Greatest Westerns of All-Time: Top Ten - The Part-Time Critic

Saturday, February 6, 2021

Greatest Westerns of All-Time: Top Ten

*Last Updated: 4/30/2022
You can find films 25-11 in the first part of my Top 25 Western Films of All-time HERE
You can find my Greatest Western Actions Scenes of All-time list HERE 

I think this top ten of films represents a diverse collection of Westerns that when put together, offer an educative and entertaining window not only into that slice of history, but into human nature as well. If you are looking for a list of best gunslinger movies, this probably isn't for you. However, if you are looking to better grasp the sheer scope of the Old West, then this is for you.

10. Django Unchained (B+) from 2012 Trailer
- The first act is nearly a perfect self-contained film. Dr. King Shultz (the scene stealing Christoph Waltz) retrieves Django in a instantly iconic sequence followed by an equally great sequence (that manages to organically provide exposition while being incredibly engaging and building character) that sees Dr. Shultz shoot a Sheriff in the middle of the street and get away with it. With Django alongside, they chase down the Brittle Brothers in another harrowing sequence on a plantation with Don Johnson. From there, the movie follows the bounty hunters in a great montage with homages to many Western films. The problem with this film (a common issue in Westerns) is that it just doesn’t stick the landing. I’m a firm believer that the film should’ve ended with Shultz going out and Django making it out of the films main shootout. That Django doesn't get out is a big deal to me because it leads to the entirely unneeded sequence of Django almost losing his nether parts and the ridiculous Australian slavers sequence. All of these are deleted scene material that drags the film out. It’s a real misstep that holds this film back from near perfection.

9. Dances with Wolves (B+) from 1990 - Trailer
- An excellent revisionist Western that works so well for most of its running time. After becoming an accidental hero in the Civil War (beginning the revisionist theme of the film), John Dunbar is able to choose his future military posting. After a memorable stop-off with his insane superior officer, another hint that this film is set to demystify the era, Dunbar heads across the American West with his provisions to his post in South Dakota. The following sequences of an isolated Dunbar embracing his new solitary life at the outpost are the best sequences of the entire film to me. I loved watching him repair Fort Sedgewick, making friends with local wildlife (where the name Dances with Wolves comes from), and starting relationships with the territory Lakota Sioux Indians. The highlight of his relationship with the Sioux is the incredible buffalo hunt sequence. As the relationship grows with the Indians, the biggest revisionist aspirations take shape – the Sioux Indians are primarily peaceful and friendly. There's no problem with this in concept, but for a film that takes the history seriously, portraying the Sioux this one sided is an odd choice. There is some complexity given to them, but it’s clear they are the good guys. By the time the end of the film comes into view, the revisionism becomes too heavy handed for me. For instance, the Pawnee Indians and US Cavalry are painted as unthinking villains (with practically zero shades) while the Sioux and Dunbar are the only enlightened ones to see the peace. For a movie that gets so many details right, this oversimplification is really jarring and tough to take. This film works so well for about two thirds of its runtime, gets so much of the details correct (a sweeping romantic score, beautiful real life locations, taking seriously the Indian roles, etc), that the comically villainous US Cavalry in the final act of the film and the revisionist axe begin to overshadow it.

8. The Ox-Bow Incident (B+) from 1943 - Trailer
- This unconventional (and refreshingly short) Western feels closer in spirit to 12 Angry Men than the usual tone of a 1940’s Western. When news of the robbery and murder of a respected local man gets to town, a posse immediately forms with a bloodlust to lynch. As the posse forms without the Sheriff in town, different characters begin asking serious questions about the morality of their quest. On their quest they come across a group of three men sleeping in the Ox-Bow valley with a story that sounds a bit suspicious – at least not good enough to satisfy the mob. What happens next I won’t divulge except to say that as a parable or moral tale, it’s a satisfying and challenging conclusion. A thoughtful story with well-drawn characters and a challenging theme. Good stuff.

7. Red River (B+) from 1948 - Trailer
- Commentary: Despite a shoehorned love story (that's glaringly dated) and an oddly anti-climactic final moment with the love interest trying to torpedo the film, Red River is a majestic and layered classic Western that manages to live up to the critical hype. John Wayne, Walter Brennan, and the always welcome Montgomery Clift are fantastic (this is perhaps my favorite John Wayne performance), but it's the dramatic story about manhood, the settling of the west, the shady ethics of it all, set against the ups and downs of a large cattle drive that ultimately steal the show here. Well worth a viewing! "Get a shovel and my Bible. I'll read over him."

