The 25 Greatest Western Films Of All-Time

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The ultimate American genre, this frequently revised look at pioneer life reveals the American soul at its best, but more often, its worst.

25. The Great Train Robbery

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Original Release — December 7, 1903

Do not worry if you haven’t heard of this title — we can’t blame you for not catching a silent film from 1903. “Supervised” by Edwin S. Porter — the title “director” had not yet been put in use — the 12-minute film is the lightning-quick tale of bandits robbing a train, only to be gunned down by the local townsfolk near the station. It was neither the first Western nor the first film to have a narrative as many have erroneously reported, but The Great Train Robbery was the genre’s first true commercial success, cementing that even in 1903, America was still fascinated and enamored with its own pioneering history.

The film famously ends with a shot unconnected to the rest of the narrative — the gang leader points his gun at the camera and fires his prop blanks. Audiences around the country leapt from their seats in fear, worried they had been shot. The flood of relief and excitement proved that the relatively new power of film was here to stay.

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24. Open Range

Original Release — August 15, 2003

Released in 2003, Open Range is among the youngest entries on our list — but director and star Kevin Costner’s attention to period detail and gritty character development makes it one of the best films the genre has seen as of late. Robert Duvall and Costner play perfectly well off each other as two open range cattlemen — herders who can move their cattle regardless of lack of land ownership.

When a smarmy cattle baron attacks their well-intentioned friends/employees, ex-solder Costner is out for blood — and blood is what he finds. Open Range reflects on guilt, regret, and the way men are forced to operate in a relatively lawless society. Featuring one of the best shootouts the genre has ever seen, Costner and co. never forget the lonely characters at the center of its narrative.

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23. The Good, the Bad, the Weird

Original Release — July 17, 2008

This devilishly good rough-reimagining of the Sergio Leone classic is helmed by South Korean cinematic-maestro Kim Jee-woon. As a trio of bounty hunters attempt to outwit and capture each other, a Spanish-inspired soundtrack helps blend together what could easily be dismissed as foolish anachronisms. The arid yet gorgeous Mongolian desert serves as the backdrop for most of the action, allowing for Mad Max-style horse chases, swashbuckling train heists, and a brilliant vista for the looming and unescapable shootout. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but Jee-woon’s film defies all expectations, creating a film with so many word associations that the dictionary itself starts to crumble on its weight.

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22. Kill Bill: Vol. 2

Original Release — April 16, 2004

Don’t worry, you’re still on the same article! But how else could you classify a film about an indomitable warrior seeking revenge against the villain that wronged her in a tropical Mexican villa? Quentin Tarantino’s brilliant two-parter is a wonderful reminder that the Western isn’t necessarily about a specific time and place, but an atmosphere and presentation. Tarantino’s trademark dialogue is as sharp as ever, showing audiences that vengeance against someone you hate is difficult enough, and vengeance against someone you love is a road that no one should have to travel. The Bride (Uma Thurman) travels down both roads through the course of this film, but her resolve remains as steely as ever — it is a modern, stylish Western of the highest order, that only Tarantino could deliver.

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21. The Magnificent Seven

Original Release — October 12, 1960

Pulling together big stars like Yul Brenner, James Coburn, and introducing a fresh-faced Steve McQueen, this epic tale of a handful of gunslingers tasked with protecting a small Mexican village from an onslaught of bandits is as stirring today as when it was released. Its depiction of bravery, cunning, and that trademark McQueen cool in the face of near impossible odds not only brings cheers and thrills but allows for its richly flawed characters to argue their own moral codes and ways of life — the sparks fly long before any bullets are fired.

These lone figures live their lives away from any and all institutions, yet it is that same ideology that brings them together to fight for the greater good. Yet despite being excellent and exciting in its own right, this classic Western — and so much of the genre itself — owes nearly everything to Akira Kurosawa’s cinematic masterpiece The Seven Samurai.

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20. Rango

Original Release — March 4, 2011

Despite being one of America’s foremost genres, the Western has been slow to develop and evolve — and then there was Rango. After the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, director Gore Verbinski reteamed with Johnny Depp to tell the tale of a stranded chameleon who becomes sheriff of a rundown settlement. Though Rango — the titular chameleon — follows the standard path of embracing his own heroism to save his new home, the film’s visual pallet is what makes it stand alone and stand tall. You won’t find any cute and cuddly Pixar characters here — rabbits have ears missing, porcupines use their quills as deadly weapons, and the all-too-human follies of man are present in every character.

