These Are Some of the Best Westerns In Movie History
Western films take viewers to a point in time when gunfire permeated the desert air like the heat, when outlaws stormed into town on horseback, ready for trouble. While it’s easy to dismiss the genre as just an endless game of cowboys and Indians, several Western films have achieved status as some of the most revered films of all time. If you love tales of adventure in the Wild West, read on as we count down some of the greatest Western classics of all time.
1. Rooster Cogburn
This film was released in 1975 as a sequel to the 1969 film True Grit. As in True Grit, John Wayne stars as Marshal Reuben J. Cogburn, as known as “Rooster.”
In this film, Rooster is stripped of his badge and must prove himself worthy of it once more by putting a stop to a gang of notorious outlaws. It received tepid reviews from critics, but it transfixed enough audiences to be named the 25th highest grossing film of 1975.
In this 1970 film, John Wayne plays John Chisum, a well-to-do rancher who quarrels with his rival Lawrence Murphy (portrayed by Forrest Tucker) for power of a place in New Mexico called Lincoln County.
The film was inspired by the events that transpired during the Lincoln County War of 1878. Additionally, it borrows several elements from a short story by Andrew J. Fenady entitled “Chisum and the Lincoln County Cattle Wars.”
3. Rio Lobo
John Wayne continues to prowl the Wild West in 1970 in this engaging classic.
The film was part of a themed trilogy. The other two films also star John Wayne. They are entitled Rio Bravo and El Dorado. Rio Lobo is the last of these films. Although it was not incredibly popular with critics upon its release, it has gathered favorable attention over the years. It currently holds a score of 71% on Rotten Tomatoes.
4. The Last of the Mohicans (1992)
Director Michael Mann borrowed inspiration from a few different sources for this 1992 film, which takes place during the French and Indian War. While Mann did give credit to the source material — the novel of the same name written by James Fenimore Cooper — the film was more heavily-inspired by the 1936 film Last of the Mohicans.
Along with the glowing critical praise it received, the film also scored an Academy Award for Best Sound. Currently, it boasts a score of 80% on Rotten Tomatoes.
5. Winchester ’73
Many of the best Westerns revolve around the town hero with the glistening eyes or the loathsome villain who threatens to take the small town by storm. This film zooms in even closer and focuses on a single rifle.
This artistic approach worked. Today, the film continues to be hailed as “one of the best written Westerns of all time.” It has also found a place in the National Film Registry.
6. Quigley Down Under
While this 1990 film was not an instant critical darling or a favorite with audiences, it has over time received its fair share of praise and earned its a place among some of the more innovative Westerns.
It follows Matthew Quigley (portrayed by Tom Selleck), a cowboy from America who travels to Australia and endures the unfamiliar outback. Alan Rickman received a London Critics’ Circle Award for his portray of Elliott Marston. Moreover, the film earned a Motion Pictures Sound Editors Award for its sound editing.
7. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
Many fans of this 1949 flick enjoy being swept up in its picturesque wonder and for a good reason.
Director John Ford capitalized on the sprawling beauty of Monument Valley and let the film unfurl right there below a clear blue sky. The film was recognized by the Academy for its cinematography. Additionally, it holds a score of 94% on Rotten Tomatoes.
Like many Old West classics, this 1953 film was inspired by a short story, specifically Louis L’Amour’s Gift of Cochise.
In it, John Wayne plays Hondo Lane, a mysterious, somewhat rugged army man who helps a woman and her son navigate perilous war-torn terrain. Although the film fumbled at the box office at first, it found enthusiastic fans and ended up becoming a top-grossing film in 1953. It currently holds an impressive score of 86% on Rotten Tomatoes.
This 1963 film will not only transport you to the Wild West, it will also give you quite a laugh.
Inspired by Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, McLintock stars John Wayne as the titular character himself, a ranch man who juggles his job with some serious marital problems. The film thrived when it hit theaters and quickly ascended the ranks to become among the top-grossing films of the year.
