Westerns are a distinct genre of films with sweeping landscapes, nuanced characters, and depicting a time in American history often fraught with danger and lawlessness. Westerns have familiar tropes and character types, from heroic marshals to grizzled drifters and vicious villains.
Additionally, many actors and directors are incredibly prolific in the genre, including actors like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood and directors such as John Ford and Howard Hawks. Despite these commonalities, the greatest Westerns of all time are varied in story, tone, and characters. Though many have some stereotypes and insensitive depictions, each showcases how the genre is a worthy part of cinema history.
1. The Searchers (1956)
Widely regarded as the greatest Western of all time, The Searchers is considered director John Ford's and frequent collaborator John Wayne's masterpiece. The story is straightforward- gruff, complicated, and single-minded Ethan Edwards (Wayne) embarks on a years-long journey to rescue his niece (Natalie Wood), who the Comanches kidnap. Stemming from his mother's death at their hands, Ethan is fueled by revenge and hatred that drives him on his journey. But he is not the hero of the film, nor is the story that simple.
Instead, The Searchers is a fascinating character study of how racism forms and consumes others. Moreover, the complexities of human nature are also seen through the vast locales symbolizing themes of isolation. Shot in Ford's favorite filming location, the gorgeous Monument Valley, Arizona, The Searchers is a sweeping, engrossing epic that every devoted Western fan must see.
2. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (1962)
John Wayne and James Stewart give two of their finest performances in this masterful and poignant film. Wayne and Stewart portray two men who are opposites in numerous ways. Wayne is Tom Doniphon, the stoic, tough, but ultimately good man known for being the quickest to the draw. Stewart is Ransom Stoddard, a kind lawyer who is brave but cannot compare strength-wise. His strength is his intelligence. And he takes it upon himself to teach others to read and learn American history.
This black-and-white film is not about the sweeping landscapes but about nuanced characters. Despite the differences between Tom and Ransom, they share two important things: an affection for a local waitress and a desire to eliminate the constant threat and terror from the notorious Liberty Valance. This film is an incredibly acted, moving, intelligent, and thoughtful Western.
3. Stagecoach (1939)
Another from director John Ford and actor John Wayne, Stagecoach is the film that set a precedent for the genre and helped catapult Wayne into stardom as the most prolific Western performer in cinema. Stagecoach also set the standard and laid the blueprint for many films regarding morally complex characters.
The movie follows a group of very different individuals on a stagecoach en route from Arizona to New Mexico. Aboard is the infamous outlaw Ringo Kid (Wayne), a dance hall girl (Claire Trevor), a bank manager, an Army officer's wife, a doctor, and a whiskey salesman. When riding into Native American territory proves dangerous, the clashing attitudes and arguments must be set aside for survival. This film is another incredible showcase of a Western's fascinating depiction of vastly different characters set against the dramatic backdrop of the Old West. It's also a thoughtful look at the harmful ways we judge others. Stagecoach is easily included as one of 1939's greatest.
4. The Magnificent Seven (1960)
In this film, a Mexican farming village is constantly threatened by the ruthless Calvera and his bandits. Tired of his reign of terror, the villagers seek out two men who they bravely saw bring a slain Native American to the cemetery for a proper burial when the townsfolk refused. After reluctantly agreeing to help the villagers, they gather five more men to help and formulate a plan to finally give these villagers some peace and control over their lives again.
The Magnificent Seven is a gripping, intense, and thought-provoking movie based on Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai. Although the original is favored, no one would deny that The Magnificent Seven is also a masterpiece of its genre. The characters are refreshing, life-affirming, and noble while maintaining a traditionally tough facade. And the story is equally exciting and touching. The film features an outstanding cast, including Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn, James Coburn, and Eli Wallach.
5. Rio Bravo (1959)
Directed by Howard Hawks, Rio Bravo is one of the quintessential Western movies with a most unconventional supporting cast. Lead John Wayne as the steadfast sheriff John T. Nash, and supporting players Walter Brennan and Angie Dickinson feel right at home in the film.
