The 50 greatest westerns

We count down the greatest westerns of all time


Johnny Guitar (1954)

Dir Nicholas Ray (Joan Crawford, Sterling Hayden, Mercedes McCambridge)

Woman trouble

Nicholas Ray’s resplendent Western bitchfest, ‘Johnny Guitar’, was emblematic of the tireless efforts of the Cahiers du Cinema critics of the late 1950s and 1960 to celebrate small-scale genre films that might have otherwise slipped through the cracks of history. Indeed, Godard liked it so much that he had Jean-Paul Belmondo puckishly cite it as historically relevant viewing to his maid in ‘Pierrot le Fou’. Similarly, Truffaut sent Belmondo and Catherine Deneuve to catch the film in ‘Mississippi Mermaid’, after which Belmondo accurately notes that, ‘It’s not about horses and guns. It’s about people and emotions.’

It’s also – surprisingly for a Western – about sexual longing, and not always of the heterosexual variety. Joan Crawford tears apart the screen as Vienna, the ball-busting proprietress of a casino that’s been built to take advantage of the town’s impending railroad connection. She’s called up an old beau, fancy-boy gunslinger-turned-troubadour Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden) to cover her back during a series of bitter confrontations with hard-nosed town busybody, Emma (Mercedes McCambridge). There’s love, hate, intrigue, politics and action, but these facets amount to mere window-dressing when placed next to the film’s revisionist central idea of having Crawford’s character exhibit the brusque attributes we might commonly associate with such mythic creatures as John Wayne or Randolph Scott. Budget-wise, this was a tiny production, but that didn’t prevent Ray matching the bombastic sound and fury and heady emotionalism of studio behemoths like ‘Gone with the Wind’. DJ