10. Young Guns
This 1988 film is not necessarily a critically-acclaimed masterpiece, but it has certainly earned its place as a memorable Western.
In it, Emilio Estevez portrays the notorious Billy the Kid. The film raked in over $45 million against a budget of just $11 million. It even spawned a sequel.
11. Big Jake
This 1971 film isn’t among the flashiest of John Wayne’s performances, but it is worth a look nonetheless.
John Wayne plays Jacob McCandles, whose grandson is captured and held ransom by the infamous John Fain and his gang. John Wayne’s own son appears in the film as a McCandle boy.
This 1985 film may not have been an instant hit, but it has earned and maintained something of a dedicated fan base over the years.
Despite its moderate performance at the box office, Silverado did get some special attention from the Academy, earning nominations for both Best Original Score and Best Sound. It has also received overwhelming praise for its cinematography.
If you ever wondered how stressful a ride via stagecoach through tumultuous territory would feel, this 1939 film has the answer.
Even decades after its released, Stagecoach is still considered by many to be the quintessential Western. Orson Welles himself cites the film as a major influence in his creating Citizen Kane.
14. The Outlaw Josey Wales
Civil War history buffs will love this 1976 classic.
It stars Clint Eastwood as Josey Wales, a farmer of few words who struggles to come to terms with the death of his family. With a budget of just $3 million, the film brought in over $30 million at the box office. It has also been preserved in the National Film Registry for its artistic merit and cultural significance.
Maverick was a show that aired on ABC from 1957 to 1962. In 1994, director Richard Donner brought the Maverick world to the big screen.
The film garnered overall positive attention from critics and was even recognized by the Academy for its costumes (designed by April Ferry). The film also brought in $183 million against a $75 million budget.
16. The Claim
Inspired by Thomas Hardy’s novel The Mayor of Casterbridge, this movie released in 2000 is unusual from many on the list in that it is British and Canadian in origin.
While often overlooked for some of the more theatrical Westerns, The Claim gained quite a bit of critical acclaim. Roger Ebert gave it 3.5 out of 4 stars.
17. In the Valley of Violence
Because it has been released just within the past year, this film does not enjoy the same degree of legacy that many of the classics on this list boast. Even so, it has gained quite a bit attention from Western fans.
Ethan Hawke stars as Paul, a wanderlust man who ventures toward Mexico with his dog at his side. The film was released in only a few select cinemas across the United States, so it never received overwhelming enthusiasm theatrically. But critics have praised it for its engaging tone and vibrant cast.
18. Red Hill
This 2010 film combines the dusty atmosphere of the Western with the calculated pace of a thriller to deliver an engaging 95-minute adventure. The film classifies as a neo-western.
The film has been nominated for such awards as an Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Award, a Film Critics Circle of Australia Award, and an Inside Film Award. It holds a score of 67% on Rotten Tomatoes.
19. Jeremiah Johnson
This 1972 classic took the genre by storm, a feat most impressive considering its budget was a mere $3 million.
It stars Robert Redford as Jeremiah Johnson, a fabled man who often goes by the name Liver-Eating Johnson. The film champions a score of 93% on Rotten Tomatoes.
20. Meek’s Cutoff
Many of us probably associate the Oregon Trail with dysentery and plodding wagons. This 2010 film emphasizes just how rough life on the trail really was.
Bruce Greenwood portrays Stephen Meek, a man who guides settlers across the volatile terrain unsure of what awaits any of them. The long journey grows more tiring as resources dwindle, leaving the settlers to wonder if anyone, even their guide, can help them. The film holds a score of 85% on Rotten Tomatoes.
21. The Salvation
This 2014 western romp transports its audience from Denmark to America, specifically during the Second Schleswig War.
Its score of 71% on Rotten Tomatoes reveals that this film is certainly one worth watching, even if you’re not completely brushed up on this period of history. Critics agreed that the film manages to freshen the genre in ways other modern films have fallen short. They also praised the actors’ performances.
