1. The Searchers (1956)
It would be impossible to come
up with a unanimous No. I, with thousands of films and a century
to span, but is there anyone who loves Westerns who doesn’t
love The Searchers? John Ford may have written the language of
the movie Western in Stagecoach, but with The Searchers he
demonstrated a mastery of visual storytelling to craft a film
that is the cinematic equivalent of the Mona Lisa. Unheralded in
its time, The Searchers has become an icon for those who take
their movies seriously. Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas,
Steven Spielberg, and Martin Scorsese rank it among their most
profound cinematic influences. Even moviegoers who have never
been to film school debate the film’s best camera shots.
If that makes watching The
Searchers sound as exciting as attending a classroom lecture,
nothing could be further from the truth. Ethan Edwards’
seven-year search for his niece, who is kidnapped by Indians,
has the dramatic sweep of epic poetry. The embittered, bigoted
Edwards undertakes an inner search for grace that mirrors his
journey through Monument Valley. The quests end simultaneously,
as Edwards, who had planned to kill the girl rather than see her
raised as a savage, lifts her triumphantly into the air and
lovingly cradles her in his arms, uttering four words that make
Western fans cry: “Let’s go home, Debbie.”
But there is no home for
Ethan. He’s seen too much, done too much, to ever be accepted
into polite society. In the classic final scene, Ethan returns
Debbie to her family but cannot cross the threshold of their
cabin. He remains outside, framed in the doorway, destined to
wander his live-long days devoid of the comforts of home and
John Wayne’s uncompromising
portrayal of one of the movies’ most ferocious tragic heroes
should have earned him an Academy Award. But it would be more
than a dozen years before Wayne finally hooked up with Oscar for
his portrayal of Marshal Rooster Cogburn in True Grit (No. 60).
2. Stagecoach (1939)
Hailed upon its release as a
touchstone in the evolution of the Western, Stagecoach is
ostensibly a straightforward tale of eight passengers traveling
through hostile territory. But beneath the surface, Dudley
Nichols’ literate script examined the conflicting dynamics
between the characters — male and female, North and South,
high-brow and low-brow, valiant and cowardly — and the
fascinating ways in which those dynamics change during the
John Ford’s decision to cast
John Wayne did not sit well with producer Walter Wanger, who
wanted Gary Cooper. But as Stagecoach became a template for the
genre, The Ringo Kid established the John Wayne persona: a
strong, independent man who lives by a moral code that doesn’t
always conform to the law of the land. He is respectful toward
women, but awkward and timid when it comes to romance. Ringo’s
marriage proposal to the prostitute Dallas (Claire Trevor),
delivered with head bowed and voice wavering, is a kind of
quiet, poignant moment not found in Westerns before Stagecoach.
John Wayne’s entrance scene
seems to have been deliberately designed to introduce a
significant new presence in the genre, as the long shot from the
moving stagecoach closes rapidly toward a figure in the
distance. Wayne forces the stagecoach to a halt. He stands, legs
apart, a saddle slung over his shoulder, twirling his customized
Winchester. “Looks like you’ve got another passenger,” he tells
driver Andy Devine, and western movies would never be the same.
3. Shane (1953)
Shane is not just a story of the West; it’s all the stories of
the West: ranchers vs. homesteaders; the taming of the frontier;
the showdown between good and evil; and the gunfighter who
protects law and order (Alan Ladd), then feels out of place once
the job is done.
Younger viewers tend to experience Shane through the eyes of
Brandon De Wilde and share his hero worship of the buckskin-clad
stranger with the pearl-handled revolver. Shane is soft-spoken
and polite (“I hope you don’t mind my cuttin’ through your
place”), but his hair-trigger response to a sudden noise betrays
his identity as a gunfighter. Alan Ladd may have stood only 5’4”
but to little Joey (De Wilde) his presence is larger than life.
When these same viewers grow up and come back to the film, they
see the emotional layers in the adult relationships, which add
greater resonance to the story. Marian (Jean Arthur) warns Joey
about getting too attached to Shane, but clearly she’s trying to
warn herself. Her husband Joe (Van Heflin) recognizes her
attraction as well as the way his son idolizes Shane, but he
does nothing, hoping Shane will do the right thing when the time
Every scene works, every performance rings true. Director George
Stevens turns the removal of a tree stump into a moment of
exhilaration. The smiles Shane and Joe exchange when they turn
the tide in their general-store brawl arc irresistibly
infectious. Jack Palance, as the embodiment of evil, set a
standard for western villainy that is yet to be surpassed. And
De Wilde’s plaintive cries of “Come back, Shane!” at the
fade-out still echo in the memory.
