Category Archives: Overview

Calling the Shots: Great Directors of Westerns

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 26, 2013

Calling the Shots:  Great Directors of Westerns

“A director must be a policeman, a midwife, a psychoanalyst, a sycophant and a bastard.”  Billy Wilder.


What makes a director of westerns great?  Criteria include the following: 

·         Ability to tell stories:  Does the story flow?  How well can a viewer follow it?  Some directors are interested in mood and style to the exclusion of story.  They can also be great directors, but westerns are rooted in stories, and in certain kinds of stories.  If there is inadequate attention to story, or if it’s hard to follow and doesn’t flow, or if it causes the viewer’s attention to wander, the other elements of the film had better be unusually strong to retain our interest.  Some directors seem less interested in story and are still great.  Consider Howard Hawks, who in recruiting Robert Mitchum for El Dorado in 1966, responded to Mitchum’s questions about the movie by telling him the story didn’t matter because the movie had “some great characters.”  And Sergio Leone would often not pay much attention to plot and story while he was playing with mood and visual style.  But they’re both great directors of westerns nevertheless.

·         Visual style:  Film is primarily a visual medium, and those directors who are remembered as the greatest either have their own distinctive visual styles or are linked for several movies with an excellent cinematographer.  It can be hard to distinguish which parts of the visual style are the responsibility of the director and which of the cinematographer.  But the director bears the ultimate responsibility for how the movie works, and they both have to perform well to score high in this area.  Think of Sam Peckinpah and Lucien Ballard in this context, or John Ford and Winton Hoch.


·         Use of actors:  It’s no accident that certain particularly effective directors develop relationships with actors that they tend use over and over again.  They tend to reinforce each other’s strengths.  John Ford and John Wayne are the best-known such director-actor pairing, but Anthony Mann-James Stewart, Budd Boetticher-Randolph Scott and Sergio Leone-Clint Eastwood also come quickly to mind.  Ford and Wayne worked together from 1939 until the end of Ford’s career in the 1960s, but more frequently these actor-director partnerships flourish for five years or less.  The best directors often get good (or even great) performances out of actors that don’t do as well in other contexts.  Think of Howard Hawks’ use of Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson (and maybe Angie Dickinson) in Rio Bravo.  That’s one of the things that tends to make us think of Hawks as a great director.

·         Connection with traditional themes:  Sam Peckinpah’s connection with traditional western themes often causes questions in the mind of his viewers, but it’s undeniably there—sometimes revisionist in sensibility, but always there.  This is one of John Ford‘s strengths, too, although he can also seem too connected with nostalgic Americana.  Other directors who are great seem to lack the sense of connection and go straight for the revisionist elements.  These may produce great movies but not necessarily great westerns.  That’s one reason why there has been a discussion for decades about how great McCabe and Mrs. Miller by Robert Altman is.  Some think it’s one of the greatest westerns, but it has a fairly low sense of connection with traditional themes and remains rooted pretty firmly in the early 1970s.  Altman was a great director, and you couldn’t consider you’d seen his best work without watching McCabe, but it’s not inarguably a great western. 

·         Innovation:  In westerns, as in other genres of movies, it can get tiresome to watch the same movies over and over under other names.  Something has to be different, and the great ones bring innovation with them.  John Ford’s stories often seem based in a nostalgic Americana from another era, but he was the first to see the possibilities of Monument Valley as a location and nobody has used it more effectively.  And his visual sense was cutting-edge in its time.  Anthony Mann’s anguished protagonists (usually played by James Stewart) were different than what had been seen in westerns before, but they ushered in perhaps the greatest era of western movie-making in the 1950s.  Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah were innovators whose innovations have stuck in the genre.

·         Body of work:  It’s pretty hard to be considered a great director of westerns with only one western.  That means, in a film-making business where not that many westerns are made, that there are few directors you can point to as up-and-coming directors of westerns.  A director of a great western (Michael Mann with Last of the Mohicans, James Mangold with 3:10 to Yuma, the Coen brothers with True Grit) might make only one western in an entire career.  So one of the considerations in being a great director of westerns is to ask, “What is the totality of his work in the genre?”  Not every western John Ford or Howard Hawks made was great, but you have to take them all into account, the great and the less-great, when assessing the director. 

·        Influence on others:  If you have any sense of cinematic history, it’s impossible to watch violence in a current western without considering how The Wild Bunch changed the depiction of violence on film.  Certain kinds of shot (a rider in the distance, a tight close-up focusing on the eyes) remind one of Sergio Leone’s style, as does music involving chanting or whistling.  Effective use of wide desert vistas, especially the geological formations in Monument Valley, calls John Ford to mind.


·         Film-making adventurousness:  Doing something new is always a risk, because films are marketed along traditional lines, pitching them in ways that have worked before.  Studio executives always want something that’s worked before, as opposed to something different.  Doing the different thing may produce a great western without producing the kind of financial returns that get a studio’s or distributor’s attention.  The Grey Fox, A Thousand Pieces of Gold and Lone Star were modestly successful films that were great westerns without spawning a horde of imitators, or, in the case of two of those, without even being available on DVD.  But the urge to do something in a different way will be essential to keeping the westerns genre (or any other) alive.  It’s a constant process of referring to the past (since the western as a genre relates uniquely to the history of America’s west) and infusing it with something new.  That challenge can be having the discipline and skill to balance the urge to reach for one’s own vision without tipping over into self-indulgence (the curse of Sam Peckinpah).

Having said all that, below is a an idiosyncratic and fairly short personal list containing a ranking of the greatest directors of western movies.  This will be followed by short lists of directors that might be great if we expanded the list a bit, lists of the greatest directors of westerns still working, and some others.  Each of the greatest directors and the near-greats will get an individual future post.

The Greatest Directors of Westerns Since 1939

  1.  John Ford
  2.  Anthony Mann
  3. Howard Hawks
  4. Sam Peckinpah
  5. Budd Boetticher
  6. Sergio Leone
  7. Clint Eastwood

Clint Eastwood on the set of High Plains Drifter, 1973.

Near-Great Directors of Westerns

  1. Walter Hill
  2. Kevin Costner
  3. John Sturges
  4. Delmer Daves
  5. Simon Wincer
  6. William Wellman

Greatest Directors of Westerns Now Working

(Those Who Have Made More Than One).  If any of these guys made one more great western, and maybe just one more good one, they’d vault on to the list of greatest directors.  Eastwood’s last western was Unforgiven, more than twenty years ago, and he’s now in his 80s.  Walter Hill is getting up there, too.  But Costner and Wincer could each come up with something, although Costner doesn’t often direct any more.

  1. Clint Eastwood (already on the Greatest Directors list)
  2. Walter Hill
  3. Kevin Costner
  4. Simon Wincer
  5. The Coen Brothers

DeTothAndre de Toth

Notable Directors of Westerns

1.  Henry Hathaway (North to Alaska, True Grit, The Sons of Katie Elder, Rawhide)
2.  Raoul Walsh (The Big Trail, They Died With Their Boots On, San Antonio, Colorado Territory, The Tall Men)
3.  Andre de Toth (Ramrod, Carson City, Riding Shotgun, Day of the Outlaw, The Bounty Hunter)
4.  Jacques Tourneur (Canyon Passage, Stars in My Crown, Stranger on Horseback, Wichita)
5.  Edward Dmytryk (Warlock, Alvarez Kelly, Broken Lance)
6.  Don Siegel (The Shootist, Two Mules for Sister Sara)
7.  Andrew V. McLaglen (Cahill U.S. Marshal, Shenandoah, The Way West, McLintock!)
8.  Burt Kennedy (Support Your Local Sheriff, Support Your Local Gunfighter, The War Wagon, The Train Robbers)

Antonia Bird in 2004. Antonia Bird

Female Directors of Westerns

They’re still quite rare.  Most of these are within the last twenty years.  But one of them, Nancy Kelly, made a western that’s on the list of 55 great westerns.  Now, if somebody would only issue a DVD of A Thousand Pieces of Gold.  (Ed. Note:  Done by Kino Lorber in 2020.)  After all, there are many others not so great for which a DVD is available.  (The MfTV designation means it was made for television.)

