Westerns are just the best, aren’t they? Once a staple of Hollywood, the biggest stars of the day – Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Clint Eastwood – all made their name portraying gun-slingers, cowboys and bounty hunters. But now we’re lucky to get one a year, and a good one comes around maybe once every decade. So when the trailer dropped for Tom Hanks’ new movie, western fans the world over rejoiced.
News of the World, based on the Paulette Jiles novel of the same name, tells the story of a Civil War veteran (Hanks) spreading news to the most secluded, farthest flung corners of the United States. On his journey, he meets a young girl (Helena Zengel), abducted by a Native American tribe years earlier, and pledges to return her to her family. If this were any other year, this probable blockbuster would have cinema theatres packed from London to LA, but 2020 is no ordinary year. The movie will be released in US cinemas on Christmas Day and will be streamed on Netflix internationally.
My love for comedy comes from laughing along with my paternal grandfather as we’d watch Only Fools and Horses, Fawlty Towers, Porridge, One Foot in the Grave, and Dad’s Army. My love for and taste in westerns, however, comes from years of endlessly watching how much joy they brought to my father and my maternal grandfather. But this is my list; and I’m sure there’s at least a film or two they’d all vehemently disagree with. But I’m nothing if not stubborn. These are my 11 best westerns ever made.
11. Rio Bravo (1959)
A sheriff (John Wayne) and his band of misfit deputies – a drunk (Dean Martin), an old cripple (Walter Brennan), and a young upstart (Ricky Nelson) – must defend a small-town jail, where a notorious murderer is locked up. Under siege and outnumbered, the group must hold the fort until military reinforcements arrive. Angie Dickinson plays the obligatory love interest.
This list was originally a Top 10, but I had to include Rio Bravo for the movie’s most memorable scene: a singsong between Martin and Nelson, who’s musical careers were far more triumphant than their acting exploits.
10. The Duel (2016)
Texas Ranger (Liam Hemsworth) is charged with investigating a series of mysterious deaths in a small, remote town. Former Confederate Army officer turned Preacher (Woody Harrelson) rules the town with an iron fist and cult-like aura. The film carries an air of mysticism and ends with a great duel sequence (hence the title).
I might get a lot of flack for including The Duel in this list, especially ahead of The Wild Bunch and The Searchers. The movie was poorly received by critics and audiences alike and has ratings well below average on IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes, but I loved it. Maybe it’s recency bias, maybe it was the incredibly low expectations I had before watching, but I found the movie to be utterly entertaining. It’s on Netflix, so if you haven’t seen it, go check it out and let me know what you think.
9. The Revenant (2015)
The film that finally won Leonardo DiCaprio that elusive Oscar, The Revenant warrants inclusion on this list for the bear scene alone. As good as Leo is in this movie, though, he must play second fiddle to the easily detestable Tom Hardy, who, as he often does, steals the show.
Inspired by true events, the movie follows a group of fur trappers after a disastrous trading expedition. After a disturbingly realistic bear attack, explorer Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) is left for dead. He must crawl and claw his way through relentless, unforgiving conditions, not to survive, but to avenge the murder of his son by fellow trapper, John Fitzgerald (Hardy).
8. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
In terms of dialogue, this is the most well written movie on the list, on most lists in fact. A lifetime of bank and train robberies at the helm of Wyoming’s infamous Hole-in-the-wall Gang leads Butch (Paul Newman) and Sundance (Robert Redford) to the new frontier of Bolivia.
Not merely a classic western, the movie is half a dozen genres rolled into one; the epitome of a buddy movie, adventure movie, chase movie, loveable anti-hero, love-triangle, all based on a true story. A cacophony of jokes and quick wit continue throughout the movie, with enough charm on display from Newman and Redford that the movie often verges on becoming a comedy. The picturesque scenery and cinematography is remarkable, making this one of the most beautifully shot movies of all time.
7. Magnificent Seven (1960)
Yes, I’ve purposely put The Magnificent Seven at Number 7; I feel the integrity of this list can handle it. The movie is a western reimagining of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 Japanese epic, Seven Samurai. Make no mistake about it, this is the 1960 iteration, not the unwatchable Denzel Washington remake.
A veteran gunslinger (Yul Brynner) is recruited by a group of Mexican villagers to defend their town and families from an Eli Wallach led band of marauders. Brynner builds a team of sharpshooters played by Hollywood royalty like Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson. The film inspired many sequels but none could live up to the genre-defining excellence produced by legendary director, John Sturges.
