When talking about some of the greatest films of all time, Westerns will come up a lot. Once they ruled the film world, as a majority of Hollywood films throughout the 50s and 60s were westerns. Although the Western genre died off for a while, it’s starting to make a huge comeback. As a person who grew up with John Wayne classics, I adore the Western genre and I’m ridiculously happy that it’s making an incredible comeback.
Hey everyone, I’m Andy and today I’m going to count down the 10 best Westerns of all time. From Hollywood classics to gritty Spaghetti Westerns, these are the best of the best.
As always, I have some honourable mentions to hand out before I start. Although they aren’t in the top 10, you should definitely check them out as they are amazing.
The Magnificent Seven (1960): The much-loved remake of the Japanese film ‘Seven Samurai’, is a staple of the genre. Some of the greatest characters of the genre elevate this into greatness.
True Grit (2010): Yet another remake of a much-loved classic, this Coen Brothers dark comedy is one of the most mesmerizing westerns in recent years. Jeff Bridges had a tough job living up to John Wayne’s performance, but he managed to top it.
Blazing Saddles (1974): Mel Brooks is a master at satirical comedy and this might just be his best. It still manages to be as hilarious as it was over 40 years ago.
Tombstone (1993): Val Kilmer and Kurt Russel shine in this violent western. The characters will stay with you for years after.
Django Unchained (2012): Quentin Tarantino’s first Western is one of the best in his excellent filmography. It may be almost three hours long, but the fast-paced action and witty dialogue will keep you entertained throughout.
High Noon (1952): Tense and extremely suspenseful, this classic still holds up remarkably well. Gary Cooper’s Will Kane remains as one of the genre’s greatest heroes.
For a Few Dollars More (1965): Sergio Leone managed to top his first entry in the Dollars trilogy with an excellent and stylish spaghetti western. Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef are terrific together.
Open Range (2003): A modern western that respects its classic roots, Kevin Costner’s slow-paced western is as excellent as the chemistry between the actors. The suspenseful final shootout may be the longest and most realistic in the genre.
Now, let’s begin!
10. The Searchers (1956)
Kicking off this list is everybody’s favourite Hollywood cowboy, John Wayne. Out of the many Westerns he stared in, I only chose one to include on this list and of course, it had to be his greatest and most accomplished one, ‘The Searchers’. The film follows a Civil War veteran (John Wayne) who embarks on a mission to track down and rescue his niece from Comanches.
What I love about ‘The Searchers’ is that it isn’t like the majority of Wayne’s work. This isn’t a clean Western. Instead, we get a dark and uncomfortable journey that pushes Wayne to his limits. The character of Ethan Edwards is also one of the most haunting in the genre. He hates the Comanches so much that throughout the movie, you start to question whether or not he is the true villain. It’s a brilliant performance and one that should’ve earned Wayne an Oscar.
The film is also filled with gorgeous scenery and the final shot is easily one of the greatest of all time. ‘The Searchers’ is truly John Wayne’s and director John Ford’s magnum opus.
9. Bone Tomahawk (2015)
As a person who grew up with films, I always had a fascination with both the Western and Horror genres. When I found out that those two genres were combining into a single film, you could say that I was very excited. Then I watched ‘Bone Tomahawk’ and it automatically became one of my all-time favourite films.
The story follows a sheriff (Kurt Russell), his deputy (Richard Jenkins), a cowboy (Patrick Wilson), and a gunslinger (Matthew Fox), who set out to rescue three people from a group of cannibalistic cave dwellers. If this doesn’t already have your attention then let me explain why ‘Bone Tomahawk’ is brilliant.
One of the things I love about ‘Bone Tomahawk’ is that it isn’t afraid to delve into the nasty side of horror. The horror elements are like a mixture of ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ and ‘The Descent’, with some of the most gruesome deaths I’ve ever seen. There’s a chance that you may have heard about one of the deaths in the film and all I’m going to say about it is that it made feel ill. Seriously, this movie is not for the squeamish. When you combine this with a plot that is inspired by the classics (there is a modern ‘Searchers’ feel to it), the result is one of the most important westerns of all time. It’s the breath of fresh air the genre needed and a movie that deserves more attention.
8. 3:10 to Yuma (2007)
It’s rare to find a remake that manages to be even better in almost every aspect compared to the original and James Mangold’s gritty Western is a great example of this. It follows a struggling rancher (Christian Bale) who agrees to help escort a captured outlaw (Russell Crowe) to a train that will take him to court in Yuma. But as they go further along the trail, the journey becomes more dangerous and the outlaw’s men proceed to gain on them.
First up, I must talk about the amazing chemistry between Bale and Crowe, who are on-screen together for the majority of the film. The way they interact with each other as two characters with different yet scarily similar views makes for an intense and suspenseful experience. The mental battle between the two elevates the film onto another level and it’s the main reason I love ‘3:10 to Yuma’ so much. Yes, the action is excellent, but the dialogue-driven battle between the two main characters is brilliant.
