When I was a kid and it was raining outside, I would curl up on the couch, turn on TBS, and watch whatever Western genre movie they were playing that day. I would steep myself in the world of John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, and even Jimmy Stewart.

Those classic Western films entertained me with larger-than-life heroes and vistas that made you want to put on your hat and bolo tie and adventure outdoors.

The genre is a cornerstone of American cinema, evoking images of dusty frontiers, rugged cowboys, thrilling shootouts, and the struggle for justice and survival.

But what exactly defines the genre?

Today, we're going to go over the best Western movies and take a look at what makes them special.

Strap in.

Western Defined

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly


As simple as this sounds, Westerns are films typically set in the American West during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. they usually feature cowboys, and discuss the lawless area and taming of the lands and people.

Western Tropes

Django Unchained


Westerns are one of the most reliable genres out there. Whe nyou put one on, you generally know what you're getting.

They tell stories revolving around a specific set of themes and visuals:

  • The Frontier: The vast, untamed wilderness, a land of both promise and danger.
  • Settlers vs. Natives: Conflicts often arise between settlers pushing westward and the Native American tribes whose land is being encroached upon.
  • Cowboys and Outlaws: Iconic figures of the West, with cowboys often representing law and order and outlaws epitomizing chaos and greed.
  • Gunfights and Saloons: Frequent elements that embody the violence and lawlessness of the era.

Certain elements and archetypes are staples of the Western genre:

  • The Lonesome Hero: A solitary figure, often with a troubled past, seeking justice or redemption.
  • The Damsel in Distress: A female character in need of saving, a trope often subverted in recent films.
  • The Showdown: The climactic duel between the hero and villain.
  • The Sweeping Landscape: Breathtaking vistas of the desert, canyons, and mountains create a visual grandeur unique to Westerns.

The History of Westerns

The History of Westerns

The Wild Bunch

Warner Bros.-Seven Arts

Westerns have a rich history dating back to the early days of film. They were an incredibly popular genre for a long time, then fell off, then came back, and always feel like they're in some sort of flux.

Here's a very brief breakdown of the eras.

  • The Silent Era: The earliest Westerns emerged in silent films in the early 1900s, such as The Great Train Robbery (1903).
  • The Golden Age: The 1930s to the 1960s marked the golden age of Westerns. Classics like Stagecoach (1939), The Searchers (1956), and The Magnificent Seven (1960) dominated the box office.
  • Revisionist Westerns: The 1960s and 1970s saw more critical and nuanced Westerns, like The Wild Bunch (1969), that challenged traditional portrayals of good vs. evil.
  • Neo-Westerns: In recent decades, Westerns have evolved, with films like No Country for Old Men (2007) and The Power of the Dog (2021) blurring genre lines and offering fresh perspectives.

Global Westerns

The Good, The Bad, The Weird

CJ Entertainment

Westerns are not exclusive to Hollywood. While they are the quintessential American genre, they also have really interesting applications on other countries and cultures. And them ore we exported Westerns, the more we saw other countries adopt them.

Here's a look at how the genre has been adapted worldwide:

  • Spaghetti Westerns: Italian-made Westerns surged in popularity in the 1960s. Films like A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) offered a grittier, more stylized take on the genre.
  • Australian Westerns: Australia's outback provides a backdrop for their own brand of Westerns, such as The Proposition (2005) and Sweet Country (2017).
  • Eastern Westerns: Countries like Japan (Yojimbo ) and South Korea (The Good, the Bad, the Weird) have put their own cultural spins on the genre.

The Best Westerns of All Time

Any list of the best Westerns of all time is going to be completely subjective. So if you don't see a title in here you like, just mention it in the comments. I tried to get something that spanned generations and even techniques.

Check it out.

