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Western Movies

Updated on November 4, 2014

The History of Western Movies

Western movies have been around since the beginning of cinematic history in the US. They are no longer the most common nor the most popular movies presented to audiences. However, they still hold a special spot for those who love adventure and larger than life heroes.

Stick around and learn more about the history of western movies and the producers and actors that have created them.

Before western films became popular with movie going fans, western books and shows blazed the trail, whetting the appetite of millions for adventure.

Although life in the early west was harsh, novels began proliferating in the 1860s which presented a more ideal or glamorized version of the experience. Real-life characters such as William F. Cody ("Buffalo Bill") and James Butler Hickok ("Wild Bill" Hickok) as well as a number of fictional characters were extremely popular.

Author's like Owen Wister ("The Virginian") and Zane Grey were top names. Due to the extreme success of such literature, "Wild West Shows" also become popular; traveling the US and Europe as well. Stars such as sharp shooting Annie Oakley, "Buffalo Bill" Cody, and even Sitting Bull the great Indian Chief where a huge draw.

In the early 1900s moving pictures entered the scene and western movies were among the first to reach audiences.

A Wild West Show Today

Although the stars of the original Wild West Shows are gone, it's possible to catch shows periodically that can recapture just a bit of the glory. See the video below to get a taste.

Books by Zane Grey

The first western movie to tell a story is widely said to be "The Great Train Robbery" which was produced in 1903 by Edwin Porter (an Edison pal) and many western silent films followed.

Other directors took on westerns including names like Cecil B. DeMille, who produced a number of westerns in the early days. Among his works was an adaptation of "The Virginian". D.W.Griffith, Thomas Ince, and John Ford were other prolific directors particularly in the western genre.

Characters like Broncho Billy played by Gilbert Anderson (Max Aronson) often carried an entire series of films. Tom Mix came along a bit later with his horse "Tony", as well as Buck Jones with horse "Silver Jones", and Fred Thomson with "Silver King". Hoot Gibson, Ken Maynard with horse "Tarzan", Harry Carey, and Tim McCoy were also very popular between 1914 and 1926.

While many early western movies told moral tales of good triumphing over evil and men fighting for a righteous cause some were also comedies and others merely action packed showcases for their smart horses and talented "cowboy" actors. Films like "Custers Last Fight" in 1912, "On the Night Stage" in 1914, "Hell's Hinges" in 1916, and "Tumbleweeds" in 1925 were well received.

Certainly films about the west have focused on cowboys, gunslingers, and male roles in general, with women taking more minor roles. Some early films however did provide a view of the west from the perspective of women. "The Wind" from 1928 was an example with a focus on Lillian Gish's struggle with the isolation and hardship.

Western movies also included popular actresses of the time like Blanche Sweet and Mary Pickford in titles such as "The Goddess of Sagebrush Gulch" and

"The Battle at Elderbush Gulch".

Although few of the more well known western films were "sympathetic" regarding Indians, some silent westerns did indeed recognize the culture of Native American Indians and displayed some of the issues related to their treatment by the US government. Richard Dix starred in 1925-26's "The Vanishing American" as well as 1929's "Redskin", both recognized as important films in this respect despite the fact that many modern fans have not viewed them.

Source: Great Hollywood Westerns by Ted Sennett

Silent Western Movie Clips

Early Western Movies (Silent)

Western movies about real figures such as Billy the Kid, Buffalo Bill, and others continued to be made although their tales were often as much fantasy as reality. Screenplays about stagecoaches, the interncontinental railroad, and cattle drives were popular too.

One of John Wayne's first big roles came in 1930 in a film called "The Big Trail". James Stewart took the lead in 1939's "Destry Rides Again" as a slow talking and unlikely hero who gradually proves his mettle in taming the more vicious element in this western town.

Even Errol Flynn was present in western films as he played the lead in 1939's "Dodge City" a big budget film that told a typical western story of a man reluctantly taking the job of "cleaning up" a town.

One of the most prominent western movies was "Cimarron". Made in 1931 it won an Academy Award for Best Picture. It's opening scene, a land race, is famous and representative of the sweeping nature of the film. The story focuses on the growth of a small western town and the eventual statehood of Oklahoma much of it driven by the forceful lead character played by Richard Dix and others like him.

