The 25 Greatest Westerns of All Time

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25. The Naked Spur (1953)
25. The Naked Spur (1953)
MGM
Director Anthony Mann took it upon himself to redefine the topography of the Western. Instead of arid Monument Valley, Utah, where John Ford created the mesa-centric view of the West, Mann took us to forests, mountains, and icy rivers. The Naked Spur also shook up Jimmy Stewart's psychological terrain as a brooding bounty hunter out to nab an outlaw so as to use the reward to buy back his foreclosed homestead. It hints at Stewart's darkness to come in Vertigo.
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24. The Ruthless Four (1968)
24. The Ruthless Four (1968)
Produzioni Cinematografiche Mediterranee
A kind of Treasure of the Sierra Madre in reverse, Giorgio Capitani’s film has gold miner Van Heflin hit paydirt at the very beginning. Then, to his misfortune, Heflin hires three scoundrels (George Hilton, an always-great Gilbert Roland, and Klaus Kinski, totally deranged) to help transport the bullion back to civilization. As you can imagine, betrayal and backstabbing ensue.
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23. My Name Is Nobody (1973)
23. My Name Is Nobody (1973)
Universal Pictures
A comedy Western par excellence, Henry Fonda returns to Leoneland after his legendary villain Frank in Once Upon a Time in the West. This time he’s decidedly more benign, as an aging gunfighter who just wants to be left alone but is dogged at every turn by young upstarts trying to test themselves against his superior skill. One of those challengers is Nobody (Terence Hill), a possibly unhinged young man who’s determined to see Fonda’s gunfighter die in a blaze of glory against the Wild Bunch.
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22. The Hanging Tree (1959)
22. The Hanging Tree (1959)
Warner Bros.
Righteous Gary Cooper faces townspeople morally corrupt enough to give those of Dogville a run for their money. No, this isn't High Noon, it's Delmer Daves' yarn about a doctor (Cooper) haunted by his past who nurses a stagecoach robbery victim (Maria Schell) back to life, while his neighbors think she's offering up illicit payment for his services. It's a story about the ineffable bonds between people in a fallen world.
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21. The Indian Fighter (1955)
21. The Indian Fighter (1955)
Bryna Productions
One of the earliest, and best, revisionist Westerns sees Kirk Douglas try to stop a war after Walter Matthau swindles the Sioux. A positive, pro-Native American film with beautiful Oregon Trail cinematography from B-movie maestro Andre de Toth.
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20. Compañeros (1970)
20. Compañeros (1970)
Tritone Cinematografica
One of the best action comedies you’ll ever see, Sergio Corbucci’s Compañeros teamed genre heavyweights Franco Nero, as a natty Swedish arms dealer, and Tomás Milián, as a scruffy revolutionary leader, against a weed-smoking, one-handed Jack Palance who’s really, really obsessed with a falcon named Marshall.
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19. The Quick and the Dead (1996)
19. The Quick and the Dead (1996)
Hollywood.com Staff/Syndicated by: Tristar Pictures
Four years after he played a sadistic sheriff in Unforgiven Gene Hackman dons a tin star once again...as a sadistic sheriff! This time, in Sam Raimi's hyper-stylized meta-Western, he's summoned all the best gunslingers in the West for a quick-draw tournament. It's like a bracket game in which the winner will score a big prize...and get to live. Sharon Stone's shootist, with the help of priest Russell Crowe, enters the tourney for a chance at revenge against Hackman for a past crime.
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18. For a Few Dollars More (1965)
18. For a Few Dollars More (1965)
United Artists
It’s hard to think of a more satisfying classical, three-act structure for any Spaghetti Western than that of the second installment of Sergio Leone’s “Man With No Name” Trilogy. This time Clint Eastwood is joined by Lee Van Cleef, in the first of his great Man in Black roles, to track down an animalistic, dope-fueled bandit named El Indio (the great Gian Maria Volanté). The Swiss watch-like plotting carries over to the music-box tinkly soundtrack by Ennio Morricone.