4. My Darling Clementine (1946)
The title provides the first
clue to John Ford’s intent. Although My Darling Clementine was
based on Wyatt Earp’s dubious biography, Frontier Marshal, and
follows the events leading up to the gunfight at the OK Corral,
Ford concentrated on the romance between Wyatt (Henry Fonda) and
Clementine (Cathy Downs). It is fitting that the gunfight,
though exciting, doesn’t come close to being the most memorable
scene in the film. The quieter moments — the church dance, the
hilarious hair tonic scene, Doc’s Shakespearean soliloquy — are
most indelible. This is the most beautiful black-and-white
western ever made. In fact, it’s worth watching once with sound
off to better appreciate the chiaroscuro created by
cinematographer Joseph MacDonald.
5. The Magnificent Seven (1960)
It’s on TV all the time — TBS, AMC, TNT — the Food Network and
Animal Planet are probably next. And if it pops up during a
channel surf, you can’t turn it off whether it’s near the
beginning, when Yul Brynner recruits his team of mercenaries, or
when the “Seven” ride into the Mexican village, to the
pulse-quickening “Bomp-BUMP-Bump-Bomp” of Elmer Bernstein’s
score, or at the film’s climax during the crackerjack shootout
with the vicious raiders led by the demonic Calvera (Eli
Wallach). It’s based on Akira Kurosawa’s The
Seven Samurai, but this is no high-brow museum piece.
Whereas the previous four films on this list are justly lauded
as cinematic art, The
Magnificent Seven has no pretensions other than to being
the ultimate cowboy popcorn movie.
6. Lonesome Dove (1989)
It was a western at a time when no one else was making them. It
was six hours long, when the national attention span had shrunk
to the length of a Madonna video. It starred
fifty-something Robert Duvall and forty-something Tommy Lee
Jones, when television advertisers cared only about the youth
market. And it was produced by Motown, and that made no sense at
all. But in 1989, for four nights in February, it seemed as if
everybody was watching Lonesome
Dove. Larry McMurtry’s story of two retired Texas Rangers
and their conversations and adventures during a cattle drive
sought to “strip the glamour from the Old West.” But it was also
a celebration of friendship, loyalty, and endurance of hardship,
virtues long associated with the genre.
7. High Noon (1952)
No classic western divides movie fans more than High
Noon. Carl Foreman, a blacklisted screenwriter, based the
film on personal experience, hence the cold shoulder Marshal
Will Kane receives when he asks his community for help. John
Wayne and Howard Hawks were outraged that Kane would try to
recruit amateurs into his fight and made Rio
Bravo to remind moviegoers how the West was won. But the
public loved High Noon,
with its vulnerable hero (Gary Cooper, who won the Best Actor
Oscar), lovely newcomer Grace Kelly, and haunting theme song.
The film was taut and suspenseful, its story told on the faces
of its characters and with the relentless ticking clock.
8. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
“Not that it matters, but the following story is true.” William
Goldman’s “history with a twist” formula mixes fact and legend
to create a high-spirited adventure. Butch and Sundance may not
have been as glib or good-looking as Paul Newman and Robert
Redford, but Goldman’s script stayed close to the facts as
they’re known, and if Butch and Sundance didn’t really jump off
that cliff to escape a posse, they should have. Redford and
Newman’s potent chemistry inspired legions of attempts at
imitation. The duo single-handedly gave birth to the “Buddy
Film,” and the enduring influence of Butch
Cassidy and the Sundance Kid can be found in movies as
diverse as 48 Hours and Shanghai
9. Dances With Wolves (1990)
We knew, we always knew, even while cheering for the cavalry in
countless films, that history is written by the winners of the
world’s conflicts, and America’s Native population got a raw
deal. With Dances With Wolves,
we finally saw the other side of the tale, and how fitting that
it was through the eyes of an American soldier. Dances
With Wolves became a personal crusade for Kevin Costner,
who co-produced, directed, starred, and raised financing
overseas after a string of Hollywood studios passed. His passion
was rewarded with seven Academy Awards and an awakening of our
The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)
It was the movie Clint Eastwood had to make, before the
impassive persona he created through the Sergio Leone films and
his other signature character, Dirty Harry, became a typecasting
trap. In his 1976 book The
Filming of the West, movie historian John Tuska predicted
that Eastwood’s career likely didn’t have staying power. That
same year, The Outlaw Josey
Wales introduced a new type of Eastwood character, still
quiet, still deadly, but also compassionate and emotionally
vulnerable. The title describes how society will judge Josey
Wales — an outlaw only by circumstance — but when his quest is
complete, he returns to being the farmer Josey Wales in a scene
that offers hope for the future.
