By Spencer. I grew up in Texas, so maybe the constant presence of cowboy culture is to blame—but I grew up absolutely hating westerns. Or perhaps timing was a factor. The 80s might have been the lowest decade for westerns; due to the lingering impression that westerns were kid fare, a hokey bygone of those carefree 50s and before, not a lot of westerns were made anymore. They were a dead genre, and I liked it that way.
In the early 90s, that started to change. First Dances With Wolves and then Unforgiven won the Oscar, reviving interest in a more modern, more realistic take on the time period. And since then, we’ve seen a number of great westerns that have embraced grittiness and given more honest portrayals of the good, the bad, and the ugly of the period—acknowledging the racial tensions, for example, and de-romanticizing the outlaw violence and vigilante justice that pervaded. The result is a fundamental divide between old and new—between those who still prefer their heroes in white hats and their villains in black ones, and those who want to see reality on the screen.
Whichever style of western you prefer, this list has a little of both, and it’s your starting point for a tour of all the ways in which this genre has achieved movie greatness over the decades.
Stagecoach (1939): You can’t start a list like this without John Wayne, right? Way before he was a leading man, Wayne was a character actor in this ensemble cast that might be the first truly great western. A group of strangers—a banker, a gambler, an alcoholic doctor, a pregnant army wife, a prostitute, and of course, an unsavory anti-hero who would go on to be a Duke—must share a stagecoach through hostile Indian territory. The archetypes are obviously devised to play our cast of characters against one another, and soon they face the choice of battling each other or sticking together if they want to stay alive. Shot in crisp black-and-white by the legendary John Ford, Stagecoach was a sea change in the way movies were directed. Shots are composed in deep focus, making this one of the first films to employ modern cinematography techniques; the effect was so impressive that two years later, a young first-time director named Orson Welles used Stagecoach as his textbook, watching it over 40 times during the pre-production for Citizen Kane. So you might consider Stagecoach to be the forefather of the greatest film ever made.
Johnny Guitar (1954): A feminist western? A feminist western. Today, this would be a cutting edge example of progressivism, because people have forgotten that director Nicolas Ray and star Joan Crawford beat them to the punch way back in 1954. Johnny Guitar may be the title character, but the hero of Johnny Guitar is really Joan Crawford’s Vienna, a strong and independent saloon owner who dares to defy the local townspeople when they throw aside law and order to push her off her land. This is no damsel in distress. As one character says of her, “Never seen a woman who was more of a man; she thinks like one, acts like one, and sometimes makes me feel like I’m not.” What comes next is a battle of wills—and ultimately, guns—between Crawford and her black-hatted rival, Mercedes McCambridge, and if the hatred between the two seems viscerally real, that’s because it was. The two actresses loathed one another. And yet that’s what makes this film such a touchstone for women on film; it’s two of the strongest women you’ll ever see on film, refusing to conform to the gender expectations of the Old West and the 1950s at the same time. The movie also plays as a parable for McCarthyism, with clever uses of the color red to hit the point home. But you won’t care about any of that. You’ll only care who wins.
Rio Bravo (1959): More John Wayne, but this time, he’s not the side dish. I still find it hard to enjoy some of the hokier John Wayne westerns (which is why I’m committing the sacrilege of leaving The Searchers off this list—and I just dare you to complain about it). But Rio Bravo is the perfect bridge between the romantic old-period westerns and the grittier ones that would soon follow. Directed by Howard Hawks, it pairs Wayne with some unconventional co-stars (Angie Dickinson, Dean Martin, and ahem, Ricky Nelson) to tell one of those classic western tales: the sheriff is holding an accused outlaw in jail until the stagecoach arrives to take him away, and in the meantime, must hold off a gang hellbent on freeing him. We’ve seen this formula many times, but Hawks ratchets up the tension slowly but surely, forcing Wayne to find allies in the unlikeliest of places and making the odds seem impossible. The final shootout, with sticks of dynamite being thrown like grenades, is literally explosive. And music historians will love the quirky duet between two heartthrobs of different eras, the crooner Dean Martin and the rock-and-roll teeny-bopper Ricky Nelson. Rio Bravo is like a passing of the torch between the old era and the new, and if the old way had to go, at least it went out on a high note.
The Magnificent Seven (1960): You could point to The Magnificent Seven as the point when things really started to change. While the bad guys are still bad, the good guys aren’t exactly squeaky clean either. And this time around, they’re not all getting out alive. A western take on Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, the story stays the same: when a small town is plagued by bandits, they hire seven gunfighters to fight an impossible battle in their defense. It was a new decade, and with it came a younger, more hard-nosed brand of actor—guys like Steve McQueen, Charles Branson, James Coburn, Yul Brenner, and presaging his amazing work to come in The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly, a terrific Eli Wallach as the villain. Real (fake) blood is spilled, a lot of people die, and you first start to sense that maybe you’re watching what the Wild West was really like. And of course, it has one of the most famous musical scores in film history. But more importantly, The Magnificent Seven set the table for the new antihero who was about to ride into town.
