The 100 Greatest Westerns of All Time (2024)

Table of Contents
100. ‘Heaven’s Gate’ (dir. Michael Cimino, 1980) 99. ‘The Gunfighter’ (dir. Henry King, 1950) 98. ‘City Slickers’ (dir. Ron Underwood, 1991) 97. ‘The Professionals’ (dir. Richard Brooks, 1966) 96. ‘The Cowboys’ (dir. Mark Rydell, 1972) 95. ‘The Daughter of Dawn’ (dir. Norbert A. Myles, 1920) 94. ‘Open Range’ (dir. Kevin Costner, 2003) 93. ‘Tombstone’ (dir. George P. Cosmatos, 1993) 92. ‘Little Woods’ (dir. Nia DaCosta, 2018) 91. ‘The Ox-Bow Incident’ (dir. William Wellman, 1943) 90. ‘The Good, the Bad, the Weird’ (dir. Kim Jee-woon, 2008) 89. ‘Black Rodeo’ (dir. Jeff Kanew, 1972) 88. ‘Two Mules for Sister Sara’ (dir. Don Siegel, 1970) 87. ”49-’17’ (dir. Ruth Ann Baldwin, 1917) 86. ‘Blood on the Moon’ (dir. Robert Wise, 1948) 85. ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’ (dir. George Roy Hill, 1969) 84. ‘Posse’ (dir. Mario Van Peebles, 1993) 83. ‘A Fistful of Dollars’ (dir. Sergio Leone, 1964) 82. ‘Tumbleweeds’ (dir. King Baggot, 1925) 81. ‘The Learning Tree’ (dir. Gordon Parks, 1969) 80. ‘The Covered Wagon’ (dir. James Cruze, 1923) 79. ‘The Settlers’ (dir. Felipe Gálvez, 2023) 78. ‘Dances with Wolves’ (dir. Kevin Costner, 1990) 77. ‘Harlem on the Prairie’ (dir. Sam Newfield, 1937) 76. ‘The Iron Horse’ (dir. John Ford, 1924) 75. ‘Westward the Women’ (dir. William Wellman, 1951) 74. ‘The Proposition’ (dir. John Hillcoat, 2005) 73. ‘Hell’s Heroes’ (dir. William Wyler, 1929) 72. ‘Lone Star’ (dir. John Sayles, 1996) 71. ‘True Grit’ (dir. Joel and Ethan Coen, 2010) 70. ‘Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia’ (dir. Sam Peckinpah, 1974) 69. ‘The Ruthless Four’ (dir. Giorgio Capitani, 1968) 68. ‘The Phantom Empire’ (dir. Otto Brower, B. Reeves Eason, 1935) 67. ‘Nope’ (dir. Jordan Peele, 2022) 66. ‘Meek’s Cutoff’ (dir. Kelly Reichardt, 2010) 65. ‘Companeros!’ (dir. Sergio Corbucci, 1970) 64. ‘Buck and the Preacher’ (Sidney Poitier, 1972) 63. ‘Rodeo’ (dir. Carroll Ballard, 1969) 62. ‘Bend of the River’ (dir. Anthony Mann, 1952) 61. ‘Sergeant Rutledge’ (dir. John Ford, 1960) 60. ‘The Ballad of Cable Hogue’ (dir. Sam Peckinpah, 1970) 59. ‘The Man from Laramie’ (dir. Anthony Mann, 1955) 58. ‘Django’ (dir. Sergio Corbucci, 1966) 57. ‘Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid’ (dir. Sam Peckinpah, 1973) 56. ‘River of No Return’ (dir. Otto Preminger, 1954) 55. ‘Rancho Notorious’ (Fritz Lang, 1952) 54. ‘El Topo’ (dir. Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1970) 53. ‘Near Dark’ (dir. Kathryn Bigelow, 1987) 52. ‘Forty Guns’ (dir. Samuel Fuller, 1957) 51. ‘Day of the Outlaw’ (dir. Andre de Toth, 1959) 50. ‘The Rider’ (dir. Chloe Zhao, 2018) 49. ‘The Magnificent Seven’ (dir. John Sturges, 1960) 48. ‘The Ballad of Little Jo’ (dir. Maggie Greenwald, 1993) 47. ‘There Will Be Blood’ (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007) 46. ‘3:10 to Yuma’ (dir. Delmer Daves, 1957) 45. ‘The Shootist’ (dir. Don Siegel, 1976) 44. ‘The Wild Bunch’ (dir. Sam Peckinpah, 1969) 43. ‘The Quick and the Dead’ (dir. Sam Raimi, 1995) 42. ‘Brokeback Mountain’ (dir. Ang Lee, 2005) 41. ‘Paris, Texas’ (dir. Wim Wenders, 1984) 40. ‘Hud’ (dir. Martin Ritt, 1963) 39. ‘Ulzana’s Raid’ (dir. Robert Aldrich, 1972) 38. ‘The Hanging Tree’ (dir. Delmer Daves, 1959) 37. ‘The Winning of Barbara Worth’ (dir. Henry King, 1926) 36. ‘The Treasure of the Sierra Madre’ (dir. John Huston, 1948) 35. ‘Bad Day at Black Rock’ (dir. John Sturges, 1955) 34. ‘No Country for Old Men’ (dir. Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007) 33. ‘Shane’ (dir. George Stevens, 1953) 32. ‘Silver Lode’ (dir. Allan Dwan, 1954) 31. ‘The Lusty Men’ (dir. Nicholas Ray, 1952) 30. ‘Kill and Pray’ (dir. Carlo Lizzani, 1967) 29. ‘Black God, White Devil’ (dir. Glauber Rocha, 1963) 28. ‘Dead Man’ (dir. Jim Jarmusch, 1995) 27. ‘Blazing Saddles’ (dir. Mel Brooks, 1974) 26. ‘The Misfits’ (dir. John Huston, 1961) 25. ‘The Tall T’ (dir. Budd Boetticher, 1957) 24. ‘Man of the West’ (dir. Anthony Mann, 1958) 23. ‘Pale Rider’ (dir. Clint Eastwood, 1985) 22. ‘Red River’ (dir. Howard Hawks, 1948) 21. ‘The Big Country’ (dir. William Wyler, 1958) 20. ‘The Wind’ (dir. Victor Sjöström, 1928) 19. ‘High Noon’ (dir. Fred Zinnemann, 1952) 18. ‘Unforgiven’ (dir. Clint Eastwood, 1992) 17. ‘The Great Silence’ (dir. Sergio Corbucci, 1968) 16. ‘The Searchers’ (dir. John Ford, 1956) 15. ‘Winchester ’73’ (dir. Anthony Mann, 1950) 14. ‘Ride the High Country’ (dir. Sam Peckinpah, 1962) 13. ‘The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly’ (dir. Sergio Leone, 1966) 12. ‘Rio Bravo’ (dir. Howard Hawks, 1959) 11. ‘The Great Train Robbery’ (dir. Edwin S. Porter, 1903) 10. ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’ (dir. John Ford, 1962) 9. ‘The Shooting’ (dir. Monte Hellman, 1967) 8. ‘Jeremiah Johnson’ (dir. Sydney Pollack, 1972) 7. ‘Stagecoach’ (dir. John Ford, 1939) 6. ‘Ride Lonesome’ (dir. Budd Boetticher, 1959) 5. ‘McCabe and Mrs. Miller’ (dir. Robert Altman, 1971) 4. ‘For a Few Dollars More’ (dir. Sergio Leone, 1965) 3. ‘My Darling Clementine’ (dir. John Ford, 1946) 2. ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ (dir. Sergio Leone, 1968) 1. ‘Johnny Guitar’ (dir. Nicholas Ray, 1954)

If any eight words could sum up the best Western movies in their entirety, it’s those from “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” At times misunderstood, at times marginalized, at times written off by Hollywood as less than bankable even following periods of extraordinary success, the Western is nonetheless the most enduring genre in the history of American movies. Assembling IndieWire’s list of the 100 Greatest Westerns of All Time resulted in movies appearing there that represent every single decade since the turn of the last century: The earliest film on the list is from 1903 and the most recent from 2023, with movies from five continents represented.

That endurance is not just because of sagebrush and spurs and cowboy hats and horses and train robberies and six-shooters, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. It’s because the best Western movies — whether modern Westerns or those made a century ago — are unparalleled vehicles for ideas about what America is, what it represents, how it was founded, and all the hypocrisies and contradictions and agreed-upon myths therein. Ideas so powerful they inspired reflection among filmmakers from other nations using that cinematic grammar about what their own cultures’ say about themselves too. (The Soviet bloc even made a series of “Osterns” using the imagery of the Western, sometimes displaced to the steppes of Central Asia, to tell their own stories about themselves.) Even unintentionally on many occasions, this is a genre that looks, more than any other, dead-on at race, gender, capitalism, environmentalism, colonialism, and the deepest question of all: Who are you really when there’s no or little authority hanging over you to mediate your behavior? When you don’t have all the creature comforts of civilization? What would you become?

That’s why, even though the Western is the ultimate American genre, the ultimate lens through which to examine America, it can even transcend it’s American-ness. Because above all: The Western is a genre about why people are the way that they are. And the many myths we tell ourselves about who we’d like to think we are.

In 1894, at his studio in New Jersey, Thomas Edison made short “actuality” films featuring stars of the touring “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” show, such as Annie Oakley. 130 years later, the genre continues with Kevin Costner’s “Horizon: An American Saga.” But even before those Edison shorts, Buffalo Bill’s traveling show had been touring the country for over a decade peddling its vision of what the Old West was like… as the Old West was actually happening. Mythmaking about the Old West was happening from the very start — there was a book written about Buffalo Bill in 1869 — simply because, more than anything, America loves to tell stories about itself. An obsession that Hollywood would deepen even so much more.

The Western, as an idea, as a vehicle for other ideas, was so potent that the rest of the world then picked it up. John Ford, as essential a driver of creating an idea of what America is as anyone ever was, influenced Akira Kurosawa, who found a grammar all his own to tell stories about Japan that, when you squint, look a bit like the Western. They’re distinctly not, of course, instead rooted in the traditions of jidaigeki, but Kurosawa’s films influenced Italy’s stunning explosion of Spaghetti Westerns in the 1960s that brought an entirely different lens to the genre. A number of Spaghetti Westerns are on IndieWire’s list of the 100 Greatest Westerns of All Time, as is a Korean Western set in 1930s Manchuria, an Australian Western, and a couple of South American Westerns.

Assembling IndieWire’s list of the 100 Greatest Westerns of All Time resulted in a dawning awareness of the genre’s elasticity: There’s a sci-fi Western serial (doubling as a “singing cowboy” saga) in 1935’s “The Phantom Empire” that paved the way for “Nope.” There are avant-garde short-film takes on the Western, such as Carroll Ballard’s “Rodeo.” There are Westerns set at the time of those films’ actual release, such as “Paris, Texas,” that nonetheless feature journey and reunion motifs central to films set 100 years earlier. There’s the fact that, as much as Black experiences in the Old West have been marginalized by Hollywood (even though around a third of all cowboys in the Old West were Black) there have been many more Black Westerns than are typically acknowledged by the canon today — and that it’s on us now in the present to appreciate what those films have offered. And there’s the realization of iconoclastic, even form-busting, storytelling elements we’ve taken for granted in canonical classics: Which is to say, paraphrasing Robin Wood, that if you don’t love “My Rifle, My Pony, and Me” in “Rio Bravo,” you don’t love movies.

Read on and enjoy, pardner.

This Top 100 Westerns list is a living document and will be added to over time to go beyond 100. With editorial contributions from Tom Brueggemann, Bill Desowitz, David Ehrlich, Kate Erbland, Marya E. Gates, Jim Hemphill, Ryan Lattanzio, Tony Maglio, Tambay Obenson, Harrison Richlin, Sarah Shachat, Anne Thompson, Brian Welk, and Christian Zilko.

  • 100. ‘Heaven’s Gate’ (dir. Michael Cimino, 1980)

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    We know what you’re thinking. ‘Heaven’s Gate’? The film widely associated with the end of the American independent cinema movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s? Really? Yes. There are many versions of this much maligned relic of cinema’s history, but the one we recommend is the latest cut, currently available through the Criterion Collection, ‘Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate.’ The director’s full and final vision is a masterpiece on every level — a Western that’s as rich and textured as a Renaissance painting. A historical triptych that tracks wealth’s grip on the American soul, a soul born out of a European influence, now desperate to be excised, but that time carries on in new forms.

    The cost overruns on Cimino’s production famously helped tank United Artists, but it should not be viewed through that lens alone. ‘Heaven’s Gate’ is not only a work of art, but a vital historical document. Its examination of the Johnson County War — one of many forgotten genocides committed on American soil — and those involved with its tragic outcomes remains a relevant study of power bastardizing America’s promise of free enterprise. —HR

  • 99. ‘The Gunfighter’ (dir. Henry King, 1950)

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    Most of the action of this small-scale Western takes place in a saloon. One might call this setting a frontier courtroom, where community gathers, past offenses are deliberated, and the life of a man hangs in the balance. The main character of ‘The Gunfighter’ — a criminal named Jimmy Ringo whose myth has grown beyond his control — has seen many a saloon and been forced to deliver justice within them just as often, but is growing more and more tired by the second. Why does this space that’s supposed to be for leisure and relaxation always have to turn into an arena? Part of Ringo knows he’s brought this on himself, but it doesn’t stop him from arguing his case for redemption and desire to make good with society by being a family man.

    There’s a ticking clock element to this drama, as at a previous saloon Ringo shot a man down and now his three brothers are heading his way. The town Ringo absconds to also happens to be full of decent folk who resent Ringo’s presence just as much and are willing to shoot him dead based on conjecture alone. So goes the struggle of being a gunfighter in the Old West. Everyone wants the reputation, but once you get it, it’s all you are. As played by screen legend Gregory Peck, Ringo is a tragic figure in desperate need of a break and who’s started to fear that it’ll only come with a bullet. As he tries to create another path for himself, he’s reminded of all the mistakes that led him to this place — in another saloon, in another town that doesn’t want him there. ‘The Gunfighter’ serves as a precursor to many of the psychological Westerns popularized in the 1950s, as well as an influence on more recent films of the genre, such as ‘The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.’ —HR

  • 98. ‘City Slickers’ (dir. Ron Underwood, 1991)

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    Jack Palance won his lone Oscar for his supporting role of Curly in ‘City Slickers.’ If there was a Best Cow Academy Award, Norman would have had it in the bag. Well, Best Calf — Norman didn’t age great. ‘City Slickers’ is a heartfelt buddy comedy in which Billy Crystal, Daniel Stern, and Bruno Kirby, faced with turning the big 4-0, leave their yuppie lives for a fantasy-camp cattle drive. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but then Curly dies, the rain comes, and the west gets wild. The trip ceases to be a vacation (though to be honest it wasn’t super fun when Curly was alive either) when the guys must go it on their own. But in doing so, they learn Curly’s secret to life: Their ‘one thing.’ —TM

  • 97. ‘The Professionals’ (dir. Richard Brooks, 1966)

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    Before ‘The Wild Bunch,’ there was Richard Brooks’ marvelous ode to friendship, loyalty, and disillusionment: A prestigious film that earned two Oscar nominations for Brooks (director and adapted script) and cinematographer Conrad Hall. While it lacked the stylistic bravado and fatalistic doom of the legendary Sam Peckinpah Western, Brooks’ crack at the genre was action-packed (with a sequence aboard a fast-moving train) and philosophically insightful (with lots of sarcastic quips). Oil baron Ralph Bellamy hires four soldiers of fortune to rescue his kidnapped wife (Claudia Cardinale) from revolutionary leader-turned bandit Jack Palance: Planner Lee Marvin, dynamite handler Burt Lancaster, wrangler Robert Ryan, and archer Woody Strode. Turns out Marvin and Lancaster were friends with Palance, and, sure enough, nothing is what it seems. Filmed mostly on location in Death Valley and near Lake Mead in Nevada, the 87-day shoot required lots of efficient planning and day-for-night shooting by Hall and his crew. Fittingly, it ends in disappointment for both Bellamy and Marvin. ‘You bastard!’ Bellamy declares. ‘Yes, sir, in my case an accident of birth. But you, sir, you’re a self-made man,’ Marvin replies. —BD

  • 96. ‘The Cowboys’ (dir. Mark Rydell, 1972)

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    John Wayne’s last great performance, arguably, was as aging, embittered rancher Wil Andersen, who becomes a reluctant paternal figure in Mark Rydell’s gritty, progressive Western (one of the last of the ‘roadshow’ releases). It’s a coming-of-age adventure and modern portrayal of masculinity, beautifully shot by Robert Surtees and rousingly scored by John Williams, in which Andersen desperately hires 11 schoolboys (including newcomers Robert Carradine and A. Martinez) on a 400-mile cattle drive when his crew gets gold dust fever. Joining them is Roscoe Lee Browne’s scene-stealing Black cook, Nightlinger, who helps Andersen mentor the inexperienced kids. The themes of diversity and inclusion were topical in 1972, as was the violence, which received criticism for turning the kids into bloodthirsty killers. They exact revenge on psychotic Bruce Dern (Long Hair) and his gang of rustlers after he brutally murders Andersen by shooting him in the back and steals their cattle. It was a rare and shocking onscreen death for Wayne, which harmed Dern’s reputation as an actor, consigning him to a string of psychotic roles. For actor-turned director Rydell, it was a tough shoot with an ensemble cast of youngsters on location in New Mexico and Colorado. He even got off to a bad start when reprimanding Wayne for yelling ‘cut’ out of turn. Rydell was certain the superstar was going to have him fired, but Wayne respectfully apologized, and they got along well from then on. —BD

