With his latest revisionist Western The Hateful Eight, Quentin Tarantino has once again shaken up our expectations of what a particular film genre is capable of delivering. Like his first Western, Django Unchained, The Hateful Eight is funny, profane and unabashedly violent. While Django depicted a racially divided antebellum America before the Civil War, Tarantino revels in the charged atmosphere of the years following it.
Yet for all its race-struggle overtones (which draw a not-so-subtle parallel to the ongoing problems with those same social issues), The Hateful Eight explores some familiar terrain for the Western, that most American of genres that was reinvented by Italians and resurfaces in the modern era in many different forms. Aside from Tarantino’s films, the last few years have seen the release of some acclaimed entries into the genre, such as True Grit, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Bone Tomahawk, Slow West and The Revenant.
Any and all of these films owe a debt to the genre’s classics, as do some of the critically acclaimed long-form takes on the genre, such as HBO’s Deadwood and AMC’s Hell on Wheels. Here’s our list of the 15 Greatest Westerns Of All Time.
15. Red River (1948)
Get used to seeing John Wayne on a list of great Westerns. Only Clint Eastwood is as synonymous with Westerns as the Duke, and legendary director Howard Hawks’ 1948 Red River gave him one of his best characters to play. As bull-headed Tom Dunson, Wayne is an Texas cattle rancher who stakes a bold claim for his land only to fall on hard times in the years following the Civil War. With the help of his adopted son Matt Garth (Montgomery Clift), he sets out on a desperate cattle drive to Missouri.
Wayne’s Dunson becomes more and more tyrannical, prompting Clift’s Matt to split off and lead a separate drive, leading to a showdown between the father and son. Red River contains one of the classic Western movie moments, as Wayne says “Take ’em to Missouri, Matt!” Hawks follows that with the famous montage of the various cowboys, waving their hats in the air and yelling “Yee-haw!” It’s such an iconic moment that the several homages to it included in City Slickers never cross into parody.
14. The Naked Spur (1953)
Jimmy Stewart is perhaps best known for his roles in movies like The Philadelphia Story and It’s A Wonderful Life, which helped define his on-screen persona as an essentially decent Everyman. He would appear in many different Westerns throughout his career, but the five films he made with German director Anthony Mann feature a darker approach to this persona. The best of these is arguably 1953’s The Naked Spur, with Stewart starring as a bounty hunter named Howard Kemp.
While hunting down a murderer (a vicious Robert Ryan) for the reward on his head, Kemp enlists the help of an old prospector and a young soldier. When the villain is captured, the head games begin, as the killer has a young girl under his spell and uses her to pit all the others against each other. The movie turns into a kind of psychological thriller, as Kemp’s demons push him nearly over the edge. It’s one of the darkest, most fascinating Westerns ever made.
13. A Fistful of Dollars (1964)
Made on a low budget and originally released in Italy in 1964, director Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars gave Clint Eastwood his first starring role and introduced his “Man with No Name” character. Essentially a Western remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, Eastwood’s character wanders into the middle of a feud between two factions fighting over control of a small Mexican border town. Then he pits the Rojo brothers against crooked Sheriff John Baxter’s gang, playing both sides off of each other to make as much money as he can.
Leone’s plots would become more intricate, but with A Fistful of Dollars, Leone reinvented a genre he believed had become stagnant while giving the world a striking new cinematic language for the Western. The film’s success led to the birth of the spaghetti Western sub-genre, which would include Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 Django, Tarantino’s inspiration for Django Unchained.
12. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
John Wayne and director John Ford’s legendary collaboration spanned 24 films, many of them classics. 1962’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was one of their last together, and is considered the director’s last great film. Senator Ransom Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart) returns to the frontier town of Shinbone for the funeral of farmer Tom Doniphon (Wayne) and in an extended flashback, we learn how Stoddard breezed into town as an idealistic lawyer who stands up to the vile criminal Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) and is badly beaten for his trouble.
