The 55 Great Westerns

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 22, 2013

The List of Greatest Westerns, by Decade

They aren’t all equally great.  Those with their titles indented are great, but perhaps slightly less so than the others.  “MfTV” means “Made for Television,” which two of these were.  You can find most of these titles on Amazon: great westerns since the ’70s, great westerns ’60s and earlier.

If you’re looking for a shorter list, check near the bottom for the 13 very greatest westerns.  And for 13 westerns to watch first if you’re new to westerns generally.  There’s some overlap, but they’re not exactly the same thing.

2010s

True Grit—Bridges, Steinfeld, Damon (2010; Dir:  Coen, Coen)

2000s

3:10 to Yuma—Bale, Crowe (2007; Dir:  Mangold)

Broken Trail—Duvall, Church (MfTV; 2006; Dir:  W. Hill)

Open Range—Duvall, Costner, Bening (2003; Dir:  Costner)

            The Missing—Jones, Blanchett (2003; Dir:  Howard)

55GreatJones

Tommy Lee Jones as Samuel Jones in The Missing.

1990s

 Lone Star—Cooper, McConaughey, Kristofferson, Pena, Morton (1996; Dir:  Sayles)

            Last of the Dogmen—Berenger, Hershey (1995; Dir:  Murphy)

Tombstone—Russell, Kilmer, Elliot (1993; Dir:  Cosmatos)

Last of the Mohicans—Day-Lewis, Stowe (1992; Dir:  M. Mann)

Unforgiven—Eastwood, Freeman, Hackman (1992; Dir:  Eastwood)

            A Thousand Pieces of Gold—Cooper, Chao (1991; Dir:  Kelly; no DVD)

Dances With Wolves—Costner (1990; Dir:  Costner)

Quigley Down Under—Selleck, Rickman (1990; Dir:  Wincer)

55GreatKilmer

Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday in Tombstone.

1980s

Lonesome Dove—Duvall, Jones, Cooper (MfTV; 1989; Dir:  Wincer)

Pale Rider—Eastwood (1985; Dir:  Eastwood)

Silverado—Kline, Costner, Glenn, Glover (1985; Dir:  Kasdan)

The Grey Fox—Farnsworth (1983; Dir:  Borsos; no DVD)

            The Man From Snowy River—Burlinson, Douglas (1982; Dir:  Miller)

The Long Riders—Keach, Carradine, Guest, Quaid (1980; Dir:  W. Hill)

greyfoxfarns1

Richard Farnsworth as Bill Miner in The Grey Fox–probably the greatest western not currently available on DVD.

1970s

The Shootist—Wayne, Bacall, Howard, Stewart, Boone (1976; Dir:  Siegel)

The Outlaw Josey Wales—Eastwood, Bottoms, George (1976; Dir:  Eastwood)

The Cowboys—Wayne, Browne, Dern (1972; Dir:  Rydell)

Jeremiah Johnson—Redford, Geer (1972; Dir:  Pollack)

Valdez Is Coming—Lancaster (1971; Dir:  Sherin; the version currently on DVD is said to be missing scenes)

cowboysbrowne

Roscoe Lee Browne as Jebediah Nightlinger in The Cowboys.

1960s

The Wild Bunch—Holden, Ryan, Borgnine, Oates (1969; Dir:  Peckinpah)

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid—Newman, Redford (1969; Dir:  G.R. Hill)

True Grit—Wayne, Campbell, Darby (Duvall) (1969; Dir:  Hathaway)

Support Your Local Sheriff—Garner, Elam, Hackett (1969; Dir:  Kennedy)

            Hour of the Gun—Garner, Robards (1967; Dir:  Sturges)

The Professionals—Marvin, Lancaster, Cardinale (1966; Dir:  Brooks)

Duel at Diablo—Garner, Poitier, Travers, Andersson (1966; Dir:  Nelson)

Cat Ballou—J. Fonda, Marvin (1965; Dir:  Silverstein)

           The Hallelujah Trail—Lancaster, Remick (1965; Dir:  Sturges)

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance—Wayne, Stewart, Marvin (1962; Dir:  Ford)

Ride the High Country—McCrea, Scott (1962; Dir:  Peckinpah)

The Magnificent Seven—Brynner, McQueen (1960; Dir:  Sturges)

North to Alaska—Wayne, Granger, Kovacs (1960; Dir:  Hathaway)

MarvinLiberty

Lee Marvin as Liberty Valance in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

1950s

Rio Bravo—Wayne, Martin, Nelson (1959; Dir:  Hawks)

           Comanche Station—Scott, Akins, Gates (1959; Dir:  Boetticher)

The Tin Star—Fonda, Perkins (1957; Dir:  Mann)

Seven Men from Now—Scott, Marvin, Russell (1956; Dir:  Boetticher)

The Searchers—Wayne, Hunter (1956; Dir:  Ford)

The Man from Laramie—Stewart (1955; Dir:  Mann)

            The Far Country—Stewart, Brennan, Roman (1955; Dir:  Mann)

The Naked Spur—Stewart, Ryan, Leigh (1953; Dir:  Mann)

Shane—Ladd, Heflin, Palance (1953; Dir:  Stevens)

Hondo—Wayne, Page (1953; Dir:  Farrow)

High Noon—Cooper, Kelly (1952; Dir:  Zinneman)

Winchester ’73—Stewart, Winters (1950; Dir:  Mann)

Rio Grande—Wayne, O’Hara (1950; Dir:  Ford)

SearchersWayne

John Wayne as Ethan Edwards in The Searchers.

