From the sharply defined roles of heroes and villains in the silent film era of early Western film star Tom Mix to the anti-hero characters of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” in the late 60s, the best Western films have examined the characteristics of manliness — from courage, independence, and assertiveness to honor, duty, and justice.
John Wayne is considered the archetypical American Western hero, and in “The Searchers’’ he is resolute in his pursuit of his abducted niece. But his obsessiveness takes its toll on his family.
Gary Cooper’s Will Kane in “High Noon’’ is compelled to uphold his honor and duty even if it jeopardizes his relationship with his wife Grace Kelly.
In “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,’’ James Stewart’s small-town lawyer Ranse Stoddard believes in justice over violence, until he has no choice but to take up a gun.
24/7 Wall St. considered audience and movie critic reviews from several sources in its ranking of America’s best Western films.
Editor’s note: In a previous version of this piece, in the description of the film “Winchester ’73,” the role of Dutch Henry Brown was incorrectly listed as played by Millard Mitchell. The role was in fact played by Stephen McNally.
30. Black God, White Devil
> Released: 1964
> Starring: Geraldo Del Rey, Yoná Magalhães, Othon Bastos
Directed by influential Brazilian filmmaker Glauber Rocha, “Black God, White Devil” may be a better fit for the art house than the grindhouse. The film deals with many issues such as religion, class, and culture and is considered to be one of the greatest films of Brazil’s Cinema Novo, or New Cinema, movement.
29. The Mark of Zorro
> Released: 1940
> Starring: Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell, Basil Rathbone
Of the many films featuring Don Diego and his alter ego Zorro, Rouben Mamoulian’s black and white adventure flick is likely the best. “The Mark of Zorro” is a sound remake of a 1920 silent film with the same title. In 2009 the film was selected for preservation in the Library of Congress National Film Registry for being a “cultural, artistic and/or historical treasure.”
28. The Outlaw Josey Wales
> Released: 1976
> Starring: Clint Eastwood, Sondra Locke, Chief Dan George
Clint Eastwood both directs and stars in “The Outlaw Josey Wales,” which stands as yet another testament to the man’s great talent. Eastwood portrays the titular Josey Wales, a farmer whose family is killed by Union militants during the Civil War. The movie was added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 1996.
> Released: 1953
> Starring: Alan Ladd, Jean Arthur, Van Heflin
“Shane” is one of the most beloved American pictures of any genre. It tells the story of a mysterious gunslinger who is forced to take action to defend a group of settlers in the sparse Wyoming Territory. The film is visually stunning and cinematographer Loyal Griggs won an Academy Award for his work on it.
26. Lonely Are the Brave
> Released: 1962
> Starring: Kirk Douglas, Gena Rowlands, Walter Matthau
Although it was not a huge success upon its initial release, “Lonely Are the Brave” has since developed a reputation as a wonderfully crafted Western. Leading man Kirk Douglas personally considers it his best film, which is saying something considering he played Spartacus.
25. A Fistful of Dollars
> Released: 1964
> Starring: Clint Eastwood, Gian Maria Volontè, Marianne Koch
Clint Eastwood creates the “man with no name’’ character who sets two feuding families against each other over control of a town in his first collaboration with Sergio Leone. “A Fistful of Dollars” was filmed in Europe with a mostly European cast.
24. Winchester ’73
> Released: 1950
> Starring: James Stewart, Shelley Winters, Dan Duryea
In “Winchester ’73,” Lin McAdam (James Stewart) pursues outlaw Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally) into Dodge City, Kansas. While there, McAdam enters and wins a sharp-shooting contest taking the the top prize: the Winchester rifle. Brown steals the rifle, and McAdam chases him across the state and toward an eventual confrontation. The film is noteworthy for the early performances from Rock Hudson and Tony Curtis.
23. Blazing Saddles
> Released: 1974
> Starring: Cleavon Little, Gene Wilder, Slim Pickens
Unlike most Westerns, “Blazing Saddles” is a parody of the genre, full of low humor as well as the satire of racism. True to Westerns, though, the film takes place in a Wild West town, and there’s a gunslinger and a sheriff who just happens to be black. And it wouldn’t be a Mel Brooks film if it wasn’t filled with anachronisms, such as a cameo appearance by Count Basie and his band playing “April in Paris’’ in the middle of the desert.
22. For a Few Dollars More
> Released: 1965
> Starring: Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Gian Maria Volontè
“For a Few Dollars More” is the second movie in Sergio Leone’s “Dollars Trilogy’’ that helped vault Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef into stardom. The two play bounty hunters looking to kill a murderous outlaw terrorizing the region.
