| October 27, 2017

Movies, Travel & Leisure

The Best Western Movies Ever Made

best western movies ever made

Few figures in history have had as powerful an impact on American masculinity as the cowboy. While the mythologization of the cowboy began all the way back in the late 1800s with dime novels and Wild West shows, it wasn’t until the advent of twentieth century cinema that the cowboy cemented his place as an icon of manliness. In the same may the myths of the Greeks and the legends of the Vikings espoused certain ideals and inspired men of the past, Western films contain lessons in heroism, epic adventure, and meditations on the line between good and evil. They form a fun, ponderous, sometimes contradictory, undeniably indelible, and thoroughly American canon on what it means to live with honor and be a tough, gritty, self-reliant man.

With that in mind, a few years ago we published a list of what we deemed to be the 17 best Western films. Of course readers chimed in that we had inevitably left out a few fan favorites. So a couple years later we did another list of more than a dozen films that readers recommended. Even then, there were a few more that just had to be added in. So for your reading convenience we combined those first two lists and included a handful more to give you the ultimate guide to the greatest Western films ever made. Enjoy!

High Noon

high noon movie old western gary cooper walking downtown

High Noon is film about being torn between duty and love and standing up for what you believe in, even when everyone else abandons you. Gary Cooper plays Will Kane, a town marshal from New Mexico, who settles down with his pacifist Quaker wife (played by Grace Kelly, one of your grandpa’s babes). Kane’s plans to retire to a peaceful life are interrupted after he gets word that a former gunslinger is coming in on the noon train to settle an old score with him. His wife pleads with him to leave town, but Kane knows he can’t. He has a duty to defend the town and his honor. Will finds himself alone in the battle as everyone in town, including his deputy sheriff, have turned away from him. The tension builds, leading up to the final gun battle — the quintessential mano-a-mano showdown that historians say rarely actually happened in the Old West, but has become an indelible part of popular culture.

Best line: “Don’t shove me Harv. I’m tired of being shoved.”

3:10 To Yuma (1957)

3:10 to yuma 1957 western movie poster

Small-time, down-on-his-luck rancher Dan Evans needs to do something to keep food on the table for his family. So when a stagecoach company offers $200 to transport the outlaw Ben Wade to Contention City in order to put him on the 3:10 train to court, Evans volunteers. But Wade’s gang has other plans, and their journey is fraught with danger at every turn. As often happens in Westerns, the demarcation between good and bad becomes a little blurred.

Originally based on a short story by great Western writer Elmore Leonard, 3:10 To Yuma was selected in 2012 to be part of the National Film Registry because of its cultural significance.

Best line: “What are you squeezin’ that watch for? Squeezin’ that watch ain’t gonna stop time.”

Stagecoach

stagecoach old western movie film john wayne with rifle

This is the movie that made John Wayne a star and set the standard for all subsequent Westerns (some would say it set the standard for all 20th century cinema). Directed by the legendary John Ford and shot on scene in Monument Park, Stagecoach follows a group of nine strangers as they cross dangerous Apache territory in — you guessed it — a stagecoach. All of the characters have their own personal demons that they’re running from and the journey through the treacherous Apache territory in many ways serves as a symbolic road to redemption for each of them. The acting and screenplay is top notch. Despite being filmed in 1939, the movie is still fresh and engaging. Be on the lookout for the epic chase scene featuring one of the most famous movie stunts of all time performed by Yakima Canutt.

Best line: “Well, there are some things a man just can’t run away from.”

Open Range

open range kevin costner robert duvall western movie

Made in 2003, many commenters on our original list of movies noted this film as their favorite modern Western. Starring genre regulars Robert Duvall and Kevin Costner, the plot is fairly familiar: Boss (Duvall) embarks on a long cattle drive with his crew, which includes Charley White (Costner), a Civil War vet. They stop near the town of Harmonville to resupply, which is controlled by the ruthless land baron Denton Baxter. When one of the cowhands doesn’t return, Boss and Charley depart from the herd to go investigate, and run into some local trouble. Even though the plot is somewhat expected, the action and acting are no less spectacular, with the final gunfight being called one of the best of all time by Guns & Ammo magazine. That right there should be enough to convince you of Open Range’s inclusion on this list.