After toying with Stoddard, Valance nearly kills him in their inevitable confrontation, but Stoddard seems to shoot him dead. It was Doniphon who actually pulled the trigger, of course, in order to secure the happiness of the woman who chose Stoddard over him. As movies like Unforgiven and The Assassination of Jesse James would later explore, “When the legend has become fact, print the legend.”
11. Tombstone (1993)
In The Hateful Eight, Kurt Russell seems to be channeling John Wayne, but 1993’s Tombstone finds him taking on the role of the legendary lawman Wyatt Earp. The story of Earp and his brothers and their shootout at the O.K. Corral with the Clanton gang is the stuff of legend and has been adapted many times, with actors like Henry Fonda, Burt Lancaster and Kevin Costner having taken on the role in various films. For a generation of fans, however, it is Russell’s Earp – and Val Kilmer’s scene-stealing Doc Holliday – that stands out.
Like every other depiction of the famous shootout, Tombstone takes plenty of liberties with the history, but by now the legend has essentially become fact. The movie is brash and entertaining, with Russell giving a strong and forthright portrayal of Earp, the retired lawman who is drawn into the conflict with the Clantons. The supporting cast is excellent, and while Kilmer walks off with his scenes as the borderline unhinged gambler and killer Doc Holliday, the film features the likes of Sam Elliot, Bill Paxton, Powers Boothe, Michael Rooker and long-time Western veteran actor Harry Carey, Jr. In a time which saw sweeping, epic dramas with Western backdrops and trappings (Dances With Wolves, Legends of the Fall), Tombstone was a proudly traditional throwback.
10. The Wild Bunch (1969)
The Wild Bunch follows a gang of old and worn-out outlaws in 1913, played by genre veterans like Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson and Robert Ryan. William Holden’s Pike Bishop leads his gang in the robbery of a railroad office, only to be ambushed by Ryan, his former partner who now leads a band of bounty hunters. The pointlessness of all the death and destruction and hollow betrayals become recurring themes in the film.
Director Sam Peckinpah’s tale of an aging band of outlaws seeking a final score after a double-cross presaged Tarantino’s ultra-violent Westerns and served as something of an elegy for a generation of old-fashioned genre stars. It caused quite a controversy when first released and, for years, it was unavailable in it’s uncut, 144 minute form. The complete version adds a great deal of character background and motivation, giving Holden’s Pike more dimension. Peckinpah’s film features striking violence, a brand of hopelessness not often found in a Western, and his use of slow-motion and multi-angle editing techniques were revolutionary for the time.
9. McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)
The Western genre is traditionally all about confrontation, either literally in the form of brawls, shootouts and gunfighter showdowns or figuratively as characters with large personalities spend their time trying to outwit or intimidate each other. With this in mind, Robert Altman’s 1971 McCabe & Mrs. Miller has been called an “anti-Western” due to how Warren Beatty’s dandified gambler McCabe often talks his way out of a fight.
After arriving in a mining town in the Pacific Northwest in 1902, McCabe quickly establishes a brothel, and when Julie Christie’s Mrs. Miller arrives shortly thereafter, the two become business partners. When McCabe refuses a buyout from a ruthless mining company, they send three bounty hunters to kill him. Altman’s naturalistic style, complemented by the Leonard Cohen songs on the soundtrack, was arguably a major influence on modern-era takes on the genre, such as HBO’s Deadwood.
8. Shane (1953)
In director George Stevens’ 1953 Shane, the title character (Alan Ladd) is a mysterious gunslinger who arrives in a small valley town in Wyoming. Shane attempts to stay out of the troubles brewing between family of homesteaders (Van Heflin and Jean Arthur) and a repellent cattle baron (Emile Meyer) who wants to drive them off their land, but in true Western fashion he gets drawn into the fight.