Lina Wertmuller, The Belle Starr Story

Maggie Greenwald, The Ballad of Little Jo (MfTV)

Nancy Kelly, A Thousand Pieces of Gold

Antonia Bird, Ravenous

Randa Haines, The Outsider (MfTV)

Kelly Reichardt, Meek’s Cutoff 

Suza Lambert Bowzer, A River of Skulls

Rachel Talalay, Hannah’s Law (MfTV) 

Choe Zhao, The Rider

Susanna White, Woman Walks Ahead (2017)

Emma Tammi, The Wind (2018)

Kelly Reichardt, First Cow (2020)

Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog (2021)

Lang  Fritz Lang

One-Eyed Directors of Westerns

Raoul Walsh and Andre de Toth were both genuinely one-eyed.  The others tended, especially as they got older, to wear an eye patch over a weaker eye.  Two of these directors even made 3-D films during the brief fad for those in the early 1950s:  House of Wax and The Stranger Wore a Gun by Andre de Toth, and Gun Fury by Raoul Walsh.  With only one eye, they could of course not see the 3-D effects at all.

John Ford

Raoul Walsh (The Big Trail, They Died With Their Boots On, San Antonio, Colorado Territory, The Tall Men, etc.)

Fritz Lang (The Return of Frank James, Western Union, Rancho Notorious)

Andre de Toth (Ramrod, Carson City, Riding Shotgun, The Bounty Hunter, Day of the Outlaw)

Nicholas Ray (Johnny Guitar)

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Women in Westerns

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 18, 2013

Women in Westerns


Sacajawea points the way west (N.C. Wyeth)–one of the early significant female characters in the west.  There is no known photograph of her, despite some of the things you will see on the internet.  She died before the age of photography.  However, in 1955 in The Far Horizons, Donna Reed played her in very dark make-up, which didn’t run even when she was required to cry.  She led Fred MacMurray and Charlton Heston to the Pacific Coast, while falling in love with Heston (as William Clark).

Compson-The_Terror_of_The_RangeCompsonasStarr incourt-martial28

As long as there have been western movies, some of them have emphasized women.  The poster above is for The Terror of the Range (1919) and features Betty Compson.  According to the poster, it also features “Incomparable riders, a beautiful heroine, a hero who is ultra daring and the bold, free adventurous life of the last frontier.”  At the time this movie was made, that frontier era was only about 30 years in the past.  The still shows Compson nine years later as a glamorous Belle Starr with Jack Holt in 1928’s Court-Martial, now thought to be lost.

Historically, the American west was a land dominated by men, with only a small population of women as the frontier developed.  That means it’s possible to tell a good western story without women, just as men often seemed peripheral to the female melodramas of the 1930s and 40s.  However, since romance has always been a strong element of the movies, there have always been roles for women in western stories, too.  Sometimes, depending on writing, direction and performance, they can make a dominant contribution to the story.  There was the cattle queen era of 1950s westerns (think Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar, Marlene Dietrich in Rancho Notorious, and Barbara Stanwyck in Forty Guns or The Furies, along with a number of others).  Since 1970 or so, there have been a number of attempts to tell western stories with a stronger female point of view, or with more assertive female characters (and there were always some assertive female characters in the west).

The lists below constitute an attempt to collect some of the stronger female performances in westerns, as well as some that were obviously less successful.  As with all such lists, they tend to be matters of opinion and they are not complete.  If you care to take issue with any appearance on one of these lists or think somebody’s been omitted, please leave a comment.  The lists will be revised periodically as other movies and performances come to my attention.  See also Great Performances in Westerns, Women’s Division.  For the fashion, especially notable in the late 1960s, of casting European actresses in westerns, see the post on European Women in Westerns.


The Outlaw:  This was supposedly Howard Hughes’ 1943 retelling of the story of Billy the Kid.  But the dominant image associated with the film was never a male one.  The actor who played Billy is not much remembered (it was Jack Beutel), but few forget Jane Russell, even if it was a terrible movie.

Excellent Women in Westerns:

Claire Trevor in Stagecoach

Marlene Dietrich in Destry Rides Again

Jean Arthur in The PlainsmanArizona and Shane

Marlene Dietrich in The Spoilers (1942)

Veronica Lake in Ramrod

Gail Russell in Angel and the Badman

Anne Baxter in Yellow Sky

Judith Anderson in Pursued and The Furies

Loretta Young in Rachel and the Stranger

Barbara Stanwyck in Union Pacific and The Furies

Linda Darnell in My Darling Clementine and Two Flags West

Virginia Mayo in Colorado Territory

Paula Raymond in Devil’s Doorway

Denise Darcel, Hope Emerson and the cast of Westward the Women

Shelly Winters in Winchester ’73 and The Scalphunters

Elizabeth Threatt in The Big Sky

Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar

Dorothy Malone in Quantez and The Last Sunset

Angie Dickinson in Rio Bravo


Sophia Loren in Heller in Pink Tights.

Sophia Loren in Heller in Pink Tights

Lee Remick in The Hallelujah Trail

Rosalind Chao in A Thousand Pieces of Gold

Annette Bening in Open Range

Anjelica Huston and Diane Lane in Lonesome Dove

Grace Kelly and Katy Jurado in High Noon

Geraldine Page in Hondo

Susan Hayward in Garden of Evil and Rawhide

Greer Garson in Strange Lady in Town

Katy Jurado in High Noon and Man from Del Rio

Carolyn Jones in Last Train from Gun Hill

Capucine in North to Alaska

Jane Fonda in Cat Ballou

Joanne Woodward in Big Hand for the Little Lady

Madeline Stowe in Last of the Mohicans

Mariette Hartley in Ride the High Country

Pamela Reed in The Long Riders

Diane Cilento in Hombre

Joan Hackett in Will Penny and Support Your Local Sheriff

Cate Blanchett in The Missing

Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit

Hilary Swank in The Homesman

Natalie Portman in Jane Got a Gun

Haley Bennett in The Magnificent Seven (2016)

Jessica Chastain in Woman Walks Ahead (2017)

Rosamund Pike in Hostiles (2017)

Helena Zengel in News of the World (2020)

Movie Review: 'Hostiles' stars Bale, Pike in violent, slow-burn western | WTOP

Rosamund Pike in Hostiles

News Of The World' Star Helena Zengel On Her Breakout Western Role – Deadline

Helena Zengel in News of the World

These three seemed to be good in most westerns in which they appeared.  Indeed, they tended to be typecast and known principally for their roles in westerns:

Joanne Dru (She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Red River, Southwest Passage, DrangoReturn of the Texan, Wagon Master)

Virginia Mayo (Colorado Territory, Along the Great Divide, Devil’s Canyon, The Big Land, The Iron Mistress, The Proud Ones, The Tall Stranger, Fort Dobbs, Westbound)

Katy Jurado (High Noon, San Antone, Arrowhead, Broken Lance, The Badlanders, Man from Del Rio)

Women9Baxter Anne Baxter in Yellow Sky.