  • 95. ‘The Daughter of Dawn’ (dir. Norbert A. Myles, 1920)

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    Director Norbert A. Myles’ historical epic ‘The Daughter of Dawn’ was filmed with a cast entirely composed of members of the Kiowa and Comanche tribes. Drawing on melodrama tropes, the film centers on the love quadrangle between the Kiowa chief’s daughter, Dawn (Esther LeBarre); White Eagle (White Parker, who was the actual son of Comanche leader Quanah Parker), the man she loves; Black Wolf (Jack Sankadota), the man her father wants her to marry; and Red Wing (Wanada Parker), another woman who loves Black Wolf. The film stands out from other Westerns of its time not only for its native cast, but also because it cements on celluloid pre-reservation era Kiowa and Comanche customs like buffalo hunts (the stunning footage of buffalos will move you to tears), ceremonial dances, and even a version of sign language, known as Plains Indian Sign Language, that allowed disparate tribes to communicate with each other.—MG

  • 94. ‘Open Range’ (dir. Kevin Costner, 2003)

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    Directing his second Western after the triumph of ‘Dances With Wolves,’ Kevin Costner went darker and more inward to tell a riveting tale of revenge, though he didn’t leave his eye for beautiful landscapes behind. The setting for screenwriter Craig Storper’s story of free range cowboys (played by Costner, Robert Duvall, and Diego Luna) up against an evil rancher (Michael Gambon) is muddier and less superficially appealing than the lovely vistas of ‘Dances With Wolves,’ as Costner channels ‘McCabe and Mrs. Miller’-era Robert Altman to explore the specific, not always pretty, details of how people really lived in the Old West. Yet in this world Costner finds a different kind of beauty and creates visual poetry out of the makeshift town in which much of the film takes place. There’s also a wonderful attention to detail in the characterizations; Duvall is particularly entertaining, and there’s a quiet, adult poignancy to the romance between Costner and Annette Bening that places ‘Open Range’ on a par with the best Western novels of Larry McMurtry. —JH

  • 93. ‘Tombstone’ (dir. George P. Cosmatos, 1993)

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    We’ll be your Huckleberry. ‘Tombstone’ is not the only film about Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and the OK Corral gunfight — it’s just the best one. (Well, other than ‘My Darling Clementine.’) It also came out at the right time — or at the very least, at not the wrong time. Kevin Costner’s ‘Wyatt Earp’ film was released in theaters just six months after ‘Tombstone.’ Costner would have had a better chance of beating Doc Holliday in a gunfight than beating ‘Tombstone’ at the box office. (‘Wyatt Earp’ made about half what ‘Tombstone’ did; ‘Tombstone’ was also the much-better-reviewed of the two.) In ‘Tombstone,’ Val Kilmer was particularly excellent as Holliday; decades later he’d play Wyatt Earp in ‘Wyatt Earp’s Revenge.’ Kurt Russell was (and always will be) our Wyatt Earp, and in this excellent and entertaining Western, he put a lot of cowboys beneath their own tombstones. —TM

  • 92. ‘Little Woods’ (dir. Nia DaCosta, 2018)

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    ‘Little Woods’ is a redefinition of the Western that situates its story in the contemporary American Midwest, a setting that starkly contrasts with the traditional locales of the Old West. Additionally, unlike classic Westerns that often focus on lawmen and outlaws, DaCosta’s confidently directed feature debut centers the trials of everyday survival faced by two sisters in a small North Dakota town.

    What makes ‘Little Woods’ a compelling addition to a list of great Westerns is its exploration of frontier themes via the lens of present-day socioeconomic issues. The protagonists, believably played by Tessa Thompson and Lily James whose strong performances ground the film, contend with inadequate healthcare access, housing insecurity, poverty, and the opioid crisis, in an overall densely bleak atmosphere that gets underneath the skin.

    Its ‘desperate times-desperate measures’ throughline does echo the lawlessness and moral ambiguity characteristic of Westerns, and DaCosta’s direction is subtle and nuanced. Its haunting score and stark cinematography enhance the desolation and harshness of this relatively underrepresented frontier. And its focus on stories of resilience and agency from the perspective of women in front of and behind the camera updates the genre’s scope, and challenges the typical vision of the West as a place of clear-cut masculine conflicts and resolutions. —TO

  • 91. ‘The Ox-Bow Incident’ (dir. William Wellman, 1943)

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    ‘There can’t be any such thing as civilization unless people have a conscience’ is part of a letter that Henry Fonda reads aloud at the end of ‘The Ox-Bow Incident.’ William Wellman’s searing lynch mob movie is about exactly how men come to ignore their conscience, and what happens when they do. This is a dark Western, not just in tone but in look, too, taking place mostly over a long night of some townsfolk trying to find and hang murderous cattle rustlers; it eventually settles in a forsaken stretch of ground with the burnt-out shell of a building and gnarled trees beside a small creek that may as well be the River Styx. The shadows are long; the mist roils through the night; the way the light hits the assembled posse’s faces on Wellman’s slow, patient closeups brings out fear, hypocrisy, posturing. The very beauty of the frame-in-frame compositions separating the mob from the men they accuse feels like a slap in the face.

    Every cinematic tool is bent toward anger at the kind of arrogant machismo that leads us into mob justice. And there’s a furious precision in how the story is constructed, too. Each character actor, and each type they play, implicates a piece of our civilization. Fonda is the name that most people will know, playing a cool outsider who is unconvinced by the posse’s actions and whose star image promises us that eventually he will step up and shame them all back into line. Dana Andrews and Anthony Quinn, as two of the hapless men ensnared by the mob, exude an inner-strength and decency. But it’s not about decency, or innocence. ‘The Ox-Bow Incident’ is about how relying on Western justice is no justice at all. The fact that it does so inside of a tautly suspenseful Western is all the more impressive, and all the more damning. —SS

  • 90. ‘The Good, the Bad, the Weird’ (dir. Kim Jee-woon, 2008)

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    ‘The Good, the Bad, the Weird’ isn’t just in conversation with Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns by way of 1930s Manchuria. It takes the template Leone built, pours gasoline over it, and explodes it in an almost musical crescendo of style. This is a movie that runs on the Rule of Cool, supported secondarily by Rule of Funny, and only occasionally by any sort of causality or emotional interaction. But director Kim Jee-woon is very clear about the ride he wants to take you on from the very start. There’s a classic train robbery with a virtuosic tracking shot, of course. But the three Korean outlaws drawn into it from different sides, the Good (Park Do-won), the Bad (Park Chang-yi), and the Weird (Yoon Tae-goo), have wildly different aesthetics and styles. The movie supports a character who is more of a straight-up cowboy, a character who is more of a straight-up a gangster in a suit, and a character who is… wearing goggles, I guess. But it’s a hodgepodge. One senses the movie is meant to be as fun as being able to pick out all your favorite desserts from the buffet.

    Or, perhaps, ‘kid in a candy shop’ is a better metaphor, because that seems like it’s the amount of fun that the filmmakers had making ‘The Good, the Bad, the Weird.’ The color choices, the layering of any props or costumes from anywhere remotely near to the movie’s time and place, the relentless action, the even-more relentless soundtrack full of bangers, the dolly zooms… the camera on ‘The Good, The Bad, The Weird’ is in love with movement the way a bird is in love with flying. It has to do it. And magically, even in riffing off hundreds of different Western tropes and Hollywood reference points, the movie becomes wholly its own thing. ‘The Good, The Bad, The Weird’ provides A New Hope™ for Westerns in the 21st Century, just by being itself. —SS

  • 89. ‘Black Rodeo’ (dir. Jeff Kanew, 1972)

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    A documentary departure from director Jeff Kanew’s later mainstream comedy work, ‘Black Rodeo’ captured a rodeo Harlem event with African American cowboys, in what would’ve felt like a unique cultural context. A director perhaps best known for the 1984 comedy ‘Revenge of the Nerds’ and ‘Troop Beverly Hills’ (1989), Kanew effectively cut his teeth with ‘Black Rodeo,’ his first feature, which stood out in the landscape of Western films by shining a light on African American cowboys and cowgirls via a vibrant, observational documentary lens.

    It remains a culturally significant work with appearances by icons like Muhammad Ali and Woody Strode, the latter providing depth and historical context. Strode’s insights as a Western legend himself, coupled with a mixture of live rodeo footage and interviews, made ‘Black Rodeo’ a celebration of Black heritage within the traditionally white cowboy narrative.

    As with other titles on this list, the backdrop of the film’s release is crucial for contextualizing ‘Black Rodeo.’ Released in 1972, the film emerged during a period of major social and cultural shifts in the USA, particularly civil rights and the increasing acceptance of the diversity of African American culture in mainstream media.

    This was the early 1970s which saw the rise of Blaxploitation films. ‘Black Rodeo’ stood out with a different kind of vision of the African American experience, albeit one that, like many Blaxploitation movies, was not directed by a Black filmmaker. Still, even with a certain lack of documentary finesse, it contributed to a broader understanding and appreciation of African American contributions to broader American culture. —TO

  • 88. ‘Two Mules for Sister Sara’ (dir. Don Siegel, 1970)

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    By the time Clint Eastwood starred in ‘Two Mules,’ he had already firmly embedded himself in the Western cinema canon. His iconic roles and contributions to the genre began with the TV series ‘Rawhide’ and culminated in Sergio Leone’s iconic Spaghetti Western ‘Dollars Trilogy,’ which Eastwood had just wrapped up a few years earlier. ‘Two Mules’ was his third post-‘Dollars Trilogy’ American Western following ‘Hang ‘Em High’ (1968) and the musical ‘Paint Your Wagon’ (1969) with Lee Marvin.

    And while Eastwood didn’t direct ‘Two Mules,’ the 1970s marked the beginning of his career as a director, stepping behind the camera for several more Westerns to come including ‘High Plains Drifter’ (1973), ‘The Outlaw Josey Wales’ (1976), ‘Pale Rider’ (1985), and much later, the Oscar-winning ‘Unforgiven’ (1992).

    ‘Two Mules’ stars Eastwood as a graying mercenary and Shirley MacLaine as a woman posing as a nun, forming an unlikely partnership. A blend of Western elements with humor and even romantic comedy, it’s a mix that sharply contrasts with Eastwood’s earlier darker Westerns, particularly the more stylistically innovative approaches in Leone’s epics, with characters drenched in moral ambiguities.

    Against the backdrop of the French intervention in Mexico in the mid 1800s, as the interplay between Eastwood and MacLaine in ‘Two Mules’ unfolds, secrets are revealed that complicate their relationship and, as a result, the story. His pragmatic and cynical nature clashes with her mysterious and performative pious front.

    Siegel’s direction strikes a balance between light-hearted moments and serious action sequences. And it works. —TO

  • 87. ”49-’17’ (dir. Ruth Ann Baldwin, 1917)

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    The first Western directed by a woman, Ruth Ann Baldwin’s hilariously complex ”49–’17’ is a meta twist on the already popular genre. Filmed for Universal, where Baldwin was one of several women directors employed there at the time, this parody Western stars her husband, actor Leo O. Pierson, as an Eastern city slicker hired by his boss, Judge Brand (Joseph W. Girard), to recreate Nugget Notch, the Western town where he and his partner struck it rich during the Gold Rush. Once Brand arrives at the newly re-built town, populated by hired actors with shady pasts, Baldwin’s film enacts, with a winking grin, every cliché of the genre. Through the use of actors playing actors who are actually ‘real’ Westerners, Baldwin calls into focus that the very nature of the Western film genre is itself mostly just grown men from the East playing at being rough and tumble cowboys and outlaws.—MG

  • 86. ‘Blood on the Moon’ (dir. Robert Wise, 1948)

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    Robert Mitchum, already the consummate performer of American antiheroes just six years into his screen career, plays a morally ambiguous gunslinger in Robert Wise’s taut and shadow-cloaked ‘Blood on the Moon.’ Wise, then an established filmmaker of genre projects from ‘The Body Snatcher’ to ‘Born to Kill,’ transposes the urban claustrophobia of noir to the vastness of the Southwest, where corruption and rot fester in wide open spaces.

    Mitchum plays Jim Garry, a drifting cowman roped into a dispute between cattle herders, homesteaders, and the Native Americans with which they share the land. Robert Preston (15 years before starring in the Warner Bros. musical ‘The Music Man’) co-stars as Tate Riling, a longtime friend who entreats Garry into the conflict — only to reveal a criminal plot of his own to trick another local rancher out of his money. Based on a Luke Short novel, ‘Blood on the Moon’ lulls you with its seemingly ambling place before erupting into tense action. B-horror movie cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca is a fascinating match to the material, often shrouding it in such darkness that it’s hard to surmise where we are in space and time. But where we are is firmly in noir country, despite the cowboy trappings surrounding it, and with a sturdy performance from silent-type Mitchum, an outlaw who’s not here to save the day. —RL

  • 85. ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’ (dir. George Roy Hill, 1969)

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    The most onscreen magical moments in Hollywood history aren’t easily explained or reverse-engineered — sometimes you just catch lightning in a bottle and ride it out to cinematic immortality. That was certainly the case with ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,’ a film that paired Robert Redford and Paul Newman, electrified the zeitgeist, and created perhaps the most iconic onscreen duo in the history of the Western genre.

    George Roy Hill’s film lives and dies by the chemistry of its two leads. As Hole-in-the-Wall gang leader Butch Cassidy, Newman exhibits the same smooth-talking co*ckiness that powered films like ‘Cool Hand Luke’ and ‘The Sting,’ while Redford gives a brilliant performance as the Sundance Kid, a soft spoken marksman who never misses a shot. William Goldman’s script is filled with brilliantly quippy dialogue for the two men to feast on, and cinematic touches like Burt Bacharach’s original song ‘Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head’ soften the rough edges of the genre on the way to turning ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’ into one of the most approachable Westerns ever made. It’s such a treat to revisit the onscreen friendship between Newman and Redford that it’s easy to forget that the film ends in tragedy. But those final freeze frames are a perfect metaphor for how firmly Newman and Redford’s cowboys would insert themselves into the fabric of American pop culture. —CZ

  • 84. ‘Posse’ (dir. Mario Van Peebles, 1993)

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    ‘Posse’ was a breath of fresh air when it was released in 1993. It combined traditional Western elements with a vivid portrayal of African American soldiers and outlaws in a post-Civil War setting, something that hadn’t been much explored in mainstream American cinema. Directed by Mario Van Peebles, who also starred in the film, ‘Posse’ was distinguished by the assertive way Peebles effectively reclaimed the Western arena for stories about Black heroes and the communities from which they emerged.

    The backdrop of its release is also key. The early 1990s were a great moment for Black Cinema, what some key voices like Roger Ebert referred to as a renaissance period. Van Peebles was a leading personality in the movement, particularly following the success of his ‘New Jack City’ two years prior.

    As a result, ‘Posse’ was arguably more than just a film about a group of Black soldiers returning from the Spanish-American War battling outlaws and racialized violence. It was part of a broader cultural moment that saw African American filmmakers gaining new ground in Hollywood, telling stories that had long been neglected or handled by non-Black filmmakers.

    Van Peebles’ focus on Black cowboys and soldiers challenged traditional narratives of the Western, which typically marginalized or excluded their experiences despite their historical presence in the American West. This was a time when the industry was more receptive to diverse voices, and the film, however unintentionally, contributed to a rethinking of genre conventions and a more inclusive depiction of American history on the big screen. —TO

  • 83. ‘A Fistful of Dollars’ (dir. Sergio Leone, 1964)

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    Where would the Western be without ‘A Fistful of Dollars’? This was the film that ignited the Spaghetti Western movement, that gave us Sergio Leone, Clint Eastwood as a superstar, and Ennio Morricone, and that helped rewrite the film history books on the genre. ‘Fistful’ is the first of the ‘Dollars Trilogy,’ or the adventures of the Man With No Name (technically he’s referred to here as ‘Joe’). And though Leone may have made an unauthorized ripoff of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai movie ‘Yojimbo,’ Leone makes it all his own. The dramatic, operatic close-ups of Clint’s eyes, the slow-building, endless stare downs, the piccolo trills on Morricone’s score, they’re all attributes filmmakers would try and copy for decades. But the cool factor of hearing Eastwood say ‘get three coffins ready’ and whipping back his poncho can’t be matched. —BW

  • 82. ‘Tumbleweeds’ (dir. King Baggot, 1925)

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    At the height of the silent era, Hollywood had two major Western stars: Tom Mix and William S. Hart. While Mix was known for his flashy costumes and action prowess, Hart, who was both a trained Shakespearean actor and friends with legendary Old West lawmen Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson, brought an understated honor and integrity to his western heroes. His final film, ‘Tumbleweeds’ centers on cattlemen dealing with the influx of settlers during the Oklahoma Territory’s 1889 land rush. The film perfectly distills the ethos of the white men who ‘founded’ the American West. For them, it was land for the taking (native inhabitants be damned!), and when regulations changed to encourage more settlers, the betrayal and distrust of the government that took root then has yet to be fully shaken even now. All of the complexities and myths and lies — and beauty — of the American West are on full display here. —MG

  • 81. ‘The Learning Tree’ (dir. Gordon Parks, 1969)

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    Directed by Gordon Parks, ‘The Learning Tree’ was one of the first major films directed by an African American that was backed by a major studio. A pioneering work based on Parks’ semi-autobiographical novel, the film is set in 1920s Kansas and follows the life of Newt Winger, a young Black man contending with the complexities of growing up amid pervasive racial prejudice. In a key moment, Newt witnesses a crime, and the handling of this crime by the community and the justice system becomes a vehicle for examining the hate and prejudice within.

