Western movies are a film genre set in the American frontier. What makes a story Western is its time period and wild west location. In addition, you will find that these movies feature stock characters and tropes such as cowboys, outlaws, Indians, railroads, and gun fights.
The best Western movies of all time are a matter of opinion. However, maybe you are looking for inspiration or want to know if you have missed something great. The list below looks at some of the most notable westerns taking into account reviews, awards, and their impact on cinema.
1. Stagecoach (1939)
Our list begins with John Ford’s classic, Stagecoach. The film follows nine strangers as they journey together through the wild west. It played an important role in John Wayne’s career, inspiring countless other Westerns.
This movie has all the tropes, like saloons, deserts, and campfires. It’s known as John Ford’s best Western movie, winning two Oscars and sparking a Hollywood Western craze.
However, in recent years the film had backlash over its negative view of Indians. Film critic Roger Ebert noted that “the film’s attitude toward Native Americans is unenlightened”. Still, the film is a classic and has paved the way for many other films on our list.
2. The Searchers (1956)
The Searchers is a Western movie about a Civil War soldier looking for his missing niece. It’s the second film on our list directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne. The pair will go on to work together on a total of fourteen movies.
It’s well known for its image of the wild west created by the director of photography Winton C. Hoch. The visuals will inspire many other filmmakers to copy his style and choice of locations. In particular, Monument Valley, Arizona, where they shot most of the film.
This movie was both a critical and commercial success. It’s widely regarded as one of the greatest Westerns of all time and was even named the best Western by the BFI. Also, the French magazine Cahiers du Cinema ranked it as the tenth best film ever made.
3. The Good the Bad and the Ugly (1966)
Next, we have one of the best Western movies of all time. In this film, Clint Eastwood stars as a cowboy looking for buried treasure in the wild west. If there was a list of genre tropes, this film has it all, including chases on horses, evil outlaws, and a showdown.
The director Sergio Leone is known for his unique Spaghetti Western style. He shoots his movies in Italy, with a low budget, and includes slapstick comedy. This movie was shot entirely in Rome, and the soundtrack is by famous Italian composer Ennio Morricone.
4. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid follows two outlaws on the run from a train robbery. What makes this film special is that the screenwriter, William Goldman, based the characters on real life cowboys. The movie inspired many other films about Butch Cassidy and his gang.
Burt Bacharach wrote the song ‘Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head’ for the film. Despite it being out of place in a Western, the director insisted on keeping it in. Robert Redford said “At the time, it seemed like a dumb idea. How wrong I was, as it turned out to be a giant hit.”
The film was the top selling movie of 1969 and won Best Original Score and Best Screenplay at the Oscars. Furthermore, the WGA ranks the script as the eleventh greatest screenplay of all time.
5. The Wild Bunch (1969)
Sam Peckinpah made this epic western starring William Holden and Ernest Borgnine. The story follows an aging outlaw trying to adapt to the modern world. The film caused debate at the time because of its extreme use of graphic violence and portrayal of crude men.
By the time the film wrapped, Peckinpah has shot 333,000 feet of film. The opening scene came in at 21 minutes, but his editor cut it down to 5 minutes using short snappy cuts. The creative edit became the model for the rest of the film and forever changed cinema.
The AFI lists The Wild Bunch as one of the best Western movies of all time. Director of Photography Roger Deakins calls it his favorite film ever made. Plus, film critic Roger Ebert claimed it a “masterpiece”, noting that it is also “one of the most violent films ever made”.
6. The Magnificent Seven (1970)
The best Western movies of all time take inspiration from Japanese epics. The Magnificent Seven is a remake of director Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai. The story follows seven gunfighters, including Steve McQueen, who helps save villages from a gang of bandits.
Surprisingly the film did not do well in America but was a success overseas. The film found praise in its performances and action sequences. Akira Kurosawa was so impressed by the film he presented director John Sturges with a sword to thank him after its release.
7. Blazing Saddles (1974)
In Blazing Saddles, Cleavon Little is a black sheriff who stops a gang of thugs from taking over a town with his co-star Gene Wilder. Blazing Saddles is both a comedy and a Western. It has the themes of a traditional Western but also makes fun of the character stereotypes.
The film had mixed reviews on release, and the film studio almost didn’t release it. Director Mel Brooks said the studio was going to “dump it and take a loss, but the studio president insisted that they open it”. Blazing Saddles quickly became the highest selling film of the year and is widely seen as one of the best Western movies of all time.
8. Unforgiven (1992)
Clint Eastwood is the star of fifteen Western movies and the director of four. In Unforgiven, he directs and stars as an aging outlaw who takes one last job before retirement. The film also co-stars Gene Hackman as the Sheriff tracking him down across the wild west.
Screenwriter David Webb People’s wanted to show another side of the Western movie and that the wild west was not black and white. In an interview, he said, “A writer with no idea of the harshness and cruelty of frontier life writes stories that glorify common criminals.”
Unforgiven was a box office success worldwide. It grossed over $159 million on a budget of only $14.4 million and received widespread critical acclaim, with praise in particular for the acting. Director Clint Eastwood won two Oscars for best picture and best director.
9. True Grit (2010)
True Grit is a remake of one of the best Western movies of all time by the same name. The film stars Hailee Steinfield as Mattie Ross, a young girl who seeks revenge for her father’s murder. She recruits Jeff Bridges, a US marshall, to help on her journey.
The Cohen brothers directed the film remake that stayed true to traditional Western characters and themes. Renowned film critic Roger Ebert praised the movie, stating “that it was not just a remake, but a skillful re-creation”. In fact, he even claimed it was the best movie of the year, surpassing the 1969 version.
10. Django Unchained (2012)
Lastly, we have Quentin Tarantino’s take on spaghetti western movies. The film follows Jamie Foxx, a recently freed slave who starts working for bounty hunter Christoph Waltz.
Tarrantino wished to make a Western film about America’s past with slavery. Like all Westerns, it has the tropes of sheriff and outlaws, but it brings a twist to the genre. Django Unchained was the most successful film of 2012 and had excellent reviews worldwide.
To sum up, the best Western movies stand out above the ordinary. They experiment with the genre while staying true to the traditional themes and stock characters.
Westerns were popular during the mid 20th century. However, many movies you watch today found inspiration from epic westerns, including box office hits like Star Wars and Guardians of the Galaxy.
So, these are the best westerns taking into account reviews and their impact on cinema. Is there anyone we have missed from this list? Let us know in the comments section below.