The 20 Best Westerns of All Time
The Western has been a staple of Hollywood filmmaking for the majority of film history. The love of Westerns still grows strong amongst cinephiles, and the recent resurgence of the genre in film, television, and even video games (such as the Paramount series Yellowstone or hit game Red Dead Redemption 2) has forced the genre back into the public eye.
That said, here is our list of the top 20 best Westerns that you should check out!
1. Unforgiven (1992)
Often regarded as Clint Eastwood’s magnum opus, both as an actor and a director, Unforgiven follows ex-gunslinger and widower William Munny (Eastwood), along with his friend Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), newcomer “the Schofield Kid” (Jaimz Woolvett), and the over-the-top English Bob (Richard Harris). Plus, Gene Hackman (Superman) plays unforgiving and borderline-sociopathic Sheriff “Little Bill” in a way no one else could.
As one of the greatest Revisionist Westerns out there, Unforgiven digs deep into Munny’s own demons as he works to escape his past and secure a future for his children while wrestling with the implications of his choices. It also serves as Eastwood’s love letter and final farewell to the genre that jump-started his career. It really is that good, and that’s why it ranks at the top of our list.
2. The Dollars Trilogy (1964 – 1966)
Probably the most famous Western trilogy out there, famed Spaghetti Western director Sergio Leone directed three back-to-back Westerns from 1964 – 1966 (also starring Clint Eastwood as “the Man with No Name”): A Fistful of Dollars, A Few Dollars More, and The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, collectively known as the Dollars Trilogy. Eastwood shines as the Man as he stumbles into each respective town looking for trouble, and he certainly finds it.
These films are exceptional. From A Fistful of Dollars tight plot to that shootout at the end of The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, the Dollars Trilogy does its best to throw you right into the action and show what it means to be a true gunslinger and a force for justice. Plus, Ennio Morricone’s iconic score is just the best.
3. The Searchers (1956)
In 1956, renowned Western icons John Wayne (True Grit) and John Ford (Stagecoach) released what is often considered the “greatest Western of all time,” The Searchers. Wayne stars as Civil War veteran Ethan Edwards as he searches for his lost niece (Natalie Wood), who was abducted by Comanche Indians. As Ethan and his adoptive nephew Martin (Jeffery Hunter) travel the Wild West in search of Debbie, they find answers they could never have imagined.
The Searchers is not only one of Wayne’s greatest performances, but probably John Ford’s greatest films as well. Praised for its sharp dialogue, impressive performances, and immaculate locations, The Searchers truly is a classic Western in every sense.
4. 3:10 to Yuma (2007)
A remake of the 1957 film of the same name, 3:10 to Yuma is directed by James Mangold (Logan) and stars Christian Bale (The Dark Knight) as rancher Dan Evans and Russell Crowe (Gladiator) as outlaw Ben Wade. Evans must get Wade to the 3:10 to Yuma train in order to get the money he needs to save his family’s ranch.
3:10 to Yuma is an impressive Western that takes the basic concept of the original and elevates it to modern times with incredible performances, slick editing, and Marco Beltrami’s Oscar-nominated score. It’s a powerful tale that makes you feel just about every way you could.
5. High Noon (1952)
Gary Cooper (The Virginian) stars as Marshall Will Kane who must decide whether to face a gang of killers on his own or leave town quickly with his new wife (Grace Kelly). It’s a high-stakes, black-and-white Western that still stands up against today’s Westers, with Cooper’s performance as Marshall Kane one of the best on this list.
What makes this film exceptional is that it’s told in “real-time,” meaning Kane only has 85 minutes (less really) to decide what he’s going to do before he becomes a target for the gang of gunslingers. It really drives home the high stakes and forces the audience to wonder what they would do, especially given the political controversy the film inspired at the time.
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6. Tombstone (1993)
Talking about great performances… Tombstone stars Kurt Russell (The Thing) as Wyatt Earp, Val Kilmer (Heat) as Doc Holiday, Sam Elliot (Gettysburg) as Virgil Earp, Michael Bein (The Terminator) as Johnny Ringo, and a host of other phenomenal actors in this gripping film telling the story of Wyatt Earp and the infamous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (a true story by the way).