1937's "Wells Fargo" directed by Frank Lloyd was also notable as Joel McCrea played the lead in a story about the first Wells Fargo rider.

1930s Western Movie Clips

Through the 1940s western movies often focused on the hardships faced by those pioneering the west and the bravery of the cavalry.

1940 brought "Northwest Passage" with Spencer Tracy and "Brigham Young" with Vincent Price. In 1949 the tale of Wyatt Earp grew with "My Darling Clementine", with Henry Fonda playing the lead. David O.Selznak directed a glamorous cast of Lionel Barrymore, Lillian Gish, Gregory Peck, Joseph Cotten, Jennifer Jones and others in 1947's "Duel in the Sun".

General Custer's story was re-told in 1948's "Fort Apache" and John Wayne starred in 1949's "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon".

1943's "The Oxbow Incident" directed by William Wellman was a notable film. Henry Fonda, acting as an observer, starred in this tale of mob violence in which local townspeople hunt down and hang an innocent man. It is a dark and unnerving story which puts ignorance and self-righteousness on display.

Haward Hawk's 1948 movie "Red River" starring John Wayne and Montgomery Cliff was a particularly noteworthy contribution to the western niche. The story of a father and son at odds, wrestling for power, "Red River" takes place during a great cattle drive and is a true epic.

1940s Western Movie Clips

1940's Western Movies

Western movies still figured big at the cinema in the 1950s. Titles like "Wagon Master", "Bend of the River", "Across the Wide Missouri", "The Big Sky", "The Furies", "Winchester '73", and "Annie Get Your Gun" were on marquees in the early years of the decade.

"Broken Arrow" starred James Stewart and Jeff Chandler in 1950. It told the story of the Apache's and Cochise. "Tomahawk" and "Arrowhead" were other western movies focused upon Native American Indians as well. Another departure from the typical western was 1950s "The Gunfighter" which looked at a gunslinger's failed attempt to "retire" to a more peaceful and homebound existence; it starred Gregory Peck.

Barbara Stanwyck took several roles which cast her as a strong female lead; "Cattle Queen of Montana", "Maverick Queen", and "Forty Guns" were among these.

"Rio Grande" (1950)featured John Wayne and Marueen O'Hara who's stormy chemistry was evident in several films. This film was a continuation of the story begun in "Fort Apache" and "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon". "High Noon" (1952) was probably the most notable and won Gary Cooper an Oscar for his leading role. The film tells the story of a soon to retire lawman who finds that in his final hour of duty a gunslinger,and his "gang", are coming to get revenge. He seeks support from other towns people only to find he must stand alone.

"Shane" with Alan Ladd, "Escape from Fort Bravo", "The Man from Laramie", and "Broken Lance" with Spencer Tracy were among the western movies in the middle part of the 50's.

1956 brought "The Searchers" in which John Wayne searches for a niece who survives a Comache attack that killed her parents. The film offers an examination of racism.

"Gun Fight at O.K Corral" was directed by John Sturges in 1957 and starred Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas. 1958's "The Big Country" offered an impressive cast of Gregory Peck, Burl Ives, Charles Bickford, Carroll Baker, Charlton Heston, and Jean Simmons.

The end of the decade brought "Rio Bravo", another John Wayne film, directed by Howard Hawks. The film was hailed as one of the best of the genre that decade, with an outstanding cast, good story line, tension, and yet its share of good cheer.

Source: Great Hollywood Westerns by Ted Sennett

1950s Western Movie Clips

The early 1960s brought western movies like "The Unforgiven" starring Burt Lancaster and Lillian Gish as well as "The Magnificent Seven" directed by John Sturge's. The latter featured an all star cast of Yul Brynner,James Coburn, Steve McQueen, Eli Wallach, and Charles Bronson who are gunslingers hired by a small Mexican town looking for protection.

The "Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" was released in 1962. In 1963 the epic "How the West Was Won" was released; the story follows the life of a family across three generations as they move and establish their home in the west. The cast again is award winning with Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck, Debbie Reynolds, James Stewart, John Wayne, George Peppard, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, Carroll Baker, and Carolyn Jones.

1964's Cheyenne Autumn tells the story of the west from the Indian's point of view and stars Richard Widemark, Ricardo Montalban, Sal Mineo, and Dolores Del Rio.

