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Greatest Western Movies

Updated on September 22, 2014

Tumbleweeds, gunfights, whiskey and hangings -- these are some common traits you will usually find in a great western. While western movies have changed dramatically over the years, there are still some commonalities in all good western films. There is usually a band of villains, often locals that are dominating the local townspeople for monetary gain. They control the key resources in the area and allow the people to make a minimum wage to work for them.

Then of course there is the the protaganist who is usually a loner who has wandered into town from some distant locale. Oftentimes, the protaganist has a questionable past of their own but either they have a moral compass or are trying to amend for past sins. When they see the local villains commit heinous crimes against the locals, he snaps and starts down a path of retribution. This formula has worked for years and evokes strong emotions in moviegoers. Historically, Clint Eastwood and John Wayne have been the two best protaganists for western films.

Our ranking of the best Western films is well represented by this formula of western. The top ten list includes many of the masters of western films from Clint Eastwood, John Wayne, Sergio Leone, John Ford and Henry Fonda. You can also vote for your favorite western movie in our poll at the end.

This ranking of western films is based on the rankings of members at Rankography top ten movies.

All rights reserved. Copyright 2011 Rankography

10. Young Guns (1988)

A Coming of Age Cowboy Movie

When Young Guns was originally released back in 1988 many felt it was just going to be another 'brat pack' movie with a Westerns theme. However, it actually turned out to be good film and a fun Western with some humor, in the same vein as Silverado. The star-studded cast includes brothers Emilio Estevez and Charlie Sheen, Keifer Sutherland, Lou Diamond Phillips, Jack Palance and Terrance Stamp.

This is another telling of the Billie he Kid story. In this rendition of the classic Western story, Billie and his young gang of friends are given shelter by John Tunstall (Terrance Stamp), a cattle rancher. He employs the boys but also tries to instill some morality. When Tunstall is killed by a rival rancher's gang, the boys are deputized to track the killers.

However, Billie the Kid's (Emilio Estevez) anger gets the better of him and he guns down the killers rather than taking them into custody. As a result, the boys become wanted criminals and are tracked by a group of US Marshals. This is a very good Western Film that also doubles as a coming of age movie. It kept me entertained for the full 107 minutes.

If you enjoyed Young Guns, you might also like Silverado

9. The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)

Revenge is a Powerful Motivator

Clint Eastwood has starred in two of my all-time favorite 'revenge films', Hang 'em High and The Outlaw Josey Wales. Outlaw takes place near the end of the Civil War, Josey Wales' (Clint Eastwood) entire family is gunned down by a band of marauding Union soldiers led by the sadistic Captain Terrill (Bill McKinney). After losing his family, Wales joins a Rebel gang of guerrilla fighters who target and kill Union soldiers.

This Rebel gang continues to fight after the war officially ends, which makes them all 'outlaws'. Captain Terrill is given the task of rounding up and killing all of these Rebel gangs. Wales still haunted by the memories of his family's slaying, targets McKinney and his regiment for revenge, which sets up a classic Western shootout.

This Western film has a strong anti-war message, which was a likely, a product of the times (mid 1970s). Overall it is one of the best Eastwood Westerns and has all the classic elements of his films such a strong lone gunslinger with decent moral fiber, up against great odds to right a grave injustice. And like all good Eastwood movies, Clint gets his revenge in the end.

If you loved The Outlaw Josey Wales, you might also like High Plains Drifter

8. Rio Bravo (1959)

A Blockbuster Cast for this John Wayne Classic

Rio Bravo is one of John Wayne's best known Western movies because of its blockbuster cast. The film starred Wayne, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson, Angie Dickinson, Walter Brennan and Claude Akins. It also carries a classic Western storyline similar to 3:10 to Yuma.

Sheriff John T. Chance (Wayne) has jailed Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) for murder. Burdette is the brother of local gang leader Nathan Burdette and Sheriff Chance has to try to hold onto him until the US Marshall can arrive. To complicate matter, Chance has a motley crew of deputies including a drunk, a cripple and a mysterious young gunslinger. However, Burdette has a much larger, experienced gang and the odds are against Chance.

This is a very good John Wayne Western movie, with a lot of the traditional Wayne movie elements; a hero up against impossible odds, a feisty woman that might or might not end up with Wayne's character, a big gang of nasty villains and a lot of fast action shootouts. While not Wayne's best Western film, Rio Bravo is an enjoyable film that will keep you entertained.