11. Gunsmoke (1955 – 75)
Even those who would relegate TV westerns to a status beneath
their movie counterparts — and we know we’ll be hearing from you
— must acknowledge the greatness of Gunsmoke.
The series spanned two of the most defining decades in American
pop culture history, from Marilyn Monroe to Farrah Fawcett; from
“Rock Around the Clock” to “The Hustle;” from The
Searchers to The
Godfather. Through it all there was James Arness as Marshal
Matt Dillon, tall in the saddle and afraid of nothing, except
maybe marriage to Miss Kitty.
12. Destry Rides Again (1939)
Has there ever been a more unlikely romantic pairing than Jimmy
Stewart’s laid-back, milk-drinking lawman Tom Destry and Marlene
Dietrich as the bawdy singer with a German accent and the
inexplicable name of Frenchy? Destry
Rides Again packs memorable songs (Dietrich’s “See What the
Boys in the Back Room Will Have”) and memorable scenes (a
ferocious catfight between Dietrich and Una Merkel) into 94
flawless minutes. The movie would have been longer if certain
lines had made it past the censors, such as when Dietrich wins a
poker hand and drops the coins down her blouse, prompting a
cowboy to quip, “There’s gold in them thar hills.”
13. Rio Bravo (1959)
Knowing Rio Bravo’s
connection to High Noon affords
insight into an interesting slice of Hollywood history, but it’s
hardly a prerequisite to enjoy its rousing mix of action,
comedy, romance, and music. Dean Martin and Angie Dickinson join
old hands John Wayne and Walter Brennan, and if the casting of
Ricky Nelson was a blatant attempt by Howard Hawks to boost the
box office with teenage girls, at least the kid contributed a
fine duet with Martin on the ballad “My Rifle, My Pony and Me.”
And look on the bright side; it could have been Fabian.
14. The Gunfighter (1950)
“The fastest man with a gun who ever lived ... was a long, lean
Texan named Ringo.” We’ve seen gunfighters as heroes and
villains, lawmen and mercenaries. But Jimmie Ringo (Gregory
Peck) is the gunfighter as celebrity; trapped by fame, a subject
of gossip, scorn, and adulation, Ringo can’t order a drink in a
bar without drawing attention. “He don’t look so tough to me,”
sneers any number of envious punks. Famous last words.
15. Red River (1948)
Red River appeals to
those moviegoers who don’t like westerns, but inevitably
discover that, yes, John Wayne can act and, yes, movies about
cowboys and cattle drives can be about more than cowboys and
cattle drives. Allusions to Mutiny
on the Bounty infuse the father-son conflict between Wayne
and Montgomery Clift, and their climactic fistfight symbolizes
their genuine “old Hollywood vs. young Hollywood” rivalry. The
happy ending divided audiences, but the director, Howard Hawks,
liked both characters too much to let either perish, and it’s
hard to fault his decision.
16. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1967)
Recent scholarship has favored Once
Upon a Time in the West as
Sergio Leone’s crowning work, but for those who can’t separate
the Leone oeuvre from
its most famous character,
The Good, the Bad, and
the Ugly is the ultimate spaghetti western. It has all the
signature elements: dusty, desolate vistas; amoral characters
such as Tuco (Eli Wallach) who are motivated only by profit; a
showdown in a circular arena, suggesting gladiators in a
coliseum; an incomparable score whose whistling theme, by Ennio
Morricone, is instantly recognizable; and Clint Eastwood as the
serape-clad, cheroot-chomping Man with No Name.
17. One-Eyed Jacks (1961)
This film never stood a chance back in 1961, when its star and
director, Marlon Brando, spent three years fussing over every
camera angle and line reading. Word got out that Mr. New York
actor was making an artsy western, and One-Eyed
Jacks was released to a combination of frosty reviews and
public indifference. Today, the back story forgotten, we
treasure this deceit-filled saga of two old partners in crime,
one revenge-obsessed but still capable of redemption, the other
hiding a savage nature behind a sheriff’s badge. For Gen-Xers
who know Brando only as the roly-poly guy who kissed Larry King,
here’s proof that once upon a time, he was cool off the charts.
18. The Wild Bunch (1969)
The best opening credits sequence ever ends with William Holden
growling “If they move ... kill ’em!” followed by the
sepia-toned freeze-frame “Directed by Sam Peckinpah.” Kinda says
it all. The director’s original 144-minute cut was trimmed
almost immediately after the film’s release, but it’s been
restored for the video and DVD release. The new scenes deepen
the connection between Pike (Holden) and former Bunch member
Robert Ryan, now a bounty hunter on Holden’s trail, and after 30
years we finally discover how Pike got that limp.
19. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
Rance Stoddard (James Stewart) plays a pitifully meek attorney
incapable of killing sadistic outlaw Liberty Valance. But that’s
what history has recorded because “when the legend becomes fact,
print the legend.”’ Lee Marvin gives us a wonderful villain for
the ages, and John Wayne impersonators picked up a staple for
their act in the Duke’s demeaning references to Stewart’s
character as “Pilgrim.”
20. The Great Train Robbery (1903)
Two western-style shorts were actually created before The
Great Train Robbery was produced: in 1898, Thomas Edison
filmed the five-minute sequences Cripple
Creek Bar-room and Poker
at Dawson City. But it was The
Great Train Robbery, a reenactment of a heist by the
ever-popular Butch Cassidy and his Wild Bunch only a few years
earlier, that signifies the true beginning of the western.
21. The Shootist (1976)
We remember it sadly, and the truth is that we shouldn’t. Though
it’s impossible to disconnect fact from fiction when E.W.
Hostetler (Jimmy Stewart) tells John Bernard Books (John Wayne),
“You’ve got cancer” (Wayne succumbed to the disease in 1979), no
movie star essayed a better final bow. With his performance in The
Shootist, the Duke delivered one last valentine to his fans
(and costar Lauren Bacall), one last raspberry to his critics,
and an elegy to the American West that — to paraphrase Andrew
Sarris — represents the survival of certain vestigial virtues in
an era of mealy-mouthed relativism.
22. Once Upon a Time in the West (1969)
Henry Fonda never struck us as the bad-ass type, but in Sergio
Leone’s operatic follow-up to his Dollars trilogy,
Fonda plays one of the most abhorrent hired guns ever. It’s
disturbing, like watching Mr. Rogers give a kid a wedgie. Forty
minutes of cuts killed the original American release, but the
film was finally restored to its full grandeur in 1984.
23. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)
“So here they are, the dog-faced soldiers, the regulars, the
50-cents-a-day professionals, riding the outposts of the
nation.” The middle entry in John Ford’s Cavalry trilogy
had his stock company at their most sentimental and featured
Oscar-winning photography of Monument Valley in Technicolor. The
Duke, whose inherent air of authority worked to his favor when
he played older characters, found one of his most indelible
roles as retiring officer Nathan Brittles.
24. Unforgiven (1992)
Has it really been almost 10 years since this film won the
Academy Award for Best Picture and Clint Eastwood garnered Best
Director honors? In order to bring life to this project,
Eastwood traded on his status as the genre’s last bankable star
to get a western made in a youth-driven market, then crafted a
darkly poetic character study that found more to condemn than to
celebrate in our western myth. When anyone over 60 wins an
Oscar, the assumption is that it’s a career award. The highest
compliment one could pay Eastwood and Unforgiven is
that no one even thought to ask.
25. Tombstone (1993)
Most people discovered Tombstone
after it went to video. As the “other” Wyatt Earp movie, it was
overshadowed by Kevin Costner’s epic biography, but Tombstone’s
unpretentious, balls-out gusto reminded us that a great western
didn’t have to unfold on the grand scale of Lonesome
Dove or Dances With
Wolves. Kurt Russell looks remarkably like the real Wyatt,
and Val Kilmer’s unforgettable take on Doc Holliday is the best
genre performance by an actor in the past 20 years. Strap on the
guns again, Val — we’ll be your huckleberry.
26. The Lone Ranger (1949 – 57)
He wore a black mask and a white hat, a confusing combination.
But children always knew he was a friend. Few characters in
western fiction are as beloved as the Lone Ranger and Tonto, as
played by Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels. The inspired
teaming of a cowboy and an Indian was a paradigm of racial
harmony. And to this day, we can’t listen to the “William Tell
Overture” without thinking “Hi-ho, Silver!”
27. The Virginian (1929)
We’ll smile when we say it — no western novel has been
dramatized more than The
Virginian. It had been filmed twice before Gary Cooper
played the tide role in the first “talking” feature-length
western. Subsequent versions appeared in 1946 and 2000, and a TV
series debuted in 1962 and ran for nine years. But it’s
Cooper’s Virginian we
remember, for his star-making turn and the mustache-twirling of
the villainous Walter Huston.