    Injustice, personal growth, the importance of community, and resilience are on the menu and Parks, a seasoned photographer, captures his mixed community of characters against the imposing plains of Kansas, with an unflinching eye.

    Yet, ‘The Learning Tree’ is also a personal statement. His direction gives the film an intimate and reflective quality. It not only tells a story of harsh realities faced but also celebrates the moments of joy and of course learning that shapes Newt’s journey to adulthood.

    In many ways it was the forerunner of future successful rural America-set African American family films, from ‘Sounder’ (1972) to ‘Down in the Delta’ (1995). —TO

  • 80. ‘The Covered Wagon’ (dir. James Cruze, 1923)

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    The second highest-grossing film of 1923, ‘The Covered Wagon’ was so popular that President Warren G. Harding held a special screening of it at the White House. According to Jesse Lasky Jr., son of Paramount Pictures founder Jesse Lasky, the goal of director James Cruze was to ‘elevate the Western, which had always been sort of a potboiler kind of film, to the status of an epic.’ To achieve this, Cruze not only employed one of the largest casts, which include extras from the Northern Arapaho Nation, and crews assembled at the time, he also filmed mostly on location, utilizing the deserts of Palm Springs, Nevada, and Utah. There’s even footage of the Antelope Island Bison Herd, who make their home near the Great Salt Lake. The wagons themselves were borrowed from the families of real pioneers, many of whom served as the film’s wagon train extras. —MG

  • 79. ‘The Settlers’ (dir. Felipe Gálvez, 2023)

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    Set in 1901 in Tierra del Fuego, Chile, this South American Western, which debuted at Cannes 2023 before playing the festival circuit, is gorgeously shot by rookie director Felipe Gálvez and cinematographer Simone D’Arcangelo, with a powerful dissonant score by Harry Allouche. But the rugged landscape reveals harsh colonial violence against the Indigenous population. The two-part narrative starts as rapacious Spanish entrepreneur José Menéndez (Alfredo Castro) hires three horsem*n to clear a passage to the sea for his sheep herds, with orders to wipe out anyone who stands in his way. Segundo (Camilo Arancibia) is a marksman of Spanish and Indigenous descent; he works for Scottish ex-soldier Alexander MacLennan (Mark Stanley), while the third man is Apache-hunter mercenary Bill (Benjamin Westfall). The three men do not trust each other and soon fall into back-biting and fighting as they mow down their human prey. The second part, some years later, shows Segundo settled with a family, as government representatives seek to learn the truth of the earlier massacres. ‘The Settlers’ is a powerful western noir with disturbing parallels to North America’s own destructive history. —AT

  • 78. ‘Dances with Wolves’ (dir. Kevin Costner, 1990)

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    The Western had been pronounced dead by virtually everyone when actor, producer, and director Kevin Costner brought it roaring back to life with this 1990 hit, a great American epic that triumphed against industry expectations to win seven Oscars including Best Picture. While the film was not revolutionary in the way some less informed commentators believed (there had been Westerns going back to the silent era that were sympathetic to Native American characters — this was hardly the first), it was an exquisite piece of classical craftsmanship — elegant and expressive in its visuals, rousing and affecting in its characterizations and musical score, and sweeping in its ambition. As with much of Costner’s work, its earnest sincerity is both its greatest strength and the thing that makes it an easy target for cynics; Costner wears his heart on his sleeve, and the emotional purity of his vision makes ‘Dances with Wolves’ a deeply moving piece of old-fashioned Hollywood mythmaking. —JH

  • 77. ‘Harlem on the Prairie’ (dir. Sam Newfield, 1937)

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    ‘Harlem on the Prairie’ broke ground as an all-Black Western. Released during the Great Depression’s tail end, it defied Hollywood’s racial norms during a period steeped in racial segregation, a bold move that challenged the genre’s tradition of white heroes, placing a Black cowboy (Herb Jeffries) at the fore.

    The all-Black cast is certainly the most significant aspect of the film in the context of Westerns, but Jeffries’ character still embodies the classic Western hero’s spirit, albeit with a fresh cultural perspective. This charming cowboy who fights outlaws and helps a young woman search for her father’s lost gold contrasted with the crude characterizations of Black characters in 1930s mainstream American movies. And seemingly simple, classic Western acts performed by a Black man is what redefines the hero in a way that resonated with Black audiences.

    It’s worth pointing out that Jeffries’ mixed heritage — born to a father of Sicilian descent and a mother who was of Irish and African-American descent — allowed him some freedom to shapeshift during a deeply racialized Hollywood era, playing various ethnicities, including non-Black characters. To be sure, he identified as Black, and films like ‘Harlem on the Prairie,’ where he deliberately positioned himself as a Black leading man, were important during a time when racial definitions were very rigid in America.Jeffries purposefully sought opportunities to positively represent Black people, particularly in Westerns where they were rare.

    Ultimately, the film, which bridged the gap between traditional Westerns and elements of the musical, primarily makes a statement through its existence rather than anything explicitly radical in its form. It’s an early example of breaking cinematic color barriers, even though it wasn’t much interested in making commentary on the social conditions of the time. —TO

  • 76. ‘The Iron Horse’ (dir. John Ford, 1924)

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    The first major success for director John Ford, ‘The Iron Horse’ centers on the construction of America’s first transcontinental railroad, culminating in the driving of the golden spike at Promontory Summit. The sweeping spectacle was Fox’s answer to Paramount’s popular epic from the year before, ‘The Covered Wagon.’ Filmed largely on location, it features the stunning, painterly use of landscape that would come to define Ford’s directing career. George O’Brien stars as Davy Brandon, a Pony Express rider whose railroad surveyor father was killed a decade earlier. Although the film features roughly 300 extras from the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe Reservation its depiction of its native characters, like many films within the genre, oscillates between showing them as average people trying to survive a changing world and as ruthless, violent murderers. The reveal that its primary villain is actually a shady white businessman masquerading as a renegade Cheyenne, foresees the kind of subversion of tropes more commonly found in revisionist westerns.—MG

  • 75. ‘Westward the Women’ (dir. William Wellman, 1951)

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    A movie so good that it almost lives up to its incredible premise, William A. Wellman’s ‘Westward the Women’ tells the plausible enough, not-at-all true story of an old California landowner named Roy Whitman (John McIntire) who realizes that his precious valley — a painstakingly tamed pocket of the American frontier — won’t have a future unless his farm hands can start families there. The solution is obvious: Roy, along with his smoldering misogynist of a wagon master (Robert Taylor as Buck Wyatt), will travel to Chicago, where they’ll recruit 140 ‘good women’ (a motley crew of widows, immigrants, and prospectless bachelorettes) to accompany them back home. But that journey proves to be every bit as perilous as Buck threatens it will when he warns that only a third of the women will live to see Whitman’s Valley, as the brides-to-be soon face a slew of dangers, some of which come from within their own wagon train.

    Significantly more brutal than you’d ever expect from a rootin’-tootin’ road movie whose story is credited to Frank Capra (the wagon train is witness to rapes, executions, and accidental child slayings within just a few days of leaving Chicago), ‘Westward the Women’ is sustained by the friction it creates between the hokeyness of its stereotypical characters and the mercilessness of their unsparing circ*mstances. Yes, modern viewers might blanche at the short Japanese cook who’s used for comic relief (Henry Nakamura) and roll their eyes at the slap-happy romance that develops between Buck and a showgirl named Fifi (Denise Darcel, who helps to disprove the wagon master’s belief that women are basically just cattle but scarier). But Wellman mines a raw and enduring thrill from watching social prejudices succumb to the base realities of life on the trail, which exposes people for what they really are, and in turn reveals the hidden strengths that made America so powerful. —DE

  • 74. ‘The Proposition’ (dir. John Hillcoat, 2005)

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    Australia might not always be the expected setting for a Western, but it is always the Most setting for a Western. Director John Hillcoat’s coverage of the Outback, far more than the monoliths of Monument Valley, is The Landscape; it’s simultaneously an expression of alien beauty and a reminder that one day the sun is going to explode. It admits no human life. The atmosphere is hellish, there is a palpable fear of it, but you cannot dismiss it. There is some barbarous truth here — although probably not for the damned souls who choose to try and colonize it.

    On its face, ‘The Proposition’ is a story about three criminal brothers. The middle one (Guy Pearce) is captured by a lawman (Ray Winstone) clinging to his duty with the whitest of white knuckles and proposes a deal to his captive: If he finds and kills his older brother (Danny Huston), then he and his also-captured younger brother (Richard Wilson) will not be executed. That should give you an idea for how bleak and grubby the film is. What these characters will do in order to not die quickly stops being subtextual motivation and starts being the suspense that powers the movie. And it is a much more interesting question, honestly, when everyone is a little bit mad, and a little bit doomed, and desperate not to die. Hillcoat’s imagery blends terror and murder with beauty and power and becomes something that feels ever bigger than the Outback itself. ‘The Proposition’ is a nasty Western, but the film argues pretty persuasively that so is the nature of the West itself. —SS

  • 73. ‘Hell’s Heroes’ (dir. William Wyler, 1929)

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    Made at the tail end of the silent era — and later re-released with synced sound — ‘Hell’s Heroes,’ William Wyler’s impressionistic take on Peter B. Kyne’s oft-filmed ‘The Three Godfathers,’ is perhaps the acclaimed director’s most spiritual film. Rife with allegorical Christian imagery and filmed under the blazing Mojave sun, the film centers on three bad men (Charles Bickford, Raymond Hatton, and Fred Kohler) who rob the bank of New Jerusalem a few days before Christmas, then light out for the desert, followed by a posse hellbent on bringing them to justice. Lost and delirious for lack of water, the trio come across a newborn babe and a dying woman — the wife of the cashier they just murdered — sheltering in a stranded wagon. The outlaws must then sacrifice their riches — and their lives — in order to bring the child back to safety, and in the process they may just redeem their very souls.—MG

  • 72. ‘Lone Star’ (dir. John Sayles, 1996)

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    ‘Lone Star’ is a modern Western that weaves mystery and drama within the setting of a small Texas border town. Spanning multiple generations, past and present are interlaced to unravel the complex relationships of the townspeople. It’s a canvas upon which identity, legacy, and racial harmony are explored in Sayles’ fashion, driven more by character development and a nuanced handling of social issues than conventional Western genre action.

    Sheriff Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper) uncovers a long-buried skeleton that leads him to investigate the mysterious past of his father, the respected former sheriff Buddy Deeds (Matthew McConaughey). The film uses the investigation as a catalyst to examine the intertwining destinies of its characters. Naturally, secrets are revealed that shape the dynamics of the community.

    A Sayles storytelling trademark, ‘Lone Star’s’ mosaic-like structure and 135-minute runtime allow character arcs to unfold naturally and interconnect seamlessly.

    He insists on realistic portrayals of human struggles, creating a panorama that tackles heavy themes like segregation, heritage, and the search for belonging, minus purely Western conventions, with keen commentary.

    Ultimately, this ‘redefinition’ of the Western is where its impact lies. —TO

  • 71. ‘True Grit’ (dir. Joel and Ethan Coen, 2010)

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    The Coen brothers went to Charles Portis’ 1968 novel for this Western, which they describe as a ‘beautiful young adult adventure story,’ a far cry from the 1969 John Wayne version. Critics gave the Coens high marks, and the movie proved a surprise Christmas hit ($252 million worldwide). Its success relies on Hailee Steinfeld (cast over 15,000 applicants), as Mattie Ross, a 14-year-old girl mourning her dead father, who hires U.S. Deputy Marshall Rooster Cogburn (a delightful comic turn from Jeff Bridges) to find her father’s murderer. They confront a motley crew of characters along the way played by Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, and Barry Pepper, among others, who all have fun with Portis’ flowery 19th-century argot. The action comedy earned 10 Oscar nominations, won none. —AT

  • 70. ‘Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia’ (dir. Sam Peckinpah, 1974)

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    It’s hard not to be sucked into Peckinpah’s stark, gritty, intense exploration of human desperation and moral decay, set against the harshness of rural Mexico in the early 1970s. It’s a film that diverges from conventional Westerns in its depiction of the disintegration of personal ethics, embodied by its protagonist, Bennie, played by Warren Oates.

    Although the setting is no mere backdrop. It acts as a mirror of Bennie’s inner turmoil, on his quest to retrieve the head of Alfredo Garcia for a major bounty.

    Peckinpah’s methodical coverage of the physical barrenness of the landscape captures Bennie’s isolation and the desperation he faces. The chosen time period — an era of social and political unrest and the evolution of a raw and realistic filmmaking aesthetic — compared to the idealized landscapes of classic Westerns, added a layer of authenticity.

    And like other films of the period, the violence in ‘Alfredo Garcia’ is brutal and consequential. Bennie’s hunt for the head becomes a descent into madness. Greed warps his humanity, as seen in his bizarre conversations with the severed head.

    Basically, it’s bleak with a pervasive sense of doom that hangs over its characters. It’s human frailty laid bare. —TO

  • 69. ‘The Ruthless Four’ (dir. Giorgio Capitani, 1968)

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    With a title that clearly inspired a certain Tarantino film, you’d expect Giorgio Capitani’s Spaghetti Western to be a showcase for Mexican standoffs among tick-riddled characters as prone to firing verbal barbs as bullets. And you’d be right.

    Gilbert Roland, built like a boxer even in his early 60s (and always great to see in Westerns as someone who grew up in a town taken over by Pancho Villa), is so jittery he can barely stop shaking to take the quinine pills needed for his malaria. Then there’s Klaus Kinski as a milk-drinking vagabond posing as a minister (and forgetting he’s supposed to be playing the part even when people call him ‘reverend’). George Hilton as Kinski’s vainglorious toady. And Van Heflin as the kind of grizzled sap he always played. Heflin is a gold prospector who needs help mining his claim and whose choice of helper (Hilton) quickly ropes in an unwanted Roland and Kinski. (The passive-aggressive ‘three pairs of hands are better than two’ soon becomes ‘four pairs of hands are better than three.’) The result is more of a gunfighters’ ‘Treasure of the Sierra Madre,’ told with pulp verve and melodramatic whip zooms. Four there may be, but you know only one will be standing in the end. —CB

  • 68. ‘The Phantom Empire’ (dir. Otto Brower, B. Reeves Eason, 1935)

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    The great utility of the Western genre has been the set of symbols it provides. Through the idea of the cowboy, the railroad man, the hired gun, and more, we can collectively imagine the country we want America to be. Do we want the forces of capitalism and exploitation to run roughshod over the land? Or do we want Queen Tika of the Muranians, sitting on her wells of radium in her technologically-advanced kingdom hidden deep under the ground, to control everything? ‘The Phantom Empire’ is a 12-part serial from 1935 that rocketed ‘Singing Cowboy’ Gene Autry into the zeitgeist and is widely hailed as the first Sci-Fi Western. With its combination of adventure hooks, kids being menaces (in a good way), fun-spirited fights, kidnappings, and so many chase sequences, it’s not hard to draw an evolutionary line from ‘The Phantom Empire’ to things like ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Outer Range’ — as well as, of course, ‘Nope.’

    But ‘The Phantom Empire’ is interesting in its own right, not just for its place in film history. The story feels straight-up made up, almost on the spot, in an infectiously fun way. The costumes are big and loud and maybe made out of kitchen pots. The Gene Autry songs? Well, they’re in there too. ‘The Phantom Empire’ brims with a radioactive energy that folds the audience into the story’s sense of play. Few feature films, of any era or any genre, feel as creative as this silly serialized story about a queen with wireless telephones (!) and a cowboy who runs a ranch with a radio show. —SS

  • 67. ‘Nope’ (dir. Jordan Peele, 2022)

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    As ‘Nope’ informs its 21st century audience early on, one of the first moving images in history was a reel of a Black man riding upon a majestic stallion. And yet, film depictions of Black cowboys are scarce at best, despite the many historic examples to pull from. Jordon Peele’s science-fiction film may not be a Western in the traditional sense, but it does subtly correct the discrepancy it points out by making a modern cowboy out of Daniel Kaluuya’s taciturn protagonist OJ. The quiet son of a rancher and horse trainer, OJ grows, via a hair-brained scheme to capture footage of a mysterious UFO haunting the Agua Dulce valley, from a depressive to an action hero.

