Like every cinematic genre, the Western film has its fair assortment of subgenres. From classic Golden Age Westerns to internationally-produced spaghetti Westerns, these films offer their own distinct take on the age-old Western narrative. As many distinct subgenres exist within the Western, however, one stands out among the others: the revisionist Western.
Sometimes referred to as “anti-Western” films, revisionist Westerns offer a far more accurate portrayal of the West, complete with morally ambiguous characters, realistic violence, and weightier subject matter than the simplistic Golden Age Westerns of the 1940s. In many cases, these revisionist Westerns also provide a greater focus on marginalized voices in Western stories, featuring more judicious portrayals of female characters, Indigenous American culture, and individuals of various ethnic backgrounds.
From Clint Eastwood-led psychological Westerns to more recent entries in the subgenre (like The Power of the Dog and Killers of the Flower Moon), check out some of the greatest revisionist Westerns of all time.
It’s not an exaggeration to call Unforgiven the final Western of its era. Like John Wayne’s The Shootist, the movie acts as an almost meta-fictional take on the dozens of Clint Eastwood-led Westerns the actor had starred in from the 1960s onwards. Deconstructing the mythos around gunslingers, Unforgiven looks at the unglamorous side of Western violence–where shootouts don’t end with exciting quickdraws but in painful, slow deaths.
True Grit (2010)
In 2010, the Coen brothers decided to pursue a second cinematic adaptation of Charles Portis’s lauded novel, True Grit. Distancing itself from the dramatic overtones of the original 1969 True Grit, the Coens’ film opted for a more realistic portrayal of the West, complete with a sobering ending first presented in Portis’s novel. Like their previous work on No Country for Old Men, True Grit’s somewhat humorless plot allows for a more faithful recreation of the Western landscape, punctuated by imperfect heroes, sympathetic villains, and a blurred line between vengeance and justice, making it one of the best revisionist Westerns ever.
One of the most meditative revisionist Westerns of all time, Shane predates the self-referential atmosphere of Once Upon a Time in the West or The Searchers with its melancholy illustration of the West. Harking back to High Noon, Shane follows Alan Ladd’s titular character–a gunslinger looking to hang up his pistols and settle down.
Thrust into an imminent conflict against a power-hungry cattle baron (Emile Meyer), Shane has his long-standing hope for a life of domesticity up-ended by the growing land war sweeping the countryside. Forced to take up his arms once again, Shane concludes with a meaningful finale, wherein the gunslingers of old give way to the hard-working pioneers now populating the land. It’s a fantastic ending to a fantastic film, and one that showed the transition from the days of violence in the West to the new age of settlement.
Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
By design, one can describe every spaghetti Western of the 1960s and ‘70s as revisionist Westerns. Subverting many of the same tropes and cliches presented in classic American Westerns of the ‘40s and ‘50s, these films turned the traditional Western story on its head, drawing on more complex or ambiguous characters to propel their narrative forward.
As remarkable as Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy is, no film offers a sharper exploration of the Western genre than 1968’s Once Upon a Time in the West. Featuring homages to dozens of well-known Westerns from the previous decade (High Noon, My Darling Clementine, etc.), Once Upon a Time in the West provides a breathtaking look at the actual taming of the West, built around a power struggle over a branching Western railroad line. Lengthy in runtime and epic in scope, most die-hard fans tend to cite the film as Leone’s definitive magnum opus.
The Power of the Dog (2021)
A key component of most Westerns is the idea of the archetypical male hero. Featuring rugged, hard-edged men who are used to braving the elements, Western heroes often serve as symbols of modern masculinity, whether in the form of John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, or Gary Cooper. With that in mind, director Jane Campion chose to explore the subject of masculinity and sexuality in her 2021 adaptation of The Power of the Dog.
In the lead role, Benedict Cumberbatch portrays the complex character of Phil Burbank, a Montana rancher with a combative personality who represses his overt homosexuality. A powerful movie that touches upon the subtle homosexual undertones present in most Westerns, it’s one of the best revisionist Westerns to deal with gender and sexuality since 2005's pseudo-Western Brokeback Mountain.
Killers of the Flower Moon (2023)
One of the most recent additions to the revisionist Westerns genre, Martin Scorsese’s true crime epic looks at a little-known homicide case in American history. Adapted from David Grann’s best-selling book, Killers of the Flower Moon offers an enlightening portrayal of the 1920s Osage Indian murders, which saw influential white Americans targeting wealthy Osage Natives for their vast fortunes and lucrative oil deposits. With Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro cast as the ringleaders of this murderous conspiracy, Scorsese draws on the Indigenous American perspective of the unfolding massacre, shining light on this overlooked episode in American-Native relations.
