Arguments can be made that any of these westerns should be listed among the greats, but they’re not (here, at least). Still, one ought to see all of them, with perhaps one exception. I can’t in good conscience recommend that anybody see Heaven’s Gate, even though some include it on their lists of the ten or fifteen best westerns ever. And most, if not all, of these will have their own posts here in due course. The lists are always open to revisions if there’s a good argument.
Destry Rides Again—James Stewart, Marlene Dietrich, Brian Donlevy (1939; Dir: George Marshall)
This marks the first appearance of James Stewart in a western, but it’s an unusual appearance. Young Destry appears to be a western variation of the character Stewart played in Harvey in 1950, except that here the peaceful character is deliberately thrown into situations and settings that traditionally call for violence. Stewart carries the movie, but Dietrich as the local saloon girl steals it. Not quite great but very good. It has aged more than Stagecoach from the same year.
Dodge City—Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Bruce Cabot, Alan Hale (1939; Dir: Michael Curtiz)
One of the memorable screen pairings of Flynn and de Havilland, and director Michael Curtiz puts together a creditable western. The first and perhaps the best of Flynn’s westerns and very worth watching. Both this and Destry suffer slightly by comparison with Stagecoach the same year, though.
Northwest Passage—Spencer Tracy, Robert Young Walter Brennan (1940; dir: King Vidor)
An excellent film adaptation of part of Kenneth Roberts’ superb novel of Rogers’ Rangers during the French and Indian War, with a terrific performance by Spencer Tracy as Major Robert Rogers. An eastern western (set in Maine, New Hampshire and eastern Canada), but with lots of Indians. A planned sequel to finish the novel was never made. Not seen as often as it should be because it was not available on DVD until Dec. 2011.
Virginia City—Errol Flynn, Miriam Hopkins, Randolph Scott, Humphrey Bogart (1940; Dir: Michael Curtiz)
A follow-up but not exactly a sequel to Dodge City, this features a superb cast, although it’s strange to see Humphrey Bogart as a Mexican bandit leader. Randolph Scott plays the sort of conflicted but ethical bad guy he did occasionally in his early career, and he could bring it off well. This is a Civil War drama set in the west, focusing on Nevada gold and silver.
The Gunfighter—Gregory Peck, Helen Westcott, Millard Mitchell (1950: Dir: Henry King)
One of the best examples of the aging gunfighter saga, with an affirmation of the often-repeated adage that you can’t leave your past and reputation behind you because younger gunfighters won’t let you. In this case, the aging gunfighter is Jimmy Ringo, played with due gravity by Gregory Peck in one of his best westerns.
Westward the Women—Robert Taylor, John McIntire, Denise Darcel, Hope Emerson (1951; Dir: William A. Wellman)
An excellent wagon train western, with Robert Taylor and John McIntire taking a bunch of eastern women to California. A very good supporting cast. Not much seen now, but a very good story well written, acted and directed. The ensemble of female actors is very good.
Vera Cruz—Gary Cooper, Burt Lancaster, Denise Darcel, Cesar Romero (1954; Dir: Robert Aldrich)
Big and beautiful, with a couple of big stars at the peak of their form, this is an example of adventuring in Mexico (just after the Civil War). The plot isn’t terribly coherent, but it’s fun to watch notwithstanding that.
3:10 to Yuma (original)—Glenn Ford, Van Heflin (1957; Dir: Delmer Daves)
So why is the 2007 remake on the list of great westerns while the original isn’t? The short answer is that the performances of the two leads, especially that of Christian Bale, are slightly stronger in the remake, as is the beefed-up role of Charley Prince (played by Ben Foster). That’s not to take anything away from the original, which has a bit different focus (it’s more psychological with less action) and ending and is very worth watching. Philip French, The Observer’s long-time film critic, put it on his list of ten best westerns with these comments: ‘As a student at Stanford University, [director Delmer] Daves worked in 1923 as a runner on The Covered Wagon and lived on a Navajo reservation. During the 1950s he directed eight fine westerns. The best is this adaptation of an Elmore Leonard story in which Van Heflin, reprising his role in Shane, plays a stolid farmer saving his family’s drought-stricken ranch by taking on the dangerous task of escorting a charismatic outlaw (Glenn Ford) on a hazardous journey to the Arizona state pen. Aspects of the Grail legend are subtly integrated into the tale.’
Gunfight at the OK Corral—Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas (1957; Dir: John Sturges)
Many prefer director John Sturges’ original venture into Wyatt Earp’s story in this film to his revisiting it a decade later in Hour of the Gun. This version, with its big stars and budget, suffers a bit from the glitzy Hollywood treatment. As Doc Holliday, Douglas seems about as tubercular as Victor Mature did in My Darling Clementine, but the storytelling here isn’t as stark.