28. Winchester ’73 (1950)
What’s amazing about Anthony Mann westerns is how each of his
characters are fully developed, from Will Geer’s folksy take on
Wyatt Earp to the barkeep on the job at his saloon. Winchester
’73, the story of “the gun that won the West,” follows Jimmy
Stewart as he traces the provenance of his stolen rifle through
a series of unsavory owners, all of whom are brought down by
29. Blazing Saddles (1974)
The western was in trouble in the 1970s, so when Blazing
Saddles rode into theaters, fans wondered if it signified a
genre revival or the last nail in its coffin. Ten years later,
it was still the highest-grossing western in history. Mel
Brooks’ rude, crude masterpiece contained enough laugh-out-loud
moments for 10 movies, from the infamous campfire scene to
Madeline Kahn’s show-stopping send-up of Marlene Dietrich.
30. Fort Apache (1948)
Moviegoers were used to seeing the U.S. Cavalry ride to the
rescue, battle trumpets blaring. John Ford wanted to take a more
in-depth look at a typical regiment; the day-to-day work of
soldiers in remote outposts, their personal lives, and how they
cope with the constant threat of attack. Fort Apache inaugurated
the landmark Cavalry trilogy
with a sobering reminder that sometimes the good guys don’t win.
31. Angel and the Badman (1947)
Can a man who lives by the law of the gun walk a more
enlightened path? Quirt Evans (John Wayne), on the vengeance
trail, must choose between killing the man who murdered his
father and settling down with a sweet farm girl played by Gail
Russell, the hottest Quaker babe in movies. An underrated entry
in the Wayne canon.
32. City Slickers (1991)
Crowd-pleasing comedy that resonated with middle-aged baby
boomers. A trio of Big Apple buddies (Billy Crystal, Daniel
Stern, and Bruno Kirby) join Jack Palance’s cattle drive, and
discover the one secret of life. Palance won the Oscar for Best
Supporting Actor, and a calf named Norman became the most
beloved bovine since Ferdinand.
33. Dallas (1978 – 91)
The corporate cowboys in the television series Dallas rode
around in Mercedes-Benz coupes and held their showdowns in glass
and steel skyscrapers. Not exactly a traditional Western, but
beneath the soap-opera excess, the Ewings were ranchers who
fought among themselves but always circled the wagons against an
outside threat. OK, Bobby’s season-canceling shower was a
cop-out. But J.R. Ewing was the most famous cowboy in America
for more than a decade, and when he was shot the whole world
34. The Naked Spur (1953)
Jimmy Stewart plays a ruthless bounty hunter who, when told his
captive is innocent, replies, “It’s him they’re payin’ the
reward on.” Robert Ryan is superb as the manipulative villain
who tries to sever the uneasy alliance between Stewart and the
companions who joined him on the trail. Another intense
psychological drama from Stewart and Anthony Mann.
35. The Big Trail (1930)
Director Raoul Walsh cast John Wayne in The
Big Trail on the advice of John Ford, who said he “liked
the looks of the new kid with a funny walk,” Wayne went from
extra to star, which would have been a great discovery story had
the film been a hit. But The
Big Trail still deserves to be seen, not just for Wayne’s
early-career work but for its remarkable wide-screen panoramas
and near cinéma vérité action scenes, including a river crossing
in a fierce storm that almost drowned the cast.
36. Oklahoma! (1955)
As long as the wind still comes sweeping down the plain, we’ll
never grow tired of spending time with Curly and Laurie and Ado
Annie, and listening to “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” “Surrey
with the Fringe on Top,” “People Will Say We’re in Love,” and
the rest of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s splendid Oklahoma! score.
37. A Fistful of Dollars (1964)
Henry Fonda, James Coburn, and Charles Bronson passed on the
chance to play a nameless drifter in a Western reworking of the
Japanese film Yojimbo.
Director Sergio Leone settled for TV actor Clint Eastwood, who
cashed a $15,000 paycheck for the movie that made him an
international star. Eastwood wisely deleted most of his lines
from the script to augment the drifter’s mythic persona.
38. The Wild, Wild West (1965 - 70)
A gadget-filled train, a megalomaniacal dwarf, and Robert Conrad
in very tight pants. Secret Service Agents James West (Conrad)
and Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin) were TV’s original dynamic duo
in this spoofy, action-packed western. One rerun will expunge
any memory of the awful 1995 movie of the same name.
39. The Man From Snowy River (1982)
To say that it’s Australia’s contribution to the western isn’t
much of a compliment. (There’s not much competition.) But The
Man From Snowy River captured the mythic spirit of the West
as well as any homegrown product has, perhaps because it was
based on a revered Australian legend. We’ve seen horses gallop
across a vast expanse a thousand times. Snowy
River made those scenes inspiring again. Critics shrugged;
audiences fell in love.