1940s

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon—Wayne (1949; Dir:  Ford)

Red River—Wayne, Clift (1948; Dir:  Hawks)

Fort Apache—Wayne, Fonda, Temple (1948; Dir:  Ford)

My Darling Clementine—Fonda, Mature, Darnell (1946; Dir:  Ford)

The Ox-Bow Incident—Fonda, Andrews, Morgan (1943; Dir:  Wellman)

Stagecoach—Wayne, Trevor (1939; Dir:  Ford)

darlingclementine-fonda

Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine.

Earlier

The Big Trail—Wayne (1930; Dir:  Walsh)

Cimarron—Dix, Dunne (1931; Dir:  Ruggles, Ising)  Won the Oscar for Best Picture, the first western to do so.  That’s the only reason it appears on this list.

Last of the Mohicans—Scott, Barnes (1936; Dir:  Seitz)

The Plainsman–Cooper, Arthur (1936; Dir:  DeMille)

The Virginian—Cooper, Huston (1929; Dir:  Fleming)

Silents

The General (1926; Dir:  Keaton)

Three Bad Men (1926; Dir:  Ford)

The Great K & A Train Robbery (1926; Dir:  Seiler)

Tumbleweeds—Hart (1925; Dir:  Baggot)

The Iron Horse (1924; Dir:  Ford)

The Covered Wagon (1923)

Mark of Zorro—Fairbanks, Beery (1920; Dir:  Niblo)

Hell’s Hinges—Hart (1916; Dir:  Swickard)

The Squaw Man—Farnum (1914; Dir:  DeMille)  Generally considered the movies’ first full-length feature.

The Great Train Robbery (1903; Dir:  Porter)

The 13 Greatest Westerns:

This list is somewhat arbitrary, as all such lists are, and gets re-negotiated from time to time.  But today, these are the thirteen greatest (not ten, because there were more than ten that couldn’t be left off the list).

1.  Lonesome Dove

2.  The Searchers

3.  Shane

4.  Red River

5.  Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

6.  Rio Bravo

7.  The Magnificent Seven

8.  Ride the High Country

9.  Stagecoach

10.  Unforgiven

11.  The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

12.  The Outlaw Josey Wales

13.  The Wild Bunch

If You’ve Never Watched Westerns Much (13 for Beginners):

1.  Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

2.  Rio Bravo

3.  The Outlaw Josey Wales

4.  Silverado

5.  True Grit (the Original)

6.  Ride the High Country

7.  Shane

8.  Stagecoach

9.  The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

10.  The Magnificent Seven

11.  Last of the Mohicans (1992, but watch the 1936 version too, if you like this story)

12.  Support Your Local Sheriff

13.  The Searchers or Red River or She Wore a Yellow Ribbon

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  • Tredlite

    I would boot several of your 55 and add The Big Country, Wyatt Earp, Appaloosa and Drums Along the Mohawk. I have very mixed feelings about The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The plot was incredibly hokey, and utterly unbelievable.

  • Zathras

    Good job. Couldn’t help but notice you’ve ignored the Leone’s. You obviously have your reasons, and I must admit they went down considerably in my estimation after I’d been exposed to some serious Boetticher. Surely The Good The bad and The Ugly is worth consideration.
    Also I’d have to find a way of squeezing Will Penny and Stalking Moon into that 60s list… Like Tredlite, I think Liberty Valance is overrated. What’s your feeling on Lonely Are the Brave?

  • nickchennault

    For the works of Sergio Leone and for Will Penny, see the post on Near-Great Westerns. My favorite Leone is For a Few Dollars more, not The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, although you have to take his body of work into account to consider yourself familiar with westerns.

    If I were to promote three westerns from Near-Great to great, they would probably be For a Few Dollars More, Will Penny and Hombre. But I have trouble moving Will Penny up without also including Monte Walsh. So they all tend to stay Near-Great.

    It’s been a few years since I’ve seen Lonely Are the Brave, and I have a lower tolerance for Kirk Douglas than I do for some others (e.g., Burt Lancaster of the same period). But I probably ought to give it another chance, just like I should try Heaven’s Gate and The Assassination of the Jesse James again. I am unable to approach Heaven’s Gate with any anticipation, I confess. Maybe I should bite the bullet, read Final Cut, and just sit through the whole thing at one time.

  • Jim Moore

    I can’t fault your 1940s westerns, and your 1950s choices are very strong too, although I’d go for Ride Lonesome over Comanche Station, and 3.10 to Yuma over The Far Country (and in fact over any other western).

    I would have had far fewer 1960s westerns, as I think the genre lost its way for several years in the mid 1960s. Having said that, I can’t quibble much with what you’ve chosen, apart from Cat Ballou, which I think is a poor movie. I dislike The Wild Bunch intensely, but I appreciate that its influence on the genre means it will always appear on these kinds of lists, I also have mixed feelings about The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. I would have Hombre over all of these movies, and perhaps A Fistful Of Dollars. Like you, I’m not a huge fan of spaghetti westerns.

    In the 1970s list, I would lose Valdez Is Coming and The Cowboys and replace them with the excellent Monte Walsh and the extraordinary but difficult Ulzana’s Raid. Lancaster’s performance in Valdez is really quite poor and wholly misjudged, but the following year, he puts in his best performance in a western in Ulzana’s Raid.

    From the 1980s onwards, I can find little to disagree with. Although I dislike Dances With Wolves and I feel Tombstone is pretty overrated, the only candidates to replace them would be Appaloosa or The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, neither of which I particularly rate. Perhaps you could have found room for Deadwood?

    Love the site and visit regularly.