Best Western Movies

Christina Hamlett
western cowboy movie

Whether you're a seasoned connoisseur or a brand new fan of western movies, many films are considered "must-see." The movies on this list will give you a sense of what the timeless appeal of the western genre is all about.

12 of the Best Western Movies

Looking for some vicarious excitement set in the days of the Wild West? Here are twelve of the all-time best western movies to get you started.

1. Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid

Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, the 1969 classic starring Paul Newman, Robert Redford and Katharine Ross, ignited what would come to be popularly known as "the buddy film". Based on the real-life story of Butch, Sundance and the Hole in the Wall Gang, it humorously shares the adventures of two charming bandits who rob one train too many and are suddenly forced to flee to a new life in Bolivia. Unfortunately, neither of them is really suited to anything except divesting others of their hard-earned money and very soon they're back to their old habits. The Bolivians are not amused.

2. High Noon

One of the indelible images that many have regarding the confrontation between good and evil is the sight of a twitchy-fingered villain staring down a white-hat hero in the middle of an abandoned street. The determination that the town isn't big enough to accommodate both of their interests has brought both men to this juncture; when the dust has settled, only one of them will be left standing. A scene oft repeated in western movies, none have quite matched what Gary Cooper brought to High Noon with Grace Kelly in 1952. In this film, Cooper plays a lawman who just wants to hang up his guns and settle down to domestic bliss with his new bride. An outlaw he once sent to prison, however, has different plans. Cooper attempts to rally support amongst the townsfolk but they are all basically weenies. When you want a job done right, sometimes you just have to do it yourself.

3. The Magnificent Seven

Who are you going to call when bandits are ruthlessly overrunning your village, terrorizing your womenfolk, and scarfing up all of your food? The elders of this particular town decide that the only solution is to go northward and start advertising for hired guns. They're in splendid luck, of course, as their search yields seven macho men, each with his own secret agenda for wanting to strap on a firearm, head to Mexico, and kick some serious butt. The Magnificent Seven (1960) is actually the American remake of a 1954 foreign film called The Seven Samurai and stars such legends as Yul Brenner, Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson.

4. Tombstone

Wyatt Earp ranks among the top ten real-life heroes most often portrayed in movies (Buffalo Bill Cody holds the #1 slot). Certainly the best representation of Wyatt, however, was the performance turned in by Kurt Russell in 1993's Tombstone. The famous lawman's plans to retire in Tombstone are disrupted when a band of baddies led by the Clanton brothers decides to stir up trouble. The Earp boys and their gambler pal Doc Holliday (portrayed brilliantly by Val Kilmer) determine that it's time to end things once and for all in a shoot-out at the O.K. Corral.

5. Rio Bravo

Any list of the best western movies has to include John Wayne. As early as the 1930's, he was upholding justice on the frontier and performing all of his own stunts. While it can be argued that he essentially played the same role over and over, audiences never seemed to mind. In 1959's Rio Bravo, Wayne is cast as a sheriff and paired with the unlikely combination of Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson, who play his deputies. This film is essentially the flip side of High Noon, since Wayne and his cohorts are offered more help from the locals in dispatching bad guys than they really want or need.

6. Shane

Alan Ladd rode onto movie screens in 1953 in Shane and right into the midst of an ugly cattlemen's dispute. With a cast that includes Jean Arthur, Van Heflin, Jack Palance, and Brandon De Wilde, this movie is perhaps most famous for its poignant closing scene in which little Joey Starrett whimpers after his departing hero, "Shane! Come back!"

7. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

A successful string of films referred to as "spaghetti westerns" came on the scene in the 1960's, a number of which were directed by Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone. Europeans, it seems, were as enamored with the American West as Americans were. Filmmakers were excited about shooting movies in Spain and Italy because not only did much of the landscape lend itself to plausible backdrops, but it was also cheaper than shooting in Hollywood. At the core of these flicks were a strange breed of heroes who, left to their druthers, wouldn't have gotten involved with anyone. The most popular of these cool loners, of course, was Clint Eastwood.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is a rollicking treasure hunt that pairs a loner gunman with a quirky Mexican bandit. Complicating their quest for buried gold is the Civil War equivalent of a hit man. It soon becomes every man for himself.

8. Pale Rider

It's Clint again, this time in the role of a shadowy preacher with a big secret in Pale Rider. The secret? He's very, very good with a gun. This comes in handy when he intervenes on behalf of plucky California gold miners who are intimidated by a greedy land baron. Picture Dirty Harry in a clergyman's costume, and you know right away that the villains are going to be toast.

