Ten Westerns You Should See

I grew up in an era where westerns weren't very popular. My generation (or at least my friends and I) grew up playing ninjas and Rambo rather than cowboys and Indians. I don't know if they're more popular now than they used to be - I suspect it's about the same - but the height of the genre's popularity was probably somewhere in the early 60s, though some put it further back than that.  

I had some westerns on VHS I watched an awful lot, though, mainly: 

(1979) Directed by Robert Aldrich
(1985) Directed by Lawrence Kasdan
Later in life, I discovered reviews of the above that criticized both movies for being mainly collections of cliches and over-used tropes. I didn't realize that while watching them over and over as a kid, although I can see the truth of that criticism as an adult. But they were useful in communicating the vocabulary of the genre, and to any kid who wants to know what a western is like, I recommend them as primers. Granted, both films are very male oriented - as is most of the genre, speaking broadly - and white male oriented at that. If such things embarrass you, there's your spoiler warning. 

For no other reason than westerns have been on my mind lately, I decided to make a Ten Westerns You Should See post. To make that job easier for myself, I came up with some rules. First, no sci-fi westerns.

Sorry, Firefly.
Sorry, "Spectre of the Gun."
And sorry, Westworld.
I mentioned Firefly, which also is omitted per Rule #2: no TV westerns.

Sorry, Lonesome Dove. (Though if you're interested, there'll be a few posts about that coming your way down the Dog Star Omnibus pike sooner or later.) And sorry, Deadwood, Gunsmoke, Rifleman, Brisco County Jr. et al.
Rule No. 3, no Magnificent Seven or The Wild Bunch. No real reason, except that they're on every list already - as are more than a few of the below, I grant you, but I thought I'd try and focus attention on other titles. They're both great, of course - everything aforementioned (with the exception of Brisco County, Jr. I guess) is great and you should watch it all. 

Also, no spaghetti westerns (if you like one, you'll like most of them, and there are hundreds) or 'sploitation/ satire westerns. Or tripped out surrealist fantasy Freudian death rides, or however one would describe El Topo.

Again, no one's saying you shouldn't watch any or all of the above - you very much should. But here are ten (mostly) traditional westerns, presented in order of when they came out, that I'd define as essentials. Here's a game you can play - pick a holiday, any holiday, and commit to watching one of the movies listed below on it each year. Tell me what you think in 2025. (Myself, I've committed to watching the complete filmographies of western-genre maestros Budd Boetticher, Anthony Mann, and John Ford. This explains why these guys are not represented - with the exception of one Ford film - below: my unfamiliarity with them. We'll compare notes in ten years time.)

1. High Sierra (1941) Directed by Raoul Walsh. 

The oldest of our ten westerns, this one is technically considered a gangster picture. But it has significant overlap with the western. At the time of its release, it was considered to be a swan song for the gangster films, which were fading in popularity (like the musicals) after their heyday in the Depression. As Martin Scorsese pointed out in his indispensable A Personal Journey Through American Film, the furious tap-tap-dancing of musicals and the rat-a-tat-tat of tommy guns of gangster pictures - not to mention the ruthless rise-to-the-top storylines of both genres - struck a chord with Depression-era audiences.

Here's what that once-great paper The New York Times had to say upon High Sierra's release:

"As gangster pictures go, this one has everything—speed, excitement, suspense and that ennobling suggestion of futility which makes for irony and pity. Mr. Bogart plays the leading role with a perfection of hard-boiled vitality, and Ida Lupino, Arthur Kennedy, Alan Curtis and a newcomer named Joan Leslie handle lesser roles effectively. Especially, is Miss Lupino impressive as the adoring moll. As gangster pictures go—if they do— it's a perfect epilogue. Count on the old guard and Warners: they die but never surrender."

2. High Noon (1952) Directed by Fred Zinnemann

Often hailed as the best western ever made - and understandably so - High Noon tells the story of a lawman (Gary Cooper) who has given his life to protecting a town and is about to retire when he hears three men are coming to kill him. He turns his coach around (to the intense frustration of his wife, played by Grace Kelly) and makes the decision to protect the town, ("I've got to - that's the whole thing") even though no one wants him to or offers any help at all.

