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10 greatest movie westerns

David Gritten / 12 October 2016 ( 12 January 2021 )

Film critic David Gritten selects 10 of his favourite westerns – in chronological order.

 Claudia Cardinale, Lionel Stander, Charles Bronson in Once Upon a Time in the West. Photo by Paramount/Rafran/REX/Shutterstock © Rex Features
Claudia Cardinale, Lionel Stander, Charles Bronson in Once Upon a Time in the West. Photo by Paramount/Rafran/REX/Shutterstock © Rex Features

Stagecoach (1939)

This memorable movie, best known for the jaw-dropping work of legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt and the ravishing scenery of Monument Valley, has lots more to commend it. Each of the varied characters aboard the stagecoach is well-drawn and intriguing.

A protracted attack on the coach by American Indians is thrilling and suspenseful. And John Wayne, in the film that sealed his stardom, is terrific as The Ringo Kid. If you’ve never seen a western, start with this one.

Red River (1948)

A visually breathtaking, truly cinematic film best seen on a big wide screen: an account of a crucial cattle drive through magnificently photographed scenery. Montgomery Clift makes an arresting film debut of pure star quality, as a rebellious young man squaring off against his unsympathetic guardian – played by John Wayne, in one of his finest performances.

The film’s sheer sweep and majesty make it a must-see, while Dimitri Tiomkin’s stirring score is the icing on the cake.

High Noon (1952)

A deceptively simple story with lots at stake: Gary Cooper won an Oscar as a marshal whose citizens leave him to defend his small town alone against a convicted killer with a grudge, who will arrive with his cronies on the noon train.

The almost unbearable countdown is played out in real time. This classic western, just 85 minutes long, is a condensed masterpiece. Tex Ritter sang its memorable theme song, but Frankie Laine had the big hit.

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The Searchers (1956)

One of the most psychologically complex westerns ever made, with John Wayne (yet again) as a Confederate war veteran Ethan Edwards, obsessively hunting down the Indians who massacred his brother and sister-in-law, and kidnapped his niece (Natalie Wood).

But Edwards is a lonely, tormented man, and the film is critical of the violence that marked the founding of America’s West. It looks great, the scenery is gorgeous, but above all it’s an intriguing examination of big themes.

The Magnificent Seven (1960)

Far superior to this year’s pallid remake, this stars Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen as two of the mercenary gunmen hired to protect a Mexican village against bandits. The support acting is first-rate, and made stars of Charles Bronson, James Coburn and Robert Vaughn.

It’s a stirring story, even without the inevitable climactic shoot-out. Based on Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai (1954), it boasts perhaps the greatest of all Western theme tunes, courtesy of Elmer Bernstein.   

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The Last Sunset (1961)

A lesser-known title worth seeking out, thanks to the excellent contrasting performances of Kirk Douglas as a charming but ruthless outlaw, and Rock Hudson as the upstanding sheriff hunting him down. There’s a cat-and-mouse game going on between the two men, a psychological battle of wits being played out before a final showdown.

The script was by legendary screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, and there are fine supporting performances by Dorothy Malone and Joseph Cotten.

Yojimbo (1961)

Many American ‘spaghetti westerns’ had their roots in Japanese film, and this one, from Akira  Kurosawa, was the source for Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars.

The great Japanese star Toshiro Mifune plays a wandering samurai arriving in a town where two rival factions threaten public safety; he offers its citizens the benefit of his martial skills, cleverly playing both sides off against each other with predictably bloody results.

Spell-binding, darkly humorous and utterly compelling.

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Once Upon a Time in the West (1969)

Writer-director Sergio Leone effectively invented ‘spaghetti westerns,’ and this sprawling classic was his crowning glory. A sumptuous looking film, using CinemaScope to full effect, it starred Henry Fonda, best known for playing noble good guys, as a grasping opportunist involved in a ruthless squabble over land ownership.

It’s a film that demolishes some of the heroic myths of the Old West – and of previous western movies. It’s epic in length and ambition, but well worth your time.

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Unforgiven (1992)

The western had fallen right out of fashion when Clint Eastwood rode to its rescue as this film’s lead actor and director.

A winner of four Oscars, it was immediately hailed as one of the all-time great westerns – one that acknowledged the genre’s traditions while finding something new to say. Eastwood played William Munney, a veteran hired gunman, weary of life and sickened by violence, who for noble reasons is tempted back for one last job.

Open Range (2003)

A vastly underrated personal favourite of mine, it stars Kevin Costner (who also directed) and Robert Duvall as two cowboys who tend cattle on the free range. They fall foul of an arrogant landowner who wants them to move on, but decide to stand their ground.

A complex, rather quiet western, it’s thoughtfully conceived, and Costner deserves credit for keeping the western alive. For me, it’s superior to his epic Oscar-winner Dances with Wolves.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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