Greatest Westerns of All-Time: 25-11 - The Part-Time Critic

Saturday, February 6, 2021

Greatest Westerns of All-Time: 25-11

Have you ever traveled to a place where few speak your language, you aren't familiar with the layout, and you knew that if you lost your wallet things would be truly desperate? That feeling of a extreme vulnerability is one of my favorite aspects of frontier living in Western films and tt's one of the many diverse themes and settings that you can find in the genre. In my judgment, the "Old West" can legitimately cover ground from the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 until the closing of the West in the late 1800s or early 1900s (The Wild Bunch takes place in the 20th century) - essentially the entire 19th century. While Westerns tend to focus on cowboys and gunslingers, that span of history includes explorers, fur traders, mountain men, gold rushes, boom towns, homesteaders vs cattlemen, the building of the railroads, settlers vs the Indians, the US cavalry vs the Indians, Mexican army vs Americans, outlaws, bandits, bounty hunters, Civil War and reconstruction tensions, and so much more. If a writer or director can't find an interesting conflict (NSFW) in this time period, they just aren't human. For this list, I consider movies that cover these topics in that time period to be a Western.

The Western film genre took off in the 1930's and peaked in the 1950's. According to B-Westerns.com, between the years 1930 and 1954 approximately 2700 Westerns were made! They continued to be made in the decades that followed though they began to look and feel very different with Sergio Leone's spaghetti Westerns catapulting Clint Eastwood to stardom in the mid-1960s. Into the late 60s and 70s the Western genre would see an increase in violence through the likes of directors like Sam Peckinpah and its mythologies deconstructed and spoofed by the likes of Robert Altman and Mel Brooks

As I stated when I covered the Best Western Action Scenes of All-Time, I was never partial to the Western genre growing up. I mostly enjoyed modern action films, particularly anything with fighting turtles. As I've grown older though, I have become quite fond of the Western genre's penchant for reflecting deeply on violence, justice, morality, civilization, adventure, trauma, and regret. Many Westerns are fantastic moral allegories or parables. I also don't mind the occasional fun shootout and action sequence we get as well. You'll see all of these themes represented in my top 25 list. 

For this top 25, I (re)watched well over fifty of the highest rated Westerns. Given just how many films have been released in this genre, I knew it was impossible to be comprehensive, so I targeted the most publicly loved, critically acclaimed, and well-respected entries. I spent a lot of time looking over other lists to be well-informed and I'm confident I hit nearly all the ones with a significant claim to being on this list. I made the choice to exclude animated Westerns (sorry for another disappointment Fievel!), comedies set in the West and anything that features "Western" themes but takes place in contemporary times (Think Wind River and No Country for Old Men). Maybe I'll make those lists another time. I hope you enjoy the list and discover for yourself some of the better films out there. Let me know what you think!
HONORABLE MENTIONS: 

