Bloody-Disgusting recently posted the “Ultimate Horror Challenge” (and expanded it) to gauge readers’ level of horror fandom. My immediate thought was: this needs to be done for Westerns as well!
And since nobody else will do it, I guess it is up to me.
As with Bloody-Disgusting’s List, this is not meant as a list of “Every Western Ever Made” or “The Greatest Westerns Ever Made,” but a “broad sampling from key films of the genre.” Bloody Disgusting calls their list “a compendium of films that we feel—in one way or another—are essential viewing for every horror fan.” I don’t want to press that far and declare the films I’ve put below as essential viewing for all Western movie fans. You can easily see only half of what’s here and count as a fan in my eyes—not to mention being just a great goddamn human being. But if you really love Westerns, you should make an effort to see all of these. (And more.)
I’ve attempted to cover all the popular subgenres and styles from different eras, picking out important landmarks, but not listing all possible variations or every film from a major star or director. For example, I’ve only included one of Clint Eastwood’s three “Man with No Name” films, the one people are most likely to have seen. There is only one of Anthony Mann’s films with Jimmy Stewart (and not even my personal favorite out of those), as well as only a single William S. Hart film. If a favorite Western of yours doesn’t appear below, please understand that quite a few of my favorites (The Great Silence, The Naked Spur, Monte Walsh, The Ballad of Cable Hogue) aren’t here either. Indeed, I don’t like some of these films below, but I acknowledge their importance to Western movie tradition and fandom.
I opted not to include TV movies or mini-series, otherwise Lonesome Dove would definitely be on here.
Now while I tried to maintain as much objectivity about this as possible, of course my own biases will creep through. Keep in mind that Bloody Disgusting’s List was the work of multiple people, while I rode solo on this.
Give yourself one point for each film you’ve seen, then find your fan ranking:
11–20 New Cavalry Recruit
21-30 Casual Fan
41–50 Old Genre Prospector
51–60 Wanted: Alive
61–70 Wanted: Dead or Alive
71–80 Wanted: Dead
On with the films, in alphabetical order:
#1. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
The modern Art House stakes its claim on the Western.
#2. Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
An example of the “contemporary Western,” and one of the decade’s biggest hits. It deals with frontier racism in a different way: anti-Japanese sentiment.
#3. Billy Jack (1971)
A contemporary counter-culture Western and protest film important for its unusual marketing and appeal to the independent filmgoer. More interesting as a phenomenon than a movie, but the Hapkido fight against town bullies is still a good time.
#4. Blazing Saddles (1974)
The most popular Western comedy, and with inflation adjusted, the most successful Western ever made. It's still damn funny.
#5. Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Yes, this is a Western. Tackling a sexually sensitive topic, it broadened viewers’ perception of the genre, and the Oscars infamously and unfairly snubbed it for Best Picture. (Crash? Really?)
#6. Broken Arrow (1950)
A landmark film for its sympathetic treatment of Native Americans. Has nothing to do with John Travolta and a nuclear missile, by the by.
#7. A Bullet for the General (1967)
The most important of the “Mexican Revolution” sub-genre of Italian Westerns (the “Zapata Westerns”), and also and a superb example of the political Western.
#8. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
The most successful films in history at the time and still a beloved example of the “buddy” genre. One of the gentler examples of the “death of the West” movies of the era—and 1969 in particular.
#9. Cat Ballou (1965)
The comedy Western that defined the form during its heyday in the 1960s. Not as funny as some of the other comedies on this list, but still a landmark.
#10. Dances with Wolves (1990)
The first Western to win the Best Picture Oscar since Cimarron, and responsible for a new wave of interest in the genre after the 1980s badlands.
#11. Destry Rides Again (1939)
“See what the boys in the back room will have.” It has nothing to do with Frederick Faust’s novel, but it has smoldering star-power in Jimmy Stewart and Marlene Dietrich.
#12. They Died with Their Boots On (1941)
Historical revisionism gone fairly insane, this biopic of Custer starring Flynn and de Havilland remains an essential piece of the boom of the Western in the 1940s.
#13. Django (1966)
A European smash-hit that cemented the success of the Italian Western in connection with Leone’s films. It spawned over a hundred psuedo-sequels.
#14. Django Unchained (2012)
Quentin Tarantino does homage to the Italian Western and the Blaxploitation Western with his most straightforward movie to date, an enjoyably bloody revenge fantasy in the South.
#15. Dodge City (1939)
Another teaming of Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, and director Michael Curtiz… this time for a “town-tamer” classic that opened up the big-budget action Western for the ’40s.