    Peele’s film is constantly concerned with the queasy nature and morality of spectacle, and it extends its ambivalence to the Western, populating its story with cowboy-themed amusem*nt parks and a high-brimmed hat-clad Steven Yeun as a child star looking to recapture his former glory by making an attraction out of the flesh-eating UFO. Still, Peele seems to want to have his cake and eat it too, poking at how the genre makes entertainment out of crime and conflict while embracing its eternal appeal. When Kaluuya rides through the desert dust on his horse in ‘Nope’s’ closing scenes, the director can’t resist a money shot that takes the audience’s breath away. —WC

  • 66. ‘Meek’s Cutoff’ (dir. Kelly Reichardt, 2010)

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    Kelly Reichardt makes movies so small and specific that they feel like memories from your own life. It’s a style that feels unconducive to the transportive, epic sweep that the Western is associated with, but her contribution to the genre, ‘Meek’s Cutoff,’ bends those conventions to her unique vision. Presenting the audience with a mere sliver of a settler group’s journey along the Oregon Trail, ‘Meek’s Cutoff’ intimately details the rising tensions on the caravan, as the men turn on Bruce Greenwood’s untrustworthy guide and the wives (represented by a remarkably unsentimental and stern Michelle Williams) grow frustrated at their inability to take control of the situation. Loosely based on a real historical incident, ‘Meek’s Cutoff’ captures the tension and fear of the unknown that defined the West for those who settled there. Few other films have made the frontier feel more real, at one beautiful and ordinary. —WC

  • 65. ‘Companeros!’ (dir. Sergio Corbucci, 1970)

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    Fernando Rey as a turtle-collecting college professor who’s inspired his own militia movement in the Mexican Revolution. Franco Nero as a spats-wearing Swedish dandy/arms dealer. And of course, Jack Palance as a one-handed, weed-smoking fiend whose best friend is a hawk named Marsha. Right there, that’s a recipe for an all-time classic Spaghetti Western. Add in one of the MVPs of the genre, Tomas Milian, as a revolutionary, and you’ve got a character piece for the ages.

    Technically, ‘Companeros!’ is a Zapata Western — a subgenre of a subgenre — which means, like a whole strain of Italian-produced Westerns, it’s specifically about the Mexican Revolution. In practice, it’s really a buddy comedy, as unlikely friends-in-the-making Nero and Milian pair their own unique skillsets through a succession of increasingly elaborate action sequences. Corbucci’s lighter riff on his own ‘The Mercenary’ is sometimes dismissed for being overly comedic, even though his approach to action had clearly become that much more sophisticated. But why so serious? If you don’t appreciate one particular jump cut sight gag featuring Marsha the Hawk, you probably could use some of what Palance is smoking. —CB

  • 64. ‘Buck and the Preacher’ (Sidney Poitier, 1972)

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    Sidney Poitier’s directorial debut is one of the most flat-out entertaining Westerns ever made, largely thanks to the hilarious camaraderie between Poitier (as a taciturn wagon master) and Harry Belafonte (as a wild con man) as they team up to protect a wagon train of Black settlers from the white bounty hunters out to terrorize them. Belafonte in particular is revelatory in his comic characterization — he’s gleefully off-putting here, a far cry from the suave leading man roles that he was known for. Poitier and Belafonte make this one of the first great buddy films, but it’s so much more; there’s as much rage here as there is humor, and as much sadness as rage — which is saying a lot. A corrective to decades in which Black characters were underrepresented in Western movies and a history lesson about race relations in post-Civil War America, ‘Buck and the Preacher’ is long on serious intent yet never feels weighted down by it; it accomplishes its mission within a spectacularly entertaining action-comedy framework. Jazz great Benny Carter provides a score that adds to the buoyancy, and the supporting cast is deep and rich, with one of the all-time great bad guys in Cameron Mitchell. Few movies are so good at being simultaneously so much fun and so ground-breaking. —JH

  • 63. ‘Rodeo’ (dir. Carroll Ballard, 1969)

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    A nose. An eye. An ear. A horn. The bull assembles itself in your mind as Carroll Ballard shows you its constituent parts in extreme close-up. In fact, most of his 20-minute short film showing the 1968 National Radio in Oklahoma City is built around tight close-ups, especially of legendary bull rider Larry Mahan. Without sync sound, this experimental film is an epic of the miniature. One moment, Ballard and his camera operators (among them, Caleb Deschanel) will linger on Mahan’s hand slipping in for an underhand grip of the rein, and the next, the bull starts out of the gate. But there’s no frantic explosion of kineticism: Mahan’s ride is in slow motion, all ambient sound absent, with just a single, solitary violin for accompaniment. This is more Bruce Conner than John Ford, but ‘Rodeo’ is still the essence of the Western: It’s about the interplay of humans and animals, where civilization meets nature, and flesh meets its match in will. The Western shows its elasticity here, capable of accommodating visions of classicism, modernism, and even the non-narrative avant-garde. —CB

  • 62. ‘Bend of the River’ (dir. Anthony Mann, 1952)

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    One of the great shifts in movie history is the move from pre-war trustworthy, people-friendly Jimmy Stewart to post-war James Stewart. This craggier and sadder Stewart not only gave some of his best performances for Alfred Hitchco*ck (‘Rear Window,’ ‘Vertigo’) but carried a series of five Anthony Mann Westerns of which the second, ‘Bend of the River’ contends for the best. (OK, reviews weren’t great when it opened, but its reputation has improved over time. The first Mann-Stewart collaboration, 1950’s ‘Winchester ’73,’ is damned good. They all are.) In these Mann character studies we find less Western myth-building, more unsettling violence. Mann’s Stewart isn’t asking you to like him. He’s asking you to wonder want he might be capable of doing under enough duress. The old Western honor codes do not apply here. These movies, featuring Stewart wearing the same hat and riding the same horse, Pie, proved to be hugely popular.

    In this, Mann’s first color film, Stewart’s character is beaten and abandoned by his so-called friend (Arthur Kennedy) and wanders the lush Oregon mountains as he seeks revenge. Mann figured out how to unleash Stewart’s inner rage. Still to come: ‘The Naked Spur,’ ‘The Far Country,’ and ‘The Man from Laramie,’ their last movie together. —AT

  • 61. ‘Sergeant Rutledge’ (dir. John Ford, 1960)

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    Ford’s ‘Sergeant Rutledge’ is a compelling addition to the Western canon, groundbreaking in its exploration of race and justice through the lens of a Black cavalry officer, Braxton Rutledge, played by all-time Western stud Woody Strode. Like several of the films on this list, the historical and social backdrop is crucial in understanding and appreciating it. Ford uses this post-Civil War era setting not just to tell a story of individual heroism but to critique the racial injustices that were still prevalent at the time of the film’s release, and, frustratingly, still are, more than six decades later: Collectively, racial bias in the American judicial system.

    A Black cavalry sergeant in the post-Civil War era is falsely accused of rape and murder of a white girl and the murder of the girl’s father, in a film that combines elements of a courtroom drama with a traditional Western, centering Rutledge’s trial where he faces racial prejudice and must prove his innocence in a system clearly stacked against him.

    As the story unfolds, Rutledge is steadfast in maintaining his dignity. And it’s Ford’s portrayal of a dignified Black male protagonist that subverted typical racial stereotypes, unlike many films of its time.

    A role that seemed tailormade for Strode (the story is that the studio wanted Sidney Poitier or Harry Belafonte), Rutledge is not submissive or villainous, but instead is a figure of strength, integrity, and heroism.

    Courtroom dramas where race plays a central role are aplenty in the history of American cinema, often reflections of their eras. In the context of ‘Sergeant Rutledge,’ its distinctiveness lies in the film’s head-on confrontations of racial prejudice not commonly addressed in its era and genre. —TO

  • 60. ‘The Ballad of Cable Hogue’ (dir. Sam Peckinpah, 1970)

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    For Sam Peckinpah to follow ‘The Wild Bunch’ with this raffish Western comedy would be like if Stanley Kubrick followed ‘2001’ with ‘Men in Black.’ Despite its limited violence, this is consistent with much of the director’s films in its interest in oddball characters, led by the long-time struggling prospector whose fortunes improve after he discovers water on his property. It features a brilliant (and rare lead) performance by Jason Robards, Jr., 180 degrees away from the usual well-groomed professionals he usually played, with the never-better Stella Stevens, as a local prostitute kicked out of town he befriends, and David Warner as a minister of a church he invented, as his cohorts in adventure.

    Like ‘The Wild Bunch’ and many Westerns of its time, ‘Cable Hogue’ is set at a time when the west is seeing modern ways begin to encroach, and its characters confront that their time might be passing (perhaps parallel to Peckinpah’s own sense of his position).

    Along with its many charms, it features a supporting cast of character actors such as Strother Martin, L.Q. Jones, Gene Evans, Slim Pickens, Kathleen Freeman, and others most in the final stages of their careers, all celebrating an individualistic and idiosyncratic way of life and movies that was coming to an end. —TB

  • 59. ‘The Man from Laramie’ (dir. Anthony Mann, 1955)

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    When you think of James Stewart, you don’t necessarily think of him first and foremost as a Western star, so thoroughly has his efforts in the genre been overshadowed by ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ or his masterful psychological turn in ‘Vertigo.’ But his contributions to the genre are vast, and they include five films he made with director Anthony Mann. ‘The Man from Laramie’ stars Stewart as a vigilante who arrives in the Western town of Coronado looking for the man responsible for his brother’s death. His suspects are all men who work and live on the ranch of cattle baron Alec Waggoman (Donald Crisp), and his presence is the powder keg needed to kick off a violent power struggle for control over the ranch. Shot in vivid technicolor and in widescreen CinemaScope, ‘The Man From Laramie’ looks gigantic, which is only appropriate for a Shakespearean revenge story of such sweeping scale. Despite Stewart’s innate likability and pathos, lurking underneath the film’s conventional premise and cheery opening theme song is a black-hearted and morally queasy psychological fable. —WC

  • 58. ‘Django’ (dir. Sergio Corbucci, 1966)

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    For a sensation to truly become a phenomenon, there must always be two. Having Clint Eastwood and his Dollars Trilogy wasn’t enough for the Spaghetti Western to become a truly global phenomenon with a grammar and affect all its own. It needed ‘Django.’ It needed Franco Nero in a Union officer’s cape dragging a coffin behind him. Even heavily dubbed in the English-language version, Nero’s Django represents one of the most charismatic breakout performances in movie history. In fact, has there ever been a more handsome man onscreen than Nero?

    Not idly is that question asked. There’s a line of thought that the vivid yellow of the wheatfield and blue of the sky in ‘Shane’ reflect young Brandon deWilde’s hair and eye color, and that he only sees his landscape in terms of himself. With ‘Django,’ how can you not see the stubble on Nero’s cheek as the mud covering everything in the town. His piercing blue eyes like the water of the lake where Django’s love Maria (Loredana Nusciak) is gunned down and he finally recognizes the depth of his feeling for her. The tufted brown of his hair like the crosses in the cemetery where he finally seizes his destiny. Nero is a pinnacle of male beauty, and set against a film that in so many other ways revels in ugliness: There’s certainly never been an uglier town in any Western, and ruled over by a racist Confederate exile, Major Jackson (Eduardo Fajardo), whose followers wear red klansmen hoods. Salvation for these bastards can only come via what’s in Django’s coffin.

    So popular that it spawned literally dozens of unofficial sequels starring other actors — and ensured the global viability of the Italian Western beyond Eastwood — it’s here where the Spaghetti Western took a more violent turn: An ear sliced off and fed to its owner, Django’s hands crushed and broken, a woman whipped by her captors. Even if Nusciak’s Maria has about the agency of a typical Bond girl of this period, like most Spaghetti Western heroines, the chemistry she has with Nero is palpable. And of course, Hollywood would call upon the film’s leading man shortly. Like Eastwood and ‘Paint Your Wagon,’ Nero would find, with ‘Camelot,’ that the logical next step of Spaghetti Western superstardom was a Lerner & Loewe roadshow musical. —CB

  • 57. ‘Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid’ (dir. Sam Peckinpah, 1973)

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    Sam Peckinpah at his most elegiac and lyrical. ‘The Wild Bunch’ is more revolutionary and ‘Ride the High Country’ a more objectively perfect film, but even in its many bastardized forms (the movie was taken out of Peckinpah’s hands and no definitive director’s cut exists) ‘Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid’ packs an emotional punch few Westerns — hell, few movies period — can top. The friendship gives the movie its title (and thanks to the layered performances of James Coburn and Kris Kristofferson, Peckinpah has two of his greatest characters) and the movie oscillates between tenderness, brutality, humor, and regret in a manner that leaves the viewer completely shaken by what the characters, and by allegorical extension, America itself, have lost. Add to that some of Peckinpah’s most memorably staged moments of violence (the image of Billy firing a shotgun full of dimes that explode in the air singlehandedly justifies the entire film), a typically rich supporting cast of character actors (including Peckinpah stalwarts L.Q. Jones and R.G. Armstrong), and a classic score by Bob Dylan, and you’ve got a wounded Western classic — a movie as broken and beautiful as its lead characters. —JH

  • 56. ‘River of No Return’ (dir. Otto Preminger, 1954)

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    This CinemaScope Western shot on location in the Canadian Rockies opens on Robert Mitchum cutting down a tree with an axe. It falls. Then he leaves it. No timber to be collected, no mention of the cutting ever again. He rides off. Maybe Preminger felt the swing of his axe across the frame looked good in widescreen.

    Or maybe it’s that clearing the land is enough. ‘River of No Return’ is about clearing a path for oneself through life. Recently released from prison, Mitchum’s character journeys to a town where his nine-year-old son has been looked after by a dance hall girl (Marilyn Monroe) while he’s in prison for killing a man. The boy barely knows his father. And of course, father and son get caught up in Marilyn’s own drama. If the Western later had a profound influence on Italian cinema, here’s a case where Italian cinema influenced the Western: ‘River of No Return’ is loosely based on ‘Bicycle Thieves,’ in that Marilyn’s corrupt boyfriend (Rory Calhoun) steals Mitchum’s horse and gun. Arthouse pretensions abound, but in Preminger’s hands, it works: The action on the river, when Monroe, Mitchum, and his son take to a raft is genuinely thrilling, and the Banff landscapes are a spectacle precisely suited to the ‘Scope format. —CB

  • 55. ‘Rancho Notorious’ (Fritz Lang, 1952)

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    Marlene Dietrich and a bunch of good time gals save some horses and ride cowboys instead. There’s allegedly other stuff that happens in ‘Rancho Notorious’ — and to be fair to director Fritz Lang, that other stuff includes a whole-ass mystery Arthur Kennedy is keen to solve around ‘HATE, MURDER, and REVENGE!’ as the film’s opening ballad intones. But this movie is by, for, and focused around Marlene Dietrich’s alter-ego, Altar Keane. She is its gravity. Everything else is secondary, and the movie is all the better for it. ‘Rancho Notorious’ is this weird, hilarious fantasyscape that has the same logic and pathos as a Road Runner cartoon — which is the only other setting this writer can think of where a secret legendary crime lair called “Chuck-a-Luck” makes any kind of sense. It would be futile to talk about what happens or the performances or the color combinations in the sets and costuming, or the musical numbers (of which there is certainly more than one). Suffice it to say that if you are looking to have a good, absurd time with a Western, you need look no further; and that is a strength of Westerns themselves that Marlene can do a takeover of this kind and it doesn’t ruin the genre — she makes the genre better. —SS

  • 54. ‘El Topo’ (dir. Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1970)

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    Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky dipped into the Western genre — and possibly some LSD as well — for this surreal odyssey through a nameless mystical landscape that sought to recreate, for viewers, the experience of taking psychedelic drugs. Jodorowsky himself plays the title character, a gunfighter clad in all black and on a warped hero’s journey with his six-year-old child, Hijo (Brontis Jodorowsky, the director’s real son).

