Here is our list — compiled by polling readers, critics and C&I staffers — of the Top 20 Western TV-Movies.
Last Stand at Saber River (1997)
Few stars did more to keep the western genre thriving throughout the 1980s and ‘90s than Tom Selleck and Sam Elliott, who made — sometimes as co-stars — a slew of TV movies that many fans regard as equal, if not superior, to most big-screen sagebrush sagas released during those decades. (Which, of course, is why their names pop up so often on this list.) The absolute best western on Selleck’s resume? This unabashedly old-fashioned and enjoyably exciting drama (based on a novel by Elmore Leonard), which finds the charismatic star perfectly cast as Paul Cable, an ex-Confederate cavalryman who seeks a new life with his strong-willed wife (Suzy Amis) and their two children (Haley Joel Osment — who’d later find fame in The Sixth Sense — and Rachel Duncan) on an Arizona homestead. Unfortunately, two Union-sympathizing brothers (played by real-life siblings Keith and David Carradine) have their own designs on the land.
The Quick and the Dead (1987)
Long before he led pioneers across an unforgiving prairie in 1883, Sam Elliott came to the aid of other westward-bound settlers in this world-class western as Con Vallian — what a name! — a taciturn, steely-eyed stranger protecting Duncan McKaskel (Tom Conti), a mild-mannered Civil War veteran who no longer has a stomach for violence, and Susanna McKaskel (Kate Capshaw), Duncan’s wife, a loving and lovely woman who can’t quite repress her growing attraction to Con. Elliott’s Vallian is nothing if not blunt-spoken when advising the pair about dealing with bad guys: “If you gotta shoot, shoot to kill. Wounds won’t impress ’em — they’ve all been shot before.”
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (2007)
Various other filmmakers had already tried and failed to adapt Dee Brown’s monumental book about Indigenous people in the 19th-century American West before HBO and executive producer Dick Wolf (Law & Order) stepped up to the plate with this acclaimed epic featuring C&I reader favorite Adam Beach in a Golden Globe-nominated performance as Charles Eastman, a mixed-race Sioux doctor who struggles to balance his deeply felt cultural identity and societal pressure for assimilation.
Crossfire Trail (2001)
With director Simon Wincer again serving as his trail boss 11 years after they teamed for the theatrical feature Quigley Down Under, Selleck saddled up for this western based on the Louis L’Amour novel of the same title, this time playing a gruff but noble drifter who makes good on his promise to a dying man that he’ll look after the luckless fellow’s widow (Virginia Madsen) and Wyoming ranch. The villain of the piece: Mark Harmon (NCIS), effectively cast against type as a two-faced, back-shooting land-grabber.
The Shadow Riders (1982)
Tom Selleck and Sam Elliott share the screen in yet another sturdily constructed adaptation of a Louis L’Amour novel, this one directed by Andrew V. McLaglen (McLintock!) and focused on brothers who, after fighting on separate sides of the Civil War, reunite to save kidnapped members of their family. But wait, there’s more: Their rescue mission involves breaking their rascally uncle — played by Ben Johnson! — out of prison to help them find their abducted siblings, who have been taken prisoner by a slave-trading ex-Confederate officer (Geoffrey Lewis).
Monte Walsh (2003)
Tom Selleck and director Simon Wincer teamed successfully for a third time to make this affectingly melancholy Western, based on a novel by Jack Schaefer (Shane), about a middle-aged cowboy who knows his way of life is drawing to close — but can’t figure out what he wants to do with the rest of his life. Selleck gives one of his finest performances in the title role, and he’s never been more engaging than he is here in scenes opposite the lovely prostitute (Isabella Rossellini) who loves the incorrigible cowpoke.
You Know My Name (1999)
Bill Tilghman (played, masterfully, by Sam Elliott), a real-life lawman who once enforced rough justice alongside Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson, is the focus of this fascinating fact-based drama about Tilghman’s late-career efforts to bring order to “the most sinful town in America” — Cromwell, Oklahoma — in the 1920s. Standing in his way: Wiley Lynn (Arliss Howard), a corrupt federal agent who doesn’t aim to please. Western movie fans, take note: You Know My Name also depicts Tilghman’s attempt to establish himself as a filmmaker with The Passing of the Oklahoma Outlaws (1915), a “realistic” Wild West in which he portrayed himself.
