List o’ 12 Best Classic Western Movies

gun-and-holsterReach for the sky, pardner! The western – it?s so much more than a movie genre. To some it represents the romantic and adventure filled past, the period between revolutionary and modern times. It was a time when freedom and industry came head to head in America, and while it may not have been gun-totin? bandits or evil cattle barons at every turn, these movies sure made it seem that way. And truth be told – we love it. The westerns spawned some of the biggest Hollywood icons, names like John Wayne, Henry Fonda and Clint Eastwood, while successfully mythologizing forever what was essentially only a dozen or so years of American history. The early films romanticized the cowboy and life on the range, whereas westerns from the 1960s and 1970s often have more pessimistic view, glorifying a rebellious anti-hero and highlighting the cynicism, brutality and inequality of the American West. Despite being tightly associated with a specific time and place in American history, these themes have allowed Westerns to be produced and enjoyed across the world.These are my picks for the best Westerns of all time, and it was not easy narrowing down a list of so many great films.

12. Little Big Man (Dustin Hoffman, 1970)

Little Big Man movie poster

The film Little Big Man was a different approach to the western movie genre, in that it did not portray the clear cut hero or anti-hero, and significantly veered away from the traditional stoic morality of the “cowboy”. It is considered a revisionist western in that Native Americans receive a sympathetic treatment and many of the US Cavalry soldiers are depicted as villains, which was certainly uncommon for Western films of the period. Critics have also called the film a social commentary of the times (1970), as a metaphor of protest to America’s involvement in the Vietnam War by portraying the US military in a negative light. The film is also presented in an unusual context. The start of the movie shows Jack Crabb, Hoffman’s character, as a 121-year old man on the side of the highway, far out of context for a western flick. Crabb then begins to recall events in his life, which end up spanning the core period of the settling of the west, the “golden age” of westerns. His life includes being a member of the Cheyenne tribe, a gunslinger, a sidekick to Wild Bill Hickok, and a scout for General George Armstrong Custer. The central theme is his adoption by the Cheyenne, enabling him to view both the Caucasian and Native American cultures of the 19th century. In addition to Dustin Hoffman, the award winning cast included such notables as Chief Dan George, Faye Dunaway, Martin Balsam, Jeff Corey and Richard Mulligan. Some interesting inside trivia includes Hoffman having to sit in his dressing room and scream at the top of his lungs for an hour to the voice of his 121 year-old character, and the role of Chief Old Lodge Skins, which won an Academy Award nomination for Chief Dan George, was initially offered to Marlon Brando, Paul Scofield and Laurence Olivier, all of whom turned it down.

11. Magnificent Seven (Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, 1960)

The Magnificent Seven - original movie poster

The landmark 1960 movie tells the story of a group of hired gunmen protecting a Mexican village from bandits, and is based upon a similar story of Samurai protecting their master in the 1954 Japanese film by Akira Kurosawa, Seven Samurai. The story opens with a stark presentation of the traditional western morality as a scenario of a Mexican village that is continually raided by the same group of bandits – the bullies and the innocents.  In a finale reminiscent of The Dirty Dozen, not all of the Seven make it out alive, but the village is in fact saved, from the bandits and from their own cowardice. Compared to The Seven Samurai, I would have to say Magnificent Seven is less dark and reflective. An outlaw such as Calvera is hard to hate seeing him as a character on screen. Also, a better motive to explain why the outlaws continue their attack on the village is shown here, as opposed to Kurosawa’s classic, where the raiders relentlessly never gave up, not once thinking (or admitting) the village is well fortified and they were not going to win. The scene and spirit of the old west, combined with the philosophies of the far east, have made a fine movie.

10. True Grit (John Wayne, Glenn Campbell, 1969)

True Grit - original movie poster

“True Grit” deals with one of the classic Western themes, indeed one of the classic themes in all literature- revenge. A teenage girl, Mattie Ross, is looking for someone who will help her track down Tom Chaney, the man who murdered her father. The man Mattie chooses is Rooster Cogburn, a US Marshal. Cogburn is elderly, fat, one-eyed and a heavy drinker, but Mattie chooses him because she has heard that he has “true grit”. The two of them set out into the Indian Territory in search of Chaney, accompanied by La Boeuf, a Texas ranger who wants to arrest him in connection with another murder. This movie did the double duty of providing both great entertainment and giving John Wayne the acting role of a lifetime in the person of Rooster Cogburn. True Grit may be one of the purest westerns ever made, a simple tale of a lawman tracking down an outlaw, a movie less about plot and more about the development of character.  One of the things that makes this movie so watchable is a point shared with all of the best: it avoids the desire to please as wide an audience as possible. All too often this robs most westerns of the genre’s essential gambit, authenticity. It’s very hard to lose oneself in a tale of the late 1800′s when the female lead’s eye-liner and coif are pure 20th century.  In True Grit, very little of 1969 is allowed to intrude on this rather simple tale of justice and revenge. This movie is anchored by two very strong themes, shared by all the actors, across most of the scenes. John Wayne won an Oscar for his role as Rooster Cogburn, the one-eyed crusty old sheriff, while Glen Campbell was nominated for a Golden Globe award as Most Promising Newcomer. The dialogue is an absolute delight. Also worthy of credit and inclusion on this list, but not added so that it was not stacked too much in favour of The Duke, John Wayne, are The Cowboys, the story of young boys taking on the duty of men on a cattle drive, and Stagecoach, which brought John Wayne into the spotlight and saw John Ford create the modern age Western movie.