Best line: “We come for justice, not vengeance. Now them is two different things.”

Broken Arrow

james stewart broken arrow western movie poster

Based on historical characters, but dramatized and fictionalized, of course, this film stars James Stewart as Tom Jeffords, an Army scout and Indian agent who was instrumental in making peace with Chief Cochise and the Apache people. After saving a young Indian boy, Jeffords learns the language and customs of the Apache, and then attempts negotiating for the safe passage of mail riders who are frequently ambushed. He makes a deal, but not everyone agrees with it. Both settlers and Indians are miffed, and it may cost Jeffords everything he holds dear. Broken Arrow was the first Western that took a sympathetic view towards American Indians.

Best line: “To talk of peace is not hard. To live it is very hard.”

The Searchers

searchers old western movie film john wayne carrying woman

In this film, also directed by John Ford, John Wayne gives the most intense acting performance of his career as the dark and vengeful Ethan Edwards, a man who vows to kill the Comanche raiders who murdered his beloved sister-in-law and brother, and took captive two of their daughters. Wayne does a fantastic job in embodying a conflicted, complex man whose racism and desire for revenge sets up a situation far more morally ambiguous than Cowboys vs. Indians.

Best line: “That’ll be the day.”

My Darling Clementine

my darling clementine western movie poster john ford

Another John Ford film. This one stars Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp in the period leading up to the gunfight at the OK Corral. Earp and two of his brothers ride into the town of Tombstone, leaving brother James behind to watch the cattle herd. Finding the town mired in lawlessness and without a marshal, Wyatt is the only man willing to handle a dangerous Indian in town. Upon returning to the herd, James is dead and the cattle are stolen. Wyatt vows revenge, and stays in Tombstone as the marshal until the perpetrators are found. You can’t be without a love interest, so along the way a gal named Clementine Carter (Linda Darnell) arrives in town and stays in the same hotel as Earp. As with most great Westerns, both sparks and bullets fly in this film.

Best line: “When ya pull a gun, kill a man.”

Lonesome Dove

lonesome dove tv miniseries robert duvall

Technically this isn’t a movie, but rather a TV mini-series, but I don’t care. Lonesome Dove is a Western every man should see. Even if you don’t like Westerns, you’ll love Lonesome Dove. Its themes of friendship, regret, and love will resonate with any man. The action scenes are just icing on the cake. Based on one of the best books of all-time, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Larry McMurtryLonesome Dove follows two retired Texas Rangers — Augustus McCrae (Robert Duvall) and Woodrow Call (Tommy Lee Jones) — as they lead a cattle drive from South Texas all the way to Montana. The production on Lonesome Dove isbar none, the best in Western cinema. The costumes, the locations, even the way the characters speak make you feel like you’ve been plopped on a horse in 1876 America. But what really separates Lonesome Dove from the rest of the Westerns on this list (and I’d go as far as saying most movies ever made) are the characters. Thanks to top-notch writing and acting, Lonesome Dove is one of those rare movies that makes you feel like its fictional characters are real life people. Not only that, you feel like old friends with them by the end. You’ll cheer their triumphs and bawl your eyes out when tragedy strikes. Do yourself a favor and rent the complete series and watch it. You’ll be a better man for it.

Best line: “It ain’t dying I’m talking about, it’s living.”

McLintock!

mclintock john wayne western movie poster

George Washington McLintock, “GW” to friends and foes alike (played by John Wayne), is an aging and wealthy self-made rancher. He has eagerly awaited the return of his daughter Becky, who’s been away at school for the last couple years. To his surprise, though, his wife Katherine, who left GW after suspecting adultery, has also returned. And she’s intent on taking their daughter back to the state capital with her. That’s not the only drama, of course. There are shady bureaucrats, Indians on the verge of forced relocation, plenty of brawls and gunfire, and one of the last and most memorable scenes of cinematic wife spanking.

Best line: “You have to be a man first before you’re a gentleman.”

