A good Western, much like the Old West itself, evokes a rugged, austere beauty unlike any other. Depictions of a delicate, genteel aesthetic yield to visions of vast wilderness and bleak landscapes, conjuring the lovely loneliness associated with the wild frontier.
Translating the distinctive character of the Old West into an elegant film is a delicate operation more easily envisioned than executed. Mixing a dose of reality with a generous portion of imagination is key, and these 10 Westerns showed us just how beautiful the results could be.
10. One-Eyed Jack’s (1961) – Marlon Brando
One-Eyed Jack’s turned out to be the great Marlon Brando’s one-hit directorial wonder…except that it wasn’t much of a hit in its day. That’s a shame too, because this is an exceptionally good film, and a superior Western. Brando teamed up with cinematographer Charles Lang to perfectly capture the vast landscapes and the intimate drama in this late bloomer of a classic. With modern technology recently helping to rescue this gorgeous film from the public domain, there’s no better time to seek out a quality print of One-Eyed Jack’s.
Brando plays Rio, a bank robber whose partner left him high and dry to face prison time for their mutual crime. When Rio becomes a free man, he goes in search of his betrayer, who’s now wearing a sheriff’s badge. Karl Malden plays the lawman, whose relationship with Rio becomes increasingly complex and intriguing. Malden and Brando are both at the top of their acting games here, and their performances alone are worth the price of admission. Add a fascinating story and gorgeous cinematography, and One-Eyed Jack’s easily proves its pedigree as a resurgent classic.
9. Heaven’s Gate (1980) – Michael Cimino
Heaven’s Gate may have been a failure by most accounts, but it was a spectacular failure – spectacular not only in its financial scope, but also spectacular in its beauty even as it crashed to the ground. Vilmos Zsigmond handles the camera work in this undeniably visually stunning film, the legacy of which has undergone a more favorable evolution over the years.
Heaven’s Gate might have been a commercial failure, but it wasn’t for lack of a stellar cast: an abbreviated list includes Christopher Walken, Jeff Bridges, John Hurt, Isabelle Huppert, Kris Kristofferson, Mickey Rourke, and Joseph Cotten. The film’s winding plot centers around a war between the inhabitants of a Wyoming town – the wealthy locals battling the poor immigrants. There’s a lot going on here, and some movie fans may be tempted to bail on this lengthy film; but modern analysis of Heaven’s Gate has taken a kinder turn, and new restorations of the original film elements help make this one a beauty to watch.
8. Dead Man (1995) – Jim Jarmusch
Taking top honors for the most unorthodox Western on this list, Dead Man stands proudly as one of the most beautiful films in the genre. A strange marriage of existential allegory and Old Western nostalgia, Dead Man is divisive and unforgettable. Cinematographer Robby Müller filmed it in gorgeous black and white, giving a soft, otherworldly edge to this offbeat tale.
Johnny Depp plays a quiet accountant named William Blake who hops on a train to take a new job in a neighboring town. But after a random violent encounter, Blake finds himself preparing for his soul’s journey to the afterlife. His teacher is a mysterious man named “Nobody”, and the two begin a trip through the Old West and toward spiritual enlightenment. With names and characters as specifically descriptive as those in Pilgrim’s Progress, this is a heavily symbolic film couched in a Western setting. It’s unique, and it’s beautifully done.
7. Red River (1948) – Howard Hawks
Red River is a distinctive Western in more ways than one: leading man John Wayne is cast against type as a troubled soul still sorting through psychological issues, and romance isn’t the central focus of this story. But these slightly unorthodox touches work in the film’s favor, and the result is one of the all-time great Westerns. Russell Harlan is the cinematographer, and with famed director Howard Hawks he helps craft a visually stunning movie.
The basic story here is relatively simple – an experienced cattle rancher leads a long cattle drive from Texas to Missouri with his younger partner. The drama plays out in the interactions between the two men, who are thrown together for an extended amount of time under stressful circumstances. John Wayne and Montgomery Clift are at their very best in Red River, with each turning in arguably career-best performances. This is one of those archetypal Westerns which simply must be seen.
6. The Big Country (1958) – William Wyler
Before William Wyler made the sprawling epic Ben-Hur, he showed he could handle a complex story with massive scope in The Big Country. This film’s cast is one for the ages, featuring Gregory Peck, Charlton Heston, Burl Ives, Carroll Baker, and Jean Simmons, among others. Cinematographer Franz Planer played an invaluable role in capturing the deeply personal conflicts at the heart of this story about the vast Western frontier.
Gregory Peck gives an unforgettable performance as a cultured sea captain who journeys to the American West to join his fiancée. Little does he know that he’s walking into a hornet’s nest of a feud between the family of his fiancée and a neighboring clan. As the captain tries to apply his natural gentleness and humility to a society where only the strongest and most aggressive survive, his principles are tested and his fiancée’s devotion is strained. The Big Country’s story is a massive one, and the visuals match its grandeur in every way.