Seven Westerns to See Before You Die
Lone heroes, morality struggles, high-noon dustups and more — these classics can't be missed
Westerns are America’s homegrown genre. They’re exclusive to this country’s unique and young history.
Many filmmakers say Westerns are more difficult to finance today because of the growing importance of foreign box office and the Western genre’s strong appeal to Americans.
From Clint Eastwood to John Wayne, the stars of oaters stand a little taller than today’s costume-wearing superheroes.
“Aristotle said there are only 88 stories in the world. I believe that. Westerns are just part of the mythology of story. Westerns are notoriously hard to set up, because they don’t translate internationally,” “Recoil” screenwriter John Sullivan told LifeZette of oaters.
Whether the pictures are thoughtful dramas, fun shoot-’em-ups, or dark spaghetti Westerns, this genre is full of the machismo, morality issues, good vs. evil battles, lone heroes and high noon dustups that can make for unforgettable cinema.
Some of our biggest stars came from the world of six-shooters, horses, and innocents needing defending. From Clint Eastwood to John Wayne, the stars of oaters stand a little taller than today’s costume-wearing superheroes.
With Westerns such an important and influential genre in American cinema and cinema in general, here’s a handy list of seven Westerns you absolutely must see. Prepare to expand your bucket list. And if you’ve seen them — see them again! These classics never get old.
And if you feel we missed any great Westerns on the list, please reach out and let us know by using the email address at the bottom of this article.
“Shane,” 1953 — So influential is this flick and so unbreakable is its popularity that the recent blockbuster “Logan” wore its love for the film on its shoulder. An important scene showed a character watching the movie with a child and explaining its moral lessons. Later, that child quotes one of the movie’s most integral moments when dealing with the loss of a friend.
“Everyone should see ‘Shane’ because it’s a piece of American folklore,” novelist and screenwriter Andrew Klavan told LifeZette of “Shane.” Klavan also called the novel upon which the film is based by Jack Schaeffer “the real work of art.” “‘Shane’ is an emotional, tense movie that builds to an earned gun-battle,” he added, calling “Shane” his “favorite” Western.
Alan Ladd stars as Shane, a gunfighter looking for peace but pushed by an aggressive rancher into action. It’s a Western that influenced nearly every film in the genre that came after it. A perfect mix of action and drama, “Shane” is a thoughtful piece of American cinema no one should miss.
"Unforgiven," 1992 — "Probably the best recent Western ever made" is how screenwriter Sullivan described Eastwood's final Western, also revealing an upcoming film he wrote – "Paradise City" — was very much influenced by the dark drama.
After decades of spaghetti Westerns and chomping on cigars, Clint Eastwood decided to say goodbye to the genre that made him a star with "Unforgiven." The film acts as a meditation on violence and violent men and the genre of Westerns as a whole.
Eastwood stars as William Munny, a gunfighter with a very dark past who is tempted back into the life with the promise of an easy payday. Morgan Freeman and Gene Hackman round out the colorful cast of this definitive Western.
Directing a script from David Webb Peoples, Eastwood had a better grasp on the inner workings of the Western with this film than perhaps any other filmmaker. It was a well-deserved finish to his contributions to the genre, and it topped almost everything that came before it. Eastwood's sure hand breaks down the Western genre over the course of two hours and then builds it back up in the film's unforgettable final scenes.
"High Noon," 1952 — The influence of "High Noon" — much like that of "Shane" — can be felt in most Westerns that followed. Starring Gary Cooper as Marshal Will Kane, this film is one of the definitive lone hero stories.
With an impending enemy headed to his town and no help from his citizens, Cooper stands alone and refuses to back down in the face of impossible odds. "It's nearly perfect," wrote Washington Post Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Stephen Hunter.
Many critics saw the film as a veiled examination of America's fear of the Soviet Union. Others saw it as a simple examination of machismo. "'High Noon' won a fistful of Oscars, but in these days of pasteboard screen machismo, it's worth seeing simply as the anatomy of what it took to make a man before the myth turned sour," wrote critic Derek Adams for Time Out.
"Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," 1969 — Legendary screenwriter William Goldman ("The Princess Bride," "All the President's Men") reportedly considered "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" one of his best films.
Following the very real gunfighters and thieves Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Goldman's movie was groundbreaking at the time of its release. Not only did it play with the ideas of morality, but it displayed one of the best and most believable friendships between cowboys that had been put on screen up until then.
Robert Redford and Paul Newman delivered some of their best performances as the famed outlaws. Equal parts fun and thrilling, "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" holds up surprisingly well, especially its daring ending, which split many audiences at the time.
"The Searchers," 1956 — "The Searchers" is widely considered the masterwork of actor John Wayne and director John Ford. Hunter named "The Searchers" as his favorite film on many occasions.
Following a veteran on a mission to rescue his niece from Comanches, "The Searchers" is a unique look at obsession, revenge, and the treatment of soldiers after the Civil War. It's by far John Wayne's best and darkest performance. It also is far better to look at than most special effects-heavy blockbusters today.
"The Wild Bunch," 1969 — This film is not for the squeamish. Director Sam Peckinpah had a distinct style when it came to filmmaking, and that usually meant dialing up the violence to 11.
"Sam Peckinpah altered the landscape of American film forever with his dense, apocalyptic Western 'The Wild Bunch,'" wrote Hunter, who counted the film among his favorites.
Chicago Sun Times Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert called "Bunch" an "extraordinary film" and "an important act of filmmaking."
"The Wild Bunch" was about the end of a definitive time period for America. Peckinpah's protagonists watch as automobiles are introduced into the world and kids look to them like dinosaurs. "We gotta start thinking beyond our guns," says one character. "Those days are closing fast."
Set the year before World War I, "The Wild Bunch" is one of a kind. The film follows a group of outlaws looking for one final big score before their time is up and the world moves on. Peckinpah made a mark on the genre that will likely never be matched.
"The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," 1966 — If there's only one spaghetti Western audiences should see, it's "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly." The movie is director Sergio Leone's masterpiece.
An epic film starring Clint Eastwood as the famed Man with No Name (his third outing as the character), this film wrote an entirely new cinematic language with Leone's camera and the unforgettable score from Ennio Morricone.
"Pulp Fiction" and "Django Unchained" writer/director Quentin Tarantino often cites it as his favorite film.
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