    Jodorowsky shot the film in Mexico, though its landscapes are made increasingly strange with Eastern religious symbolism and outré production design credited to the director himself. ‘El Topo’ meditates on mythic Western themes of vengeance, as the gunslinger sets out to reap retribution for a slaughter of his village, and masculinity, as Hijo is primed for rites of passage that will carry him into adulthood while inheriting the next cycle of generational violence. The film was controversial for a graphic rape scene that Jodorowsky at one point suggested was unsimulated. For all of its provocation, ‘El Topo’ is certainly one of the boldest and bizarre Westerns ever made, and among the most successful attempts of an international filmmaker to reshape American iconography with their own sensibility. —RL

  • 53. ‘Near Dark’ (dir. Kathryn Bigelow, 1987)

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    An inventive, stylish mixing of the blood of a slasher with the sweat of a Western, ‘Near Dark’ arrived in 1987 as a grittier alternative to teen vampire films of the era like ‘The Lost Boys’ and ‘Fright Night.’ Whereas those films place their vampiric antagonists in placidly familiar suburban landscapes, Kathryn Bigelow (in her first solo directorial effort) expands the horizons for her bloodsuckers by setting the story in the deserts and plains of the midwest, gleefully fashioning the adventures of the central nomadic vampire crew after a classic western. Maybe a bit too closely, because the romantic leads — Adrian Pasdar’s newly turned Oklahoma farm boy and Jenny Wright’s sympathetic ingenue — are frankly total drips. The real star is Bill Paxton as charming, serpent-like coven member Severan, who he plays with the swagger and sex appeal of a classic gunslinger antihero and imbues with the menace of an unforgettable horror creation.—WC

  • 52. ‘Forty Guns’ (dir. Samuel Fuller, 1957)

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    Barbara Stanwyck couldn’t give a bad performance if she tried, and even her more obscure films see her give a masterclass in playing flinty, uncompromising, and original women. ‘Forty Guns,’ Samuel Fuller’s 1957 Western, gives the femme fatale master a particularly rich part in Jessica Drummond, an uncompromising landowner who rules over a tiny Arizona town with her entourage of 40 hired men. She’s unscrupulous and unsentimental, willing to do whatever it takes to keep her hold over her territory, even as sparks fly between her and Griff (Barry Sullivan), a gunslinger looking to put one of her men behind bars. In lesser hands she could be reduced to an unsympathetic shrew, but as played by Stanwyck she’s a vivacious and unforgettable creation. In a film shot in panoramic CinemaScope to capture every inch of the sweeping landscape, Stanwyck’s performance is consistently the biggest thing onscreen. —WC

  • 51. ‘Day of the Outlaw’ (dir. Andre de Toth, 1959)

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    A winter Western! Trust André de Toth to come up with a way to keep the endless wars between ranchers and homesteaders interesting. He’s not the eyepatch-wearing director with the most Westerns to his name, but what he does in ‘Day of the Outlaw’ is worth consideration alongside his more famous counterparts. It’s set in a town gleefully named Bitters — writers who use subtext are cowards — that, in the middle of a blizzard, finds itself terrorized by Burl Ives (yes, that Burl Ives), who is clearly having the time of his life in a cavalry uniform and a cowboy hat. The stripped down photography and clever staging — you can see everything in a room except a way out — makes this town-wide hostage crisis deliciously suspenseful. There’s only a little snappy gunplay in this Western, which feels particularly clever. De Toth is much more interested in the squirrel-y, panic-y looks on people’s faces as they desperately try to work out what to do than he is the flash of a muzzle. Robert Ryan is hanging out, too, ostensibly dealing with a love triangle between him, Tina Louise, and Alan Marshal, but really there so that he can be the one who howls and rages against the blizzard. ‘Day of the Outlaw’ executes a number of tricky tonal and structural shifts, battering the tropes of the Western down like a storm. It’s a delight. —SS

  • 50. ‘The Rider’ (dir. Chloe Zhao, 2018)

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    When IndieWire reviewed Chloé Zhao’s second feature film in 2017, this writer opened with a statement that distills the insight and authenticity of ‘The Rider’: ‘You can’t fake ‘The Rider.” Zhao’s lyrical, Cannes-winning docudrama blends fact and fiction to build not just a portrait of modern American masculinity, but of one rodeo rider’s incredible journey in particular.

    Zhao’s early bent toward casting non-actors — she found her ‘Rider’ star Brady Jandreau while making her first feature ‘Songs My Brothers Taught Me,’ a festival favorite set on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota — adds potency to this small-scale story with major implications. She started with pain: Jandreau’s own rodeo accident, which nearly robbed him of not just his career, but his life.

    ‘The Rider’ opens with Jandreau (here cast as ‘Brady Blackburn’) removing a series of tightly wound bandages, ultimately revealing the skull-spanning wound that slashes across the right side of his skull. Brady searches for meaning in his rodeo-set accident, one that seems mostly random, but unable to compete and reticent to get literally back on the horse, Brady’s life chugs along at a muted pace.

    Who is Brady Blackburn without rodeo? Who is a cowboy without his horse? These massive questions don’t just frame Zhao’s film, but the best of the genre itself. As Brady inches his way back, he returns to the very creatures that hurt him: His beloved horses. The future of Brady’s rodeo career may be a question mark for much of the film, but his affinity for animals is never in doubt, and scenes of Jandreau training and riding a variety of horses — often easing the most skittish ones, breaking them in gentle ways — beautifully illuminates why it’s so hard for him to walk away from the only world he’s ever known. —KE

  • 49. ‘The Magnificent Seven’ (dir. John Sturges, 1960)

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    ‘The Magnificent Seven’ wins as both a testament to the lasting appeal of the Western and the power of a well-assembled cast. An adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 masterpiece ‘Seven Samurai,’ Sturges’ film takes the core concept — a desperate village hiring samurai warriors for protection — and transplants it to the American West, with gunslingers replacing sword-wielding fighters, hired to protect a small Mexican village from a band of marauding bandits.

    A classic example of the ‘assemble a team’ film, it helped establish a template for how a group of diverse characters with unique skills can come together to achieve a common goal.

    In this context, it’s a group whose appeal to audiences hinged heavily on its star power. Yul Brynner leads the ensemble as a stoic gunslinger who assembles the team. He’s joined by the likes of Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, and Horst Buchholz, each actor bringing a unique persona playing characters with ‘particular sets of skills.’ It was, and still is, an impressive line-up, further starrified by the villainous turn of the versatile Eli Wallach as the bandit leader terrorizing the village.

    Its straightforward yet compelling depiction of heroism contrasts Kurosawa’s more technically innovative and complex film, relying on more conventional Western tropes and shootouts, which effectively catered to American audiences. And it worked!

    ‘The Magnificent Seven’ spawned sequels, a television series, and even Antoine Fuqua’s 2016 remake starring Denzel Washington. —TO

  • 48. ‘The Ballad of Little Jo’ (dir. Maggie Greenwald, 1993)

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    Maggie Greenwald’s 1993 masterpiece is one of the best Westerns from an era that had quite a few great ones, the period immediately following ‘Dances with Wolves’ and ‘Unforgiven’ that saw the American film industry returning to the genre for a few gloriously productive years. The story of a society woman who, shunned by her family after giving birth out of wedlock, rides West and reinvents herself as a man, ‘The Ballad of Little Jo’ delivers the traditional satisfactions of all those Westerns — ‘The Magnificent Seven,’ ‘The Gunfighter,’ ‘Shane’ — that explore both the liberation of a life defined by rugged individualism and its limitations, but deepens and expands on the mythology. Like most Westerns, ‘The Ballad of Little Jo’ takes place in a world where maleness is glorified as a source of power and progress, a fact that Greenwald sharply interrogates via the unique perspective Little Jo’s character provides. Greenwald asks the viewer to consider and reconsider ideas many Westerns (and American films in general) take for granted by posing two simple questions: What does Little Jo gain by becoming a man, and what does she lose? The way Greenwald explores these issues makes this essential viewing for any Western enthusiast. —JH

  • 47. ‘There Will Be Blood’ (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)

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    Paul Thomas Anderson’s magnum opus may begin in 1898 and traverses the Old West California desert, but is it a Western? There are no shootouts, no stand-offs, no stagecoach chases, and evoking ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ thanks to its magnificent sweep and off-kilter Jonny Greenwood score doesn’t do it any favors in the genre department. But it is about a lone wolf, tirelessly and endlessly toiling and fighting for his principles even as he looks out at people and sees ‘nothing worth liking.’ It is a showdown between two unlikely adversaries who each aim to seek power and glory through money, fear, or faith. And above all, it is a film about America, how capitalism and wealth will bleed you dry and wipe you off the back of its bootheel. That Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview gives one of the all-time great screen performances is just the cherry on top of the milkshake that’s all been drunk up. —BW

  • 46. ‘3:10 to Yuma’ (dir. Delmer Daves, 1957)

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    There’s nothing quite like a great opening title song. Bond films know this. Westerns do too, and ‘3:10 to Yuma’ may have one of the best. It’s a mournful earworm with a steady, haunting beat, like chains clanking as prisoners walk in a row, and portends the moody, trapped feeling of the film it bookends on both a sonic and lyrical level. Sung by crooner Frankie Laine, the song, like the film, is about lost chances, fleeting romances, and wanting to make good on the life you set out to lead. For stagecoach robber Ben Wade (Glenn Ford), that means staying a free man by any means necessary. For rancher Dan Evans (Van Heflin), it means providing for his family, but that’s hard to do in a drought.

    Two forces put in opposition to one another, Evans is tasked with getting Wade to the town of Contention and onto a train bound for Yuma prison. Though doing so will provide Evans with the money he needs to keep his family’s land, the risk of Wade’s gang trying to intercept him or Wade himself laying a trap bring tension to an already fraught marriage between Dan and his wife Alice. Adapted from a short story by Elmore Leonard, the story harnesses a psychological tension unique for Westerns of the time, with Evans and Wade fighting nearly as much with words as they do with guns. The black-and-white cinematography also allows us to appreciate the bleakness of life in the Old West and how the lines between good and evil, fair and unfair are so crudely drawn. —HR

  • 45. ‘The Shootist’ (dir. Don Siegel, 1976)

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    Most of John Wayne’s movies after ‘True Grit’ were Westerns, and most were mediocre. ‘The Shootist,’ his final film with his health declining rapidly, was a return to form and one of the most fitting fade outs of an iconic screen legend ever. He plays a gunman credited with over 30 killings, all justified he claims, who learns he is dying from cancer. Though he craves a restful end to life, his identity is soon learned in the town where he decides to settle in. Director Don Siegel (‘Dirty Harry,’ ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’) wasn’t out to make an elegiac film, but rather, though quieter than some of his films, focuses on the impact of the presence of potential violence. That is strongly conveyed as the gunman befriends and mentors the son of his widowed landlady, with a particularly poignant shootout finale. Wayne’s costars include Lauren Bacall, James Stewart, Ron Howard, and multiple familiar character acting veterans. —TB

  • 44. ‘The Wild Bunch’ (dir. Sam Peckinpah, 1969)

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    ‘If they move, kill ‘em.’ Revisionist Westerns preceded ‘The Wild Bunch,’ but Sam Peckinpah murdered any notion of romance and nobility among its gunmen when William Holden spits those lines. We haven’t counted, but we’d wager Peckinpah’s film has the largest body count of any Western ever made. It’s all depicted in true carnage, with hyper kinetic cross cutting and dashes of slow-motion anarchy that still hold up as masterful examples of the craft. The opening robbery shootout should be taught in film schools till the end of time. But it’s the cadre of unlikable characters, the bleak, meaningless deaths all for a ‘dollar’s worth of steel holes,’ and the crushing feeling of obsolescence that make ‘The Wild Bunch’ a true masterpiece. The heroes here are the scorpions being overwhelmed by a mass of ants, only to be set ablaze by onlookers that no longer have any use for them. —BW

  • 43. ‘The Quick and the Dead’ (dir. Sam Raimi, 1995)

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    The Western is all about its landscapes. But what are landscapes if not populated by compelling, unforgettable characters? Raimi’s gal-gunslinger drama has a baker’s dozen, and all presented via an incredible structure to introduce them to us fast: A quickdraw contest. In bracket format, no less! Think ‘Enter the Dragon’ but with six-shooters in the Old West.

    Among the contestants, you’ve got Keith David, Lance Henriksen (who only signs his name with an ace of spades symbol), and of course the extraordinary quartet of Leonardo DiCaprio as ‘The Kid’ (‘Woo! I’m fast!’ he declares in maybe his most purely entertaining pre-‘Titanic’ role), Russell Crowe as killer turned preacher Cort, Gene Hackman as the town’s overlord who presides over the whole contest, and a mysterious stranger known by most as just ‘The Lady,’ played by Sharon Stone. ‘The Lady’ drifts into town looking to get into the contest, and of course, like any Western hero, she has her own motivations that will only be revealed over time. Remarkably free of the ‘strong female character’ cliches male directors sometimes think are necessary with female action leads, ‘The Quick and the Dead’ has style to spare and personality by the barrel, down to an appearance from Western legend Woody Strode. —CB

  • 42. ‘Brokeback Mountain’ (dir. Ang Lee, 2005)

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    Nearly two decades later, and we still don’t know how to quit ‘Brokeback Mountain,’ Ang Lee’s sweeping adaptation of Annie Proulx’s devastating short story about two shepherds who fall in love in Wyoming. There had never been an explicitly gay cowboy movie until Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) came to screens, in a movie that daringly introduced straight moviegoers to male-on-male sex onscreen in surely the gayest wide release of all time up to that point in 2005.

    But as much as ‘Brokeback Mountain’ broke ground, it feels as sturdy and classic as any traditional Western, here supplanting a story of the demise of the new frontier with one of how male souls are crushed by their own societally forced repression. Ennis and Jack suffer across decades for their love, their lives inevitably ruined because of it when they are finally unable to transcend the obstacles (hom*ophobia chief among them) to achieve a perfect union. Here’s a movie that breaks your heart open and is most revolutionary for how it deconstructs the silhouette of the American cowboy, which would never be the same on screens again. —RL

  • 41. ‘Paris, Texas’ (dir. Wim Wenders, 1984)

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    A film about the lonesome and the lost. About brothers and sons. About vast plains, both physical and emotional. About bright lights and broken dreams and trying to put your life back together again. Or at least the lives of those you love. The ones you were responsible for tearing apart. ‘Paris, Texas’ is as much about the maintaining of myths as it is about breaking through them. Following an amnesiac found in the desert (Harry Dean Stanton) and his journey back to remembering the brother, father, and husband that he was — one who, as it turns out, was not so great — German director Wim Wenders’ ode to the beauty and mystery of the American Southwest is also a modern reinterpretation of classic Hollywood Western storytelling that evokes George Stevens’ ‘Shane’ as much as it does Wenders’ earlier ‘Road Trilogy.’ The making of the film was also an odyssey in the best of Western traditions.

    Shot in only five weeks in chronological order, meaning production would have to travel back and forth between Texas and California and back again, the script for the film also wasn’t completed by the time they started. Actor, author, and playwright Sam Shepard wrote the first half based on his novel ‘Motel Chronicles,’ as well as monologues for Wenders to insert where he saw fit, then Wenders and screenwriter L.M. Kit Carson broke for two weeks to figure out the second half, which Shepard contributed to by dictating monologues over the phone. The result is a stunningly vibrant and lore-worthy emotional unearthing set against the desolate beauty of dusty roads. —HR

  • 40. ‘Hud’ (dir. Martin Ritt, 1963)

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    If you found any horseshoe of hope in the final minutes of Martin Ritt’s existentially anguished neo-Western ‘Hud,’ you missed the wagon entirely. Based on a book by, of course, Larry McMurtry, ‘Hud’ deconstructed the matinee idol persona of Paul Newman, here as the prodigal and spiritually empty son of a rancher, and against the Texas Panhandle backdrop of a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak killing all their cattle. In this black-and-white masterpiece of disappointment and regret, Newman cuts a mean figure as the original antihero of the 1960s, earning a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his performance. Patricia Neal rightly won a Best Actress Academy Award for portraying the ranch’s housekeeper Alma, broken down by Hud’s abuse but who manages to escape.
    Paul Newman would reprise his place in the Western canon six years later with ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,’ but ‘Hud’ is the actor’s finest hour, burrowing himself into a character so unlikable that audiences would never see him the same way again. And Ritt’s despairing vision of the American West would go on to presage the bleak soul of the United States depicted throughout the New Hollywood that came later in the 1960s. —RL

  • 39. ‘Ulzana’s Raid’ (dir. Robert Aldrich, 1972)

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    The 1960s and ’70s saw several Westerns that included allegories for the ongoing war in Vietnam, in some eyes including ‘The Wild Bunch,’ ‘Little Big Man,’ and ‘The Outlaw Josie Wales.’ ‘Ulzana’s Raid’ came from Robert Aldrich who, among the many genres in which he excelled (including Westerns), directed war films ‘Attack’ and ‘The Dirty Dozen.’

    An early original screenplay from Scottish novelist Alan Sharp (Arthur Penn’s ‘Night Moves’ was another standout), inspired, per Sharp, by ‘The Searchers,’ and similar in its stark portrayal of the brutality of the settler versus Native American violence.

    Ulzana, a Comanche warrior, escapes confinement to avenge injustices U.S. authorities have committed. This takes the form of horrific carnage against all settlers found. A veteran Army scout (Burt Lancaster), no fan of government policy but aware he might save lives, leads an inexperienced army troop on a search for Ulzana.

    Aldrich is as unsentimental a director as any, perfect for this bleak but riveting story full of tension and increased moral complexity. The naivete of the troops following the scout, their increased awareness that they are disadvantaged against those fighting for their own survival on their turf, the disillusionment that undercut their mission, all paralleled the Vietnam War experience. —TB

  • 38. ‘The Hanging Tree’ (dir. Delmer Daves, 1959)

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    A proto-#MeToo Western, ‘The Hanging Tree’ is a startlingly progressive look at sexual politics and exploitation in a gold mining town. Gary Cooper’s Doc Frail is a physician who tends to the miners and their families and takes in a blind young woman, Elizabeth (Maria Schell), who’s the lone survivor of a stagecoach robbery. The town gossips spread horrible rumors that he and Elizabeth are lovers, or that she’s paying him for his medical services in an illicit way, or that he’s exploiting her. None of it’s true, but it’s a form of projection that at least one of the more predatory miners uses to justify his own attempted rape of Elizabeth. That predatory miner is played by none other than Karl Malden, who’s capable of playing venality like few others in the history of cinema. He’s there when Frail first rescues Elizabeth, blind and horribly sunburned from days out in the wilderness, and the first thing Malden’s character says is that she’s ‘sure a lot of woman.’ Thankfully, Frail is as skilled with a six-shooter as he is a scalpel, because he’s gonna need to be.