Charlton Heston starred in 1965's "Major Dundee" and William Holden took the lead in "The Wild Bunch" both Sam Pekinpah directed films while Yul Brynner showed up in "Death of a Gunfighter".

1967 brought Clint Eastwood in "The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly" one of Sergio Leone's films and one of the most recognizable theme songs to date.

Silliness also broke out in western films in the form of "Support Your Local Sheriff" in 1967 and "Support Your Local Gunfighter" in 1969 as well as "Cat Ballou" with Jane Fonda. Of course 1969's "Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid" staring Paul Newman and Robert Redford was lighthearted at it's core as well.

In 1967 "The Ballad of Josie" told the story of a widow struggling to make things work alone and in 1968 the story of "Will Penny" hit theaters with Henry Fonda playing an aging gunfighter who, possibly too late, discovers the domestic life he missed.

Some of the more violent Italian directed westerns came on strong in the late 60's. "A Fistful of Dollars" and Sergio Corbucci's "Dijango", "The Hellbenders", "Navajo Joe, and "A Professional Gun" were at theaters.

1960s Western Movie Clips

Later, western movies took another turn. In 1970, "Little Big Man" started out the decade with a sometimes humorous, sometimes serious look at the world of "white men" and of "red men" by following the title character (Dustin Hoffman) as his life wove between the two. In 1971, Richard Harris starred in "A Man Called Horse", another supposed look at Indian culture. Meanwhile, "McCabe and Mrs. Miller hit the theaters as a story about a couple of eastern "businessmen" who enter the west ill prepared for the challenges.

1972 brought a look into the life of the outlaw who turned lawmaker, Judge Roy Bean: a John Huston directed film starring Paul Newman. That same year Syndney Pollack directed Robert Redford in Jeremiah Johnson; a flim that follows a man's retreat into the wilderness and provides some rather realistic fight scenes although not much "gore".

In 1973 Clint Eastwood directed and starred in "High Plains Drifter", the story of a stranger who drifts into town, is attacked and nearly killed by gunmen, and is then recruited to protect the town. It offers a hint of the supernatural and is one of the most loved Clint Eastwood films. In 1976, Eastwood came out with "The Outlaw Josey Wales" which had a more sympathetic lead character and somewhat less action than many previous films as the story follows a man who struggles to live a peaceful life. Redford also starred in "The Electric Horsemen", a more contemporary western film, that same year.

Mel Brooks' contribution to western movies was of course a comedy; "Blazing Saddles" was releaded in 1974 starring Gene Wilder and Cleavon Little. John Wayne revised his "True Grit" character in 1975's "Rooster Cogburn", co-starring with Katherine Hepburn. "Heartland" was another notable film not for it's action but for it's authentic feel for life in Wyoming in the late 1800's.

1970s Western Movie Clips

The number of western films continued to drop prior to the 1980s but the genre still had a following. In 1980 "Heaven's Gate" opened to mixed reviews. It's cinematography outstanding and it's cast impressive with Christopher Walken, Kris Kristofferson, John Hurt and Sam Watterson. It is the story of an 1881 cattle war but audiences either loved or hated the movie.

"The Man from Snowy River" came along in 1982 but is actually set in 1880s Australia versus the American West. It is the story of a young man who is forced to become the "man of the family" and tames a wild herd of horses.

The western movie "Pale Rider" with Clint Eastwood arrived in theaters in 1985. It was his return to the western cinema scene after nearly a decade away. His role was once again to enter town as a stranger and to help the people defend themselves from more evil men.

Also in 1985, "Silverado" came to the screen. Starring Kevin Costner, Danny Glover, Scott Glenn, and Kevin Kline, the film is fun but the theme is traditional western. It is the story of four sharp shooting buddies who find themselves in the position of saving a small western town.

By 1988, "Young Guns" came out with a cast including Emelio Estevez, Keifer Sutherland, Lou Diamond Phillips, Charlie Sheen, and Dermot Mulroney. The film is the story of six young guns hired to protect a man's ranch until he is killed and they seek revenge.

The decade wound up with the 1989 release of a "mini-series" rather than a made for cinema film: "Lonesome Dove". It was a story of two aging cowboys who were involved in one last great cattle drive adventure. It starred Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones and was well received.