OK, we admit it: The novelty value of the casting alone is enough to make us smile whenever we think about this breezily entertaining made-for-cable remake of the John Ford classic. Really: How can you resist a western in which Willie Nelson is not just any old drunken doctor, but Doc Holliday himself? Better still, he’s joined by fellow Highwaymen Kris Kristofferson as The Ringo Kid, the role that made John Wayne a star; Johnny Cash as Marshal Curly Wilcox; and Waylon Jennings as the gambler Hatfield, who — spoiler alert! — fares better here than he did in the 1939 version.
Sam Elliott co-wrote this excellent oater with his wife and co-star Katharine Ross, and stars to perfection as Conn Conagher, a graying but gutsy cowpuncher who can handle himself in any kind of fight, but usually prefers to walk away from trouble. (“Any man who kills when he can do otherwise,” he gravely notes, “is crazy. Plumb crazy.”) Unfortunately, trouble has a way of riding after Conagher, especially when he sides with an elderly cattle rancher (Ken Curtis of Gunsmoke fame) who’s beset by rustlers. The action is satisfying, but the movie is most memorable for the tentative romance that slowly develops between Conagher and a lonely widow (Ross) raising two children on a remote homestead.
The Bounty Man (1972)
Clint Walker of Cheyenne fame demonstrated his seldom-tapped potential for brusque badassery as Kincaid, a notorious bounty hunter who sports a dark moustache and a surly attitude, and doesn’t really care whether he takes ‘em in dead or alive. “OK,” he tells two fugitives in the opening scene, “what’s it going to be? In the saddle, or across it?” But Kinkaid’s hard heart incrementally softens as he interacts with the naive girlfriend (Margot Kidder) of smooth-talking outlaw Billy Riddle (Jon Ericson) while they travel through rough country.
A sly and spooky twist on western conventions, starring Eric Roberts as an outlaw leader who makes the mistake of leading his gang into the quiet town of Refuge, and the bigger mistake of not immediately recognizing some of the prominent inhabitants are legendary figures — Wild Bill Hickok (Sam Shepard), Doc Holliday (Randy Quaid), Billy the Kid (Donnie Wahlberg), and Jesse James (J.D. Souther), among others — who are biding their time in a kinda-sorta waiting room between heaven and the other place.
The Jack Bull (1999)
John Cusack gives a powerfully intense performance as Myrl Redding, a horse trader driven to extremes in his pursuit of justice while clashing with a powerful landowner (L.Q. Jones) in this grim drama directed by John Badham (Saturday Night Fever, WarGames) and loosely based on Heinrich von Kleist’s 19th century novella Michael Kohlhaas. The script — written by Dick Cusack, John’s father — also provides a plum role for John Goodman as Judge Tolliver, a fair-minded jurist who tries to help Redding.
Riders of the Purple Sage (1996)
Ed Harris rides tall in director Charles Haid’s exceptional adaptation of the oft-filmed Zane Grey novel as Jim Lassiter, a mysterious gunslinger who drifts into a corrupt town just in time to aid Jane Withersteen (Amy Madigan, Harris’ real-life wife), a spirited rancher whose not-so-friendly neighbors covet her land and cattle. As critic Caryn James aptly noted in her 1996 New York Times review: “Riders of the Purple Sage doesn’t reinvent the western; it gives the genre a terrific jolt of energy.”