6. The Power of the Dog (A-) from 2021 Trailer
- Commentary: The Power of the Dog is a challenging viewing, but this slow, atmospheric, and layered Western tale bears a lot of fruit upon inspection. The story is about a small restaurant owner named Rose (Kirsten Dunst) who has a son named Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), marrying a mild-mannered rancher named George (Jesse Plemens) and moving into his home and lifestyle. The major conflict of the film arrives with George's brother Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) who represents a stereotypical herd-driving, men-leading, hard-working Cowboy sees Rose as a gold digger and her son Peter as a nancy boy. The catch is that Phil is a complicated man, as it is heavily implied that Phil's great manly cowboy mentor was likely as a lover to him. A lesser film would have stopped there and just made Phil an oppressed and closeted homosexual living in times he couldn't express it. Thankfully, there's more here to the film than that. Phil isn't just an old hat struggling with his feelings - he's skillful, intelligent, can play instruments, lead men, and driven by a pride in his work and tradition. Phil wants his brother to converse with him, join him in leading the men, and be an open ear to talk. I think many miss this aspect - George struggles to be that kind of male companion for Phil and this leads Phil to many of his frustrations. George is quieter, desirous of more white collar work, and wants to settle into domestic bliss - all of this George never communicates to his brother in a healthy way. In the end, there's a lot more here to the relational layers, especially Phil's relationship to Peter, and a lot more to the plot but I won't spoil it here. It's a thoughtful exploration of what it means to be a man and how society, our relationships, and experiences can push us into healthy or unhealthy expressions of it. I'm not sure I think the film takes a strong stance in the end on what exactly a healthy expression would look like, or that I agree with every aspect of it it explores, but I do think the main goal here is to explore and reflect. In that sense - I could talk about this film with others for hours.
5. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (A-) from 1948 - Trailer
- Commentary: “I know what gold does to men's souls” - One of the most fascinating stories about the “Old West” that you don’t see covered by many modern films is the gold rush. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre follows a couple of down on their luck Americans, one played by Humphrey Bogart in a career best performance, in Tampico, Mexico who team up with an old prospector played by Walter Huston to search the Sierra Madres for gold. When their exploration strikes it big, the men begin to change - especially Bogart's Dobbs. Despite the setup, this isn’t a fun adventure film. It’s an expertly written and executed morality tale that illustrates the nature of greed; how easily it can change a man and what he’s willing to do to keep it. Once they strike gold, each successive scene cranks up the stakes and tension. The moral situation gets dire when a stranger shows up to their camp, when bandits arrive, when local Indians approach them, and finally when they have to get the gold back to civilization. Walter Huston’s old prospector in this film did more than win the Oscar for his supporting role in this film, he crafted the archetype and stamped this role forever in his image – he’s that good in this.

4. The Wild Bunch (A-) from 1969 - Trailer
- Commentary: 1969's controversial and violent (not so much by today's standards) western is a "classic" that lives up to all the hype. The film features three strong action set pieces, that still stand up to this day, but it's the film's depiction of "the West" as a place of brutal nihilism under the veneer of moralism (from all sides) that will stick with you the most. It's not a perfect film, it's a little too long, and there are still some dated elements (the entire bathhouse, Mexican army sequence is skippable) despite many of its universal qualities. This is easily one of the best Westerns about outlaws ever made.