1980s Western Movie Clips

Although not as numerous there were some western movies that celebrated success in the 1990s. "Dances with Wolves" opened the decade. Kevin Costner starred and directed this epic. It is the story of a white soldier who finds himself manning a western military post single handedly. Over time he develops a relationship with nearby Lakota Sioux Indians and becomes part of their community.

Later that year "Quigley Down Under" was also released. Sharpshooter Quigley (Tom Selleck) finds himself in Australia rather than the American West, healing and experiencing this new frontier.

In 1992 Daniel Day Lews stars in James Fenimore Cooper's "The Last of the Mohicans" and in 1993 Val Kilmer and Kurt Russell star as Doc Holiday and Wyatt Earp in "Tombstone".

Clint Eastwood returned with Morgan Freeman in "Unforgiven" as retired gunslingers who decide to go bounty hunting one last time to collect the reward.

1994 brought "Maverick" starring Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, James Garner, and Graham Greene. Later "The Quick and the Dead" and "Wild Bill" showed up in 1995. Another notable offering was "Legends of the Fall" featuring Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins in a tale of family discord set on a Montana ranch.

1990s Western Movie Clips

The story of a young Texas rancher who longs for the days of cowboy glory came to movie theaters in 2000 in the form of "All the Pretty Horses". The young "hero" leaves his home for Mexico to find the life he wants. His journey is fraught with unanticipated danger and circumstances he could never imagine.

Other notable western movies have included "The Missing", "Hildago", "3;10 to Yuma", "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford", and "Alamo".

"The Missing" was released in 2003 with mixed reviews. Cate Blanchett stars as a mother racing to find her daughter who was kidnapped before she can be sold south of the border. The movie is somewhat unique in it's strong female lead. 2004 brought "Hildago" with a rousing tale of a long distance horse race complete with bad guys to make winning even more glorious.

In 2004 "Alamo" arrived with Dennis Quaid and Billy Bob Thorton starring.

Several western movies came out in 2007. The most popular include, Christian Bale and Russell Crowe in "3:10 to Yuma" and Brad Pitt in "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford". This latest version of the story of Jesse James picks up during his last robbery and follows through with the fate of his companions following his murder.

2008 saw two notable westerns. Appaloosa starred Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen. In this tale the two men are hired by a mining town to bring a powerful, but lawless cattle baron to justice. The outlaw has already killed lawmen. The other film, Australia, was obviously set in that country. It started Nicole Kidman as a woman who must fight to save her cattle from coniving rnachers who have already killed her husband to gain a monopoly. She is escorted, helped and romanced by a man from the area, played by Hugh Jackman.

2000 Western Movie Clips

2000's Western Movies

2010 started out strong for western movies, with the filming of "True Grit". The film was a remake of a 1969 classic starring John Wayne and Robert Duvall. The 2010 version starred Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn, Matt Damon, and Josh Brolin. After her father is murdered by a hired hand, a 14 year old girl seeks out the help of US Marshal Cogburn. Along with a Texas Ranger they set out across the west to find the killer.

In late 2011, Sam Shepard starred as Butch Cassidy who supposedly survived the shootout with the law in Bolivia. Now, years later he is traveling home to the US and meets up with a young criminal, played by Eduardo Noriega. Blackthorn is the story of that final adventure. Django Unchained came along in 2012 and a new version of The Lone Ranger came out in 2013. 2014 sees the release of a movie that pokes fun at the old west, A Million Ways to Die in the West (not for kids).

2010s Western Movie Clips and Trailers

2010's Western Movies on Sale

Introduction Photo Credit: Rene S. (No derivative work allowed.)

Western Movies: Tell us about your favorite western film

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    • Alana-r profile image


      6 years ago

      I love Clint Eastwood movies, that look he can give is amazing. Great lens!

    • Countryluthier profile image

      E L Seaton 

      6 years ago from Virginia

      Take me back to childhood movies, these things were off the chain.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      I like some Westerns, but my mother and brother can sit and watch these day and night,

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      I like some Westerns, but my mother and brother can sit and watch these day and night,

    • DLeighAlexander profile image


      7 years ago

      I have many but my very favorite would have to be "El Dorado" starring John Wayne.

