Few film genres capture both the beauty and brutality of the human experience more so than the Western. For as long as people have been making movies, acclaimed directors like John Ford, Sergio Leone, and Quintin Tarantino have taken moviegoers from all corners of the Earth and transported them to the Old West.
“But what is the best Western?” is a question that has come up countless times over the years, and the topic was recently brought up at CinemaBlend where we love discussing everything from the greatest war films ever made to the top 100 ‘90s movies, and just about everything else. Several of us sat around a digital cookfire and went through the history of the genre and picked out what we believe are the best Westerns of all time.
From classics like Once Upon a Time in the West and the “Man with No Name” trilogy to more contemporary neo-Westerns like No Country for Old Men and Hell or High Water, we’ve come up with quite a list. Saddle up and hold on tight because this is going to be a ride you won’t forget…
30. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
The Coen Brothers’ most underrated movie (and we’re sticking to that), The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is as unconventional as you can get. Unlike their remake of True Grit, which is also on this list, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is an anthology western featuring six unique tales that offer a wide range of tones.
You have your somewhat hokey and fun vignettes, like the titular segment, and “Near Algodones,” but then you have your dour and dreary ones like “The Mortal Remains” and the deadly serious, “Meal Ticket.” In the end, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a Western like no other, which makes sense, coming from the Coen Brothers.
29. Dances With Wolves (1990)
Kevin Costner isn’t exactly Clint Eastwood, but his dalliances with the Western genre, on screens both big and small, have earned him a seat at the table of Hollywood frontier legends. Dances With Wolves is the star’s directorial debut and a true labor of love, one in which he starred, directed, and produced in order to tell the story of a Civil War Lieutenant who discovers a new purpose when he encounters the Sioux tribe. When Costner told Westerns, he aimed for the sweeping grandeur of the American plains, making Dances With Wolves as gorgeous and virtual spectacular as it was moving and traditional.
28. 3:10 To Yuma (2007)
James Mangold makes excellent pictures. Too many of them get labeled as “Dad Cinema,” but that just means his movies – from Ford v. Ferrari to Cop Land – tend to speak to a masculine demographic, though one that also contains a brain and a beating heart. You find both ingredients hard at work in Mangold’s 2007 action drama, 3:10 to Yuman, during which a soldier turned rancher (played by Christian Bale) must track and detain a known felon (played by Russell Crowe) in order to pay off some stifling debt. Mangold’s movies are meat-and-potatoes offerings, with little flair but hearty helpings of character development, moral intrigue, and terrific central performances. You know what you get, and what you get is great.
27. Brokeback Mountain (2006)
Possibly Ang Lee’s best movie, Brokeback Mountain definitely isn’t your “typical” Western, in that there aren’t any shootouts, nor does it take place in the past. Instead, this Academy Award-nominated masterpiece is about two cowboys (played by Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger) who fall in love, despite their knowledge that many people (including their wives) would view their relationship with disgust.
But that’s what makes Brokeback Mountain so effective. It plays with the tropes of a Western being “masculine,” as what even is masculinity? These men work hard jobs, but they’re also in love with each other, which makes the ultimate outcome all the more difficult to swallow. All these years later, and we still can’t quit this film.
26. Bone Tomahawk (2015)
If you want a mean-spirited, gritty movie, then look no further than Bone Tomahawk. Categorized as a horror western, Bone Tomahawk certainly is a western. But it’s also scary! Directed by S. Craig Zahler, and starring Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Lili Simmons, and many others, Bone Tomahawk doesn’t romanticize the American West.
Instead, it portrays an indigenous tribe of cannibals, and a sheriff’s hunt to rescue people who were captured (and hopefully not already eaten) by them. Bone Tomahawk is not for the faint of heart. It doesn’t shy away from gruesome imagery, and there is always an impending sense of dread throughout. We’ve seen many Westerns, but none are like this one.