  • Once Upon a Time in the West (1968): Sergio Leone's epic masterpiece, considered one of the greatest Westerns ever made, following vengeance, greed, and the twilight of the Old West.
  • The Searchers (1956): John Ford's classic. John Wayne gives an iconic performance as a man on an obsessive quest to find his kidnapped niece.
  • The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966): The quintessential Spaghetti Western, with Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and Eli Wallach as three gunslingers seeking buried treasure against the backdrop of the Civil War.
  • Unforgiven (1992): Clint Eastwood directs and stars in this revisionist Western about aging gunslingers confronting the consequences of their violent pasts.
  • Shane (1953): A poetic and classic Western about a mysterious gunslinger who rides into town and finds himself caught up in a family's conflict.
  • The Wild Bunch (1969): Sam Peckinpah's violent and elegiac masterpiece about a gang of aging outlaws facing a changing world.
  • Rio Bravo (1959): A classic from Howard Hawks, starring John Wayne, Dean Martin, and Ricky Nelson, showcasing a sheriff defending his town and his jail.
  • Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969): George Roy Hill's classic Western with Paul Newman and Robert Redford as the charming outlaws on the run.
  • McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971): Robert Altman's revisionist Western with Warren Beatty and Julie Christie, offering a more deglamorized and melancholic view of the frontier.
  • High Noon (1952): A suspenseful Western starring Gary Cooper as a marshal who must confront a gang of outlaws on his wedding day, despite his town's reluctance to help.
  • The Magnificent Seven (1960): A rousing action-adventure Western with a star-studded cast, about a group of gunfighters hired to protect a Mexican village.
  • The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976): Clint Eastwood directs and stars in this gritty Western about a vengeful Confederate farmer seeking retribution.
  • Stagecoach (1939): John Ford's seminal Western that made John Wayne a star and established many of the genre's conventions.
  • True Grit (2010): The Coen Brothers' remake of the classic Western stars Jeff Bridges in the iconic role of Rooster Cogburn, with Hailee Steinfeld giving a breakout performance.
  • For a Few Dollars More (1965): The second installment of Sergio Leone's "Dollars" trilogy with Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef as bounty hunters forming an uneasy alliance.
  • Django Unchained (2012): Quentin Tarantino's stylized and violent take on the Western with Jamie Foxx as a freed slave seeking revenge.
  • The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007): A beautifully shot and contemplative Western exploring the myth and legend of Jesse James.
  • A Fistful of Dollars (1964): Sergio Leone's breakthrough Spaghetti Western that reinvented Clint Eastwood as a stoic gunslinger.
  • Ride the High Country (1962): Sam Peckinpah's Western with Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott as aging lawmen on one last job.
  • Pale Rider (1985): Clint Eastwood directs and stars in this mysterious Western about a nameless preacher who defends a mining community.
  • 3:10 to Yuma (1957 and 2007): Both versions, the original starring Glenn Ford and the remake with Christian Bale and Russell Crowe, are gripping Westerns about a rancher escorting an outlaw.
  • My Darling Clementine (1946): John Ford directs Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp in this romanticized version of the gunfight at the OK Corral.
  • The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962): John Ford reflects on the myths of the West, starring John Wayne and James Stewart in a classic tale.
  • The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948): John Huston directs Humphrey Bogart in this dark tale of greed and paranoia set against the backdrop of a gold hunt in Mexico.
  • Dances with Wolves (1990): Kevin Costner directs and stars in this epic Western about a Civil War soldier befriending a Lakota tribe.
  • Blazing Saddles (1974): Mel Brooks' hilarious parody of the Western genre.
  • The Proposition (2005): A brutal and atmospheric Australian Western about a lawman giving an outlaw a grim proposition.
  • Tombstone (1993): Kurt Russell stars as Wyatt Earp and Val Kilmer gives a memorable performance as Doc Holliday in this action-packed retelling of the OK Corral story.
  • Red River (1948): Howard Hawks directs John Wayne and Montgomery Clift in this epic Western about a cattle drive gone wrong.
  • The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018): The Coen brothers' anthology Western features six darkly humorous tales of the frontier.
  • Winchester '73 (1950): A classic Western about the journey of a prized rifle, starring James Stewart and directed by Anthony Mann.
  • Johnny Guitar (1954): A unique cult Western with Joan Crawford starring as a strong-willed saloon owner in a love triangle.
  • Open Range (2003): Kevin Costner directs and stars in this beautifully shot Western about free-grazing cattlemen facing a corrupt land baron.
  • Meek's Cutoff (2010): Kelly Reichardt's slow-burn Western follows a group of lost settlers on the Oregon Trail.
  • The Ox-Bow Incident (1943): A suspenseful Western about mob justice and the fragility of the rule of law, starring Henry Fonda.