40. The Ox-Bow Duel in the Sun Incident (1943)
With the exception of its opening sequences, The
Ox-Bow Incident was shot almost entirely with painted
backdrops and artificially created light and shadow. The
closed-in feeling suits this dark story of a lynching of
innocents and its repercussions among the town folk.
41. The Man From Laramie (1955)
Quintessential Anthony Mann drama starring the director’s
favorite obsession-driven cowboy, James Stewart. In their final
collaboration, Stewart hunts down the men who sold guns to the
Apaches, resulting in the death of his brother. If Shakespeare
had written a western tragedy, it might have looked like this.
42. Blood on the Moon (1948)
Moody and very dark, more film noir than horse opera, with
Robert Mitchum as a long-haired drifter caught between warring
ranchers and homesteaders. Mitchum, a shifty character in any
setting, plays moral relativism so well that even when he does
the right thing, you still don't trust him.
43. Duel in the Sun (1946)
Gone With the Wind,
western-style. Gregory Peck and Jennifer Jones steam up the
Arizona desert in jaw-dropping Technicolor. Producer David
Selznick promises “a picture of a thousand memorable moments.”
Audiences dubbed it Lust in
the Dust. Melodramatic, over-the-top, and just plain trashy
— but in a good way.
44. Will Penny (1968)
“It takes a heap takes of time, years to build up a spread. I
don’t have them ... years no more.” A noble cowboy at twilight,
beautifully photographed by Lucien Ballard and played by
Charlton Heston in one of his most understated performances. Too
bad moviegoers preferred to watch him fighting dirty apes in
another 1968 film.
45. 3:10 to Yuma (1957)
A companion piece to High
Noon, with a more charismatic villain. Someone has to watch
captured outlaw Glenn Ford until the 3:10 train, but nobody
wants the job except a desperate farmer (Van Heflin), who needs
the $200 reward to feed his family. A tense psychological drama.
46. Rio Grande (1950)
The final entry in John Ford’s majestic Cavalry trilogy,
and the first teaming of John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, a match
made in movie heaven. Lines of mounted soldiers in Monument
Valley never looked more inspiring, but the best moment remains
when the regiment serenades O’Hara with “I’ll Take You Home
47. Bonanza (1959 – 73)
For 14 years, the adventures of Ben Cartwright and sons Adam,
Hoss, and Little Joe were a Sunday night tradition. Stories
dealt more with family than heroes and villains, but they didn’t
flinch from such serious topics as drug abuse and racial
prejudice. It’s a good thing these four guys had each other (and
Hop Sing, of course), because girlfriends on the Ponderosa had
an alarmingly short life expectancy.
48. Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957)
Burt Lancaster plays Wyatt Earp and Kirk Douglas plays Doc
Holliday, and that’s pretty much all you need to know. This is
the best of the two stars’ many collaborations, especially with
Rhonda Fleming, one of the top western actresses, along for the
ride. The climactic gunfight is a knockout.
49. El Dorado (1967)
Sometimes magic happens by accident. El
Dorado seemed an exercise in going through the motions; an
unofficial finale to a trilogy of Howard Hawks westerns (Rio
Bravo and Rio Lobo came
first) all starring John Wayne, in which the stories were more
or less interchangeable. But Wayne, Robert Mitchum, and James
Caan play the familiar material with a wink to each other and to
the audience that is irresistible.
50. High Plains Drifter (1972)
This was Clint Eastwood’s first western as both star and
director, and it brought new meaning to the phrase “paint the
town red.” Eastwood essays another no-nonsense man of few words,
but his scenes with pint-sized costar Billy Curtis offer
unexpected comic relief.
51. Support Your Local Sheriff (1969)
No one played the reluctant hero better than James Garner, whose
easygoing charm fit perfectly in this delightful comedy.
52. Have Gun Will Travel (1957 – 63)
At a time in TV history when every other show was a western,
viewers still hadn’t met a character like Paladin (Richard
Boone), the suave, sophisticated gun-for-hire with the chess
knight calling card.
53. Cowboy (1958)
A Chicago hotel clerk bails a cowboy out of debt, in exchange
for a job on his next cattle drive. Terrific East-meets-West
discord, personified by Jack Lemmon and Glenn Ford.
54. For a Few Dollars More (1965)
Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name meets Lee Van Cleef, Man with
No Facial Expression. Violence ensues.
55. Annie Get Your Gun (1950)
Often overlooked among the great MGM musicals, Annie Get Your
Gun has an extraordinary Irving Berlin score, brassy Betty
Hutton as Annie Oakley, and more dancing cowboys than Gilley’s
in its heyday.