Woman as Outlaw Dupes

Mona Freeman in Streets of Laredo

Laura Elliott/Kasey Rogers in Denver & Rio Grande

Julia Adams in Bend of the River

Janet Leigh in The Naked Spur

Dorothy Malone in Quantez

Julie London in Drango

Angie Dickinson in Gun the Man Down

Mariette Hartley in Ride the High Country

Vera Miles in Molly and Lawless John

Candice Bergen in Bite the Bullet

Women6MartinelliBelle Starr

The female gunfighter has always been an interesting fantasy.  This is Elsa Martinelli as Belle Starr in The Belle Starr Story, aka Il mio corpo per un poker (1968), a spaghetti western directed by Lina Wertmuller.  Not much like the real Belle Starr (Myra Belle Shirley), right, who was killed at the age of 40 in 1889 in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) by unknown persons.  She was also played by such beauties as Gene Tierney and Jane Russell, among many others.

Vengeful Women with Guns

Loretta Young in Along Came Jones (1945; Dir:  Stuart Heisler)

Ann Savage in Renegade Girl (1946; Dir:  William Berke)

Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge in Johnny Guitar (1954; Dir:  Ray)

Patricia Medina in The Buckskin Lady (1957)

Raquel Welch in Bandolero! (1968; Dir:  McLaglen)

Michele Carey in Five Savage Men (1971; Dir:  Ron Joy)

Raquel Welch in Hannie Caulder (1973; Dir:  Burt Kennedy)

Madeline Stowe, Mary Stuart Masterson, Andie MacDowell and Drew Barrymore in Bad Girls (1994)

Sharon Stone in The Quick and the Dead (1995; Dir:  Raimi)

Sage Mears in 6 Guns (DVD, 2010)

Sara Canning in Hannah’s Law (MfTV, 2012)

Helena Bonham Carter in The Lone Ranger (2013)

Jacqueline Cerceres in Revenge (2013)

Eva Green in The Salvation (2014)

Natalie Portman in Jane Got a Gun (2016)

Haley Bennett in The Magnificent Seven (2016)

Taissa Farmiga in In a Valley of Violence (2016)

Outlaw Women 1952 Outlaw Women, 1952

Women in Gunfights (not quite the same thing, but there are some duplications)

Binnie Barnes in Frontier Marshal (1939)

Loretta Young in Along Came Jones (1945)

Jennifer Jones in Duel in the Sun (1946)

Joanne Dru in Red River (1948)

Mona Freeman in Streets of Laredo (1949)

Virginia Mayo in Colorado Territory (1949)

Alexis Smith in Montana (1950)

Anne Baxter in A Ticket to Tomahawk (1950)

Susan Hayward in Rawhide (1951)

Grace Kelly in High Noon (1952)    

 Maureen O’Hara in The Redhead from Wyoming (1953) 

 Barbara Stanwyck in The Moonlighter (1953)

 Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge in Johnny Guitar (1954)

Karen Booth in Top Gun (1955)

 Beverly Garland in Gunslinger (1956)

Valerie French in Decision at Sundown (1957)

 Inger Stevens in Firecreek (1968)

Raquel Welch in Bandolero! (1968), 100 Rifles (1969) and Hannie Caulder (1971).

Candice Bergen in Bite the Bullet (1975)

 Madeleine Stowe, Drew Barrymore et al. in Bad Girls (1994)

 Sharon Stone in The Quick and the Dead (1995)

 Megan Fox in Jonah Hex (2010)

 Sage Mears in 6 Guns (2010)

 Sara Canning in Hannah’s Law (MfTV, 2012)

Eva Green in The Salvation (2014)

Natalie Portman in Jane Got a Gun (2016)

Haley Bennett in The Magnificent Seven (2016)

Rosamund Pike in Hostiles (2017)


Angie Dickinson brought obvious talents, as well as some that were not so obvious, to a terrific performance as Feathers in Rio Bravo (1959).

Women with a Past

Estelle Taylor in Cimarron (1931)

Claire Trevor in Stagecoach and The Stranger Wore a Gun

Marlene Dietrich in Destry Rides Again and The Spoilers

Gypsy Rose Lee in Belle of the Yukon

Joanne Dru in Red River and Wagon Master

Linda Darnell in My Darling Clementine

Virginia Mayo in Colorado Territory

Gloria Grahame and others in Roughshod

Katy Jurado in High Noon and The Badlanders

Julia Adams in The Lawless Breed

Shelley Winters in Winchester ’73, Saskatchewan, Frenchie                                                            and The Scalphunters

Marlene Dietrich in Rancho Notorious

Valerie French in Decision at Sundown

Virginia Mayo in The Tall Stranger

Angie Dickinson in Gun the Man Down

Julie London in Saddle the Wind and Man of the West

Irene Pappas in Tribute to a Bad Man

Dorothy Malone in Quantez

Angie Dickinson in Rio Bravo

Carolyn Jones in Last Train from Gun Hill

Donna Reed in Backlash

Anne Baxter in The Spoilers (1955), Three Violent People (1956) and Cimarron (1960)

Sophia Loren in Heller in Pink Tights

Maureen O’Hara in The Deadly Companions

Annelle Hayes in Two Rode Together

Capucine in North to Alaska

Barbara Luna and Marie Windsor in Mail Order Bride

Janet Margolin and Suzanne Pleshette in Nevada Smith

Claudia Cardinale in The Professionals

The female cast of Savage Pampas

Raquel Welch in Bandolero!

Diane Cilento in Hombre

Angie Dickinson in The Last Challenge

Angie Dickinson in Young Billy Young

Claudia Cardinale in Once Upon a Time in the West

Shirley Jones et al. in The Cheyenne Social Club

Inger Stevens in Five Card Stud

Shirley MacLaine in Two Mules for Sister Sara

Jeanne Moreau in Monte Walsh

Julie Christie in McCabe and Mrs. Miller

Stella Stevens in The Ballad of Cable Hogue

Candice Bergen in Bite the Bullet

Pamela Reed in The Long Riders

Diane Lane in Lonesome Dove

Laura San Giacomo in Quigley Down Under

Madeline Stowe, Mary Stuart Masterson, Andie MacDowell and Drew Barrymore in Bad Girls (1994)

Crystal Bernard in Siringo (MfTV, 1994)

Greta Schacchi in Broken Trail

January Jones in Sweetwater

Helena Bonham Carter in The Lone Ranger

Natalie Portman in Jane Got a Gun

Stef Dawson in Painted Woman


Renee Zellweger in Cold Mountain, and Sharon Stone in The Quick and the Dead.

Sagas with Female Leads

Jubilee Trail

Duel in the Sun

The Sea of Grass

The Furies

The Big Country

Forty Guns


How the West Was Won

Cold Mountain


The story of Wild Bill Hickok always presents an opportunity for a Calamity Jane, just as Wyatt Earp always has a juicy role for Doc Holliday.  This not-so-plain Jane is Ellen Barkin, in Wild Bill (1995).  With the real Martha Jane Cannary on the right.  Note the differences in body language, among other things.