#16. Drums Along the Mohawk (1939)
John Ford tackles the Eastern frontier of the United States in this tale of the colonial wilderness on the morning of the American Revolution.
#17. Duel in the Sun (1946)
David O’Selznick tries to make a Western Gone with the Wind-sized epic, and ends up with one of the most over-heated, sensual films of its time: “Lust in the Dust.”
#18. El Topo (1971)
The striking “acid Western” that still shakes up the Midnight movie circuit.
#19. Flaming Star (1960)Yes, Elvis Presley could act if he were given a great role in a serious film. And a director like Don Siegel.
#20. Fort Apache (1948)
The essential “Cavalry vs. Indians” movie, and the best of John Ford's “Cavalry Trilogy” with Wayne.
#21. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)
The most popular of all Euro-Westerns, and responsible for some of the most iconic moments to ever come from the Western in any nation or era.
#22. The Great Train Robbery (1903)
If you want to add a point to your list right now, you can go watch this public domain work online. It lasts a scant ten minutes, but it’s one of the key works in film history because of the way it told a complete, contained narrative using the medium. An important Western, and a keystone of film storytelling.
#23. Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957)
The wild success of this action movie started the eventual dominance of the “A” Western by the end of the decade.
#24. The Gunfighter (1950)
Gregory Peck in a story that verges close to Greek tragedy in its quiet, literary style. In many ways the equal of the similar-toned High Noon.
#25. Hang ‘Em High (1968)
Clint Eastwood’s first stateside film after his explosion to popularity in Europe.
#26. Heaven’s Gate (1980)
Its massive box-office failure signaled the end of the “New Hollywood” era and is still a byword for “directorial splurging.” But it’s actually an amazing film if you can get around its four-hour length. The Criterion Collection has even given it their Tiffany treatment.
#27. Hell’s Hinges (1916)
The most acclaimed film from the greatest star of the silent Western, William S. Hart.
#28. High Noon (1952)
Originally touted as a “Western for people who don’t like Westerns,” Zinnemann’s politically charged thriller is now a quintessential Western, and responsible for the surge of the “psychological Western” of the 1950s.
#29. High Plains Drifter (1972)
Eastwood’s first Western as director, and an influential example of the “Weird Western.”
#30. How the West Was Won (1962)
The Epic. One of only two narrative films shot in the all-encompassing Cinerama format.
#31. Hopalong Cassidy: Any Film of the Series (1935-48)
There are sixty-six movies in the longest running Western series ever.
#32. Jeremiah Johnson (1972)
This Redford-Pollack collaboration created a slew of “wilderness” films at a time when other Westerns weren’t finding much success.
#33. Jesse James (1939)
The huge popularity of Henry King’s romanticized outlaw biopic created a stampede of imitators, a tradition that continues today. It also gave birth to the American Humane Society because of the mistreatment of horses on the set.
#34. Johnny Guitar (1954)
One odd movie, especially considering its decade. But then you didn’t expect “normal” from director Nicholas Ray, did you?
#35. The Last of the Mohicans (1992)
Michael Mann’s “Eastern” is more a re-make of the 1936 film with Randolph Scott than a new version of Cooper’s classic novel. Arguably Mann’s finest film. (Michael Mann, not Anthony Mann.)
#36. Little Big Man (1970)
The Forrest Gump of the West. And far better than Forrest Gump.
#37. The Lone Ranger (1956)
A feature film extension of the popular TV show that entertained a generation of kids. Easily the most famous fictional Western hero.
#38. The Long Riders (1980)
The best movie from Walter Hill makes its “gimmick” casting of real-life brothers as the James-Younger gang into a great asset. Possibly the finest Western of its decade.
#39. McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)
Director Robert Altman’s entry into the Old West is now one of his most respected films.
#40. A Man Called Horse (1970)
Richard Harris as a white man entering Sioux culture long before Kevin Costner did the same in Dances with Wolves.
#41. The Magnificent Seven (1960)
The point at which the Western reached its apex in the U.S. as general “A” picture crowd-pleasing entertainment.
#42. The Man from Snowy River (1982)
The most popular example of the Australian-set Western. It’s among the most “charming” non-comedy Westerns ever produced.
#43. Man of the West (1958)
Anthony Mann’s final Western is one of the most grandly Shakespearean examples of the genre, and comes like a hard punch to the gut. Gary Cooper beating the hell out of Jack Lord is one of cinema’s greatest fights.
#44. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
John Ford, John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, and one of the immortal movie lines: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
#45. The Mark of Zorro (1940)
The most significant film about the “Old California” era of the frontier, and the most enduring version of Johnston McCulley’s pulp swashbuckler.
