The 50 greatest westerns

We count down the greatest westerns of all time


7 Women (1966)

Dir John Ford (Anne Bancroft, Sue Lyon, Mildred Dunnock)

It’s a difficult position…

John Ford’s direly underrated swansong sees him doing for women what he did both for African Americans in ‘Sergeant Rutledge’ (1960) and for Native Americans in ‘Cheyenne Autumn’ (1964): requesting forgiveness for helping to fuel unconstructive stereotypes in his earlier classics. Not a western in the strictest sense, its setting and story still play through some of the timeworn conventions of the genre, notably a strenuous search for moral equilibrium when defending against a common foe. The film is set in a Christian mission in deepest, darkest Mongolia and it’s hard-drinking, hard-smoking and hard-swearing Doctor Cartwright (Anne Bancroft) who has to fight the hard humanitarian fight in the face of Margaret Leighton’s head missionary, a woman who’ll take death before besmirching the holy sacraments. Surprisingly, the two warring women never bury the hatchet, even when the fate of the mission hangs on the whims of a hoard of sweaty Mongolian barbarians. As Cartwright eventually gives her life over for the good of her colleagues, she utters the immortal final line, ‘So long, you bastard!’, which can also be read as Ford’s defiant parting gesture to his dwindling audience. DJ


The Naked Spur (1953)

Dir Anthony Mann (James Stewart, Janet Leigh, Robert Ryan)

Love comes in spurs

Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan) is a cocky son of a gun, on the run with fancy woman Lina (Janet Leigh) in tow and wanted for the murder of a marshal in Abilene, Kansas. Bad luck for him that Jimmy Stewart’s inexplicably determined gentleman mercenary, Howard Kemp, is on his tail and has a beady eye on collecting the not-insignificant bounty on his head. Anthony Mann’s mighty 1953 film – his third in collaboration with Stewart – offers a ridiculously taught, dynamic and satisfyingly hectic yarn that is less interested in chronicling the capture of the crim than the logistical nightmare of returning the man to civilisation and administering his deathly just desserts. Lina is the key player, and the only person able to reach out emotionally to Kemp, a man subsumed in anger, regret and the sub-conscious recognition that his reasons for taking on this perilous mission may be dubious to say the least. Mann, along with scriptwriters Sam Rolfe and Harold Jack Bloom ask, ‘Is a buck still a buck if it’s sodden with blood?’ DJ


Rio Bravo (1959)

Dir Howard Hawks (John Wayne, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson)

Oh, Dino

The wordless tableau that opens ‘Rio Bravo’ is a vicious little parade of cruelty as Dean Martin’s pathetic drunk, Dude, is publicly humiliated and beaten, and an innocent bystander gets a gut shot – in close-up – from laughing villain Joe Burdette. Everything you need to know about Howard Hawks’s siege western is contained in the scene. The inspiration for John Carpenter’s ‘Assault on Precinct 13’ has barely an ounce of fat on it and any gabbing – let alone exposition – is reserved solely for women and Mexicans. The plot is a ticking clock: John Wayne and his dipso deputy Martin hold Burdette for the US Marshal while the murderer’s henchmen gather in town like crows on cattle wire. Wayne’s love match with Angie Dickinson’s shady gambler misfires, with even the sparky dialogue from Leigh Brackett, who scripted ‘The Big Sleep’, unable to overcome the faintly queasy May to December vibe. But as the fragile, self-pitying, alcoholic Dude, Martin was never better. And in ‘My Rifle, My Pony and Me’ and ‘El Guello’, we’re treated to two of the most atmospheric western theme tunes in cinema. PF


The Ox-bow Incident (1943)

Dir William Wellman (Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, Anthony Quinn)

Nice day for a lynchin’

A brilliant morality play with a literal killer twist, William Wellman’s simple admonishment of ‘the angry mob’ and sloppy information gathering – based on the 1940 novella by Walter Van Tilburg Clark – may be the definitve Iraq War movie. It presents a workaday Wild West situation and runs it through to its depressing natural conclusion. Nevada, 1885: the patrons of a local saloon discover via messenger that some cattle rustlers have killed a local rancher and so take it as their God-given duty to tool up and hit the dusty trail in search of retribution by rope. They find three men who’ve bedded down in the Ox-Bow Canyon: they’ve got steer and no receipt and so a kangaroo court swiftly sentences them to death by hanging. But were the men really guilty? It’s an extremely worrying movie, and its conjectures on the nature of truth and influence still hold plenty of water. DJ


Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

Dir Sergio Leone (Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Claudia Cardinale)

Heap big trouble in the land of plenty

‘Looks like we’re shy one horse!’ ‘No, you brought two too many…’ After 15 minutes of dripping water, squeaky windmills and buzzing flies, Sergio Leone has Charles Bronson dispense a line that’s not only one of the coolest ever delivered in the history of the Wild West, but one which reassures us that what he’s got in store will be well worth the wait. Bronson’s existential zinger also hints at the film’s thematic preoccupations. This is an iron-horse opera: the railroad is presented as an implacable force that will eradicate the cowboy way. There’s no rerouting, delaying or impeding Leone’s locomotive. The characters all play out their roles as bystanders to the rush of progress – killing, bribing, seducing, deceiving each other even while the railhead pushes inexorably on, regardless of the human collateral. Even the tycoon behind the venture doesn’t make the distance. The sweep of modernity through the Wild West has never been so pitiless, nor, in Leone’s vision, more terribly glorious. ALD


