Top 20 Westerns

It’s been a while since we put out a ‘Top 10’ article, so we thought it best to make up for it by raising the bar to a ‘Top 20’. There’s also far too many Westerns deserving of a mention in a list such as this, and even at 20 it’s a horrible, ignorant, problem-child of a compendium, missing several important entries. So why bother? Because cowboys don’t give a shit and neither do I. Here it goes

20. How the West Was Won

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The epic of all Western epics in every sense of the word. This anthology of interweaving stories brings together true icons of Western movie making talent (John Ford, Henry Hathaway and George Marshall), the biggest Western stars (John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, Lee Cobb, Gregory Peck, George Peppard, Lee Van Cleef and even Spencer Tracey as narrator), the biggest film format – HTWWW was filmed in Cinerama for the very biggest possible image, and a truly epic 3 hour running time.

It really feels like being part of the long, slow West. And is a fantastic blend of whimsy, action and some good old fashioned romance.

19. Bad Day at Black Rock

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One of the most underrated Westerns sees Spencer Tracey arrive at the titular town by train, dressed almost like a prohibition era gangster and with a straight laced, by-the-book attitude that rubs the locals up the wrong way. Soon the town’s heavies (including a particularly grizzled Ernest Borgnine) are on Tracey’s case. But he’s ready for ‘em, and he’ll take them all down by himself if he has to (big reveal: he has to!).

18. Slow West

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I’m very happy to say there’s a few modern day films on this list. And I’m especially happy to say that even in 2016 filmmakers are not just attempting Westerns, but nailing them in terms of look and tone. Slow West is a simple tale of a young boy crossing America to find the girl he loved in Scotland, but who fled to the States in tragic circumstances. The boy comes across a bounty hunter (the always mesmerising Michael Fassbender) who offers help but has nefarious purposes of his own.

During a brisk 80 minute runtime the film expertly builds tension and sets its stakes so that by the final bloody showdown we are a mess of bitten nails and bottled up anxiety.

17. The Wild Bunch

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Sam Peckinpah tore the roof off the Western genre by transforming how action sequences could be shot, and would go on to influence countless directors not just working in Westerns, but in all action genres in the future. By filming bloody gunfights from multiple angles and at varying frame rates, Peckinpah turned a melee into a ballet and brought beauty to the ugliest of scenarios.

That he also persuaded audiences around the world to root for the bad guys is also something that should not be overlooked. The Wild Bunch is an ultimate macho fantasy writ large.

16. High Plains Drifter

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Perhaps the first time ‘Supernatural’ and ‘Western’ were used in the same breath. Clint Eastwood rides into town as a stranger who seems impervious to bullets and preternaturally inclined to violating women. He’s on a mission for vengeance; a spirit brought back to deliver justice on a people deserving.

Perhaps most famous for Eastwood’s character demanding the town be painted red (“especially the church”) and labelled ‘Hell’, High Plains Drifter is an uneasy and at times uncomfortable watch, and rewards multiple viewings, following which different shades of The Stranger become talking points to be debated long after.

15. Bone Tomahawk

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Another very recent film, and one that also takes the Supernatural route to telling its story. In this searing directorial debut from S. Craig Zahler, Kurt Russell leads a band of men into a rocky outcrop wherein hides a terrifying bunch of cannibals who have kidnapped one of the townsfolk’s women. The cave dwelling monsters are more zombie than man and are relentless and unflinching in their methods of torture. This leads to one of the most gruesome third acts in cinema history, and is one you should avoid after eating anything gooey.

The dialogue crackles and zings and the characters are fleshed out beautifully to present a story which stands head and shoulders (and severed testicles) above most other Westerns.

14. The Searchers

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The ultimate John Wayne/John Ford collaboration and perhaps one of the most important cultural films about race and what it means to be a hero. From the famous opening shot of the vast Monument Valley desert seen through the cramped silhouetted doorway of a modest shack, right to the final moments of Wayne’s Ethan Edwards stepping out through that very same door, we are treated to not just a story of heroism, but an exploration of what it means to be a man – especially when the world has left you carrying so many prejudices.

13. The Outlaw Josey Wales

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My dad’s favourite Western, and I’ll wager a favourite of fathers the world over. Clint Eastwood plays the titular character, whose simple farm life is massacred as militants ride in and slay his wife and child. Wales vows revenge and in doing so thrusts himself into the civil war to get at the men responsible.

The scale is huge and the scenes of war are monumental depictions of the mess and horror of battle. But through it all we feel the rage of Wales, and watch with gritted teeth as he pursues the villains, picking up a band of supportive heroes on the way.

The climactic showdown, with Eastwood shooting his already empty weapons at his enemy whilst reliving the tragedy of his loss is truly powerful stuff. Revenge done right.

12. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

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From Clint’s embittered vengeance to the ultimate good-time bro-mance. Butch and Sundance are one of cinema’s most enduring and endearing friendships. A critical flop at the time of release, perhaps the world wasn’t ready for a Western where train robberies and man-on-man brawls were treated with a winking eye and whimsical humour. Time has changed this opinion for the better, and it speaks volumes for a Western that its most iconic moment is the scene with our two heroes and a beautiful belle riding a push-bike in the sun whilst Burt Bacharach’s Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head plays.

