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Best Western Movies of All Time, Ranked


Best Western Movies of All Time, Ranked


The Western is a fascinating genre of film. Once the most popular movie at the box office, and now more of a niche project. They are heavily inspired by the American West but also heavily rely on stereotypes and historical inaccuracies and oftentimes embody the concept of Manifest Destiny, where the United States, the typically white protagonist, is meant to take over and expand over the North American continent over the ingenious people who already live there. The first Western movie to lay down the foundations of the genre was the silent film The Great Train Robbery (1903); however, it’s arguable that even earlier, in 1878, the first Western cinema began to appear on the scene (with one of the first motion pictures, Horse in Motion, or Sallie Gardner at a Gallop).


When one imagines a Western movie, several images come to mind: Clint Eastwood or John Wayne, the lone cowboy on the frontier, outlaws, saloons in the outposts of a rural town, horses in dust, and so on. However, it is also important to note that Western films have done their part to recreate, mythologize, and romanticize a period of American history, coding it in language and imagery that may not be factually correct and may even be offensive in terms of representation and themes. Without the core group of films that made the genre what it is known for today, history, as many perceive it, would’ve looked a little different. With that in mind, look at the greatest Westerns of all time and how they shaped the genre.

Many masterpieces didn’t make the cut due to limited space. Jimmy Stewart’s Westerns with Anthony Mann, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Red River, Cat Ballou, Rancho Notorious, The Gunfighter, The Big Sky, The Proposition, Meek’s Cutoff, The Nightingale, Rio Bravo, the Budd Boetticher Westerns, and more. That being said, these are the very best Western films that did make the cut. You can also watch a shortened video version of this article above.

Updated on March 31st, 2024, by Soniya Hinduja: This article has been updated with additional content to keep the discussion fresh and relevant with even more information and new entries.

45 Silverado (1985)

Lawrence Kasdan takes a script written by him with his brother Mark and transforms it into a traditional Western that is not too violent but also packs a punch. Silverado tells the story of four misfit cowboys – Emmett, Paden, Jake, and Mal – who encounter injustice and tragedy as they travel to the titular town. Seeking both refuge and a little bit of redemption, they get embroiled in a confrontation with a power-hungry rancher’s family and a corrupt sheriff who seems to be closely affiliated with them.

Four Drifters Form a Fantastic Film

Kevin Kline, Scott Glenn, Danny Glover and Kevin Costner deliver sparkling performances as the four drifters who forge an unbreakable bond in their attempt to fight the greedy rancher. Their irresistible chemistry and charisma drives the complexity of the narrative to an epic scale. A vibrant homage to the Western genre, the movie balances the thrills, chills, and feels so perfectly, that it even sends critics in awe, with Peter Stack of the San Francisco Chronicle writing: “How it manages to run the gamut of cowboy movie elements without getting smart-alecky is intriguing.” Silverado is available to stream on Netflix

44 Brokeback Mountain (2005)

A tragic Western romance, Brokeback Mountain is set in the 1960s through 1980s against the backdrop of Wyoming. It revolves around two young ranch hands, Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist (played wonderfully well by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal), who are hired by Joe Aguirre to take care of his sheep over the summer. They form a strong emotional and physical bond while indulging in mountainside work. However, the social constructs of the time hinder them from having a future together. And when the summer is over, they go separate ways.

A Groundbreaking Film by Ang Lee

Ledger and Gyllenhaal deliver performances so soulful and poignant that they make their star-crossed lovers immortal in both the romance and the Western genres. Under the direction of Ang Lee, the movie comes alive through vibrant colors, sensitive gazes, and breathtaking vistas. Brokeback Mountain boasts a subtlety seldom seen in the genre, for which reason, several consider its story diminished. However, the heartbreaking masterpiece was among the first movies to shed light on male affection and systematic oppression. Brokeback Mountain is available to stream on Peacock

43 Day of Anger (1967)

In a poverty-stricken town controlled by powerful men and hating townsfolk, Scott Mary is nothing more than a street sweeper and is often looked down upon. On the other hand, when Frank Talby, a former gunslinger, arrives in town seeking revenge on Perkins for past wrongs, Scott feels inspired to prove his own worth as a gunfighter. So, he becomes Talby’s pupil.