  • The Searchers (1956) - Trailer: The film featuring an engaging Western premise (a young girl is kidnapped by a Comanche tribe), gorgeous location shooting, and a dynamic bull-headed performance from John Wayne is enough to commend this solid Western. I don’t think it holds up to the masterpiece acclaim it commonly gets, mostly on account of the poor humor (the trading for an Indian wife bit has never worked for comedy) and the pacing that often feels too episodic and padded. For example, the protracted “wedding” sequence where Ethan and Pawley return to goes on for too long, feels ‘written’ vs organic, and the humorous fighting no longer really works. I appreciate the reflection on ethics in the West and the layered performance of Wayne, but most everything this film does has been done much better in later movies.
  • The Magnificent Seven (1960) - Trailer“If God didn’t want them sheared, he shouldn’t have made them sheep” – thus is the stark boldness of the morality in the battle between a group of bandits exploiting a poor rural Mexican village. The film’s morality tale is anchored by the goodness in Yul Brenner’s Chris (who, beyond that goodness, is about as interesting as an anchor). When the three poor and humble Mexican villagers proposition him to come and protect their town, Chris senses their decency and desperate situation. The viewer gets the feeling that for a good man like Chris, he ultimately can’t turn them down. Unlike the 2016 remake there’s no promise of a large payoff for the recruited mercenaries, just a measly payout that isn’t really worth it. This is an essential difference because it hints at the character of the men, their morality, rather than, as in the 2016 remake, their entertainment value. How did this score not win the academy award in its year? It’s got to be on the shortlist of greatest scores of all-time and gives this film a sense of adventure and excitement that few Westerns have. The recruitment process moves quick and entertains, but the film bogs down back in the village waiting for the bad guys to show up, and then eventually comes to a fairly satisfying end. I like the little moments of humanity that pop up in the second act (my favorite being the boys who idolize Charles Bronson’s character), but I don’t think all of the directions the film takes in this act work. One other remark about this film, the musical score is absolutely fantastic. This is a decent film, but I think that music that calls the viewer to adventure has given it a longer life and resonance than it would have had otherwise.
  • How the West Was Won (1962) - Trailer: This is a dated production (the opening narration calls the Indians “primitive man” from which we had to win the West), but I think the desire to tell multiple stories as a kind of collective montage of The West” is a big boon to the film as it means the plot is always moving and keeping busy. One of the worst faults of historical epics during this time period is their indulgence for melodrama and glacial pacing in favor of actors getting big scenes (looking right at you Cleopatra). Thankfully, this movie keeps the sequences going fast, the real locations plenty, and isn’t afraid for its characters and their dreams to be dashed in the West. All those positives aside, not all the episodes are equal in quality and some sections do begin to drag or feel like they are included just for educational purposes. Uneven, decidedly imperialist (at least with a guilty conscience), but a worthy, engaging, and admirable collage of Western stories, nonetheless
  • The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) - Trailer: After Yankees burn down his house and kill his family, Josey Wales joins a band of Confederate marauders during the Civil War. After hostilities end, Josey refuses to swear loyalty to the Union (becoming the titular outlaw) and the movies turns into a kind of road trip movie as Josey makes his way to Mexico, encountering cavalry, Cherokee, Comanche, and bounty hunters. I really wanted to love this Western, but if I’m being honest, the different sequences on his way to Texas/Mexico are uneven, the action is mostly forgettable, and the film ends up being just too long. 
  • Tombstone (1993) - Trailer: This is a tough film to rank because there are so many elements of it that are engaging and enjoyable: the recreation of Tombstone, some of the punchy dialogue, Russell’s aggressive Wyatt, and especially Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday. That said, there’s something about how the plot seems to meander and take on lots of directions and never quite know how to end that makes it feel long and drawn out. Additionally, there never feels like a true awareness or reflection on Wyatt’s morality. It feels like a lost opportunity given that everyone is supremely well cast. I’d say the great irony of this Western is that it’s entertaining in spite of itself and it’s supposedly about Wyatt and the Earp brothers, but it’s completely stolen by Kilmer’s Holliday.
25-11
25. News of the World (2020) - Trailer
- This film is the first re-teaming of Tom Hanks and Paul Greengrass since their excellent 2013 collaboration Captain Phillips. The thought of one of my favorite actors and directors tackling the Western genre had me excited. Tom Hanks plays a Civil War veteran Captain Kidd who has taken up traveling town to town to read the news to small gatherings who can’t. In his travels, he comes across an abandoned white girl who has been raised by Kiowa Indians. When authorities don’t step up to return her home, Captain Kidd determines to do it himself. The film does a wonderful job capturing the feel of reconstructionist Texas after the Civil War with the presence of Union soldiers, the anger at the North, and the politics of getting back into the Union all filling in the background and context of the film. The film does take an odd detour for an “action” scene in the hills that feels somewhat unconnected to the rest of the story for such an involved and long sequence. The best scene in the film sees a self-serving town dictator force Hanks to read his personally written news to a town gathering. Hanks subversively reads the story of another town, parable like, encouraging the citizens to stand up. The message that in hearing the news and stories of others struggling and surviving around the world, we can understand they are more like us than not. It’s a comforting message.
24. The Shootist (1976) - Trailer
- John Wayne's final film role see's him play the aging lawman/gunfighter J.B. Books who has just received the news (from Jimmy Stewart no less) that he will die soon due to cancer. For his dying days he rents a room from the widow Bond Rogers (played by Lauren Bacall) in Carson City. Slowly the rest of the town learns of the dying gunslinger and conflicts arise. The screenplay here is well considered and efficient for its hour and a half running time as there isn’t much fluff to be had. I think Wayne gives one his best performances here, showing nuance and layers of pride, confidence, doubt, vulnerability, and sadness. Harry Morgan’s US Marshall is another enjoyable character, boasting freely about his desire for Book’s death and how his city is getting sophisticated and moving beyond the savage old days. I won’t spoil the ending here except to say it feels satisfying and wraps up this short and solid film.
23. A Fistful of Dollars (1964) - Trailer
- The first entry into Eastwood and Leone’s “Man with No Name” trilogy. This series of films were known as "spaghetti westerns" since they were filmed cheaply in Italy instead of Hollywood. The story sees Eastwood’s gunslinger stroll into a Mexican border town in the throes of a battle between two groups looking to rule it. Eastwood uses this battle as an opportunity to con both sides against each other and get rich while doing so. I like some of the tricks the amoral Eastwood pulls off here, even if it requires his marks to be dumber than I’d like. This simple story dynamic, along with Leone’s style and Eastwood’s charisma, combine to make a worthwhile Western.
22. Pale Rider (1985) - Trailer
- The film begins when a small group of gold panners with a claim to Carbon Canyon in California are violently attacked by an area mining outfit wanting to run them off their claim. After a young girl’s prayers for a miracle, Clint Eastwood arrives as a mystery man wearing a preacher’s collar and standing up to the mining outfit. I really like the mythical/mysterious quality to Eastwood’s character here; there are some hints that he’s not just there as an answer to prayer for the panners but as retribution for the mining company’s greed, destruction of the environment, and for the Marshall and deputies he ultimately hires to do his dirty work. Eastwood gets a lot of great lines and moments here. The second act drags quite a bit, but there’s a nice ending as Eastwood gets to have a town shootout that plays more like a mini-run of Jason Vorhees picking off teenagers at a camp one by one. It’s a smart idea since Eastwood’s character is more mythical here than realistic.