Django (1966)

Dir Sergio Corbucci (Franco Nero, José Bódalo, Loredana Nusciak)

Coff-coff-coffin on heaven’s door

If the Man with No Name is the Elvis of the spaghetti western, then Django is the genre’s Jerry Lee Lewis – volatile, tormented and given to acts of dismaying self-destruction. The first ‘Django’ starred steely-eyed non-actor Franco Nero as a sun-baked Angel of Death arriving in a corrupt Mexican border town lugging a coffin full of high-calibre surprises. Drenched in delirious violence and unbridled sleaze, it was a dirty, nasty, despicably enjoyable film that spawned a raft of dubious sequels and baffling rip-offs. The totally unhooked ‘Django, Kill!’ (1967), starring passive pretty boy Tomas Milian in the lead, for instance, featured a gang of black-clad homosexual ‘muchachos’, vampire bats, plenty scalpings and a heavy dose of psychedelia. The less said about 1968’s ‘Nude Django’ the better, but 1971’s ‘Django’s Cut Price Corpses’ surely deserves a mention for its title alone. These spurious spin-offs aside, the original maintains a dusty grip on the imagination that shows no sign of letting up. ALD


Shane (1953)

Dir George Stevens (Alan Ladd, Jean Arthur, Van Heflin)

Father, son and holy gunslinger

For so long considered the lodestone of western mythology, George Stevens’s elegiac sod-buster melodrama is a less potent experience than it must have been in 1953, perhaps because the drifting gunslinger in search of redemption has been improved upon many times since. To a generation of western fans raised on ‘Pale Rider’ and Sergio Leone’s flawed and dirty heroes, Alan Ladd as Shane lacks the light and shade to intimate the violent past that brings him to the Starrett farmstead. Nevertheless, there’s a dark realism in Loyal Griggs’s Oscar-winning photography and little in the way of concession to audience expectation. This is a grim Wild West, a place where the living is meagre and achieved by backbreaking toil or at the barrel of a gun and where, unlike back east where grown men gorge on pulp cowboy novels, only a boy like Joey Starrett might elevate a man like Shane to heroic status. A profoundly depressing film that remains somehow deeply satisfying in its hopelessness, ‘Shane’ inverts the western ideal of reinvention, suggesting, as Ladd rides down among the tombstones, that a man carries his sin with him wherever he goes. PF


Stagecoach (1939)

Dir John Ford (John Wayne, Claire Trevor)

This wheel’s on fire

The classic mismatched-travellers tale was given a western twist in this evergreen cinematic wonder, John Ford’s first sound film in the genre and the beginning of his creative love affair both with Wayne and with the towering prehistoric landscape of Monument Valley. And if the plot and cast of characters – the gentleman gambler, the boozy doc, the Southern belle, the blowhard banker, the green-around-the-gills young outlaw out to prove himself – are overfamiliar, that’s only because ‘Stagecoach’ has been remade, ripped off and roughly homaged every which way in the seven decades since its release. But what never gets old is Ford’s extraordinary handling of tone: that any film which contains a massacre, a pitched battle, a backwoods birth and, very nearly, a brutal mercy killing could remain so breezily entertaining without ever seeming in poor taste is simply astonishing. Its dubious depictions of marauding bloodthirsty Injuns aside, ‘Stagecoach’ still feels remarkably modern. TH


Seven Men From Now (1956)

Dir Budd Boetticher (Randolph Scott, Lee Marvin, Stuart Whitman)

The brave little lawman

If there’s one job you really wouldn’t want in the Old West, it was the driver of the Wells Fargo stage, its cargo of bullion and paper money so often a magnet for any dirty outlaw in the vicinity. Budd Boetticher casts Randolph Scott as Ben Stride, a melancholy ex-sheriff who’s taken to the prairie to administer lead-flavoured justice to the seven men responsible for his wife’s death during a bungled bank robbery. On the way, he links up with a lovable couple doing the manifest destiny thing by heading to California and quickly becomes their de facto protector. For a film that barely clocks in at 80 minutes, Boetticher crams the material with ironies, ambiguities and moral conundrums. But the slow release of information and the tentative building of friendships (and enemies) mean that the stakes change minute by minute. Lee Marvin delivers a stupendous, proto-Liberty Valance supporting turn as a man always open to taking advantage of a yeller-belly, and in one near-unwatchable scene, proceeds furtively to humiliate the husband with the aim of fleeing with the wife. Scott, of course, sees to it that he doesn’t. DJ


El Topo (1970)

Dir Alejandro Jodorowsky (Alejandro Jodorowsky, Alfonso Arau)

Six-gun psychedelia

And so the ‘acid western’ was born: Sergio Leone meets Federico Fellini meets Pier Paolo Pasolini, with Timothy Leary on vibes. From the former, Alejandro Jodorowsky took his interest in violence and his gift for widescreen composition; from the second, his madcap circus sensibility and sense of daring; from the third his scattershot political nous; and from the latter, his ability to fuse all this into a counterculture-friendly psychedelic pop stew. The result is one of the first ‘midnight movies’, and a genuine underground smash: perhaps the most artistically successful of that brief end-of-the-’60s flowering of well-funded experimenta, a film whose commitment to mind-expanding beauty and eye-opening social comment is never allowed to get in the way of its delirious, all-embracing strangeness and inescapable, if inexplicable, emotional impact. TH