The 50 greatest westerns

We count down the greatest westerns of all time


High Noon (1952)

Dir Fred Zinnemann (Gary Cooper, Lloyd Bridges, Grace Kelly)

Lonely are the brave

We join retired sheriff Gary Cooper at the very moment he’s tying the knot with pacifist Quaker bombshell Grace Kelly, and as their chariot awaits to taxi them away to a future of dirt farming bliss, news comes down the wire that one of the varmints Cooper sent down is out on a technicality and riding in on the noon train with a debt to settle and a trigger finger that’s itchier than a sunburnt leper. As the clock inches towards the deadline, the ever-more fraught Cooper knows that he has to face his destiny and preserve the town he toiled to enlighten. More than a ruthlessly straightforward countdown to violence, screenwriter Carl Foreman made this as much about the strains between community and the all-American ideal of individuality, as Cooper’s failed attempts to deputise enough local gunslingers to stand up to this scourge presents a town sullied as much by internal fear as external threat. Remade as ‘Back to the Future 3’. DJ


One-Eyed Jacks (1961)

Dir Marlon Brando (Brando, Karl Malden, Katy Jurado, Ben Johnson)

The dead man’s hand again

A decade before the thespian indulgences of ‘The Missouri Breaks’ (see 43), Brando wielded his star power to a far greater degree and to even more satisfying effect in this exotic, strange and much-storied revenger. Initially scripted by a young Sam Peckinpah and set to be directed by none other than Stanley Kubrick, it was originally intended as a relatively straight-up account of the short, brutish life of Billy the Kid, and his death at the hands of former compadre Pat Garrett (a story Peckinpah would gloriously revisit). The endless script tinkering and personnel changes that took place during the film’s long gestation, however, saw the film become a hobbyhorse for Brando – then on a nature tip – to explore his own themes. The result is hypnotic. Rarely has the internal and external landscape been fused with such artistry within a western, as the film moves from the dust storms of Death Valley to the splendour of the Californian coast and the shifting morality of the characters locks into fatal certainty. It’s an old story, but through Brando’s eyes, the familiarity becomes elemental. ALD


The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

Dir Andrew Dominik (Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Rockwell)

I coulda been a contender

The western has been declared dead more times than Rasputin, but it keeps on kicking. Even a relatively quiet decade like the last one contained more than its fair share of memorable horse operas: actors’ vanity projects like Kevin Costner’s under-the-breath romance ‘Open Range’ (see 47) and Ed Harris’s superb, underseen ‘Appaloosa’, globetrotting genre-benders like ‘Shanghai Noon’, ‘The Proposition’, ‘Sukiyaki Western Django’ and ‘The Good the Bad and the Weird’, old fashioned throwbacks like ‘The Missing’ and ‘3:10 To Yuma’ and edge-of-the-genre masterpieces like ‘Three Burials…’ and ‘There Will Be Blood’. But few were more memorable, more stately, more effortlessly iconic than Aussie director Andrew Dominik’s take on one of America’s most enduring legends. Photographed in stark granite hues and populated by a who’s who of young(ish) US talent, including a potentially decade’s-best performance from Casey Affleck as the desperately lonely Ford, this is the western as historical document, as social comment, folk ballad and great novel. TH


Red River (1948)

Dir Howard Hawks (John Wayne, Montgomery Clift, Walter Brennan)

Take ’em to Missouri, Matt!

‘Let’s do the “yee haa” scene from “Red River”!’ Yes, it’s the ultimate cattle-drive movie, as John Wayne’s domineering beef baron Dunson decides to take his entire herd north in search of a decent price, taking along Montgomery Clift’s rebellious adoptee and a whole host of grizzled character actors for company. Tempers fray, Indians swarm, cows stampede, Clift pouts, Wayne barks, Brennan totters, and Hawks delivers yet another glorious snapshot of unfettered masculinity in action. It may be hard for modern audiences to put aside the fact that cattle barons like Dunson were generally murderous aristocrats making a grab for land, that it wasn’t just the Indians who were tortured and slaughtered into submission but the poor smallholders too, and that the Dunsons of yesteryear are the political dynasties of today. But in 1948 America was a country still in need of its own myths, hence ‘Red River’ and a thousand other tales of gods, men, guns and horses. Just don’t believe a goddamn word of it. TH


Forty Guns (1957)

Dir Samuel Fuller (Barbara Stanwyck, Gene Barry, Robert Dix)

Babs’s dude ranch

As the archetypal, stogie-chomping man’s man filmmaker, it seemed only natural that Samuel Fuller would dabble in the western. His cheap but effective debut, ‘I Shot Jesse James’ (1949), underscored the subtle homoerotic subtext of the relationship between the eponymous outlaw and his cowardly killer, while the rueful ‘Run of the Arrow’ (1957) saw Rod Steiger in mad, Irish method mode, going Awol and, erm, joining the Sioux. But the delirious ‘Forty Guns’ is comfortably his most assured attempt at offering a unique, sexually enlightened and psychologically weighty spin on trad western heroics, its innovative use of expressionist cinematic style as much a storytelling tool as its tortured, gun crazy protagonists. Photographed in crisp monochrome, it presents Barbara Stanwyck on feisty form as a no-nonsense ranch boss backed by 40 hired guns and the (literal) whirlwind of romance she enters into with Barry Sullivan’s pacifist lawman. DJ


Unforgiven (1992)

Dir Clint Eastwood (Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, Gene Hackman)