Lee Van Cleef Brings the Intensity

Co-written and directed by Tonino Valerii, Day of Anger is almost a Shakespearean Western that challenges the notions of good versus evil. Lee Van Cleef leads the cast as Frank Talby and brings an unparalleled intensity to the role. This Western’s incredible cinematography consists of several tight close-ups that convey complex emotions, with the film eventually building towards an explosive final act. Overall, the movie proves that Westerns can be gritty and profound at the same time. Day of Anger is available to stream on Tubi

42 Little Big Man (1970)

121-year-old Jack Crabb recounts his incredible life story to a young oral historian in Little Big Man. Crabb’s life has been full of adventures, like fighting at the battles of Washita and Little Bighorn and being the only white survivor in the latter. He also explains his life among Native Americans after being rescued by Cheyenne, being a gunslinger, and even working as a snake-oil salesman once.

Dustin Hoffman Surprises With an Incredible Performance

Little Big Man is a movie that brings depth and humor to the very elaborate tale of its protagonist. Whether it is about survival or progress is a question director Arthur Penn lets you answer. Dustin Hoffman subverts expectations in the role of a charming man in his quest for identity in a world filled with folly and violence. But above all, it is the movie’s epic scope that allows you into the intimate story of how the West’s most enigmatic players became pioneers. Little Big Man is available to stream on Prime Video

41 Blazing Saddles (1974)

When a railroad baron schemes meticulously to steal land by sending his gang of thugs to terrorize a frontier town and force them to leave their homes, the new governor appoints the town’s first black sheriff, Bart (Cleavon Little), to stop him. While the townsfolk do not immediately take a liking to Bart, at one point, he’s their saving grace, and it is impossible not to band together for a raunchy and humorous story.

A Satirical Western Tale

With Blazing Saddles, Mel Brooks turns the Western genre on its head and delivers a brilliant, albeit twisted, parody that definitely cannot be replicated today. Cleavon Little and Gene Wilder lead an iconic cast that spoofs racial prejudices and classic Western tropes with an infectious energy. While its antics were incredible, the social commentary was nothing but sharp. Blazing Saddles is available to stream on Tubi

40 Back to the Future Part III (1990)

After learning that “Doc” Brown (Christopher Lloyd) was sent back to 1885 at the end of the previous film, Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) finds 1955 Doc to help him return to 1985. However, Marty learns that Doc, while living out west, was shot and killed by Biff Tannen’s great-grandfather, “Mad Dog” Tannen. Marty travels back to 1885 to help save Doc, but the DeLorean doesn’t work without gasoline. They must use a locomotive to help get it up to speed so that they can get back home. They must also contend with Mad Dog Tannen and his gang of bandits.

A Terrific End to the Trilogy

Back to the Future Part III is the final installment of the Back to the Future series. The award-winning film was given a grade of “A-” by CinemaScore. And for good reason. The movie beautifully concludes a classic trilogy by bringing things to a full circle. Lloyd and Fox team up once again, but this time the genres are switched. It goes without saying, but the Western setting is more than just set-dressing as well, being woven into the main plot immaculately. And while the central story arc is “bravery and honor,” the movie also magically resolves issues from previous narratives, which is quite fitting for a film that jumps across the past and future. Back to the Future Part III is available to stream on Fubo TV

39 A Bullet for the General (1966)

A Bullet for the General is a spaghetti Western that centers around El Chuncho, a bandit who deals guns to both sides of the Mexican Revolution. As a train plans to deliver new ammunition, Chuncho sends his freebooters to rob it and allows Bill Tate, one of the commuters, to help them. Gian Maria Volonté plays the role of El Chuncho, having previously played key roles in both A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More.

A Complex and Multi-Dimensional Western

Adapted from a story by Salvatore Laurani, the movie brings some of the visual trademarks of the genre to the screen but also imbues every frame with emotional complexity. The tensions arise not only from the standoffs and revolutionary premise, but also the moral dilemmas running through the minds of its multi-dimensional characters. With Damiano Damiani’s direction and Luis Bacalov’s iconic background score, the movie is a standout in the genre. A Bullet for the General is available to stream on Tubi

38 The Hateful Eight (2015)

Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, The Hateful Eight is a Western with a hard-edged story and one of Tarantino’s most compelling scripts ever written. It features a dialogue-heavy plot that keeps the audience on edge, right until its brutal, nihilistic ending. It primarily focuses on how a motley group of drifters all find themselves stranded in the middle of an isolated cabin during a winter storm. Every character carefully chooses their words with their survival on the line, with tensions rising and secrets revealed.

