Western films have been a staple of American cinema for practically as long as movies have been made.
Movies in the Western genre are set in the American West, typically between the 1850s to the end of the 19th century. While it has been a stable genre — no pun intended! — it has also been the starting ground for several hybrid genres like Western comedies, Western musicals and horror Westerns.
No other genre’s history goes back quite as far as that of Westerns. According to documentarian David Gregory, “It has been estimated that up to 40 percent of all films made before 1960 were Westerns.”
Although the category reached its greatest popularity in the early and middle decades of the 20th century, with several becoming cult classics, films continued to be made even through droughts for Westerns in the late ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. Actors have also made their name starring in Western films, including Clint Eastwood, John Wayne, James Stewart and Jeff Bridges, to name a few.
In 2017, Bridges, the star of the Oscar-nominated genre titles True Grit and Hell or High Water, told The Hollywood Reporter, “Everything’s magnified: the struggle, the serious choices, what you do, the bravery, all those things. I like and appreciate the ambiguity of telling right from wrong,” in reference to Westerns.
While the genre may not be what it was in the early 20th century, Westerns have continued to evolve to remain a notable category in the industry, as seen in the last decade with True Grit, Hell or High Water and Django Unchained.
Find a list of the 30 most memorable Western movies of all time below.
‘The Great Train Robbery’ (1903)
In one of the earliest Westerns in American cinema, the film depicts a group of outlaws who rob passengers on a train and threaten the operator. When trying to run away, they shoot a passenger. The sheriff and his men embark on a manhunt of the men.
The two-time Oscar winning film, directed by John Ford, follows a collective group of passengers aboard a stagecoach, including a drunken doctor, two women, a bank manager who stole his client’s money and escaped outlaw Ringo Kid. As they make their trip across the wild west to New Mexico in the 1880s, they must face the threat of Geronimo in the area.
‘Red River’ (1948)
After working 14 years to build his cattle ranch in Texas, Tom Dunston (John Wayne) is ready to drive them to the market, which is in Missouri. With the help of his trailhand, Nadine Groot (Walter Brennan), and protégé, Matthew Garth (Montgomery Clift), an orphan who Dunston took under his wing, they head out on their journey. But along the way, in the film directed by Howard Hawks and Arthur Rosson, stubborn Dunston and Garth begin to feud, leading to a tense voyage.
‘Winchester ’73’ (1950)
Lin McAdam (James Stewart) finds himself chasing after a rifle that he won in a contest, but was stolen by the runner-up, Dutch Henry Brown (Millard Mitchell). In the film, directed by Anthony Mann, McAdam pursues all efforts to retrieve the rifle, even ending up in a shoot-out.
‘High Noon’ (1952)
The movie, directed by Fred Zinnemann, features Gary Cooper as former marshal Will Kane, who is preparing to leave a small town in New Mexico with his new wife, Amy, played by Grace Kelly. Before heading out, Kane learned the local criminal, Frank Miller, whom he turned in, has been set free and is seeking revenge. The marshal tries to recruit deputies in the town to help, but they turn on him, leaving Kane to fight Miller and his crew alone.
‘The Searchers’ (1956)
The film, directed by John Ford, shows how one man will go through great lengths for his family. When Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) returned home to Texas after the Civil War, he learns members of his brother’s family have been killed or abducted by Comanches. He then embarks on dangerous mission to save the surviving members, including his neice and her adopted brother.
‘Rio Bravo’ (1959)
When small-town sheriff John T. Chance (John Wayne) arrests gunslinger Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) for murder, he must face Burdette’s brother Nathan (John Russell) who wants him out of jail. But with the help of an elderly deputy, the town drunk and a young gunfighter, Chance makes a stand against Nathan, in the film directed by Howard Hawks.
‘The Magnificent Seven’ (1960)
When a small Mexican farming village is terrorized by a band of outlaws every year, several of the townspeople hire seven American gunmen to defend them. The film, directed by John Sturges, follows the gunslingers as they train and prepare the village for the outlaws who will be arriving soon.
‘One-Eyed Jacks’ (1961)
Following a bank robbery, outlaw Rio (Marlon Brando) and his partner, Dad Longworth (Karl Malden) are on the run from the law, but Dad has different plans. In the film, directed by Brando, Dad betrays Rio and takes off with the gold as Rio is captured. Years later, when Rio escapes from prison, he hunts down his ex-partner, who is now a sheriff, in California for revenge.