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19. Little Big Man

Original Release — December 23, 1970

Little Big Man was among the first of the “revisionist” Westerns — films determined to show the true history of the Union’s atrocities against Native Americans and the harsh life that the frontier demanded. Ironically, this Dustin Hoffman-starrer has a nearly constant slew of comedic moments, brilliant one-liners, and haphazard, near-farcical sequences. Somewhat of a proto-Forest Gump, this film shows the titular character’s life through various vignettes of cross-cultural misadventures.

The humorous styling works in Little Big Man’s favor, allowing comedy to be our method of understanding while we see bigoted and narrow-minded frontiersman attempt to describe the Native way of life. Such a strong contrast can weigh heavily on the audiences mind, but the film’s pace keeps us constantly engaged — and by the end, the lessons that the titular character has spent his life learning suddenly click and make all the sense in the world.

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18. Once Upon a Time in the West

Original Release — July 4, 1969

Just when the genre might have become tiresome for Spaghetti-Western directing legend Sergio Leone, he brought us another masterpiece of cinema. Featuring several actors working against type — most notably Henry Fonda as cold-blooded hired hand Frank — the bigger budget that Paramount Studios gave Leone let him flex his filmmaking muscles, yet not in the way that most would expect. While the Dollars Trilogy with Clint Eastwood is stoic and contemplative, Once Upon a Time in the West allowed Leone to explore the difficulties of everyday life and frequent threats on the frontier.

There is a classic vengeance subplot, but the majority of the story concerns itself with the various stages of a war of attrition over a source of water — water always ruled the West. The title may have the ring of a fairytale, but this epic film goes to great lengths to make the audience understand that the only winners in a violent world are the dead or the ignorant.

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17. Dances with Wolves

Original Release — November 21, 1990

“You want to see the frontier?” “Yes sir, before it’s gone.” With two lines of dialogue, director and star Kevin Costner defined the mark he would make on the genre and cinema itself with this epic Western. Melancholy pervades each scene as Lt. Dunbar (Costner) is assigned to the furthest western post possible, hoping to observe the Native American tribes that are being systematically executed and removed from the great plains that are their home.

The white-savior narrative does rear its ugly head in Dances with Wolves, but Costner balances it out with the sensitive exploration of Sioux culture. Their way of life is captured with such rousing majesty that the looming threat of the Union’s westward expansion becomes more horrifying with each passing frame. The generations today never got to see the frontier before it was gone, but Dances with Wolves brings us remarkably close.

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16. Brokeback Mountain

Original Release — January 13, 2006

Mostly set in the stunning, dramatic vistas of the Wyoming mountains, the film begins with all the elements of a classic Western. The quintessential American genre has always been the backbone of masculinity on screen — and there is no better setting to show that love has no boundaries, no matter the genre. The perfect contrast between deeply conflicted and closeted Ennis Del Mar and the sensitive but lively Jack (Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, respectively) is the beginning of any powerful romance.

The isolation of sheep herding allows Ennis’ and Jack’s love story to play out freely, creating a fantasy that any two people in love deserve — and simultaneously, the film never pulls any punches in exploring the inevitable tragedy that comes with a romance like theirs in this time and place. Ennis and Jack can’t build a life together away from the shadow of Brokeback — they know it, begrudgingly accept it, but love each other with intense ferocity all the same, as anyone of any preference deserves to.

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15. Django Unchained

Original Release — December 25, 2012

Django Unchained is perhaps the film that Quentin Tarantino was building towards his entire career — as a proud and massive fan of the Western genre, his chance to bring an avenging Black hero to the forefront of the predominantly white landscape. When bounty hunter King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) releases Django (Jamie Foxx) from slavery for information on a potential mark, the two form an enduring partnership and strike out onto the frontier together, both in the pursuit of blood and justice.