3. The Homesman (A-) from 2014 - Trailer
- Commentary: What is sanity in a world as perilous and trying as the Old West? I know this is an unconventional pick as a top five Western, but it’s one of the few films in the genre that has continued to occupy space in my mind forcing me to reflect on its story and characters. How the weariness and heaviness of life’s trials can traumatize us differently sits on this film and the viewer like few I've seen. Usually, with such a theme comes a mind-numbing crawl of a plot, but this two-hour film moves along briskly from sequence to sequence. Beautiful sweeping prairies open the film up with Marco Beltrami’s melancholy score playing above it. We are introduced to Mary Bee Cuddy (played by Hilary Swank) working hard in the Nebraska territory on her property. It’s clear she is productive, plowing, cooking, and taking care of her property. She’s alone, unmarried, and is visited by a town bachelor, where she wines and dines him. After dinner she sings a song (which the man falls asleep for a moment) and then she proposes a match between them. He is offended and calls her “too plain.” It’s a sad moment – she’s done everything she can it seems to be an attractive pairing and yet she remains alone and by herself. This sequence is followed by a montage of three wives who have each gone insane for different reasons, driven that way by a wearisome life on the prairie. The women need to be taken back East to Iowa to be taken care of, but when none of the men are willing to do it, Mary Bee steps up. She is joined by an untrustworthy claim jumper named George Briggs (played by Tommy Lee Jones). 

The rest of the film is about the journey and the obstacles they encounter along the way. The film is also directed by Tommy Lee Jones and I’ve never felt more connected to the positives of the “Old West” embodied in the natural landscapes and the goodness/perseverance seen in the character of Mary Bee Cuddy. However, behind that is the ugliness of the “Old West” – the harsh life of the plain, the thin veneer of religion hiding the fact that everyone is scared, and the swirling vultures of humanity looking to sweep down selfishly on any prey that shows weakness. Yes, the plot is about ferrying three women whose minds have been broken by life back to the East, but the movie argues that we’ve all been traumatized by life’s trials and not everyone handles the burdens equally. The entire film is affected by the trauma of life that ripples through every character; we all feel ashamed by it, we all try to hide it, but we are all affected by it. I think the thing that makes this theme sting so greatly is a kind of surprise turning point the film takes (I won’t spoil it here) with about thirty minutes left in its runtime. There are things we are just not able to bear and I’ve never felt that heaviness like I have in this film – especially given the film’s narrative twist. What moral compromise and what level of selfishness is necessary to remain sane in a world with this much random and purposeful suffering? In a way, this film does a better job at revising the myths of the “rugged individual” West than most explicitly revisionist ones. It’s a healthy antidote to the romanticizing of the Old West and I think it’s one of the most essential Westerns ever produced.

2. The Revenant (A) from 2015 - Trailer
- Commentary: This part brutal survival story, part revenge tale, & part insightful spiritual mediation really connected with me. It felt to me like a perfect mix of Michael Mann's eye for visceral action, the historical verisimilitude of The Last of The Mohicans, Terrance Malick's visual/spiritual meditations in Tree of Life, the fever dream pyschology of Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, and the complex moral dialogues of Inarritu's own Biutiful
In other words, it has a lot going for it beyond being just a superbly crafted tale of surviving the elements (in a standout performance from Leonardo DiCaprio) of the wilderness and getting revenge. In the final moments of the film (in the picture seen above), DiCaprio's Hugh Glass ponders and reflects on his journey to revenge. The final taunts of his nemesis John Fitzgerald (played by Tom Hardy) take hold of Glass and took hold of me as well, "You came all this way just for your revenge, huh? Did you enjoy it, Glass?... 'Cause there ain't nothin' gon' bring your boy back."

1. Cowboys & Aliens from 2011 - Trailer
- Commentary: An unexpected pick I know, but just here me out...okay, I'm just kidding. Here's the real number one. (thought the posters are strikingly similar are they not?)

1. Unforgiven (A) from 1992 - Trailer
- Commentary: A Western masterpiece directed by and starring Clint Eastwood that acts as about as good an education on both the myth and the reality the "Wild West" as one could possibly expect in two hours. Beyond its ability to educate about the historical period, it is the insight into human nature, violence, and justice that raises the story beyond the genre trappings. Eastwood plays the former gunslinger William Munny (killer of women and children) who was reformed by his wife Claudia and is settled down now as a farmer raising children, despite the untimely death of his wife. When the young Schofield Kid (looking like Emilio Estevez in Young Guns) arrives at Munny's farm to entice him to claim a bounty put up by a group of prostitutes to kill two cowboys who harmed one of the girls, Munny is tempted. The irony of this offer is that it completely subverts the hero's call of the typical film. In this case, our main character's call is to re-enter the world he didn’t want to go back to - of the morally repugnant world of gun slinging. Munny eventually decides to take up the call and bring along his old partner Ned, played by Morgan Freeman. They join up with the young and prideful Schofield Kid and journey to kill the cowboys.