Tarantino’s Take on Westerns

The ensemble cast features the talents of Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Demián Bichir, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, and Channing Tatum. Each actor offers a powerful performance, narrating events that lead them to the destination of the unlikely reunion. The violent resolution happens fast, but it’s more than fulfilling, considering the long-winded buildup of this incredible story. It’s an exceedingly pessimistic look at American history across its Western development, but an excellent one. The Hateful Eight is available to stream on Netflix

37 Home on the Range (2004)

Home on the Range was released in theaters nearly two decades ago. This motion picture showcases three cows whose farm is about to be repossessed. To prevent that from happening, they, along with the help of a wannabe hero horse, end up going after a wanted cattle rustler. The reward for his capture is exactly the amount needed to save the cow’s farm.

A Rare Disney Animated Western

The music and underrated family humor in the film are certainly positives. Casting for the film was spot-on as Judi Dench, Cuba Gooding Jr., Randy Quaid, Estelle Harris, and Steve Buscemi were just some of the headlining voices of the characters. This animated Disney comedy earned $76.5 million worldwide at the box office and earned a grade of “A-” by the folks at CinemaScore. The Disney movie may not be a memorable one, but it is one of the few animated Westerns that we’d surely like to visit from time to time. Home on the Range is available to stream on Disney+

36 Tombstone (1993)

tombstone

Tombstone

Release Date
December 25, 1993

Director
George P. Cosmatos

Tombstone is one of the most stylish Westerns ever put to film. It’s a chronicle loosely based on the real-life incidents of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and the Earp Vendetta Ride. In the film, Wyatt Earp and his brothers move to the town of Tombstone, hoping to find a peaceful life. Their plans are disrupted when they have to fight for their right to hold property. This film went toe to toe with Kevin Costner’s Wyatt Earp film, which was written, produced, and directed by Lawrence Kasdan.

Val Kilmer Is Your Huckleberry

The movie was directed by George P. Cosmatos and written by Kevin Jarre. The all-star cast includes Kurt Russell, Sam Elliott, and Bill Paxton as the Earp brothers, with Val Kilmer as Doc Holiday. The critics and moviegoers praised Tombstone for being fast-paced and historically accurate, while the movie by Kasdan was panned as long and tedious. The leading trio of actors portraying the Earp brothers do a magnificent job, but Kilmer’s Doc Holiday stole the show, especially with the ad-libbed line, “I’m Your Huckleberry.” Tombstone is available to buy/rent on Apple TV

35 Westworld (1973)

westworld

Westworld

Release Date
August 15, 1973

Director
Michael Crichton

Cast
Yul Brynner , Richard Benjamin , James Brolin , Norman Bartold , Alan Oppenheimer , Victoria Shaw

The story follows the misadventures of Peter Martin and John Blane as they visit Westworld, a theme park offering three different worlds where guests can partake in their heart’s desires. As human nature dictates, guests behave horribly towards the park’s androids by constantly abusing them in any way they can. The androids begin to experience malfunctions, with technicians not knowing what is happening to them. All hell breaks loose as the androids dismantle their programming sequence and start killing everyone in the park.

Westworld Broke the Mold

As far as Westerns go, Westworld broke the mold of everything made in the genre back in 1973, blending science-fiction with Western tropes. Each world shown in the movie is filled with androids indistinguishable from real humans, with the caveat that they never feel pain or disgust, which makes for an incredibly interesting premise. The movie was eventually adapted into the highly praised HBO sci-fi drama of the same name. This sci-fi story is written and directed by Michael Crichton, who also authored the novel. The movie stars Yul Brynner and Richard Benjamin. Westworld is available to buy/rent on Apple TV

34 The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)

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The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a remarkable anthology film that features a cast of multiple familiar faces across six different stories. Each tale has its own tonality and offers something unique to the spectator. From gunfights to gold prospectors, each story featured focuses on a unique aspect of the genre. None of them miss the mark and are all great, making this one of the best Western anthologies of all time.

