Westerns have been a staple of the movie industry almost as long as there have been movies. The genre peaked in the 1950s, and although it is becoming more and more rare to see a Western in modern-day cinemas, filmmakers still manage to crank out a handful on a year-to-year basis. The follow 10 films stand as the best that the genre has to offer:
1. 'High Noon' (1952)
Often imitated but never duplicated, High Noon remains the absolute pinnacle of the Western genre. The movie, which unfolds in real time, follows lawman Will Kane (Gary Cooper) as he prepares to marry his sweetheart (Grace Kelly’s Amy) and hang up his badge for good, with problems emerging as Will learns that an old nemesis is on his way back to town hoping to exact vengeance. High Noon manages to wring an almost unbearable amount of suspense out of its deceptively simple premise, as filmmaker Fred Zinnemann does a superb job of slowly-but-surely ratcheting up the tension as the clock inevitably makes its way to 12:00 (which is when Will’s adversary is scheduled to roll into town).
2. 'Back to the Future III' (1991)
Back to the Future III may seem like an odd choice for this list, but the film contains everything that a good Western should – including shoot-outs, horseback chases, and deliciously evil villains. Picking up where Back to the Future II left off, Back to the Future III follows Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) as he travels to the year 1885 to prevent Mad Dog Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson) from murdering his old friend Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd). Director Robert Zemeckis has clearly designed Back to the Future III to operate as a love letter to all the great Westerns that came before it, with the film’s runaway-train finale still ranking as one of the most exciting sequences of its type to ever come out of Hollywood.
Kevin Costner is certainly no stranger to the Western, having appeared in such classics as 1985’s Silverado and 1990’s Dances with Wolves. And although Costner the director stumbled with 1997’s critical and financial flop The Postman, the filmmaker bounced back in a big way with 2003’s Open Range – as the movie remains the best Western released in the 21st century. Open Range, which tells the simple story of four cowboys who run afoul of a corrupt lawman, boasts a frequently breathtaking visual style that captures the grandeur of the old west, with the movie’s entertaining atmosphere heightened by the efforts of a stellar cast that includes Robert Duvall, Annette Bening, and Michael Gambon.
4. 'Rio Bravo' (1959)
Rio Bravo has justifiably become known as one of the best Westerns to emerge out of Hollywood in the 1950s, which is no small feat considering the genre’s massive popularity during that decade. The film, which Roger Ebert has called “seamless” and “uncommonly absorbing,” follows John Wayne’s small-town sheriff as he attempts to bring a murderer to justice, which he accomplishes by enlisting the help of a ragtag group of misfits. John Wayne appeared in dozens of Westerns over his long, storied career, and yet it’s generally Rio Brave with which he’s often associated. The movie has influenced countless modern directors over the years, and Quentin Tarantino has even said that he won’t date a woman who doesn’t love Rio Bravo.
Based on a solid 1957 Glenn Ford Western, 3:10 to Yuma follows a rancher (Christian Bale’s Dan Evans) as he attempts to transport a notorious criminal (Russell Crowe’s Ben Wade) to a nearby train station. It’s a simple premise that’s utilized to consistently exciting effect by filmmaker James Mangold, as the Walk the Line director offers up a series of action sequences that are as thrilling as they are spellbinding. The atmospheric visuals ensure that the movie often comes off as a prototypical example of the genre, and it’s difficult not to get a kick out of the old-school elements that have been sprinkled throughout (including a good old-fashioned stagecoach chase). The intense work from Bale and Crowe is the icing on the cake here.
6. 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid' (1969)
Featuring a pair of iconic performances from Paul Newman and Robert Redford, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid has justifiably entered the pantheon of the movie industry’s all-time great films. The picture details the ongoing escapades of the title characters, with a specific emphasis on the pair’s efforts at escaping to Bolivia. It’s the palpable, now-legendary chemistry between Newman’s Butch Cassidy and Redford’s Sundance Kid that has confirmed the movie’s place as a bona fide classic, and there’s little doubt that the movie is often just as effective as a buddy comedy as it is a Western. The indelible final shot caps off what is, for the most part, a stirring and flawless piece of work.
7. 'Tombstone' (1993)
In late 1993 and early 1994, audiences were treated to two Westerns revolving around the life and times of legendary lawman Wyatt Earp: Tombstone and Wyatt Earp. And although the latter featured a strong performance from Kevin Costner, the former has stood the test of time to become the definitive retelling of the Earp legend. As Earp, Kurt Russell delivers one of the best performances of his career and effortlessly transforms the real-life figure into a take-no-prisoners badass. The actor’s stellar work is matched by an eclectic supporting cast that includes Bill Paxton, Charlton Heston, and Val Kilmer, with the end result a gritty, frequently brutal Western that does a superb job of reinventing the genre for a whole new generation.
8. 'Dances with Wolves' (1990)
With Dances with Wolves, Kevin Costner stepped behind the camera for the very first time. An ambitious movie, Dances with Wolves tells the story of a Civil War soldier who switches sides after befriending a tribe of Native Americans. Costner has infused the movie with a sweeping visual sensibility that perfectly complements the epic storyline, with the filmmaker’s performance in the lead role deservedly earning him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. (The movie took home seven Academy Awards, including Best Director and Best Picture.) Costner’s affinity for Westerns has been reflected in all his directorial efforts, as they’ve each contained nods to the genre in their own way. (The reviled Postman is essentially a futuristic Western.)
9. 'Unforgiven' (1992)
Clint Eastwood is no stranger to the Western. Over his career, Eastwood has appeared in such classics of the genre as The Outlaw Josey Wales, High Plains Drifter, and Hang ‘Em High. With Unforgiven, however, Eastwood managed to top even himself – as the film boasts a somber, elegiac tone that’s reflected in everything from the performances to the visuals. The subdued storyline follows a retired gunslinger as he agrees to pull off one last job, with Eastwood’s decision to stress the characters and their various choices effectively setting the movie apart from its action-packed brethren. (As Roger Ebert noted, “[Unforgiven] has the elements of a crime picture, but the freedom of an art film.”)
Though most people associate Westerns with the 1800s and the old west, the genre has been used to striking effect in a number of modern-day pictures – with the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men standing as the best of the bunch. Based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel, No Country for Old Men details the violence and chaos that ensues after a hunter stumbles upon and steals a cache of money in the desert. Filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen have infused No Country for Old Men with a spare yet suspenseful feel that persists from beginning to end, with the strong performances from folks like Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, and, especially, Javier Bardem confirming the movie’s place as a modern classic.