Unforgiven

unforgiven western movie film riding horses

Cinema often glorifies the Old West as a mythic time when good guys wore white and the bad ones wore black. In Unforgiven, director/actor/producer Clint Eastwood shines a light on the dark, violent, and morally ambiguous aspects of life in frontier America. Clint Eastwood plays William Munny, a once notorious and violent killer. Now, he’s just a quiet and tired farmer who is a devoted father still mourning his dead wife. But Will’s old life comes back to haunt him when he’s asked to do a hit on a cowboy who slashed the face of a prostitute. Will is transplanted from his farm in Kansas to a town in Wyoming where he meets Sheriff Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman), a mean son-of-a-bitch who is determined to not let the hit go down, no matter what it takes. Hold onto your hats, partners, this isn’t your grandpa’s Western.

Best line: “Hell of a thing, killing a man. You take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.”

No Country For Old Men

no country for old men modern western poster

While not fitting neatly into the Western genre, this 2007 thriller definitely has the dusty, country grit that comes with the other films on the list. It won that year’s Academy Award for Best Picture, and features one of the scariest villains (Javier Bardem) of all-time.

Set in 1980, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) finds two million dollars, along with a slew of dead Mexicans, in a desert drug deal gone wrong. He takes the money, but is tracked by hitman Anton Chigurh (Bardem), so he sends his wife away to her mother’s house. On the run, Moss finds himself in trouble at every turn, and reluctantly accepts the help of both his wife and Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones). Gunfights, games of chance, aging lawmen — this film really does carry all the elements of a Western, but with the twist of the modern thriller. In staying with the genre, it may not have a neat and tidy ending, but it’s one that leaves you satisfied with the story. The book is great too.

Best line: “I always figured when I got older, God would sorta come inta my life somehow. And he didn’t. I don’t blame him. If I was him I would have the same opinion of me that he does.”

Shane

This is a great sheepdog movie. A quiet gunslinger who is trying to escape his past befriends a pioneer family that has settled out west. He attempts to settle down and become a hired hand to the family, but the ranchers who want to drive cattle through the homesteaders’ property are attempting to push them out. Shane tries to stay out of the disputes, but keeps being drawn in and is finally compelled to put his six shooter back on to protect his adoptive family. Perhaps the most touching part of the movie is the relationship Shane develops with the farmer’s son.

Best line: “A gun is a tool, Marian; no better or no worse than any other tool: an axe, a shovel, or anything. A gun is as good or as bad as the man using it. Remember that.”

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

good bad ugly clint eastwood standing with blanket around shoulders

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is the last in Sergio Leone’s trilogy of “spaghetti westerns.” Despite being the last, it has come to stand on its own. Even if you haven’t seen the film, you probably know something about it. Most likely you’ve heard the iconic theme song with its spooky “wha wha wha” shouts. And you’ve probably seen images and scenes of Clint Eastwood wearing a poncho and smoking a cigar. The film follows three cowboys during the Civil War who try to double cross each other in search of Confederate gold. There’s not much of a deep message in this film. It’s just a lot of fun to watch.

Best line: “When you have to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk.”

The Ox-Bow Incident

ox bow incident movie hanging on a tree

Based on the best-selling novel of the same name (which is marvelous in its own right), this 1943 Academy Award-nominated movie fell more into the Western noir side of the genre than your classic gunslinging action flick. Henry Fonda and Dana Andrews star as two drifters passing through a small town, in which a rancher has just been murdered and had his cattle stolen. The townspeople are outraged and form a posse (which includes our drifters) to go catch the murdering rustlers. The angry group catches up with three men who are in possession of the stolen cattle, claiming they were purchased on the up and up. About half the posse is willing to wait for a judge to make some sort of ruling, while the other half is ready to hang the supposed thieves then and there. Does groupthink win the day, or will reason have the last word? There’s not much action here, but the questions asked, and answered, remain remarkably relevant even 75 years later.

Best line: “Law is a lot more than words you put in a book, or judges or lawyers or sheriffs you hire to carry it out. It’s everything people ever have found out about justice and what’s right and wrong. It’s the very conscience of humanity. There can’t be any such thing as civilization unless people have a conscience, because if people touch God anywhere, where is it except through their conscience? And what is anybody’s conscience except a little piece of the conscience of all men that ever lived?” 

