John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Henry Fonda, Kevin Costner and Randolph Scott are among the stars who shine in our lineup.
We’re heading for the last roundup.
But first: For the benefit of those who tuned in late…
Under normal circumstances, the C&I crew adheres to a time-tested adage: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. In the case of our “100 Best Westerns Ever Made” list, however, we figured it was way past time for an update.
For one thing, the original list compiled by David Hofstede first appeared almost 20 years ago — in January 2002, to be precise — and since then, more than a few list-worthy films have been released. Also: We have decided — reluctantly, we admit — to heed many requests that we restrict this list to theatrical features, and provide another rundown for television series, made-for-TV movies, and miniseries (including Lonesome Dove) in a future issue.
Finally: During the pandemic lockdown, we have had time to rewatch and reevaluate scads of classic westerns. As a result, more than a few titles have moved higher on the list — and others are appearing for the first time.
And now, we conclude our countdown for our revised “100 Best Westerns Ever Made” list with this lineup ranging from No. 24 to No. 1. You can see Nos. 100-75 here, Nos. 74-50 here, and Nos. 49-25 here.
- Tombstone (1993)
Tombstone’s unpretentious, balls-out gusto reminded us that a great western didn’t have to unfold on the grand scale of Lonesome Dove or Dances With Wolves.
- The Shootist (1976)
Though it’s impossible to disconnect fact from fiction when E.W. Hostetler (Jimmy Stewart) tells John Bernard Books (John Wayne), “You’ve got cancer” (Wayne succumbed to the disease in 1979), no movie star essayed a better final bow.
- Open Range (2003)
As grizzled cattle-drivers who ride into danger while resting their herd near a small frontier town, Kevin Costner (who also directed) and Robert Duvall are a match made in western movie lovers’ heaven.
- Unforgiven (1992)
In order to bring life to this project, Clint Eastwood traded on his status as the genre’s last bankable star to get a western made in a youth-driven market, then crafted a darkly poetic character study that found more to condemn than to celebrate in our western myth.
- The Hired Hand (1971)
Two years after the smash success of Easy Rider, Peter Fonda used his newly developed muscle to direct and star in this unconventional western, by turns lyrical and brutal, about two saddle tramps (Fonda and the great Warren Oates) whose friendship is tested when one attempts a reconciliation with the wife (Verna Bloom) he abandoned years earlier.
- She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)
“So here they are, the dog-faced soldiers, the regulars, the 50-cents-a-day professionals, riding the outposts of the nation.” The middle entry in John Ford’s Cavalry trilogy had his stock company at their most sentimental and featured Oscar-winning photography of Monument Valley in Technicolor. The Duke, whose inherent air of authority worked to his favor when he played older characters, found one of his most indelible roles as retiring officer Nathan Brittles.
- Once Upon a Time in the West (1969)
Henry Fonda never struck us as the bad-ass type, but in Sergio Leone’s operatic follow-up to his Dollars trilogy, Fonda plays one of the most abhorrent hired guns ever. It’s disturbing, like watching Mister Rogers give a kid a wedgie. Forty minutes of cuts killed the original American release, but the film was finally restored to its full grandeur in 1984.
17. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
Rance Stoddard (James Stewart) plays a pitifully meek attorney incapable of killing sadistic outlaw Liberty Valance. But that’s what history has recorded because “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Lee Marvin gives us a wonderful villain for the ages, and John Wayne impersonators picked up a staple for their act in the Duke’s demeaning references to Stewart’s character as “Pilgrim.”
- The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly 1967
Recent scholarship has favored Once Upon a Time in the West as Sergio Leone’s crowning work, but for those who can’t separate the Leone oeuvre from its most famous character, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is the ultimate spaghetti western. It has all the signature elements: dusty, desolate vistas; amoral characters such as Tuco (Eli Wallach) who are motivated only by profit; a showdown in a circular arena, suggesting gladiators in a colosseum; an incomparable score whose whistling theme, by Ennio Morricone, is instantly recognizable; and Clint Eastwood as the serape-clad, cheroot-chomping Man with No Name.
- Red River (1948)
Red River appeals to those moviegoers who don’t like westerns, but inevitably discover that, yes, John Wayne can act and, yes, movies about cowboys and cattle drives can be about more than cowboys and cattle drives. Allusions to Mutiny on the Bounty infuse the father-son conflict between Wayne and Montgomery Clift, and their climactic fistfight symbolizes their genuine “old Hollywood vs. young Hollywood” rivalry. The happy ending divided audiences, but the director, Howard Hawks, liked both characters too much to let either perish, and it’s hard to fault his decision.
