I thought I’d make a list of the best westerns I’ve seen. If you’re thinking about getting into westerns, or have a friend who wants recommendations, just copy-paste this list! My descriptions may not be 100% accurate, but the films are definitely 100% worth watching more than once.
Where it all basically started. Good guys wore white hats, bad guys wore black hats, and Indian attacks weren’t uncommon (nor were white guys in blackface pretending to be Indians or Mexicans).
High Noon. The same townsfolk who praised their sheriff (Gary Cooper) suddenly leave him out to dry when four outlaws come gunning for him.
Rio Bravo. Features Dean Martin’s greatest screen performance as a struggling alcoholic.
Ride Lonesome. Budd Boetticher’s best western, as far as I’m concerned. A lawman escorts a prisoner across the country to be hanged, but the prisoner’s big brother is hot on their trail. The lawman meets several colorful “friends” along the way.
True Grit. Watch both versions of this classic and judge for yourself which is better.
The Big Country. Brilliant story about a city boy and ex soldier who becomes the mediator for a nasty family feud in the south. Absolutely refreshing how it turns a lot of “old movie” cliches on their heads.
Shane. This one’s probably been remade more than any other western in one form or another (Pale Rider and Vampire Hunter D are two examples). Desperate townsfolk befriend a wandering gunman in the hope that he’ll solve their local scumbag problem.
Warlock. Henry Fonda and Anthony Quinn are hired to defend the town of Warlock from the local gang, who has a habit of killing their marshals. Richard Widmark becomes the marshal proper and tries to uphold the law against the gang and the town’s pet gunmen.
Appaloosa (2008). Though a much more recent film, it was done in the style of a classic western, and feels a lot like a remake of Warlock even though it was based on a different novel. Ed Harris and Viggo Mortinson have great chemistry as a pair of freelance lawmen who try to protect Appaloosa from a local ranch baron and his thugs.
Kick-started by Sergio Leone and the Spaghetti Western movement, these westerns are grittier, more violent, more realistic, and feature lots of amoral characters and moral gray area.
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. You can’t talk about westerns without mentioning this epic quest for buried gold by Sergio Leone. Make sure you got three hours or so to kill before you put it on.
For A Few Dollars More. Easily superior to its predecessor, A Fistful of Dollars. Two rival bounty hunters become reluctant allies as they hunt the same psychotic bandito, who is probably the most memorable villain in the history of westerns.
Once Upon a Time in the West. Another Sergio Leone epic, but heavily story- and character-driven whereas TGTBaTU was more of an action movie.
Quigley Down Under. A western in the Australian Outback? Tom Selleck and Alan Rickman? As if that isn’t enough, this one’s packed with brilliant dialogue and beautiful music.
The Outlaw Josey Wales. “Well, you gonna pull those pistols or whistle Dixie?” Clint at his finest, playing an ex-soldier traumatized by the slaughter of his family by crooked Union troops.
Lawman. This film is almost the essence of the Revisionist Western: by the end you still aren’t sure who’s the bad guy. Is it Maddox for his paladin-like pursuit of justice, holding the group responsible for one man’s crime? Is it Bronson for escalating things to violence when it wasn’t necessary? Are they both guilty?
Valdez is Coming. After helping kill a black man for a crime he didn’t commit (as it turns out) at the behest of a racist gun-runner, old Mexican ex-soldier Valdez asks him to reimburse the man’s widow for her trouble. Gun-runner violently refuses, and it goes downhill from there.
Hombre. Paul Newman in one of his best roles, an Apache-raised white man who is treated like crap by the bigots he shares a carriage with. When robbers hold up the carriage and strand the passengers in the desert, the bigots suddenly find themselves depending on Newman for their survival. The plot is slightly similar to The Last Wagon, starring Richard Widmark, which is also a great flick.
Unforgiven. Considered by many to be the ultimate Revisionist Western, and possibly the “death of the western.” Clint is a retired gunman who is hired by a prostitute to kill the young drunks who ruined her face. Along the way he runs afoul of Gene Hackman’s sheriff, another of the most memorable western villains in film history.
Tombstone. Living in Arizona without having seen this movie is considered sacrilege: it’s bar none the best dramatization of the Earps’ battle with the Cowboys, and loaded with top drawer performances by Kurt Russel, Powers Booth, Val Kilmer, and many others.
Open Range. Despite starring Kevin Costner and going overboard with its romance arc, this is a fantastic little tale filled with likable (and detestable) characters.
Gunfighter’s Moon. A genuinely touching story about an outlaw who discovers he has a daughter in another town, whose (step)father has fallen into a High Noon scenario.
These are westerns that take place in a “modern” setting. The period is different, but the stories and tropes are in the same vein.
The Way of the Gun. Two guns-for-hire get word of a rich couple’s surrogate mother passing through town and plot to kidnap her and hold her for ransom. Nothing goes as planned, and they end up with some very dangerous people chasing them.
Four Brothers. A retelling of The Sons of Katie Elder, and frankly superior to the original due to every “son” being distinct and memorable in this version. The death of the neighborhood matron reunites her four adopted sons, who set out to find who was responsible for her murder.
Assault on Precinct 13. Classic John Carpenter! Two cops and two convicts are beseiged in a run-down precinct by an army of gang members. Filled with great tension and memorable characters.
Any western set in the future and/or in outer space.
Outland. High Noon in space, starring Sean Connery. Corruption blights a mining colony on Io, one of Jupiter’s moons, and the new sheriff sets out to put a stop to it. Nobody takes it very well.
Mad Max. A post-apocalyptic western, which in itself is pure brilliance. A team of road marshalls butts heads with a violent gang of bikers in an era where gasoline is a priceless commodity.
I’m sure there are a few I’ve forgotten, too. I’ll add them when I remember them.