Another Fantastic Western by the Coen Brothers

The Coen brothers made a name for themselves for their takes on Westerns, from modern tales like No Country for Old Men to classical set ones like True Grit. In their journey, they experimented a lot as well. This endeavor is a classic Western set with a contemporary comedy sensibility. Stars like Liam Neeson, James Franco, Zeo Kasan, and Tim Blake Nelson lend their phenomenal talents and wits in making this a modern masterpiece. It would later go on to receive nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Costume Design, and Best Original Song at the Academy Awards. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is available to stream on Netflix

33 The Shooting (1966)

Making spectacular use of the Utah desert (simultaneously with another great Hellman / Nicholson film, Ride in the Whirlwind), The Shooting features a delightful Warren Oates as a former bounty hunter who has settled down with his buddy for a more quiet life. When a woman in supposed distress offers them a large amount of money to escort her to a strange town, the pair reluctantly agree, only to realize that they’re being stalked by a man in black (Nicholson). A tense, ambiguous, and philosophical Western, The Shooting has the best of both worlds — classic Western elements with an arthouse vibe.

An Exciting, Unconventional Role for Jack Nicholson

An extremely formalistic, dark, and existentialist Western film by the underrated director Monte Hellman, The Shootingfeatures Jack Nicholson in one of his most interesting roles. Written by the great Nicholson collaborator Adrien Joyce (Five Easy Pieces, The Fortune) and co-starring Millie Perkins, Will Hutchins, and Warren Oates, The Shooting is a mysterious thriller, a Western that seems to have been written by Jean-Paul Sartre or Samuel Beckett. The Shooting is available to stream on Max

32 The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975)

The Apple Dumpling Gang is one of the best overall family Western films of the last five decades. The film tells the story of a polished gambler (Bill Bixby) who gets tricked into taking care of three orphan children in 1879. Once the kids learn of their fortune that was left to them by their late father, a lot of people, who don’t necessarily have the orphans’ best interest at heart, try to get their money. It is up to the gambler and some of the townsfolk to both protect the children and their fortune.

A Fantastic Don Knotts Western

The film made nearly $37 million at the box office in total and is one of famed actor Don Knotts’ best films. But apart from the statistical accolades, The Apple Dumpling Gang also packs a ton of humor that will have you laughing for hours on end. Disney’s classic, heartwarming style brings together elements of mischief, a cute romance, and a satisfying ending. The final arc between Bill Bixby and Susan Clark is also quite comforting, given the Western premise. The Apple Dumpling Gang is available to stream on Disney+

31 Bone Tomahawk (2015)

Try to remember this: each time Kurt Russel is involved in a Western, the film is likely to be a good ride. Bone Tomahawk is a story about four men who embark on a search mission to rescue a group of captives from a pack of cannibalistic tribesmen. It sounds like a pretty straightforward venture, until the movie gives insight into the activities of the tribespeople. The film’s climax is still talked about to this day, due to its unrelenting tension and shocking content.

S. Craig Zahler’s Violent Debut

This incredible film was written and directed by S. Craig Zahler. The movie perfectly blends the Western and horror genres, which you don’t get to see daily. The unflinching brutality is not held back, as the film is graphic. The most gripping experience is the pain and desperation displayed by the remaining characters as they stand helpless while trying to hold themselves together and devise an escape plan. This film is a wild ride, but not for the faint of heart. Bone Tomahawk is available to stream on Tubi

30 Bend of the River (1952)

Adapted from the 1950 novel Bend of the Snake written by Bill Gulick, Bend of the River is an unusually brilliant Western. Its premise goes something like this: Glyn McLyntock is a self-reliant but remorseful drifter who risks his life in order to bridge the gap between two worlds as he delivers confiscated supplies to Western settlers via a perilous journey. His only aim? To reinvent himself as a wagon train scout. However, when a supplier does not hold his end of the bargain, McLyntock’s integrity and past are put to the test.

