It feels like we’ve been silhouetted in a doorway with our hand hovering over the low-slung six-shooter on our hip for an age now, waiting for the opportunity to run through our favorite films in one of our very favorite genres — the Western. And so, with the news that this week sees the 25th anniversary of Clint Eastwood‘s “Unforgiven,” the last “true” Western (as opposed to the Coens‘ neo-take “No Country For Old Men“) to win Best Picture and still the best film of Eastwood’s directorial career, we thought, shucks, let’s pull the trigger.
There are few genres that feel as quintessentially part of American cinematic history as the Western. Not only does it imagine the actual mythological history of the nation, but as a cinematic form it’s practically as old as cinema itself: Edwin S Porter‘s 12-minute “The Great Train Robbery” is an early landmark in filmmaking, and is recognizably a Western even a century later. So the tropes and motifs of this genre have become part of the very skeleton of American cinema: very often you find that if you scrape away the sci-fi, action-movie or urban drama flesh from a seemingly completely removed film, you’ll find the bones of a Western beneath.
But here we’re not talking about hybrids, reworked Westerns, neo-Westerns or films that take their foundations from the genre but build different structures off the plans — for a curated selection of those more offbeat titles, check out our “Westerns Not Set in the Old West” or “Snow Westerns” lists. This time, taking our cue from “Unforgiven” we’re mainly looking at the classic Western, as in cowboys, Monument Valley, showdowns, tin stars, spurs and massive skies, under which leathery men carve out the ruggedly individualist paths that make up so much of America’s subconscious idea of itself. These are our 25 favorite Westerns of all time: see you in the comments at noon, with your posse in tow.
25. “Seven Men from Now” (1956)
Budd Boetticher‘s name is not as widely known as many of the other directors on this list, but his Westerns, in particular the seven films he made with star Randolph Scott are gradually being rediscovered and reclaimed as one of the most impressive corpuses of work in the genre. Like other subsequently rehabilitated directors such as Sam Fuller and Don Siegel, Boetticher essentially made B-movies, but his craft and sensibility were such that they transcend that categorization. And none more so than “Seven Men From Now,” his first Scott collaboration, made from a lean, swift-moving 78-minute screenplay, plotted almost as a mystery unfolding from Burt Kennedy who would go on to become a Western director himself (as well as writing Clint Eastwood‘s “White Hunter, Black Heart.”) Scott plays a man on a journey to pick off the men, including ultimate Western baddie Lee Marvin, responsible for his wife’s death during a violent robbery. But it’s the hesitant kinship that springs up between him and the wife of a westward-migrating salesman en route, and Scott’s evocation of his character’s sense of weighty personal guilt that gives this unusually handsome and thoughtful low-budget Western the kind of resonance that brings it close to greatness.
24. “The Magnificent Seven” (1960)
It’s less than a year since Antoine Fuqua’s fine-I-guess remake, but already it feels much less fresh and enduring than John Sturges’ original. I mean, original might be a bit of a stretch in this case, seeing as the film was itself a cowboy-themed remake of “The Seven Samurai,” and while it suffers in comparison to Kurosawa’s stone-cold classic, it’s still a rousing, thrilling adventure, if not the most substantial movie on this list. William Roberts’ screenplay sees a group of Mexican villagers menaced by bandit Calvera (Eli Wallach) turn to gunfighter Yul Brynner for help, who in turn recruits a group of mercenaries and fighters for what could well turn out to be a suicide mission (in case you need it for your next trivia contest — they are, of course, Steve McQueen, Brad Dexter, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Robert Vaughn and Horst Buchholz. John Carpenter once described the movie as “the beginning of the end of the great American Western,” and while this list proves that not quite to be the case, there’s certainly an elegiac mood, a sort of proto-Peckinpah feel, that gives it substance, while the clean, characterful action remains rousing half a century on.
23. “The Outlaw Josey Wales” (1976)
“Dyin’ ain’t much of a livin’, boy.” Iconic, but also ironic words to issue from the thinly scornful lips of Clint Eastwood, who made a tidy living as an onscreen death-dealer for most of his career. ‘Josey Wales’ co-written by Philip Kaufman and Sonia Chernus, is an early directorial triumph from Eastwood, into which he works a surprisingly potent pacifist message (the Vietnam War was ongoing at the time) while skimping on none of the violent thrills. His Wales is a take on his classic Man With No Name archetype, though obviously he has a name, and along with it a grudging moral compass that sees him accumulate a good-naturedly rag-tag band of followers — including an older Cherokee (Chief Dan George), a young Navajo woman, a gun-toting granny, and a hippie-ish love interest. This de facto family comes to replace the wife and child whose murder he’s out to avenge but not before Wales has run their killers to ground — all of which is complicated by tangled lines of Civil War-era loyalty and betrayal. It’s a gently revisionist take that softens the edges of the classic Western, without losing any of its punch, all elevated by the pithily quotable dialogue.
22. “Ride The High Country” (1962)
If, as Carpenter said, “The Magnificent Seven” started the sort of lament for the Western, then Sam Peckinpah was the man who helped to put the final bullets in it, and his first great one, “Ride The High Country,” helped to nail the kind of mournful approach to the genre that would become his trademark. Veteran genre stars Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott play Steve Judd and Gil Westrum, a pair of former lawmen in early 20th century California, reunited to guard a shipment of gold, only for it to be complicated both by Gil’s plans to rob the cargo, and by their rescue of a young woman from her drunken, murderous fiancé and his brothers. It’s a quiet, almost gentle film in some respects (certainly more so than some of Peckinpah’s later Western classics), one that, while it has strong work across the board (Mariette Hartley is terrific as the complex woman who forces the men to action), lives and dies on that central relationship between Scott and McCrea, one that, you suspect, “Unforgiven” wouldn’t have existed without.
21. “The Naked Spur” (1953)
Though he did fine work in other genres (noir with “Side Street,” historical epic with “El Cid”), Anthony Mann is undoubtedly best associated with the Western, a genre that few mastered to the extent that he did, as you might imagine from him having three movies on this list. The first is this taut, stripped-down picture that unites him for the third time (and their first Western: they’d go on to make four more together) with regular collaborator James Stewart, who plays a bounty hunter during the Civil War tasked with finding a murderer (Robert Ryan), and the woman (Janet Leigh) who forms the third point of a triangle between them. It’s almost minimalist in its intimacy (just five characters in the whole movie), but big in its themes of greed, guilt and salvation. Mann makes the landscape just as crucial a part a movie as the characters, and those characters are brought to life by some terrific performances, including Ryan’s lovably charismatic villain, and Stewart subverting his goody-two-shoes image five years before “Vertigo.”