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The 30 Best Western Movies of All Time

11 May 2014 | Features, Film Lists | by James Newton

20. The Shootist (1976)

The Shootist (1976)

John Wayne died of cancer only three years after playing the ageing gunfighter in Don Siegel’s plaintive Western, who coincidentally happens to be terminally ill with cancer. Instead of dying on his deathbed, he wants to go out in a blaze of glory, so he picks a fight with three of his enemies in a deserted saloon. The film was Wayne’s last, and ended a career dating back to the silent film era.

 

19. Open Range (2003)

Open Range (2003)

Kevin Costner’s film is less famous than his other Western, Dances with Wolves, but is a more traditional, tougher, and morally complex work. He directs as well as stars as a cowboy who battles, along with Robert Duvall, Michael Gambon’s villainous land baron. The final shootout is messy, fast, and violent, with the intention of creating a greater sense of realism.

 

18. Silver Lode (1954)

Silver Lode (1954)

Like the more famous High Noon, Silver Lode is a similarly allegorical tale about McCarthyism in America during the 1950s. Martin Scorsese cited the tracking shot towards the end, where the falsely accused hero Ballard makes his way across town in an uninterrupted take, as one of his favourite moments in the documentary A Personal Journey Through American Movies.

 

17. Johnny Guitar (1954)

Johnny Guitar (1954)

Typically written about in psychoanalytical terms due to the abundant symbolism it features, Nicholas Ray’s colourful Western is unusual in that it focuses on the female characters played by Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge, rather than the often weak and almost ineffectual male lead played by Sterling Hayden. It is a film packed with melodrama, and was lauded by the French critics and filmmakers of the new wave in the 1960s.

 

16. The Wild Bunch (1969)

The Wild Bunch

Along with Bonnie and Clyde this film changed the way screen violence was portrayed forever. Sam Peckinpah used slow motion and numerous squibs to emphasise the bloody and often beautiful nature of a cinematic gunfight. The story centres on the fading embers of the Old West, with four ancient bank robbers out of time and out of place with the changing modern world (it is set in 1913 and contains, among other things, a motor car and semi-automatic weapons). The final shootout, when they take on a cohort of the Mexican army and intentionally go down in a blaze of glory, is one of the most sustained and bloody shootouts in screen history.

 

15. The Naked Spur (1953)

The Naked Spur (1953)

One of five Westerns James Stewart made with director Anthony Mann, including Winchester ’73 and The Far Country. Stewart plays a bounty hunter out to track down Robert Ryan, and is a tormented, psychologically damaged hero. Mann’s film is about the moral complexities of the West, with no character a straightforward hero or villain.

 

14. The Beguiled (1971)

The Beguiled (1971)

This extraordinary film teams Clint Eastwood with his Coogan’s Bluff director Don Siegel. He plays a Yankee soldier lost and injured behind enemy lines during the American Civil War, who gets taken in and cared for by an isolated school for girls in the Deep South. During his slow recovery he sleeps with several of the teachers and pupils, and causes a jealous firestorm to develop amongst them. This gothic melodrama concludes with a terrible fate for Eastwood’s character, who is closer to a cowardly scumbag than the taciturn killers he typically played in Westerns.

 

13. Red River (1948)

Red River (1948)

Based on the tale of the Mutiny on the Bounty, Red River is a classic Howard Hawks film about drama and rebellion between John Wayne and Montgomery Clift on a cattle drive from Texas to Kansas. The stampede scenes, among others, are referenced and parodied in many later films, including the 90s comedy City Slickers.

 

12. A Bullet for the General (1966)

A Bullet for the General (1966)

Damiano Damiani’s Spaghetti Western is a film focusing on the politics of the Mexican revolution, and works as an allegory for contemporary imperialist wars of the time it was made. Gian Mario Volante plays a bandit who originally holds up trains motivated solely by the money, but comes to learn that the revolution is a cause worth fighting for. The film also stars Klaus Kinski and Bond girl Martine Bestwick.

 

11. The Searchers (1956)

The Searchers

Some would place this film at the top of the list. John Ford’s epic features an uncompromising performance by John Wayne as Ethan Edwards – searching for his niece who has been kidnapped by Commanches. Driven by hatred of the Native American, Edwards is even ready to kill the girl when he finds her at the end and discovers that, after five years of living with the tribe, she has fully assimilated into the lives of the Commanche who took her. The character of Edwards was even one of the inspirations for Travis Bickle, the near psychotic character in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver.

 

 

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