Shane ends up saving the day, defeats the cattle baron’s gang and rides bleeding out of town. The audience and the homesteaders never learn anything about him, and the little boy crying “Shane! Come back!” as the possibly dead gunslinger rides away is one of the most iconic scenes in American cinema. Much of Shane features idealized versions of a frontier America that probably never existed, from the famous landscape to the forthright townspeople to the apple pie. The lone gunslinger model perfected in Shane is one which directors like Sergio Leone would upend but never reduce.
7. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
As Italians were busy reinventing the Western, legendary screenwriter William Goldman was pioneering a whole new tone for the genre. Director George Roy Hill just barely avoids injecting too much self-awareness while creating a world around the charismatic central performances of Paul Newman as Butch and Robert Redford as Sundance, roles which propelled them to the status of superstars.
Goldman’s script took the real-life pair of famous outlaws and added a 1960’s-era subtext to their exploits – both outlaws call Katherine Ross’s Etta their girlfriend, for instance. The film might be one of the funniest Westerns ever made, revolving around the famous chemistry between Redford and Newman. As Butch and Sundance lose their gang, try to go straight and end up surrounded by the Bolivian army, they handle a tough spot the same way every time: by never talking about the present. As in The Wild Bunch, they are outlaws whose place in the world is fading, but their grim gallows humor sets them apart and made them film legends.
6. Unforgiven (1992)
Clint Eastwood’s celebrated and prolific career as a star and director has spanned decades and several different genres, but 1992’s Unforgiven marks his final Western and arguably his finest. Eastwood’s William Munny is a reformed killer who has become a pious farmer. After losing his wife and falling on hard times, Munny accepts one last job from the upstart, too-ambitious Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) and reunites with his old partner Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman). They follow the Kid as he hunts down a pair of cowboys on the behalf of an abused prostitute in Big Whiskey, Wyoming, a town run by Sheriff Little Bill Daggett (the towering Gene Hackman).
Unforgiven examines the toll a lifetime of killing has taken on Munny, who discovers he doesn’t have a stomach for such violence anymore. Meanwhile, Blade Runner screenwriter David Webb Peoples’ script breaks down many Western myths (shades of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) in the form of the pulp magazine writer (Saul Rubinek) who follows around gunslinger English Bob (Richard Harris), an old rival of Little Bill’s and also on the trail of the reward. Eastwood’s Munny claims to be a changed man, but it doesn’t seem to ring true. His final rampage against Little Bill is a savage display of violence and an act of retribution which sees Munny embrace his true nature one last time before giving it up for good.
5. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)
Sergio Leone caps off his “Man with No Name” trilogy with 1966’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, famous for it’s immortal theme by Ennio Morricone and the movie just may represent the spaghetti Western subgenre in its peak form. The sprawling plot finds Eastwood’s “Blondie” (the “Good”), Eli Wallach’s Tuco (the “Ugly”) and Lee Van Cleef’s Sentenza (the “Bad) all competing to find a buried cache of Confederate gold during the background chaos of the Civil War in 1862.
Cited by Quentin Tarantino as “the best directed film of all time,” The Good, the Bad and the Ugly follows a long and winding story of double-crosses, one-upsmanship and duels as Leone hones his cinematic language of using long takes and close-ups to build tension. The three desperados all need each other alive just long enough to find the gold… and then all bets are off. The movie transcends its genre to become the monumental Western that directors like Tarantino are still chipping away at.
4. The Magnificent Seven (1960)
The great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s samurai films were such fertile ground for Westerns that before Sergio Leone mined Yojimbo for A Fistful of Dollars, John Sturges had already turned The Seven Samurai into 1960’s The Magnificent Seven. Kurosawa was so impressed that he gifted Sturges with a samurai sword. Indeed, the tale of a Mexican village hiring a gunslinger (Yul Brynner) – who hires six more gunmen of varying personalities – to help protect them from marauders has proven to be such a resilient premise that it spawned a short-lived television series and yet another upcoming remake starring Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt.