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

butch cassidy and the sundance kid western movie

Based loosely on the real lives of Western outlaws Robert LeRoy Parker (aka Butch Cassidy) and Harry Longabaugh (aka the Sundance Kid), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a classic movie about two buddies trying to make it in a changing world. What’s funny about this flick is that you forget that these guys were hardened criminals who robbed banks and trains for a living. The easygoing charm Robert Redford and Paul Newman bring to their roles makes you like the characters despite their choice of profession. Their clever hijinks and humor make the movie an enjoyable ride.

Best line: “Rules? In a knife fight? No rules!”

The Sons of Katie Elder

sons of katie elder western movie poster john wayne

Another John Wayne classic, this one co-starring Dean Martin. Katie Elder had four adult sons: John (Wayne) — an (in)famous gunman, Tom (Martin) — a professional gambler, as well as Bud and Matt. The brothers meet up at their mother’s funeral, bemoaning the fact that they shouldn’t have neglected her like they did. They’d like to re-take the family ranch, which has been nefariously seized by one of the townspeople. As you can imagine, plenty of ruckus ensues, and the Elder brothers do all they can to make their dearly departed mother proud. The popular 2005 movie Four Brothers is loosely based on this story, with a more modern and urban take, and is also worth a watch.

Best line: “Texas is a woman, she used to say, a big, wild, beautiful woman. You raise a kid to where he’s got some size, and there’s Texas whispering in his ear and smiling, saying, ‘Come and have some fun.’ It’s hard enough to raise children, she’d say. But when you’ve got to fight Texas, a mother hasn’t a chance.”

The Magnificent Seven

magnificent seven old western movie film group aiming runs rifles

Inspired by the classic Japanese film Seven Samurai, The Magnificent Seven follows a group of seven American gunfighters (including Steve McQueen) who band together to defend an oppressed Mexican village. This film has it all: great story, great cast, and one of the most iconic movie scores of all time.

Best line: “It’s only a matter of knowing how to shoot a gun. Nothing big about that.”

Red River

Red river western movie film john wayne

What happens to a man when he’s consumed by obsession? That’s the question that we see answered in 1948’s Red River. John Wayne plays Thomas Dunson, a determined and sometimes ruthless man who has the goal of forming the largest cattle ranch in America. With nothing but his trusty trail-hand (Walter Brennan) and a young boy who survived an Indian attack on his wagon train (Montgomery Clift), Dunson does just that. To make money, though, he’s got to get the cattle to market, so Dunson sets out to drive thousands of cattle from Texas to Missouri. Along the way, Dunson’s brutal and dictatorial leadership causes his young protege and adopted son to mutiny and take the cattle from Dunson. Dunson vows to find and kill his boy. Does he do it in the end? You’ll have to watch the movie to find out.

Best line: “Get a shovel and my Bible. I’ll read over him.”

True Grit (2010)

true grit new version jeff bridges rooster cogburn

Hired by a young girl to track down the man that killed her father, Jeff Bridges takes on the role of Rooster Cogburn, the marshal with “grit” enough to bring the man to justice. The 2010 version is definitely better than the 1969 John Wayne version. Bridges simply did a superior job portraying Rooster Cogburn, and thanks to the Coen brothers, the movie just seemed more real and alive.

Best line: “Fill your hand you son-of-a-bitch!”

Silverado

silverado western movie poster kevin costner danny glover

This 1985 flick features quite the ensemble cast: Kevin Costner, Jeff Goldblum, Danny Glover, Brian Dennehy, Linda Hunt, and more. Set in 1880, four men find themselves brought together in the midst of gunfights and jail breakouts. They end up in the town of Silverado, and although they part ways, are quickly reunited by their desire to fight the town’s injustices. After fighting common foes, the men also avenge their personal demons, and although they end up going their separate ways, will always retain the kinship of fighting together for the justice of a small Western town.

Best line: “I always figure you might as well approach life like everybody’s your friend or nobody is; don’t make much difference.”

