The Western film occupies a unique place in the American psyche. At its heart, the Western movie embodies many of the central pillars of what it means to be an American. The genre was one of the very first created by what was to become known as Hollywood. Birth of A Nation, The General, High Noon, Rio Bravo, The Unforgiven, and the recent Django Unchained are just some of the many examples of Western movies produced in this almost uniquely American genre.
Few filmmakers outside of The United States have ever tried to make a Western film. While aspects of the Western have been borrowed to create new genres such as the pursuit film and even the Sci-Fi movie, the Western is at its heart rooted in a time and place where a young nation was finally coming to understand who it was and what it was to become.
It is possible to chart many of the main cultural shifts in American society over the past 100 years just by examining how the Westerns of their day represented different minority groups, women, and other social issues onscreen. This fact makes choosing the top 10 westerns a tough challenge. So for the sake of avoiding controversy, this list will try to view each film in the context of its time rather than in retrospect.
10. STAGECOACH (1939)
Director John Ford was without question, one of the best western filmmakers who ever lived. In 1939, his film Stagecoach was released. The film would pair Ford with John Wayne, who would go on to become the most famous Western actor of all time. Though commonly touted as the first Ford/Wayne collaboration, Stagecoach was actually the second collaboration between the two, Wayne had appeared briefly in Ford’s Mother Machree, though he was not credited for his role.
Stagecoach was a film that in many ways defined what the western genre was to become. The film used the unique landscape of Monument Valley, Utah, to create an iconic and unforgettable backdrop. It also combined other Western mainstays such as the hero gunslinger, and the cowboys and Indians narrative, and many other important themes that were going to be featured in every Western that came after.
9. A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964)
Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone’s love of the work of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa would give birth to one of the most famous Westerns ever made. Featuring Clint Eastwood as the Man with No Name, it would be the first film in what would become known as the “Dollars Trilogy”.
The film’s highly stylized shootout scenes are instantly recognizable, as is the fantastic musical score that was composed by master Ennio Morricone. It would not only change how Westerns were made from then on, but would also show Hollywood that great Westerns could be made for a fraction of the cost that they were making them for.
8. RIO BRAVO (1959)
Rio Bravo explores a theme that has been the basis of many great westerns. The film plot follows a town that is being threatened by outsiders. Director Howard Hawks succeeds in creating an atmosphere of tension and paranoia as a group of hired gunmen surround the town forcing the Sherriff, played by Wayne, to try to put together the best defense he can.
7. BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969)
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid represents another milestone in the evolution of the Western movie. The film is based on the real-life story of the two western bank robbers and was, along with The Wild Bunch, the first to explore the final days of the Old West.
Despite using humor, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a powerful tragedy of two men that time has left behind.
6. UNFORGIVEN (1992)
Starring in what Clint Eastwood claimed to be his final Western, the actor/director managed to create a giant of the Western genre by reappraising the entire genre. The film follows a reluctant ‘hero’ as he is dragged back into the world of sin and murder that the western town represents. Like High Noon before it, Unforgiven breaks with tradition and instead shows that the civilization brought by European settlers was anything but.
After his longtime friend Ned is killed by the town’s Sherriff, Eastwood’s character heads back into town for one last showdown. Rather than glorifying violence, as Westerns of the past had done, Unforgiven paints a picture of men whose souls are tortured by the killings and wrongdoings of their past. This film is an unromantic look at the horror and barbarity of the Old West.
5. ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1968)
Hot off the back of making his Dollars trilogy, Sergio Leone would create yet another masterpiece of the Western genre. Having managed to get cinema great Henry Fonda to finally agree to play the villain, Leone hired unknown Charles Bronson to play the lead.
The film’s opening sequence, in which three hit men await the arrival of a train, would last nearly 10 minutes but would become one of the most celebrated openings of all time. Likewise, the film’s ending would be classic Leone, building suspense until the very last second.
4. HIGH NOON (1952)
High Noon was another Western that broke the mold and helped redefine the genre. The film set out to expose human cowardice and the self-serving nature at the heart of American society.
The plot follows a soon to be retired Sherriff, played by Gary Cooper, who finds himself facing a gang of criminals alone after he is abandoned by the townspeople that he has protected for years. Despite his feelings of duty towards defending the town, the sheriff is torn between knowing he must use violence to defend it and the non-violence beliefs of his Quaker bride. Cooper would win a much deserved Oscar for his performance, while the film would forever be regarded as one of the best Westerns ever made.
3. THE SEARCHERS (1956)
A film that many Western fans regard as John Ford’s finest; The Searchers was one of the first Westerns to feature a true antihero. After returning home from the civil war, the hero, played by John Wayne, finds that his brother and his family have been murdered by Indians. Discovering that one of the girls survived, Wayne’s character set out on what becomes a 5-year journey to recover her.
Throughout the journey, the hero’s hatred of Indians grows to the point that he is even willing to kill his own niece just because she has become too “Indianized”. The film exposes the evil heart of racism and how it blinds people into living on irrational hate.
2. THE WILD BUNCH (1969)
Featuring one of the bloodiest endings in cinematic history, The Wild Bunch is a true Sam Peckinpah thoroughbred. It is another Western that tells a tragic tale of men left behind by the passage of time.
The film tells the tale of a gang of bank robbers that is ruthlessly hunted by a former member. As they try to evade capture, they are offered a chance to make it big by robbing a U.S army train in order to steal a batch of weapons.
After one of the gang steals a crate of the guns to help his village protect themselves from the general who arranged the robbery, what transpires is one of the greatest showdowns ever to be seen on film.
1. THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY (1966)
It is rare that a sequel ever surpasses the original in terms of artistic quality. Amazingly, the third installment of Leone’s Dollars trilogy was to be the best of them all. The Man with No Name returns in this highly styled epic Western that is universally recognized as a timeless masterpiece.
The film’s original 177 minute running time actually had to be cut to 161 minutes for its American release. It reunited Leone with Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and composer Ennio Morricone, all of whom had worked on previous installments of the trilogy. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly remains truly the best western ever made.
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