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17. Man of the West (1958)
17. Man of the West (1958)
United Artists
Gary Cooper's very best Western anticipates Unforgiven by casting him as a reformed outlaw who once again has to embrace the violent ways he's since shunned in order to survive when he and a couple others are held captive by his former gang (led by a typically nihilistic Lee J. Cobb). Fitzgerald wondered if you could repeat the past. Director Anthony Mann wonders in Man of the West if you can escape it.
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16. Pale Rider (1985)
16. Pale Rider (1985)
Warner Bros.
Clint Eastwood's superior reworking of Shane takes the germ of George Stevens' original plot — a mysterious gunslinger arrives in town, protects a small, industrious family from Big Business, and helps a child grow up — but divorces it from Stevens' hackwork and adds some gender equality by making the child his gunslinger instructs be a young girl. For an extra treat, Eastwood even cast John Russell (Rio Bravo's Nathan Burdette) to be the villain of the piece!
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15. The Wild Bunch (1969)
15. The Wild Bunch (1969)
Warner Bros.
Sam Peckinpah blew up the Western with dynamite, then riddled its corpse with hundreds of rounds from a Gatling Gun for good measure. Which is to say that The Wild Bunch, with its bravura displays of "Let's Top Bonnie and Clyde" violence, may be a Western for people who don't like Westerns. In 1913, an aging outlaw gang tries one last score before they're blown away by history and a modern world that's far more violent than the Wild West.
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14. McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971)
14. McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971)
Warner Bros.
If the Western is the canvas where, metaphorically at least, the American character was formed, capitalism should be a huge part of it. That was Robert Altman's thinking when he teamed Warren Beatty and Julie Christie as entrepreneurs looking to establish a brothel in a small town — at least until Big Business and their hired guns decide to move in. Beatty's McCabe is a disreputable anti-hero with no real skills, but you can't help but root for him against the Man in his final snow-covered shootout.
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13. The Good The Bad and The Ugly (1966)
13. The Good The Bad and The Ugly (1966)
United Artists
A sprawling picaresque of the Civil War Era West, the conclusion of Leone’s “Man With No Name” Trilogy has only one analogue: Don Quixote. Three magnificent rogues—The Good (Clint Eastwood), who’s anything but; The Bad (Lee Van Cleef at his squinty-eyed best) who is exactly that, and The Ugly (Eli Wallach), shaggy-dogged and scratchy— search for a cache of Confederate gold and face hangmen, bounty hunters, massive Civil War battles, and each other.
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12. The Big Gundown (1966)
12. The Big Gundown (1966)
Columbia Pictures
Bounty hunter Lee Van Cleef tracks bandit Tomás Milián, accused of rape and murder, across Texas and Mexico until he doubts his quarry is guilty. Director Sergio Sollima crafted an allegory for an American interventionism in Latin America that ends up harming the average working man on both sides of the Rio Grande. The message: the establishment fuels racial prejudice and sexual paranoia as justification for a society organized to fill the already-full pockets of the megarich.
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11. Unforgiven (1992)
11. Unforgiven (1992)
Warner Bros.
Clint Eastwood's last — and best — Western examines the foundational place of violence, and our simultaneous embrace and denial of it, in American history. Eastwood's William Munny is a reformed outlaw who's given up the drink, but he accepts a job to nab a couple cowpokes who mutilated a prostitute. When he does take a drink again, it's with good reason but absolutely terrifying. Is Munny victorious or defeated in the end? Depends how you look at it.
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10. Rio Bravo (1959)
10. Rio Bravo (1959)
Warner Bros.
The best hangout movie ever made? Without a doubt. Director Howard Hawks was a master storyteller, but he also knew complex character dynamics are more important than any forward-charging plot. John Wayne, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson, and Walter Brennan hole up to guard a prisoner, work out some issues, flirt with Angie Dickinson, and sing songs — basically like a Shakespeare play, if Shakespeare had ever given us the song "My Rifle, My Pony, and Me."