25. Wyatt Earp (1994)
Not to be confused with Tombstone, which came out just six months earlier, Wyatt Earp tells the epic and sprawling story of the titular lawman (played by Kevin Costner) as he makes a name for himself in the Old West and eventually becomes the sheriff of Dodge City and Tombstone. Gun battles, incredible mustaches, and another reenactment of the infamous gunfight at the O.K. Corral make Lawrence Kasdan’s 1994 biographical drama a fun yet often forgotten Western experience. Sure, it’s not as much fun or fondly remembered as Kurt Russell’s Tombstone, but this three-hour love letter to the West is a gem.
24. The Wild Bunch (1969)
Set in the dying days of the Old West, where cowboys and gunslingers are becoming a thing of the past, Pike Bishop (William Holden) and his band of outlaws prepare to pull off one final heist and ride off into the proverbial sunset. But upon finding out that the robbery is all one big setup by his old partner, the aging cowboy attempts to flee for the wild and untamed lands of Mexico.
Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch is one of the best movies that focuses on the final chapter of the Old West and features some incredible characters who are trying to come to terms with a changing, more modern world and their place in it. This classic is wild, it’s violent, and it’s enchanting.
23. Once Upon A Time In The West (1968)
There are Spaghetti Westerns and then there is Once Upon a Time in the West, Sergio Leone’s masterful 1968 epic that is not just one of the best Westerns from an Italian director, but one of the genre’s touchstone moments. Set in the fictional town of Flagstone, the movie follows various killers, drifters, and strangers who all find themselves in the same place at the same time, resulting in cinematic gold.
From Tonino Delli Colli’s beautiful cinematography to Ennio Morricone’s legendary score to Henry Fonda playing against type and portraying the film’s villain, a vicious outlaw named Frank, the movie is perfect in every way.
22. The Searchers (1956)
John Wayne and director John Ford are two of the most iconic names in Western film history. Together they made 14 movies, and one of their undisputed masterpieces is The Searchers from 1956. The plot is a classic Western, a Civil War vet, Ethan Edwards (Wayne) and his nephew search for his niece (played by Natalie Wood) who is abducted by a Comanche tribe.
Now, let’s be clear, there are a LOT of problems with this movie from a social perspective. The depiction of Native Americans is offensive, especially by Wayne’s character, and that cannot be ignored. However, the filmmaking by Ford is breathtaking and cemented Ford’s place in the pantheon of American directors, and maybe the finest Western filmmaker of all time.
21. Tombstone (1993)
Tombstone may be based on a true story, but that doesn’t mean the story is accurate, but that doesn’t matter, that’s not why anyone watches this movie. Its story is actually kind of irrelevant, though it is great. No, Tombstone is about all the fantastic performances by a cadre of amazing actors at the peak of their talents delivering some of the most memorable lines in movie history.
You don’t tussle with Kurt Russell, especially as Wyatt Earp. Val Kilmer, Bill Paxton, Powers Boothe, Michael Biehn, Dana Delaney, Sam Elliott, Charlton Heston, Billy Bob Thorton, Micheal Rooker… the cast list goes on and on. You can’t find a better cast, and you’re a daisy if you do.
20. Shane (1953)
George Stevens’ marvelous Western, Shane, stars Alan Ladd as a mysterious and skilled gunfighter who rides into a small town in Wyoming Territory and slowly changes the lives of everyone he meets. This is especially true for Joey Starrett (Brandon deWilde), the young son of a couple of settlers who takes a liking to the cowboy and tells him about the bad players who have been preying upon the town making life difficult for its inhabitants.
There’s a lot that makes Shane one of the best Westerns of all time, including the showdown with Jack Wilson (Jack Palance), a notorious gunslinger. It also doesn’t hurt that the movie features what could be the most emotional endings of all time with the young Joey crying for Shane to “come back.”
19. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
More than anything else, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford ranks as one of the most gorgeous pictures you will ever see put to film. Legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins (The Shawshank Redemption, Skyfall) makes magnificent use of light and shadows to stage this breathtaking Western about outlaw Jesse James (Brad Pitt), his adoring patron Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), and the contention forming between the men that led to the former’s murder. Andrew Dominik’s feature is moody and visceral, but also complicated regarding its approach to history, legends, and how one can be distorted to influence the other. Still, Pitt and Affleck are tremendous, and Deakins deserved the Oscar (which he lost to Robert Elswit and There Will Be Blood).
18. High Noon (1952)
Directed by Fred Zimmerman, and starring Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly, and many others, High Noon is a classic amongst classics. It’s also the kind of Western that you might watch in a film class since it can be seen as an allegory for the McCarthyism that was going on at the time. The story of a marshall (played by Cooper) who has to make a difficult decision, High Noon still resonates today in a big way since it deals with themes of bravery and heroism.
It also begs the question, should you fight for others, or should you fight for your own survival? In the end, there are many different ways to look at the situation, but it’s effective here because of the constant ticking clock. A lot of Westerns like to take their time, but not High Noon. It’s tense to the very end.
17. The Quick And The Dead (1995)
If the climactic, practically obligatory gun duel is your favorite scene in any Western, The Quick and the Dead — which takes place during a gunfighting tournament — must be a heavenly blessing in your eyes. Sharon Stone stars as a mysterious sharpshooter who blows into the quaint village where the deadly competition is held, setting her sights on defeating its wealthy, ruthless leader, played by Academy Award winner Gene Hackman.
What makes this one of director Sam Raimi’s best movies is the way the Evil Dead franchise creator keeps every last stand-off sequence feeling fresh by incorporating his one-of-a-kind, nearly cartoonish visual style, but without ever downplaying the scenes' emotional impact. Also featuring great performances by future Oscar-winners Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio, The Quick and the Dead is a good, old-fashioned, wildly entertaining slice of high-stakes Western cinema.
16. True Grit (1969)
Here’s the thing. Should John Wayne have beaten Jon Voight or Dustin Hoffman for Best Actor at the 1970 Academy Awards? No. Of course not. Either Voight or Hoffman should have won for Midnight Cowboy. But, when we’re talking about cowboys, then there probably isn’t one who is more iconic than the Duke.
The story focuses on a teenage girl (played by Kim Darby) who hires a U.S. Marshall (played by John Wayne) to hunt down the man who killed her father, and what makes this movie special is the relationship between them, as you get a sense that Wayne’s character is protective over his new client, even though she can very well take care of herself. Add in a Texas Ranger (played by Glen Campbell) who is also on the hunt for the same man, and you have a Western that feels timeless.
15. Back To The Future: Part III (1990)
When Robert Zemeckis ended Back to the Future Part II, he concluded on a cliffhanger that sent Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) back to the old West, forcing Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) to program their DeLorean to travel back decades to save his best friend. It was all an excuse to let Zemeckis, his team, and his crew stage a modern Western, one that playfully recycles the story beats of the first two Back to the Future films – the introduction of Biff, Marty meeting a female relative, a combustive third-act chase – but adds in hilarious Western tropes. What we didn’t expect, however, was a winning love story woven into the Part III screenplay between Doc and Clara (a delightful Mary Steenburgen), a schoolteacher with a taste for science-fiction. A sweet conclusion to a terrific time-traveling trilogy.
14. The Magnificent Seven (1960)
When asked to picture your favorite scene in any Western, you might conjure the image of a tense stand-off pitting one gunslinger against a dastardly foe. Director John Sturges elevates that cliche to an even more exciting effect by pitting seven gunslingers against an army of dastardly foes in The Magnificent Seven.