Here's the Times again, nailing it:

"Familiar but far from conventional in the fabric of story and theme and marked by a sure illumination of human character, this tale of a brave and stubborn sheriff in a town full of do- nothings and cowards has the rhythm and roll of a ballad spun in pictorial terms. And, over all, it has a stunning comprehension of that thing we call courage in a man and the thorniness of being courageous in a world of bullies and poltroons."

Some see it as an anti-McCarthy picture, and while I can sympathize with that reading, such a thing is addressed more overtly (though still under the wire, albeit only barely) in:

3. Silver Lode (1954) Directed by Alan Dwan

I discovered this one through the aforementioned Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese. This is an absolute essential, not just for westerns but for American history. Released at the height of McCarthyism - a subject I have mixed feelings about, as it's more often than not misrepresented by Hollywood and misunderstood by people in general - it tells the story of Dan Ballard, who, on the day of his wedding (July 4th) is falsely accused of murder. The townsfolk, once his friends and supporters, turn against him, and the villain (ahem, McCarty) riles them up even more. He spends most of the film running for his life, until his fiance forges a faked telegram to clear his name. At the top of a bell tower, he turns the tables on McCarty and kills him.

Notable for its incredible tracking shots - I'm always amazed when the bulky cameras of yesteryear move so fluidly; this is the western equivalent of a Max Ophuls film, in many spots - and its highly subversive material, Scorsese puts it bluntly in his Personal Journey:

"Persecuted for the wrong reasons, he's pardoned for the wrong reasons. A church bell and a fantastic lie save the day."

God bless America.

4. Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) Directed by John Sturges

This is a bit of a cheat, as it takes place in the post-WW2 Southwest. It's described as a film noir, but, for me, this is very much a western. A one-armed man (Spencer Tracy) steps off a train in Black Rock and is immediately followed, obstructed, insulted and harassed by the townsfolk (Anne Francis, Robert Ryan, and Lee Marvin, among them.) He is there to find a man named Komoko, a Japanese-American who is the father of the man who saved his life in World War Two (where he lost his arm.) But we don't know why for a good while in the film, something which very much enhances the paranoia and mystery of proceedings.

Released only ten years after the end of World War Two to a prosperous and optimistic America, it explored unsettling territory: a crime, hidden from view, unpunished, and the internment of Japanese-Americans, something the US government only officially acknowledged in 1988. (The year of Rambo III.)

Described as an "action film for people who don't like action films," I was going to lift a few choice quotes from the TCM write-up, but the whole thing is worth reading. This film, like many of my favorite Westerns, has an irresistible, steadfast morality. 

Tracy's character is one of my all-time favorites.
As is the protagonist of our next one, but for very different reasons.

5. The Searchers (1956) Directed by John Ford

John Wayne (in his greatest performance) plays Ethan Edwards, a man who is searching for his niece (Natalie Wood,) kidnapped by the Comanche years before when they burned down his brother's house and slaughtered his family. As Martin Scorsese notes in his remarkable analysis of the film, until the very last reel, you're not sure if his plan is to rescue her or kill her.

"Ethan Edwards as brought to life by Wayne and Ford is a cousin to Melville's Ahab on one hand and his Bartleby on the other -- driven to the point of madness and absolutely alone. There's a shocking scene early on, in which Ethan and his search party find a Comanche buried under a rock. He shoots out the dead man's eyes so that he won't be allowed to enter the spirit lands and will remain destined to wander forever between the winds. No one in his posse understands the meaning of the gesture: He hates Comanches so much that he actually has bothered to learn their beliefs in order to violate them. That's the craziness of Ethan Edwards and the craziness of race hatred -- murderous fixation and disgust are side by side with fascination and attraction. The author does an excellent job of addressing that craziness and how it played out in American history and in the Western genre." 

Driven to wander between the winds - as Ethan says of the Comanche whose eyes he shoots out - is exactly what the viewer realizes at film's end, when Ethan approaches the door of the home he can never enter, turns, and drifts into the landscape. 

A remarkable film on many levels. A complete game-changer, both for the western genre, and for American psychology. The 50s are an underrated cinematic treasure trove of deep and compelling (and unsettling) American insight. I think people think it took until the 60s for America to start questioning itself and until the 70s to start making ambivalent masterpieces. For my money, it all began in earnest in the 50s.

