Nothing feels quite as quintessentially American as a classic Western film, but the sheer number of Westerns out there can also feel pretty overwhelming. From Clint Eastwood to Butch Cassidy, read ahead for our list of the best Western films in the history of cinema.
Directed by John Huston, Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a classic Western with elements of noir that stars Humphrey Bogart and Tim Holt. Bogart and Holt play Fred C. Dobbs and Bob Curtin, respectively, who are two Americans a bit down on their luck financially who head to Mexico to hunt for gold with an older guide named Howard (played by the director’s father, John Huston). Treasure of the Sierra Madre, besides being a great Western, is notable for being one of the first Hollywood films to shoot outside of the United States.
High Noon is a fairly intense film, as it plays out in mostly real time and tells the story of a lone U.S. marshal who ends up facing a group of murderers without any backup. This film, which stars Gary Cooper and was directed by Fred Zinneman, was selected for entry into the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1989, and the film won four Academy Awards the year it was released — specifically, for Best Actor, Best Editing, Best Original Score, and Best Original Song.
True Grit, which tells the tale of U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn and young Mattie Ross avenging the death of Mattie’s father, is an adaptation of a novel (with the same name) by Charles Portis, and the film’s star, John Wayne, was recognized for his performance with his only Academy Award. Though Mattie brings the audience into the film by searching for her father’s killer, the tough, no-nonsense character of Cogburn is what holds their interest. The film was remade in 2010 by Joel and Ethan Coen, starring Jeff Bridges as Cogburn and Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross (making her film debut).
A classic Sergio Leone Western, Once Upon a Time in the West stars a classic Hollywood group of actors — Henry Fonda (the villain), Jason Robards (the bandit), and Charles Bronson (the protagonist). The film was scored by famous Western composer Enrico Morricone, who most recently scored Quentin Tarantino’s modern Western, The Hateful Eight. Clint Eastwood actually turned down the lead role in this film, which focuses on a young woman (played by Claudia Cardinale) who moves to the West only to see her husband murdered, after which she teams up with Fonda’s character, Frank, to seek revenge.
Speaking of Sergio Leone, this is yet another Western classic from his repertoire, this time starring America’s favorite cowboy, Clint Eastwood. Eastwood plays ‘the good,’ while Lee Van Cleef plays ‘the bad’ and Eli Wallach ‘the ugly.’ Also scored by Enrico Morricone, this film focuses on the three main characters in a fierce and violent competition to discover a bounty of hidden Confederate gold during the American Civil War. The film is extremely bloody and tense, with many, many gunfights, and is shot using gorgeous wide-screen cinematography that leaves no desert stone unturned.
The Searchers combines two classic elements of American Westerns — director John Ford and star John Wayne. Wayne plays a veteran of the Civil War looking for his missing niece, played by legendary film star Natalie Wood. Though the film received zero Academy Award nominations, it is looked back on as one of the greatest films ever made, beyond being one of the absolute greatest Westerns ever produced. Indeed, the American Film Institute named it ‘the best Western movie of all time.’
Directed by Western legend Sam Peckinpah, The Wild Bunch is about a group of older outlaws, living on the border between Mexico and Texas, who desperately want to exist and fit in during a quickly changing time. The members of the gang are played by Ernest Borgnine, William Holden, Robert Ryan, Ben Johnson, and Warren Oates, and the film is hyper-violent in its depiction of the group struggling to survive, making it fairly controversial at the time of its release. The film also made waves by using totally new camera techniques for its time, including slow motion and quick cuts.
One of the more romantic movies on this list, Lone Star features screen legends Ava Gardner and Clark Gable, and even Lionel Barrymore in his final role on film before his death. The film is about opposing factions within Texas before it officially becomes a state and the man (Gable) who wins over the girl he loves (Gardner) even after she mistakenly thinks that he supports the annexation of Texas and Mexico.
Certainly the funniest entry on this list, Blazing Saddles is the creation of comedic genius Mel Brooks and is a parody of, well, just about every other movie on this list. Starring Brooks’ favorite Gene Wilder, this film tells the story of a black sheriff in charge of a completely white town, in a brilliant sendup on the racism inherent in many American Westerns and in Hollywood at the time that they were made. Perhaps the funniest part of the film is the specific use of ‘anachronisms,’ or references and jokes that didn’t exist in the film’s time period.
Starring two of the all time greats (Paul Newman and Robert Redford) and focusing on the life of the infamous Butch Cassidy, this film is a must-see for any movie buff. William Goldman, who also penned The Princess Bride, won an Oscar for this screenplay, and the film was directed by George Roy Hill. The film tells the story of famous outlaws Butch Cassidy (Newman) and his cohort known as the ‘Sundance Kid’ (Redford) escaping the US to Bolivia after a series of botched robberies sends them on the run along with Sundance’s mistress, Etta Place (played by Katharine Ross).