Inspired by one of the best samurai movies, Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, the film stars Yul Brynner as a gunfighter who enlists the help of six other men with similar talents (played by Steve McQueen, Horst Bucholz, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn, Brad Dexter, and James Coburn) to defend a Mexican village from a group of tyrannical bandits led by the ruthless Calvera (Eli Wallach). It is a wonder in itself to see some of the most legendary action stars of their time fighting side-by-side, but the exhilarating magic they create onscreen is what makes this an essential tale of good vs. evil worth revisiting again and again.
13. The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)
On a Mount Rushmore of Western movie icons, there is undoubtedly a spot for Clint Eastwood, whose most famous contributions to the genre are his characters from Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy. However, allow us to present our case for why his most definitive Western role is the eponymous anti-hero of The Outlaw Josey Wales.
Eastwood also directs this spellbinding, Oscar-nominated adaptation of Forrest Carter’s book — also one of the best Civil War-era movies — about a farmer whose family is killed in cold blood, transforming him into a vengeful, cold-blooded killer himself with a sharp aim, a sharper tongue, and a menacing scowl. The Man with No Name (as the actor’s Dollars Trilogy characters are collectively called) is a calm, cool cat, but Josey Wales is one mean, unforgiving son of a gun, which is exactly the kind of role Eastwood plays best.
12. A Fistful of Dollars (1967)
The first movie in Sergio Leone’s “The Man With No Name” trilogy, A Fistful of Dollars is really just the Akira Kurosawa movie, Yojimo, but set in the West. And it’s awesome! The movie that made Clint Eastwood a movie star, this Spaghetti Western is about an anti-hero named Joe (so, he DOES have a name!) who pits two different groups against each other in order to take the gold at the heart of the conflict for himself. What makes this movie work though is just how cool it is.
Clint Eastwood’s trademark stare is here in all of its glory, and he carries the film from being what could have just been a standard western, into a classic. Sure, it may be the weakest in the trilogy, but as a launchpad to two other great westerns (and Clint Eastwood’s career), it’s WAY up there on the scale.
11. Logan (2017)
The best superhero movies are basically chapters in different genres, be it the 1970s political intrigue of Captain America: The Winter Soldier or the crime-gangster epic of The Dark Knight. So when director James Mangold accepted the challenge of telling a final Wolverine story for Hugh Jackman, he borrowed the formula of the Neo-Noir modern Western, making Logan essentially a Man with No Name modeled after Clint Eastwood in the Spaghetti Westerns of his Italian era. And it helped to make Logan one of the best comic book adaptations of the time, a gritty survivalist story about a grizzled mentor giving it all to protect a young charge (Dafne Keen), with stunning performances from both Jackman and Patrick Stewart in roles they’d worn comfortably for years. It’s a little sad this no longer serves as Jackman’s farewell to the part, but we’ll always have Logan as some form of sendoff.
10. For A Few Dollars More (1965)
The second in Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy starring Clint Eastwood as the Man with No Name, For a Few Dollars More follows the legendary Spaghetti Western icon as he reluctantly teams up with another bounty hunter by the name of Col. Douglas Mortimer (Lee Van Cleef) to find and take out the murderous El Indio (Gian Mari Volonte) and end his reign of terror. From Eastwood’s iconic entrance to the epic duel at the end of the movie, this classic doesn’t let off the gas.
The gunfights, the shaky bond shared by the Man with No Name and Col. Mortimer, Sergio Leone’s attention to detail, and an all-time great score by the late Ennio Morricone make For a Few Dollars More not only one of the best Westerns of all time but also a crowning achievement of 20th-century cinema. No wonder the movie, like other titles in the trilogy, is so beloved nearly 60 years after it first hit the big screen.