22. Little Big Man
Inspired by Thomas Berger’s novel of the same name, this 1970 film illustrates what happens when a child grows up with a group of people (the Cheyenne people) who would typically consider “his kind” (white American pioneer) to be “the other.”
The American Film Institute has named Little Big Man as one of “America’s greatest 100 movies.” Actor Chief Dan George, who portrayed Old Lodge Skins, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Additionally, the film currently holds a score of 96% on Rotten Tomatoes.
23. The Magnificent Seven
If you enjoy Kurosawa’s work, then you very likely will find much to admire in this 1960 film, which is a Western take on his film Seven Samurai.
It garnered attention from the Academy for its score but was ultimately defeated; however, the American Film Institute still has its score ranked among the 100 best of all time. The film boasts a score of 90% on Rotten Tomatoes.
24. The Homesman
This 2014 feature stars Hilary Swank as Mary Bee Cuddy, a woman who seeks to see the world beyond what her safe life as a school teacher would allow.
The film received overwhelmingly positive response from critics, especially concerning Swank’s performance. She was nominated for multiple awards. The film’s Rotten Tomatoes score currently sits at 82%.
25. Near Dark
If you ever wanted to see the Western and Horror genres converge, look no further. Director Kathryn Bigelow executes elements of both genres with aplomb in the 1987 film Near Dark.
The film did not perform well at the box office, earning back just $3.4 million of its $5 million budget. Still, critics commended it for its daring blending of genres and its haunting but compelling imagery. Its Rotten Tomatoes score is 88%.
26. How the West Was Won
This 1962 film covers a whole lot of historical ground in a little under three hours–everything from the American Civil War to the conflict that ravaged the Plains.
It was a box office success, grossing $50 million against a budget under $15 million. It also received so much critical acclaim, that its Rotten Tomatoes score remains a perfect 100%.
27. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
This 2005 movie utilizes a flashback mode of storytelling to tell the poignant story of a boy who lost his life in a tragic military operation accident. The film also borrows elements from William Faulkner’s iconic novel As I Lay Dying.
Tommy Lee Jones earned many a nod from critics for the mature and compelling vision he executed. The film has a score of 87% on Rotten Tomatoes.
28. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Sure, this film’s title might be a mouthful, but it is one to be remembered.
Released in 2007, the film is based on a novel of the same name by Ron Hansen. It focuses on the lives of Jesse James (Brad Pitt) and Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), how they crossed paths, and how the killing ultimately went down. It earned two Academy Awards nominations (for Best Cinematography and for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role) and was considered by many critics to be one of the best films of 2007.
29. Open Range
If suspenseful gunfights draw you to western films, then Open Range is the film for you.
Released in 2005, the film performed overwhelmingly well at the box office, grossing $68 million against a budget of just $22 million. Critics praised many of the film’s most favorable elements, but they were particularly impressed by Robert Duvall’s portrayal of Bluebonnet Spearman.
30. Johnny Guitar
Inspired by the novel of the same name written by Roy Chanslor, this 1954 film treats its audience to a solid female lead portrayed by Joan Crawford.
Critics shrugged off the film upon its release; however, it has gained much positive attention over the years and was ranked by the American Film Institute as a top ten western film. Additionally, Roger Ebert granted it a perfect score of four stars.
31. McCabe & Mrs. Miller
In this 1971 film, an unlikely duo team up and create a lucrative empire that they must fight to maintain.
The film has been regarded for its refreshing disregard of usual western film conventions. Additionally, critic Roger Ebert placed it among his list of Great Movies. The film has also been preserved in the National Film Registry.
32. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
In this 1962 film, James Stewart stars as a senator who harbors a dark secret. The film skillfully employs flashbacks to unravel the tale.
It raked in $8 million upon its theatrical released, earning it a spot as one of the top-grossing films of 1962. Its score on Rotten Tomatoes rests presently at 93%.