The Good Old Boys (1995)
Tommy Lee Jones did triple duty as director, co-scripter and star for this fine adaptation of Elmer Kelton’s novel about Hewey Calloway, a middle-aged cowboy who’s all too aware that he may be easing into obsolescence in 1906 West Texas. After years of roaming, he reconnects with his brother Walter (Terry Kinney), a long-settled family man with a wife (Frances McDormand) and two sons (Matt Damon — yes, that Matt Damon! — and Blayne Weaver), to help his sibling avoid foreclosure on his farm. Better still, Jones reconnects with Sissy Spacek, his Coal Miner’s Daughter co-star, cast here as a school teacher who serves as a good influence to counterbalance the bad influence of Calloway’s hell-raising best buddy (Sam Shepard).
Directed by Ted Post (Hang ‘Em High), Yuma actually was intended as a pilot for a western TV series, with Clint Walker perfectly cast as Dave Harmon, a former U.S. Army officer turned U.S. Marshal who pursues a personal agenda while working as a lawman in towns near army forts. One can’t help wishing the TV-movie actually had spawned a weekly drama, if only to enjoy more edgy confrontations between Walker and Peter Mark Richman, who presumably would have been a series regular as fort commander Major Luca. “If he’s guilty,” the major says of a soldier suspected of murder, “he’ll face a court martial.” Harmon begs to differ: “If he’s guilty, he’ll face me.”
Kenny Rogers as The Gambler (1980)
Kenny Rogers’ first outing as Brady Hawkes, an Old West cardsharp who can deal in lead when the need arises, spawned no fewer than four sequels and, truth to tell, we’re tempted to include the entire franchise here. But just as the first kiss is always the sweetest, we’re partial to the one that started it all, a C&I reader favorite inspired by Rogers’ 1978 smash hit recording of the song written by Don Schlitz. The adventure begins as Hawkes sets out to meet the son he never knew he had and, during his journey, befriends Billy Montana (Bruce Boxleitner), a novice gambler who needs to learn when to hold ‘em, when to fold ‘em, when to walk away – and when to run.
Goodnight for Justice (2011)
Luke Perry created a colorful lead role for himself: John Goodnight, a Wild West circuit court judge whose parents were killed by outlaws years earlier, and now dispenses justice with eloquence, compassion and, when necessary, lethal firepower. And he brought on board Jason Priestly, his former Beverly Hills 90210 co-star, to direct a diverting drama about Goodnight’s hunt for the man responsible for his parents’ deaths. The result was the highest-rated Hallmark Movie Channel production up to that time. Two well-received sequels followed, and a third might have materialized had Perry not passed away unexpectedly in 2019 at age 52.
The-Over-the-Hill Gang (1969)
Another sentimental favorite, dating back to the days when ABC routinely broadcast 90-minute bread-and-butter TV movies on a weekly basis, and occasionally struck gold with better-than-average westerns. This one playfully strikes several nostalgic notes, with Pat O’Brien, Walter Brennan, Chill Wills and Edgar Buchanan well cast as retired Texas Rangers who help clean up a town controlled by a corrupt mayor (Edward Andrews), a disreputable sheriff (Jack Elam) and a crooked judge (Andy Divine).
The Tracker (1988)
Kris Kristofferson neatly balances warm paternal emotions and cold-blooded mayhem in this violent sagebrush saga directed by John Guillermin (The Towering Inferno) as Noble Adams, a veteran tracker who’d really prefer that Tom (Mark Moses), his visiting lawyer son, not see how violent dad can be sometimes while hunting bad guys. But Noble has no choice to rudely awaken his boy when Tom insists on going along for the ride as he chases after a gang led by Yuma Penitentiary escapee John Stilwell (Scott Wilson).
Hard Ground (2003)
Burt Reynolds gave one of his finer late-career performances in writer-director Frank Q. Dobbs’ satisfyingly old-fashioned western as John “Chill” McKay, a former bounty hunter who, after being wrongly imprisoned for 11 years, is freed to help Sheriff Hutch Hutchinson (Bruce Dern) — his brother-in-law! — pursue escaped convict Billy Bucklin (David Figlioli) and his gang. McKay initially is reluctant to join the hunt — until he learns his son Joshua (Seth Peterson), Hutchinson’s deputy, will be accompanying them. Look close and you’ll spot former C&I cover guy Martin Kove as Bucklin’s none-too-bright underling.