9. Django Unchained (2012)
There is a case to be made that every Quentin Tarantino movie is a Western in some respect, but his first undisputed contribution to the genre — and still, arguably, his best — is Django Unchained. Academy Award winner Jamie Foxx stars in the title role as a slave who is offered freedom by German-born bounty hunter King Schultz (Inglourious Basterds’ Christoph Waltz in his second Oscar-winning role) in exchange for help identifying a pair of notorious criminals. When Schultz learns that Django has been separated from his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), he offers to help rescue her from cruel Mississippi plantation owner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
Like Tarantino’s previous efforts, Django Unchained not only aims to pay homage to the iconic Spaghetti Westerns of yesteryear with its rousing score, dazzling gunfights, and cold-blooded revenge plot, it also rips the classics to shreds with the filmmaker’s signature silver-tongued dialogue, cheeky dark humor, and choice to make a Black man the sharp-shooting hero of a story set in the pre-Civil War United States. That alone makes this deliriously entertaining thrill ride one of the most powerful and satisfying revenge stories of its time.
8. True Grit (2010)
Usually, we frown on remakes. Why try and mess with something that worked well the first time, as was the case with John Wayne’s 1969 classic True Grit? We had The Duke in an eye patch, being hired by an adolescent girl to track down a murderer in hostile territory. Now that’s a Western! But lo and behold, every once in a while, a remake improves on the original, and drastically. That’s what happens when you hire Joel and Ethan Coen to breathe new life into the classic tale. Their take on True Grit soars under the leadership of a brilliant Jeff Bridges, playing Rooster Cogburn, and pairing him with the masterful, young Hailee Steinfeld – an instant star.
Everything about True Grit worked, from the way that brilliant cinematographer Roger Deakins captured the sprawling landscapes of the American West, to Carter Burwell’s triumphant, emotional score. I’m not sure why we ever doubted the Coen brothers. Mauve because of The Ladykillers. But we delight in revisiting this magnificent tale because of the beautiful chemistry shared by Bridges and Steinfeld, a pair in which we shall invest for decades to come.
7. Blazing Saddles (1974)
Let’s get this out of the way at the top: Blazing Saddles is purposefully and hugely un-PC. It doesn’t want to be, and it’s not, at all. It’s incredibly hard to walk a line between funny and offensive when one wants to make a move like this, but director and writer Mel Brooks and co-writer Richard Pryor are no ordinary mortals. It takes talent on that level to make a movie this racy, this beloved. It’s both of its time and timeless.
People often ask if you could make a movie like Blazing Saddles today and the answer is yes, but you better have the skills of Pryor and Brooks. It also helps to have actors like Cleavon Little and Gene Wilder just chewing up the scenery (in a good way) as well. Comedic Westerns are rare, and they rarely work, but not only is Blazing Saddles one of the best comedies of all time, it delivers as a Western as well, with shootouts, cowboys, horse stunts, and everything else you want in one.
6. The Hateful Eight (2015)
Though The Hateful Eight isn’t Quentin Tarantino’s best movie that would be Pulp Fiction, of course, it is high on his list of films. What’s great about this movie, which stars the likes of Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bruce Dern, and a whole host of other talented actors, is that this is one of the greatest bottle movies of all time. And why this works is because it plays against conventions.
Westerns typically take place in wide-open vistas. We’re really supposed to get a sense of the land, as it is often a character in its own right. And it’s a character in The Hateful Eight as well, but a deeply confining and claustrophobic one. We feel just as trapped as the characters, which works wonders when it comes to character development. Plus, the dialogue is phenomenal, but what else would you expect from a Quentin Tarantino movie?
5. Hell Or High Water (2016)
In 2016, a couple of years before Taylor Sherdinan introduced audiences to the world of Yellowstone, the prolific actor, writer, director, and producer nearly won an Academy Award for his tense and poignant neo-Western, Hell or High Water. In what is essentially an old-school Western set in modern times, the David Mackenzie-directed crime drama follows brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) as they pull off a series of bank robberies in West Texas for a surprisingly righteous cause. Though they’re pulling off daring heists for a good reason, the fact remains that they’re breaking the law, which draws the attention of a soon-to-be-retired Texas Ranger by the name of Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges).
What follows is an intricate cat-and-mouse game where absolutes like right and wrong are thrown out the window and blow together like a tumbleweed where such lines are blurred and become one mess of humanity. As violent as it is heartfelt, this modern classic is a step above most Westerns as of late.