Co-stars Dean Martin as the deputy trying to quit drinking, and Ricky Nelson as a young kid looking to prove himself, are the unexpected players. Both seem more akin to being behind a microphone singing (and they do sing in the film, and it surprisingly works). But both Nelson and Martin subvert expectations and prove exceptional in their roles. Martin is superb in one of his few dramatic roles imbuing his character with emotional and unguarded authenticity.
The story is familiar: a criminal imprisoned for murder in a small town has his gang attempt a jailbreak. And it's up to the sheriff and his deputy to keep things safe until the marshal arrives. The performances, pacing, and direction are all notable. But Rio Bravo is exemplary in showcasing male friendship and bravery. There's no toxic masculinity here. Rather, we see stalwart, tough demeanors and genuine vulnerability and compassion.
6. High Noon (1952)
Starring Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly, High Noon is a slightly less conventional Western but still a thoroughly captivating one through its masterful use of dramatic tension.
Cooper is Marshal Will Kane, and Kelly is his new bride Amy. It's the day of their wedding, and he plans to retire. But when he gets word that a man he sent to prison has been pardoned and is on his way to exact revenge, Kane believes he must face him again. His wife objects as a pacifist and not wanting harm to come to him. And the townsfolk offer no support.
With a runtime of only 85 minutes, High Noon is fast-paced and manages to thrill without the benefit of action. The ticking clock creates that tension. The results are superb, with fine performances from Copper and Kelly and an intriguing examination of love, duty, and honor.
7. 3:10 to Yuma (2007)
One of the greatest westerns of the modern era is a gritty and thrilling remake of the 1957 film. The movie is directed by James Mangold (Walk the Line, Logan) and stars Christian Bale and Russell Crowe in complex and subversive roles. Bale is Dan Evans, a man struggling to care for his family due to a way injury and looking to prove himself worthy in his son's eyes. Then an opportunity to do just that, and receive a hefty reward, arises. Evans becomes one of a few tasked with transporting notorious outlaw Ben Wade (Crowe) onto the 3:10 train to Yuma. Things prove dangerous especially with Wade's unpredictable nature and his ruthless gang after them.
3:10 to Yuma is a definitive modern Western classic with gorgeous locales, stunning cinematography, and an engaging plot. Moreover, the characters are very layered, fascinating, and intricate, with a dark and chilling performance from co-star Ben Foster and nuanced ones from Crowe and Bale.
8. 3 Godfathers (1948)
While Westerns are not particularly known for being gentle and heartwarming, 3 Godfathers takes the basic Western premise and turns it into such. And it is the sweetest and most heartfelt western ever produced, making it remarkable. Of course, it helps when it's in the hands of director John Ford and actor John Wayne once again.
The movie begins with three outlaws who are undeniably likable but still criminals. They rob a bank and flee across the hot desert with the law on their trail. Their objective is to find water and outrun them. But all that changes when they encounter a woman who gives birth and then perishes, asking the three men to be her son's godfathers and keep him safe.
With comparisons to the three wise men, 3 Godfathers tugs at your heartstrings in many ways and shows us that Westerns come in many forms while maintaining commonplace tropes, archetypes, and locales. Suddenly, we see their hearts shine through as their goal becomes one of protecting an innocent baby. It's an underrated film that deserves its high standing on this list.
9. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
One of the finest onscreen pairings, Paul Newman and Robert Redford, shines in this film that redefined the Western movie and infused new and unconventional elements into the genre. Directed by George Roy Hill and written by William Goldman, the rapport between Redford and Newman makes this film so unique. It's a buddy comedy wrapped in a Western drama. The back-and-forth between Butch and Sundance is undeniably funny and often moving.
There are also the traditional Western elements of train robberies, pursuits on horseback, and a love story. Still, they all are presented in new and engaging ways. There is even the delightful interlude with the Oscar-winning song “Raindrops Keeping Falling on My Head,” a beautiful, golden, and dreamy moment. It's one of many moments that gives the film its distinctive imprint, with one of the most ride-or-die pairs ever to grace the screen.
10. El Dorado (1966)
Although the similarities between El Dorado and another Hawks/Wayne film, Rio Bravo, are prevalent, that does not lessen the quality of this film. El Dorado features a similar premise: after a gruff gunman refuses a job threatening a good-standing family and a town, he teams up with his friend, a sheriff in need of sobering up (Robert Mitchum), and a young cowboy (James Caan).