Less Successful Attempts at Female Leads in Westerns:

Barbara Stanwyck in Annie Oakley (1935; Dir:  Stevens)

Gene Tierney in Belle Starr (1941, with Randolph Scott)

Ann Dvorak in Flame of the Barbary Coast (1945, with John Wayne; Dir:  Kane)

Marie Windsor in Dakota Lil (1948)

Yvonne DeCarlo in The Gal Who Took the West (1949; Dir:  DeCordova)

Marlene Dietrich in Rancho Notorious (1952; Dir:  Lang)

Jane Russell in Montana Belle (1952; Dir:  Dwan)

Maureen O’Hara in The Redhead from Wyoming (1952)

Doris Day in Calamity Jane (1953; Dir:  Butler)

Barbara Stanwyck in Cattle Queen of Montana (1954)

Barbara Stanwyck in The Violent Men (1955)

Barbara Stanwyck in The Maverick Queen (1956)

Mercedes McCambridge in Johnny Guitar (1954; Dir:  Ray)

Claudette Colbert in Texas Lady (1955; Dir:  Whelan)

The King and Four Queens (1956)

 Doris Day in The Ballad of Josie (1968)

 Shirley MacLaine in Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970; Dir:  Don Siegel)


Candice Bergin with Cheyenne child and fake severed Indian head in the revisionist Soldier Blue (1970).

Candice Bergen in Soldier Blue (1970)

 Michele Carey in Five Savage Men (1971; Dir:  Ron Joy)

 Raquel Welch in Hannie Caulder (1973; Dir:  Burt Kennedy)

Sharon Stone in The Quick and the Dead (1995; Dir:  Raimi)

Salma Hayek and Penelope Cruz in Bandidas (2006; Dir:  Sandberg, Roenning)

The Far Side of Jericho—Andrews, Burnett, Negrin (2006; Dir:  Hunter)

Sarah Canning in Hannah’s Law (MfTV, 2012)


Pamela Reed as Belle Starr is not to be trifled with in Walter Hill’s The Long Riders.

Female Directors of Westerns

Lina Wertmuller, The Belle Starr Story, also known as Il mio corpo per un poker (1968)

Nancy Kelly, A Thousand Pieces of Gold (1991)

Antonia Bird, Ravenous  (1999)

Randa Haines, The Outsider (MfTV, 2002)

Kelly Reichardt, Meek’s Cutoff (2010)

Suza Lambert Bowser, A River of Skulls (2010)

Rachel Talalay, Hannah’s Law (MfTV, 2012)

Susanna White, Woman Walks Ahead (2018)

Emma Tammi, The Wind (2018)

Kelly Reichardt, First Cow (2020)

Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog (2021)













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What to See Now?

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 4, 2013

Other Westerns Worth Watching:

Now that we’ve considered the 55 great westerns and have seen all those, where should we go from here?  Provided for your convenience, is a list of westerns worth watching, decade by decade.  As a general guide, the headnotes also provide some indication of how westerns were changing during that decade.  The best of these westerns are noted with an asterisk.


The original Destry, 1932; one of Tom Mix’s last films. The 1939 version with James Stewart is better known.

1930s and 1940s:

Trends and Fashions:  Westerns were not held in high cinematic regard in the 1930s.  But with Stagecoach, better production values and stories start to show up; some westerns move up from B movie status with the occasional large-budget film (Dodge City, Union Pacific).  Major stars appear more often in westerns, now that the genre is slightly more respectable (Errol Flynn, James Stewart, Olivia de Havilland, Gary Cooper).  Rise of John Wayne and John Ford; use of Monument Valley.  Beginning of mythologizing of Wyatt Earp (biographer Stuart Lake) and Billy the Kid (writer Walter Noble Burns).  Emerging specialization of Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott.  “Mystery” detective plots.  Technological westerns (railroad, telegraph, etc.) emphasizing expansion of the US and Manifest Destiny.  Singing cowboys (Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Eddie Dean).  Toward the end of the 1940s:  Cavalry movies (They Died With Their Boots On, John Ford’s cavalry trilogy), noir influence and stars, cattle drive westerns (Red River), more psychological depth.  Hopalong Cassidy.

The Big Trail–Wayne, Churchill (1930; Dir:  Walsh)

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

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

Jesse James—Power, Fonda (1939; Dir:  King)

Frontier Marshal–Scott, Romero, Kelly (1939; Dir:  Dwan)

*Dodge City—Flynn, De Haviland (1939; Dir:  Curtiz)

*Union Pacific—McCrea, Stanwyck, Preston (1939; Dir:  DeMille)

*Destry Rides Again—Stewart, Deitrich (1939; Dir:  Marshall), better than the remake with Murphy (1954; Dir:  Marshall)

The Return of Frank James–Fonda, Tierney (1940; Dir:  Lang)

*Virginia City—Flynn, Hopkins, Scott (1940; Dir:  Curtiz)

The Westerner—Cooper (1940; Dir:  Wyler)

Arizona—Arthur, Holden, William (1940; Dir:  Ruggles)

Santa Fe Trail–Flynn, Reagan, De Havilland (1940; Dir:  Curtiz)

*Northwest Passage—Tracy, Young (1940; Dir:  Vidor)

*Mark of Zorro—Power, Darnell, Rathbone (1940; Dir:  Mamoulian)

They Died With Their Boots On—Flynn, De Havilland (1941; Dir:  Eason, Walsh)

Texas—Ford, Holden, Trevor (1941; Dir:  Marshall)

*Western Union—Scott, Young, Jagger (1941; Dir Lang)

The Spoilers—Wayne, Scott, Dietrich, Carey (1942; Dir:  Enright)

The Desperadoes–Scott, Ford, Trevor, Keyes (1943; Dir:  C. Vidor)

Along Came Jones–Cooper, Young (1945; Dir:  Heisler)

*Canyon Passage–Andrews, Hayward, Donlevy (1946; Dir:  Tourneur)

Duel in the Sun—Peck, Cotton, Jones, Barrymore, Gish (1946; Dir:  Dieterle, von Sternberg)

*Ramrod—McCrea, Lake (1947; Dir:  De Toth)

*Angel and the Badman—Wayne, Russell, Carey (1947; Dir: Grant)

3 Godfathers—Wayne, Armendariz, Carey (1948; Dir:  Ford)

*Rachel and the Stranger—Holden, Mitchum, Young (1948, Dir:  Foster)

*Yellow Sky—Peck, Widmark, Baxter (1948; Dir:  Wellman)

Pursued—Mitchum, Wright (1948; Dir:  Walsh)

*Blood on the Moon—Mitchum, Preston (1948; Dir:  Walsh)

Station West—Powell, Greer, Moorhead (1948; Dir:  Lanfield)

Whispering Smith—Ladd, Preston (1948; Dir:  Fenton)

*Four Faces West–McCrea, Dee, Bickford, Calleia (1948, Dir:  Green)

*Colorado Territory—McCrea, Mayo (1949; Dir:  Walsh; remake of “High Sierra” as a western)

Lust for Gold—Ford, Lupino (1949; Dir:  Simon)


An Italian poster for Colorado Territory, 1949: Virginia Mayo takes on the world.


Trends and fashionsWesterns are now mainstream films.  Continuation of cavalry movies.  “Adult” theme psychological westerns (Anthony Mann et al.).  Lawman vs. townsmen theme (High Noon, The Tin Star, At Gunpoint, Warlock, etc.)  Bright colors, clean clothes and sets.  Last of black and white movies generally, although some continued to be made into the 1960s.  “Cattle Queen” westerns, featuring established actresses in mid-career (Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich, Greer Garson) as female leads in westerns.