6. A Fistfull of Dollars (1964) / For a Few Dollars More (1965)
In the mid 1960s, director, Sergio Leone, composer, Ennio Morricone, and star, Clint Eastwood, joined forces to create a genre-altering trilogy, sometimes called The Man With No Name Trilogy, sometimes The Dollars Trilogy. The movies, filmed in Italy, came to be known as “spaghetti westerns”. I’ve included these two together as a companion piece, because no matter how many times I’ve seen them, Parts One and Two of the trilogy always run together.
Both movies are probably better known for their soundtracks than their plot. Leone uses Morricone’s music throughout the films to prolong suspense and add atmosphere. Adorned in brown hat and poncho, Clint Eastwood – the man with no name – shot to superstardom on the back of the movies.
5. Tombstone (1993)
Tombstone tells the story of legendary figures and events of the wild west, such as Wyatt Earp, Doc Holiday, and the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Kurt Russell, playing Earp, may be in the starring role, but it is Val Kilmer’s performance as Doc Holiday that shines brightest.
The movie is easily one of the most quotable westerns of all time. Kilmer delivers some poetically brutal one-liners, made all the more memorable by his over-the-top, southern drawl: “I’m your huckleberry,” “Why Johnny, you look like like somebody just walked over your grave,” and my personal favourite, “Oh, I apologise, I forgot you were there – you may go now” to name but a few. Not to be totally overshadowed, Russel pipes up with a few zingers of his own, including “Are you gonna do somethin’ or just stand there and bleed?”
4. Unforgiven (1992)
When a prostitute is disfigured by a pair of outlaws, her fellow brothel workers post a ransom for their murder, much to the dismay of the local sheriff. Two groups of aging gunfighters come out of retirement to collect the reward. The movie is different from most westerns – and indeed most stories of any kind – as there is no real “good guy”, just varying tiers of bad.
With a cast that includes Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman and Richard Harris, Unforgiven was always destined for greatness. The film, which won four Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Film Editing), was just the third Western to win the Oscar for Best Picture.
3. Django Unchained (2012)
It still amazes me how the same legendary director and writer who made this movie (Quentin Tarantino) could also be responsible for the absolute bore-fest that was The Hateful Eight. I realise that’s going to be a hugely divisive statement, and maybe I need to watch it again, but I paid money to see that movie, went to the cinema to see that movie, and fell asleep during that movie – twice!
Django, however, is a heart-stopping, roller coaster ride of a film, featuring one of the all-time great performances in western movie history from Christoph Waltz, playing a wise-cracking, German bounty hunter. While most westerns avoid the subject of slavery, Django Unchained jumps in with both feet. In the titular role, Jamie Foxx is a freed slave turned bounty hunter who must rescue his beloved bride (Kerry Washington) from the despicable plantation owner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Like Waltz, DiCaprio also steals the spotlight from Foxx, putting in one of his most memorable performances.
2. Once Upon A Time In The West (1968)
Whenever director Sergio Leone collaborates with composer Ennio Morricone, the pair produce cinematic magic. Like many movies on this list, the music has a central role – that and the constant close-ups on Henry Fonda’s icy blue eyes. The enigmatic Charles Bronson plays an eerie harmonica tune over the Morricone soundtrack that beautifully compliments the story being told.
The film centres around two converging conflicts, a land dispute and a vengeance mission. A man is killed when he refuses to sell his land to the railroad company, leaving behind a vulnerable widow. The killer (Fonda) pins the murder a notorious bandit who joins forces with a harmonica-playing outsider, desperate for revenge. The epic is close to three hours long but worth every minute of your time.
1. The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966)
This is god-tier film-making. The finale of director Sergio Leone’s famous Man With No Name Trilogy, the movie transcends its genre. It’s rare that three legends of cinema collaborate on so many projects, but in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, director, Sergio Leone, composer, Ennio Morricone, and star, Clint Eastwood, all produce their best work. This is their magnum opus; their masterpiece.
Blondie (Clint Eastwood) is “The Good”; an anti-hero who is actually responsible for the most kills in the entire movie. He isn’t so much good as occasionally noble and not as terrible as his counterparts. Angel Eyes (Lee van Cleef) is “The Bad”; he is no worse than the others, but he has a ruthless attitude, encapsulated by the actor’s evil laugh. Finally, Tuco (Eli Wallach) is “The Ugly”; he represents the ugliness of humanity, showing no loyalty or compassion. Tuco gets all the best lines; he is funny, unpredictable and is easily the best thing in the movie.
Blondie and Tuco form an uneasy alliance through a bounty hunting scam. Blondie turns in Tuco for the reward money, then rescues him just as the outlaw is about to be hanged. But the partnership hits a brick wall. With a backdrop of the American civil war, the two men race against Angel Eyes to try to find a fortune in gold buried in an unmarked grave at a remote cemetery.