9. The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (Paul Newman, 1972)

Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean - original movie poster

The opening sees Bean ride into the town of Vinegarroon, Texas in 1890, and is promptly beaten, robbed and hanged by degenerate outlaws and whores. The rope breaks, and he returns, shooting everyone in revenge. Then he declares himself “the Law West of the Pecos,” makes the saloon his courthouse, and swears to uphold the honour of his view of perfection, singer and actress, Lily Langtry. However, also being a man of more earthly needs, he takes a mistress and administers justice by hanging men and confiscating their property to make the town (renamed Langtry) prosperous. Eventually, the community turns against him, and Bean rides out, defeated. Twenty years later, in 1925, the town is run by Prohibition gangsters and evil oil men. Out of nowhere, Bean, now seventy appears and purges the town by shooting the criminals. This film is in many respects John Huston’s own statement about the retreating old west, as Judge Bean comes full circle from his days as the local law to a 20th century town under siege by gangsters. Newman had recently come off of the fame of Butch Cassidy, the lovable thief of the old west, yet the outrageous gallows humor and broad caricatures make it clear that unlike Butch, Bean is a vicious fellow, and is not about to ride any bicycles built for two. If the bicycle comment does not make sense, then it is time to watch Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which did not make this list, but is an enjoyable frolic nonetheless. As far as the Judge Roy Bean story, as told by John Houston, you get the impression that this is how Texans really wish their history read: colorful, eclectic, ruthless at times, and occasionally downright bizarre, from beer drinking bears to albino bandits, it’s certainly interesting.

8. Silverado (var, 1990)

Silverado original movie poster

This along with BTFIII are the fun entries to show that a good western doesn’t always have to be about serious cowboys (other comedic notables include The Shakiest Gun in the West and They Cheyenne Social Club). I read this line on a review of Silverado, and love it – “this film is the western for 12-year-old boys of all ages”. It’s fun, it’s fast paced and it’s full of action, but without violence and gore. The story is pure schmaltz, taking all the clichés out of the book, such as the set of brothers with farm-bred integrity and crazy cowboy skills, the corrupt town Marshall (Brian Dennehy and John Cleese each play “bad” sheriffs), the good-hearted Madame (Linda Hunt), the sleazy gambler (Jeff Goldblum) and the gunfighter with principles (Kevin Kline). And somehow it works, like a well oiled machine, through well acted character roles, great writing, and wonderful cinematography and costumes so that the complete illusion of the old west is created in a way that pulls you into the story. The four leads couldn’t have been cast more perfectly; Scott Glenn channels Gary Cooper as a laconic cowboy fresh from an undeserved 5-year prison stretch; Kevin Kline exudes his signature charm as an ex-gang member whose life changed because of “a dog”; Danny Glover is warm and reassuring as a man moving west from Chicago to help his family, armed with a legendary Henry rifle; and, best of all, young Kevin Costner, in his breakout performance, is irresistible, wild and acrobatic, as Glenn’s ever-optimistic, carefree younger brother, a part Kasdan wrote specifically for the actor, after his scenes were cut from his previous film, The Big Chill. It’s a high-spirited adventure that is fun, does not take itself too seriously and cheerfully re-enacts Western clichés. It’s the kind of movie where you can tell the actors had fun making it, and you have fun watching it.