*Ambush—Taylor, Dahl, Hodiak (1950; Dir:  Wood)

Branded–Ladd, Freeman, Keith (1950; Dir:  Mate)

*The Gunfighter—Peck (1950; Dir:  King)

*Stars in My Crown–McCrea, Drew (1950; Dir:  Tourneur)

The Outriders—McCrea, Dahl (1950; Dir. Rowland)

The Furies—Stanwyck, Huston, Corey, Roland (1950; Dir:  Mann)

Devil’s Doorway—Taylor, Raymond (1950; Dir: Mann)

Wagon Master–Bond, Dru, Johnson (1950; Dir:  Ford)

Broken Arrow—Stewart, Chandler, Paget (1950; Dir:  Daves)

Two Flags West—Cotton, Chandler, Darnell (1950; Dir:  Wise)

The Cariboo Trail—Scott, Hayes (1950; Dir:  Marin)

Rocky Mountain–Flynn, Wymore (1950; Dir:  Keighley)

*Westward the Women—Taylor, McIntire, Darcel (1951; Dir:  Wellman)

Only the Valiant—Peck, Chaney, Bond, Brand (1951; Dir:  Douglas)

Man in the Saddle—Scott, Leslie (1951; Dir:  De Toth)

*Rawhide—Power, Hayward, Marlowe (1951; Dir:  Hathaway)

The Wild North—Granger, Corey, Charisse (1952; Dir:  Marton)

*Bend of the River—Stewart, Hudson (1952; Dir:  Mann)

*The Big Sky—Douglas, Hunnicutt (1952; Dir:  Hawks)

Hangman’s Knot—Scott, Marvin (1952; Dir:  Huggins)

Carson City–Scott, Massey (1952, Dir:  De Toth)

*Escape from Fort Bravo—Holden, Parker, Forsyth (1953; Dir:  Sturges)

Arrowhead—Heston, Palance (1953; Dir:  Warren)

*Garden of Evil—Cooper, Widmark, Hayward (1954; Dir:  Hathaway)

*Vera Cruz—Cooper, Lancaster (1954; Dir:  Aldrich)

Johnny Guitar—Crawford, Hayden (1954; Dir:  Ray)

Dawn at Socorro–Calhoun, Laurie (1954; Dir:  Sherman)

Three Hours to Kill–Andrews, Reed (1954; Dir:  Werker)

Man Without a Star—Douglas, Boone, Trevor, Crain (1955; Dir:  Vidor)

*Man With the Gun—Mitchum, Sterling (1955; Dir:  Wilson)

*A Man Alone—Milland, Bond, Murphy, Burr (1955; Dir:  Milland)

The Violent Men—Ford, Stanwyck, Robinson, Keith (1955; Dir:  Mate)

Strange Lady in Town–Garson, Andrews, Mitchell (1955; Dir:  LeRoy)

*Bad Day at Black Rock—Tracy, Ryan (1955; Dir: Sturges)

The Proud Ones—Ryan, Mayo (1956; Dir:  Webb)

Tension at Table Rock–Egan, Mitchell, Malone (1956; Dir:  Warren)

The Last Wagon—Widmark, Farr (1956; Dir:  Daves)

Jubal—Ford, Steiger, Bronson (1956; Dir:  Daves)

Backlash—Widmark, Reed, McIntire (1956; Dir:  Sturges)

*The Ride Back–Conrad, Quinn (1957; Dir:  Miner)

The Tall Stranger–McCrea, Mayo (1957; Dir:  Carr)

*Gunfight at the OK Corral—Lancaster, Douglas (1957; Dir:  Sturges)

*The Tall T—Scott, Boone, O’Sullivan (1957; Dir:  Boetticher)

Quantez–MacMurray, Malone, Marlowe (1957; Dir:  Keller)

Forty Guns–Sullivan, Stanwyck, Barry (1957; Dir:  Fuller)

Night Passage—Stewart, Murphy (1957; Dir:  Neilson)

*Old Yeller—McGuire, Kirk, Corcoran, Parker (1957; Dir:  Stevenson)

*3:10 to Yuma (original)—Ford, Heflin (1957; Dir:  Daves)

Decision at Sundown–Scott, Beery, Steele (1957; Dir:  Boetticher)

Trooper Hook—McCrea, Stanwyck (1957; Dir:  Warren)

The Badlanders—Ladd, Borgnine, Jurado (1958; Dir:  Daves)

*The Law and Jake Wade—Taylor, Widmark (1958; Dir:  Sturges)

                        The Bravados—Peck, Boyd, Collins (1958; Dir:  King)

                         Fort Dobbs–Walker, Mayo, Keith (1958; Dir:  Douglas)

The Sheepman—Ford, Nielsen, MacLaine (1958; Dir:  Marshall)

Cowboy—Ford, Lemmon (1958; Dir:  Daves)

Man of the West—Cooper, London (1958; Dir:  Mann)

Face of a Fugitive–MacMurray, Green (1959; Dir:  Wendkos)

*Last Train from Gun Hill—Douglas, Quinn (1959; Dir:  Sturges)

*Ride Lonesome—Scott, Roberts (1959; Dir:  Boetticher)

*Warlock—Fonda, Widmark, Quinn (1959; Dir:  Dmytryk)

                        The Fastest Gun Alive—Ford, Crain (1959; Dir:  Rouse)

                        *Day of the Outlaw—Ryan, Ives (1959; Dir:  De Toth)

                        Good Day for a Hanging—MacMurray, Vaughn (1959; Dir:  Juran)

                        The Hanging Tree—Cooper, Schell (1959; Dir:  Daves)



Trends and fashions:  End of cavalry movies.  Spaghetti westerns.  Beginning of anti-authority, prisons and prostitutes.  Sympathy for Indians.  More blacks in westerns.  Beginning of western satires.  More explicit violence (influence of spaghetti westerns, Bonnie and Clyde, The Wild Bunch).  New trends in music (Morricone, Duel at Diablo).  “!” in the title.

Cimarron—Ford (1960; Dir:  Mann)

Sergeant Rutledge—Hunter, Strode (1960; Dir:  Ford)

The Unforgiven—Lancaster, Hepburn, Murphy, Gish (1960; Dir:  Huston)

*Two Rode Together—Stewart, Widmark (1961, Dir:  Ford)

The Last Sunset–Douglas, Hudson, Malone, Cotten (1961; Dir:  Aldrich)

How the West Was Won—Wayne, Stewart, Fonda, Reynolds, Peck (1963; Dir:  Hathaway, Ford, Marshall)

*Major Dundee—Heston, Harris (1964; Dir:  Peckinpah)

*A Fistful of Dollars—Eastwood (1964; Dir:  Leone)

*Rio Conchos—Boone, Whitman, Brown (1964; Dir:  Douglas)

The Sons of Katie Elder—Wayne, Martin (1964; Dir:  Hathaway)

Cheyenne Autumn—Widmark, Baker, Montalban, Mineo (1964; Dir:  Ford)

Invitation to a Gunfighter—Brynner (1964; Dir:  Wilson)

Shenandoah—Stewart (1965; Dir: McLaglen)

The Rounders—Fonda, Ford (1965; Dir:  Kennedy)

*For a Few Dollars More—Eastwood, Van Cleef (1965; Dir:  Leone)

Django—Nero (1966; Dir:  Carbucci)

Big Hand for the Little Lady—Fonda, Woodward (1966; Dir: Cook)

The Rare Breed—Stewart, O’Hara (1966; Dir:  McLaglen)

Alvarez Kelly—Holden, Widmark (1966; Dir:  Dmytryk)

