Westerns once dominated American cinema, and as a result, there are hundreds and hundreds of them in existence. That being said, if you were to ask anyone on the street to name even five, chances are you would hear the same titles. Most of their selections would include Spaghetti Westerns like The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, as well as modern Westerns like Django, Unchained, Unforgiven, or Dances With Wolves.
While those films are excellent in their own way, there are so many Westerns that don't get mentioned or celebrated enough. Whether you crave the spacious cinematography, the exciting gunfights, or the rousing musical scores, a true Western masterpiece has it all. The tropes and archetypes featured in Western films, such as creating your own destiny, succeeding through adversity, and shepherding your integrity are timeless - it's why we see the same stories retold today across a variety of genres. So strap on your six-shooters, because here's 10 Western masterpieces you probably haven't seen.
10 THE BIG COUNTRY
As far as Westerns go, there are few that match The Big Country for sheer grandeur and scope. Set in Texas, it's a story of East meets West when a Northerner (Gregory Peck) comes to the Old West to visit the woman he plans to marry on her father's sprawling ranch. Unbeknownst to him, her family is at war with a rival clan over the drinking water for their cattle.
At every turn, he's forced to confront the West's notion of archetypical masculinity. He doesn't like violence, he doesn't feel the need to prove himself by fighting the foreman (Charlton Heston), or breaking in the most wild stallion. But he turns out to be the toughest cowboy when the woman he loves is kidnapped and he vows to brave an army of outlaws to get her back.
Despite boasting an all star cast including Keifer Sutherland, Donald Sutherland, Demi Moore, Brian Cox, and Michael Wincott, this Western from 2015 flew under the radar for some. Forsaken marks the first time both Sutherlands have worked together on film, with Keifer playing a Civil War vet returning home to lead a quiet life and Donald playing his preacher father who disapproves of his violent past.
His son's past catches up with him though, and while he might think he's done with killing, killing isn't done with him. Word has spread that the famous gunman is back in town, and soon he's forced back into a way of life he thought he'd left behind for good. Amazing performances and great drama anchor this soon-to-be-classic.
8 THE SEARCHERS
John Wayne owes his career to Westerns, and some of his most famous roles have been in John Ford's contributions to the genre. Ford's classic The Searchers has left a lasting impression on not only Westerns, but cinema in general, where it continues to be influential in everything from Bone Tomahawk to Episode II: Attack of the Clones.
The film focuses on one man's journey deep into Comanche territory to retrieve his abducted niece (Natalie Wood), the only surviving family member of the raid that killed his brother. Set during the Texas-Indian wars, the film portrays Wayne at his swaggering best, as an aging Civil War veteran who proves he still has what it takes to save the day.
7 THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN
While the Magnificent Seven was remade recently, the original from 1960 is considered a masterpiece in every sense of the word. From the beautiful cinematography, to colorful cast of characters, and rousing musical score, it continues to be a paragon of the genre.
A small farming village pools its resources to engage the services of seven gunfighters, each with a reputation as big as their personalities. They pledge themselves to defend the town from getting raided by a bandit and his gang, resulting in one of the most gripping standoffs in cinema.
6 HOW THE WEST WAS WON
How The West Was Won is the Avengers: Infinity War of the Western genre. With 24 of Hollywood's biggest stars, it boasts some of the most revered names in Western cinema. It includes such greats as John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Gregory Peck, Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda, Robert Preston, and more.
The epic film takes place over a span of fifty years, beginning in 1839, and visits the Civil War, the frontier, and the growing city of San Francisco during the Gold Rush. It follows four generations of the Prescott family as they roam from New York to the Pacific Northwest.
5 ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST
Considered to be one of the greatest Westerns of all time, Once Upon a Time in the West has sprawling locales, a triumphant score by genre-giant Ennio Morricone (who finally got the Academy Award for The Hateful Eight just a few years ago), and gripping performances.
When a greedy railroad baron wants to get an obstinate farmer to sell his land, he sends his henchman to scare him. The farmer is killed instead, his murder pinned on a local thief. The farmer's new wife and a mysterious gunslinger arrange to take on the baron in retaliation. Watch it for Henry Fonda as Frank, the original Man in Black.
4 THE WILD BUNCH
Modern films like Armageddon and The Expendables owe their popularity to films like The Wild Bunch, which features a group of aging outlaws banding together for one last heist before they retire. Unfortunately, the heist turns out to be a set up by their old partner.
Forced to retreat and hide out in Mexico, the film turns into a bloodbath. The motley crew is led by former matinee idol William Holden, and includes such thespians as Ernest Borgnine and Warren Oates. Its story is tight and nuanced, typical of a Sam Peckinpah film. Mel Gibson is currently looking to remake it.
When a weary gunfighter tries to hang up his six-shooter and start life as a farmhand, he never expected to be caught in a battle between the Starrett family he works for and a ruthless cattle baron. He straps on his gunbelt once again and saddles up, inspired to defend the family that gave him some semblance of redemption.
Shane is a genre-defining movie that has influenced many films after it, and in genres completely different from its own, such as with Logan starring Hugh Jackman as former X-Man Wolverine just trying to lead a peaceful life. Sooner or later, a younger, faster gun always comes looking for you to prove themselves.
2 THE PROPOSITION
Set in the Australian outback in the 1880s, this Western unfurls like a violent morality play. One middle brother must make a difficult choice; find his older brother (wanted for rape and murder) and bring him in to the law, or watch his younger brother hang.
Guy Pearce leads the cast as the brother grappling with the moral quandary, and his feverish performance is matched by Ray Winstone as the gruff sheriff and Danny Huston as his charismatic older brother. The film is savage, bloody, and brutal, and offers a chance to see the Wild West in another country.
1 THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE
The death of an infamous outlaw terrorizing a small town results in a senator's fast track to political success, but when he returns to the town to attend a funeral for an old gunman (John Wayne), the truth about "the man who shot Liberty Valance" is revealed.
Told mostly in flashback, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is both a Western and a noir film, with several different storylines and perspectives converging to a single point. What at first seems crystal clear gets murky as the film progresses, and what seemed murky becomes suddenly plain as day. Watch it for the excellent but very different acting from John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, and Lee Marvin.