33. 3:10 to Yuma (2007)
Although Elmore Leonard’s short story of the same name hit the big screen in the late 50’s, it is perhaps the 2007 film that best executes the tale.
Christian Bale stars as Dan Evans, a rancher who had weathered the American Civil War. The film performed fairly well at the box office, grossing $70 million against a $55 million budget. It was also nominated for two Academy Awards.
34. The Searchers
John Wayne captivates audiences once more in this 1956 film.
Many critics considered John Wayne’s portrayal of Ethan Edwards to be his best yet. In fact, Roger Ebert himself hailed the character as “one of the most compelling characters Ford and Wayne ever created.” Although it did not receive any love from the Academy, the film’s reputation has only strengthened over the years. It has even been named by some as one of the greatest American western films of all time. As such, it boasts a score of 100% on Rotten Tomatoes.
Clint Eastwood took control of this 1992 film not only as its star, a merciless bandit, but also its director and producer.
Indeed, Clint Eastwood put out a powerful film. It won four Academy Awards, including one for Best Picture and Best Director. The film was the third Western to ever receive this honor.
In this 2008 film, director Ed Harris adapts Robert B. Parker’s novel of the same name to the big screen.
The film is set in Appaloosa, a town in New Mexico that trembles in the shadows of the loathsome Randall Bragg, portrayed by Jeremy Irons. Although it performed only moderately at the box office, critics hailed the film as a fine addition to the genre. In fact, some even ranked it among the best films of the year.
37. Shanghai Noon
This wacky adventure somehow managed to blend the rowdy elements of the Wild West with the grace and calculation of martial arts.
Jackie Chan plays Chon Wang, a Chinese native whose eyes are set on beautiful Princess Pei Pei (portrayed by Lucy Liu) — that is, until she is whisked away to the United States. Wang embarks on a journey to save her. The film has a score of 77% on Rotten Tomatoes.
38. The Horse Whisperer
So many Westerns focus on the cowboys, but what about the horses that so generously ride them across dusty highways in the scorching heat? This 1998 film gives the equines the attention they deserve.
Robert Redford stars as Tom Booker, a horse trainer whose goal is to guide a girl and her horse through the healing process after tragedy strikes. Some critics had mixed feelings about the ending but conceded that its sweeping scenery more than compensates. It holds a score of 74% on Rotten Tomatoes.
This film not only takes place in a vibrant Bolivian village, it was also shot in several places throughout the country.
While critics wavered in their opinions, many agree that its stunning cinematography made up for many of the screenplay’s shortcomings. It holds a score of 75% on Rotten Tomatoes.
Many films have attempted to capture what went down in the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Perhaps none do it with as much fervor and skill as the 1993 film “Tombstone”.
It performed fairly well at the box office, grossing over $56 million against a $25 million budget. In fact, it is still considered one of the top grossing Western films since 1979. It holds a score of 73% on Rotten Tomatoes.
41. The Wild Bunch
Experience nostalgia through the eyes of a group of weathered outlaws in this 1969 film.
The film was nominated for two Academy Awards–for Best Musical Score and Best Original Screenplay. The American Film Institute named it the sixth best Western film of all time. It has a perfect score on Rotten Tomatoes.
42. A Fistful of Dollars
This 1964 film set the bar high for all spaghetti westerns to follow it.
Clint Eastwood enjoys the limelight for the first time in his career as Joe the Stranger. The film was initially released in Italy, where it outperformed all other Italian films of its time. When it was released in the United States in 1967, it was well-received by audiences, although critics were more cynical. However, the film’s reputation has improved vastly over the years. In fact, it has been credited with revitalizing the genre.
43. The Shootist
This 1976 film takes on a more somber tone than some other films in the genre–and it succeeds.
In it, John Wayne stars as J.B. Book, a skilled gunfighter who is ready to succumb to his illness, leaving a glittering legacy behind. The American Film Institute ranked it as its best Western film of all time. The film was also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Art Direction. It holds a score of 95% on Rotten Tomatoes.