7. The Quick and the Dead (1995)

A Star-Studded Cast in a Top Notch Western

The Quick and the Dead is a Sam Raimi Western movie filled with intrigue. There are four concurrent character storylines occurring including; Ellen (Sharon Stone), the mysterious female gunslinger who has returned to town with an unknown motive, Cort (Russell Crowe), the retired gunslinger turned pacifist preacher, The Kid (Leonardo DiCaprio), a young gunslinger out to prove his mettle and Herod (Gene Hackman), the ruthless town leader out to stir up trouble.

Herod does not like the new pious Cort and in order to try to lure him out of retirement as a gunslinger, he sets up a gun competition in town. It attracts a lot unsavory characters to town.

The entire cast of this Western film is excellent but I particularly love Hackman in this uncharacteristic villain role. There is plenty of action and the some interesting plot twists to keep us entertained throughout the film.

If you liked The Quick and the Dead, you might also like Seraphim Falls

6. For a Few Dollars More (1965)

Eastwood and Van Cleef Are Outstanding Together

This is the second of three Spaghetti Westerns that Clint Eastwood and Sergio Leone paired up with. Interestingly, each one is better than the previous film. In For a Few Dollars More, two bounty hunters are chasing El Indio (Gian Maria Volonte). Marco (Clint Eastwood) is the protagonist hero, a bounty hunter that believes in law enforcement and a moral code. Col. Douglas Mortimer (Lee Van Cleef) is a cold-blooded bounty hunter with an eye on killing anyone that wrongs him.

While they start as rivals for the bounty on El Indio's head, they later team together and agree to split the bounty rather than battle each other for the bounty. But the film takes some crazy turns late when we find out that Mortimer has an ulterior motive for catching El Indio.

It is a more complex plot than A Fistful of Dollars but not as complex as The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. Overall, it is a very good Western film. Both Van Cleef and Eastwood are excellent in their respective roles.

5. The Searchers (1956)

John Wayne in a Different Role, the Anti-Hero

The Searchers is often cited as John Wayne's best film. Unlike Wayne's more common simple hero roles, in Ethan Edwards (Wayne) is a much more complex anti-hero. Ethan has set out on a quest to rescue his nieces, who have been captured by American Indians. He takes his nephew, Martin (Jeffrey Hunter), who himself is 1/8 Indian. Ethan's bitter hatred of American Indians pervades the film and has Martin beginning to question Ethan's motives while searching for his sisters. While he starts out as the hero, Wayne is a complex character that we start to dislike later in the film.

This is a powerful John Ford film that explores the issues of racism in America. At times, the film made me uncomfortable with the general stereotyping in the film. I am not sure if that was intentional by Ford or if it was just a different era of acceptability. It is clear that this Western film pushes the envelope and tries to explore issues that were confronting the country on a broader scale. This film would fight an uphill battle of acceptability today, but for the time it was an important movie and a very good Western.

4. 3:10 to Yuma (2007)

A Remake that Exceeds the Original

I put off watching this film for many years thinking it would be just another Western movie remake. Wow, how wrong I was. 3:10 to Yuma is definitely one of my five favorite Westerns of all time. If you are only familiar with Christian Bale's work from the Batman movies, then you need to check out The Prestige, The Machinist and this film to see his wide ranging roles. I think Bale and DiCaprio are currently the two best actors under 40 years old.

Russell Crowe is also excellent in this Western movie and plays a very different role for him, the ruthless villain Ben Wade. When Dan Evans (Christian Bale) and his boys happen upon a train robbery led by Wade, their paths become hopelessly intertwined.

Evans is a man of conviction with a strong morality and decides to join a posse that is taking the captured Wade to town to put him on the 3:10 train to Yuma. However, Wade's gang led by the equally ruthless Charlie Prince (Ben Foster) is surrounding their positions to free Wade before he is put on the train.

This is a well-crafted Western film with a great script. Ultimately, Wade explores his own morality while observing Evans and decides to change his own path in the end. However, the plot takes many twists and turns and it is a thoroughly enjoyable film throughout.

3. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

Bronson, Fonda and Robards Together in One Mean Western

Two years after directing what many believed to be the best Western movie ever made, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, Sergio Leone may have topped it when he finally got to work with Henry Fonda and Charles Bronson on Once Upon a Time in the West. Originally, Leone had wanted to cast either Fonda or Bronson as the 'man with no name' in the three Spaghetti Westerns that catapulted Clint Eastwood to Western stardom, instead he worked with Eastwood and they made each other into legends.