Other movies told the story of Earp (including Wyatt Earp, released only six months later), but none are as fascinating or action-packed as Tombstone. Add to that Kilmer’s performance as the opioid-addicted Doc Holiday, which is arguably the best performance on his career (“I’m your huckleberry“) and Tombstone is not just a cult classic, but one of the best Westerns of the past 30 years.
7. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is not only one of the best Westerns, but one of the most un-traditional Westerns ever made. Sure, Butch (played by the charismatic Paul Newman) and Sundance (played by the elusive Robert Redford) are on the run from the law, and sure, they’re robbers who run a gang of outlaws, but their plans to escape to Bolivia (South America instead of Mexico) and settle down, as well as their general sense of humor, makes them stand out as regular men.
It’s a shame Newman and Redford only made one other film together (The Sting; it’s great), because the chemistry between these two, their bickering and constant callbacks, is what makes this film one of the greats. While it may not be all-that-traditional, it’s a marvelous time.
8. Once Upon a Time in The West (1968)
Sergio Leone’s last take on the Western, Once Upon A Time in The West, is a classic Western flipped on its head. From the casting of Henry Fonda (Easy Rider) as the villain (a new role for the movie star who traditionally played Western heroes in John Ford pictures) to the obvious influence of classic Westerns such as The Comancheros, Johnny Guitar, Shane, and even The Searchers, it’s a film that is respectful of the past, even when taking the story in another direction.
Once Upon a Time in the West was Leone’s experiment to take all of the general conventions of American Westerns by directors John Ford and Howard Hawks and change their intended meanings; he even went as far as to use the same locations.
9. The Cowboys (1972)
One of John Wayne’s most interesting roles (especially given the ending), The Cowboys is a story about aged rancher Wil Andersen (Wayne) as he works to travel from Bozeman, Montana to South Dakota on a cattle drive. But with no men to help, he turns to a group of nearly a dozen young boys to guide the herd. While it might not sound like the most fun John Wayne film at first glance, we promise it’s worth the watch.
Filled with lots of gunfights, humor, and the harsh realities of life, The Cowboys has more heart and soul than most. Plus, Roscoe Lee Browne plays the group’s cook, Jebediah Nightlinger, who will both make you laugh and scare you straight all at once.
10. The Gunfighter (1950)
In The Gunfighter, Gregory Peck (best known for his Academy Award-winning performance as Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird) plays retired gunfighter Jimmy Ringo, who works hard to leave his reputation in the dust and reunite with his wife and son after eight years away. Peck delivers his lines beautifully as Ringo makes it clear he wants nothing to do with these “childish” things.
What makes The Gunfighter such a powerful film (besides Peck’s performance) is the themes about legacy and what kind of mark you want to leave behind. Ringo makes it clear throughout that he has wasted his life, and only wants to start anew with his family. It’s a touching picture that keeps you hooked from the beginning to the end.
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11. Rio Bravo (1959)
Howard Hawks (Sergeant York) decided it was time to put John Wayne and musician Dean Martin (and a young Ricky Nelson) together in a memorable Western that is just a lot of fun. Rio Bravo is about a Texan sheriff who must hold a murderer in jail until the U.S. Marshal arrives, all the while holding off the murderer’s brother’s gang.
Rio Bravo is so good it’s been remade by Hawks twice (with El Dorado and Rio Lobo)! There are also some great musical performances by Martin and Nelson (including My Rifle, My Pony, and Me) that occur pretty naturally throughout the film.
12. The Magnificent Seven (1960)
The Magnificent Seven is about (you guessed it) seven gunfighters who are hired to defend a small, poor Mexican village from marauding bandits. The film is actually a remake of the Japanese samurai film Seven Samurai, just in an Old West setting.
Honestly, The Magnificent Seven is just a really good time. Yul Brenner (The King and I), Steve McQueen (Bullitt), Charles Bronson (Once Upon A Time In the West), and Robert Vaughn (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) hold the film together as this group of outlaws does their best to save this poor community.
This film was remade in 2016 with an all-star cast (Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Peter Sarsgaard, and more), but you’re better off sticking with the original.
13. Bone Tomahawk (2015)
Bone Tomahawk is an independent horror Western that features an impressive cast on an incredibly small budget. Kurt Russell (Tombstone), Patrick Wilson (The Conjuring), and Matthew Fox (Lost) star in this gruesome and bloody tale of a small-town sheriff (Russell) who takes a posse to rescue a pair who have been abducted by a clan of indigenous cannibals.