The perfectly timed dialogue and camerawork that has defined Tarantino’s career is all there, but the pure glee that a former slave’s revenge exudes makes you want to jump for joy right along with Django — it’s hard to imagine that the filmmaking team wasn’t having a rousing good time while shooting it. Django Unchained should have been the start of a new breed of Westerns featuring more diverse casts, but like most of Tarantino’s work, it has simply been inimitable as of today.

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14. Blazing Saddles

Original Release — February 7, 1974

This pioneering comedy — pun fully intended, as Mel Brooks would want it — is gleefully riddled with humor that wouldn’t make it past an assistant’s desk today. This farcical western is a send up of the era of wagon train shows that characterized life on the frontier as great — definitely not the type of place that would be rife with discrimination, brutality, and corruption. Though Blazing Saddles doesn’t necessarily comment on the aforementioned social issues, its foolishness and camp builds upon generations of filmmakers having forgotten to do so.

Filled with anachronisms beyond compare — most famously the Count Basie band performing right in the middle of the prairie — Brooks expertly weaves a joke into every possible moment, whether it be verbal of visual. As a Black sheriff in an all-white town, the incomparable Cleavon Little teams up with the equally stellar Gene Wilder to create a story that is just as daring, provocative, and hilarious today as it was upon release.

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13. Shane

Original Release — October 1, 1953

For those who enjoyed the Western inspirations present in the superhero film Logan, look no further for its origins than the similarly titled Shane. Shane — the character and the film as a whole — represents one of the core pillars that have made the genre such a consistent landmark across the history of cinema. While we often see our movie heroes as larger than life and constantly triumphant, Shane shows us a man full of tired regret for his misdeeds — it is hard to tell if it is regret at the misdeeds themselves, or that he is no longer as good as he used to be at carrying them out. Westerns have always been filled with weary, worn out men just trying to live out the rest of their days, but Shane shows such tragedy and heart-wrenching humility in the process that the classic tale of peace-through-conflict is given a profoundly emotional overhaul.

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Image Source: IMDb

12. The Wild Bunch

Original Release — June 19, 1969

Bloody, violent, and unique above all else, The Wild Bunch immediately carved out an existence for itself not only in the annals of Westerns, but in the history of cinema itself. A gang of aging outlaws and thieves — the titular Bunch — find themselves towards the end of their lives in a confusing and changing world. The Wild Bunch takes place in 1913, an era where the gunfights and horse chases were coming to an end.

One particularly poignant scene shows members of the Bunch confused that someone would want to take a car out driving rather than ride a horse to their destination. The gunslingers of the Old West attempted to live based on their own moral codes, free from bureaucratic governments of corrupt institutions — yet sweeping modernity has simply made that the standard. As the gang attempts the classic “final job” in the form of a silver heist, their desperation comes not only from the allure of retirement, but to cement the legacy of an era now lost.

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11. Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Original Release — January 24, 1948

The lust for gold has always been the bane of the frontier, driving men to madness and throwing their morality into the depths from which they are digging. Humphrey Bogart traded in his anti-hero charms from Casablanca to play Fred C. Dobbs, a man whose ambition makes him primed for a downward spiral. He and his fellow out-of-work buddy Curtain find old prospector Howard happily telling tales of his searches for gold. Using the last of their desperately fought for cash to employ him, the three set out into the harsh arid landscape. They find their gold, but that’s only the start of their tumultuous journey.

Its narrative becomes less about the treasure, and more about the sanity of the would-be prospectors. Bogart’s Dobbs becomes entrenched in manic behavior, convinced the others are trying to swindle him out of his share. His neuroses reach their peak, and violence is soon the name of the game. What seemingly began as an adventure in the mountains of Mexico quickly transformed into an examination of greed and paranoia. Like many of us, our pursuits start out innocent enough but enough setbacks and shining visions of a rich future can lead us to do things we never thought imaginable.

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10. Stagecoach

Original Releases — March 3, 1939

This 1939 trailblazing classic introduced John Wayne to mainstream audiences and wrote the book on the modern Western. With a deceitfully simple premise — a handful of strangers catching the stagecoach from one town to another for various reasons — John Ford’s frontier adventure kicks itself into high gear. Each character has their own reasons for getting out of town, whether by their own choice or through the force of others. The number of occupants in and on the coach becomes large, but timely direction of perfectly cast actors allows us to absorb the intricacies and motivations of each character shortly after meeting them — because them meeting each other is where the fun begins.