This is a testament to all the people who would do anything for their friends. For all the misadventures and ill-advised shenanigans we get up to in the name of love and money. And even as the ending takes a sad turn, we still smile as the credits roll, and wish for friends just like Butch and Sundance.

11. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage Mandatory Credit: Photo by Everett Collection / Rex Features (415460l) THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, John Wayne, James Stewart, 1962 VARIOUS FILMS

John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart, the titans of the Old West movie business, come together to play two very different types of hero in this small-town story extolling the virtues of the educated gentile versus the simple stalwart as the West looks to the future. Stewart plays Ransom Stoddard, a man who takes on injustice by opening a law practice, and Wayne plays Doniphon (in the role that gave way to a thousand impressions (“Hey pilgrim”)), an old school cowpoke who thinks Stoddard a fool for thinking a brute like Liberty Valance (Lee Van Cleef) can be brought to justice through ‘book learnin’.

The film asks some great questions not just of itself, but of us as an audience, and how we would deem justice served on a tyrant. It never really answers the questions either, which is a smart move, but it does tell us that most important of truths: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

10. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

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Another directorial debut and one which a seasoned auteur would be proud of. This slow burn, beautifully shot film perfectly captures the spirit of the west. There’s the excitement of being part of a train robbing gang, but there’s also the reality of life; raising a family and long days spent sat in the burning sun with nothing but impetuous desire and paranoia to fuel your thoughts.

It’s about icons: How we build people up and how they let us down. And it’s about foolish greed and selfish needs, and that when our destruction comes it’s usually of our own making.

Casey Affleck delivers an all timer performance as Bob Ford: A mess of nervous ticks and immature hunger with a knife of deception always carried in one hand. And Brad Pitt is as charismatic and highly strung as you’d hope for a character such as Jesse James.

A more beautiful looking Western you could never hope for (thanks surely to the masterful eye of Roger Deakins) and the soundtrack by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis is a contender not just for my favourite Western score, but my favourite score full stop.

9. Destry Rides Again

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Yep, Jimmy Stewart again (I’m biased, so sue me). Jimmy Stewart loved to play the hero, and always wanted to be wholesome; not resorting to violence for the sake of violence. This role, then, was perfect for him. Destry returns to the town he grew up in to find it a mess of lawlessness and aggressive behaviour at the hands of bullies and drunks. At first he’s a pacifist, allowing threats to roll off his back; decrying the use of guns and personifying calm. But even at this early stage you know he has a fighting side that could bring the whole world to its knees if he wanted. And soon enough he has no choice but to engage.

Destry is a hero of the West in a manner that only comic book heroes can be born. He’s too good, too pure, but for those of us who have faith that the world deserves a hero, he’s one of the greats.

8. The Good, The Bad, The Weird

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Kim Jee-woon’s Korean take on the Western is perhaps the most visually exciting of all the films on this list. It’s a criminally underseen film which takes its cues from the most iconic Westerns and then raises them a few hundred insanity notches.

The film sees three men: a bounty hunter, a criminal and a crime lord all vying for possession of a scroll which carries a secret of treasure to be found. Through this simple premise it becomes a masterpiece of action cinema, in which the chase is relentless and the stakes are continually raised until by the final climactic sprint across the desert (which I am certain was an influence on George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road), the three main characters are being tailed by whole armies.

It’s a Western with huge ambition and a thumping soundtrack, and it’s real adrenaline cinema.

7. Pale Rider

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This holds a special place in my heart for being the first Western I ever saw (at the ripe old age of 10). In it Clint Eastwood rides into a town of struggling miners, who are being brutally bullied by a company trying to run them off their land. After standing up for them on numerous occasions using only his fists (and other handy tools like a mallet), Eastwood’s Preacher realises that to take the bad guys down he’ll need to go get his guns (the same guns he promised never to use ever again). So begins a reign of bullet soaked vengeance to save the townsfolk from tyranny.

Last year I visited the mining town of Columbia on America’s west coast and was lucky enough to stand in the preserved Wells Fargo Clint visits in Pale Rider when collecting his firearms. This too has helped Pale Rider climb high on this list. But it’s a great movie too!

6. The Magnificent Seven

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I can already hear the hundreds of voices calling out “Yeah but Seven Samurai was better”, and that may be the case, but Magnificent Seven is still right up there with the best of cinema and the very best of the West. A story of a few against many, this story tells us that it doesn’t matter how many evildoers come knocking at your door when you have a handful of the best, most charismatic gunslingers on your side.

Paving the way for team-up action films such as Predator, where there is no real lead actor, but a collection of personalities each with a list of traits so stand-out that you are overawed with zingy one-liners, Magnificent Seven showed that you can fill the screen with stars and still give everyone their moment in the spotlight.

5. Unforgiven

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A contender for the most morally complex film of all time, and created with this very purpose in mind. Clint Eastwood’s Oscar laden Western took the harsh truths of the West and put them on agonising display. The truth is that there are no black-and-white heroes. There was and is villainy in the hearts of all men, and a man looking for justice may only be doing so to find retribution and personal redemption.