9. The Searchers

What are The Searchers searching for, you ask? The protagonist's niece was abducted by the very same Indians who killed the rest of his family. John Wayne, in the lead role of Ethan, is determined to bring her back no matter how long it takes. He also has assistance in the form of his nephew, Martin. Martin just happens to be a half-breed. Their relationship, suffice it to say, is strained for the majority of their journey into Indian country.

10. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance teams John Wayne with another box-office favorite of the 1960's: James Stewart. Stewart portrays a senator who returns to one of his former haunts to attend the funeral services of Tom Doniphon, the character played by John Wayne. While there, he's encouraged by a reporter to share the story behind his reputation as the man who shot the outlaw Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). It seems, however, that with the passage of years, the truth may have been somewhat embellished.

11. Cheyenne Autumn

Director John Ford is said to have used the 1964 epic Cheyenne Autumn about the harsh treatment of Lakota and Dakota Indian tribes as a way to atone for his earlier depiction of Native Americans as a minor footnote in history. Oddly, he chose to cast Latin actors Ricardo Montalban and Gilbert Roland in significant Indian roles rather than recruit participants from the actual ethnicity he was attempting to defend in the plot. While the pace and structure are quirky at times, it provides an interesting peek into Ford's head and his assessment of this period of American history.

12. Dances with Wolves

The enormity of the Kevin Costner masterpiece Dances with Wolves galvanized audiences worldwide and made him an instant Hollywood darling as both an actor and a visionary director. While it was a momentum he inevitably wasn't able to sustain, what he brings to the screen as the disillusioned Civil War officer is truly Oscar-worthy. Animal lovers be warned, both the wolf and the horse are killed.

Classic Western Films

Of course, it is hard to create a short list of best western movies, when there are so many classics. Many of the best known movies of the western genre include common household names from Hollywood today like:

  • Dustin Hoffman (staring in the 1980s feature Little Big Man)
  • Clint Eastwood (starring in High Plains Drifter, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Unforgiiven and The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly among others)
  • John Wayne (staring in 1950's Rio Grande, Stagecoach and 1956's The Searchers)
  • Humphrey Bogart (starring in 1948's The Treasure of Sierra Madre)
  • Henry Fonda and Charles Bronson (starring in 1969's Once Upon A Time in the West)

Famed western titles also include:

  • A Man Called Horse
  • The Man From Laramie
  • Billy the Kid
  • The Mark of the Spur
  • Coyote
  • Foxfire
  • The Shootlist
  • The Wild Bunch
  • Virginia City
  • The Narrow Trail
  • Sand
  • The Testing Block
  • Tumbleweeds
  • White Oak
  • The Big Country
  • Jesse James
  • Rawhide
  • Drums Along the Mohawk
  • The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith
  • The Texans
  • Custer's Last Stand
  • The Apple Dumpling Gang (young child- friendly Disney western)
  • Cimarron
  • The Gun and the Pulpit
  • The Professionals
  • A Lawless Street
  • Backlash
  • Big Jake
  • Dirty Little Billy
  • Phantom Patrol
  • Dodge city
  • Billy The Kid Returns
  • Mohawk
  • Yellowstone Kelly
  • Bite The Bullet
  • Against A Crocked Sky
  • The Train Robbers
  • Shoot the Sun Down

Where to Find Western Movie Options

Cast lists, memorable quotes, trivia and links to reviews for these and other western films can be enjoyed at Internet Movie Data Base. The archives of The Movie Spoiler will yield complete summaries of some of the more recent entries in the western genre. You can even download complete movie scripts for free at such websites as Script Crawler, Drew's Script-o-Rama and Script Pimp.

Enjoy Classic Entertainment

The best western movies have long held a special place in the hearts of moviegoers.That's not surprising, considering they were all born long after the mystique of cowboys, bandits, and dance hall girls had quietly slipped into the pages of history and legend. When you think about it, this era - perhaps more than any other - represents the American counterpart to England's Knights of the Round Table. Rugged heroes, virtuous schoolmarms, sage geezers, and, of course, trusty steeds have the added advantage of being based on, or inspired by, the exploits of real men and women who peopled the burgeoning landscape west of the Mississippi during the years immediately following the Civil War. When you watch these movies, you'll be enjoying classic American entertainment at its finest.

Best Western Movies