John Wayne and Jeff Bridges earn places on the list with their different takes on Rooster Cogburn.
- Rio Grande (1950)
The final entry in John Ford’s majestic Cavalry trilogy, and the first teaming of John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, a match made in movie heaven.
- True Grit (2010)
Not so much a remake of the 1969 John Wayne classic as an equally entertaining but more faithful adaption of Charles Portis’ 1968 novel, written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen (Fargo), with Jeff Bridges offering his own impressive take on grizzled lawman Rooster Cogburn.
- El Dorado (1967)
El Dorado seemed an exercise in going through the motions — the second in a trilogy of Howard Hawks westerns (between Rio Bravo and Rio Lobo), all starring John Wayne, in which the stories were more or less interchangeable. But Wayne, Robert Mitchum, and James Caan play the familiar material with a wink to each other and to the audience that is irresistible.
- Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957)
Burt Lancaster plays Wyatt Earp and Kirk Douglas plays Doc Holliday, and that’s pretty much all you need to know.
3:10 to Yuma (1957)
A companion piece to High Noon, with a more charismatic villain. Someone has to watch captured outlaw Glenn Ford until the 3:10 train, but nobody wants the job except a desperate farmer (Van Heflin), who needs the $200 reward to feed his family.
- Will Penny (1968)
A noble cowboy at twilight, beautifully photographed by Lucien Ballard and played by Charlton Heston in one of his most understated performances.
- Duel in the Sun (1946)
Gone With the Wind, western-style. Gregory Peck and Jennifer Jones steam up the Arizona desert in jaw-dropping Technicolor.
- City Slickers (1991)
A trio of Big Apple buddies (Billy Crystal, Daniel Stern, and Bruno Kirby) join Jack Palance’s cattle drive, and discover the one secret of life. Palance won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, and a calf named Norman became the most beloved bovine since Ferdinand.
Writer-director Taylor Sheridan’s excellent contemporary western is at its very best during scenes shared by Jeremy Renner as a game tracker pressed into service to help solve a murder near a Native American reservation, and Gil Birmingham as the anguished father of the victim.
- Appaloosa (2008)
We’re still hoping for a sequel to this uncommonly satisfying old-fashioned western, directed by and starring Ed Harris, about Virgil Cole (Harris) and Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen), veteran peacekeepers hired to establish law and order in a Wild West town controlled by renegade rancher Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons).
- The Professionals (1966)
A personal favorite of C&I reader favorite Anson Mount, writer-director Richard Brooks’ hardy action-adventure has Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, and Woody Strode well cast as uniquely talented mercenaries hired to retrieve the kidnapped wife (Claudia Cardinale) of a wealthy rancher (Ralph Bellamy).
- A Fistful of Dollars (1964)
Henry Fonda, James Coburn, and Charles Bronson passed on the chance to play a nameless drifter in a Western reworking of the Japanese film Yojimbo. Director Sergio Leone settled for TV actor Clint Eastwood, who cashed a $15,000 paycheck for the movie that made him an international star.
- The Big Trail (1930)
The Big Trail still deserves to be seen, not just for Duke’s early-career work but for its remarkable wide-screen panoramas and near cinéma vérité action scenes, including a river crossing in a fierce storm that almost drowned the cast.
- Geronimo: An American Legend (1993)
Best of the many film biographies of the famed Apache leader, with a star-making performance from Wes Studi as Geronimo.
- Blood on the Moon (1948)
Moody and very dark, more film noir than horse opera, with Robert Mitchum as a long-haired drifter caught between warring ranchers and homesteaders. Mitchum, a shifty character in any setting, plays moral relativism so well that even when he does the right thing, you still don’t trust him.
- The Naked Spur (1953)
Jimmy Stewart plays a bounty hunter who, when told his captive is innocent, replies, “It’s him they’re payin’ the reward on.” Another intense psychological drama from Stewart and director Anthony Mann.
- The Great Train Robbery (1903)
This reenactment of a heist by the ever-popular Butch Cassidy and his Wild Bunch only a few years earlier signifies the true beginning of the western.
- One-Eyed Jacks (1961)
This film never stood a chance back in 1961, when its star and director, Marlon Brando, spent three years fussing over every camera angle and line reading. Today, the back story forgotten, we treasure this deceit-filled saga of two old partners in crime, one revenge-obsessed but still capable of redemption, the other hiding a savage nature behind a sheriff’s badge.
- Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973)
Sam Peckinpah’s cult-fave revisionist western showcases potent performances by James Coburn and Kris Kristofferson in the title roles, an exceptionally strong supporting cast (Slim Pickens, R.G. Armstrong, etc.), and co-star Bob Dylan’s affecting song “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.”
- Angel and the Badman (1947)
Quirt Evans (John Wayne), on the vengeance trail, must choose between killing the man who murdered his father and settling down with a sweet farm girl played by Gail Russell, the hottest Quaker babe in movies.
- Fort Apache (1948)
John Ford’s Fort Apache inaugurated the landmark Cavalry trilogy with a sobering reminder that sometimes the good guys don’t win.
- Blazing Saddles (1974)
Mel Brooks’ rude, crude masterpiece contained enough laugh-out-loud moments for 10 movies, from the infamous campfire scene to Madeline Kahn’s show-stopping send-up of Marlene Dietrich.
- Winchester ’73 (1950)
The story of “the gun that won the West” follows Jimmy Stewart as he traces the provenance of his stolen rifle through a series of unsavory owners, all of whom are brought down by frontier karma.
- The Virginian (1929)
It had been filmed twice before Gary Cooper played the title role in the first “talking” feature-length western. But it’s Cooper’s Virginian we remember, for his star-making turn and the mustache-twirling of the villainous Walter Huston.
- True Grit (1969)
The Duke finally walked off with an Oscar as the irascible Marshal Rooster Cogburn. John Wayne called Rooster’s recollections of his life to costar Kim Darby “the best scene I ever did.”
Additional contributions from David Hofstede’s original 2002 list. Want to stream, rent, or purchase these films? Visit justwatch.com and search for a film title, and you’ll see where and if it is available for home viewing.