As the film progresses the film unfolds its agenda: the evaluation of the moral and aesthetic value of the common mythical view of the "Old West". This is often achieved through humorous means like Eastwood having trouble getting up on his horse, English Bill (Richard Harris in fine form) playing a perfect archetype of the quirky Old West gunslinger, and the town Sheriff (Gene Hackman in an Oscar winning role) being horrible at construction. More often though, the evaluation plays dramatically and provides a nice gut punch to audience: Ned no longer having the stomach to shoot to kill, Sheriff Little Bill telling author W.W. Beauchamp how shootouts in the West really take place, the Schofield Kid's instant moral regret, and the luck Munny has in the final shootout. 

So why is the film called Unforgiven anyway? Not sure I could explain it better than this quote from a good William Beard essay on the film. Read the whole essay, it's better than my blurb!
“Munny’s wife Claudia, in attempting his regeneration, in pulling him out of the maelstrom of nihilistic compulsive violence and drunken self-obliteration into a world of principle and language and family and human self-recognition, forgives him. The act of forgiveness produces the (feminine) redemptive result of self-forgiveness. In addressing at last the buried consciousness of horror and guilt, the fiery cycle of repression and violence whose first victim is the perpetrator is broken, and the functional person William Munny (the “good”) is dredged up into view. Once established in the social world of human relationships, gainful occupation, the code of civility and “decency,” Munny is happier than before...As the film proceeds Ned develops into Munny’s anchor to the world, his reassurance that he has forsaken the old ways (which Ned also witnessed), and his guarantee that his actions have some foothold in a worthwhile life-pattern, in decency and fellow-feeling. But Munny makes the mistake first of returning to killing (however different his motives this time) and second of pulling Ned with him. When this happens the results are different from what was anticipated (this too is morally instructive). It is Ned who is punished for the transgression, a transgression he did not truly commit; Munny does everything and goes free, and gets paid to boot. It is not just that any notion of a higher system of justice and moral equilibrium is derisorily contradicted by this development. The death of Ned is also Munny’s personal loss of his “good” self, his loss of Claudia’s forgiveness and his own self-forgiveness. When he walks into Greely’s to kill Skinny and Little Bill he is a creature who has lost salvation, a damned soul, “unforgiven.”
Good guys doing bad things and bad guys doing good things, can make this feel look like it's morally grey from afar. However, the film has become such a strong moral evaluation/condemnation of the typical Western that it has become a judge of nearly all other Western films. Take away all of the analysis I've given above and the simplest through-line of the film is that violence breaks not just the victims but the perpetrators and glorifiers as well. William Munny, who could be the aged "Man with No Name" from Eastwoods earlier films, can never truly recover from his violent acts. The prostitutes, despite having their bounty claimed and the cowboys killed, are no better off than before. The Sheriff, who never rights the injustice done to the prostitute (the violence that launches the plot of the film) can't help but use violence on those who take up the charge of justice on their own. He ultimately meets his own death because of his violence. The Schofield Kid is a broken down wreck after his first confirmed kill. In one of the best scenes of the film, Schofield laments how his violence has broken him and Munny responds:
The Schofield Kid: [after killing a man for the first time] It don't seem real... how he ain't gonna never breathe again, ever... how he's dead. And the other one too. All on account of pulling a trigger. 
Will Munny: It's a hell of a thing, killing a man. Take away all he's got and all he's ever gonna have. 
The Schofield Kid: Yeah, well, I guess they had it coming. 
Will Munny: We all got it coming, kid.
There's an endless cycle to violence that sullies us all and brakes a part of us for good. Like Frodo's bearing of the ring of power, there's a pain that time just cannot heal in us. Sitting here in 2021, my generation looks back on the Old West and is still trying to reckon with the violence that took place. Sometimes we've glamorized it and cast it in black and white terms. At other times we have "revised" it, swung the pendulum to the other side - keeping the black and white terms but switching the sides. The harder task is to accept that the reality is much more difficult. The Old West was filled with humans with great ambitions, heavy burdens, tragic imperfections, and all must be understood and judged with as much context and empathy as we can offer. Unforgiven feels is Eastwood's artistic grappling with reality and I think it's the best Western our culture as to offer.

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