6. Day of the Outlaw (1959) Directed by Andre de Toth

Although this is a pretty universally well-reviewed film, often I'll ask people if they've seen it, and they've never even heard of it. Film buffs, I mean, not civilians. I envy anyone who has still to see it for the first time. The plot isn't particularly complicated - a love triangle is interrupted by the arrival of a gang of outlaws led by an ex-Army man who's dying of a bullet wound - but as with Silver Lode, the blurred lines between hero and outlaw/ friend and betrayer imbue the proceedings with something more.

As many of the reviews of it out there point out, snow sets the tone of this one. The end of the film in particular is intriguingly symbolic. I'm not sure if Robert Altman intended the end of McCabe and Mrs. Miller to echo the end of Day of the Outlaw, but if not, there are quite a few similarities. McCabe is often described as an anti-Western, and that seems accurate enough to me. And while Outlaw is definitely a traditional enough western, it has more of a 1970s American New Wave sensibility than its 1950s counterparts.

And although Tina Louise's image is used as poster-bait: 

she is not really used for any salacious scenes. She's a pretty well-realized character, actually.

7. Unforgiven (1992) Directed by Clint Eastwood

Probably the greatest western ever made, if not the greatest American film altogether. 

Eastwood plays William Munny, a reformed killer of men, women, and children, who has reformed and takes one last job with his old partner, Ned (Morgan Freeman.) The job doesn't go quite as planned, thanks to Sheriff Gene Hackman.

There's way more to it than that, of course. The whole film is damn near perfect, but everything from this shot 

"Take a drink, kid."
to the last 

is as good as cinema gets. 

8. Tombstone (1993) Directed by George P. Cosmatos

Ho boy, Tombstone. What fun. Easily Val Kilmer's greatest performance -

as Doc Holliday. "I'll be your huckleberry."
and probably the most impressive "mustache" movie ever made. It isn't concerned with commenting on the western as a genre or saying much of anything about American history. It's only concerned with kicking as much ass and firing as many guns as possible.

Also starring: just about every dude who was active in Hollywood in 1993.
And Dana Delaney.
The shootout at the OK Corral has been filmed so many times in so many different ways. I'm not exactly sure why it continues to capture people's imagination as much as it does. Like the invasion of Normany and its curious over-representation in WW2 films, sometimes I want to say "Good lord, people, there were other things going on, and almost all of them were more important to the history of the West/ end of WW2." And yet, I'll watch damn near any film about either topic. What that says, I don't know, but both stories lend themselves well to film, I guess.  

9. Open Range (2003) Directed by Kevin Costner

I was torn between including this one or one of Costner's other epic westerns (Dances with Wolves and Wyatt Earp.) But I think Open Range is his best work. (Not counting The Postman - man, do I loves me some Postman.) Visually sumptuous, as a feller says, with great characters and relationships and themes - it just works on every level.

And the shootout at movie's end is often referred to as the genre's best. I don't know if I'm qualified to say if it is or isn't, but it's one hell of a furious rainstorm of gunfire, to be sure.

Not everyone agrees with me that this is a damn fine and essential western. The New York Times referred to it upon its release as "suffocating in its own earnest self-seriousness." I don't see it that way at all. The relationship between Costner and Duvall is great, and the scene where Costner breaks down how he thinks the gunfight will go (and the classic "Are you the man who killed our friend?" "Yep." BLAM) is a great (and underrated) bit of writing.

And finally:  
10. The Proposition (2005) Directed by John Hillcoat

A quieter western - and set in the Australian outback, to boot - but no less impactful than any of the above. Unsettling, poetic, hallucinatory, yet straightforward, this one will stay with you for awhile after you see it.

The plot - Captain Stanley, (Ray Winstone) newly arrived to Australia with his wife (Emily Wtason) strikes a deal with a member of the Burns Brothers gang (Guy Pearce.) In exchange for tracking down and killing his more notorious brother (Danny Huston) he is allowed to go free. Pearce has nine days, or Stanley will hang his other brother, who he holds as leverage.

If it has a weak spot, it's Emily Watson. I'm not sure what to make of Watson as an actress. She came charging out of the gate with Breaking the Waves and has been cast in so many things since. But, and perhaps it's just my personal taste, she's just not very good - her range is charitably-put extremely limited, and she just doesn't do anything interesting with the roles I've seen her in. (shrugs.) 