Clint’s last round-up

For a film so often held up as the epitome of western revisionism, ‘Unforgiven’ spends an awful lot of time mythologising the reputations of its fabled characters. Clint’s William Munny, a former outlaw, and – it is strongly hinted – hired killer, attempts to outrun his reputation by becoming a pig farmer; Gene Hackman’s Little Bill Daggett has built on his reputation in order to hold together a small town; Richard Harris’s ‘English’ Bob, meanwhile, revels in his reputation, continuing to farm out his fan-hand to the highest bidder. Saul Rubinek’s eastern newspaperman, who has come west to gather stories of thrilling shootouts and gallant gunfighters, gets far more than he bargained for when confronted with these original articles. Hackman, who is – for good or ill – attempting to build and protect a community – is the only one of the three to die in the film, while the two gunmen – one reverted to his old ways, one who never abandoned them – ride on. ‘Unforgiven’ wants to have its cake and eat it, and that – rather than mere revisionism – is what makes Eastwood’s final western such a complex and rewarding experience. ALD


The Wild Bunch

Dir Sam Peckinpah (William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan)

Take your seats for the bullet ballet

It’s hard to believe that just seven years had passed between ‘Ride the High Country’, Peckinpah’s daring, heartfelt but still resolutely old-school western masterpiece, and the game-changing hot blast of new-wave revisionism that was ‘The Wild Bunch’. In between, he’d faffed about with Charlton Heston in the disappointing ‘Major Dundee’, done a fair amount of screenwriting and TV work, drank a bit and broodingly plotted his next big move. It’s safe to say no one was expecting this. Theses have been written about the meaning of ‘The Wild Bunch’, its relations to Vietnam and the cultural revolution, the death of censorship and the awakening of social conscience. But, with all of this firmly in the past, what remains is a portrait of desperation, of men so locked into one way of living that the only way out is to die. Peckinpah was undoubtedly a consummate self-mythologiser, and he loved to propagate an image of himself which tallied with the hard-living, hard-drinking characters he wrote about. But it’s hard not to see ‘The Wild Bunch’ as evidence of a man willingly, enthusiastically, foolishly sowing the seeds of his own self-destruction. TH


The Shooting (1968)

Dir Monte Hellman (Millie Perkins, Jack Nicholson, Warren Oates)

Hellman’s finest

Rarely have the rolling hills and pristine flats of the American hinterland (here, Utah) looked as drab and intimidating as in Monte Hellman’s mesmerising B-picture quickie, one of the key forerunners of the existential ‘acid western’. A grizzled wastrel played by Warren Oates haplessly joins the road to hell when agreeing to a no-questions-asked deal to escort a mysterious, nameless woman (Millie Perkins) to a town called Kingsley. Alongside his naive cohort Coley (Will Hutchins), the trio take to the trail, but it’s not long before paranoia sets in as it appears the woman is leaving signs for a mysterious (and, it transpires, sadistically violent) follower, expertly played by Jack Nicholson. Heroism and honour are notable by their absence here, as the film is primarily about the undercurrents of dread and paranoia that come with being forced together with mysterious strangers and the claustrophobia of open spaces. Exceptional, drug-metaphory stuff, and the final mind-boggling, slo-mo showdown is surely one of the reasons that DVD players have rewind functions. DJ


Heaven’s Gate (1980)

Dir Michael Cimino (Kris Kristofferson, Jeff Bridges, Isabelle Huppert)

The cost of freedom

I remember feeling a deep sense of disappointment when I discovered that ‘Heaven’s Gate’ was a western. Everyone knows the title and the tale behind it: the money ($44 million, a lot for the time), the egos (namely Cimino’s), the drug abuse (alleged), the animal cruelty (all UK prints still have the cockfighting scenes removed), the tell-all tabloid bestsellers (Steven Bach’s wonderful ‘Final Cut’). The film has become a byword for Hollywood excess. And to spend all that money not on putting armies in the field or setting spaceships on fire but on horses, shacks and quality headwear makes it all seem even more astonishingly wasteful. But then you watch the movie.

And for all its faults, ‘Heaven’s Gate’ feels like $44m: not always in a good way, as sometimes the weight of the production and the intricacy of its construction, undeniably threaten to drag it down. But mostly this is money incredibly well spent, on sets, on costumes, on landscapes, on one astonishing battle scene: the result is perhaps the most all-embracingly authentic of westerns. That this authenticity didn’t stop at the visual level was perhaps the film’s undoing, at least commercially: this is the tale of how the west was sold, the furious rejoinder to the noble myth-building of ‘Red River’ and even ‘The Wild Bunch’, rejecting the legend in favour of a cold, stratified reality where the rich ruled by the gun while the poor ate dirt and died. But it is undoubtedly a masterpiece, albeit a flawed one, and worth $44m of anyone’s money. TH


My Darling Clementine (1946)

Dir John Ford (Henry Fonda, Linda Darnell, Victor Mature)

Orange county

John Ford’s lyrical, definitive take on the none-more-iconic ‘Gunfight at the OK Corral’ stands as a slow-burn paean to the righteous moral cornerstones of a nascent American society. Henry Fonda plays it satisfyingly low and lazy as Wyatt Earp, the friendly ex-lawman-turned-rancher whose wrath is courted by the no-good Clanton brood, and who decides the best route to revenge would be to pin a tin star on his shirt and take up office as the marshal of Tombstone. Noticeably light on stock western monkeyshines (bar the final, purportedly technically accurate, shoot-out), the film counterpoints the rapid modernisation of Tombstone with the regressive evil of the Clantons, and the encroaching threat of violence is made all the more significant as Earp begins to find his place in the world with the help of religion, patriotism, friendship (Victor Mature, heartbreaking as ailing sharp-shooter ‘Doc’ Holliday) and a newfound love for Bostonian schoolteacher, Clementine (Cathy Downs). DJ