Despite featuring a chase scene that rivals anything produced today, Stagecoach is admittedly a film plagued by a horrendous depiction of Native Americans. The later collaborations between John Ford and Wayne attempted to better themselves in this regard, but to not mention a glaring problem in an otherwise fantastic film is as damaging as the problem itself.

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9. High Noon

Original Release — July 30, 1952

By the early 1950s, Westerns were struggling to become distinct from one another. John Wayne seemed to be constantly working on a rewrite of his old scripts and episodic television just kept churning out the same shoot-out ending plot. Seeking to change up the formula, High Noon happens completely in real time — just as celebrated Marshal Will Kane is married and planning on retirement, he receives word an old nemesis will be arriving on a train to terrorize his town once more. As the clock ticks by, Kane finds he still has much to learn about navigating small town politics.

One by one, the people whom he has called friends for years continue to abandon him, unable to decide if this blood-soaked quarrel is one they have any stake in. High Noon continues to succeed to this day precisely because its relevancy has yet to run out — how often have we been in a situation where we erroneously believe, “this isn’t my problem.” As the dust settles after the long-awaited shootout, blood is the mirror in which this town must reflect.

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8. McCabe & Mrs. Miller

Original Release — July 8, 1971

There is no Western less heroic or more realistic than McCabe and Mrs. Miller. With a palette of muddy browns and murky blues captured by purposely unfocused lenses, this tale of a gambler and a madame going into business together is a profound experience. Semi-plotless, the trials and tribulations of running a brothel in the mountains is far more difficult than one might expect. As the titular characters navigate their on-and-off platonic status, the horrors of frontier life is shown as nothing more than everyday difficulties.

Blistering storms, bounty hunters, and petty brawls all threaten to bring down an existence that could never be idyllic — and yet McCabe and Miller keep fighting tooth and nail to get their brothel off the ground. Tales of capitalism and entrepreneurship is as American as the Western itself, and to put these ingredients together gives us a cinematic dish that is as unique as anything that the dusty old genre has created.

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7. Rio Bravo

Original Release — April 4, 1959

What do you get when a drunk, a cripple, a naïve sharpshooter, and a tired, beaten down sheriff must band together to survive a siege of corrupt ranchers? A fantastic exploration of tension and duty from vastly underrated director Howard Hawks. A bigger budget version of High Noon, most of the film finds our heroes — led by a curmudgeonly John Wayne — arguing with each other about how best to plan a near impossible defense. Outmanned and outgunned, the character interplay is undoubtedly the shining star of Rio Bravo.

As individual personalities clash, it is the power of great writing and characterization that leads our cast to a mutual understanding rather than a rushed treaty of fervent scripting. And once the action ramps up, today’s filmmakers could learn a thing or two from Hawks’ brilliant framing and setup for a final shootout that still stands the test of time today — especially courtesy of Walter Brennan’s Stumpy supplying plenty of dynamite for crack-shot John Wayne to fire at.

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6. Red River

Original Release — September 17, 1948

Westerns have always been at the forefront of cinematic masculinity, but no film captures its complexities better than the teaming of director Howard Hawks, John Wayne, and Montgomery Clift in Red River. Desperate to get their massive herd of cattle sold after the Civil War, a father and his adopted son — Wayne and Clift, respectively — quarrel over routes, river crossings, and leadership itself. Red River’s cattle sequences, whether it be herding or stampeding, stand with epic classics like Lawrence of Arabia, yet Hawks’ Western is triumphant because of the equally grand focus it puts on the paternal strife at the center of the film. Wayne and Clift berate, punch, and betray each other, but their love is as unyielding as their pride. It is a relationship one can feel and understand from their first meeting, making Red River the beautiful result of one of cinema’s best father/son dynamics.

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5. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Original Release — December 29, 1967

Whether you have seen it or not, this spaghetti western is undoubtedly your foundation of the genre as a whole. Its whistling, howling main theme has pervaded popular culture as has the man that frequently strides into frame with it — Clint Eastwood, who cemented himself as the eternal king of cool. Three richly defined characters outwit and try to outgun each other in a search for Confederate gold that leads to the greatest Old West standoff and shootout that cinema has ever seen.