7. The Wild Bunch (William Holden, 1969)

The Wild Bunch original movie poster

This highly controversial film is a masterpiece from Sam Peckinpaugh, in the same realm as Straw Dogs and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (also worthy of this list). The Wild Bunch is a band of ruthless outlaws, cunningly cast with a star-studded collection of aging stars, who try for one last score before bowing out of the bandit game and hanging up their guns for good. However, in the true vein of Mr. Peckinpaugh, those guns do indeed get one heckuva good workout before hitting the shelf. To this point, there is a line very early in the film that was changed by William Holden during shooting (no pun intended!). A bank employee is pushed to the floor and Holden says “If they move, kill em”. It was written in the script as, “If they move, they’ll be sorry”. The film is set in 1913 along the US-Mexican border in which the new west is replacing the old one and cars, machine guns and “civilization” is arriving. A bunch of horse riding and charismatic bandits are about to retire because they know they cannot continue the old way of life now that everything is changing and they realize that they are not as young as they used to be. The Seven have their own code of ethics and they are very loyal to each other. They would never leave a friend no matter  no matter what the cost. They are wild and their bunch is wild but there’s something much worse and mean in the world, something that doesn’t necessarily have any sense of ethics and that comes in the form of the newly emerging world around them. After watching this movie several times, from the opening scene of children pitting ants against a scorpion, to ruthless gun battles among all characters encountered, you can’t  help but think that in this move, there are no good-guys in this film, only guys. Tremendous acting, writing and overall production truly gives it greatness.

6. Once Upon a Time in the West (star studded cast, 1968)

Once Upon a Time in the West movie poster

This is a star studded movie, another in the line of Italian made “spaghetti” westerns, and is a classic in its own right (actual release title is C’era una volta il West).  I had to put  something on this list that starred Henry Fonda, and this is a great choice. He is the consummate actor, and while he played so many different characters throughout his career, he really shone in the westerns. The story is told as an epic tale, taking place over time and great distance, similar to the Lonesome Dove saga, and in the spirit of the great Italian produced westerns, Once Upon A Time features a nameless stranger, a beautiful damsel in distress and a host of villains who are portrayed with a sort of ruthless humanity. Fantastic performances by the cast, including Jason Robards at his peak and a very young Charles Bronson showing us that he really can act (before the vigilante Death Wish franchise of movies). As with the other classic series from Sergio Leone, who also directed this film, there is no shortage of adventure and tension, yet he also blends in some beautifully developed characters who really come to define the movie. This film shares a characteristic with others on this list, which is that even though the film may be old, it is not outdated. Once Upon A Time stands the test of time and is still a great watch.

5. Back to the Future III (Michael J Fox, 1990)

Back to the Future III movie poster

All in the name of good fun, this selection is here for pure entertainment value. Hey, cowboy movies can be fun too! After watching this third installment of the Back to the Future series, you just want to stand up and holler “Yee Hah!’ Steven Spielberg made a movie that is close too perfection with this interpretation of the western. He hits all the classic scenes and cliches, but while it is clearly parody, it is done so well that the respect for the genre is clear while the momentum is never broken. Biff the Bully is as bad as ever, still ends up getting covered in manure and Marty McFly discovers his Irish roots while becoming the hero of the day. ZZ Top plays at the hoedown, Marty invents the Frisbee and body armour, Doc converts his steam engine to a Hover Train, and dialogue with some of the best lines in a western – how can you go wrong? Some classic lines: “What kind of shoes are those you got on? Nee-kay?” (Marty is wearing Nikes). “Must be some kind of fancy Indian moccasin”. [Biff - ‘Mad Dog’ Tannen - in the saloon]: “Whats your name boy?” [Marty, trying to be tough]: “Clint…Clint Eastwood”. [Mad Dog] “Clint Eastwood? What kind of stupid name is that?” Well of course, he had traveled back in time to the real Old West – Clint had not even been born yet.

4. High Plains Drifter (Clint Eastwood, 1973)

movie-poster-high-plains-drifter

This was one of the true masterpieces of the Western movie genre. The theme borrowed from the High Noon theme of a town Marshall about to be swarmed by the criminals who he sent to prison. In High Plains Drifter some very bad villains are introduced to the audience as the are released from prison and immediately profess their goal of getting even with the lawman who sent them there. They do some very bad things to establish their true murderous character, in a very effective way that makes them scary. These guys rank up there with the villain created by Bruce Dern in the Cowboys. Then the man with no name rolls onto the scene, out of the desert heatwaves, to eventually get hired by the town, whose inhabitants are terrified of the storm about to descend on them. Little do they realize that they have just invited the darkest of the storm clouds right into their house. Revenge is had by all – the villains, the former sheriff and the townspeople, though they are more recipients than anything. This is the occult version of High Noon (it even has the requisite dwarf), with the Sergio Leone influence clearly visible. This was one of the first movies directed by Clint, and his talent was obvious right from the get-go. The cast also features a host of regulars who were cast by Clint in many of movies throughout the 70′s, 80′s and 90′s (including Geoffrey Lewis, father of Juliette Lewis and well known face in Clint Eastwood flicks).

