mystery, I mean it's in the title. What makes this film mesmerizing is watching the dramatized storyline leading up to the killing of real-life outlaw Jesse James. Brad Pitt stars as Jesse James alongside Robert Ford played by Casey Affleck, who earned a nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
#11 THE SEARCHERS (JOHN FORD, 1965)
This film plays on the tug-of-war ethics of John Wayne's portrayal of the middle-aged Confederate Civil War veteran looking for his kidnapped niece, played by Natalie Wood. The film definitely hasn't aged well with its heavily criticized for its negative depiction of Native Americans, but it makes the list because of its preservation status in the National Film Registry.
#10 UNFORGIVEN (CLINT EASTWOOD, 1992)
Are we all that surprised that we have another Eastwood classic on this list? He's a Western legend! And Unforgiven sticks out the most from his cowboy repertoire. Eastwood stars as William Munny, a farmer who takes on one last job as an outlaw before completely retiring. The film earned four Academy Awards and earned $159.2 million at the box office.
#9 NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (JOEL AND ETHAN COEN, 2007)
While Westerns typically focus on the triumph of good over evil, McCarthy throws the idea to the wind and forces viewers to see a much darker side of cowboys. The Western thriller follows a wild chase between Tommy Lee Jones' Ed Tom Bell and Javier Bardem's critically-praised portrayal of the fictional villain Anton Chigurh. He still gives me the chills.
#8 PAT GARRET AND BILLY THE KID (SAM PECKINPAH, 1973)
This film is most remembered for Bob Dylan's incredible movie score "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" that perfectly encapsulated the looming fate hanging over Billy the Kid's fate. The score even won a Grammy Award for Album of Best Original Score. The two titular leads are played by James Coburn and Kris Kristofferson, respectively.
#7 MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (JOHN FORD, 1946)
This Western is titled by the old tune "Oh My Darling, Clementine" but the gunfights make it far from dandy and melodious. Wyatt Earp didn't think much of Tombstone, a lawless Arizona town, but this gem by John Ford is much more than the town it's set in. The film is actually registered for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.
#6 RED RIVER (HOWARD HAWKS, 1948)
The Old West is ruthless. And Red River truly shows that hardship with John Wayne as the lead cattle rancher. The film's uniqueness is shown in its unexpected twists and turns between the protagonists. Viewers are led to believe one idea that ends up being another, making the film into a commentary on the morality and psychology behind cowboys.
#5 THE WILD BUNCH (SAM PECKINPAH, 1969)
This classic by Peckinpah takes on the classic film tropes of cowboy machismo and sets it all in the middle of the Mexican Revolution. The Wild Bunch was filmed on location at the Hacienda Ciénaga del Carmen in Mexico. It follows the story of an old outlaw group who tests their own moral code to survive by any means possible.
#4 RIO BRAVO (HOWARD HAWKS, 1959)
Here we have another classic led by both acting legends John Wayne and Dean Martin. The film was famously made (with the help of Wayne) to be the anti-thesis of the earlier mentioned film, High Noon. Wayne stars as John T. Chance, a sheriff, who recruits several cowboys to help him fend off a local rancher's gang.
#3 MCCABE & MRS. MILLER (ROBERT ALTMAN, 1971)
While Altman referred to it as an "anti-Western film", it was still named American Film Institute's (AFI) 8th greatest Western of all time. This film is heavily revered for its cinematography showing the intense close-up shots of bullet holes and torn clothes of outlaws viewers can't even identify. The film is led by Academy Award-winning actors Warren Beatty and Julie Christie.
#2 JOHNNY GUITAR (NICHOLAS RAY, 1954)
Armed with six strings, and not bullets, Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden) arrives in a small Arizona town just in time to be a part of the rivalry between Joan Crawford's Vienna and Mercedes McCambridge's Emma Small. With back-and-forth romance, a yearslong rivalry, and a building on fire, this movie is a pivotal film for the Western genre.
Rotten Tomatoes ratings and critics don't always agree, but Johnny Guitar is a different case. It earned a 93% fresh rating and an 8.5/10 based on 3,578 user ratings. The film was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the Library of Congress and set to be preserved in the U.S. National Film Registry in 2008.
#1 ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (SERGIO LEONE, 1968)
It's worth noting that this film almost never came to be! Sergio Leone settled on The Good, the Bad and the Ugly being his last Western film and started work on producing his film The Hoods. The Paramount Pictures production eventually sparked into the legend that is Once Upon a Time in the West.
This cinematic masterpiece makes #1 on our top Western film because of how it showcases the Western genre in its truest form. The film gives us good vs. evil, the gorgeous wide-shots of Monument Valley, and of course, the harmonica-playing gunman played by Charles Bronson. It also brought back the widescreen camera scenes by the award-winning cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli.
When watching the classic Western films from the 40s to 60s, you'll come to realize that there are so many films today that are inspired by all of these masterpieces. These 20 classics have paved the railroad, if you will, for future filmmakers who continue to play on our wonder and the American dream. Do you agree with our top 20 list?