If you’re looking a Western with the perfect mixture of brutal action captivating characters, then ‘3:10 to Yuma’ is what you need.
7. The Proposition (2006)
People who say that Australian films aren’t great obviously haven’t seen the good side of Australian films. John Hillcoat’s brutal Bushranger Western is one Aussie film that proves how amazing our film industry is. Set in 1880s Australia, it follows Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce), a member of the Burns gang who is captured by a lawman (Ray Winstone) with his younger brother. In order to save his younger brother from the gallows, he must hunt down and kill his older brother (Danny Huston), who is wanted for rape and murder.
‘The Proposition’ is not an easy watch as it shows the true brutality of man and the unforgiving landscapes of the Australian Outback. The fact that it’s a realistic approach to the genre is why I love it. Instead of clean-shaven cowboys and characters who are either good or bad, we get outlaws and average people who are dirty and wear torn clothes. We get characters who are like real people. They aren’t horrible people, but they aren’t exactly good. The characters do whatever they must to survive this brutal world and that’s why I love it.
As I said, ‘The Proposition’ is a hard watch due to how realistic and gritty it is, but it’s one of the most rewarding movies on this list. Yes the violence is extreme and the characters don’t exactly come across as likeable, but this isn’t Hollywood. This is the true reality of the Bushranger era Outback.
6. Unforgiven (1992)
Clint Eastwood’s farewell to the Western genre is a beautiful, yet harrowing tale of cowboys past their prime and the nature of violence. This is a Western that says goodbye to the American frontier years after its heyday. The film follows a retired gunslinger (Clint Eastwood) who reluctantly takes on one last job with the help of his old partner (Morgan Freeman) and a young man (Jaimz Woolvett), to hunt down a couple of cowboys who disfigured a prostitute, while also clashing with a sheriff (Gene Hackman) who doesn’t like the idea of vigilantism in his town.
When looking at Westerns, Clint Eastwood is a name that goes hand in hand with the genre. He is best known for his Western roles and he starred in some of the best the genre has to offer (one is making an appearance very soon). ‘Unforgiven’ is his Western swan song and oh how it’s a hauntingly beautiful film. The film acts as a metaphor for Eastwood and the genre. It had been a while since Eastwood had been in a Western and like his character, he had almost moved on from that life. The genre was long past its prime like the characters who take on their last job even though they may not be ready for it. They are past their prime and yet they must return while also regretting their past actions. The melancholic tone of the film is what makes it even more bittersweet. It’s a thought-provoking experience that makes you question if we can ever be forgiven for our past actions, even if we regret them.
It’s a beautiful western and one that earned Gene Hackman an Oscar for his terrifying role as the questionable sheriff. ‘Unforgiven’ is a fantastic farewell to a legend of the genre and one that will stand the test of time for generations.
5. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
When it comes to Westerns that I’ve loved ever since I was a kid, ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’ is at the top of that list. I remember first watching this highly enjoyable adventure as a six-year-old and I loved it even at that age. It was unlike any other Western I had seen at the time and still to this day it’s one of the only Westerns that feels modern. There a lot of sequences that feel like they could’ve come out last year and that’s one of the reasons I love it so much.
The film follows the true story of Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) and his partner/best friend, the Sundance Kid (Robert Redford), as they are forced to go on the run after a botched train robbery. Right off the bat, you get a feeling of the kinetic pace of the film, which helps with the high enjoyability and endless rewatchability of it. But the biggest positive is arguably the chemistry between Newman and Redford. These two come off as people who have been best friends forever. They poke fun at each other in both serious and silly situations and they even love the same woman. Their fantastic performances and chemistry make the film feel like an early Buddy Cop film. It also proves how important chemistry is in a film as I couldn’t imagine this film without this amazing chemistry.
‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’ is a classic Western with a modern look and feel to it like no other in the genre. It’s easily the most enjoyable film in the genre and still happens to have the best on-screen partnership ever seen on film. For a film that’s almost 50 years old, the final gunfight is as exciting as ever.
4. The Wild Bunch (1969)
The film that single-handedly ended the golden age of Westerns is also one of the greatest the genre has to offer. ‘The Wild Bunch’ is a Western that knows the golden era is about to end and it’s simply sublime. Set around the final days of the of the American Frontier, it follows a group of ageing outlaws, who after a robbery gone wrong, must find one last score to retire on as the modern world forms around them.
‘The Wild Bunch’ is a classic western that is the perfect and bittersweet farewell to the golden age and one that is as important and poignant as ever. Watching the group of outlaws go on the run is the definition of thrilling. As you start to become attached to these people, you start to see how the bad guys we’ve come to hate over the years are just like the heroes. They only do what they have to do to survive and are only called bad guys because they are forced to do these bad things. You start to see that they are normal human beings who really don’t want to kill people, but if it’s between them living or dying, they are forced to kill.