Ray Winstone is fantastic in this, though, and Nick Cave's script is dynamite. I need a long break between viewings of this one, but I'm always impressed. Roger Ebert described it as "a record of those things we pray to be delivered from." Amen.


And there we have it! See you in 2025. Some alternates: My Darling Clementine (1946), Unconquered (1947 - not really a Western, but I'll allow it), Red River (1948), Winchester '73 (1950), The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), and Dead Man (1995).


  1. An interesting, valid list. A good read.

  2. I'm dismayed by how few of these I've seen (6, which isn't bad, I guess).

    "High Sierra" -- Never seen it. That pic of Joan Leslie makes me think I ought to. Oh, yeah . . . your writeup, too...

    "High Noon" -- It's a great movie, and one of the most "Western-as-myth" Westerns of them all.

    "Silver Lode" -- Not only have I never seen it, I've never heard of it. (That's a near-complete lie. I've seen Scorsese's "A Personal Journey..." which means by default that I HAVE heard of "Silver Lode." However, any memory of that seems to have vanished from my brain. Which means I need to watch that Scorsese doc again!)

    "Bad Day at Black Rock" -- Never seen it, but it's an awesome title. Good lord . . . the Japanese-American internments was not acknowledged officially until friggin' 1988?!? Amazing. This country, boy...sometimes...

    "The Searchers" -- I don't have an official Top 10 for movies, but if I did, this would very likely be on it. It is damn near perfect. That bit in which Ethan shoots out the Comanche's eyes is haunting. The whole movie is haunting, really.

    "Day of the Outlaw" -- I've heard of it, but I've never seen it, and did not know it was an acknowledged classic. Another one for the list!

    "Unforgiven" -- Nearly as perfect as "The Searchers," and it's only the fact that I'm ever so slightly more of a Duke guy than a Clint guy that causes me to add the "nearly."

    "Tombstone" -- It puts a smile on my face to see this movie listed here. It's a terrific piece of entertainment, and I honestly don't think I've ever met anyone who dislikes it. Good lord, what a cast!

    "Open Range" -- Another one I'm pleased to see listed. It was a moderate hit when it came out, but for whatever reason, nobody seems to have ever considered taking it seriously. And it deserves to be taken seriously. I feel bad for Kevin Costner; the industry (and the culture) really turned on him at some point, and I'll be damned if I know why.

    "The Proposition" -- HELL YEAH! A brutal piece of work, but a rewarding one. That's a terrific Ebert quote, dangling preposition be damned.

    As for "The Frisco Kid," would you believe I've never seen that one? Shameful; true.

    1. I agree on Costner. People seemed to have sharpened their knives on him out of proportion to his "crimes." i.e. Waterworld and The Postman. (Although, as mentioned, I kind of love The Postman; it's a brilliant failure, not just a train wreck.) I can only imagine there was some behind-the-scenes hubris that emboldened his detractors. But you figured Open Range would have been rehabbed his image - it's a damn fine movie, and a great contribution to the western genre.

      That Scorsese doc - I wasn't quite as aware that half of my list was namechecked in A Personal Journey, when I made this list. Only after I hit post. But what can I say? I can't rightly leave off High Noon, Silver Lode, High Sierra, Unforgiven, and The Searchers because Scorsese already covered them so well. Hell, if I'd seen the Boetticher and Mann films he talks about therein, I'd have included them too, most likely.

      The Frisco Kid is worth checking out. In many respects, it hasn't aged well, but in others, its dated-ness smooths some of its edges. It's easier to access it as a light-hearted romp now, I imagine, maybe.

      Glad you enjoyed these choices, and I agree completely on The Proposition. What an achievement.

  3. I totally agree with your thoughts about '50s cinema. I took an American Studies course on the fifties once, and it made VERY plain to me that the sixties really were just the culmination of what had already begun happening. Which makes complete sense; but, as you hint at, nobody ever seems to want to discuss the fact.

    "The Searchers" was one of the movies we covered in that class, incidentally. I seem to remember being way ahead of the rest of the class on that one, mostly because I already knew and loved the movie. From what I remember, I contended that Ethan never had all THAT much intention of killing his niece; but that he was certainly prepared to do so if he found he couldn't "save" her (i.e., if he couldn't turn her into a white woman again).