The premise is not new: a ruthless gang terrorizes a humble town to express their power and fulfill their greed, while the local law enforcement and anti-hero unite to stop the threat. What matters is the execution, which El Dorado does splendidly. It's so quintessentially Western in its slow-paced dialogue and slow-burn standoff, all masterfully done. Wayne is as strong and steadfast as ever, while Mitchum gives one of the finest performances of his career.
11. True Grit (2010)
Based on the novel by Charles Portis, this remake of the 1969 film takes the original's best elements and then creates its mark on the genre. The story remains the same: wanting justice for her slain father, teenage Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), who has gumption, intelligence, and a sharp tongue, hires the gruff and mean marshal Rubean “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), known for having “true grit,” to track down the culprit Tom Cheney (Josh Brolin). After some willful convincing, along with a Texas Ranger (Matt Damon), the three embark on the perilous journey through the open territory.
Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Cohen, True Grit is brilliant in many ways. The direction and script are top-notch, as are the performances, none more so than Steinfeld. As the strong-willed Mattie who negotiates and outwits everyone she encounters, she is a remarkable revelation.
Overall, True Grit manages to fly by without the benefit of action. The engaging characters leave an impression as unforgettable as the distinct speech of Bridge's Cogburn.
12. Shane (1953)
Shane is an understated Western but one with plenty of virtues. Alan Ladd portrays Shane, a man who decides to hang up his pistols, hoping for a simple life. He comes across a family whose homestead (and their neighbors' homes) are threatened by men who claim they have no rights to the land. After having their backs, the Starretts (Van Heflin and Jean Arthur) ask him to stay on as a hired hand. And their young son Joey becomes enamored by Shane.
An iconic film in many ways, Shane is probably best known for its final words, “Come back, Shane!” What precedes is a thoughtful story about integrity, bravery, and family.
13. Unforgiven (1992)
Dark, provocative, and subtly powerful, Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven is not about the myth or romantic drama of the Old West. Instead, it's a story of corruption and the power of redemption.
In the film, a group of escorts lets it be known that a handsome reward will be given to anyone who takes care of the men who violently assaulted and disfigured one of their own. Enter Bill Munny (Eastwood), a retired outlaw struggling to make ends meet. He ropes in his former partner Ned (Morgan Freeman) and a young boy who is all talk to assist in finding and taking these men out. Dangerous as it is, things are even more perilous because of a corrupt sheriff (Gene Hackman).
Unforgiven proves that a story can be straightforward but still excellent. The performances are captivating, and the direction is stunning. It's one of the darkest westerns but also one of the finest because it portrays the underbelly of human nature without it being utterly devoid of the goodness of humanity.
14. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1967)
The definitive “Spaghetti Western” by director Sergio Leone and starring Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach, and Lee Van Cleef is a wild, slow-moving, but also a groundbreaking, revolutionary, and iconic Western film. The film's framing is unique, establishing three characters representing “the good, the bad, and the ugly.” What's interesting is that each is mostly devoid of any virtuous qualities. They're all bad, but in relation to each other, we see how neither Eastwood, Wallach, nor Van Cleef's characters are on a righteous path.
Essentially this film is about the ugliness that greed inspires in varying degrees. The film stands out because their path keeps diverging on their journey to find gold. Besides the performance from Eastwood, which became one of his signature roles, the most iconic aspect of the film is the score by Ennio Morricone. The music is one of the most recognizable in cinema and solidifies the film's unique tone and style.
15. The Wild Bunch (1969)
The late 1960s was an era that truly redefined the Western genre. One of the period's most innovative and seminal films is Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch. In the film, a group of aging outlaws looks to have one last big score as they see the world around them change and their way of life becoming unsustainable. But what starts as a quest for an ending to their criminal lives becomes a brutal end to life itself.
The fascinating dichotomy of The Wild Bunch is that the story mirrors how the genre was evolving. Wanting to move away from traditional heroics and drama and towards more realistic and harsh portrayals, The Wild Bunch flips the cards. Utilizing different camera techniques, quick cutting, and a level of violence not seen before, The Wild Bunch is a fascinating example of the evolution of the classic Western.