A Fistful Of Dollars (1964): If John Wayne is the yin of the western genre, Clint Eastwood is unquestionably the yang. Wayne was a father figure for America, but Eastwood made his name by being a straight-up badass. A Fistful Of Dollars was a first in many ways: it was the first in Eastwood’s “Man With No Name” trilogy, and it was one of the first spaghetti westerns (so named because they were filmed on the cheap in Italy with overdubbed English filling in for many of the Italian-speaking extras). Directed with broad vistas and tension-filled pauses by the master, Sergio Leone, the plot is barely there: a drifter in a poncho wanders into town, pisses off the wrong people, and finds himself caught in the crossfire between two rival families. The plot isn’t important; what matters is the attitude. Eastwood takes flak from nobody, pulling his gun on a moment’s notice and throwing shade even faster. The sequel, The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly, may be the most famous film in the trilogy, but to me, there’s something about that first one that just hits harder.
Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid (1969): If Eastwood was the master of the spaghetti western, give Robert Redford and Paul Newman due credit for creating the first popcorn western. They were one of classic Hollywood’s best screen duos, and they’re teamed to perfection in this semi-comic take on two historic outlaws. In a way, Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid is the precursor to two modern Hollywood tropes: the “buddy picture” and the “summer blockbuster.” The banter between Redford and Newman has the same sharpness and knack for self-parody that would later become commonplace in crowdpleasers like Lethal Weapon or Independence Day or The Avengers, mixing drama and action with plenty of laughs. Then there’s that weird, out-of-place montage with a bicycle and a Burt Bacharach song (that would be “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head”). It may not always feel like a true western, but there’s no denying the freshness of it all.
Maverick (1994): Remember when Mel Gibson was likeable? That may be the biggest surprise in watching Maverick in the here and now, and that’s saying something, because this is a movie built entirely around surprises. Based on the classic James Garner television series, this film version succeeds where so many other TV remakes have failed by poking fun at both the time period and the genre through a modern lens. Gibson’s Bret Maverick is a gunslinger who can’t shoot, and to make matters worse, he’s a con artist and a cheat. Sure, he’ll do the right thing eventually, but usually against his better judgment if not by complete accident. But that’s par for the course in a version of the West where everyone is out to cheat everyone else, and the fun here is in seeing every last situation turned on its head when what you think you know turns out to be another con in the making. There’s even a knowing postmodern wink to racist stereotypes when the Indians turn out to be regular guys just “faking it” so they can bilk an ignorant white hunter out of his money. Maverick is more a comedy than a western, but as a satire, it may have more to say about the Wild West than any other film on this list.
3:10 To Yuma (2007): As far as the modern western renaissance goes, I could have included a lot of worthy choices: Tombstone, True Grit, Django Unchained, The Hateful Eight. But two stand out from the pack. The first is the remake of 3:10 To Yuma, starring Christian Bale and Russell Crowe in the ultimate good guy/bad guy standoff. The story is the same as the 1957 original: a rancher with an unwavering sense of justice agrees to escort a captured outlaw to the closest railroad so that he will face trial for his crimes. Bale is no boy scout, but he’s the very picture of reluctant honor in a world without it—so much so that, over the course of their journey, even Crowe’s outlaw starts to root for him. The final gunfight is brisk and real, and the twist, while you can probably see it coming, is no less satisfying when it finally happens.
The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (2007): You might say the evolution of westerns reaches its logical end point with The Assassination Of Jesse James. It’s a biting critique of how outlaws have been romanticized, both in their day and in popular memory. Starring Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck as the title characters, the film documents how Ford, a timid 19-year-old with aspirations of greatness, came to know, idolize, and ultimately kill James—a celebrity of sorts in his own day. The title leaves no mystery as to how it ends, but the real story here is how history comes to switch villain and hero, memorializing the former as a victim and the latter as a coward. Affleck brilliantly portrays Ford as a complex figure filled with awkwardness, ambition, weakness, pride, and regret. And Pitt is quietly terrifying as James, whose paranoia and awareness of his own public persona allow him to get the better of Ford in the annals of popular legend. While the acting is fantastic, this is really a director’s western; cinematographer Roger Deakins paints gorgeous pictures of light and color, and the imagery and deliberate pace evoke a Terrence Malick film. It’s stunningly beautiful and the moral inversion at its heart—so deftly and ironically captured in that title—will dispel any last myths you may have, about history or about the western as a genre.