The Tall T—Randolph Scott, Richard Boone, Maureen O’Sullivan (1957; Dir: Budd Boetticher)
It’s a toss-up among the four best Budd Boetticher-Randolph Scott westerns which is best. Each has its advocates. In addition to Scott, the strength here is the multi-dimensional villain played by Richard Boone. Another excellent western based on a story by Elmore Leonard, like 3:10 to Yuma and Hombre. Not to be missed.
The Big Country—Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Carroll Baker, Charlton Heston, Charles Bickford, Burl Ives, Chuck Connors (1958; Dir: William Wyler)
A big movie with a big cast, and it works. It’s a variation on one of the old themes in westerns, in which an easterner (or European) comes west and must come to terms with how things are different there, demonstrating his or her worthiness in the process. In retrospect, this is perhaps a little overheated, but nothing like Selznick’s Duel in the Sun, another similarly large-scale and large-budget western saga with Gregory Peck. New Englander and retired sea captain Gregory Peck comes out west to Texas to marry his fiancée and steps into the middle of several conflicts. Very worth watching.
Ride Lonesome—Randolph Scott, Pernell Roberts, James Coburn, Karen Steele, Lee Van Cleef (1959; Dir: Budd Boetticher)
As with the strongest of the Boetticher-Scott westerns, this revenge western has a strong bad guy for Scott to play off. This may be Pernell Roberts’ best performance on film. As with The Tall T, this is not to be missed.
Warlock—Henry Fonda, Richard Widmark, Anthony Quinn, Dorothy Malone (1959; Dir: Edward Dmytryk)
This adaptation of Oakley Hall’s novel is very watchable. Fonda is Clay Blaisdell, a well-known gunman brought in by a threatened town. It’s not just the two principals (Fonda and Widmark) that make this good, but the supporting performance of Anthony Quinn as Fonda’s manager is very good and brings a note of complexity to the proceedings. One of the better efforts of blacklisted Canadian director Edward Dmytryk.
A Fistful of Dollars—Clint Eastwood (1964; Dir: Sergio Leone)
For a Few Dollars More—Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef (1965; Dir: Sergio Leone)
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly—Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Eli Wallach (1966; Dir: Sergio Leone)
Once Upon a Time in the West—Charles Bronson, Jason Robards, Henry Fonda, Claudia Cardinale (1968; Dir: Sergio Leone)
These works by director Sergio Leone have to be seen if you love westerns, but how they individually rank in the scheme of things generally depends to some degree on how you feel about spaghetti westerns. These are the best of them, and you can see Leone growing from movie to movie as a filmmaker. And that’s part of the problem by the time you get to Once Upon a Time in the West: Leone would rather be a “filmmaker” than tell his story (also a weakness of the more recent Django Unchained). As a general matter, this body of work is better than any of its individual parts. The two that tend to get selected for “best” lists are The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and, more often, Once Upon a Time in the West. There are also those who would say that the best is For a Few Dollars More.
Philip French in The Observer named Once Upon a Time in the West as one of his ten best westerns. “Following his Dollar trilogy, which made Clint Eastwood a world star, Leone’s expansive celebration of the genre is the Everest of the spaghetti western, a violent, elegiac poem, both romantic and Marxist, that links the personal story of a laconic Mexican (Charles Bronson) searching for his brother’s killer to the epic of railroad building, with water as the leitmotif. The cast is largely American (headed by Henry Fonda as a ruthless killer), Ennio Morricone’s haunting score was written before the movie was made, and the pre-credit sequence is the quintessence of cool.” Interminable, but cool.
Hombre—Paul Newman, Richard Boone, Diane Cilento, Fredric March (1967; Dir: Martin Ritt)
A terrific performance by Paul Newman in a downbeat western that can leave you shaking your head at the futility of honor and sacrifice for those who don’t deserve it. Nobody who survives in this movie is as good as one of those who doesn’t. It has one of Richard Boone’s three best villainous performances. It’s very good.
Will Penny—Charlton Heston, Joan Hackett, Donald Pleasance (1968; Dir: Tom Gries)
Monte Walsh—Lee Marvin, Jack Palance, Jeanne Moreau (1970; Dir: William A Fraker)
These two, made around the same time, are both excellent variations on the theme of aging cowboys in the passing of the Old West. Both Charlton Heston and Lee Marvin give terrific performances as the leads. Watch them both.
McCabe and Mrs. Miller—Warren Beatty, Julie Christie (1971; Dir: Robert Altman)
Robert Altman was never going to make a straight-up, old-fashioned Western, and McCabe & Mrs Miller subverts many of the genre conventions: Warren Beatty’s McCabe is not a virtuous, salt-of-the-earth hero but a scheming gambler, while Julie Christie’s Mrs. Miller is an opium-addicted prostitute – and one without a heart of gold. Roger Ebert considered McCabe & Mrs Miller to be Altman’s best movie. Others prefer M*A*S*H from early in his career and Gosford Park from late in his career, but neither of those is a western. This one reeks of revisionist 1970s anti-authoritarianism and has other hallmarks of Altman’s episodic and noisy style of filmmaking.