16. Tombstone (1993)
There are many depictions of the true story of Wyatt Earp, his brothers, and friend Doc Holliday, and the infamous shootout at the O.K. Corral. But none capture the essence of the era and riveting events quite like Tombstone.
Tombstone is both a captivating film and a showcase of why so many Westerns follow a similar pattern. A gang is wreaking havoc on a small town, and it's up to the Earp brothers to stop them. Of course, the line between reality and fiction is liberally blurred. But still, Tombstone shows us people of tremendous courage and will leave everyone wanting to find their “huckleberry.”
17. News of the World (2020)
Much like The 3 Godfathers, News of World is an unconventional Western with a central heartbeat and emotional core centering on protecting a child. Starring Tom Hanks, News of the World depicts an orator in the post-Civil War era who travels from town to town, reading the happenings across the globe from newspapers. When he encounters a skittish young girl who had been raised by a Native American tribe but is now alone, he takes it upon himself to protect and transport her safely to her relatives.
News of the World features sweeping cinematography featuring the landscapes of Wyoming. The story is moving, and the performances from Hanks and Helena Zengal are remarkable as we see their bond grow to an unbreakable one. This film is more than newsworthy. It's a modern classic.
18. My Darling Clementine (1946)
Tombstone takes the true story of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday and enhances the edges. With My Darling Clementine, John Ford paints an entirely new picture of the infamous tale. However, as a film, My Darling Clementine is still a seminal Western movie that features one of the genre's frequent players: Henry Fonda. It may be the only one of his on the list, but his most splendid of the genre is thoughtful and thrilling.
The movie tells the story of the Earp brothers, Doc Holliday, and their feud with the treacherous Clayton brothers, which comes to a head at the O.K. Coral. Where the story diverges from reality is with the invention of Holliday's love, Clementine. Historians will balk at this, but film lovers can enjoy an engaging, if not entirely accurate, depiction of the infamous tale.
19. Back to the Future Part III (1990)
The conclusion of the Back to the Future saga may not be a traditional Western. Still, it's undoubtedly one of the funniest and most entertaining ones. In the story, Marty travels back to 1855 to find and save Doc Brown after finding his tombstone in a cemetery in 1955.
When he arrives, he finds Doc working as a blacksmith and on bad terms with the man who will be the source of Doc's demise: Biff Tannen's mean and nasty ancestor Buford Tannen. Marty and Doc devise a plan to return home, but their plan changes when Doc falls in love with a local school teacher.
Although this movie is equally a Western, a sci-fi adventure, and a comedy, its Western elements make the film the exciting and hilarious spectacle it is. The typical settings and character archetypes are present but given fresh and comedic undertones, which are new. But the comedic moments always uphold the Western tone. Indeed, Back to the Future Part III is a film that reveres the genre while giving it its place in time.
20. Dances With Wolves (1991)
Kevin Costner's sweeping and moving epic is not a traditional Western but can proudly sit beside those that came before. It's towards the end of the Civil War. After some impressive feats of courage, Lieutenant John Dunbar is given a post in the wilderness. He's alone and endlessly waiting for fellow soldiers to arrive. But soon, he meets and forms a relationship with the Sioux tribe, each learning to communicate and find mutual respect and understanding of each other.
Dances With Wolves is thought-provoking, melancholy, beautiful, and poignant. Moreover, the themes of compassion and acceptance between a white soldier and the Native Americans are refreshing. The bond that shifts from trepidatious to spiritually unbreakable makes Dances With Wolves a unique film in the genre.
21. True Grit (1969)
The original film version of the Charles Portis novel may not reach the heights of the remake, but it is still one of the best westerns ever. What makes this True Grit so great is the performance of John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn. The film is lighter than the remake but remains entertaining and moving, thanks to Wayne and his co-stars Kim Darby and Glen Campbell. Wayne is as decidedly fierce as ever but also much older, with a soft side simmering under the surface. Wayne won Best Actor at the Academy Awards for one of his best performances.