    If there’s any director who deserves reclamation, it’s Delmer Daves, whose handling of this story, beautifully photographed amid the rivers and wooded hillsides of Washington state, is propulsive and energizing. He weaves the critique of institutional and individual sexism (and where it aligns with mob violence) into a genuinely thrilling package that also features George C. Scott, in his feature film debut, as a grifter of a preacher who enables Malden’s predatory behavior. Heady stuff. —CB

  • 37. ‘The Winning of Barbara Worth’ (dir. Henry King, 1926)

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    Notable for offering pre-fame Gary Cooper his breakout role, Henry King’s ‘The Winning of Barbara Worth’ is an irresistible melange of breathtaking locations (California’s Imperial Valley and Nevada’s Black Rock Desert), timeless cowboy clichés, and a hopelessly swoony romance. Hungarian-born beauty Vilma Bánky stars as Barbara Worth, a young woman who was orphaned as a child after her pioneering parents perished attempting to cross the desert. Years later two men, Willard Holmes (the impossibly charming Ronald Colman), an engineer intent on diverting the Colorado River in order to irrigate the desert, and local cowboy Abe Lee (Cooper), vie for Barbara’s affections. When corporate greed leads to a man-made disaster of epic proportions (the climactic flood sequence that depicts the formation of the Salton Sea is still impressive today), both men are given the opportunity to showcase their heroism as they attempt to save that day, but only one can win the girl.—MG

  • 36. ‘The Treasure of the Sierra Madre’ (dir. John Huston, 1948)

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    ‘The Treasure of the Sierra Madre’ is a classic, although not discussed as much one might think as part of the Western canon. The film incorporates elements of the genre, for sure, to explore greed and morality, but it stands apart by focusing on the psychological unraveling of its characters in what is more of a blend of adventure with a deep character study.

    Set in Mexico, it follows three gold prospectors, played by Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston, and Tim Holt, as they search for fortune in the Sierra Madre mountains. A tale of how greed can corrupt even the most basic of men, it’s a darker, more introspective examination of human nature, less reliant on typical Western heroics.

    ‘The Treasure of the Sierra Madre’ does share several thematic elements with classic Westerns on this list, particularly Sergio Leone’s ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,’ in its exploration of greed, moral ambiguity, and the corrupting power of wealth. Furthermore, both films use their settings not just as backdrops but as integral elements that shape the story and the characters’ journeys.

    Most emblematic of this in ‘Sierra Madre’ is the transformation of Dobbs (Bogart), whose degeneration into obsession and even insanity is quite alarming. But overall, the interactions among the characters, against the film’s realistic depiction of the harsh environment, is a showcase for how trust can deteriorate, and how fragile human relationships can become when the possibility of wealth is introduced, all timeless themes that resonate today. —TO

  • 35. ‘Bad Day at Black Rock’ (dir. John Sturges, 1955)

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    ‘High Noon,’ whatever its other debatable merits, gets credit for the better films it inspired. Howard Hawks’ brilliant ‘Rio Bravo’ can be seen as a rebuttal to the earlier film. ‘Bad Day at Black Rock,’ similar to ‘High Noon,’ has anti-McCarthy elements in its portrayal of one man (Spencer Tracy playing a one-armed stranger arriving in a remote desert town) fighting off toxic racism and bigotry as he investigates the death of a Japanese-American. Set only a few years before its 1955 release, it is one of the great contemporary-set Westerns in terms of utilizing genre standards — stunning landscape visuals, a sense of isolation, the need for unlikely heroes, a standout group of villainous characters. Director John Sturges made 14 other Westerns, including ‘The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral’ and ‘The Magnifcent Seven,’ but none captured the essence of the genre better. Absolutely standout are the Cinemascope visuals, one of the greatest early uses of the format. An unusually short (81 minutes) MGM A-level movie release and Best Picture nominee, its supporting cast included Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, Dean Jagger, and Walter Brennan among the locals he confronts. —TB

  • 34. ‘No Country for Old Men’ (dir. Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007)

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    Who would have guessed in the ‘90s that Joel and Ethan Coen would become the filmmakers responsible for keeping the Western alive in the next millennium? Although perhaps it shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise: The brothers are quintessentially American filmmakers, concerned with stories about ambition, greed, and scraping by that couldn’t be produced in any other country than the US of A. Their greatest achievement in the most American genre of all, ‘No Country for Old Men,’ is as close a canonical classic as any movie less than 20 years old could hope to be, a bitter and elliptical tale of fate and self-determination.

    Faithfully adapting Cormac McCarthy’s novel, the brothers track three hunters and hunted — Josh Brolin’s thief, Javier Bardem’s hitman, and Tommy Lee Jones’ sheriff — with a curious sense of inevitability, as if their paths are already handed to them by fate. Best remembered is Javier Bardem’s haunting performance as the emotionless, stony Anton Chigurh, and his presence adds much menace to the film. But in so many respects, ‘No Country for Old Men’ is an oddly bleak and terrifying experience, filled with stretches of silence and elliptical edits that make what could be an ordinary crime thriller feel nightmarish. For all the gritty takes on the Western throughout cinema, the Coens’ classic stands apart as a movie that purges the genre of all the grandeur and the romance, leaving only lingering melancholy and despair. —WC

  • 33. ‘Shane’ (dir. George Stevens, 1953)

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    ‘Shane’ is the quintessential Western, a story of a charismatic former gunfighter who tries to escape a mysterious past but becomes entangled in the land struggles of homesteading families in Wyoming. Using Shane’s interactions with the community, particularly the Starrett family, director Stevens explores survival in the American West, including the myth of the frontier, and the struggle between the encroaching civilization and ‘untamed’ wilderness.

    Alan Ladd’s Shane embodies the archetypal Western hero with a dark past, while Jack Palance’s menacing gunslinger Jack Wilson is a compelling contrast. The unfolding drama against the expansive beauty of the West captured by DP Loyal Griggs actually does challenge the myth of the rugged individualist, though, presenting a more nuanced vision of frontier life where the proverb ‘it takes a village’ truly takes hold. The collective efforts of a community are essential for overcoming the challenges they face.

    As a cultural artifact, ‘Shane’ does reflect the overall climate of 1950s America into which it was released. In hindsight, it was an exploration of post-World War II American unity against the era’s anxieties about the spread of communism.

    In this context, it’s timeless, asking questions about an American identity that continues to shift. —TO

  • 32. ‘Silver Lode’ (dir. Allan Dwan, 1954)

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    Allan Dwan, a contemporary of D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille as pioneers of Hollywood movies, made Westerns in five different decade, all at least worthy, many excellent. But though he achieved his biggest acclaim making silent period adventure films with Douglas Fairbanks (1922’s ‘Robin Hood’ a massive success), what typifies his Westerns is combining elevated tension with limited violence. ‘Silver Lode’ is an exemplary example.

    Dwan in the sound era usually made two to four features a year, many falling somewhere between A and B level productions. He regretted his contract with producer Benedict Bogeaus at RKO, yet somehow turned out a series of taut genre films, most shot by the great John Alton (best known as a key film noir DP) in color that came out of that partnership.

    At a time when Hollywood was tip-toeing into post McCarthy-era films, unexpectedly one of the most effective is this story about a prominent businessman on the verge of marriage (John Payne) who’s wrongly accused of murder by a man named McCarty (Dan Duryea) posing as a marshal. Dwan, always known for his character studies whatever the scope of his films, focuses on how the townspeople are manipulated into hysteria and how difficult it is to defend someone against a thug.

    A thrifty 81 minutes with not a dull moment, ‘Silver Lode’ is a gem found amid routine circ*mstances that didn’t seem exceptional when released, but now stands as an example of what could be accomplished within the genre when a pro who lived to make movies got his hands on a story with potential. —TB

  • 31. ‘The Lusty Men’ (dir. Nicholas Ray, 1952)

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    Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose in Nicholas Ray’s glorious rodeo melodrama ‘The Lusty Men.’ It’s got one of the best, punchiest, most economical opening sequences of any Western ever, and also Robert Mitchum, and that should be enough. But it’s really wild to think about how this movie came out in 1952 — the same year as ‘High Noon,’ the period between John Ford making ‘Wagon Master’ and ‘The Searchers,’ aka Peak Hollywood Westerns — and it so deftly and thoroughly deconstructs the heroic status of the cowboy and the valor of the Western hero. It’s likely not the first of the gritty Neo-Westerns that have since enraptured Coen Brothers and Taylor Sheridan fans alike; but it is the Neo-Western that has an incredibly steamy situationship among Mitchum, Arthur Kennedy, and Susan Hayward.

    Mitchum’s a burnt-out rodeo lifer who, to salvage his pride, Kennedy wants to be a bronco-riding real man. And Hayward wants safety and security from somebody. What’s at stake for all of them isn’t necessarily who will get with whom, but what does each of them need to take from the others in order to survive? The action’s great, the mood is greater, and the pace compliments them both — long stretches of desperation punctuated by sudden violence. This writer once heard a film professor talk about the challenges of ‘simmering’ a plot — you have to control the pace of the edit, and the specific shot choices, and the performances so they all hint at something, flavor it, but not overwhelm the palate until just the right moment. Nobody can create a marinade quite like Nicholas Ray, and ‘The Lusty Men’ packs one hell of a punch. —SS

  • 30. ‘Kill and Pray’ (dir. Carlo Lizzani, 1967)

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    The Spaghetti Western subgenre quickly became a vehicle for progressive politics. Leftist Italian filmmakers found the Old West to be the perfect way to hold a mirror to the present moment and address issues of race, gender, and class discrimination. (Unlike in the American Western, those who were aligned with the Confederacy are never anything but the vilest villains in the Spaghetti Western.) ‘Kill and Pray’ takes this even a step further by literally having Pier Paolo Pasolini play a socialist priest engaged in revolutionary struggle. He’s just a side character, but a notably direct reminder of where director Carlo Lizzani himself is coming from here.

    Lou Castel plays Requiescant, an instantly legendary duelist who, raised by a preacher, prays over his nemeses after he guns them down with his lightning-quick trigger finger. Requiescant was a Mexican orphan taken in after his entire family was massacred by a genocidal Confederate named George Bellow Ferguson (Mark Damon), whose appearance becomes increasingly pasty and vampiric. If there is any singular inspiration for Calvin Candie in ‘Django Unchained’ it has to be here with Ferguson. At one point, he even engages in a game where he forces a beautiful Mexican woman to hold a candelabra while he tries to shoot out the flames from an ever-increasing distance. Damon, who parlayed his acting career into becoming an indie film buyer and producer (and died on May 12, 2024, shortly before he would have been seen once again at Cannes), turns in an all-time great villain performance. Not only did his character kill Requiescant’s whole family, he also forces Requiescant’s adopted sister into prostitution! (That adopted sister was actually played by Damon’s then-wife, Barbara Frey.)

    ‘Kill and Pray’ also represents a couple other trends notable to the Spaghetti Western post-Dollars Trilogy: Most of these movies go under multiple titles, so this film is also commonly called ‘Requiescant’ as well as ‘Kill and Say Your Prayers’ and ‘Let Them Rest.’ Also, like so many other Spaghetti Westerns, it does not let its progressive politics get in the way of featuring a parade of gorgeous actresses in sexy attire, much the way the original ‘Star Trek’ always paired serious social issues with scantily clad women. A unique ‘60s phenomenon: Call it babe-centric liberalism. —CB

  • 29. ‘Black God, White Devil’ (dir. Glauber Rocha, 1963)

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    Everybody always talks about the influence of Kurosawa — particularly ‘Yojimbo’ — on the development of the Spaghetti Western. Much more rarely do they mention Glauber Rocha’s polemical Brazilian Western, about a farmhand (Geraldo del Rey) who kills his boss when denied his wages, then goes on the run with his wife, running afoul of a liberation-theology-tinged agrarian revolution in the process. They should mention it.

    ‘Black God, White Devil’ premiered in Competition at Cannes in 1964, a full four months before ‘Yojimbo’ remake ‘A Fistful of Dollars’ premiered and kicked off the Spaghetti craze. And ‘Black God, White Devil’ has all the hallmarks the Italian directors to come would seize upon. There’s heightened violence — a scene of ritualistic infanticide literally drew gasps from the MoMA crowd when shown there in recent years — and a bounty hunter character who lives by an enigmatic code in Antonio das Mortes, absurdist plotting, and a starkly political dimension. It even has something else that the Spaghetti filmmakers would end up loving: franchise potential. Yes, that Antonio das Mortes character, played by Mauricio do Valle, would appear in two follow-up films. But above all, ‘Black God, White Devil’ shows how pulpy genre storytelling can be a supreme vehicle for ideas; entertainment value can always make a manifesto-worthy polemic go down easier. —CB

  • 28. ‘Dead Man’ (dir. Jim Jarmusch, 1995)

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    Jim Jarmusch doesn’t stretch himself to work in new genres so much as he stretches genres to fit himself. A cultural omnivore whose extensive knowledge is often masked by his aura of far being too cool for whatever medium he works with, the auteur has managed to filter everything from samurai films and vampire love stories through the lens of his own punk rock slacker brilliance. So it should have come as no surprise that his one foray into Westerns is arguably the most singular work of postmodernism the genre has ever seen. Starring Johnny Depp as an accountant named William Blake who flees through the West after committing a murder, ‘Dead Man’ sees Jarmusch gleefully mashing together influences ranging from 19th century poetry and acid rock into a psychological study of life and death in America. The film is equally notable for its Neil Young soundtrack and elements of psychedelia as its nuanced portrayals of Native Americans, many of whom speak to each other in native languages without subtitles. Westerns are often mislabeled as a dead genre whose only modern purpose is to cultivate nostalgia for the past, but ‘Dead Man’ is the perfect counterpoint to that line of thinking. It’s a film that proves Westerns still offer a rich blank canvas to any artist brave enough to attempt something new with them. —CZ

  • 27. ‘Blazing Saddles’ (dir. Mel Brooks, 1974)

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    ‘Blazing Saddles’ is often cited as a movie that could never be made today. Well, thank goodness it was made in 1974. ‘Blazing Saddles’ was the third film directed by Mel Brooks, and it is probably the first one that comes to mind at the mention of his name. ‘Blazing Saddles’ was, of course, a sendup of the Western genre; a parody amalgamation of so many of the serious films on this very list. It’s almost certainly the only one in which a man punches out a horse. Cleavon Little plays Bart, the new sheriff in (a very racist) town. Gene Wilder is the town drunk Jim, Harvey Korman is Hedy, I mean, Hedley Lamarr, and Madeline Kahn is the Oscar nominee of the bunch — for acting. Brooks was also nominated for writing the title track’s lyrics with music by John Morris. —TM

  • 26. ‘The Misfits’ (dir. John Huston, 1961)

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    The West, as a concept, has always been synonymous with freedom, of an escape from society’s restrictions. A modern Western, ‘The Misfits’ translates that yearning for something new and unformed out of the pioneering days and into the ennui of modern existence. The eponymous misfits are a motley crew — played by magnetic movie stars Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, and Montgomery Clift, all surprisingly believable as rough-on-their-luck losers — who abandon their humdrum lives to camp a half-completed home in the middle of untouched Nevada land. Lust, jealousy, and discontent poison their attempts to build a paradise in the scorching sun, and yet John Huston’s film (with a typically contemplative script from Arthur Miller) still proves beguiling in how it captures the appeal of running away from civilization and into the wide-open desert. —WC

  • 25. ‘The Tall T’ (dir. Budd Boetticher, 1957)

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    In a Budd Boetticher Western, it’s the landscape that matters most. Not just in terms of the harsh rocks and desert that fill his frames, but also the roles each character he studies feel they must take on in order to survive the horrors of the American West. Everyone has their own code to live by, some more ruthless than others, but all governed by a desire to see another sunrise. With ‘The Tall T,’ Boetticher tests those codes by putting a rancher caught in the wrong place at the wrong time against the conflicting wits of three murderous thieves who end up robbing the wrong coach and need to pivot their plan. The film isn’t exactly a real-time thriller, but it plays out in such a quick, direct manner as to evoke an almost theatrical morality play.

    Like ‘3:10 to Yuma’ and other Westerns of the time, the film’s script was adapted from a story by Elmore Leonard called ‘The Captives’ and plays on the more psychological elements of the Western experience. In placing his rancher Brennan (played by Randolph Scott, who’s his partner and star in all of the ‘Ranown Cycle’ of films) and copper mine heiress Ms. Mims (Mia Farrow’s mother Maureen O’Sullivan) in a position where they must kill to live, Boetticher cuts to the dark reality of life on the frontier with little sentimentality. —HR

  • 24. ‘Man of the West’ (dir. Anthony Mann, 1958)

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    Can even the worst among us be redeemed? That’s the premise of Anthony Mann’s supremely refined character study starring Gary Cooper, a reformed member of a vile gang headed by Lee J. Cobb, who finds himself crossing paths with the gang once again. They, of course, want him back in the fold. He wants no part of it, even as his skills are such that he realizes they’ll probably never leave him alone now. Does he go along with them at least for a while? Maybe to protect the saloon singer (Julie London) in his company? How much can you pretend to be a thing without becoming the thing? And how could he have ever ridden with this gang in the first place?

    Here’s a Western about one’s capacity to lead many lives and even become a different person. There aren’t a lot of genuine paths for redemption in American society, but the West, the frontier, unspoiled by civilization and its baggage, at least offered a potential clean slate — a tabula rasa that alone elevated the idea of the Western to the idea of myth in the American mindset. Out there you could become anybody. Maybe even a better person. With Cooper’s character in ‘Man of the West,’ that potential is put to its limit.

