Westerns make up one of the widest and oldest genres in cinematic history. Their famous iconography can sometimes paint a rigid, predictable, picture in people’s minds. If you saw one duel at high noon, you've pretty much seen them all. But truth be told, the genre has produced some of the strangest and most significantly revolutionary films to ever grace the big screen.
Though not all of them were appreciated as such when they were first released, these classics did find devout audiences over time, despite initial mistreatment from critics. Here’s our list of 10 essential cult Westerns, big and small, to watch if you want to get a better understanding of film history. Or if you just really like good movies.
10 Chato’s Land
Chato’s Land began a long, fruitful collaboration between Charles Bronson and director Michael Winner. Bronson’s eponymous Chato is an Apache who’s hassled to the point of murder. But it’s the posse of cutthroats and reluctant accomplices, assembled by Jack Palance’s glory-obsessed ex-Confederate soldier, who commit more heinous crimes in the name of justice.
The movie then shifts from a moralistic Western to a proto-slasher, as Chato picks them off one by one. Many have drawn strong parallels between the story and revisionist horror movies influenced by the Vietnam War - a niche that wouldn’t appear in numbers for another decade.
9 The Great Silence
Sergio Corbucci’s remarkably bleak Spaghetti Western is remembered either for its nihilistic ending or for the influence it had on the genre, as seen in Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. You’ll hear even more it in the scores from their shared composer, Ennio Morricone.
As was the convention with Italian movies, the audio is entirely dubbed. The lead performances of Jean-Louis Trintignant's titular gunslinger (who, as you may have inferred, doesn’t speak) and Klaus Kinski’s unforgettable villain are intensified by the style though, and it brings the two amazing actors together in a very unique way.
8 El Topo
Alejandro Jodorowsky’s influential Western is often credited as the first Midnight Movie - a byword for controversial weirdness. A large section of it revolves around Jodorowsky's intentionally inflammatory statements that he said to hype up the movie. One example is his claim of personally murdering hundreds of bunnies for one scene.
Like most of Jodorwosky’s work, El Topo’s heady mixture of religious iconography and blatantly provocative shock value is largely open to interpretation. Film critic Pauline Kael’s even coined the label ‘Acid Western’ to describe El Topo and the subgenre it inspired.
7 Dead Man
Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man is seen by some as the culmination of the ‘Acid Western.' Like many of Jarmusch’s films, it sports an impressive cast in bit parts that litter the sporadic story. But it’s mostly forged out of the odd pairing of Gary Farmer’s lonely Native American – named Nobody – and Johnny Depp’s skittish city boy thrust into the life of an outlaw.
Shot entirely in monochrome and hauntingly scored by folk rock legend Neil Young, Dead Man is undeniably an incomparable trip. A trip that clearly inspired a number of great cult Westerns from the following decades.
Antonia Bird wasn’t the original choice to helm this Western horror. But, several weeks into filming, she found herself in the director’s chair after friction with producers led to the original director’s abrupt replacement with studio stalwart Raja Gosnell, who the cast apparently rejected in favor of her.
Bird would claim that this experience of Hollywood backstabbing informed her understanding of Ted Griffin’s screenplay of cannibalism in the Sierra Nevada. And, despite Bird feeling locked out by producers in the end herself, Ravenous came out as un-Hollywoodish as it could have been.
Alex Cox’s sorta-biopic about William Walker’s disastrous filibustering and short-lived takeover of Nicaragua starts out as a seemingly prestige period piece. But it gradually morphs into a satire of 20th century American foreign policy that abandons all pretense of metaphor and historical accuracy.
It was attacked from every angle at the time and its commercial failure was linked to Cox’s subsequent exile from Hollywood, although the reaction to Walker’s blunt commentary looks more like blacklisting from a modern perspective. Its unrepentant weirdness and unabashed politics have, however, allowed it to endure and find greater appreciation over the years.
4 Blazing Saddles
Mel Brooks’ beloved comedy is a perfect example of a more crowd-pleasing, but no less biting, satire of American history’s depiction in media. The addition of traditional screwball comedy to Brooks’ takedown of institutional racism made it more palatable and marketable compared to Walker.
Considering how iconic Cleavon Little and Gene Wilder have become as Sheriff Bart and the Waco Kid respectively, it’s strange to think that neither actor was Brooks’ first choice. The movie's very existence still feels a little miraculous to this day.
3 The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
The directorial debut of actor Tommy Lee Jones follows a Texas rancher as he seeks to avenge the unjust murder of his friend, the titular Melquiades Estrada, at the hands of Barry Pepper’s border patrol agent.
Released today, Three Burials would almost certainly be hounded morning, noon and night by a wave of professionally outraged internet and media pundits who would call it ‘overly political’ and ‘prejudiced against real Americans’. Jones would pull similarly few punches with his comparably downbeat take on women and the West in his second feature, the also-brilliant The Homesman.
2 Ride the High Country
Sam Peckinpah was a roguish force in American cinema and his Western movies are considered as fundamental facilitators of many of the entries on this list. So subversive and explosive was his image that it ended up being Ride the High Country, by far his most normal-looking Western, that would stick out to movie buffs as his cult classic.
Ride the High Country deceptively contains no less of Peckinpah’s fascination with sexuality, greed and violence. It appears just more subtly alongside Peckinpah's hallmark themes such as moral compromise, the death of the West and the concept of masculine honor.
1 Johnny Guitar
Nicholas Ray’s female-led 1954 Western may be the most widely, and openly, beloved film among filmmakers like Martin Scorsese throughout the latter half of the 20th century and beyond. However, it was initially panned by critics on its release.
It was Ray’s first film in color and his vivid use of it – which will be familiar to fans of his most famous film from the following year, Rebel Without a Cause – made it the indelibly striking experience that it is today. This movie is one that could comfortably and rightfully be called timeless.