Nevada Smith—McQueen, Keith (1966; Dir:  Hathaway)

*El Dorado—Wayne, Mitchum, Caan (1967; Dir:  Hawks)

*The War Wagon—Wayne, Douglas (1967; Dir:  Kennedy)

*Hombre—Newman, March, Boone (1967; Dir:  Witt)

The Way West—Douglas, Mitchum, Widmark (1967; Dir:  McLaglen)

*The Good, the Bad and the Ugly—Eastwood, Van Cleef, Wallach (1967; Dir:  Leone)

*Once Upon a Time in the West—Fonda, Cardinale, Robards, Bronson, Strode, Elam (1968; Dir:  Leone)

The Scalphunters—Lancaster, Davis, Winter, Savalas (1968; Dir:  Pollack)

Firecreek—Fonda, Stewart (1968; Dir:  McEveety)

The Stalking Moon—Peck, Saint (1968; Dir:  Mulligan)

Villa Rides—Brynner, Mitchum (1968; Dir:  Kulik)

Bandolero!—Stewart, Martin, Welch (1968; Dir:  McLaglen)

*Will Penny—Heston, Hackett (1968; Dir:  Gries)


A German poster for a spaghetti western.


Trends and fashions:  End of the cinematic fashion for westerns generally, around 1976.  “End of an era” westerns.  Revisionist westerns, with anti-authoritarianism, anti-traditional (Peckinpah); more dirt and grit.  Last of the spaghetti westerns.  More minority themes.  Continuation of fascination with prisons and prostitutes.

*Monte Walsh—Marvin, Palance, Moreau (1970; Dir:  Fraker)

The Cheyenne Social Club—Stewart, Fonda (1970; Dir:  Gene Kelly)

Little Big Man—Hoffman (1970; Dir:  Penn)

A Man Called Horse—Harris (1970; Dir:  Silverstein)

The Ballad of Cable Hogue—Robards, Stevens (1970; Dir:  Peckinpah; Lucien Ballard)

*Lawman—Lancaster, Ryan, Cobb, Duvall (1971; Dir:  Winner)

            *Skin Game—Garner, Gossett (1971; Dir:  Bogart, Douglas)

*Support Your Local Gunfighter—Garner, Elam, Pleshette (1971; Dir:  Kennedy)

*Ulzana’s Raid—Lancaster, Davison (1971; Dir:  Aldrich)

The Wild Rovers—Holden, O’Neal (1971; Dir:  Edwards)

Chato’s Land—Bronson, Palance (1971; Dir:  Winner)

Buck and the Preacher—Poitier, Belafonte (1972; Dir:  Poitier)

Junior Bonner—McQueen, Preston, Lupino (1972; Dir:  Peckinpah)

The Culpepper Cattle Co.—Grimes, Bush (1972; Dir:  Richards)

Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean—Newman (1972; Dir:  Huston)

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid—Coburn, Kristofferson, Dylan (1973; Dir:  Peckinpah)

High Plains Drifter—Eastwood (1973; Dir:  Eastwood)

Blazing Saddles—Little, Wilder (1974; Dir:  M. Brooks)

My Name is Nobody—Hill, Fonda (1974; Dir:  Valerii; Exec. Prod.:  Leone; Morricone score)

Rooster Cogburn—Wayne, Hepburn (1975; Dir:  Millar)

Bite the Bullet—Hackman, Coburn, Bergen (1975; Dir:  Brooks)

The Missouri Breaks—Brando, Nicholson (1976; Dir:  Penn)

The Frisco Kid—Ford, Wilder (1979; Dir:  Aldrich)



Trends and fashions:  Completely out of fashion cinematically.  Larger budget made-for-television movies and miniseries.  Australia used as a locale for the occasional western.

Bronco Billy—Eastwood, Locke (1980; Dir:  Eastwood)

The Mountain Men—Heston, Keith (1980; Dir:  Lang)

Tom Horn—McQueen, Farnsworth (1980; Dir:  Ward)

Windwalker—Howard, Ramus (1981; Dir:  Merrill)

Honky Tonk Man—Eastwood (1982; Dir:  Eastwood)

*Tender Mercies—Duvall, Harper (1983; Dir:  Beresford; written by Horton Foote)

*Murphy’s Romance—Garner, Field, Kerwin (1986; Dir:  Ritt)

The Quick and the Dead—Elliott, Conti (MfTV, 1987; Dir:  Day)

Sunset—Willis, Garner (1988; Dir:  Edwards)

Young Guns—Estevez, Sutherland, Phillips (1988; Dir:  Cain)

Wrangler—Fahey, Bergen (1989; Dir:  Barry)

Wyatt_earp_Poster Lawrence Kasdan’s version


Trends and fashions:  Re-emergence of occasional big budget westerns and epics (Dances With Wolves, Unforgiven), winning Oscars.  Wyatt Earp.  More authentic costuming for cowboys and westerners.  Nostalgia for television (Maverick, Zorro).  Influence of Larry McMurtry.  Sentimentality for minorities.

Young Guns II–Estevez, Sutherland, Phillips, Petersen (1990; Dir:  Murphy)

*White Fang—Hawke, Brandauer (1991; Dir:  Kleiser)

City Slickers—Crystal, Palance, Kirby, Stern (1991; Dir:  Underwood)

Conagher—Elliott, Ross (MfTV, 1991; Dir:  Villalobos)

Convicts—Duvall, Haas, Jones (1991; Dir:  Masterson; Horton Foote)

*A River Runs Through It—Sheffer, Pitt, Skerritt (1992; Dir:  Redford)

*Geronimo:  An American Legend—Patric, Hackman, Duvall, Damon, Studi (1993; Dir:  W. Hill; not MfTV)

Bad Girls–Stowe, Barrymore, MacDowell, Masterson (1994; Dir:  Kaplan)

Maverick—Gibson, Foster, Garner (1994; Dir:  Donner)

Wyatt Earp—Costner, Quaid (1994; Dir:  Kasdan)

In Pursuit of Honor—Johnson, Sheffer (MfTV, 1995; Dir:  Olin)

Dead Man—Depp (1995; Dir:  Jarmusch)

Streets of Laredo—Garner, Spacek, Shepard (MfTV, 1995; Dir:  Sargent)

Dead Man’s Walk—Abraham, Carradine, Arquette (MfTV, 1996; Dir:  Simoneau)

Riders of the Purple Sage—Harris, Madigan, Thomas (MfTV, 1996; Dir:  Haid)

Last Stand at Saber River—Selleck, Carradine (MfTV, 1997; Dir:  Lowry)

The Horse Whisperer—Redford, Scott Thomas, Cooper, Wiest, Johansson (1998; Dir:  Redford)

The Mask of Zorro—Banderas, Hopkins, Zeta-Jones (1998)

                        Ravenous—Pearce, Carlyle, Jones (1999; Dir:  Bird)

                        *Ride With the Devil–Maguire, Ulrich, Wright (1999; Dir:  Lee)

The Jack Bull—Cusack, Goodman (MfTV; 1999; Dir:  Badham)

Purgatory—Shepard, Roberts, Quaid, Lowe (MfTV, 1999; Dir:  Edel)

Promise the Moon–Czerny, Stevenson (MfTV, 1999; Dir:  Jubenvill)



Trends and fashions:  Westerns still out of fashion.  Influence of Larry McMurtry continues, largely in made-for-television westerns and miniseries.