Lawman—Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, Lee J. Cobb (1971; Dir: Michael Winner)
Ulzana’s Raid—Burt Lancaster, Bruce Davison (1972; Dir: Robert Aldrich)
Burt Lancaster was in three westerns about this time, and the best of them was Valdez Is Coming. But Ulzana’s Raid, with Lancaster in the Old Scout role again (hunting renegade Apaches this time) is almost as good. Lawman has its proponents among those with a high tolerance (or even fondness) for 1970s moral relativism; Lancaster and Ryan give good performances, as inflexible lawman Lancaster destroys several people and perhaps a town in pursuit of what he sees as the law’s demands.
Heaven’s Gate—Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken (1980; Dir: Michael Cimino) (?!)
This movie single-handedly destroyed the career of director Michael Cimino, who had won the Best Picture Oscar for 1978’s The Deer Hunter just two years previously. For some, it’s a bloated, unwatchable disaster. For others, it’s a flawed masterpiece. Philip French, writing in The Observer, is clearly in the latter camp when he puts this among the ten greatest westerns. ‘This flawed masterpiece (now restored …) was vilified by American critics, cut by its producers and was never properly released. It’s an epic treatment of the Johnson County war between impoverished settlers and rich land barons in 1892 Wyoming (the same setting as Shane), which Cimino turns into a forceful metaphor for the 19th-century American experience. Kris Kristofferson and Christopher Walken play “class traitors”, one a Harvard graduate who sides with the underdogs, the other an immigrant’s son, a hired gun for the Cattlemen’s Association. Visually stunning, memorably designed.’
*Only Wyoming was the same in Shane, and not even the same part of Wyoming. Shane had nothing to do with the Johnson County war.
White Fang—Ethan Hawke, Klaus Maria Brandauer (1991; Dir: Randal Kleiser)
Yes, technically Alaska and the Yukon are in western North America. But it seems like a different kind of story (Adventure stories? Animal stories?), even though some of the themes (man against nature, man against man unrestrained by civilization and its laws) are just like those in westerns. The strengths of this adaptation of the Jack London story set in the Yukon gold rush are casting, with a young Ethan Hawke and the terrific Klaus Maria Brandauer, and good, clear story-telling. Watch it and see where you think it fits.
Ravenous—Guy Pearce, Robert Carlyle (1999; Dir: Antonia Bird)
Definitely worth watching, but it’s not on the list of great westerns because it’s really a horror movie that happens to be set in the Old West. Interesting music by Damon Albarn and Michael Nyman. And a female English director.
Ride with the Devil—Tobey McGuire, Skeet Ulrich (1999; Dir: Ang Lee)
This is actually a Civil War story about Quantrill and his guerrilla raiders, set in Missouri and Kansas. There are other Civil War stories (Escape from Fort Bravo, Alvarez Kelly and The Horse Soldiers come to mind) that seem like westerns maybe because they have William Holden in them. For Philip French in The Observer, it’s one of the ten greatest westerns. But then he thinks Brokeback Mountain is a great western, and it makes lists for reasons that have nothing to do with westerns. ‘Set west of the Mississippi, where the Civil War was being conducted as a violent sideshow between irregular forces, this was the last great western of the 20th century. The film traces the brutalising experiences and subsequent healing of a German immigrant’s teenage son (Tobey Maguire) who unwisely joins a brutal band of southern guerrillas. Notable for superbly staged action sequences (especially the infamous raid on Lawrence, Kansas) and attention to period language. Six years later, Ang Lee directed the most significant western of the new century, Brokeback Mountain.’
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford—Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Shepard (2007; Dir: Andrew Dominik)
This is a gorgeously-shot film, and it could be that Brad Pitt makes the most convincing Jesse James yet seen on film, in terms of charisma, psychosis and world-weariness at the end of his career. But this is also a long movie that doesn’t move much and spends a lot of time with Casey Affleck as Robert Ford looking squirrelly and not giving much away. If you love a good exercise in filmmaking, this may be for you. Some say it requires multiple viewings to appreciate its virtues.
Bad Day at Black Rock—Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Anne Francis (1955; Dir: John Sturges)
No Country for Old Men—Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones, Woody Harrelson (2007; Dir: Ethan and Joel Coen)
These two excellent movies made more than 50 years apart are both set in the modern west, and the question with such movies is how much they involve traditional western themes. That’s the primary reason Lone Star (also set in modern Texas) is on the list of great westerns and these are not: Lone Star is more of a western, with principal themes relating to the mythos of the Old West. But some of the principal characters in all of them wear cowboy hats, and these three are all superb movies. See them and decide for yourself. The Coen brothers’ Blood Simple (1984) is also an excellent movie set in modern Texas, but it more clearly belongs to another genre: neo-film noir.