The Wild Bunch

wild bunch western movie

The Wild Bunch is a tale about a group of outlaws who see the world they know quickly disappearing. Set in 1913, the West by then was no longer “wild.” The old rule of “might makes right” had been replaced by government-dispensed justice. Moreover, technology had made many of the skills and know-how needed to survive and thrive in the Wild West obsolete. Sensing that their time is up, a group of outlaws decide to go out in a blaze of glory and gore. The Wild Bunch was and is a controversial film. Its violence and nihilism paints a bleak picture of life at the end of the American West. In many ways, The Wild Bunch symbolized the end of the classic American Western. Just as the outlaws in the film were out of step with a changing society, so too were Westerns out of step with 1969 America. It’s interesting to note that very few new major Westerns were produced after The Wild Bunch was released in 1969.

Best line: “Let’s go.”

Pale Rider

pale rider clint eastwood movie poster

Another movie that Eastwood produced, directed, and starred in. As with many of his other roles, he plays a lone ranger figure just called the “Preacher.” He rides into a gold mining settlement in which a group of thugs led by Coy LaHood (Richard Dysart) are pushing the panners to give up their territory. Preacher attempts to first negotiate with LaHood, but he sets out unreasonable terms that the gold panners refuse to agree to. And so a rough and corrupt Marshal is sent in by LaHood to clear everyone out. That’s where Preacher’s mysterious background — he has six unexplained bullet wounds in his back — comes in handy and he joins the settlers to fight off the bad dudes. Being one of the only Hollywood Westerns made in the 1980s, it received excellent reviews, and was nominated by the American Film Institute as a Top 10 film in the genre (although it ultimately wasn’t included in that prestigious list).

Best line: “There’s plain few problems can’t be solved with a little sweat and hard work.”

Rio Bravo

rio bravo old western movie film john wayne in sheriff office

A small-town sheriff (John Wayne) in the American West enlists the help of a cripple (Walter Brennan), a drunk (Dean Martin, of course), and a young gunfighter (Ricky Nelson, still dreamy even as a cowboy) in his efforts to keep the brother of the local bad guy in jail. Director Howard Hawks made this film in reaction to High Noon. Both he and John Wayne despised what they saw as the wimpy and unmanly lack of resolve in Gary Cooper’s character. I’m not sure I agree with Wayne and Hawks about that, but that’s a debate for another day. Overall, Rio Bravo has everything you should expect in a good 1950s Western: action, adventure, and heroics. We even get to hear old Dean-O sing a tune. 

Best line: “Hey, Dude! How do ya like them apples?”

Major Dundee

major dundee western movie poster charlton heston

Union cavalry officer Major Amos Dundee (Charlton Heston) has been assigned to a POW camp in New Mexico after making a tactical error in the Battle of Gettysburg. After an Apache war chief named Sierra Charriba, along with his band of comrades, massacres a family of ranchers and a group of cavalrymen, Dundee takes it upon himself to get revenge. So he recruits a private army of Union soldiers, Confederate prisoners, Indian scouts, and even mercenaries. They venture into Mexico to fight the Apache, with whom they engage in several bloody battles. Dundee is able to show off his tactical prowess, and we see how even enemies can come together in the face of a common foe. While this film wasn’t held in terribly high regard when it came out, in the last decade or so that tide has been turning; one modern reviewer describes it as “likely the most gritty and realistic Western ever made.”

Best line:I have only three commands. When I signal you to come, you come. When I signal you to charge, you charge. And when I signal you to run, you follow me and run like hell!”

Tombstone

tombstone western movie walking down main street black clothes

After years of chasing outlaws, legendary lawman Wyatt Earp retires and takes up residence in the town of Tombstone, Arizona. His plans to live out his days as a respectable businessman are interrupted when a gang of hell-raisers called “the Cowboys” starts causing trouble in the area. Not able to stand the lawlessness, Earp joins his brothers in getting rid of the Cowboys. Tensions between the Earps and the Cowboys heats up and eventually leads to the infamous showdown at the O.K. Corral. Action-packed and fast-moving, Tombstone is definitely a Western that suits modern moviegoers’ tastes. Not to mention, it has some of the best mustachery in the history of cinema.

Best line: “I’m your Huckleberry.”