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9. Bend of the River (1951)
9. Bend of the River (1951)
Universal International Pictures
Jimmy Stewart and Arthur Kennedy play pals who help lead a wagon train up to the Columbia River valley to found a new settlement. But they eventually find themselves on opposite sides as Stewart remains committed to the settlers while Kennedy wants to sell their much-needed supplies for cash. Anthony Mann's film is a snow-dappled metaphor for the "Culture of Production versus Culture of Consumption" divide that would mark the 1950s.
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8. Jeremiah Johnson (1972)
8. Jeremiah Johnson (1972)
Warner Bros.
Robert Redford concealed his movie-god looks to play a mountain man in Sydney Pollack's film that gets to the original existential-loner appeal of the genre: Redford's Jeremiah left civilization for the mountains "where he was bettin' on forgettin' all the places that he knew." What, if anything, damaged him enough to turn his back on humanity? We don't know. But humanity — an incredible cast of characters, including Stefan Gierasch's Del Gue (buried) — keeps finding him.
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7. The Searchers (1956)
7. The Searchers (1956)
Warner Bros.
Race, sex, and class collide in the most expansive film John Ford ever made. About an ex-Confederate soldier (John Wayne) traversing the West for seven years to find his Comanche-abducted niece, and then kill her for the crime of becoming a squaw against her will, The Searchers uses the Western form to examine America's original sins — particularly the role of violence in shaping the American character — against a stunning progression of landscapes. It'll haunt forever.
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6. Johnny Guitar (1954)
6. Johnny Guitar (1954)
Republic Pictures
What begins as a talky chamber drama about a saloon owner (Joan Crawford) aided by a reformed gunslinger turned guitar player (Sterling Hayden) in defying the puritanism of the townsfolk unfurls to become a sprawling, harrowing epic as those townspeople, led by Mercedes McCambridge (demonic years before voicing The Exorcist's demon), turn murderous. The showdown between gunslingers Crawford and McCambridge is a mana a mana battle for the ages.
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5. Ride Lonesome (1959)
5. Ride Lonesome (1959)
Columbia Pictures
Budd Boetticher reduced the Western to its morality-play basics. His films are like minimalist action paintings where what isn't said or done is just as important as what is. Ride Lonesome stars Randolph Scott as a bounty hunter interested in more than just a reward, but in revenge against the outlaw (Lee Van Cleef) who killed his wife. When Van Cleef says he "almost forgot" killing her, Scott's response, "A man can do that," sums up Boetticher's view of the banality of violence.
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4. She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949)
4. She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949)
RKO
John Ford's first Technicolor Western is an explosion of painterly images, with Monument Valley transformed into his own personal canvas. For a story about a retiring cavalry officer (John Wayne) looking to make peace with the Cheyenne and Arapaho before he's put out to pasture, Ford coaxed Wayne to his most subtle performance ever while expressing bold emotion through his striking landscapes: a blood-red sky draped behind a cemetery and a thunderstorm rolling across the plains.
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2. Stagecoach (1939)
2. Stagecoach (1939)
United Artists
A hazy tracking shot toward a twirling rifle, and a star was born. John Wayne had already been in dozens of Westerns before John Ford tapped him to play the Ringo Kid, but Stagecoach feels like his first. It kind of did the same for the genre, injecting propulsive new life into the Western after dozens of lifeless predecessors in the 1930s. And its DNA can be detected in everything from Citizen Kane to Star Wars.
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1. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
1. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
Paramount Pictures
Sergio Leone completed his rewrite of the Old West with his follow-up to the “Man With No Name” Trilogy. Charles Bronson is a harmonica-playing force-to-be-reckoned-with gunning for the railroad enforcer (Henry Fonda) who killed his brother and threatens a widow (Claudia Cardinale). It's like Leone distilled the Western to its most minimalist, iconic foundation-myth elements. Simply, the best.

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