44. Once Upon a Time in the West
Italian director Sergio Leone delivers a compelling tale in this 1968 film.
The film offers all that fans of the genre have come to expect: festering tension, boisterous gunfights, and a beautiful woman in need of a hero. The film frequently ranks as one of the best of all times. Its Rotten Tomatoes score is 98%.
45. Fort Apache
John Wayne and Henry Fonda come together to deliver exceptional performances in this 1948 film.
The American Film Institute recognized it as a top Western. It also earned awards at the Locarno International Film Festival.
46. Dances with Wolves
Based on Michael Blake’s novel of the same name, this 1990 film stars Kevin Costner as Lieutenant John J. Dunbar who grows close with Lakota Indians.
The film scored seven Academy Awards and is among just three Western films to ever win Best Picture. Perhaps most impressive, the film came to existence on a budget of just $22 million and grossed well over $400 million.
47. Django Unchained
In 2012, Quentin Tarantino brought the world of cinema this spaghetti Western with a twist.
Classified as a revisionist Western, this film stars Jamie Foxx as Django Freeman, a man who escaped slavery and is on a journey to rescue his wife from a different plantation. The robust $100 million budget went a long way, as the film grossed over $425 million. It earned five Academy Award nominations and won for Best Original Screenplay.
48. Blazing Saddles
Mel Brooks directed, starred in, and assisted in writing this 1974 comedy.
Cleavon Little stars as Sheriff Bart, a black man who finds himself out of place in his little frontier town. The film survived on a budget just under $3 million and raked in $119.6 million. It also scored three Academy Award nominations.
49. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Sergio Leone continued to invigorate the genre with this 1966 film. It follows some gunmen who are on the hunt for a buried fortune.
The film grossed well over $25 million even though its budget did not exceed $2 million. Like many of Leone’s work, it has been praised and hailed as a model for the Western genre.
Critics often cite “Shane” when they point to Westerns whose directors took full advantage of their setting’s landscape.
The 1953 films centers around a gunfighter who attempts to live a quiet life with the ones he loves, only to have it erupt around him in conflict and gunfire. The American Film Institute ranked it in third place on its Top 10 list of Westerns.
51. For a Few Dollars More
Clint Eastwood stars as a “Man with No Name” in this 1965 film.
The film’s budget was just $600,000; it grossed $15 million. One historian, Richard Schickel, argued that Clint Eastwood performed his best here.
52. Pale Rider
It’s one steadfast minister against a mining giant in this 1985 classic.
With a budget just under $7 million, it raked in $41 million. The film has been named one of the most successful Westerns of the ’80s.
53. True Grit (2010)
This Coen Brothers film stars Jeff Bridges as a rugged deputy who seeks justice for a teen whose father was brutally murdered. It is a reboot of the 1969 film.
The film boasted an astonishing 10 Academy Awards nominations. While it did not take any of the awards, “True Grit” has endured as a modern Western classic. It boasts a score of 96% on Rotten Tomatoes.
54. High Plains Drifter
In this 1973 film, Clint Eastwood portrays a mysterious man who enters a small town with the intention of staving off outlaws and maintaining order.
The film has been recognized by the American Film Institute as a notable top Western film. It also holds a score of 96% on Rotten Tomatoes.
55. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
This final film, released in 1948, stars the legendary Humphrey Bogart as Fred Dobbs, a man who races to Mexico with Bob Curtin (portrayed by Tim Holt) in pursuit of gold.
If you found the scenes that take place in the streets to be particularly vibrant and authentic, that is because these scenes were actually shot in Mexico. The film shined at the Academy Awards. Although it lost in the Best Picture category, it did reap plenty of acclaim for its actors and director. John Huston earned two Academy Awards for his work: for Directing and for Writing Adapted Screenplay. Moreover, Walter Huston was honored by the Academy in the Best Supporting Actor category — and he won. Walter Huston was the director’s father, and they were the first father-son duo to receive Academy Awards.
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