With Once Upon a Time in the West, Leone again weaves in intricate plot involving both greed and revenge. The story centers on Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale), who has moved west from New Orleans to join her husband and children in Utah. Unfortunately, upon arriving she finds her entire family slain with few clues as to the killers.

She is befriended by one of her early suspects, Cheyenne (Jason Robards), a local gunslinger with a notorious past, and Harmonica (Charles Bronson), a mysterious drifter who plays a haunting melody before killing his victims. They team go after Frank (Henry Fonda), a heartless gang leader. Leone couples this outstanding cast with an intricate plot and beautiful cinematography, to create a real gem of a Western film.

While it is less well known that the top two Western films on the ranking, many have called it the greatest Western movie ever made. It certainly deserves to be called one of the 5 best Western movies of all time.

If you liked Once Upon a Time in the West, you also should like Treasures of the Sierra Madre

2. Unforgiven (1992)

Eastwood's Return to Westerns Genre Yields an Oscar

In 1992, Clint Eastwood returned to Westerns, after 16 years away, with Unforgiven and was rewarded with the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars. Eastwood has become a fantastic Director evidenced by a string of films that have been nominated or won Best Picture Oscars and this is really the film that started it all.

While Eastwood had directed many movies before Unforgiven, this was the film were it all came together to create his string of critically acclaimed movies. And it took a very different role and a very different cold-blooded 'hero'.

In Unforgiven, we get a very different hero from Eastwood. Will Munny (Clint Eastwood) is a retired outlaw who has settled down to a woman who saw past his outlaw nature and found the good inside him. However, she died of illness and Munny is left to raise two children on his pig farm. He admits to being a bad farmer but was a very good bounty hunter and decides to take one more job with a big payday to track down two outlaws that cut up a local prostitute.

Munny spends most of the film trying to convince his partner, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), that he is not the same person -- he has changed. However, later in the film when one of the three needs to shoot an injured man to 'finish him off', it is Munny that takes the role. The end of this film is what set this film apart as truly unique. In the end, we learn that when outraged, Munny still has the ability to kill in cold blood and even some unarmed men. While we have come to despise his opponents in the fight and we empathize with his mission, we learn through both action and dialogue that he was a very bad cold-blooded outlaw prior to settling down. We are left with mixed emotions about this 'hero', both exalted and repulsed at the same time.

Eastwood gathered an amazing cast for this film, including his reluctant sidekick, Morgan Freeman, Gene Hackman, as nasty Big Whiskey Sherriff, Little Bill Daggett, and Richard Harris as the bounty hunter, English Bob. With a top-notch script, the cast delivers beautifully in this Western classic. Unforgiven was nominated for 9 Academy Awards and won 4 including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Supporting Actor (Hackman).

Some would say this is the best Western movie of all time, and it would definitely take the top spot if it were not for our #1 Western film.

If you liked Unforgiven, you should also like Django Unchained

1. The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966)

The Western that All Others are Measure Against

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly was by clear winner for the title of Best Western movie of all time. Frankly, it was not even close with Unforgiven as a distant second place. This was the third and final installment of the "Dollars" series created by Sergio Leone and featuring Clint Eastwood. The Good, The Bad and The Ugly was by far the most complex of the three Spaghetti Westerns, starring Clint Eastwood, with a twisting and turning plot that keeps you guessing until the end of the film.

I was pleased to see this Western movie in the top spot because it is also my favorite Western. Leone perfected the Spaghetti Western by the time he got to TGTBTU, so it has polish, sophistication and much better English dubbing than in the two earlier films.

Unlike the previous films that involved our hero chasing an outlaw or band of outlaws, in TGTBTU, Blondie, the good (Clint Eastwood), is chasing a rumored treasure of gold that is buried in a cemetery. However, he is racing against two other ruthless outlaws, Angel Eyes, the bad (Lee Van Cleef), and Tuco, the ugly (Eli Wallach). He builds a tenuous alliance with Tuco to beat Angel Eyes to the treasure, but the plot takes so many twists and turns it is hard to call their union, an alliance.

You will enjoy this Western film. It combines great cinematography, outstanding acting, an intriguing storyline and some fantastic dialogue, to create the best of the Clint Eastwood Westerns.

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