If this film sounds intense, that’s because it is. Bone Tomahawk does its best to shock and awe you while also keeping you invested in the personal lives of our heroes. It’s a really unique take on the Western that sparks new life into a genre that usually says, “yeah, we’ve seen that,” because honestly, you haven’t seen anything like this.
14. The Wild Bunch (1969)
Sam Peckinpah, the father of the nihilistic Revisionist Westerns such as Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and The Ballad of Cable Hogue, is most well-known for his Western masterpiece The Wild Bunch, which features an aging gang of outlaws on the hunt for their final score. It’s an insane film with lots of blood and shootouts that was controversial at the time because of the amount of violence shown.
The Wild Bunch ends with one of the most climactic gunfights of all time at the “Aqua Verde” that will keep you guessing straight until the end. It’s frightening, intense, and a must-see if you’re a fan of Westerns.
15. Stagecoach (1939)
Stagecoach is one of John Wayne’s first Westerns and one of John Ford’s greatest. The film follows a group of misfits as they travel in a stagecoach (naturally) from the Arizona Territory to New Mexico, outrunning Apaches along the way. It’s an excellent film with a tight script and stand-out characters.
Stagecoach was the first of countless Westerns that Ford shot at the famed Monument Valley, and one of his first featuring Wayne, whom he would become a frequent partner and collaborator with throughout his career.
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16. True Grit (2010)
While this may be a controversial take, the Coen Brothers (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) version of True Grit (based on the original novel) might be better than the John Wayne classic. Jeff Bridges (Crazy Heart) stars as Rooster Cogburn alongside Hailee Steinfeld (Bumblebee), Matt Damon (Ford v Ferrari), and Josh Brolin (No Country For Old Men) in an exciting tale of revenge.
The Coen’s True Grit also manages to be a more faithful adaptation of the source material and has updated the original film to modern times in a way that pays homage while also trimming the fat. The Coen Brothers sure know how to tell an exciting story.
17. Shane (1953)
The closest thing we have to a true classic Western in every sense of the word, Shane is everything you think of when the word Western comes to mind. A skilled, yet laconic, gunfighter with a mysterious past (Alan Ladd). A woman (Jean Arthur) he can never have because she’s married to an honorable man (Van Heflin). A small town plagued by a wealthy cattle baron and his band of outlaws. Shane literally has it all.
But what makes Shane so great is that it’s genuine. Alan Ladd plays the title character perfectly and is a true inspiration for all Western heroes to come. Clint Eastwood starred in a 1985 remake called Pale Rider (the highest-grossing Western of the decade), and Shane went on to directly influence the themes of James Mangold’s Logan, with clips and dialogue from Shane included in the film.
18. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
This dramatic John Ford Western stars both John Wayne and superstar James Stewart (It’s A Wonderful Life) in outstanding performances that are a tribute to each of their respective careers. The film is exciting, dramatic, and compelling as it deals with tough themes and concepts such as truth and legend.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, based on a short story from the 1950s, is one of the most interesting films on this list, as it was released in black-and-white during a time when color film was readily available. If you’re on the fence, know that Wayne and Stewart make the film worth the time and trouble.
19. The Proposition (2005)
An Australian Western directed by John Hillcoat (The Road) and written by screenwriter and musician Nick Cave (Lawless), The Proposition is different from every other film on this list in that it doesn’t take place in the American Old West. The film stars Guy Pearce (Memento) as outlaw Charlie Burns who’s given nine days to track and kill his older brother (Danny Huston) before his younger brother (Richard Wilson) is executed.
The Proposition, which takes place in the 1880s Australian outback, goes through great pains to get the indigenous culture right. Pearce’s performance is uncompromising and an excellent look at the lengths people will go for family.
20. Hostiles (2017)
Ending in the United States, the 2017 film Hostiles also does its best to be respectful to indigenous peoples, at least in terms of historical accuracy. Directed by Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) and starring Christian Bale and Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl), Hostiles is an honest-yet-brutal look at the Old American West at the tail-end of the Union’s war with the Native peoples.
Hostiles features Cpt. Joseph Blocker (Bale) as he takes Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family back to their homeland in Montana. The scenes between Bale and Studi are moving as the film challenges both their presuppositions and racist views along the way. It’s both an incredibly powerful and honest film.
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