Director Sergio Leone jumps from the massive expanse of a wide shot to a sweat dripping extreme close up of Eastwood’s calculating eyes with perfect timing while Ennio Morricone’s haunting and triumphant score creates tension that has no equal. Leone was a rare breed of director, allowing himself to put things on screen simply because it looked and felt cool. A slew of modern filmmakers have attempted to replicate such a strategy, but fall short with nearly all the elements that made Leone a self-taught master.

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4. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Original Release — September 24, 1969

Hollywood has never had a better on-screen pairing than the dashing rogues that were Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Oozing charm, this film perfectly encapsulated the charm of these two stars. Newman’s Butch and Redford’s Sundance lead the Hole in the Wall Gang, who become the bane of the Union Pacific railway. When a train robbery goes wrong, their gang betrays them and are even hired by the railway to hunt them down. With dwindling prospects around them, Butch and Sundance perfectly embody the outlaws that media would lead us to believe existed — that regardless of dire circumstances, a charming smile and tricky gun play will put them on top.

Though slightly fanciful in its presentation, Butch and Sundance delightfully represent the Old West for how we remember it, rather than how it was. The same could be said for the legends the two men think they are — their names are mildly well known, but humorously realize they need to start from scratch when they flee to Bolivia. Even when the Bolivian police garrison has them pinned down, the two outlaws still banter about where they should flee to next, always believing they will live to see the next day.

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3. A Fistful of Dollars

Original Release — January 18, 1967

The first entry in Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy — which culminated in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly — is still the best. When cigar-chomping Man With No Name (the incomparable Clint Eastwood) strolls into a town with two warring families, the grizzly gunslinger is happy to sell his services to whoever will pay most — and betray them, too. Fistful of Dollars is deceitfully simple in written description, but the interplay among its mythically characterized cast feels like a Shakespearian clash of warriors even in its quietest moments — and it is in all the small details where the legendary teaming of Eastwood and Leone shines.

The wise attention to framing, timing, and score put the emphasis on the lead up to a shootout — today’s directors incorrectly assume that gun blazing action is the time to categorize a character as “cool.” Leone proves them wrong time and time again — what’s cooler than a lone gunslinger like Eastwood’s knowing he’s won the battle before it’s even happened?

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2. The Searchers

Original Release — May 26, 1956

Despite how its initial set up may appear, The Searchers is a Western like no other. Years were spent by studios and directors cashing in on the colossal protagonist that is John Wayne — and director John Ford reteams with his favorite star to bring it down to size. Ethan Edwards (Wayne) is our protagonist, but far from our white-hatted good guy. A self-admitted racist with a hatred for Comanches, Edwards spends five years searching for his niece who was kidnapped by the aforementioned tribe — not to save her, but to kill her, to wipe the “stain” that he feels the Comanches have thrown upon his family’s honor.

Gorgeously composed frames of dramatic red rock spires dwarf even the mighty Wayne, showing how lonely the stalwart figure truly is. Service in the Civil War left Edwards with the bitter taste of blood in his mouth — with no place to be able to settle and call home, Ethan can only resort to using his hate to carve out an existence. Its iconic ending shot provides little happiness to the character, reminding us that the search for peace in a world gone mad — an easy description for the frontier — is both impossible yet never-ending.

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1. Unforgiven

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Original Releases — August 7, 1992

Clint Eastwood’s masterpiece of directing and acting is a startling look at what the Old West was truly like — a world of cruel men at worst, and tired, bad men at best.  Are we so naïve to imagine that virtue was at its peak in the Old West, when lawmen were few and far between? Eastwood’s William Munny is a man burdened by decades of killing, a retired gunslinger who wants a quiet life with his children — but a failing farm forces him to take one last job.

The romanticized frontier becomes draped in grime and blood as Eastwood brings his all to the role of Munny, showing audiences what a tortured past does to the soul — and in this case, he was the one who did the torturing. Eastwood and his team make it abundantly clear that there will be no redemption for the outlaws and killers in this film. As the title suggests, they’re all going to Hell one day — it’s only a matter of when the devil decides to cash in on all their horrid deeds.

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