    What’s particularly unique about Cooper’s Westerns is how often his characters have a sympathetic understanding of women. That’s once again the case here as he becomes Julie London’s champion even as his old gang horribly demeans her, even forcing her to do a striptease at gunpoint that’s about as devastating a critique of the male gaze as classic Hollywood ever offered up. —CB

  • 23. ‘Pale Rider’ (dir. Clint Eastwood, 1985)

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    Clint Eastwood’s 1985 Western was his first film in the genre since 1976 (when he made the brilliant “The Outlaw Josey Wales”) and the first major Hollywood studio Western in five years after the commercial failure of “Heaven’s Gate” all but killed the tradition. It was a big hit, and it’s not hard to see why: Eastwood’s film has the perfect blend of classical satisfactions and revisionist tweaks, as he and his ‘Gauntlet’ screenwriters Michael Butler and Dennis Shryack take the raw materials of ‘Shane’ and rework them for a 1980s audience. Eastwood plays an enigmatic figure who emerges out of nowhere to help a community of ragtag miners take on the corporation that hopes to wipe them off the face of the earth; he’s the literal answer to their prayers, and Eastwood expertly rides the line between presenting his character as a mortal man or a creature of supernatural origins. He could plausibly be either, and part of the film’s fun is its refusal to pick a side.

    Throughout the movie Eastwood balances the gritty, earthbound, and sociopolitical (addressing ecological concerns of the era from a liberal perspective that might surprise younger audiences who only know him as the guy who talked to the chair at the Republican National Convention) with the lyrical, allegorical, and poetic. The result is one of the director’s best films, a movie that somehow feels both reliably old-fashioned and utterly modern at the same time. —JH

  • 22. ‘Red River’ (dir. Howard Hawks, 1948)

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    On the Chisholm trail that stretches from Texas to Missouri, Thomas Dunson (John Wayne, already the mythic marquee man of the Western genre by 1948) leads a tense 1851 cattle drive that blows open tensions with his adopted son, played by Montgomery Clift. ‘Red River’ was adapted by director Howard Hawks and screenwriters Borden Chase and Charles Schnee from Borden Chase’s story ‘Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail,’ here painting an epic canvas via the American Midwest about how relationships between men are destroyed by a good woman, and each other.

    But beyond the morally complex antihero played by Wayne, Clift is a standout in his breakout screen performance — and in a movie that feels like a precursor to ‘Brokeback Mountain.’ Clift’s character Matt Garth forms an instantly intense friendship with another gunslinging cattler, the wonderfully named Cherry Valance (John Ireland). One of the movie’s great scenes finds the two men doing a kind of ‘I’ll show you yours if you show you mine’ with their guns. Make of that what you will.

    Along the way, the wagoners rescue a train of gamblers and dance hall girls from a Native attack, including Joanne Dru as Tess Millay, who’s immediately drawn to Matt. He at first couldn’t be less interested, though the movie trots off toward an eventual happy union for them both. Still, ‘Red River’ remains a rare early example of a bittersweet tenderness shared between two frontiersmen, and one that could easily be interpreted as queer by now. Clift’s sexuality had not yet become the subject of tabloid scrutiny that it would, but Hawks knew what he was doing while casting him in this elegiac Western about the erosion of tradition. No wonder Peter Bogdonavich excerpted it for ‘The Last Picture Show,’ as the final movie that play’s for that film’s wayward characters in a shuttering movie theater. The two films feel like bookends for a dying new frontier. —RL

  • 21. ‘The Big Country’ (dir. William Wyler, 1958)

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    A domestic drama that plays out in epic, gun-totin’, fist-throwin’ fashion, ‘The Big Country’ serves as an allegory for America’s historical struggle to ‘love thy neighbor’ and how our inability to do so may ultimately lead to our demise. It also serves as a fish-out-of-water rom-com for its main character Jim McKay (Gregory Peck), a sea captain of high regard brought out to Texas at the request of his would-be bride (Carroll Baker) to meet her father and get to know the ranch life, but who ends up falling for a down-to-earth teacher (Jean Simmons) who just so happens to control one of the area’s few water sources. The irony is that Mckay comes to find the West not so different from the sea. Riding a horse is a bit like riding a wave. On land, like on water, you can still use the stars and a compass to guide your way.

    And yet the rules of this vast and unruly terrain seem governed by a winner-take-all attitude that McKay can’t abide. He thinks he can play peace-keeper between the two warring ranch families that populate small corners spread hundreds of miles apart: His bride’s upper-crust brand, the Terrills, and a ruffian clan with a little more dirt under their fingernails, the Hannasseys, led by an imposing Burl Ives, who won an Oscar for his role. But eventually, McKay comes to find that out in the big country, you can only take care of yourself. Captured in beautiful Technicolor by William Wyler and shot on location, this Western has a little bit of everything, but stays true to the ethos of its main genre by not pulling any of its punches. —HR

  • 20. ‘The Wind’ (dir. Victor Sjöström, 1928)

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    Directed by the great Swedish filmmaker, actor, and chronicler of human suffering Victor Sjöström, and adapted for the screen by Frances Marion, ‘The Wind’ is one of the most psychologically terrifying depictions of the harsh weather and crippling loneliness of the American West. The film stars the incomparable Lillian Gish as a fragile young woman named Letty who travels from Virginia to Texas to live with her cousin Beverly (Edward Earle). When his wife Cora (Dorothy Cumming) forces her to leave their ranch in a fit of jealousy, she must choose between being the mistress of a lecherous neighbor (Montagu Love) or marrying a kind man (Lars Hanson) whom she does not love. Although the film ends on a happy note, much to the chagrin of its star and director, who preferred the ending of Dorothy Scarborough’s original novel in which Letty finally succumbs to her prairie madness and wanders off into a windstorm to die, the film remains one of the silent era’s greatest artistic achievements.—MG

  • 19. ‘High Noon’ (dir. Fred Zinnemann, 1952)

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    The genius of ‘High Noon’ is that it can be enjoyed on two levels. The first is a quintessential tale of good versus evil, a showdown between a band of unruly crooks and Gary Cooper’s moralistic deputy fighting alone to save his town and his bride (Grace Kelly, so beautiful she looks like a Disney princess even playing a modest Quaker). Fred Zinnemann’s movie certainly has the chops to pass as just pure entertainment, so immaculately is it paced and structured to thrill.

    The second level is more interesting, as one of the earliest revisionist Westerns to challenge the black-and-white worldview of the genre. Cooper’s Will Kane might think he’s doing the right thing, but the town around him doesn’t necessarily agree, turning away from helping him out of fear, out of bitterness, out of a belief that they would be better off without him. Carl Foreman’s script richly develops one of the Western’s most memorable settings, populating Hadleyville with an array of characters both pathetic (Lloyd Bridges’ sniveling Harvey Pell) and sympathetic (Katy Jurado’s hard-luck Helen Ramirez), and imbuing a deep sense of history and pain lurking underneath the seemingly sunny desert civilization. When Kane rides off into the sunset at the film’s conclusion, it’s not with the triumph we expect from a cowboy hero but with the anger of a man unsure if those he saved were worth the effort. —WC

  • 18. ‘Unforgiven’ (dir. Clint Eastwood, 1992)

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    ‘It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man. Take away all he’s got, and everything he’s ever gonna have.’

    At its best, the Western genre is the closest thing that America has to Shakespearean tragedy. The vast American West provides a canvas for writers to sink their teeth into the ugliest questions of life and death, good and evil, revenge and repentance, and love and solitude. Philosophizing cowboys have uttered many of the most poetic lines in the American film canon, but few pierce the soul more deeply and concisely than this timeless remark by Clint Eastwood’s Bill Munny during his final job as a bounty hunter. It’s a fitting summary of not just the movie’s unrelenting moral inquiry, but also Eastwood’s own journey within the Western genre. Nearly half a century into a film career that’s still going strong 30 years later, Eastwood had seen the genre from every possible angle, from the sanitized patriotism of 1950s television to the wordless violence of Spaghetti Westerns and everything in between. A movie like ‘Unforgiven’ could only have been made by a man with so much of his own experience to reckon with.

    Eastwood’s farewell to the genre (his 2021 film ‘Cry Macho’ may have been another epilogue to his Western career, but there’s no denying that ‘Unforgiven’ is his true swan song) marries the epic cinematography of John Ford’s masterpieces with the harshness of Leone’s best works. Eastwood might have spent much of the 1970s and 80s distancing himself from Westerns, but ‘Unforgiven’ was the final reminder that no genre will ever be a better vehicle for his distinct voice. —CZ

  • 17. ‘The Great Silence’ (dir. Sergio Corbucci, 1968)

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    When the average person closes their eyes and pictures the American West, most will default to images of arid deserts, red rock formations, and vast plains filled with cattle. But it’s important to remember that the West wasn’t just a diorama that captured a few picturesque moments: it was a living region with all of the harshness and beauty that the four seasons provide.

    The entire Atlantic Ocean separated Sergio Corbucci from America when he filmed his spaghetti Westerns, but ‘The Great Silence’ proves that he understood Western weather as well as any American filmmaker. The Italian film takes place during a brutal Utah blizzard, following a wordless gunman who seeks to protect a group of criminals from a band of mercenaries who will stop at nothing to collect the bounties on their heads. The bitter cold and copious amounts of snow provide a backdrop that’s every bit as trying as the hottest day in Death Valley, and Corbucci uses it as a canvas to portray a level of bleakness and brutality seldom seen in Westerns before the 1960s. Jean-Louis Trintignant’s black-hatted antihero was a revelation, firing a semi-automatic weapon instead of a six shooter and refusing to utter even the few choice badass words that were considered a necessary baseline for strong-and-silent tough guys. More conflicted, violent, and vulnerable than the characters Western fans were used to seeing, he was a bold step forward in a genre that was still struggling to accept moral nuance.

    The film’s winter setting and Ennio Morricone score made ‘The Great Silence’ an obvious inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s ‘The Hateful Eight’ but Corbucci’s film stands on its own as perhaps the most iconic spaghetti western directed by someone not named Sergio Leone. —CZ

  • 16. ‘The Searchers’ (dir. John Ford, 1956)

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    John Ford’s ‘The Searchers’ is one of the last classic Westerns, when the West was still romantic, the view was vast and beautiful, and we knew who the good guys and bad guys were. But it’s remained enduring because Ford makes us wrestle with the vicious racism of John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards. Wayne plays a man willing to shoot out the eyes of a dead and buried Comanche to make his spirit wander purgatory for eternity. He’ll slay a herd of buffalo to keep the Comanche from eating that winter, and he’ll spend years aiming to kill his own niece now that she’s been living among them. It’s a phenomenal performance by Wayne, spiteful and sarcastic as he’s ever been but also as magnetic; he’s at his finest as he whips the sheath off his rifle with style and intensity. But the ravishing Technicolor and majesty on display is at odds with Ethan’s hate, and the tension that builds of what he’ll do when he finds young Debbie keeps us going. The film’s famous final shot, of Wayne boxed within a door frame, seems like a farewell to this era of filmmaking, a realization that there’s no place in this peaceful world for the lone gunman like him. —BW

  • 15. ‘Winchester ’73’ (dir. Anthony Mann, 1950)

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    ‘Winchester ‘73’ starts as a classic meet-cute — between Man and Gun. James Stewart’s Lin McAdam wins the fastest, most killingest gun in the West in a shootout in Dodge City, surely as The Founders intended. But alas! He loses the gun, and to his no-good brother of all people, whom he then must chase across the landscape to retrieve what’s rightfully his. This is, it must be said, kind of a silly hook for a movie — or it would be, in less adept hands, because director Anthony Mann doesn’t mostly follow Stewart around; he mostly follows the gun. ‘Winchester ’73’ bops from owner to owner and story to story like the angel of death itself. The suspense of how someone gains and loses the mighty repeating rifle, and if they’ll have to pay with their life, make each successive episode more intriguing. Every time we check back in with Stewart, too, his nerves become increasingly frayed, drawing him nearer to mania.

    This is the joy of Stewart and Mann’s collaborations, really. You’re riveted to the spectacle of watching an ostensibly coolheaded, together person absolutely lose his fool mind. ‘Winchester ’73’ delights in amplifying the swirling currents of aggression and obsession throughout each leg of the journey. By the time we get to the final shootout between the brothers (don’t worry, the rifle finds its way back to them), their murderous rage far outstrips the motivation provided by the plot. A staging of the Cain and Abel story couldn’t ask for a harsher backdrop than the one Mann finds here — the jagged, barren rocks are a tortured landscape of the mind made visual. The famous sequence is staged and edited with razor precision. “Winchester ’73” is not only one of the most structurally interesting Westerns ever made, it’s one of the best ones, too. —SS

  • 14. ‘Ride the High Country’ (dir. Sam Peckinpah, 1962)

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    An early film from ‘Wild Bunch’ director Sam Peckinpah, ‘Ride the High Country’ is a hidden gem with an abundance of grit around the edges. Genre veterans Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea are wonderfully weary as the amoral heroes of the story, aging lawmen traveling across California to deliver a shipment of gold to the bank. With Ron Starr’s brash young Heck and Mariette Hartley’s rebellious Elsa by their side, they embark on a journey that doubles as a last hurrah, even if they don’t say it. Peckinpah’s film often feels like a bridge between the classic Westerns of old and the darker, more realistic Westerns that would follow, telling its straightforward story with a heavy spoonful of cynicism. Peckinpah doesn’t shy away from showcasing the flaws of his heroes or the harsh realities of the frontier, including the constant threat of sexual violence that Elsa faces even from the men who are supposed to protect her. That makes McCrea’s performance as a man trying to do the right thing all the more moving, a needed ray of hope in an otherwise exquisitely unforgiving landscape. —WC

  • 13. ‘The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly’ (dir. Sergio Leone, 1966)

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    Indisputably one of the greatest and most iconic of all Spaghetti Westerns, Sergio Leone’s ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ is so influential — and such an immaculate slab of pure cinema — that watching it for the first time feels like a spell of déjà vu, and watching it for the 50th time feels like a sublime discovery. That strange, uniquely filmic sort of vertigo befits a stand-alone saga that was made as the third chapter of a trilogy even though it takes place before the other two; a revisionist masterpiece that pushed an exhausted genre forward by returning it to its most basic elements. Viscerally timeless long before people knew it was immortal, ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ is rooted in a mesmerizing duel between the immediacy of close-up violence and the ultra-wide sweep of mythic storytelling, a dynamic that’s reflected by the symphonic rhythms of its editing and the funereal ecstasy of Ennio Morricone’s score alike.

    It starts with Leone’s most basic plot, which is then stretched across his most epic canvas, as the desperate search for a buried cache of Confederate gold amid the mass death of the Civil War becomes a microcosm for the banality of violence, and therefore a satire of the Western genre on the whole. Its nameless hero is the simplest and most classic of Western archetypes, only more so, as Eastwood elevates the whole ‘terse gunslinger’ mystique to such cartoonish heights that it becomes impossible to separate truth from legend). His antagonists are a pair of adjectives who Eli Wallach and Lee Van Cleef infuse with such dimensional scumminess that you’d need an entire dictionary to describe them. The Mexican stand-offs between these characters mess with time in a way that only the movies ever could, as split-second draws are stretched far beyond the logic that limits most art. It’s the language of a film that has always belonged to then, now, and forever; an epic that remains utterly inimitable even as its impact continues to bleed deeper and deeper into the fabric of storytelling itself. —DE

  • 12. ‘Rio Bravo’ (dir. Howard Hawks, 1959)

    The 100 Greatest Westerns of All Time (89)

    No filmmaker better embodied the early 20th century archetype of a studio system journeyman better than Howard Hawks. Switching between genres at a whiplash-inducing pace, Hawks found a way to make Hollywood classics out of just about every script he was given and imbued them with his signature concerns and personal style. A case could be made that he directed some of the best screwball comedies (‘Bringing Up Baby’ and ‘His Girl Friday’), film noir (‘The Big Sleep’), musicals (‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’), and gangster movies (‘Scarface’) of all time — and that’s before you even get to his greatest contribution to the Western genre, ‘Rio Bravo.’

    The film, which stars John Wayne as a small town sheriff who enlists the help of a young gunfighter (Ricky Nelson) and a local drunk (Dean Martin) to aid him in detaining a dangerous but politically powerful criminal until a U.S. Marshall arrives to pick him up, could be classified as one of Hollywood’s first hangout movies. Much of the first two acts contain minimal action, but the time flies by due to Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett’s witty script and Hawks’ confidence in the chemistry between the three leading men. And while the film’s glorious concluding battle more than makes up for lost time, it’s easy to see how ‘Rio Bravo’ paved the way for modern auteurs like Quentin Tarantino, who gleefully satirized the banality of evil with their juxtaposition of casual dialogue and grotesque violence.