    One of the most haunting bits of the movie, for me, is the scene in which John Wayne and Jeff Hunter go to check out some other white women who've been taken by Comanches. There's a shot of Wayne's face as Ethan hears the sounds -- which sound to my ears a LOT like sounds of sexual pleasure -- one of these disturbed, broken women is making. What is happening on his face cannot adequately be described; it's a moment which only cinema could produce.

    Ah, jeez, man . . . what a movie!

    1. Yeah, The Searchers is just such a powerful movie. Many layers - that scene where Ethan meets the women whose minds were broken by the Comanche captivity is just haunting.

      I've got a buddy who refuses to watch any movies that came out before the 70s. I've told him as politely as possible that this invalidates his opinion about movies altogether. He doesn't care. I sent him this list and told him to give one or two of them a whirl, but I doubt I'll have much luck.

    2. Refuses to . . . HUH?!?

      My gut reaction to reading that is to launch into a rant, but clearly that rant would a waste of time. So I'll just say again: HUH?!?

      Good lord.

  4. I very agree that the 50s has been underrated in terms of self-awareness and critical self-comment. Two good sources that give the decade it's due are David Halberstam's "The Fifties", and film critic J. Hoberman's "Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War." In particular, Hoberman discusses Ford's Fort Apache as a reflection of American fears of Communism.
    I think that might be stretching things a bit, however there's no denying Hoberman is essentially onto something in terms of basic premise.

    I'm also glad you think Unforgiven is the best Western. I rank Searchers right up there, also. The only thing for me is, while I'm not about to dispute it's classic status, as both Ebert and even Scorsese point out, the film is not without some flaws. Here we're talking of course about Hank Quailan and some other comics= relief scenes. I actually don't mind Ford's attempt at humor in other films, but here I wish they spent more time to other characters that could have been developed, such a Natalie Wood and Henry Brandon.

    In fact, I'll admit, I wonder what it would have been like if the Jeff Hunter character were left out and Wood's character took up the central focus for Wayne. I could see the two of them in that scene by a small creek with a log spanning it. I could imagine Wayne drawing his gun, only for Wood to prove she's faster, so now she's holding her gun on him. I could also imagine her turning to leave, gun still out, only Wayne to pull out her old rag doll and try to taunt her with it..

    In spite of which, there's no denying the film's deserved place as one of the greats. A good resource for both Ford and Western fans is "The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend", by Glenn Frankel.

    A review of Frankel's book can be found here:



    1. Some of the humor elements are a bit grating on contemporary eyes, it's true. I don't see it as a flaw, though; it's just the style of a different era, that's harder to see now. I'll put it to you this way - there's an awful lot in, say, Teen Wolf or Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure or Ferris Bueller's that doesn't make any sense to the story or seems ridiculous, now. But, if you were a teenager when it came out, you got why it was there, and it was speaking directly towards your getting it.

      (Am I the first to use that trio of movies to make a point about The Searchers? I hope so.)

      I will say, tho, I don't know if developing Natalie Wood would work for me. That changes the tone of the film too much. I also think Jeff Hunter's character is necessary.

    2. I've seen other damnations of the comedic elements of "The Searchers," and I have yet to see one that persuades me.

      Most of the comedy comes from the ridiculous performance by Ken Curtis, whose character behaves like a buffoon. But his buffoonery helps to delineate the differences between the wildness represented by Ethan and the Comanches and the civility represented by Family. When you're seeing this ridiculous man, you're seeing through the eyes of Ethan, and what you're seeing is part of the reason why he stays on the outside of society; it just doesn't quite make sense to him.

      Plus, all that stuff makes me laugh. The wedding brawl is especially amusing to me.

      I'd say that using those '80s movies is dead on the money, and it's a great example of why I like this blog so much. That's a comparison few people would think to make, but it's totally valid. Speaking to that a bit, I find it a bit odd that so many people are hell-bent on objecting to anything that smacks of a specific time-period. What sense does that make?