4. Unforgiven (1992)
Clint Eastwood made his bones in Westerns early in his career and over the years, he’s starred in some of the best. None are better than Unforgiven. Eastwood directed and starred in this stone-cold classic alongside Morgan Freeman, Gene Hackman, and Richard Harris. Eastwood plays Will Munny, a retired and reformed outlaw trying to live his life in peace on a farm in Kansas. Reluctantly, Munny agrees to join a young bounty hunter to make some money for his family and asks his old friend Ned (Freeman) to join in the hunt.
What follows is a classic Western revenge ride after Sheriff "Little" Bill Daggett (Hackman), beats up Will and later kills Ned. There is nothing you want from a Western that Unforgiven doesn’t deliver on and that’s why it’s one of the few in the genre to win Best Picture at the Oscars in 1992, adding Best Supporting Actor for Hackman, and Best Director for Eastwood to its awards haul.
3. Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid (1969)
Paul Newman and Robert Redford. They aren’t the last movie stars to walk the planet. It just feels like some classic era of Old Hollywood went out the door when these two stopped making movies… and stopped collaborating on screen together. In their defense, it would be near impossible for the duo to keep raising the bar on movies such as The Sting and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Best to go out on top.
That’s not how Butch and Sundance go out, as the final shots of George Roy Hill’s vintage Western suggest the legendary criminals went out with the guns blazing. But the entire movie proves to us why these outlaws were notorious – and why Newman and Redford were two of the most charismatic, magnetic screen presences the industry had ever seen. Essentially, Butch and Sundance is one long chase, with the title characters fleeing from a posse following a botched train robbery. The pursuit is relentless, and the adventures these men reluctantly find themselves on make for one unforgettable story. Hill’s movie doesn’t adhere to the mold of many other Westerns, but by breaking out and doing his own thing, the director struck a picture that stands the test of time.
2. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1967)
Sergio Leone’s best Western, and quite frankly, one of the greatest Westerns of all time, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is such a good movie, that even people who claim not to like the genre usually like this film. That’s the power of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Starring Clint Eastwood as “the good,” Lee Van Cleef as “the Bad,” and Eli Wallach as “the ugly,” this epic starts with an unlikely partnership, only to crescendo into one of the most satisfying duels ever put to film.
What are the characters fighting over? Well, money, of course, which makes sense since this is the third film in the “Dollars trilogy” (also known as The Man With No Name trilogy), which began with A Fistful of Dollars. The films don’t necessarily connect, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly can be viewed as a singular story, but as the final film in a trilogy, it definitely works. Also, you just gotta love those long shots and close-ups. Plus, that Ennio Morricone score is the chef’s kiss. This is a Western for the ages!
1. No Country For Old Men (2007)
When imagining the quintessential Western, the otherwise beloved Neo-Western thriller No Country for Old Men is probably not the first that comes to mind — given that its setting, tone, and narrative structure are a far cry from the genre’s more traditional elements. However, that is a key reason why the Best Picture Oscar winner has managed to impress us over the more familiar classics — let alone every other detail that makes it one of the greatest movies of the 2000s and one of the most perfectly constructed films ever made..
Joel and Ethan Coen’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel follows three men united (but kept physically separate) by volatile consequences — a magnificent Josh Brolin as retired hunter Llewellyn Moss, Javier Bardem’s Academy Award-winning role as the sadistic hitman chasing after him, Anton Chigurh, and Tommy Lee Jones as aging Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, who is looking for both of them in 1980s Texas. However, the one true protagonist is Bell — already grown disillusioned and downright terrified of the violence consuming his life and society even before blood hits the screen. Yet, amid the brutal, but beautifully constructed action sequences, it is the quiet moments in No Country — including its polarizing ending — that lend best to the powerful commentary on violence that secures the film’s supremacy in a historically violent genre.