    You can tell how Hawks’ background directing other genres prepared him to mine so much entertainment out of such a minimalistic script — ‘Rio Bravo’ pretty much gives you exactly what you’d expect a Western directed by the man who made ‘His Girl Friday.’ It’s a culmination of decades spent making films about the folly of human life in its many forms, which is why it still feels like one of the most gleefully human Westerns ever made. —CZ

  • 11. ‘The Great Train Robbery’ (dir. Edwin S. Porter, 1903)

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    At just 12 minutes long, Edwin S. Porter’s one-reel wonder ‘The Great Train Robbery’ is a foundational cinematic text. Inspired by the more complex films being made abroad by the Brighton School in England and George Méliès in France, Porter tapped into the mythology of the American West — and the growing popularity of train-related entertainment — to craft his own thrilling, thoroughly American adventure. Likely taking its name from Scott Marble’s popular stage melodrama ‘The Great Train Robbery’ (1896) and riffing on recent sensational events like the 1900 robbery of a Union Pacific Railroad train by Butch Cassidy and his gang, the film follows outlaws who rob a train while it’s stopped at a station, flee into the mountains, and then succumb to a posse of armed locals. The film’s indelible final image, in which an outlaw fires his gun directly at the camera, has been referenced countless times throughout the course of film and television history.—MG

  • 10. ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’ (dir. John Ford, 1962)

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    John Ford was never shy about interrogating the genre that he helped to invent; few other filmmakers so earned the right, and even fewer so fearlessly embraced that right as a prerogative. And yet none of Ford’s movies questioned the foundational myths of American Westerns — and of the American West itself — more directly than ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,’ a sprawling but stagelike negotiation between frontier justice and the rule of law set in the heart of a country that has always struggled to believe the story it tells about itself.

    A morally ambiguous fable shot in austere black-and-white (in stark contrast to the Technicolor sweep of films like ‘The Searchers’), ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’ flips the Western formula on its head. The mysterious stranger who blows into town isn’t a gunslinging John Wayne (iconic as a trigger-happy farmer), but rather a bookish James Stewart, who hopes to prepare the area for potential statehood. He’s robbed and left for dead by Lee Marvin before he even gets to Shinbone.

    Of course, it will take more than that to stop Ransom Stoddard — a future senator in a land of “dudes” and “pilgrims” — from trying to civilize this lawless slice of the American wild, an effort that ultimately compels him to strike an ambivalent compromise between fact and fiction, constitutional ideals and the reality of living with them. In that light, ‘Print the legend’ could be seen as the Western’s most pyrrhic victory since the end of ‘Seven Samurai.’ Ransom’s supposed heroism catapults him to great political success, but only by educating him on the contradiction in terms between truth, justice, and the American way. To this day, few movies have better articulated how this country works, and even fewer have better articulated how it doesn’t. —DE

  • 9. ‘The Shooting’ (dir. Monte Hellman, 1967)

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    ‘Easy Rider’ put Jack Nicholson on the map, but three years earlier he produced and co-starred in Monte Hellman’s ‘The Shooting,’ an early example of the ‘acid Western’ that brought the ‘60s counterculture to horseback. Warren Oates plays Willet Gashade, a former bounty hunter tasked to escort a mystery woman with money to burn. She makes them veer off course and pursue an unspecified target, and soon the mystery turns into a hostage situation when Jack shows up and bluntly threatens to ‘blow your face off.’ Hellman’s West is desolate, empty, and surreal, and the score of plodding, baritone piano is a world away from the operatic sweep of Ennio Morricone’s work. ‘The Shooting’ is about the chase, not the why or who, though it has a gripping and abrupt finale that provides just an ounce of closure. —BW

  • 8. ‘Jeremiah Johnson’ (dir. Sydney Pollack, 1972)

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    ‘Hawk. Goin’ for the Musselshell. Take me a week’s ridin’, and he’ll be there in… hell, he’s there already.’

    Exhibit A for why Sydney Pollack needs to be regarded far more favorably than the Oscar-bait-peddling director he’s sometimes labeled, ‘Jeremiah Johnson’ is the most poetic of all Westerns. If the West was a place to start anew, to begin life again, to become someone else, it hasn’t always offered up a new cinematic grammar to convey that potential for rebirth: ‘Jeremiah Johnson’ does. Edward Anhalt and John Milius’s spare script, uniquely sad and introspective, was inspired by the poetry of Carl Sandburg as well as 19th-century vernacular.

    Jeremiah, an Army veteran who leaves civilization behind to become a Mountain Man in the wilds of Utah, speaks little throughout the movie; the characters he meets along the way talk far more. This is a movie about doing, about gestures, about everything that acting entails beyond dialogue. It’s why a GIF of star Robert Redford, all grizzled and bearded, his legendary handsomeness hidden, giving a nod of approval, became a Twitter meme. But this movie about a deeply antisocial individual is so much more than social media fodder.

    It’s about how our lives are made up in the edit we create for ourselves in our own heads, and the tenuous webs of affection we weren’t even seeking that give it all meaning: There’s a point in the middle where Johnson, an obvious PTSD sufferer, has created a newfound family with an Indigenous woman and a mute child. None can speak the same language, as it were, but all can ultimately understand each other perfectly. When the worst happens, and he loses his family, Redford achieves the most refined acting of his career: Staring into the fire he’s set to consume their one-time home, the slightest of smiles crossing his lips as the memory of them sustains him, even as he needs to find a new, more violent source of meaning.

    It’s the quiet of ‘Jeremiah Johnson’ that sticks with you. It’s a movie that allows you to look within yourself as you’re watching it, just the way so many Western characters are ultimately in search of themselves. As for Jeremiah… some folks say, he’s up there still. —CB

  • 7. ‘Stagecoach’ (dir. John Ford, 1939)

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    The Western genre is too vast and varied to be distilled down to a single film — or at least, it would be, if ‘Stagecoach’ didn’t exist. The earliest classic Western of the sound era from John Ford, featuring genre icon John Wayne in his breakthrough role, ‘Stagecoach’ practically birthed the golden age of the Western, and turned the five square miles of Monument Valley into the definitive landscape of the American West. Like many genre-defining works, ‘Stagecoach’ is an exceedingly simple story, following a motley group of passengers on a Stagecoach headed to New Mexico. While there are colorful personalities — from a snobbish Southern belle to a timid liquor salesman (the unforgettable Donald Meek, who’s looked after quite closely by Thomas Mitchell’s character) — the standout is Wayne’s Ringo Kid, a bad boy with a heart of gold whose simple masculinity charms the edgy, troubled prostitute Dallas (Claire Trevor), and the audience as well. Even in this early Western, you see sly subversion of the black-and-white morality people often ascribe to the genre, with the outlaw and the lady of ill repute as the heroes, and a focus on fraying tensions between people representing different areas of society. Still, it’s the action, which remains so visceral and exciting today, that proves the main attraction. ‘Stagecoach’ isn’t necessarily timeless — it’s marred, like so many Westerns, by stereotypical and one-dimensional portrayals of Native Americans as one-note antagonists — but the thrilling eight-minute climactic salt flat chase will live on in the DNA of action and adventure movies for decades more to come. —WC

  • 6. ‘Ride Lonesome’ (dir. Budd Boetticher, 1959)

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    All Westerns are on some level about the application of violence. The films of Budd Boetticher, however, are uniquely attuned to the cost of violence, the memory of it, the way it affects the very landscape. None of his Ranown cycle Westerns with star Randolph Scott are over 80 minutes, but ‘Ride Lonesome’ most perfectly distills his essential concerns: Scott plays bounty hunter Ben Brigade, a hired killer, the kind of profession you don’t see in John Ford movies, certainly not as your lead character. Brigade seems singularly minded to bring an outlaw named Billy John (James Best) to justice, but curiously, takes an overly roundabout way to escort the captured gunslinger back to town where the hangman’s noose awaits him. That’s because Brigade is really trying to draw out Billy’s brother Frank (Lee Van Cleef), who killed Brigade’s wife years ago. Frank hanged her from a dead old tree, its gnarled branches like the most warped crucifix you’ve ever seen. Brigade stages it so that his final showdown with Frank takes place by that very same tree. The thing about violence, too, is how quickly people can forget about it. When Frank admits he actually had forgotten he killed Brigade’s wife, Brigade has a very true-to-life reply: ‘A man can do that.’

    The elements to this story are incredibly simple, but Boetticher directs it all with the highest emotional impact. Look at the way he uses the frame throughout ‘Ride Lonesome’ — at all times there’s a world lurking beyond the edges of the screen. At one moment, Scott stiffens in his saddle, clearly seeing something off-camera that we don’t, as he’s riding. The camera keeps pace with him until we see a Mescalero war party finally enter the frame in the far distance, his riding companion Pernell Roberts oblivious. Most other directors even then would have added a couple more shots to telegraph what’s happening with the edit. But Boetticher has the intelligence and skill to convey a huge lesson about movies and about life in this one continuous shot instead: You’re only aware of that which you can see, and the world continues far beyond your field of vision. —CB

  • 5. ‘McCabe and Mrs. Miller’ (dir. Robert Altman, 1971)

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    Robert Altman was a director of such strong vision and style that no matter what genre he tackled, it would be twisted into a completely new form. From comedies like ‘M*A*S*H’ to detective stories like ‘The Long Goodbye,’ his films eschew conventions in favor of a vibe and a tone that can only be described as Altmanesque. Perhaps his most radical genre experiement, ‘McCabe & Mrs. Miller’ throws out the adventure and the action of the Western in favor of a moody, psychological character study, zooming in on two of the most fascinating characters in Western history.

    As played by Warren Beatty and Julie Christie, the mysterious gambler and British madame of the title are richly shaded characters, petty and fueled by vices, with a romantic connection that never fully dethaws into true love. They can’t, really, when the snowy world of Presbyterian Church, Washington is so harsh and unforgiving, a place where you need to scrap by to get ahead. Altman and his cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond shoot this landscape with a dreamy, evocative lens, but Altman always roots the film in the reality of life in the west, where citizens are just tools and obstacles for the corporations controlling their way of life. Its ending may be the bleakest in all of the genre’s history, a reminder that, for all that the genre loves to make its cowboys and mavericks and individualistic men bigger than life, in real life these men would typically just be forgotten. —WC

  • 4. ‘For a Few Dollars More’ (dir. Sergio Leone, 1965)

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    Italian artists have obsessed over the American West at least since Giacomo Puccini premiered his opera ‘La fanciulla del West’ (‘The Girl of the West’), about Gold Rush miners, Wells Fargo agents, and bandits in 1910. Somehow the great composer saw in the Western — then a form that already existed in early movies such as ‘The Great Train Robbery,’ actual circus-like live shows, and novels like Owen Wister’s ‘The Virginian’ — a canvas on which to let loose a flood of emotion.

    Fifty-five years later, Sergio Leone picked up the mantle and repaid the debt to opera in his second Spaghetti Western, a film where music takes on an unusual power to slow down and speed up time and turns the emotions latent in the Western into something truly explosive. ‘A Fistful of Dollars’ was a promising sketch, but ‘For a Few Dollars More’ reinvents the form altogether. Watch the gunfight in the church where Gian Maria Volante’s loathsome bandido El Indio forces a man, whose family he has just killed, to duel him by firing the moment that his watch chime stops ringing. In that moment, it’s not about the duel itself, it’s not about the outcome, it’s not about who lives or who dies… it’s not about what happens. It’s about how it happens. The waiting. The pauses between moments of significance are the most significant moments of all. Ennio Morricone’s chime theme guitar-strum-crescendos into an organ fugue as Leone cuts among closeups of all the faces of El Indio’s men. El Indio and his soon-to-be victim stare so deeply into each other you’d think they could see each others’ souls. When the violence itself comes, it’s an afterthought. Instead, you’re thinking how Morricone can do with a movie score what Michelangelo could do with ceilings. The way great composers could stretch out a singular moment to aria-length grandeur is the way Leone literally changed the experience of time itself here.

    There’s nothing like this in the Western before ‘For a Few Dollars More.’ Puccini made a Western opera. Leone made the first truly operatic Western. —CB

  • 3. ‘My Darling Clementine’ (dir. John Ford, 1946)

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    John Ford made 14 sound-era westerns, eight of which starred John Wayne. But seven years after the seminal ‘Stagecoach’ made a star out of Wayne, Ford starred Henry Fonda in top form as charismatic Tombstone Sheriff Wyatt Earp, patiently tipping a porch chair with his long legs as he waits to spring into action. Kurosawa and Miyazaki are among the directors who deem this Monument Valley Western Ford’s best. In ‘About John Ford,’ Lindsay Anderson wrote: ‘if ‘Stagecoach’ was very good prose, ‘My Darling Clementine’ was poetry.’

    Shot in elegant high-contrast black-and-white by Joseph McDonald, Ford uses a well-known Western myth to explore the tensions between wilderness and civilization: the events leading up to the shootout at the O.K. Corral, when the Earp brothers and an ailing Doc Holiday (Victor Mature) finally confront the cattle-stealing Clantons, led by Old Man Clanton (a terrifying Walter Brennan). While Ford fictionalized much of this movie, he had heard about the actual gunfight back in his silent western days from Earp himself, and shot the scene as accurately as he could.

    The end result is the perfect balance of character study and landscape, myth and truth, romance and action. —AT

  • 2. ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ (dir. Sergio Leone, 1968)

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    When Sergio Leone’s epic Western was released in the U.S. in the summer of 1969 to little impact, suggesting that decades later it would rank with or even higher than its competitions that stellar season (‘The Wild Bunch,’ ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,’ ‘True Grit’) would seem as farcical as predicting in 1956 that ‘The Searchers’ would, by the 1970s, be seen by many as the greatest Western.

    Burdened not just by stellar alternatives but also having to follow up three sleeper hits in the Man with No Name trilogy with a film not featuring Clint Eastwood (his Western that year was ‘Paint Your Wagon’), ‘Once’ lived up to the implication in its title of a story that encompasses a greatest hits of the genre.

    And it delivers. The building of railroads, brutal fights over water rights, land speculation, revenge — all classic Western themes — are present, but overlapping and somehow congealing into a coherent whole. The writers apart from Leone included Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento, with the former helping infuse it with Marxist shadings about the exploitation of workers and the evil tycoons who face little resistance.

    But it parts from tradition in other ways. Its nominal lead character is female (a recently widowed homesteader, played by Claudia Cardinale), its lead villain Henry Fonda easily overcomes a lifetime of playing heroes, and Charles Bronson (in a role Eastwood turned down) a commanding presence with his harmonica playing substituting for dialogue much of the time.

    A European production (though with some location work in Monument Valley as a link to the great American Westerns before it), it was a huge hit on the continent while it struggled in the U.S. It started to gain cult status, then grow in acclaim domestically after the 1984 restoration to its initial 165 minute length.

    Major credit for its impact goes to Tonino Delli Colli’s sweeping Techniscope anamorphic cinematography realizing Leone’s vision. But above all, it is Ennio Morricone’s score, arguably the greatest among his many brilliant offerings, that clinches immortality for ‘Once Upon a Time in the West.’ —TB

  • 1. ‘Johnny Guitar’ (dir. Nicholas Ray, 1954)

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    The Western can be a lot of things — idealistic or gritty, traditional or modern, sturdy or stylized. But more than anything, the genre is male. From the minute John Wayne sauntered onto camera in ‘Stagecoach,’ Westerns have been inextricably linked with a strain of classical white masculinity — mostly glorifying it, sometimes critiquing it, but always centering it. So maybe that’s why cinema’s most surprising, unique, unforgettable Western is one that throws out all of that baggage and gives the audience something completely new, something that’s never been done before — or, really, since.

    ‘Johnny Guitar’ opens like many classic Westerns do, with a barrel-chested cowboy riding into a remote desert town as his cheery theme song plays. It’s when our cowboy (Sterling Hayden) arrives at his destination — a remote, wind-swept Arizona saloon — that the qualities that make Nicholas Ray’s lurid Technicolor drama so distinct reveal themselves. More precisely, it’s when Joan Crawford appears on camera. As Vienna, the hardened proprietor of the establishment, she gives a performance unlike any other — sneering and mannered, with a simmering rage and lust that you can see in her eyes and hear in the way she spits out her lines like they’re daggers. The minute this singular woman, dressed in rather butch slacks and a dress shirt, arrives, it’s very clear that the title character only matters in relation to her. Hayden gives a heartfelt performance, but in ‘Johnny Guitar,’ the cowboy isn’t the star.

    Neither is he the villain, really, although there is an obligatory bandit in Scott Brady’s Dancin’ Kid. No, the real foil to Vienna’s uncouth kindness is the curdled and bitter Emma Small (a wild-eyed Mercedes McCambridge), a conservative reactionary who hates Vienna for reasons both personal and pathetic. The rivalry between these two women is delectably charged and fascinatingly psychological, one that’s long been interpreted through a queer lens. Regardless, their conflict is a conflict unlike that in almost any Western, one that positions the community itself as the villain witch-hunting those who live on their own terms rather than the restrictions placed upon them (it’s not a coincidence that the film was made during the peak of McCarthyism and anti-Communism sentiment in Hollywood). If the Western has fallen out of fashion and been dismissed as conservative and regressive, ‘Johnny Guitar’ shows how that conservatism is in no way inherent to the genre’s core.

    At the time of its release, ‘Johnny Guitar’ did well at the box office, but American critics didn’t know what to make of it; the common sentiment was that it was ‘kitschy.’ It found better reception in Europe, where future directors such as Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut praised it. Maybe it’s telling that it was international viewers who truly understood Ray’s vision, which sits so far outside of the American Western mythos that the USA has created. It’s the Western as a fairy tale, almost, an extravagant and poetic and terrifying melodrama coursing with lust, desire, hate, and despair. The film isn’t a particularly big production, setting most of its action in Vienna’s cavernous saloon. And yet it feels gigantic, a movie so distinct, imaginative, and affecting that it achieves epic status. Other Westerns may be more action-packed or gritty, but no Western cuts so deeply and singularly as ‘Johnny Guitar.’ —WC

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