#46. The Missouri Breaks (1976)
A beautiful and strange film, keeping in tone with the “Last Amazing Year” of 1976.
#47. No Country for Old Men (2007)
The Coen brothers set the new standard for the “contemporary Western.”
#48. Oklahoma! (1955)
The essential Western musical—and from the man who directed High Noon, of all people.
#49. Once Upon a Time in the West (1969)
The major epic work from director Sergio Leone, and the masterpiece of the “Death of the West” sub-genre.
#50. Outland (1981)
The frontier sheriff story (and High Noon specifically) re-imagined as a showdown in a tough mining town—on Juppiter’s moon Io.
#51. The Outlaw (1943)
One of the most controversial Westerns ever made, although for reasons people today might find a touch bewildering.
#52. The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)
Eastwood’s greatest film, both as star and director. A work of immense depth and a surprising reverse on the cynicism common to the decade—while not skimping on excitement. [Editorial intrusion: This is my favorite Western.]
#53. The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)
The “hero-less” classic about mob justice.
#54. The Professionals (1966)
An exemplum of the perennially popular “men on a mission” action film.
#55. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973)
Maybe not the best Western of the decade, but Peckinpah’s unusual outlaw movie is certainly the one that feels most appropriate to the decade (without going Zachariah or anything like that).
#56. Pursued (1947)
One of Martin Scorsese’s favorite movies, and that’s enough to place it here. A feverish piece from director Raoul Walsh that combines the popularity of the “psychological Western” with the style of film noir.
#57. Rango (2011)
The CGI animated film goes West.
#58. Red River (1948)
A central film to the careers of John Wayne and director Howard Hawks.
#59. Ride Lonesome (1959)
This penultimate teaming of the artistically successful duo of director Bodd Boetticher and star Randolph Scott is their finest.
#60. Ride in the Whirlwind (1965)
Monte Hellman’s low-low budget movie with Jack Nicholson long before he was famous is a seminal work of the indie Western.
#61. Ride the High Country (1962)
Sam Peckinpah’s breakthrough film, and the last film for Randolph Scott.
#62. Rio Bravo (1959)
Dean Martin, John Wayne, Howard Hawks, script by Leigh Brackett. ‘Nuff said.
#63. Run of the Arrow (1957)
Because if Sam Fuller directed it, you should see it.
#64. The Searchers (1956)
Widely considered the greatest Western film of all time. The height for star John Wayne and director John Ford.
#65. Shane (1953)
Praised for its realism in its day, now it feels like the perfect fairy-tale of the West, a child’s view of the gunfighter/angel figure.
#66. The Shootist (1976)
John Wayne’s final film, and very much a conscious “farewell.”
#67. Silverado (1985)
Should’ve been a much bigger hit at the time than it was, but it has weathered the bleakest decade for the genre to remain popular.
#68. Stagecoach (1939)
Arguably the most important Western: it made John Wayne a star, put John Ford at the forefront of the genre, and heralded the revival of the Western as an “A”-movie headliner. Should have stomped Gone with the Wind at that year’s Oscars.
#69. Support Your Local Sheriff! (1969)
Before Blazing Saddles came along, the quintessential (and best) comedy Western.
#70. Tombstone (1993)
A continuing crowd-pleaser from the 1990s revival. If we got more films like this, the revival would have lasted longer.
#71. True Grit (1969)
It got the Duke his Oscar.
#72. True Grit (2010)
In terms of unadjusted box-office, one of the biggest Westerns in history. Also one of most immediately critically acclaimed.
#73. Westworld (1973)
A quintessential genre mash-up, and a film that seems to get better and better. Also Crichton’s test-run for Jurassic Park.
#74. The Wild Bunch (1969)
Sam Peckinpah’s magnum opus still stirs controversy for its violence to this day.
#75. Winchester ’73 (1950)
The first of a tremendous series of films featuring Jimmy Stewart and director Anthony Mann that re-defined Stewart’s career.
#76. Unforgiven (1992)
A rare example of a Best Picture Oscar Winner that actually deserved to win. Did more to promote the Western in the 1990s than even Dances with Wolves, and it re-ignited Eastwood’s flagging directorial career.
#77. Way out West (1937)
Laurel and Hardy’s finest feature film—and it also happens to be Western.
#78. The Valley of Gwangi (1969)
The giant monster film meets the cowboy movie! And Ray Harryhausen is there!
#79. Vera Cruz (1954)
The cynicism on display in Robert Aldrich’s film had an enormous impact on the Euro-Western as well as all Westerns from the 1970s on.
#80. Young Guns (1988)
The youth-oriented Western has always been with us, but this is the example that most viewers know today.