Either way, some of the greatest movies ever made have been westerns. Tales of marshals, gamblers, and bounty hunters trying to make it on the American frontier have provided the groundwork for a handful of cinema’s finest works.
After setting up a trio of flawed heroes, Rio Bravo becomes a hangout movie as they wait for a gang to show up and try to liberate their prisoner. John Wayne, Dean Martin, and Ricky Nelson are compelling in the lead roles, while Angie Dickinson gives a terrific supporting turn.
Howard Hawks and John Wayne made Rio Bravo as a direct response to High Noon, having been unhappy with how the Gary Cooper classic positioned itself as a critique of McCarthyism and ended with the lawman throwing down his badge.
One of the most seminal westerns ever made, John Ford’s masterpiece Stagecoach is considered to be so profound and influential that discussion of it has surpassed the western genre altogether.
Adapted from the short story “The Stage to Lordsburg,” Stagecoach has a great setup: the stagecoach setting introduces a bunch of characters who don’t know each other, then the ambush puts them all in danger, raising the stakes.
With all the brutal violence that one would expect from a western directed by Sam Peckinpah, The Wild Bunch is a large-scale action extravaganza with an iconic gun-toting ensemble.
Peckinpah’s blood-soaked epic was wildly controversial upon release for its boundary-pushing buckets of blood and it still packs a heck of a punch after 50 years.
Sergio Leone intended to retire from the western genre with Once Upon a Time in the West (although he later returned to it with Duck, You Sucker!), so he made it as a swansong to the western featuring everything he loved about the genre. Leone and his screenwriters Dario Argento and Bernardo Bertolucci watched a western movie marathon and stitched together a plot from all their favorite western moments to create a kind of greatest hits album, so to speak.
The opening scene of Once Upon a Time in the West is one of the greatest in film history, expertly building tension toward a dazzling payoff.
To avoid repeating himself, Clint Eastwood decided to stop directing and starring in westerns after helming Unforgiven, the story of a retired gunslinger being reluctantly called back into action to avenge a prostitute who was attacked and permanently scarred by two cowboys.
Eastwood’s bittersweet farewell to the western is also one of the genre’s greatest entries. William Munny is a classic antihero, while Unforgiven’s deconstruction of the western’s essential elements resulted in a movie with strong themes.
Directed by John Huston and starring Humphrey Bogart, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is the definitive cinematic portrait of the corrupting power of wealth.
It’s about a couple of guys heading out into the desert with an old prospector and finding a fortune in gold. One of the guys, played by Bogart, becomes paranoid, convinced that the other two are going to stiff him out of his share. Ironically, that paranoia makes him the guy to keep an eye on.
William Goldman’s screenplay for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was groundbreaking in its subversion of western tropes. The movie ended up being one of the first anti-westerns as the heroes flee to the border at the first sign of danger and the movie ends on a hopeless, but ambiguous note.
The snappy dialogue between the title characters is brought to life spectacularly by Paul Newman and Robert Redford’s classic on-screen dynamic.
Anchored by a brilliant lead performance by Alan Ladd in the title role, Shane is one of the most thematically strong westerns ever made. It’s about the struggles of moving on from a checkered past and finding new stability.
Building to one of the most iconic final scenes of all time, Shane is filled with gorgeous landscape cinematography captured by an Oscar-winning Loyal Griggs.
John Ford’s The Searchers chronicles antihero Ethan Edwards’ years-long quest to rescue his niece from the Native Americans who abducted her, only to find that she doesn’t want to be saved after all.
This is one of the most influential movies ever made. Its influence can be seen in everything from Taxi Driver to Breaking Bad.
Sergio Leone’s conclusion to the Dollars trilogy, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, just might be the revered filmmaker’s masterpiece. It’s an action-packed epic that refuses to ignore the bleak side of history or take sides in age-old conflicts.
In telling the story of its central trio’s quest to discover a fortune in buried gold, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is three hours of glorious cinematic visuals culminating in a perfect finale.