  • The Hateful Eight (2015): Quentin Tarantino's confined Western mystery featuring a star-studded cast trapped in a blizzard.
  • They Died with Their Boots On (1942): Errol Flynn stars as General George Custer in this romanticized biopic.
  • Vera Cruz (1954): Robert Aldrich directs this action-packed Western, with Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster as mercenaries during the Mexican Revolution.
  • No Country for Old Men (2007): The Coen brothers' neo-Western masterpiece about a hunter who stumbles upon drug money and a relentless killer.
  • The Shootist (1976): John Wayne's poignant last film, about an aging gunslinger confronting his own mortality.
  • 40 Guns to Apache Pass (1967): A tense, action-packed Western about a cavalry troop defending a stagecoach station against Apache attack.
  • The Power of the Dog (2021): Jane Campion's revisionist Western explores themes of toxic masculinity and repressed desire on a Montana ranch.
  • Bad Day at Black Rock (1955): Spencer Tracy stars in a suspenseful Western about a stranger uncovering a dark secret in a small town.
  • The Furies (1950): Barbara Stanwyck stars in this psychological Western about a ruthless rancher and her troubled relationship with her father.
  • Django (1966): The original Spaghetti Western featuring Franco Nero as a coffin-dragging gunslinger seeking revenge.
  • The Long Riders (1980): A Western about the James-Younger Gang, featuring real-life brothers playing brothers on screen.
  • Bend of the River (1952): James Stewart stars in this Western about a reformed outlaw guiding settlers to Oregon.
  • The Gunfighter (1950): Gregory Peck stars as a notorious gunslinger trying to leave his violent past behind.
  • Hombre (1967): Paul Newman plays a white man raised by Apaches in this revisionist Western exploring themes of prejudice.
  • The Great Silence (1968): A bleak and visually stunning Spaghetti Western set against a snowy backdrop, following a mute gunslinger battling sadistic bounty hunters.
  • Silverado (1985): An entertaining ensemble Western with Kevin Kline, Kevin Costner, Danny Glover, and Scott Glenn as a group of misfits who unite to defend a town.
  • The Wild Hunt (1968): An experimental Canadian Western about post-apocalyptic bounty hunters.
  • Navajo Joe (1966): A Spaghetti Western with Burt Reynolds as a Navajo warrior seeking revenge for the massacre of his tribe.
  • The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972): Paul Newman stars as the self-appointed judge who brings his own brand of frontier justice to Texas.
  • Little Big Man (1970): Dustin Hoffman stars in this revisionist Western that tells the life story of a man who lived among both settlers and Cheyenne.
  • El Topo (1970): Alejandro Jodorowsky's surreal acid Western masterpiece filled with symbolism and violence.
  • Jeremiah Johnson (1972): Robert Redford stars as a mountain man who seeks solitude in the wilderness.
  • The Revenant (2015): Leonardo DiCaprio gives an Oscar-winning performance as a frontiersman on a relentless quest for survival and revenge.
  • Joe Kidd (1972): Clint Eastwood stars as a bounty hunter hired to track down a Mexican revolutionary.
  • Destry Rides Again (1939): A classic Western comedy with James Stewart as a pacifist deputy and Marlene Dietrich as a fiery saloon singer.
  • Duck, You Sucker (1971): A.k.a. "A Fistful of Dynamite," Sergio Leone's overlooked Western set during the Mexican Revolution.
  • The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970): Sam Peckinpah's melancholic comedy-Western about an old prospector left behind in the desert.
  • Cat Ballou (1965): A charming Western comedy with Jane Fonda as a schoolteacher turned outlaw seeking revenge for her father's murder.
  • The Big Gundown (1966): A stylish Spaghetti Western with Lee Van Cleef as a bounty hunter tracking a wrongly accused man.
  • The Oklahoma Kid (1939): James Cagney stars in a rare villainous role in this early Technicolor Western.
  • Ulzana's Raid (1972): Burt Lancaster stars in a brutal revisionist Western about cavalry scouts tracking a band of Apaches.
  • Day of Anger (1967): Lee Van Cleef stars in this offbeat Spaghetti Western about a mentorship gone wrong.
  • Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970): Clint Eastwood and Shirley MacLaine star in a Western about a mercenary aiding a nun during the Mexican Revolution.
  • Keoma (1976): A psychedelic and brutal Spaghetti Western considered by some to be the genre's swan song.
  • Hostiles (2017): A somber Western with Christian Bale as an army captain forced to escort a Cheyenne chief and his family through dangerous territory.
  • Slow West (2015): A quirky and melancholic Western following a young man searching for his love.
  • The Quick and the Dead (1995): Sharon Stone stars in Sam Raimi's stylized Western about a female gunslinger who participates in a deadly competition.
  • Bone Tomahawk (2015): Kurt Russell stars in this brutal Western with cannibalistic horror elements.
  • Lonesome Dove (19): Two aging Texas Rangers, Gus and Call, crave one last epic adventure. Embarking on a dangerous cattle drive from Texas to Montana, they face outlaws, harsh elements, and their own personal demons.

These are just a few of the best Westerns of all time, but everyone has their favorites. What are your top picks? Did we miss any essential gems?

Share your thoughts and let's keep the Western conversation going in the comments.