The Virginian–Pullman, Lane (MfTV, 2000: Dir:  Pullman)

Crossfire Trail—Selleck, Madsen (MfTV, 2001; Dir:  Wincer)

The Outsider–Daly, Watts (MtTV, 2002; Dir:  Haines)

Monte Walsh—Selleck, Rosselini, Carradine (MfTV, 2003; Dir:  Wincer)

Hard Ground–Reynolds, Dern (MfTV, 2003:  Dir:  Dobbs)

The Alamo–Thornton, Quaid, Patric, Wilson (2004; Dir:  Hancock)

*Hidalgo—Mortensen, Sharif (2004; Dir:  Johnston)

*Cold Mountain—Kidman, Law, Zellweger (2004; Dir:  Minghella)

The Proposition—Pearce, Winstone, Watson (2005; Dir:  Hillcoat)

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada—Jones (2006; Dir:  Jones)

*Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford—Pitt, Affleck (2007; Dir:  Dominik)

Comanche Moon—Zahn, Urban, Kilmer (MfTV, 2008; Dir:  Wincer)

Appaloosa—Harris, Mortensen, Zellweger, Irons (2008; Dir:  Harris)


*Gunless–Gross, Guillory, Milligan, Greene (2010; Dir:  Phillips)

Blackthorn—Shepard, Noriega, Coster-Waldau, McElligott (2011; Dir:  Gil)

Django Unchained—Fox, DiCaprio, Waltz, Washington (2012; Dir:  Tarantino)

The Salvation–Mikkelsen, Persbrandt, Green, Morgan (2014; Dir:  Levring)

Slow West–Fassbender, Smit-McPhee, Pistorius (2015; Dir:  Maclean)

Forsaken–Sutherland, Wincott, Moore (2015; Dir:  Cassar)

The Hateful Eight–Jackson, Russell, Leigh, (2015; Dir:  Tarantino)

The Revenant–DiCaprio, Hardy (2015; Dir:  Inarritu)

*The Magnificent Seven–Washington, Pratt, Hawke (2016; Dir:  Fuqua)

Hell or High Water–Pine, Foster, Bridges (2016; Dir:  Mackenzie)

*Wind River–Renner, Olson (2017; Dir:  Sheridan)

*Hostiles–Bale, Pike, Studi (2017; Dir:  Cooper)



*News of the World–Hanks, Zengel (2020; Dir:  Greengrass)




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Near-Great Westerns

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 3, 2013

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 HombreNot 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.

Hostiles–Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Wes Studi (2017; Dir:  Scott Cooper)

This represents the revival, after almost 50 years, of the subgenre of cavalry movies, killed off by Vietnam-era hostility to the military.  The last good cavalry western before this was 1972’s Ulzana’s Raid, and this has virtually the same message as that one did.  With its excellent cast and good, if slow-paced, direction, this is worth seeking out.  A small detail led by Capt. Joseph Blocker (Bale) is escorting a family of northern Cheyennes back to their ancestral grounds at the end of the western Indian wars, encountering resistance and obstacles from a variety of sources, including Blocker’s own attitudes.

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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.


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


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)


Tommy Lee Jones as Samuel Jones in The Missing.


 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)

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

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


Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday in Tombstone.


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)


Richard Farnsworth as Bill Miner in The Grey Fox


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)


Roscoe Lee Browne as Jebediah Nightlinger in The Cowboys.


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)


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


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)


John Wayne as Ethan Edwards in The Searchers.


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)


Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine.


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)


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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What Makes a Western Great?

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 20, 2013

Criteria for greatness in a western movie:

  • Setting:  It almost goes without saying that a western is set in the American west, almost always during the period of greatest western expansion and settlement (around 1840 to 1890).  But that isn’t invariably true.  Last of the Mohicans, for example, is set in the east, in upstate New York, when that was on the frontier of white settlement.  The same is true of Drums Along the Mohawk.  There have been westerns set in the far north (The Spoilers and North to Alaska), even in South America (Savage Pampas, Way of a Gaucho) and Australia (Quigley Down Under and The Man from Snowy River).  There are many westerns set during the Civil War, which took place almost entirely east of the Mississippi River.  There is a subgenre of westerns set in the modern west but dealing to some degree with traditional western themes (Bad Day at Black Rock, Lone Star, No Country for Old Men, Wind River).  Some science fiction and samurai movies seem to be westerns.  It is one of several criteria, and it has some flexibility.


  • Use of traditional western themes:  Similarly, there is a wide range of western themes, many of which expand into universal human themes such as the search for family in an unfriendly world.  They include clashes of races (usually whites and Native Americans), clashes between social and commercial objectives (law vs. anarchy and unrestrained self-interest, ranchers vs. farmers, for example, or cattlemen vs. sheepmen), man against nature, self-reliance and the place of violence in society.  They are too numerous to make any comprehensive list.  At times “a western theme” almost seems like Justice Potter Stewart’s elusive definition of pornography:  “I know it when I see it.”
  • Story and performances:  It’s hard to have a great western without a good story and strong performances.  As with any other cinematic genre, directors can sometimes get distracted by the magic of movie-making at the expense of story.  (Here’s looking at you, Sergio Leone.)  While that can lead to some interesting movies, they’re not generally as strong as those where story is more at the front.
  • Visual sweep and impact:  Good use of the American west’s big skies, open plains, towering mountains and general natural splendor is a hallmark of great westerns, such as Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine, Red River and, more recently, Jeremiah Johnson and The Horse Whisperer.  Westerns offer a unique scope for the physical background to become another character.  In fact, the west’s visual magnificence can become distracting if the director isn’t careful.  But there have been great westerns shot on back lots in Hollywood that make virtually no use of traditional western scenery beyond a western town set—High Noon, for example.


  • Re-watchability:  In a way, this is the Cimarron vs. Stagecoach question.  Is this something you welcome the opportunity to see again, even though you’ve already seen it before?  Yes for Stagecoach; not so much for Cimarron.  However, this question is not determinative—it’s one of several.  Some of the great westerns one just doesn’t go back to as often as others, and that doesn’t mean they’re not great.  Unforgiven and Dances With Wolves are great westerns, but once seen one might not re-watch them as often as, say, Rio Bravo or The Outlaw Josey Wales.
  • Film-making skills for its time:  Most movies are inseparable from the time they were made.  The state of movie-making technology, the social attitudes, the fashion and actors’ makeup, the approach to story and cliché—all these and many other things speak of the time a movie was made.  You probably wouldn’t confuse 1939’s Stagecoach with a movie made only eleven years later in 1950, although black-and-white was still common for westerns in 1950.  Is the director making good use of what’s available to him at the time he made the movie?  If the direction isn’t remarkable in any way, is there something else that’s carrying the movie so you don’t think about it much?
  • Impact on the genre in its time:  How was the movie received upon its original release?  How are westerns different (if at all) because of this movie?  Unless you’re interested in film history, this might only be a subtext, and a subconscious one at that.  Sometimes you can even forgive a clunky story if a movie changed the course of what was made later.  That’s one reason to watch some of the influential silent movies, like The Iron Horse or the films of William S. Hart.  If it is just influential and not of continuing greatness on a number of levels, however, you won’t tend to go back to it.  Sometimes it is the body of a director’s work that seems to shift the course of westerns made after.  Think, for example, of the films of John Ford, Anthony Mann and Sergio Leone.
  • How does it age?  (The Test of Time):  Is it still a good and enjoyable film notwithstanding its age or the time at which it was made?  Cinematic and societal fashions change.  Although one can’t really separate a film from the time it was made, is there something that pulls you back to it?