21. 3:10 to Yuma (2007) - Trailer
- Like the remake of The Magnificent Seven, this feels like a Western that has both benefited and been burdened by the time period it was made. On one hand, it’s always entertaining, anchored by actors trying really hard, and features high production values. On the other hand, it’s trying so hard to be entertaining and “more” that it ends up being exasperating and the finale action sequence so over the top that it becomes a bit much to stomach.
20. True Grit (2010) Trailer
- Improving upon the John Wayne film in every conceivable way, this Coen Brothers Western shines in its language, acting, music and cinematography. I’m not big on the story itself and I think the central hunt for the bad guys ultimately takes a back seat to the dialogue and chemistry between the actors. Combine that with a production that captures the feeling of the West well, and you’ve got a solid film.
19. Shane (1953) - Trailer
- A very watchable Western telling the popular conflict between homesteaders and cattleman in the West. When a cattleman fails to run some homesteaders off their claims through intimidation, he brings in a hired gun to up the temperature. Into this story walks Shane, a weary gunslinger looking to live a quiet life. Inevitably, there’s a showdown and Shane is a central part of it. This is a good film, but it features a child actor that nearly sinks the entire film with his annoying performance. Strangely enough, the kid got a lot of award nominations. What were they thinking (NSFW)?
18. High Plains Drifter (1973) - Trailer
- My first memories of this film are watching it with my Dad as a young kid. I didn’t quite understand the film then and its slowly revealed themes were mostly lost on me. Coming back to it now as an adult I can better appreciate the parable like nature of the story. This isn’t a traditional Western – it’s an allegory about retribution for past violence (a major thread in most Eastwood films) and about just how far people are willing to go to hide their guilt and shame. Eastwood’s Drifter reminded me of Samuel’s warning to the Israelites about electing a king and what the king would take from them. The first act ends with Eastwood’s Drifter essentially being given carte blanche over the town as long as he helps them against some returning outlaws. The second act features Eastwood exploiting the town’s guilt and pushing their boundaries further and further than they ever imagined. The finale act, which I won’t spoil, caps off the allegory in a satisfactory way. Even at an hour and forty-five minutes, the film feels a bit lengthy for what it ultimately covers. This non-traditional Western is worth seeking out and pondering it’s parable like quirky tale.
17. Lonesome Dove (1989) - Trailer
- This television mini-series adapted from Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer prize winning novel is a sprawling epic that covers the story of two old and storied Texas Rangers making a cattle drive from Texas to Montana. Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones’ McRae and Call anchor the film (Rich Schroder and Angelica Houston turn in great performances too) and their chemistry and colorful language combine with the commitment to natural settings and detailed production design to reproduce the time period wonderfully. It’s a genuine draw of the mini-series. Dragging these two rich characters along a torturous and long cattle drive allows the story to cram in a lot of Western tropes and side stories. Unfortunately, there are two things that bring the story down, one of them being the uneven side stories. At their best, they color in and organically enrich the main plot, but at their worst they just never end up feeling connected to the main story and aren’t half as interesting. Every time the side story about an Arkansas sheriff searching for his wife comes on, it feels like a different and lesser movie is being told. The other weakness of the film is that it must confirm to the decency practices of network television. The story here does not shy away from some of the darker sides of the West: the violence, abuse, famine, rape, moral ambiguity, outlaws, prostitution, poverty, and more. Far too often though what visually ends up on the screen feels far too restrained and tamed in a way that feels incongruous with the story/themes. I think this is the kind of story that would have benefited from being filmed today with HBO and given the chance to tell this story unflinchingly. Due to the pedigree and popularity, this is the only television Western I thought about admitting to this list.
16. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018) - Trailer