Few other Westerns capture the confrontational spirit as well as The Magnificent Seven and it’s combative ensemble. As with Red River‘s “Yee-haw!” scene, The Magnificent Seven‘s basic plot has been co-opted time and again, as seen in the comedy Three Amigos! which again celebrates this plot without diminishing it. Beyond the rousing Elmer Bernstein score and vibrant cinematography and direction, part of the fun is watching a young Steve McQueen steal all his scenes without any dialogue or direction, just to show up star Yul Brynner.
3. High Noon (1952)
If Westerns are all about confrontation, then director Fred Zinneman’s 1952 High Noon is one of the genre’s high-water marks. As played out in near real-time, Gary Cooper’s Will Kane is a former marshal who has just turned in his badge and married the pacifist Quaker Amy (Grace Kelly). A criminal named Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald), put away by Will and sentenced to hang, has been exonerated through a technicality and he and his gang is headed toward Will’s town of Hadleyville with nothing but revenge on their mind.
High Noon is a pressure cooker of a Western, and is often regarded as more of a 1950s melodrama than a straight genre piece. Cooper’s Will Kane grows more and more desperate as he pleads for help from his fellow townspeople and is denied at every turn. He ends up having to face Miller and his gang alone, and while Amy’s devotion to Will ends up saving his life, the former marshal feels so betrayed by his cowardly former friends that he tosses his badge away in disgust. High Noon‘s powerful subtext faces the reality of confrontation itself: if you rely on others and they fail you, what do you have left, and where do you stand?
2. The Searchers (1956)
The great John Ford directed John Wayne in more than just Westerns – 1952’s The Quiet Man is an example of both of them at their best, with not a saloon or cowboy to be found. In The Searchers however, Ford explores the darker parts of Wayne’s onscreen persona in ways that would rarely (if ever) be revisited again. The film contains some of the most gorgeous and widely-poached shots of any movie in history, but Wayne’s Civil War veteran Ethan Edwards was a challenging central character when the film was released and remains so today.
An unrepentant former Confederate, Edwards is a wanderer to gives himself a sense of purpose after Comanches murder his brother’s family and abduct his niece Debbie (Natalie Wood). With the help of the part-Comanche Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), Edwards spends five years searching for Debbie – in order to kill her. The twisted personal quest at the core of the story is fascinating, and while the film never hides Edwards’ anti-Native American attitude, watching Wayne as he finds his niece (after killing and scalping the Comanche who had her for so long) remains incredibly tense. He scoops her up and says “Let’s go home,” but the question remains: does this really redeem him? The Searchers is possibly the darkest popular Western ever made.
1. Rio Bravo (1959)
If The Searchers is John Wayne at his darkest and most conflicted, Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo is the apex of the onscreen Wayne persona we all know. As Sheriff John T. Chance, Wayne is good-hearted, tough, unquestionably in charge. This was famously Wayne and Hawks’ response to High Noon, a film which angered both the director and star. They felt that the town sheriff wouldn’t go around begging for help, and indeed Wayne’s John Chance accepts only the help of a trusted few after jugging the brother of a prominent rancher for casually murdering a man he didn’t even know. The alcoholic former gunslinger the Dude (Dean Martin), the cool younger gunman Colorado (Ricky Nelson), and the old codger deputy Stumpy (Walter Brennan) are who he trusts.
Rio Bravo moves into a now-classic siege movie model as Chance and his partners hole up in the jail with the killer until the local U.S. marshal can arrive to claim him. The final shootout with the enemy gang is so brilliantly staged and edited that other directors keep stealing from it – John Carpenter essentially remade the film as Assault on Precinct 13. As Roger Ebert points out in his Great Movies essay for Rio Bravo, the premise may be the sturdiest of all Westerns: a brave sheriff takes a stand to defend his town. Rio Bravo represents the classic Western setup at its height, and there is not a wasted moment in it.
There are revisionist Westerns, deconstructionist Westerns, horror Westerns and sci-fi/Western mash-ups. Just when the genre seems to be gone for good, it resurfaces again from a different point of view. These are 15 movies which best represent the genre at its finest, but did we miss any of your favorites?
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