Once Upon a Time in the West

once upon a time in the west movie poster

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was supposed to be Sergio Leone’s last Western. But then Paramount Pictures offered him access to Henry Fonda (who plays the villain), and he couldn’t say no. Although Clint Eastwood turned down the role of protagonist, Charles Bronson did not, and over time the film has come to be known as one of the best Westerns of all-time (famous directors like Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, and George Lucas credit this film with influencing them), even though it didn’t gain critical or box office success when it first came out.

The story revolves around Jill McBain, who has just moved from New Orleans to the Utah frontier, only to find her new husband and his children brutally murdered. She’s joined in the hunt for the killer by outlaw Cheyenne and the mysterious fellow named Harmonica (Bronson), who knows a few tunes on both his classic cowboy instrument and his gun.

Best line: “How can you trust a man that wears both a belt and suspenders? Man can’t even trust his own pants.”

How the West Was Won

how the west was won movie poster

This 1963 film has perhaps the most star-studded cast ever assembled: John Wayne, Gregory Peck, James Stewart, Carroll Baker, Henry Fonda, Debbie Reynolds, and more. It’s an epic, so rather than focusing on a single story or time period, it follows four generations of one family over 50 years in the mid-1800s as they move westward. You get a little bit of everything: river fordings, Indian raids, plains crossings, Civil War battles, gold rushes, railroad construction, and skirmishes with outlaws. Over the course of almost three hours you span nearly every subject covered by the genre. And it’s not like today’s celebrity-stuffed films that are poorly made and clearly just vying for more eyeballs; How the West Was Won has a perfect 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s a dang good film, and one that stands out not just among Westerns, but among all genres.

Best line: “The west that was won by its pioneers, settlers, adventurers is long gone now. Yet it is theirs forever, for they left tracks in history that will never be eroded by wind or rain — never plowed under by tractors, never buried in compost of events. Out of the hard simplicity of their lives, out of their vitality of their hopes and sorrows grew legends of courage and pride to inspire their children and their children’s children.”

The Outlaw Josey Wales

outlaw nosey wales old western film clint eastwood with guns

Directing and starring Clint Eastwood, the film’s about a man named Josey Wales who lost home and family during the Civil War to a band of pro-Union Jayhawkers. Driven by revenge, he joins a posse of pro-Confederate soldiers so he can find the men who destroyed the things he loved. The Civil War ends and the band of Confederate fighters surrender. But not Josey. Revenge, sorrow, forgiveness, betrayal, love, family, and honor take center stage in this Eastwood classic.

Best line: “Dyin’ ain’t much of a living, boy.”

Comanche Station

comanche station western movie poster

Some Westerns are big-budgeted affairs loaded with stars and running for up to a few hours. While those are great, sometimes you want to see what the smaller-budget guys can do with just a couple good actors and a solid story. That’s where Comanche Station comes in, having recently been noted by some as one of the great underrated Westerns. With a running time of just 74 minutes, there’s no fluff. When loner Jefferson Cody trades with a band of Comanches to release a white woman, he assumes that getting Mrs. Lowe back to her husband will be a piece of cake. But with a handsome reward on the line for her return and a couple of nasty outlaws, the going ain’t so easy.

Best line: “Not talkin’ about right. Talkin’ about stayin’ alive.”

The Big Country

greg peck in the big country western movie

East coast sea captain James McKay (Gregory Peck) heads West with his fiancee Patricia (Carroll Baker — who also co-starred in How the West Was Won) to live on her father’s ranch. McKay doesn’t realize he’s walking into an old water rights feud between his soon-to-be father-in-law and the neighbor, Rufus Hannassey (Burl Ives — who won an Academy Award and Golden Globe for his supporting role).

Terrill (the father-in-law) and Hannassey trade barbs and trouble-making stunts, but after declining to duel, ride unbroken horses, or otherwise prove his manhood, everyone, including his fiancee, starts to consider McKay a bit of a coward. Unbeknownst to the family, however, he’s been settling things and trying to make peace behind the scenes. Turns out the seaman knows a thing or two to be able survive in the West after all. This film has it all: literally dueling neighbors, vivid landscapes and wild horses, and even a love triangle. President Dwight Eisenhower was a big fan of this film, and in fact once screened it on four consecutive evenings in the White House.