- The Gunfighter (1950)
“The fastest man with a gun who ever lived ... was a long, lean Texan named Ringo.” We’ve seen gunfighters as heroes and villains, lawmen and mercenaries. But Jimmie Ringo (Gregory Peck) is the gunfighter as celebrity; trapped by fame, a subject of gossip, scorn, and adulation, Ringo can’t order a drink in a bar without drawing attention. “He don’t look so tough to me,” sneers any number of envious punks. Famous last words.
13. Rio Bravo (1959)
Knowing Rio Bravo’s connection to High Noon affords insight into an interesting slice of Hollywood history, but it’s hardly a prerequisite to enjoy its rousing mix of action, comedy, romance, and music. Dean Martin and Angie Dickinson join old hands John Wayne and Walter Brennan, and if the casting of Ricky Nelson was a blatant attempt by Howard Hawks to boost the box office with teenage girls, at least the kid contributed a fine duet with Martin on the ballad “My Rifle, My Pony and Me.” And look on the bright side; it could have been Fabian.
12. Destry Rides Again (1939)
Has there ever been a more unlikely romantic pairing than Jimmy Stewart’s laid-back, milk-drinking lawman Tom Destry and Marlene Dietrich as the bawdy singer with a German accent and the inexplicable name of Frenchy? Destry Rides Again packs memorable songs (Dietrich’s “See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have”) and memorable scenes (a ferocious catfight between Dietrich and Una Merkel) into 94 flawless minutes. The movie would have been longer if certain lines had made it past the censors, such as when Dietrich wins a poker hand and drops the coins down her blouse, prompting a cowboy to quip, “There’s gold in them thar hills.”
- The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)
It was the movie Clint Eastwood had to make, before the impassive persona he created through the Sergio Leone films and his other signature character, Dirty Harry, became a typecasting trap. In his 1976 book The Filming of the West, movie historian Jon Tuska predicted that Eastwood’s career likely didn’t have staying power. That same year, The Outlaw Josey Wales introduced a new type of Eastwood character, still quiet, still deadly, but also compassionate and emotionally vulnerable. The title describes how society will judge Josey Wales — an outlaw only by circumstance — but when his quest is complete, he returns to being the farmer Josey Wales in a scene that offers hope for the future.
- The Wild Bunch (1969)
The best opening credits sequence ever ends with William Holden growling, “If they move ... kill ’em!” followed by the sepia-toned freeze-frame “Directed by Sam Peckinpah.” Kinda says it all. The director’s original 144-minute cut was trimmed almost immediately after the film’s release, but it’s been restored for the video and DVD release. The new scenes deepen the connection between Pike (Holden) and former Bunch member Thornton (Robert Ryan), now a bounty hunter on Holden’s trail, and after 30 years we finally discover how Pike got that limp.
- Dances With Wolves (1990)
We knew, we always knew, even while cheering for the cavalry in countless films, that history is written by the winners of the world’s conflicts, and America’s Native population got a raw deal. With Dances With Wolves, we saw the other side of the tale, and how fitting that it was through the eyes of an American soldier. Dances With Wolves became a personal crusade for Kevin Costner, who coproduced, directed, starred, and raised financing overseas after a string of Hollywood studios passed. His passion was rewarded with seven Academy Awards and an awakening of our national conscience.
- Ride Lonesome (1959)
Randolph Scott and director Budd Boetticher collaborated on seven memorable westerns between 1956 and 1960, but Ride Lonesome is considered by most aficionados to be the very best of the bunch. Scripted by Burt Kennedy, the film finds Scott perfectly cast as Ben Brigade, a bounty hunter who’s determined to transport a captured outlaw (James Best) across Indian territory. Two semi-reformed bandits (a pre-Bonanza Pernell Roberts and a callow James Coburn) want to wrest control of Brigade’s captive in order to claim an amnesty offered for their own past crimes. But Brigade isn’t interested in amnesty, or even a reward. Rather, he wants to lure the outlaw’s older brother (Lee Van Cleef) into a forced feeding of just desserts.
- Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
“Not that it matters, but the following story is true.” William Goldman’s “history with a twist” formula mixes fact and legend to create a high-spirited adventure. Butch and Sundance may not have been as glib or good-looking as Paul Newman and Robert Redford, but Goldman’s script stayed close to the facts as they’re known, and if Butch and Sundance didn’t really jump off that cliff to escape a posse, they should have. Redford and Newman’s potent chemistry inspired legions of attempts at imitation. The duo single-handedly gave birth to the “Buddy Film,” and the enduring influence of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid can be found in movies as diverse as 48 Hours and Shanghai Noon.