  • Historicity—How true is it to its supposed time?:  This one is tricky, in part because standards of historicity change.  In 1939, for example, historicity was all but ignored in the service of what was thought to constitute a good story.  Jesse James is much more interested in perpetuating the outlaw’s myth and getting people into theaters than it is in telling the actual story.  Compare it with The Long Riders, Walter Hill’s 1980 retelling of the story of the James Gang, which has a much stronger historical sense.  My Darling Clementine, however, works magnificently as a film even though it’s a very garbled retelling of the Wyatt Earp myth that worries very little about what actually happened and feels free to toss in invented characters, such as the titular Clementine.  In westerns from the 1950s, western clothes (hats in particular) and women’s garb tend not to be very accurate historically.  Recent decades (since the 1980s, perhaps) seem more concerned with historical accuracy, although those financing the movie will seldom let the actual facts get in the way of the movie they want to make.


  • Good introduction of non-traditional elements? Sometimes the ability to think beyond traditional western elements broadens the scope of the movie.  Sometimes it’s just distractingly anachronistic.  Some consider McCabe and Mrs. Miller a great western because it approached some subjects (such as prostitution) in a different way than previous movies set in the west had.  It is very much a movie of its own time (the anti-authoritarian early 1970s, with a grainy-ish look) and its director (Robert Altman, who made only one other western even more explicity revisionist).  The nihilism and explicit violence of The Wild Bunch (combined, of course, with terrific performances and stunning cinematography) have affected every western made since, although they were mostly new to westerns when the movie was made.
  • Use of supporting elements (musical score, writing, supporting performances, cinematography, etc.):  Movie-making is such a collaborative art that it’s kind of amazing when it all comes together to produce a great film.  That’s as true of westerns as it is of any other kind of movie.  Good writing (think Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, for example) produces lines that the movie fan mutters to himself as he watches the film again; writing is always more important than movie makers (especially the financial backers and the studio) think.  Music undeniably influences one’s memory of the film (the Tex Ritter version of the theme from High Noon, Dmitri Tiomkin’s “Deguello” from Rio Bravo, Bruce Broughton’s stirring theme from Silverado, and Basil Pouledoris’ rollicking theme from Quigley Down Under all come to mind), and become inseparable from the experience of that movie.  Sometimes the statement is made by not having music, as in Westward the Women.  John Wayne’s bravura performance as the Ringo Kid in Stagecoach wouldn’t have been as effective without the talented ensemble of supporting actors (Claire Trevor, Thomas Mitchell, John Carradine, Donald Meek, George Bancroft and others).  In fact, Wayne is more one of the ensemble than the star.  Wayne and James Stewart are giants in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, but it wouldn’t have worked as well without the despicable malevolence of Lee Marvin as Liberty Valance.  You may or may not overtly notice the brilliant cinematography in Red River, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Wild Bunch or Jeremiah Johnson, but it’s part of what makes you think you’ve seen a great western.


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The Greatest Westerns Since 1939

Nicholas Chennault ~

Everybody who likes western movies has his own mental list of the greatest of them.  This starts with a list of the fifty-five greatest westerns since 1939, with some description of each film and why it’s on the list.  There are lots of sublists as well, including a list of westerns that don’t show up among the fifty-five greatest, but for which an argument can be made that they belong there.  There are lists of westerns according to their thematic material, lists of westerns with social concerns, lists of spaghetti westerns, lists of westerns according to their supposed historical content, and lists of the greatest directors, stars, writers and composers who have worked on westerns.  And lists of westerns not among the fifty-give greatest but which are nevertheless worth watching, often with descriptions.  The site is just starting out, so some of those sections are still in development, but it’s all coming.

Although westerns, like most forms of cinema, are more generally available than they once were if you know where and how to look, nobody has seen all the westerns that exist.  Even some of the fifty-five great westerns aren’t generally available these days on DVD. The list has been given a great deal of thought, but it’s not cast in stone and is open to the addition of new or overlooked western movies.  Although westerns have been mostly out of cinematic fashion for more than three decades, some filmmakers with an ongoing affection for the genre do continue to make them.  The most recent great western was released in 2010.

beaugeste Not a western?  1939, though.

So if you like western movies already or are just curious about them and where to start, look things over.  Chances are that no matter how well you know westerns, you can find one or two additional gems you’ll come to appreciate.  It’s a uniquely American genre of film (although related to both samurai films, private eye-films noir, many science fiction films and others), but westerns can be either simple or thematically complex.  People far beyond America’s shores love these stories and films, too.  So if you’re looking for battles, stories about man against nature, Native Americans, revenge, the search for family, the extravagant beauty of the American west, courage, honor—you can find something here you didn’t know about.  Or maybe enjoy again something you already did.

Why start in 1939?  Several reasons:

• It is a truth universally acknowledged (well, mostly) that 1939 was the greatest year in the golden age of the Hollywood studios.  Movies released that year included such gems as Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Gunga Din, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Dark Victory, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Wuthering Heights, Beau Geste, Only Angels Have Wings, Young Mr. Lincoln, The Roaring Twenties, and, of course, Stagecoach.  The list is amazing.
• While there were many great movies of all sorts made earlier during the decade of the 1930s and the even earlier period of silent movies, that is not as true of westerns.  There had been an ambitious western released in 1930 that might have revolutionized the genre and introduced a major new star: director Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail, with handsome and inexperienced young John Wayne.  But it was not a success at the box office, and both the genre and Wayne had to wait for most of a decade for their cinematic breakthrough.  This was true despite the fact that 1931’s winner of the Oscar for the best movie of the year was a western—the only western best picture winner until the 1990s. And it was an epic in scale.  It was Cimarron, based on the Edna Ferber novel and starring Richard Dix.and Irene Dunne, albeit with an uncredited director (Wesley Ruggles).  But it is not much watched these days, unlike, say, Stagecoach.

• What was so revolutionary about Stagecoach, then?  It was a departure in a number of ways.  Cinematically, it made striking use of western settings not seen much before (Monument Valley in the Four Corners area on the Utah-Arizona border, which became one of director John Ford’s trademarks).  It had a strong story.  It made use of small historical connections with the west (the names Luke Plummer and Ringo Kid, for example, and the aces and eights hand of playing cards).  It featured the work of both the greatest director of westerns (John Ford) and the most enduring western movie star (John Wayne) the movies have yet seen.  Notwithstanding Wayne’s considerable presence, it was a well-cast ensemble movie that worked extremely well. It even featured ground-breaking stunt work by Yakima Canutt, one of the greatest and perhaps the best-known Hollywood stunt men ever.  It was not only the best western of 1939; it was one of the greatest movies ever made.  Unlike The Big Trail, it also made a star of John Wayne.

• Even leaving aside Stagecoach, this list would probably start in 1939 anyway.  There were several near-great westerns that year that indicated a new, more serious and larger budgetary approach to the making of westerns.  Many of them are still watched, too:  Dodge City (with Errol Flynn), Destry Rides Again (James Stewart in his only western before the 1950s), Jesse James (Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda), and Union Pacific (Joel McCrea, Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Preston).  All this revitalized the genre and made it more significant cinematically.  By the late 1940s, such stars as Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea were devoting their careers almost entirely to the making of westerns.  By 1950, Scott was the biggest male box office star in Hollywood.  There are those who would say that before 1939, the biggest stars were women, but after the social and cinematic changes brought about by World War II, men had become bigger stars.  And westerns had come into their own as a genre.

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