Best line: “There’s some things a man has to prove to himself alone, not to anyone else.”

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

jessejames

This 2007 film directed by Andrew Dominik is the film version of the 1983 novel of the same name. Brad Pitt stars as Jesse James with Casey Affleck taking on the role of his killer, Robert Ford. When James’ gang plans a train robbery in Missouri, Ford makes multiple attempts to join the gang. Ultimately, Ford gets rejected by James, and so sets out to get revenge. The film is star-studded, but surprisingly had lackluster results at the box office despite excellent reviews, with one critic even saying that it is “one of the most wrongly neglected masterpieces of its era.”

Best line: “It seems to me if you have something to confess, you outta be right and you spit it out now.”

Dances With Wolves

kevin costner dances with wolves western movie poster

Kevin Costner both starred in and directed this 1990 Best Picture winner (one of only three Westerns to win the prestigious Academy Award). During the Civil War, Lt. John Dunbar becomes a Union hero for an act of bravery he did not intend to commit. Wanting to get away to the Western frontier, he requests a posting at a remote fort. Finding it abandoned, he mans the outpost alone, and quickly befriends not only the local Indians, but a wolf too, which he names Two Socks. He also finds a white woman who’s been raised by the tribe, and comes to earn the trust and respect of the native people. This doesn’t exactly sit well with the military, though, and Dunbar soon has to choose where his loyalty really lies.

Best line: “It seems every day ends with a miracle here. And whatever God may be, I thank God for this day.”

The Shootist

shootist old western movie film john wayne on ground with gun

Nobody wants to die alone. Especially gunslingers. In a haunting portrayal that foreshadowed his own fate, John Wayne plays J.B. Books, an aging gunfighter dying of cancer who resigns himself to live out his days in private. But skeletons from his past prevent him from fading away, so he decides to go down the only way he knows how – with his six-shooter blazing.

Best line: “I won’t be wronged. I won’t be insulted. I won’t be laid a-hand on. I don’t do these things to other people, and I require the same from them.”

Vera Cruz

vera cruz movie poster gary cooper burt lancaster

Starring Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster, 1954’s Vera Cruz was one of the first big Westerns to feature morally ambiguous characters who were nonchalant towards violence. It paved the way for those themes to be realized in big Hollywood fashion in the late 50s and 60s.

Set during the Franco-Mexican War of 1861, Cooper plays ex-Confederate soldier Ben Trane. He’s gone down to Mexico looking for work as a mercenary and teams up with gunslinger Joe Erin (Lancaster). They are hired by Emperor Maximillian I to escort the Countess Duvarre (Denise Darcel) to the port city of Vera Cruz. Trane and Erin discover that the locomotive they’re traveling aboard has a stash of $3 million. As you can imagine, a lot of people want that gold, and I don’t need to tell you the rest of the story.

Best line: “Don’t take any chances you don’t have to. Don’t trust nobody you don’t have to trust, and don’t do no favors you don’t have to do.”

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

john wayne james stewart man who shot liberty valance western movie

US Senator James Stoddard (James Stewart) has rolled into a small Western town to attend the funeral of Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). Why would a big-time politician come all the way out West for that? We flashback 25 years to when Stoddard was a young attorney whose stagecoach was robbed by the ruthless Liberty Valance. The lawyer was whipped and left for dead, but saved by Doniphon and brought to the town of Shinbone, where the community as a whole tended to his injuries. Stoddard opens a law practice, but Valance is still a terrorizing presence. Doniphon — who only knows the ways of brute force — debates with him the best way to bring justice to Valance. Is it through the grim violence of the West, or the more civilized path of the law and courts?

This movie was shot in black and white, even though color was available. Many speculate that director John Ford was moving to a grittier, more realistic view of the West over the more colorful, romantic, and optimistic pictures he had previously done. Ford and Wayne worked on ten(!) Westerns together, but many single out The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance as the most impactful. Roger Ebert said it was “the most pensive and thoughtful,” and Sergio Leone called it his favorite film by the famed director.

Best line: “I know those law books mean a lot to you, but not out here. Out here a man settles his own problems.”

Last updated: November 1, 2017

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