Westerns are usually set in the Old West era of the late 19th to the early 20th Century. They feature settings from desolate deserts to spectacular, mountainous scenery to frontier towns and Native American villages. The key players are usually roaming loners either looking for new places to settle down or running from their pasts and exhibiting their own, particular code of honor. The heroes of these films can be compared to knights in European mythology or Ronin in Japanese mythology. Speaking of mythology, the following short-list of great Westerns, have many re-enactments of Western legends.
As the famous quote from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance says, “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
Not only is this is a great Western, it’s also one of the greatest comedies of all time. An overall great movie to discuss around the campfire while you’re eating a can of beans.
Who are those guys? Why, they’re Robert Redford and Paul Newman! Two of the wisecrackingest bandits North and South of the border. This movie is truly a case of the legends of Butch and Sundance becoming more well-known than the facts.
There is no more popular movie on this list. Dances with Wolves is the highest grossing, most award winning Western ever. Maybe its popularity can be explained by Lieutenant Dunbar’s (Kevin Costner) appealing nature. He makes friends with a Native American tribe, he makes friends with a captured white woman of the tribe and he even makes friends with a wolf. And, gosh darn-it, he’s just cute and loveable. Unfortunately, the Army doesn’t like this kind of fraternization, so Dunbar is forced to decide the path he will take.
An iconic example of the Spaghetti Western genre and the movie that is one of Clint Eastwood’s best early films. The three title characters alternately battle and form alliances with each other in a hunt for buried treasure. Meanwhile Ennio Morricone is laying down one of the most memorable movie soundtracks ever.
This movie explores the moral conundrum of how much you should care about your job and the people who depend on you. Gary Cooper is getting married just as a murderous band is known to be coming to town to gun him down. The problem is, nobody wants to help him and his wife just wants him to leave town before he gets killed. You probably know what Gary Cooper would do, but what would you do?
This Paul Newman flick is one of the better of the many, many Billy the Kid related movies (there are well over one hundred). The West had never before seen the likes of this desperado, a troubled teen who wrote his name in blood on history's pages.
This film tries to encompass all of the myths of the West in one movie, while at the same time creating a new legend. Dustin Hoffman portrays Jack Crabb from his childhood with his settler family on the plains, to a 121 year old man narrating his life story, including his gun fighting years, his survival at the Little Bighorn, his friendships with Buffalo Bill and with the Indian tribe that raised him. And much, much more.
Jimmy Stewart plays a mysterious stranger who rides into town, digs up some clues about some gunrunners who killed his brother and then rides off into the sunset after brutally setting everything right. This may be the best of Director Anthony Mann’s many great noirish Westerns.
Second to the popularity of the Billy the Kid story, is the story of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday and the shootout with the Clantons at the OK Corral. This is one of the best, though not necessarily being too close to the facts of the case. It is directed by John Ford and stars Henry Fonda as Wyatt and Victor Mature as Doc. This film was selected to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress, in 1991.
Josey Wales (Clint Eastwood) is the typical lone gunslinger wandering the west in search of… something. While not exactly a “people person” or even much of a good dog owner, over the course of the film he picks up a whole new family, here and there, and tries to settle down. Unfortunately his past and his reputation as a gun-slingin’ rebel come back at him in a big way.
This film is a touchstone in the Western genre and, by far, the best cattle drive movie. It’s also one of John Wayne’s best. So why am I flappin’ my gums about it so much. Go check it out, pardner!
Another great John Wayne movie, in which the Duke sets out with his nephew on a years-long quest to find his niece who was kidnapped in an Indian raid. Directed by John Ford, and set in Monument Valley, this may be one of the most beautifully filmed movies of all time as well as one of the greatest films of all time, period, exclamation mark.
Another very pretty film to look at. Shane (Alan Ladd) is the name of a recovering gunfighter who is trying to live the straight life with a homesteading family. Unfortunately, he gets dragged into a conflict between the big ranchers and the homesteaders. Then, of course, the guns come out of storage.
Both John Wayne and Jeff Bridges play U.S. Marshal Rooster J. Cogburn based upon the Charles Portis novel of the same name. The plots are almost exactly the same. Rooster is hired by a young lady to find the killer of her father. A Texas Ranger, La Boeuf, is also along to help. Each character has their “grit” tested along the way. The eternal question is which version is better? Watch them both and decide for yourself. John Wayne won his one Best Actor Oscar for his version, but the Jeff Bridges version was nominated for 5 times as many awards.
Retired gunslinger, William Munny (Clint Eastwood) gets his hand back in the game after trying the reformed life for a long time. He gets his old buddy Ned (Morgan Freeman) to help him track down some bad guys for a bounty and to confront the Sherriff (Gene Hackman) who let them go. Along the way they meet a fellow bounty hunter, and take him, reluctantly, under their wing. This film won the Best Picture, Best Director and Best Supporting Actor Oscars, and probably should have won more. This is Eastwood’s defining late career acting role.
True Texas legend, Judge Roy Bean (Walter Brennan), finds a wily drinking buddy in Cole Harden (Gary Cooper). That is, until he finds out that Cole has fallen in love with a lovely homesteader. The Judge, you see, is in the employ of the cattlemen who are trying to drive the homesteaders away. But Cole has an alleged friendship with famous actress Lily Langtry who the Judge would desperately like to meet. And Cole is his only hope to meet her when she has a performance nearby. A very good, but sometimes odd, movie with a lot of humor and action.
A gang of career outlaws look for a big final score before the traditional American West disappears around them. Director Sam Peckinpah updates the traditional American Western for the 1970s. It contains a lot of sex and violence that would not have been shown in most of the older films above, though not nearly as much as is shown in today’s movies.
Directed by Anthony Mann and starring James Stewart, this film summarizes many Western themes. After Lin McAdam wins a repeating rifle in a shooting contest, it is stolen from him. As he tries to track it down it passes through several hands until returning to the original thief just in time for a shootout on a rocky mountain precipice. Good stuff.