21. True Grit
> Released: 2010
> Starring: Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Hailee Steinfeld
Just over 40 years after the release of John Wayne’s classic “True Grit,” the Coen Brothers made their own adaptation of the Charles Portis novel. In it, a confident 14-year old girl hires a booze-soaked lawman, played by Jeff Bridges, to help her apprehend the man who killed her father. A masterful exercise in genre for the modern day, the film ranks among the Coens’ best.
20. Johnny Guitar
> Released: 1954
> Starring: Joan Crawford, Sterling Hayden, Mercedes McCambridge
In “Johnny Guitar,” the formidable Joan Crawford plays Vienna, a saloon owner who supports the railroad coming to town. This, however, doesn’t sit well with some of the locals, including rival Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge). The clash ultimately leads to a gunfight between the two women, an unconventional plot device for Westerns.
19. The Ox-Bow Incident
> Released: 1943
> Starring: Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, Mary Beth Hughes
“The Ox-Bow Incident’’ is an examination of mob violence by director William Wellman. In the film, three men are accused of cattle-rustling and murder and are eventually lynched by a mob. The film is famous for a letter written by a doomed man (Dana Andrews) to his wife and read by members of the posse.
18. Hell or High Water
> Released: 2016
> Starring: Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges
The most recent Western to make the list, “Hell or High Water” is a story about a divorced father (Chris Pine) and his ex-con older brother (Ben Foster) resorting to bank robberies to save their family’s ranch in West Texas. The film received four Academy Award nominations, including for best supporting actor for Jeff Bridges.
17. Way Out West
> Released: 1937
> Starring: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Sharon Lynn
In their only Western-themed film, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy are enlisted by a prospector to bring a deed to a goldmine to his daughter in the small town of Brushwood Gulch. However, they are deceived by her scheming guardian who pretends to be the girl, and Laurel and Hardy try to fix their mistake. “Way Out West” is widely considered Laurel and Hardy’s best feature film.
16. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
> Released: 1969
> Starring: Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Katharine Ross
The stars of this classic anti-hero Western are Paul Newman and Robert Redford, one of cinema’s favorite duos. In “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” director George Roy Hill tells a tale about how the western frontier is changing and how train-robbing, as practiced by Butch and Sundance, is becoming obsolete. The featured song “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,’’ written by Hal David and Burt Bacharach, won an Academy Award and was a hit.
15. McCabe & Mrs. Miller
> Released: 1971
> Starring: Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, Rene Auberjonois
“McCabe & Mrs. Miller” is an offbeat western starring Warren Beatty and Julie Christie and directed by Robert Altman, the iconoclastic director who challenged genre conventions with films such as M*A*S*H*. In this film, a gambler played by Beatty does all he can to avoid the confrontation at the end of movie.
14. Red River
> Released: 1948
> Starring: John Wayne, Montgomery Clift, Joanne Dru
Howard Hawks directed this motion picture starring John Wayne as a bull-headed cattle-driver fighting to keep control of the drive as well as trying to manage a relationship with his adopted adult son, played by Montgomery Clift. “Red River” is on virtually every short list of greatest Westerns.
13. Rio Bravo
> Released: 1959
> Starring: John Wayne, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson
Lots of star power in “Rio Bravo,” including John Wayne, Dean Martin, Walter Brennan, Ricky Nelson, and Angie Dickinson. The movie is about a sheriff battling the brother of a gunslinger in jail for killing a man in a saloon. The film was directed by the versatile Howard Hawks, who worked with Wayne in “Red River.’’
12. My Darling Clementine
> Released: 1946
> Starring: Henry Fonda, Linda Darnell, Victor Mature
“My Darling Clementine” is John Ford’s take on the period leading up to the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. The movie stars Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp, Victor Mature as Doc Holliday and Walter Brennan as leader of the Clanton gang. This is one of several films Ford shot in Monument Valley in Arizona.
11. True Grit
> Released: 1969
> Starring: John Wayne, Kim Darby, Glen Campbell
In “True Grit,’’ John Wayne’s drunken, hard-nosed, eye-patch-wearing lawman out to help a teenager track down her father’s murderer is a departure from the tall, stoic Western archetype. Wayne won his only Academy Award for this role. Glen Campbell appeared in the film and sang the title song that was nominated for an Oscar.
10. Django Unchained
> Released: 2012
> Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio
The plot of “Django Unchained” takes place prior to the Civil War. Django (Jamie Foxx) is a slave who accompanies German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) on a mission to capture the vicious Brittle brothers. The movie, a revisionist homage to Spaghetti Westerns from Quentin Tarantino, does not skimp on violence.
9. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
> Released: 1962
> Starring: James Stewart, John Wayne, Vera Miles
“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” is about an idealistic lawyer, played by James Stewart, who prefers justice to violence but his hand is forced because of a sociopath outlaw played by Lee Marvin. John Wayne, paired again with director John Ford, teaches Stewart his gunfighting skills. The supporting cast includes Edmond O’Brien and is rich in character actors such as Andy Devine, John Carradine, and Lee Van Cleef.
8. High Noon
> Released: 1952
> Starring: Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly, Thomas Mitchell
“High Noon” broke with Western conventions of the time by replacing much of the expected gunfights and scenery with tension and emotional dialogue. Gary Cooper won an Oscar for his portrayal of Sheriff Will Kane who is torn between his sense of duty and his love for his pacifist wife played by Grace Kelly. The movie also is noteworthy for its Academy Award-winning song, “The Ballad of High Noon,’’ sung by Tex Ritter.
7. The Wild Bunch
> Released: 1969
> Starring: William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan
There is carnage aplenty in “The Wild Bunch” by Sam Peckinpah. An aging outlaw (William Holden) gets his gang together — played by Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates, Edmond O’Brien and Ben Johnson — for one last robbery in the early 20th century. Things go wrong when the gang realizes they are being set up by Holden’s old partner, played by Robert Ryan.
> Released: 1992
> Starring: Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman
Clint Eastwood directed “Unforgiven.” He also plays the role of the main character, retired gunslinger William Munny, who takes one last job — to kill the people who disfigured a prostitute. Eastwood wanted to use the movie as a commentary on the concept of cinematic violence. The strong supporting cast includes Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman.
5. The Searchers
> Released: 1956
> Starring: John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles
One of John Ford’s masterpieces, “The Searchers” is about the obsession-driven search of ex-Confederate Army soldier Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) for his niece (Natalie Wood), who was abducted by Native Americans. The movie influenced how motion pictures were shot outside, among them David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia.’’
> Released: 1939
> Starring: John Wayne, Claire Trevor, Andy Devine
The first Western shot in Monument Valley in Arizona by John Ford, “Stagecoach” tells the story of strangers crossing Apache territory in a stagecoach. The film made John Wayne — “The Ringo Kid’’ — a star. Film historians have called this the first epic Western.
3. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
> Released: 1948
> Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston, Tim Holt
Greed and paranoia are personified in Humphrey Bogart’s character Fred C. Dobbs in his search for gold in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.” John Huston won Academy Awards for director and adapted screenplay, and his father Walter won for best supporting actor, the first father and son to do so.
2. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
> Released: 1966
> Starring: Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach, Lee Van Cleef
The poster child of the Spaghetti Western, “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” tells the story of a tenuous alliance of gunslingers, among them the iconically laconic Clint Eastwood, who are looking for Confederate gold. The film was directed by Sergio Leone, with an unforgettable movie score from Ennio Morricone.
1. Once Upon a Time in the West
> Released: 1968
> Starring: Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Claudia Cardinale
Sergio Leone, known for his Spaghetti Westerns, made “Once Upon a Time in the West” as a tribute to the genre. Charles Bronson plays a man who stalks a cold-blooded killer played by Henry Fonda. The film is famous for its 10-minute, wordless opening scene of three men waiting for a train.
Detailed Findings and Methodology:
Classic Western films are dominated by a few names such as John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, who created enduring archetypes in the genre. Similarly, directors like John Ford and Sergio Leone also dominated the genre. Wayne worked with Ford on some of the greatest Westerns ever, including the “Cavalry Trilogy’’ of the late 40s. Eastwood created the iconic man with no name character in Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns of the early and mid 60s.
As movie genres go, the Western is among the most-maligned and disparaged for its one-dimensional depictions of stoic, heroic men.
Quality and popularity often do not go hand in hand, particularly when it comes to film. But this list arguably represents those rare films that transcended the limitations of the genre while still making money for the studio. Many of the films on this list were wildly popular at the box office, and are also well represented among the American Film Institute’s top 100 movie list.
To determine the best western films of all time, 24/7 Wall St. created an index based on each film’s Rotten Tomatoes average critic rating, Rotten Tomatoes average audience rating and Internet Movie Database average user rating, To be considered, each film needed to have at least 1,000 Rotten Tomatoes user ratings, 10 approved tomatometer critic reviews, and 1,000 IMDb user ratings,.
We averaged the user ratings from Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb and weighted by the number of votes for each. The combined user rating was then averaged with the Rotten Tomatoes critic rating. The year the movie was released as well as the actors and actresses starring in each film came from IMDb.