56. Comes a Horseman (1978)
Superb Gordon Willis photography elevates this post-World War II
spin on the old story of independent ranchers under siege from
57. The Sons of Katie Elder (1965)
In, The Sons of Katie Elder, John Wayne and Dean Martin reprise
their Rio Bravo chemistry
as four brothers track down their father’s killer, with no help
from local lawmen.
58. Tumbleweeds (1925)
A landmark silent film starring the screen’s first cowboy hero,
William S. Hart. The thrilling land rush scene remains a
cinematic tour de force.
59. Maverick (1957 – 62)
Irreverent, non-traditional western with James Garner as the
affable Bret Maverick, a gambler who, when trouble beckons, is
ever-ready to climb out of a window and run away.
60. True Grit (1969)
The Duke finally walked off with an Oscar as the irascible
Marshal Rooster Cogburn. John Wayne called Rooster’s
recollections of his life to costar Kim Darby “the best scene I
61. Giant (1956)
Director George Stevens won the Oscar for Giant’s
amazing visuals, including the iconic image of James Dean,
cowboy hat low over his forehead, reclining behind the wheel of
a vintage roadster.
62. The Plainsman (1936)
Cecil B. DeMille’s frontier epic about Wild Bill Hickok and
Calamity Jane surrounds Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur with 2,500
Sioux and Cheyenne extras. Note the dramatic Star
63. Dodge City (1939)
What’s the best barroom brawl in history of western movies? It
has to be the donnybrook in Dodge City, starring Errol Flynn,
Olivia de Havilland and one condemned saloon.
64. Ride the High Country (1962)
Two western icons, Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott, get back in
the saddle for career-capping performances in Sam Peckinpah’s
poetic tribute to a disappearing way of life.
65. Wagon Train (1957 – 65)
Long before The Love Boat ever
thought of setting sail, Wagon Train gathered
different guest stars each week for an eventful expedition. And
unlike wagon master Ward Bond, Captain Stubing never had to
worry about Indian attacks.
66. Alias Jesse James (1959)
Bob Hope runs into outlaw trouble and is rescued by a historic
assemblage of Hollywood cowboys, including Roy Rogers, Gene
Autry, Gary Cooper, Hugh O’Brian as Wyatt Earp, James Arness as
Matt Dillon and Fess Parker as Davy Crockett.
67. The Tin Star (1957)
A sheriff turned disillusioned bounty hunter (Henry Fonda)
tutors an inexperienced lawman (Anthony Perkins) in this intense
Anthony Mann classic.
68. Rawhide (1959 – 66)
America meets Clint Eastwood as cattleman Rowdy Yates and sings
along between whip-cracking to the best TV western theme song
69. Silverado (1985)
An ambitious attempt to revive the old-school western by writer
Lawrence Kasdan, who manages to simultaneously salute and send
up every cliché of the genre.
70. Cheyenne Autumn (1964)
After portraying Indians as shooting gallery ducks for 25 years,
director John Ford switched sides in his final western. Moving,
heartfelt, and long overdue, even if the Cheyenne chiefs are
played by Ricardo Montalban and Gilbert Roland.
71. 3 Godfathers (1948)
Three Cowboys Find a Baby: John Ford’s take on the oft-filmed
story is sentimental in the right way and gave John Wayne a
chance to stretch his familiar screen persona.
72. Lonely Are the Brave (1962)
The passing of the Old West was indelibly captured one
unforgettable image when fugitive cowboy Kirk Douglas tries to
cross a superhighway on horseback.
73. Jesse James (1939)
Pure hokum as a biography of the famed outlaw, but grand
entertainment starring Tyrone Power as Jesse and Henry Fonda as
his brother Frank and featuring some of the most perilous stunt
riding ever captured on film.
74. Warlock (1959)
The provocative undercurrents in this tale of a hired gunslinger
(Henry Fonda) and his faithful companion (Anthony Quinn) will
keep the Freudians busy for hours.
75. The Good Old Boys (1995)
Tommy Lee Jones directs and stars in a tender, humorous TV
western with a feature quality cast (Frances McDormand, Sissy
Spacek, Matt Damon).
76. Arizona (1940)
Female leads are a rarity in westerns, so it’s a treat to see
the talented Jean Arthur pulling off a rootin’ too tin’,
shoot-’em-up with only a modicum of support from William Holden.
77. McLintock! (1963)
Copyright complications and a variety of other legal cockleburs
kept this comedy featuring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara out of
circulation for decades. We wondered if McLintock! was as good
as we remembered, and then it debuted on video. Yes, it was.
