There are plenty of other contenders for this list, including High Noon and The Westerner, both with Gary Cooper, The Gunfighter with Gregory Peck, Gunfight at the OK Corral with Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, The Wild Bunch with William Holden, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Lonely are the Brave with Kirk Douglas and the list goes on. But I had to draw the line somewhere and these are my 10 favorites:
10. The Outlaw Josey Wales
Directed and starring Clint Eastwood, The Outlaw Josie Wales was one of the few big budget westerns of its era in the mid/late 1970's. While it didn't quite bring back the genre in full swing, it is a dark, gritty movie with great supporting characters and Clint as one of his best anti-heroes since the Man With No Name.
The movie that made John Wayne a huge star. This movie is the prototype for the modern disaster movie; an assortment of diverse characters thrown together to fight off an outside threat. Imagine replacing the robbers with a volcano or a tidal wave and you'll see it. This is considered by some to be the best work from the best director of Westerns - John Ford. And this is Westerns we're talking about here, so get used to the idea of seeing The Duke's name more than once again on this list.
This modern western has none of the traditional elements. It is a fascinating character study that is more like Arthur Miller than Louis L'amour with Paul Newman in one of his most memorable roles.
7. True Grit
Of course this is the original we're talking about. This was the movie that finally got John Wayne his Academy Award for Best Actor. It's one of his best roles that he inhabits with gusto.
The supporting cast is great, including a precocious Kim Darby, Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper and even Glen Campbell puts in a tolerable performance. Some great lines, a good plot, beautiful direction by Henry Hathaway, and a fabulous score by the great film composer Elmer Bernstein.
6. The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
The last and best of Sergio Leone's Man With No Name trilogy. This is a beautifully photographed, intricate and sprawling story of three rival fortune hunters trying to track down a cache of lost gold while foiling each other. Aside from the iconic main title theme, Ennio Morricone composed a spectacular score for the movie. In the opinion of many, this was the greatest film in the careers of three giants in the film business: star Clint Eastwood, director Leone and composer Morricone..
5. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance has John Wayne at his John Wayniest. Directed by John Ford, it has Wayne rivalled in love by a determined Jimmy Stewart. This is in many ways the pinnacle of both Ford and Wayne's career as it features the best of both of their talents. The movie has excitement, humor, and a fabulous threat in Lee Marvin, who plays one of the orneriest villains in the history of the genre. The movie both portrays and ennobles all the stereotypes we expect from the western and elevates them into a thoughtful and thoroughly entertaining movie about courage and sacrifice.
4. Once Upon A Time in the West
Magnificent, operatic and a visually enthralling movie, Segio Leone's follow-up to The Man With No Name is a simply amazing movie. The five minute-long opening sequence that has no dialogue is one of the most masterful examples of editing and direction in the history of film. Charles Bronson puts in a fantastic performance as a mysterious gunfighter. The cast also has Jason Robards Jr as a saddle bum, and a very rare turn for the great Henry Fonda as a villain named Frank. And what a villain he is! Fonda seems to take all the restraint he stored up playing the penultimate good-guy for decades and unleashes it as the sadistic, yet measured antagonist in this stunningly photographed movie. Enhanced with an eerie score from Ennio Morricone, Once Upon a Time in the West is not only the best spaghetti western, but is one of the very best westerns of all time.
3. Little Big Man
The Revisionist Western that changed the way people looked at the Old West. This movie, based on a novel by Thomas Berger, came out the year before Dee Brown's seminal book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and both shocked Americans by turning upside down their mythology of the Western Calvary and cowboys as "the good guys" and Indians as the brutal savages.
This fictional tale is honest in its portrayal of the treatment of American Indians by the US in the period following The Civil War. Natives in British North America, and later Canada were in some cases mistreated, but despite the claims of a few self-interested, faux Human Rights hucksters, there was never a Canadian or British genocide of Indians. In the US, the policies and treatment of some of the American Indian tribes in the 1800's were indeed close to genocide. Few movies, before or since, have explicitly shown the horrific mistreatment of American natives and none have done it so well. The Academy Award-winning Dances with Wolves, that was made about two decades later, borrowed a great deal from Little Big Man, but still did not live up to the earlier film.
Mixing hilarious comedy with heart-wrenching tragedy, Little Big Man boasts wonderful performances from Dustin Hoffman in the lead, with tremendous support from fine actors like Martin Balsam, Faye Dunaway, Chief Dan George, Jeff Corey as Wild Bill Hickock, and an unforgettable portrayal of General Custer as a psychopathic megalomaniac by Richard Mulligan.
Plenty of people think this is the movie that tops the list of best westerns. It has a fable-like quality to the tale of a gunfighter who wants to hang up his pistols, but circumstances force him into one last fight. If you think that sounds familiar, it is, but that's because lots of movies in all sorts of genres have taken that theme from Shane and copied it.
Beautifully, idyllically directed by George Stevens with outstanding performances by Alan Ladd as Shane, Van Heflin and an incredibly menacing Jack Palance as a hired gun.
1. The Magnificent Seven
This is it. As far as I'm concerned, The Magnificent Seven is the best western ever made. It has everything and it does everything remarkably well.
This is the great Akira Kurosawa Samurai film The Seven Samurai redone as a Western, and while some may dispute this, I think the Western is a better movie. Along with Casablanca and Some Like it Hot, The Magnificent Seven has characters who deliver some of the best lines ever written for a movie. The all-star casting is outstanding with Yul Brenner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Robert Vaughan, Horst Buchlotz and Brad Dexter as The Seven and Eli Wallach chewing up scenery in a fabulous turn as the dastardly leader of a gang of ruthless banditos who terrorize a Mexican village.
Like many great westerns, it tackles the themes of courage, honor, racism, betrayal and sacrifice and it has some terrific action propelling the story forward. Many who have never seen the movie are familiar with its famous theme music, but the entire score, written by Elmer Bernstein, is an exercise in musical genius.
The charisma, and the thrilling vignettes with any one of the stars in this movie would make for a fantastic film experience, but they keep coming one after another in The Magnificent Seven. It's no wonder this amazing movie spawned many sequels and a television series, none of which came anywhere close to the remarkable original. The excitement and fun that this film conveys is unparallelled by anything else in the genre.