Nobody is in the right in Unforgiven. From the overtly nasty Sheriff (Gene Hackman) to the embellishing hand of journalist W. W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek) whose writings would go on (in this fictional universe) to become historical fact and therefore jade opinion to Beauchamp’s own leanings (which were of course somewhat inaccurate). Even Clint’s character is wrestling with his terrible past. And when he says “we all got it comin’,” we feel the true dark heart of every cowboy that ever raised a six shooter.

4. Django Unchained

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Quentin Tarantino had been threatening to make a Western from the beginning of his career. It was no secret that Leone and Morricone were two of his greatest influences, and so when Django was announced I was ridiculously excited. This excitement was rewarded ten-fold by what I consider to be Tarantino’s best film, featuring masterful tension (that dinner scene at Candyland when Calvin realises Django and Schultz’s true purpose is genius) and an unflinching look into the slaving south of America.

There’s just so much style on display here, and Tarantino masterfully switches his scenes of violence between the downright brutal and the comedic with many shades in between. Every element in the film is used to evoke a feeling and to help push the story forward, and following Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino proved that he had hit the very peak of what a director can produce. Django Unchained became an instant classic for me and I love it more with every viewing.

3. Winchester 73

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The partnership of Jimmy Stewart and director Anthony Mann gave us a raft of great Westerns, including Bend of the River, The Naked Spur and The Man from Laramie. But the pair hit gold when they made Winchester 73.

Stewart plays expert gunman Lin McAdam who rides into Wyatt Earp’s town to take part in a rifle shooting competition and win the titular gun, whose perfect craftsmanship makes it almost mythical in the West. Here he meets Dutch Henry Brown and it becomes obvious the pair have a history rife with grudges. And though Lin wins the gun, Dutch Henry steals it and vanishes into the desert.

Rather than just being a standard game of cat-and-mouse, instead we see the long journey the gun then takes as it is sold, stolen and killed for. Like the One Ring of Middle Earth it is a token that corrupts men’s minds, and whoever holds it seems destined to be destroyed by it.

Through the gun’s travels we learn so much about the West, and interwoven in this anthology of small stories we keep going back to Lin and his hunt for Dutch Henry Brown. It’s clear that he wants the man as much as he wants the gun, and by the time we find out the truth, the scene is set for a showdown with truly personal stakes.

2. Tombstone

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Kurt Russell plays the legendary lawman Wyatt Earp, who arrives in the town of Tombstone, meeting his two brothers and old friend Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer in the role of a lifetime). He’s sworn off doing anymore law work and wants to carve out a career; make some money and settle down once and for all.

But when your surname is Earp, trouble is bound to find you, and Wyatt finds himself unable to resist doling out justice and protecting the innocent from the tyrannical gang known as The Cowboys.

Tombstone is an ensemble cast to die for, with Russell supported by the world beating moustache of Sam Elliott, and by Bill Paxton who play Virgil and Morgan Earp respectively. Then there’s Powers Booth as the leader of The Cowboys and the always brilliant Michael Biehn as Johnny Ringo, the unhinged right hand man who tries to convince himself he is the greatest gunslinger around, but who always flinches when threatened with a duel against his old nemesis Doc Holliday.

Truth be told though, this is Russell’s film all over. He owns the role of Earp in a way that shows how much respect he has for the man and the American West in general. His conviction is intimidating and his line delivery brings a huge smile to your face.

One of the most quotable, immersive and thrilling depictions of the West, and definitely the best sound design ever. Those gunshots will be ringing in your ears for hours afterwards.

Number 1. Once Upon a Time in the West

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Sergio Leone’s true masterpiece. And I’m not here to argue with you if you think The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is better (though it’s not). I’m just here to say my favourite and also the best Western of all time is this one.

Much like Tarantino would ape Leone years later, so did Leone with this movie set out to take his favourite iconic moments and turn them into scenes of his own. Some of it is a little on the nose (as with Tarantino), but Leone’s unique directorial style means that, on the whole, the film feels excitingly original.

It’s all about the economy of storytelling. There’s such sparse dialogue and virtually every part of the tale is told visually. Just watch the opening scene and see what Leone accomplishes with camera movements and sound design. That continually squeaking fan, the water dripping on the hat, the fly that won’t leave the man alone, the blazing heat and the empty train track stretching out into eternity. You feel the waiting and more importantly the painful boredom of the waiting, where tempers fray as three villains wait for their victim. And then everything changes so fast once Charles Bronson’s nameless stranger arrives with his haunting harmonica and lightning fast guns. From here Leone pours the same loving amount of detail into every frame, right up until the final, unbearably tense showdown, with a big reveal that is perhaps the Wild West’s most beautifully tragic image.

It’s a mash-up of the old school, golden age Western and the Spaghetti Western to devastating effect. And it’s our number one.

James is a movie obsessive with a particular love for scores and screenplays. He has written for numerous blogs, sites and cinemas and has been involved in several screenwriting projects. He can usually be found in front of a large plasma screen devouring Westerns, 80s pulp, Jimmy Stewart movies or anything by the Coens.