3. High Noon (Gary Cooper, 1952)

High Noon movie poster

The classic story of the town Marshal and the cowardly residents. The Marshall is on his own, left to face the cutthroat “bad guys” who, just released from prison, are headed back to his town, looking to take out their revenge on the town that sent them there. It is interesting to see a young, almost boyish Lloyd Bridges in the role of deputy, and Lee Van Cleef in an early role where he perfects his “chops” as the western villain. This movie is interesting in that it is one of the first instances, as with the Wild Bunch many years later, where film makers chose to show a side of the characters that admitted to fear. At first it seems somewhat cowardly of Marshall Will Kane (played by Gary Cooper) to show that he is afraid of the three gunmen coming to get him, but only because it is so out of context with the genre. You quickly realize that this is the portrayal of a real person, and this gives the movie a completely different perspective than watching the standard Sergio Leone fare (not that there anything wrong with those!). Keeping in mind how revolutionary this was in 1959, when westerns were all about shoot ‘em up and the ultimate he-man John Wayne type characters, this movie was a radical shift for the day and for the genre. Gary Cooper won an Oscar for his role, indicating how well received this portrayal was by the Hollywood power set in the day. What I really love about this groundbreaking movie is that it led to 2 other movies by the master that will also live timelessly in the world of best Western films: High Plains Drifter, with a similar but darker tale, and Unforgiven, with what I see as some of the themes of humanity expressed in High Noon, expanded and given modern adaptation. It is a must see for any western buff if you haven’t yet, and if you have, it is still a great re-watch.

2. Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood, 1992)

Unforgiven movie poster

It is hard to know where to start and what to say with this film. It won an Oscar for best picture of 1992, and is renowned as perhaps the best Western movie ever made. In terms of plot this movie tells the story of a retired Old West gunslinger (William Munny) who for financial reasons reluctantly takes on one last job, along the sway enlisting the help of his old partner (Morgan Freeman) and a young self-professed gunfighter (Jaimz Woolvett). However, this piece is not about the plot ass much as it is the tale of character, personalities and struggling with inner demons. The film follows Eastwood as he wrestles with his desire to honour his wife’s memory and his need to feed his children by returning to the killer that, he fears, is his true nature. One of my favourite taglines that I have read describes this movie as ‘A Man With No Name’ Becomes ‘A Man With A Real Story’, referring of course to the nameless nomadic gunfighter that Clint made famous in his long history of first rate Westerns, from Hang `Em High to Stagecoach (both of which are worthy in their own right for this list, but it would have been biased if it was all Clint and John Wayne!). I don’t feel as though I have to wax on about how this film speaks to so much more than the western genre, since I think most people reading this list have probably seen this movie. And if you are reading this now and have not seen Unforgiven, then get to a video rental store immediately and treat yourself to one of the most powerful movies of recent times.

1. The Entire Legendary Sergio Leone Trilogy (Fistful of Dollars, 1964; For a Few Dollars More, 1965; The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1966)

A Fistful of Dollars movie poster For a Few Dollars More movie poster The Good the Bad and the Ugly movie poster

Ok, I realize that this is actually three movies, but for the sake of not being able to rate one better than then other, I cheated and rolled them up into a single trilogy. I couldn’t decide, so shoot me! In this series, the popular perception of the Western is a story that centers on the life of a semi-nomadic wanderer, usually a  cowboy or a gunfighter. While Sergio Leone may not have invented this image, it is hard to disagree with the fact that he perfected it. These movies are so well done, and so well known, that there is really not much that I can add to the hundreds (thousands?) of comments that are out there. These are just the best western movies ever made, period, for entertainment, artistic and creative value. It’s worth taking a weekend, settle in with the popcorn or your favorite snacking treat, and watch them all in sequence; it’s one “helluva” ride.

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11 Responses to "List o’ 12 Best Classic Western Movies":

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  11. EJB November 30, 2009 at 23:20

    Ha! You call that a list of great Westerns? Some of them are okay, but man, did you miss the boat on a bunch. Can I just be the first to say out loud the The Magnificent Seven, like Toto and Asia, proves that sometimes the parts are much greater than the whole.
    Here is the real list of top ten Westerns:
    10. Stagecoach – the one that started it all. The most imitated Western of all time.
    9. Shane – A boy, a sherrif, a MILF some bad guys…ahhh
    8. Brokeback Mountain – I never saw it, but it gets on the list because it made Westerns all the rage again.
    7. The Cowboys – Wayne as Wayne-Dern as outlaw-well played!
    6. Jeremiah Johnson – Indian Fighter & Mountain Man!
    5. Judge Roy Bean – My dad took me to see this in the theater when I was 9 – turns out he has some recdeeming qualities after all.
    4. The Outlaw Jose Whales – spipttin tobbacky on scorpions
    3. Last Man Standing – c’mon – do I have to spell it out?
    2. The Good the Bad and The Ugly -the best of the trilogy. Hey Blondie!
    1. High Plains Drifter – f’n eh! The original Ghostrider

    Disclaimer: I dont remember Wild Bunch – since it’s Peckinpah, it should prob be on this list. Consider Brokeback a placeholder.