The Best of Mann and Stewart

In their long and diverse career, director Anthony Mann and actor James Stewart have collaborated eight times, with Winchester ‘73 being their inaugural endeavor. With cinematic and thought-provoking Westerns such as The Glenn Miller Story, The Naked Spur, and The Man from Laramie being out there, it is no easy task to pick just one excellent outing. However, Bend of the River stands out by creating a portrait of Westward dreams and handling kinetic action with themes of loyalty and outlaw spirit. Bend of the River is currently unavailable on streaming

29 The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

Taking place in Missouri in the early 1880s, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford dramatizes the last seven months in the life of famed outlaw Jesse James (Brad Pitt), beginning with the Blue Cut train robbery of 1881 and culminating in his assassination at the hands of Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) the following April. In the time between these two fateful events, the young and jealous Ford befriends the increasingly mistrustful outlaw, even as he plots his demise.

An Incredible Andrew Dominik Western

Adapted from Ron Hansen’s 1983 novel of the same title, this 2007 revisionist Western film was written and directed by Andrew Dominik. To achieve the visual style he wanted for the movie, Dominik reportedly took influences from many sources, including still photographers, images clipped from magazines, stills from Days of Heaven, and even Polaroids. Although a box-office bomb, the film received positive reviews from the critics, with Pitt and Affleck’s performances receiving widespread acclaim. It has since gained a large fan following, with many organizing re-releases of the film under the “Jesse James Revival” banner. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is available to buy/rent on Apple TV

28 3:10 to Yuma (1957/2007)

A lowly rancher, Dan, agrees to hold wanted outlaw Ben as he awaits his fate at court in Yuma. His main motive is to restore his honor and redeem his barn. A film about willpower and a battle of wit as Ben attempts to psychologically prey on the vulnerable Dan, it is a pure treat from start to finish.

A Fantastic Story, No Matter the Adaptation

While there is undoubtedly some debate to be had, the 1957 and the 2007 remakes of 3:10 to Yuma are arguably equally gripping. Glenn Ford and Russell Crowe play Ben Wade in their respective editions, and Van Heflin and Christian Bale present Dan Evans. Both pairs of actors have great chemistry, and they bring equal parts charm and intelligence to the screen. Because the premise gets more complex as you go, you cannot help but feel emotionally invested in the story, especially in director James Mangold’s modern rendition. 3:10 to Yuma is available to buy/rent on Apple TV

27 The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)

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Inspired in both name and narrative by author Asa Earl Carter’s fiction work, Clint Eastwood’s screen adaptation, The Outlaw Josey Wales is a Civil War era chronicle about a Missouri farmer, Josey Wales (Clint Eastwood). Wales’ existence is occupied by his farming work and family. That is, until a group of unionists murder his wife and son in cold blood. In an ultimate illustration of retribution, Wales embarks on a journey of revenge, joining up with a group of Confederates as he tracks down the culprits.

Eastwood Brings Historical Accuracy to the West

Eastwood, who stars and directs the film, brings a newfound infectious charm to a premise that may not seem as entertaining to the mainstream audience. Its attention to historical accuracy, the portrayal of Americans simply navigating the highs and lows of life, gritty action, and the outstanding redemption arc make the movie all the more gripping. Moreover, it was also nominated for the Academy Award for Original Music Score, thanks to its major focus on atmospheric beauty. The Outlaw Josey Wales is available to buy/rent on Apple TV

26 A Fistful of Dollars (1964)

A Fistful of Dollars

A Fistful of Dollars

Release Date
January 18, 1964

Director
Sergio Leone , Monte Hellman

Cast
Clint Eastwood , Marianne Koch , Gian Maria Volonte , Wolfgang Lukschy , Sieghardt Rupp , Joseph Egger

The film signified the birth of the Man with No Name, with Clint Eastwood taking on the role of the squinty, laconic lone wolf in all three films of the Dollars Trilogy. The Western classic explores the story of a man shrouded in deep mystery as he trots on horseback to the New Mexico town of San Miguel. Risking being caught in the crossfire of its two warring factions, the lonesome man methodically plays the two off against one another.

The Start of the Dollars Trilogy

The first installment of Sergio Leone’s acclaimed Dollars Trilogy had the Japanese pioneer Akira Kurosawa to thank for his phenomenal samurai movie, Yojimbo, which formed the basis of A Fistful of Dollars. Following the movie that changed the course of Western cinema, Clint Eastwood started being identified for the very role he played. Moreover, with the budget used in making it, A Fistful of Dollars definitely proves itself worthy of every dime, because the scope of direction and the superb acting will be remembered for decades to come. A Fistful of Dollars is available to stream on DirecTV

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