The wild west is one of the favourite settings of all time for film makers, and stories of cowboys and Indians have been pulling in audiences for decades. Actors such as John Wayne and Clint Eastwood made their names by playing gunslingers, but the debate on which is the best western will probably never end.
This selection of ten of the best westerns are listed alphabetically and range from the 1948 comedy The Paleface through the spaghetti westerns of the 1960s to modern films. There will undoubtedly be more westerns made that one day will earn their place in lists such as this.
For those who disagree with the selection, please feel free to add your own favourite cowboy movie in the comments box at the end.
- 1 A Fistful of Dollars (1964)
- 2 Brokeback Mountain (2005)
- 3 Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
- 4 The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
- 5 The Magnificent Seven (1960)
- 6 The Paleface (1948)
- 7 The Searchers (1956)
- 8 The Wild Bunch (1969)
- 9 Unforgiven (1992)
- 10 Westworld (1973)
- 11 Best Western Film Ever
A Fistful of Dollars (1964)
This really includes all three of the famous spaghetti western trilogy, the other two being For A Few Dollars More in 1965 and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in 1966. All three were directed by Sergio Leone and starred Clint Eastwood. In A Fistful of Dollars, he played a gunfighter caught in a battle between two rival families, a battle he used to his own advantage. The movie is actually based on the 1961 Japanese film Yojimbo.
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Directed by Ang Lee, this is a western romance starring Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal as cowboys Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist, respectively, who fall in love while herding sheep on Brokeback Mountain in Wyoming. The film won three Oscars and was nominated for another five.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
Paul Newman (Butch Cassidy) and Robert Redford (Harry Longabaugh, the Sundance Kid) star as the two infamous bank robbers being pursued across America and Bolivia by a posse led by lawman Joe Lefors. The film also stars Katharine Ross as Sundance’s lover Etta Place. It won four Oscars and was nominated for another three. One of the Oscar wins was for the song “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” sung by Butch and Etta.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
Starring Brad Pitt as Jesse James and Casey Affleck as Robert Ford, this is based on the 1983 novel of the same name by Ron Hansen and is an examination of the two men, the experienced outlaw Jesse James and young gang member Robert Ford. It was directed by Andrew Dominik and nominated for two Oscars.
The Magnificent Seven (1960)
Yul Brynner plays Chris, a gunslinger hired to protect a village from bandits. He recruits six men to help him and the seven go off to face the bandits, though they know they are outnumbered. They start to train the villagers to fight and much of the film is about the growing relationship between these men and the villagers. The film also starred Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn and James Coburn. It was nominated for an Oscar and directed by John Sturges.
The Paleface (1948)
Bob Hope plays Peter “Painless” Potter and Jane Russell plays Calamity Jane in this comedy western. Calamity Jane marries dentist Potter to hide her true identity as she tries to find out who is smuggling rifles to the Indians. Jane saves a wagon train but gives the credit to Potter, who then becomes a target for the gunrunners. It won an Oscar for the song “Buttons and Bows”. There was a sequel Son of Paleface in 1952.
The Searchers (1956)
No list of Westerns would be complete without an appearance by John Wayne, who stars as Ethan Edwards, an American Civil War veteran looking for his nieces (played by Natalie Wood and Pippa Scott), abducted by Comanche Indians. In 2008, The American Film Institute named it the greatest American western of all time. It was directed by John Ford.
The Wild Bunch (1969)
Sam Peckinpah directed this film about an ageing gang of outlaws trying to come to terms with a changing world. After what they hoped would be their last big robbery goes tragically wrong the remaining gang members flee to Mexico to retire but are pursued by bounty hunters. It was nominated for two Oscars and starred William Holden as gang leader Pike Bishop.
Clint Eastwood produced, directed and starred in this film as William Munny, a retired outlaw who takes on one more job to earn reward money by hunting down two cowboys who disfigured a prostitute, but there are rival bounty hunters after the money. The film also starred Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman and Richard Harris. It won four Oscars and was nominated for another five.
Yul Brynner plays a robot in a futuristic theme park where the customers can act out their western fantasies. But a fault develops and the robots start attacking the punters and killing them. The robot played by Yul Brynner is based on Chris, his character in The Magnificent Seven. This film was also considered for the best science-fiction movie of all time list. It was nominated for a Hugo Award. A remake is being planned.
Best Western Film Ever
Blazing Saddles nearly made the list but it is in the list of the ten best comedy movies of all time. As to those that did make the list, the final shoot-out for the best western of all time comes down to A Fistful of Dollars against The Magnificent Seven, with Yul Brynner cutting Clint Eastwood off at the pass.