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#Best Western Movies of All Time, Ranked

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10 The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance 9 The Power of the Dog 8 Once Upon a Time in the West 7 Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid 6 Stagecoach 5 High Noon 4 True Grit 3 The Good, the Bad and the Ugly 2 Unforgiven 1 The Searchers

#Best Western Movies of All Time, Ranked

The Western film: it ’s something vaguely inspired by the American West, even if the story relies on stereotypes, inaccurate imagery and history, or if the language isn ’t the lingua franca of the Wild West. These kinds of movie tend to embody the concept of Manifest Destiny: the protagonist is often living within a society with a strict moral code and relies on the concept of pursuit and retribution in order to propel the plot forward. The first Western movie to lay down the foundations of the genre was the silent film The Great Train Robbery (1903); it is, however, disputed that even earlier than that, in 1899, that the first Western movies began to appear on the scene.

When one imagines a Western movie, several images come to mind: Clint Eastwood, the lone cowboy on the frontier, outlaws, and saloons in the outposts of a rural town. However, it is also important to note that Western films have done their part to recreate, mythologize, and romanticize a period of American history, coding in language and imagery that may not be factually correct, and may even be offensive, in terms to representation. Without the core group of films that made the genre what is known for today, history as many remember it would ’ve looked a little bit different. With that said, here are the top ten best Western films.

10 The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Man punches another man John Ford Productions

John Ford, a renowned director of Western films, returned in 1962 with The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The cast included the likes of John Wayne, James Stewart, and Vera Miles, while the crew included prestigious costume designer Edith Head. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence is unique because it was shot in black and white when 1960s movies were shifting towards using color. The plot focuses on a Senator, Ranse Stoddard, returning to the front for a friend’s funeral. The story then pivots to his past as a young attorney fighting a local gang for justice.

9 The Power of the Dog

Two men riding horses New Zealand Film Comission

The Power of the Dog was released in 2021, marking a new era of Western films. It stars Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, and Jesse Plemons–an all-star cast unexpected in a Western. Cumberbatch and Plemons portrayed two brothers; who had just gotten married and brought his wife home. The other brother, envious of this new development, began to treat them cruelly because he didn’t know the meaning of love. The Power of the Dog, at TIFF, was the second runner-up for the People’s Choice Award, losing to Belfast.

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8 Once Upon a Time in the West

Two cowboys stand and face each other Euro International Films | Paramount Pictures

One of Sergio Leone ’s famed Spaghetti Westerns, Once Upon a Time in the West was his follow-up to the Dollars Trilogy. Leone had declared he finished making Western movies permanently, but this was the movie that drew him back from his self-induced Western retirement after two years. Instead of having Clint Eastwood in the main role (he turned it down), Henry Fonda portrays the protagonist. The story revolves around two different conflicts in a town in the Old West: a fight over the only water source and building railroads and a classic vengeance story. Originally considered to be mediocre, the film is now a cult classic.

7 Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Two men with guns pointing them Campanile Productions | Newman-Foreman Company

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is considered to be one of the greatest Western films of all time. The movie is based on the real-life outlaws Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid; it stars Paul Newman and Robert Redford respectively. Butch Cassidy is the leader of a gang in the Wild West, and after Sundance Kid and he return after a trip, they discover the gang has selected a new leader. This spurs a grand tale of heists, violence, and fleeing one life for another. It was the top most-grossing film in 1969 and went on to be dubbed one of the top Western films released of all time.

6 Stagecoach

People hanging out of car windows Walter Wagner Productions

When John Ford came out with Stagecoach, Western movies were not considered profitable by movie studios. It was a struggle to find a producer and studio for the film because of this reason. It was also a struggle because the main two stars of the movie were Claire Trevor and John Wayne—there were doubts about whether Wayne was a leading man, but this would become his breakout role. It takes place aboard a stagecoach that ’s traveling through Apache territory; a group of strangers boards this stagecoach and has to deal with external and internal threats to their safety. This film holds the bragging rights of having a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, although its depiction of Native Americans is derogatory and, by modern standards, problematic.

5 High Noon

High Noon Stanley Kramer Productions

The early 1950s in the United States, especially in Hollywood, was full of fear. The Red Scare, or McCarthyism, was in full swing and many screenwriters, directors, and actors were targeted and trialed as Communists. High Noon, which came out in 1952, made a bold political statement after screenwriter Carl Foreman was accused of being a Communist and was blacklisted. He then outlined the script to be blatant commentary about the blacklisting. Although High Noon isn ’t a typical Western, it was well-loved by several U.S. Presidents and was one of the first films selected to be preserved by the National Film Registry.

4 True Grit

True Grit Skydance Productions | Mike Zoss Productions

True Grit stars Josh Brolin, Matt Damon, Jeff Bridges, and Hailee Steinfeld in her first major film role. Steinfeld plays a fourteen-year-old character whose father is murdered. This sets her off on a path for vengeance against the murderer (Brolin). She then teams up with Deputy Marshall (Bridges) and Texas Ranger (Damon) in order to get her revenge. True Grit is a contemporary Western with a lot of soul and devotion in its characters, giving it a chance to draw in larger and new audiences to a genre many may have previously thought to be outdated.

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3 The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Two men facing each other in graveyard with wooden crosses Produzioni Europee Associati | United Artists

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is hailed as the best of the Dollars Trilogy and that ’s for a good reason. After having two previous movies in the trilogy, it ’s built the fanbase up and is a glorious finale to the trilogy. Man With No Name (Clint Eastwood), now known as Blondie, is pitted against two new adversaries for one last tension-filled duel. The movie has Leone ’s classic style of filming, standout performances from the actors, and a story that keeps audiences at the edge of their seats and wanting more.

2 Unforgiven

Man on top of white horse Malpaso Productions

Unforgiven was said to be Clint Eastwood ’s last Western before hanging up his cowboy hat for good, and he gave it his all for this movie. He put on one of his best performances, leading to a Best Picture award at the Academy Awards and Best Director for Eastwood. In the film, Eastwood portrays an aging man who returns to his job as a killer after years of being a farmer. Unforgiven is a Revisionist Western and revisits the concept of the Wild West and its stereotypical portrayals, interrogating the mythology created by the genre.

1 The Searchers

Man seen in distance framed by doorway C.V. Whitney Pictures

The Searchers is John Ford ’s epic Western, and it truly does live up to the hype. The movie was released in 1956 and stars John Wayne as a Civil War veteran searching for his abducted niece (Natalie Wood) and her sister. It is unmistakably a John Ford Western that is grand in its scope: its main characters are nuanced, their motivations and trajectories compelling enough to make the viewer interested. Although the film holds more sinister undertones due to its justification for the murder and treatment of Native Americans, it ’s considered one of the best films ever made. Stylistically and story-wise, the film is a solid watch outside of this depiction. The influence of this movie is still alive in the filmmakers active today; directors like Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg all have cited it as an influence.

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Ashley Hajimirsadeghi
(9 Articles Published)

Writer and aspiring critic. Find me @ashleynassarine.

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