My Favorite Movie Westerns

I have had Westerns on my mind now that I am in the middle of dress rehearsals for Romeo and Juliet set in 1877 South Dakota. Like Shakespeare’s plays with their British origin but universal and often timeless themes, Westerns are undeniably American but they also lend themselves to classic stories of good versus evil and other mythic arch-types that can connect with audiences around the world. Although Westerns may not be as popular as they once were, the genre is still alive.

Here are some of my favorite movie Westerns. (I will look at my favorite TV Westerns later.)

Blazing Saddles – Whenever Mel Brooks spoofed a genre, it rang true because of his love and understanding of the staples of that genre. This classic comedy is the greatest example as he plays with all the Western stereotypes and ends up with a terrific tale starring Cleavon Little, Gene Wilder, Slim Pickens, Harvey Korman, and Madeline Kahn.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – The terrific script by William Goldman glorifies the anti-heroes as they flee from the law. Paul Newman and Robert Redford are at the top of their game here.

Dances with Wolves – Kevin Costner’s Oscar-winning Western may not be as great as all the original hype made it out to be, but it is definitely much better than most of the criticism its detractors have dished out. I really liked Mary McDonnell’s performance in particular.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly – This is the greatest of Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti westerns” and it continues to influence movies today. Clint Eastwood is great, and Eli Wallach is brilliant.

Hang ‘Em High – This under-rated Western is one of my favorites. Clint Eastwood plays an innocent man who survives a lynching attempt and then returns as a law man out to bring the vigilantes to justice.

High Noon – Called by some the greatest Western of all time, if nothing else this definitely has one of the finest stories ever portrayed on cinema, masterful in its simplicity. The editing, the pacing, the acting are all captivating. Gary Cooper plays a Marshall who must stand up single-handedly against some killer enemies when they return to his town. The rest of the cast is amazing too, including Lloyd Bridges, Grace Kelly, and Lon Chaney, Jr.

High Plains Drifter – This is one of my guilty Western pleasures. Clint Eastwood (who also directed) plays a nameless stranger who comes to town to battle some outlaws. The film is full of symbolism and tackles moral questions of right and wrong and the shades of gray inbetween, which Eastwood always manages to handle so well.

The Magnificent Seven – Here’s another great classic – an American Western version of Akira Kurawa’s brilliant Seven Samurai. The stellar cast (Yul Brenner, Eli Wallach, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn, James Coburn, and others) is top-notch. This is one of those films that should be on everyone’s “must-see” list.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance – This is one of director John Ford’s many masterpieces. John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Vera Miles, and Lee Marvin star in a gripping drama that still holds up well today.

The Outlaw Josey Wales – Clint Eastwood directs one of his best Westerns and stars as a farmer on the run from soldiers who murdered his family.

Pale Rider – When many people were ready to write a eulogy for the Western, Clint Eastwood was still churning them out. This was a great one. Eastwood stars as a nameless preacher who comes to save a town from a mining company.

Shane – This movie has been spoofed so many times, but it still has many memorable moments. Alan Ladd and Jack Palance are terrific.

Silverado РI love this little film about a bunch of friends who come together to battle the injustices threatening their town. On the surface, it may just appear to be a clich̩-ridden b-movie, but the performances by Kevin Costner, Kevin Cline, Scott Glenn, Danny Glover, and John Cleese make it shine.

Stage Coach – Folks who do not think that High Noon is the greatest often point to this movie as the ultimate Western. John Ford practically invented the iconic moments of the genre with this John Wayne classic.

Tombstone – This film has become a cult classic and a favorite of many thanks to the amazing performances by Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp, Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday, Sam Elliott as Virgil Earp, Bill Paxton as Morgan Earp, and a supporting cast that included Powers Booth, Charlton Heston, Jason Priestley, Thomas Haden Church, Dana Delaney, Billy Bob Thornton, and others.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre – This is one of John Huston’s greatest films starring Humphrey Bogart in one of his finest performances.

Unforgiven – Clint Eastwood reinvents the genre in spectacular fashion in this award-winning tale of what it really means to be a Western legend. Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, and Richard Harris were also amazing.

The Wild Bunch – Sam Peckinpah’s violent classic is another must-see, telling the tale of an old gang of outlaws who try one last score, remembering the glory days of the West as the world changes around them.

There are so many others, as recent as the remake of the Glenn Ford orginal 3:10 to Yuma with Russell Crowe and Christian Bale in the new version, or the artsy The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford starring Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck. Some Westerns are terrible, like Sam Raimi’s The Quick and the Dead with Sharon Stone, Gene Hackman, and Leonardo DiCaprio or Richard Donner’s adaptation of the television hit Maverick with Mel Gibson and Jodie Foster. Then there are the classics that I still have not seen like John Ford’s The Searchers with John Wayne or Cat Ballou with Jane Fonda and Lee Marvin, which one of my cast mates has been recommending that I watch (and I promise I will).

I am sure many of you can name a bunch of other great movie Westerns that I have left off the list. Let me know which ones are your favorites.


Anonymous said…
You should see "The Searchers" TODAY, my friend.
Peter said…
Howdy! Tombstone and Dances With Wolves were my favorite! Wyatt Earp ain't too far behind.