- This is a tough film to rank relative to other Westerns since, like How the West Was Won. it’s a collection of a short stories rather than a single narrative. Still, as a collage of sometimes quirky, humorous, serious, and reflective stories set in various Western settings and cliches (the gunfighter, hangings, gold miner, the wagon train, etc) – it is quite commendable. Some stories are more interesting than others, but the film is nearly always engaging and thanks to the stellar production values, literary quality, and artistic vision – it’s nearly always insightful as well. The gold mining story shines brightest to me. 
15. Open Range (2003) - Trailer
- A solid Western that plays like the reverse of Shane - free grazers being the good guys and clashing with a town cattle baron who wants to pen in the land. The film is told with a sense of romanticism about the West that is refreshing. At times that romanticism can be a strength (the sweeping vistas, the wholesome dialogue and morality, the score) but it can also be a detriment; none moreso than the stilted and boring romantic relationship between Costner and Benning. In the end, it’s a nice Western, a little long, that stands out mostly for its excellent finale shootout.
14. Hostiles (2017) - Trailer
- Scott Cooper’s 2017 Western has a dream setup for me: Christian Bale plays Capt. Blocker tasked with escorting a former outlaw Indian chief (played by Wes Studi) who is terminally ill to his homeland in the upper Midwest to be buried. Capt. Blocker is a veteran of many US Cavalry campaigns, has seen many slaughtered by Indian foes and by his own hands, he is weary and he doesn’t want the task. The beginning of their journey is like an “Old West” fan’s dream as we start out at a US Fort and travel north across sweeping vistas, glimpse camp life, and encounter an Indian raid. Throughout the journey, Capt. Blocker must confront his hatred for the Indian chief, even after he begins understanding that much of what they did was out of necessity, being backed into a corner, and due to the same warrior spirit he has. As their mutual understanding grows, the story throws more and more obstacles at the traveling group. After about 2/3rds into the film, the obstacles feel less organic to the plot and more straight from the writer’s pen. Ultimately, the final act of the film is a strong let down for me. Although it matches with the themes of the film, it feels too sudden, too arbitrary, and unsatisfying to the story. I wanted to love this film, and quite nearly did, but the last act cannot be ignored. Had it stuck the landing, this could've been much higher on the list.
13. The Proposition (2005) - Trailer
- This Western takes place in the Australian "West" - as British soldiers were looking to tame and civilize the frontier there. Ray Winstone plays Capt. Stanley who is charged with capturing the notorious outlaw Arthur Burns. To get Burns, Stanley captures his two outlaw brothers first, and offers Charlie (played by Guy Pearce) a pardon and freedom for his younger brother Mikey if he betrays his oldest brother Arthur. The cat and mouse game Stanley is playing becomes an affront to the civilized town folk who want all the brothers punished, but Stanley knows its really Arthur who is the ring leader. In one powerfully affecting sequence, the town demands that Mikey be whipped, but when it becomes too bloody and severe, they turn away. This is a solid Australian Western that explores the thin line between our barbaric nature and civilization. 
12. Jeremiah Johnson (1972) - Trailer
- It is glorious to finally see the sequence my all-time favorite gif hails from. This film is the best film about the mountain men of the Old West. Filmed primarily on real stunning locations in Utah and Idaho, this film is a nature fans dream. Following Jeremiah's trails as a trapper, hunter, and keeping alive from the surrounding Indians is quite the education. One of my favorite moments is a scene where he comes across a panicked woman whose family had just been slaughtered by Indians. Johnson notes he is a friend by saying "We have graves to dig." What a subtle but completely disarming (literally) gesture of common humanity. The film is filled with nice moments like that.
11. High Noon (1952) - Trailer
- A Western I admire more than I genuinely enjoy watching. I love the moral tale of the lone righteous man who will stand up and not make excuses to face off with evil. The best element of the story is learning the various reasons and ways men come up with to not join him and seeing what eventually happens. The process, however, can feel a bit slow and a bit repetitious to me. It’s produced well, looks fantastic, is acted well, and features a nice little finale shootout – especially for the time period.


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