The film eventually comes to the greatest and bloodiest gunfight of all time (one that apparently resulted in viewers walking out of the cinema to vomit at the time) and it still holds up remarkably well. ‘The Wild Bunch’ is a beautiful and bittersweet farewell to the golden age of the genre. As an ode to the dying West and the coming of a new age, this Western will bring a tear to your eye as you say goodbye to an age of film that changed the movie industry forever.
3. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
It’s funny how the title of the movie spoils what happens in an era where we don’t want to be spoiled about what will happen. Andrew Dominik’s epic Western is a movie that takes bold and risky moves, like including the main spoiler in the title, as a way to let you know what kind of film you’re in for. If you can’t tell, ‘The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford’ is much more than an average Western. It’s a harrowing biopic that happens to be the most underrated movie of all time (in my personal opinion).
Based on the novel of the same name, it follows Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), a young man who has idolized Jesse James (Brad Pitt) ever since he was a kid. When he and his brother (Sam Rockwell) join Jesse’s gang and they get closer to the infamous outlaw, Ford starts to become resentful and jealous of him, which sends him down a path that will only end in murder.
There are many reasons as to why I adore this masterpiece, but one of the main reasons is the beautiful and harrowing cinematography from the master himself, Roger Deakins. This is easily one of the most beautiful and masterfully shot films I’ve ever seen. From the lush scenery to the steamy scenes of a train robbery, this is a film that should’ve got Deakin his first Oscar (and truth be told, a film that should’ve have been awarded many more Oscars). The performances all around are also perfection, with Casey Affleck stealing the show as Robert Ford. ‘The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford’ is a criminally underrated/underseen masterpiece that deserves to be given more attention. It may be long, but it’s a majestic epic that will stay with you long after the final shot.
2. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
Sergio Leone is a master filmmaker and a master of the Western genre (as you can tell with my top two picks). The situational focused director gave us everything he could muster after the amazing Dollars Trilogy, with a Western epic that acts as a gateway from the dying west and into the modern world. Leone gave us the culmination of his previous works with the perfect mixture of memorable characters, epic duels and jaw-dropping cinematography. The result is an epic masterpiece that is considered the best in the genre. For me, it was the best in the genre, until I rewatched the film that got my number one spot.
The film follows a mysterious harmonica-playing stranger (Charles Bronson), who joins forces with a notorious bandit (Jason Robards) to protect a widow (Claudia Cardinale) from a ruthless railroad worker (Henry Fonda). The plot may sound simple for an almost three-hour epic, but it’s the execution and characters that make it truly compelling. This is a film that has gone down in history for turning Henry Fonda, an actor who was primarily known for his good guy roles, into a terrifying villain. The crazy part is that Fonda is perfect in this villainous role. He is perfect at playing a bad guy and it’s simply amazing.
Like many of Leone’s other films, ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ is packed to brim with situations the characters must deal with to progress further. The opening, in particular, sets the tone and style for the rest of the film. I don’t want to spoil much but I’ll say it’s one of the greatest directed and paced film sequences of all time. This is a masterpiece in the genre and an epic that has gone down as one of the greatest of all time.
1. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)
Did you think it would be something other than Sergio Leone’s greatest film and the greatest Spaghetti Western of all time? ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ is one of the most iconic and well-known films of all time. If you’ve never watched a Western, you still would’ve heard about this film. It has been parodied so many times that it’s beyond ridiculous. The main theme, for example, is one of the most well-known pieces of music of all time. This is the definition of iconic.
Set during the Civil War, two men, Blondie/the Good (Clint Eastwood) and Tuco/the Ugly (Eli Wallach) are forced into an uneasy alliance against a third man, Angel Eyes/the Bad (Lee Van Cleef), in a race to find a secret fortune of gold buried in a remote cemetery. ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ is the ultimate race film and it’s the definition of epic. Watching these characters race to find a fortune of gold is enthralling! Although the story and characters are amazing, it’s Leone’s filmmaking and Ennio Morricone’s memorable score that are the true winners here.
Some of the shots here are unreal! There is this one shot that occurs in the desert and it still blows me away as to how Leone managed to film it. But the one scene that comes to everyone’s mind when they think about this epic Western is, of course, the final threeway duel. Consisting of wide shots and many extreme close-ups, the almost five-minute duel builds so much suspense that it makes you sweat. By the time the revolvers are drawn and the shots ring out, you realise how important that scene was in the genre. But enough with Leone, it’s also Morricone who deserves positive attention as he crafted the greatest Western score of all time. From the memorable theme to the epic ‘Ecstasy of Gold’, this is a score that will remain a classic.
Overall, ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ is arguably Sergio Leone’s greatest film in his fantastic filmography. With some of the most iconic shots, characters and music in the history of film, this is not only one of the greatest films of all time, but it’s also the greatest Western of all time!
There you have it, my Top 10 Westerns of all time done and dusted. I hope you enjoyed reading it and as always if there was a Western that I missed, please comment below and let me know. Thanks!