      I mean, sure, timelessness is a terrific quality in a movie/book/song/etc., but I would be heartbroken if everything was timeless in that way. The fact that "The Searchers" has a bit of style to it that could only have come from one era of culture is a GOOD thing, because it means that that era has been preserved in a way. Add that together with similar bits from other movies/books/etc., and I -- who was born at least ten years after that aspect of the culture was gone -- can engage in a sort of time travel.

    3. It's interesting in comparing Ford's humor with that of Hughes.

      At it's most basic, Hughes' humor seems to be a basic continuation of the style forged chronologically by Mad Magazine, National Lampoon and finally SNL. I'm willing to say that of all the attempts of to try and translate that SNL style to film, Hughes, while not the only one to do it successfully, did seem to have the most consistent track record, and also had the added bonus of somehow, for a time, managing to bequeath it to the 80s generation.

      Ford's humor harkens back more toward a kind of Dickensian style, one dating back to the days of Twain and the early pulps, vaudeville and such thing. I'm actually willing to say that this style still has it's place. The problem is getting a thoroughly modern audience to appreciate it.

      That is where Bryant's line about preserving past cultures on film is valuable. The only challenge I see is how do you get kids raised on stuff like Power Rangers and all that stuff to actually develop an appreciation of the classics? Seriously, I once watched a vlog where this kid just totally wasted The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly for being to slow and not having enough "action" (whatever the hell he meant) and basically just totally not getting the point of the movie. Which makes me wonder if he was even paying attention to real life events like the second Iraq war. It's like their entertainment development stopped short of Saturday Morning, and anything above that is too difficult to grasp. The irony being that they stick with garbage like Transformers, even when they clearly don't like it.

      That's the kind of mindset I think the reputation of classic films, especially Westerns, are going to have to struggle against.


    4. Incidentally, I did come across this one vlog that has a mind-bending theory about Ferris Beuller:



    5. "When you're seeing this ridiculous man, you're seeing through the eyes of Ethan, and what you're seeing is part of the reason why he stays on the outside of society; it just doesn't quite make sense to him."

      That is an excellent point. I like the wedding brawl, too. I can't recall which movie I first saw it in - Mean Streets, maybe? I think it was a Scorsese one; that guy really introduced me to a hell of a lot of cinema, come to think of it - but the "play fair!" has never really left my head. Echoing around in there forever, I imagine.

      Thanks for the kind words - we try, we try!

      Chris, once again, I doff my cap at your tenacity as an ambassador of the vlog world. (Once again, I decline, politely, to cross the threshold; heck, I don't even listen to podcasts. For the same reason I don't have a smartphone or mp3 player - I already spend too much time on these things, I don't need to expand my madness into other mediums.)

      (Of course, that's only now - talk to me in 10 years, and we'll see.)

    6. I think the notion that you somehow have to convince kids to become interested in classics is a misguided one. I think people either have that willingness or they don't, and if they don't they are (in that respect) a lost cause. The last thing you want to do is turn something like "Ferris Bueller" into homework. Ugh.

      As for vlogs . . . nothing wrong with them in theory. Lots wrong with them in actuality. Maybe I've been exposed to the wrong ones. I'm okay with being outside that world; as happened with podcasts, vlogs I enjoy will either find me or they won't. I've got zero interest in going looking for them; I won't feel any the poorer for not doing so.

  5. I don't love westerns... but Tombstone is amazing. Such a great movie.

  6. "Tombstone" is on tonight, which isn't all that uncommon a thing, but I actually saw quite a bit of it in-between other tasks. Man. This movie is just relentless. It's definitely the AC/DC of westerns.

    I so so much approve.

    1. "The AC/DC of westerns."

      That should be on the Blu-ray case, that.

    2. There is a cut I need to screencap one of these days - after Wyatt's "You tell 'em I'm coming - AND HELL'S COMIN' WITH ME!" line (convincingly delivered by Kurt Russell, and such sentiments are not always believable, though they are often very fun) to a huge, fiery sun, with the Earps silhouetted against it. It's almost garish, but good God is it awesome.

      And yeah, it immediately made me sing "Thun!der! unh-unh-unh-unh-UNNN-unh-unh-UNNNN-unh, thun!der!"

  7. Good ones, what about Yellow Sky, Stagecoach?

    1. Both classics. Stagecoach is seminal, of course. Love Richard Widmark in Yellow Sky, particularly.