‘Ride the High Country’ (1962)
In the film directed by Sam Peckinpah, retired lawman Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) hires his friend Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott) and his young protégé Heck to help transport a gold shipment from a bank through a dangerous area. But Gil and Heck devise a plan to steal the gold. Along the way, the three also get involved with a woman trying to escape her father and fiancé.
‘A Fistful of Dollars’ (1964)
As drifter gunman Joe (Clint Eastwood) enters the Mexican village of San Miguel, he learns of a power struggle between two gangs — John Baxter (Wolfgang Lukschy) and Ramón Rojo (Gian Maria Volontè). In the film, directed by Sergio Leone, Joe finds himself between the two sides, playing both for his own benefit.
‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ (1966)
This Western classic, starring Clint Eastwood, follows three men on a tense journey, all vying for a stash of gold. In the film, directed by Sergio Leone, Blondie, The Good, who is a professional gunslinger, ruins his partnership with Tuco, The Ugly (Eli Wallach), who is a Mexican outlaw. As Tuco sets out to murder Blondie, along the way, they both learn of $200,000 worth of gold buried in a cemetery. But each man has different information on its location, so they must keep each other alive as they set out on a journey to find the gold. Along the way, Angel Eyes, The Bad (Lee Van Cleef), who is a hitman, learns about the gold, which leads to Blondie and Tuco teaming up once again, to get their hands on the gold before anyone else.
‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ (1968)
A woman moves from New Orleans to Utah, just to find her new husband and family killed. When she learns the man responsible pinned it on a known bandit, Cheyenne (Jason Robards), she teams up with him to search for the real killer, henchman Frank (Henry Fonda). They also have help from a mysterious gunslinger on a mission to get even. The film is directed by Sergio Leone.
‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’ (1969)
The film based on real-life outlaws is set at a time when the west starts to become more civilized. The leaders of a small gang, Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, are on the run from a special posse who begins trailing them after their regular train robbery. No matter how far they go, the group seems to be right behind them. But when they finally escape them, their journey takes them to Bolivia, thanks to a suggestion from Butch. The film was directed by George Roy Hill.
‘True Grit’ (1969)
Nothing matters more than bringing her father’s killer to justice, so Mattie Ross (Kim Darby) sets out on a journey to seek vengeance. She hires U.S. Marshal “Rooster” Cogburn (John Wayne) to help her track the murderer Tom Chaney (Jeff Corey) down, and along the way, a Texas Ranger, La Boeuf (Glen Campbell) joins the manhunt, hoping to capture Chaney for the murder of a Texas senator. In the movie, directed by Henry Hathaway, they all embark on the dangerous trek together.
‘The Wild Bunch’ (1969)
This Sam Peckinpah-directed film, set in 1913, follows a gang known as The Wild Bunch as they attempt one last robbery before retiring. Once outlaw Pike Bishop, played by William Holden, and his gang make it to Mexico for the job, they end up in a violent last stand against their enemies. The film also stars Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson and Robert Ryan.
‘Buck and the Preacher’ (1972)
Post-Civil War, Buck (Sidney Poitier), a soldier turned trail guide, is helping former slaves settle in the West. At one point, a con artist, Preacher (Harry Belafonte), joins the group and clashes with Buck. But the two must learn to put their differences aside when a group of bounty hunters, led by Deshay (Cameron Mitchell), tries to bring the freed slaves back to Louisiana. The film is directed by Sidney Poitier and Joseph Sargent.
‘The Outlaw Josey Wales’ (1976)
After Josey Wales’ (Clint Eastwood) family is killed by Union men led by Capt. Terrill (Bill McKinney), Wales seeks revenge by joining the Confederate Army. But when the war ends, he refuses to surrender and hand over his weapons. Josey then flees to Texas where he meets a group of settlers to start a new life, but with a bounty on his head. Eastwood also directed the film.
‘Dance With Wolves’ (1990)
Directed by and starring Kevin Costner, the film follows a Civil War soldier, Lt. John Dunbar, (Costner) as he develops a relationship with a Native American tribe. As he gets closer to them, he decides to leave his former life behind and join them. After getting the name Dances With Wolves, he is welcomed in as a member and stands with them in any fight. John also finds a surprising romance in the tribe.