The Searchers (1956)
One of the earliest examples of revisionist Westerns, John Ford’s The Searchers draws on many of the same tropes one associates with a classical Western: in particular the movie’s two-dimensional rendering of Indigenous American culture. Though problematic by today’s standards, Ford never romanticizes The Searchers' multi-layered main protagonist, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne). A rampaging Civil War veteran with a fierce hatred for Native Americans, Ethan’s avid racism outfits The Searchers an element of depth lacking in other Westerns of its era, with viewers (and his fellow characters) often calling into question his motivations and cynical world views.
Little Big Man (1970)
One of the first Western films to portray Native Americans in a more favorable manner, Little Big Man is also one of the most underrated films of the New Hollywood movement. An alternating combination between Western, comedy, and drama film, Little Big Man follows the exploits of a white settler (Dustin Hoffman) raised by the Cheyenne, as well as his later attempts to reintegrate back into traditional American society. With specific episodes depicting events like the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Little Big Man spends plenty of time illustrating the profound racist characteristics of 19th-century society, as well as the often cruel stance American settlers adopted against Indigenous people across the West.
Django Unchained (2012)
Having long expressed an interest in the Western genre, film aficionado Quentin Tarantino turned his full attention to crafting his own version of a spaghetti Western with 2012’s Django Unchained. In true Tarantino fashion, the filmmaker also weaved in most of his signature characteristics as a filmmaker, including well-written dialogue and an implicit portrayal of race in the 1860s Antebellum South. Through a narrative perspective rarely utilized in the film industry, Tarantino focuses on the horrors endured by enslaved individuals prior to the American Civil War, encapsulating the brutal reality of slavery with frank honesty and stomach-turning accuracy.
Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973)
After asserting his own creative vision for the Western with 1969’s The Wild Bunch, director Sam Peckinpah used his 1973 follow-up, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, to look at the intricate relationship between his two historical subjects (James Coburn and Kris Kristofferson). Former friends turned bitter enemies, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid never looks at either of its two main characters through a rose-tinted lens, portraying them as ruthless, fearful, and opportunistic killers operating on opposite sides of the law.
McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)
By his own admission, director Robert Altman tended to describe McCabe & Mrs. Miller as “anti-Western,” combating or abandoning many of the foremost cliches associated with the typical Western film. Spending a bulk of its runtime on its rich lineup of characters, McCabe & Mrs. Miller sacrifices gunfights and dramatic showdowns for a more accurate study of life in the Old West. The Deadwood of its era, its heavier focus on more adult subject matter also allowed for a more accurate depiction of everyday life on the frontier.
The Wild Bunch (1969)
The film that helped kickstart the influential New Hollywood movement, The Wild Bunch became one of the first movies to reevaluate the concept of outlaws and gunslingers in the late 1960s. Set in 1910s Texas, Sam Peckinpah’s masterpiece follows the aging members of a fearsome gang as they escape from American authorities by fleeing into Revolutionary-torn Mexico. Introducing far more violence than audiences had been used to seeing at the time, Peckinpah’s unfiltered treatment of the West amidst the era’s dying days continues to shock and galvanize viewers over 50 years later, setting the standard for the revisionist Western genre in the decades ahead.
The Harder They Fall (2021)
More so than most other cinematic genres, critics often cite the overwhelming lack of representation when it comes to female characters or persons of color in Western movies. The brilliant 2021 revisionist Western, The Harder They Fall, takes this criticism head-on. Incorporating numerous real-world figures from Western antiquity, The Harder They Fall draws on a wide cast of Black cowboys and outlaws often overshadowed by their white counterparts. With a specific focus on figures like Nat Love, Rufus Buck, Stagecoach Mary, and Bass Reeves, The Harder They Fall follows in the footsteps of Django Unchained, widening the lens for the Western story to include characters from underrepresented racial backgrounds and ethnicities.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
Released the same year as Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid helped revitalize the Western genre for a new decade. Though guilty of romanticizing its two lead characters and portraying them in a more flattering light, the film also demonstrates the tumultuous lifestyle the eponymous characters inhabited, oriented around a never-ending flight from the authorities.
The Western version of Easy Rider, Butch and Sundance (Paul Newman and Robert Redford) live on the fringes of society not because of a wanton love of violence, but because of their inability to live by conventional societal rules. As a result, they wander the Western landscape as Robin Hood-esque figures of rebellion, living and dying by the same reckless principles they rely on on a day-to-day basis.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
One of the greatest revisionist Westerns of the past two decades, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford analyzes the tense relationship between Jesse James (Brad Pitt) and his eventual killer, Robert Ford (Casey Affleck). More than that, though, director Andrew Dominik uses James’ assassination as an in-depth look at celebrity status in general, revolving around how Jesse James became a folkloric hero for millions–despite his numerous crimes, murders, and robberies.
Featuring weighty performances from Pitt, Affleck, and Sam Rockwell, it’s a wondrous film that robs James of the near-mystical aura he’s cultivated over the past century, presenting him as the paranoid, traumatized, unhinged murderer history remembers.