    • CoeGurl profile image


      7 years ago from USA

      What a great lens!

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      *Great* lens about western movies! My favourite one of all time is Dances With Wolves. The extended version is the only movie I consider to be perfect.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Very good article. However you failed to mention one of the best true to life westerns filmed in the last 30 years - Lonesome Dove. I know this was a mini series but It ranks among the top westerns ever filmed.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      i was thinking westerns were dead than came true grit aan awesome western by the coen brothers

    • chrisqw profile image


      7 years ago

      Great lens. I love Westerns!

    • Philippians468 profile image


      7 years ago

      i love any film with cowboys riding those horses into the sunset! cheers

    • Rankography profile image


      8 years ago

      Great Western lens. Very thorough. Here are some more ranked lists of Favorite Westerns from members of Rankography

    • raswook profile image

      Jeff Wendland 

      8 years ago from Kalamazoo, MI

      I love a good Western. Any Clint Eastwood one is good for me.

    • LaraineRoses profile image

      Laraine Sims 

      8 years ago from Lake Country, B.C.

      I had a great time going to the actors websites you have posted here. I like the western movies of the 1960s and '70s. Like so many, my fav. actor is John Wayne especially the movies Maureen O'Hara starred in also. Harry Fonda also gets my vote. Oh yes, and, and .. I guess I really enjoy western movies and most of the actors you mentioned. Thank you for visiting my lens. You have a great one here. 5*s and favored and lensrolling it to my Maureen O'Hara lens.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      I like the old westerns with John Wayne, Robert Mitchum and Dean Martin. Great lens!

    • Kiwisoutback profile image


      9 years ago from Massachusetts

      I haven't seen 3:10 to Yuma, but it's on my list of to-see movies. Thanks for the reminder. Great compilation of movies, Squid Angel blessed!

    • paperfacets profile image

      Sherry Venegas 

      9 years ago from La Verne, CA

      I am a western movie nut. Thanks for this good list. I lensrolled my two movie reviews to this.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Great lens! Lots of good information here!

    • religions7 profile image


      9 years ago

      Great lens - you've been blessed by a squidoo angel :)

    • Christene-S profile image


      9 years ago

      Blessed by a SquidAngel

    • ClassyGals profile image

      Cynthia Davis 

      9 years ago from Pittsburgh

      Your invited to join Country Western Living! Five stars and favored.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      I love the old westerns. They don't make movies like they used to.

      Great lens


    • ElizabethJeanAl profile image


      9 years ago

      Welcome to the totally Awesome Lenses Group.


    • The Eclectic Muse profile image

      The Eclectic Muse 

      10 years ago

      I used to watch old John Wayne flicks with my dad. He loved Westerns with a passion. He would have loved this lens. Superb job!

    • Spook LM profile image

      Spook LM 

      10 years ago

      Great lens; my favourite would have to be "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid". Loved the song "Raindrops keep falling on my head" in that movie.

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      I love the old westerns. Before they got "real." John Ford, John Wayne, Maureen O'Hara. It was on a very rare occasion that they could be bettered.

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      I'm 42 years old, and I fail to understand how the guys (sorry- not to sound sexist) who are younger than me, fail to appreciate good westerns. Who can resist Clint Eastwood or even Charles Bronson. I'm getting older and can't accept it (lol). Great lens.

    • ElizabethJeanAl profile image


      10 years ago

      I love the old westerns, both the movies and the TV shows. What better break than a half hour of "Wild Wild West"?

      Great lens


    • PromptWriter profile image

      Moe Wood 

      10 years ago from Eastern Ontario

      The best cowboy ever is Clint Eastwood. I love them all.

    • billco1 profile image


      10 years ago

      Outstanding, informative lens. Very well done. I love westerns and never miss a chance to see an older one.

      5 Stars.

    • triathlontraini1 profile image


      10 years ago

      Very well done lens! :)

    • rebeccahiatt profile image


      10 years ago

      I am not sure what my favorite western would be. I love many different westerns, but my husband loves The Sons of Katie Elder with John Wayne. Great lens!

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      Wow! Bet my hubby saw all of those in the 40's and 50's. He went to the movies every Saturday as a boy! Great lens!


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