One of the many Westerns starring and directed by Clint Eastwood, Unforgiven sees a prostitute disfigured, narrowly escaping death, prompting co-workers to post a reward for the murder of those responsible. To the displeasure of the sheriff, two groups of outlaws head to Big Whiskey, Wyoming, one led by William Munny (Eastwood) and the other by English Bob (Richard Harris), in search of the men behind the crime.
In the movie directed by George P. Cosmatos and Kevin Jarre, Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell) and his brothers, Morgan (Bill Paxton) and Virgil (Sam Elliott), think they have left their gunslinger ways behind them as they settle down in Tombstone, Arizona. But things take a turn when trouble finds the trio once again, this time with a group of outlaws. The men team up with Wyatt’s best friend, Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer), to take on the gang of cowboys.
‘The Quick and the Dead’ (1995)
A female gunslinger, Ellen (Sharon Stone), rides into a small frontier town looking for revenge for her father who was killed by the town’s mayor, Herod (Gene Hackman). While there, she enters a violent competition with other outlaws all there with their own motive. In the film directed by Sam Raimi, Ellen fights to the death to get justice. The movies also stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe.
‘Lone Star’ (1996)
When local sheriff Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper) is called to investigate a 40-year-old skeleton found in the desert in Rio County, Texas, he starts to uncover the town’s dark secrets. In the movie, directed by John Sayles, Deeds begins to learn more about his father, former legendary sheriff Buddy Deeds, all while trying to solve the mystery murder and expose the town’s secrets. Along the way, he also rekindles an old high-school romance.
‘Open Range’ (2003)
In this Western, directed by Kevin Costner, Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall), Charley Waite (Costner), Mose Harrison (Abraham Benrubi) and Button (Diego Luna) have a close friendship as they drive their cattle across the West. But when Mose finds his way to a small town, he encounters a corrupt sheriff (James Russo) and rancher Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon) who run the village with fear and violence. When Mose doesn’t come back, Boss and his men head out to find. Along their journey to rescue Mose, they face everything from heated exchanges, violence and an unexpected romance.
‘3:10 To Yuma’ (2007)
Rancher Dan Evans (Christian Bale), who heads into Bisbee, Arizona, captures famed outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) who has been terrorizing the area. The film, set in the 1800s, follows Evan as he escorts Wade to the train so he can be brought to trial. Throughout their tense journey in the movie, which was directed by James Mangold, they face danger at every turn on their way to the 3:10 to Yuma train.
‘The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford’ (2007)
Jesse James (Brad Pitt) is a famed outlaw with many after him to collect the reward placed on his head. But as Jesse continues his ways and plans his next big heist, two of his own recruits have other plans. As Robert (Casey Affleck) and Charley Ford (Sam Rockwell) grow jealous of Jesse, they decide to try and kill him, but things don’t go as planned, in the film directed by Andrew Dominik.
It’s the 1880s Southwest, and Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) are traveling into lawless towns desperate for them to bring justice. Along the way, they learn the mining town of Appaloosa is being terrorized by Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons), a newly arrived rancher and a gang. In the film, directed by Ed Harris, Virgil and Evertt must work together to bring them down, but when a mysterious widow (Renee Zellweger) arrives to town, their bond is tested.
This animated Western follows the story of a pet chameleon named Rango (voiced by Johnny Depp) who embarks on a lifestyle change following an identity crisis. Rango accidentally finds himself in a frontier town as the new sheriff, where he ends up taking on the hero role and faces thrilling encounters. The film is directed by Gore Verbinski.
‘Django Unchained’ (2012)
With quite the ensemble, including Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kerry Washington, the pre-Civil War film follows Django (Foxx), a slave who joins a German bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Waltz), on a mission to find two men. Once they are found, Schultz offers to help Django find his long-lost wife, Broomhilda von Shaft (Washington), if he agrees to be his partner. The two embark on a journey to find her when they learn she was sold to a plantation in Mississippi. They work together to come up with a plan so that the owner, Calvin Candie (DiCaprio), welcomes them into his home so they can save his wife.
‘Hell or High Water’ (2016)
In the film directed by David Mackenzie, Toby Howard (Chris Pine) is a divorced father who is about to have his family ranch foreclosed on. In an attempt at making a better life for his sons, Toby and his brother Tanner (Ben Foster), who is an ex-convict, plan several heists at the bank that’s foreclosing the ranch. At the same time, Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), who’s close to retirement, is out to stop them.