Most early Westerns involved similar characters and themes — lone gunslingers, conflicted sheriffs, disaffected Civil War vets, battles over grazing land, conflicts with Indians (almost always depicted as cruel savages), quests for revenge, climactic showdowns…. (Not surprisingly, Westerns are among the best revenge movies of all time.)
Over the years, however, the genre evolved considerably, often raising complex moral questions and introducing antiheros and tough situations where even the good guys do bad things.
The Wild West continues to fascinate with its sprawling landscapes and seemingly unlimited possibilities for unchecked violence and do-it-yourself justice. All sorts of tough and hardy individuals tried to survive in a place and time where the line between good and evil often didn’t really exist or really matter.
Dramatic representations of these times — Westerns — started as a literary genre in the late 1800s and began to become popular on the movie screen as early as the silent film era. They are considered to have been the most popular movie genre, at least in America, throughout the first half of the 20th century — and have seen something of a revival in recent decades.
While new movie Westerns continue to appear (“Cry Macho” and “The Power of the Dog” are two recent examples), many classics of the 20th century are currently available to stream. (For more current examples, see our list of the best Westerns of the 21st century.)
To determine the best of these, 24/7 Tempo developed an index using average ratings on IMDb, an online movie database owned by Amazon, and a combination of audience scores and Tomatometer scores on Rotten Tomatoes, an online movie and TV review aggregator, as of November 2021. All ratings were weighted equally. Only 20th-century movies with the “Western” genre classification on IMDb and at least 2,500 audience votes on either IMDb or Rotten Tomatoes were considered.
We included only films available on the paid streaming services HBO Max, Netflix, Disney+, Amazon Prime, Philo, Paramount+, Hulu Plus, Apple TV, the Criterion Channel, and Fubo TV, or on the free streaming services Tubi, Pluto TV, Peacock, Plex, Crackle, IMDbTV, and Vudu Free. Data on streaming availability by website came from streaming data site Reelgood, and up-to-date as of November 2021.