The Top 10 Westerns of All Time

September 19, 2008

In light of the release of the western Appaloosa, a round-up of the best westerns is long past due. Going mostly on gut instinct, Appaloosa feels like it will be one of the best films of this fall, and as such it has inspired a retrospective of the westerns that came before it. Here are our picks for top 10 westerns – try and throw your lasso around these bad boys.

10. Dances with Wolves


This one doesn’t take the cake for most macho western ever, or the most bad-ass, or even the most ingeniously violent (the thought of trading his cowboy boots and rifle for a leather teepee and a toke on a tomahawk would’ve made John Wayne blush). But Dances with Wolves took a stale genre left for dead somewhere in the late ‘60s or early ‘70s and breathed fresh life into it. Kudos goes to Costner for doing it with style and class, and for making a movie that’s just as great today as it was almost 20 years ago.

9. Shane


Shane is a classic retelling of the David and Goliath story. When a gun fighter decides to retire his pistols and take up the simple farming life, he finds a nice little metaphor of abusive corporate power awaiting him.  Shane is forced to take up the fight for the little man, and does what he does best: kick butt. This one is an oldie but a goodie, and is one of George Stevens’ and Alan Ladd’s best films.

8. The Searchers

John Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, a Civil War vet who looks forward to spending the rest of his life peacefully with his family. But a band of Comanches terrorizes his home while he’s away and massacres his family, kidnapping his niece in the process. He goes on a mission to rescue her, but years into his violent quest of reprisal finds that she has assimilated with her captors – and Edwards finds he now wants to kill the person he set out to save. The Searchers is one of John Ford’s most hard-bitten films, and easily one of his most renowned, and features one of Wayne’s most impressive performances. He embodies the stoic manliness that became the mold for tough-guy cowboys in future westerns.

7. Giant


Giant takes the western and blows it up to epic proportions: everything about this movie is huge. The landscapes, the cast (Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, Dennis Hopper, and James Dean in the last movie he ever did before he died), the epic proportions of the multigenerational story. This western is less about good vs. evil, cowboys and Indians, justice vs. morality, etc. It’s about privilege and prejudice, rich vs. poor, and the corruption and destruction that the ambitious American dream can create when achievement becomes a form of retribution. Each character in this film represents a portion of 1950s America, and it serves as a kind of foreshadowing of both the open-mindedness of the ‘60s and the corporate hegemony of our own time. It’s an extremely ambitious film about ambition, and as such I highly recommend you watch it in a theater if possible. Otherwise, find the biggest screen you can – you’ll need it to hold all the greatness the film contains.

6. The Magnificent Seven


The Magnificent Seven takes the story of Seven Samurai and gives it a western twist, then sprinkles it with the coolness that is Yul Brynner. Eli Wallach (who, incidentally, plays the “ugly” character in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) makes a hilariously evil nemesis, and nicely counterbalances the team of Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, etc. The Magnificent Seven takes seven for-hire gunslingers who protect a town that’s being regularly looted by Wallach and his horse-bound thugs. If you haven’t seen anything with Yul Brynner yet, put this film at the top of your queue. If you haven’t seen anything with McQueen yet, shame on you.

5. 3:10 to Yuma


I’m talking about the remake of 3:10 to Yuma that was released last year, not the original – though I’m sure the original is great, too. Christian Bale and Russell Crowe both deliver great performances, even if neither of their characters are particularly out of the ordinary for them. But Peter Fonda steals the show as the grizzled, snarling Byron McElroy, impervious to bullets and fists. He growls under his breath and delivers cruel beatings to Crowe’s Ben Wade, tracking his prey like a German shepherd. Despite the convenient third act revelations and dispensation of exposition that would’ve come in handy an act earlier, 3:10 is a great addition to the ouvre of modern westerns.

4. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid


This western takes the free-loving, liberty-spreading sentiments of the ‘60s and puts them in the capable hands of Paul Newman and Robert Redford. As Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, respectively, they rob trains and banks for a living (a respectable vocation in the 19th century) until their luck runs dry and they’re on the run from Johnny Law. They spend the duration of the movie on the run, but somehow find the time to goof around on bicycles to the tune of “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head”. If ever a couple of highway robbers stood for everything that was mellow about the 60s, it was these guys. I won’t give away the ending, but suffice it to say they don’t hesitate to enter situations with guns blazin’.

3. Unforgiven


 Dances with Wolves might have brought the western back to the foreground of audiences’ imaginations, but Clint Eastwood’s 1992 Unforgiven introduced the western in its postmodern incarnation: brutal, realistically violent, spartan, and featuring sensitive, three-dimensional heroes. Killing people now entailed bloody wounds and grisly deaths, whereas before all it took was a few bangs and puffs of smoke to dispatch a whole posse of bad guys. Unforgiven gave us the western anti-hero, replete with flaws, fears, and fallibility. But it also gave us the western that was more interesting for all its naturalism and stark reality. More specifically, Unforgiven is as good now as it was sixteen years ago. It manages a mix of pathos and hard-core tough-guyness effortlessly, and proves that Clint Eastwood only gets more dangerous with age.

2. The Proposition


Here’s a hard-core western from 2005 that never received all the acclaim it very much deserved. The Proposition takes the foundations built by Unforgiven and cranks the dial to eleven. This film is probably the only western I’ve ever seen that can be best described as scary. An unrecognizably gaunt Guy Pearce, as Charlie Burns, wanders the hostile Australian desert in search of his murderous outlaw brother, Arthur Burns, in order to win his younger brother’s freedom. Unfortunately for Charlie, this entails – amongst other privations – getting speared through the shoulder by a tribe of angry aborigines, as well as playing a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse with his psychopathic brother. In an unforgiving country where under every rock awaits something that wants to kill you, 19th century Australia is an untamed land where law and justice have little to no relevance. The Proposition brought new meaning to the term, “harsh”. It may not explain how the west was won, but it shows how the west was hell.

1. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly


Sergio Leone’s 1966 classic The Good, the Bad and the Ugly continues to reign as the most epic western in the history of cinema. It’s easily the biggest western Clint Eastwood ever starred in, and the most ambitious that Leone ever shot. The story follows Blondie (Eastwood, who’s the “Good”) as he is forced into a partnership with Tuco (Eli Wallach again, as the “Ugly”) in order to find $200,000 in gold buried in a cemetery. While Blondie knows the name of the grave the gold is buried in, Tuco knows the graveyard. And watching over and following the both of them is Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef, the “Bad”), a professional hit man who takes much satisfaction in killing when he’s paid to do it. The three gold diggers eventually find themselves in the middle a raging Civil War battle, at which point Blondie and Tuco take it upon themselves to blow up a bridge in order to divert the soldiers. Without giving away too much more about the film, I’ll just say that if you were only going to watch one western in your entire life, this would be the one to watch. Violence, action, humor – this movie has it all. It’s like watching twenty westerns all in one. Oh, and a suggestion: if you can watch it on a big screen, do. I found it apropos that the one time I was able to watch this film full-size it was on the side of a mausoleum in a cemetery. Clint would’ve approved.