78. Cat Ballou (1965)
Jane Fonda plays the title role, a schoolteacher turned bandit,
but Lee Marvin steals the film in an Oscar-winning dual role,
capped by the funniest rendition of “Happy Birthday” in movie
79. McCloud (1971 – 77)
Dennis Weaver portrayed New Mexico Marshal Sam McCloud, who drew
snickers from the hard-boiled Manhattan police detectives for
his sheepskin coat and cowboy hat, until he beat them to the bad
guys every time.
80. The Grey Fox (1982)
Stuntman turned actor Richard Farnsworth waited 40 years for a
lead role, and then became an overnight sensation as an aging
81. The Alamo (1960)
Republic ... we like the sound of that word. John Wayne plays
Davy Crockett in a historically honest depiction of the famous
siege. Spurned in its time, the film now gets better with every
82. Two Mules for Sister Sara (1969)
The moral of this story is never pick up a hitchhiking nun. The
odd-couple teaming of Clint Eastwood and Shirley MacLaine really
83. Union Pacific (1939)
Typically bold Cecil B. DeMille blend of history and fiction,
with Barbara Stanwyck in one of her best tough-girl roles.
84. Hombre (1967)
Elmore Leonard’s story of a white man raised by Apaches pulls no
punches in its condemnation of frontier racism.
85. The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp (1955 – 61)
Unique among TV westerns in that the continuing story followed
the historical life of Wyatt Earp (Hugh O’Brian) to Tombstone,
where the saga of the OK Corral unfolded in a five-part series
86. A Big Hand for the Little Lady (1966)
Breezy comedy with a terrific twist ending, with Henry Fonda and
Joanne Woodward as a farm couple who risk their life savings in
a high-stakes poker game.
87. Barbarosa (1982)
A laid-back outlaw (Willie Nelson) befriends a farm boy on the
lam (Gary Busey) in this amiable, well-photographed character
88. Trail of Robin Hood (1950)
A holiday classic. Roy Rogers saves Jack Holt’s Christmas tree
business with help from an all-star posse of western heroes,
including Rex Allen, Allan “Rocky” Lane, and Ray “Crash”
89. Man Without A Star (1955)
Ranch hand Kirk Douglas matches wills with a savvy cattle
baroness (Jeanne Crain) while trying to keep the fences away
from his corner of the frontier.
90. The Big Country (1958)
Lots of westerns have “Big” in their title. Why this one isn’t
more celebrated is a “big” mystery, though it gains new converts
with every airing on Turner Movie Classics.
91. Geronimo: An American Legend (1993)
Best of the many film biographies of the famed Apache leader,
with a star-making performance from Wes Studi as Geronimo.
92. The Cisco Kid (1950 – 56)
“Hey, Pancho!” “Oh, Ceeesco!” If you didn’t grow up enjoying
this exchange every Saturday morning, our profoundest
sympathies. Duncan Renaldo and Leo Carrillo played the famed
93. How the West Was Won (1962)
Gargantuan screen epic chronicling three generations of a
pioneer family. Long but engrossing, with a dozen top stars and
one of Alfred Newman’s best scores.
94. High Chaparral (1967 – 71)
Romeo and Juliet on a
ranch, with America and Mexico as the contentious families. The
marriage of “Big John” Cannon (Leif Erickson) and his Mexican
bride, Victoria (Linda Cristal), inaugurated five years of
95. Cimarron (1931)
The first western to win the Oscar for Best Picture stars
Richard Dix and Irene Dunne as Easterners heading west. Dated,
but a vital step in the maturation of the genre.
96. Junior Bonner (1972)
“Bloody Sam” Peckinpah proves he could make a good PG movie with
this thoughtful look at rodeo life, with Steve McQueen as an
aging bull rider.
97. The Big Valley (1965 – 69)
Barbara Stanwyck had a knack for working well in a frontier
setting, and she found her best western role not in movie
theaters but in this popular television series that blended good
drama with plenty of action.
98. The Phantom Empire (1935)
See! Gene Autry battle torch-wielding robots! Thrill! To the
singer’s adventures in the kingdom of Murania! Laugh! At how
much fun going to the movies used to be, when serials like this
off-the-wall sci-fi western played before the feature.
99. Hang ’Em High (1967)
Clint Eastwood’s first film after the Dollars trilogy
has him playing an innocent rancher condemned for murder. Lively
attempt at cooking Leone’s spaghetti recipe stateside.
100. The Unforgiven (1960)
Audrey Hepburn in a western is reason enough to watch this one,
but this John Huston film also features fine performances from
Burt Lancaster and legendary starlet Lillian Gish.