- High Noon (1952)
No classic western divides movie fans more than High Noon. Carl Foreman, a blacklisted screenwriter, based the film on personal experience, hence the cold shoulder Marshal Will Kane receives when he asks his community for help. John Wayne and Howard Hawks were outraged that Kane would try to recruit amateurs into his fight and made Rio Bravo to remind moviegoers how the West was won. But the public loved High Noon, with its vulnerable hero (Gary Cooper, who won the Best Actor Oscar), lovely newcomer Grace Kelly, and haunting theme song. The film was taut and suspenseful, its story told on the faces of its characters and with the relentless ticking clock.
- The Magnificent Seven (1960)
Another sign of a classic: Whenever it pops up during a channel surf, you can’t turn it off. In this case whether it’s near the beginning, when Yul Brynner recruits his titular team of mercenaries, or when the Seven ride into the Mexican village they’re hired to protect, to the pulse-quickening “Bomp-BUMP-Bump-Bomp” of Elmer Bernstein’s score, or at the film’s climax during the crackerjack shootout with the vicious raiders led by the demonic Calvera (Eli Wallach), you simply must keep watching. Whereas the next four films on this countdown are justly lauded as cinematic art, The Magnificent Seven has no pretentions other than to being the ultimate cowboy popcorn movie.
- My Darling Clementine (1946)
With all due respect to admirers of Tombstone and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral — both worthy films that appear elsewhere on this list — John Ford’s unforgettable drama remains in a class by itself as a cinematic account of the legendary shootout involving Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda), Doc Holliday (Victor Mature), and the Clanton clan (led by a startlingly vicious Walter Brennan). As critic Roger Ebert noted, “My Darling Clementine must be one of the sweetest and most good-hearted of all westerns. The giveaway is the title, which is not about Wyatt or Doc or the gunfight, but about Clementine [played by Cathy Downs], certainly the most important thing to happen to Marshal Earp during the story.”
- Shane (1953)
If you define a classic film as one that most people automatically assume they’ve seen, even if they haven’t, because so many other movies have reprised its basic plot, then director George Stevens’ Shane certainly qualifies for that label. Alan Ladd stars to perfection as Shane, a mysterious gunfighter who providentially appears in a Wyoming community just when the clash between homesteaders and cattle ranchers is turning uglier and bloodier. Truth to tell, Shane would like to put away his guns, and put down some roots with a farming family. But a seriously mean galoot named Jack Wilson (Jack Palance in a career-defining performance) forces him to do, however reluctantly, what he’s got to do.
2. The Searchers (1956)
John Wayne gives one of his finest and most complex performances in John Ford’s enduringly popular and influential western as Ethan Edwards, a former Confederate soldier who’s obsessively driven to recover his beloved niece after her family is killed and she is abducted by marauding Comanches. For years, he continues his search, accompanied by Marty (Jeffrey Hunter), a “half-breed” orphan raised to adulthood by Ethan’s brother. And as they continue, however, Marty comes to question Ethan’s fanaticism, and the movie itself offers a darkly powerful counterpoint to the reassuring clichés of standard-issue horse operas. Even after six decades, Ford’s film seems fresh and vital as it undermines audience assumptions about what to expect from westerns in general and “a John Wayne movie” in particular.
1. Stagecoach (1939)
The disreputable doctor who cracks wise and drinks heavily, but sobers up when the chips are down. The golden-haired shady lady who brightens incandescently when a naive cowpoke calls her “a lady.” The shifty-eyed gambler with a gun at his side and, presumably, an ace up his sleeve. And, of course: The square-jawed, slow-talking gunfighter who’s willing to hang up his shootin’ irons — who’s even agreeable to mending his ways and settling down on a small farm with a good woman — but not before he settles some unfinished business with the varmints who terminated his loved ones. Why? Because, as the gunfighter tersely notes, “There are some things a man can’t run away from.”
These and other familiar figures had already established themselves as archetypes by 1939, that magical movie year in which Stagecoach premiered. Even so, director John Ford’s must-see masterwork arguably is the first significant western of the talking-pictures era, the paradigm that cast the mold, set the rules, and firmly established the dramatis personae for all later movies of its kind. Indeed, it single-handedly revived the genre after a long period of box-office doldrums, elevating the western to a new level of critical and popular acceptance. And, not incidentally, it made John Wayne a full-fledged movie star.
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.