Anyone who thinks that repetition is a new concept in Hollywood will think again when they revisit the classic Western era. Recycling sets and storylines alike, studios churned out literally thousands of films in this particular genre. Many were quite cheap to produce for the reasons just mentioned, lending them a “B movie” reputation with quality to match. Every now and then, however, a veritable masterpiece or occasional Oscar winner would emerge from the pack. (For more recent fare, here are the best Westerns of the 21st century).
To loosely trace the arc of the genre’s rise and fall is to simultaneously follow the career of its foremost star. He was born Marion Robert Morrison but audiences know him best as John Wayne. An archetypal embodiment of American myth-making, Wayne’s patriotic brand of machismo hasn’t necessarily aged well in these times of national introspection. That said, films such as “Rio Grande” and “The Searchers” are more nuanced than one might expect. Both paired him with frequent collaborator John Ford, who helmed some of the best Westerns of all time. (Wayne and other Western stars were likely inspired by some of the 30 most famous cowboys and cowgirls.)
Carrying the torch from Wayne was living legend Clint Eastwood, who broke through in the 1960s. He and director Sergio Leone brought a completely different sensibility to the genre, eschewing fantasy-based heroism in favor of unsparing grittiness and morally ambiguous characters. It would all come full circle in Eastwood’s 1992 masterpiece “Unforgiven,” which combined traditional genre elements with the notion that there are no real heroes in the Old West. By the time it rolled around, the Western genre was a shadow of its former self. To this day, it remains something of a subgenre with a lasting cinematic legacy.
Click here to see the best Western films of all time
To determine the best Western films of all time, 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 January 2022, weighting all ratings equally. Only movies with at least 10,000 audience votes on either IMDb or Rotten Tomatoes were considered. (Directorial credits and cast information comes from IMDb.)
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