The golden age of Western movies may be long over but never forgotten. Westerns have a significant part to play in movie culture being the centre of Hollywood in the 50s. They were the pinnacle of American movies, reflecting the morals, beliefs and history of the American people. To celebrate the history of westerns we wanted to bring you some of the best western movies of all time.
We’ve included some classics as well as some modern takes. Little genres rose to fame as Westerns did in the 50s. The tough-guy hero, jaw-dropping landscapes, invigorating action and of course, the fight against evil, what else could you want in a movie? The history of westerns, however, is quite complicated.
Westerns have always reflected American beliefs. We can see trends in different westerns as a result of wars and depressions. After the Vietnam war, cowboys adopted a more sinister image. The biggest boom in westerns since the turn of the century was seen after 9/11. As you can see, the influences of Westerns are complicated and not what we are here to talk about. We will, however, talk about some of the most influential movies of this time.
So, what is the best western movie ever made? Of course, this is subjective. Maybe you like intense showdowns or maybe you prefer learning about Native American history.
Nonetheless, we guarantee there is a western out there for everyone even if you might have avoided the genre so far.
Starting off our list is the classic Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid. Even if westerns are your worst nightmare, you will have at least heard of this film. The impact this movie had was huge with it even being recognised as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress!
Based loosely on factual events, we follow Butch Cassidy played by Paul Newman, and the Sundance kid played by Robert Redford. These two lovable outlaws end up moving to Bolivia after a failed train heist. Little scenes are as famous as this last scene where Cassidy and the Sundance Kid burst out into oncoming gunfire.
This film is undoubtedly recognised as one of the most loved American films in history. It went on to be the highest-grossing film in American in 1969 with a gross of over $100 million. Despite many negative reviews at the time, the film went onto win the Academy Awards for best cinematography, original score for a motion picture, music/song, and best original screenplay. Not to mention the record-breaking 9 British Academy Awards it received. The outstanding achievements of this lovable film make it one of the best family-friendly western movies to reach our screens.
Despite not being based on true events, Dances with Wolves is a film that reflects the hardship of the Native American people more than most films. At a time where cowboys were celebrated and historical Native Americans being viewed as savage, many Westerns are culturally insulting. Dances with Wolves contradicts this, showing the alternative story of a white man accepting and indulging in this amazing culture. This alone is enough to get this film on our list.
Directed by Kevin Costner, we follow John J. Dunbar on his journey of becoming accepted by the Lakota people. His name, Dances With Wolves, is given to him after the Lakota people observe him playing with White Socks, a wolf. Of course, Dunbar realised that the savages are less the Native American people, but the American army trying to massacre them.
This heart-warming, alternative western rightfully became a huge success. Recognised as one of the top 10 movies to come out of the 1990s, now Dances With Wolves has an 83% Rotten Tomatoes score. Kevin Costner was even made an honorary member of the Sioux Nation despite its questionable technical accuracy. Considering the lack of scope for westerns at the time, Dances With Wolves has gone on to be one of the top western movies.
Even though the new True Grit has seen extreme success, we thought the original deserved the mention. With an 89% Rotten Tomatoes score as well as a 7.4/10 rating on IMDb, the original True Grit is a well-celebrated western.
After Mattie Ross’s father is murdered by the hired hand Tom Chaney, She seeks out revenge. She hires Rooster Cogburn, a man of “true grit”, to track down the murder so she can avenge her father.
The film was the first adaptation of the 1968 Charles Portis novel, True Grit. John Wayne played the antagonist who was and still is an American acting icon. His career spanned over 40 years and received an Academy Award for his appearance in True Grit. For his achievements from this film, it is certainly a top John Wayne best western movie.
Even though Breaking Bad is an amazing series, it is certainly not a western. This sequel to the movie, however, although still directly related to the plot, is a neo-western. A modern take on westerns that retains the original themes.
In the film, we follow Jesse Pinkman as the main character instead of Walter White. The story starts where the series finished as we see Jesse trying to flee from his previous life.
We always worry that a film following a series or vice versa is going to be a flop. El Camino stomped out all our misconceptions. With a 91% Rotten Tomatoes score, this film comes out on top of the best western movies on Netflix. Aaron Paul’s portrayal of Jesse is highly regarded by many critics. Aaron is still waiting on the results to see if he has won the Saturn Award for best actor.
The Good, The Bad And The Ugly is another extremely famous western movie. The title itself is iconic. Maybe the most famous out of any Spaghetti western. Directed by Sergio Leone, this flamboyant star was none other than Clint Eastwood. Leone can be attributed to Eastwood’s fame with his first big hit being Leones Man With No Name.
The story revolved around the 3 gunslingers Good, Bad and the Ugly and their battle with each other to find a stash of gold. Despite spaghetti westerns not being so popular at the time, this film did not receive the acclaim it deserved upon release. In later years the film got more attention with the current IMDb score being 8.8/10.
Brokeback mountain is not a typical western as you will know. However, its alternative take is what makes it so brilliant. Westerns may have romance involved, but it is usually not the whole tone of the film. Not only did Ang Lee produce an amazing western Romance, but a gay western romance!
The story is centred around Ennis Del Mar played by Heath Ledger and his complicated romantic relationship with Jack Twist played by Jake Gyllenhaal. Both characters marry their “girlfriends” and live a lie, a story still all too common. The hype of this film was nearly unprecedented at the time and it deserved every single bit.
This alternative take on this classic genre makes Brokeback mountain one of the best modern western movies. Its Neo take on the western was executed perfectly, delivering us this masterpiece. The film has received an 87% Metacritic score as well as 87% on Rotten Tomatoes confirming its access. We never expected one of the best cowboy films would be a gay romance!
Of course, a Quentin Tarantino was going to make it onto this list. This tribute to spaghetti westerns made the wild west even wilder. Inspired by Sergio Corbucci’s Django, this stylized action-packed movie was a well-received recent western.
The movie undeniably stays with Tarantino’s violent style. We follow a slave named Django, played by Jamie Fox, who joins forces with Dr. King Schiltz, a bounty hunter, on their mission to capture the Brittle Brothers. Later they devise a plan to free Django’s wife and live with Schiltz as a free man. The reality of the plot, however, was predictably not so simple.
Certainly one of the most recent best western films, Django Unchained has received a positive critical response. With an 8.4/10 IMDb score, the film has received numerous awards. The BAFTA for best supporting actor and best original screenplay to mention a few.
Out of all the best western gunfight movies, The Wild Bunch is a strong contender. The legendary violence of this film would even give a Tarantino a run for its money. The blood and gore of The Wild Bunch is still shocking to some viewers today 50 years later.
The film was actually a final push for many of the actors. Western was dying, this was the final blowout. William Holden and Ernest Borgnine were the stars of the film, packing away their cowboy hats once filming was complete.
The plot is based around a group of outlaws who plan to retire from the criminal world after their final grand heist. Their plan was not so smooth, finding themselves in an extremely violent last stand.
Despite its failure to receive many highly regarded awards, The Wild Bunch serves as a piece of history. It marks the end of the western era and was a final alternative take on the failing genre. Its violence may not have been so welcomed at the time, but today is a selling point alone.
Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven starring himself is still a well-loved movie today. Often when actors take up the role of director we get a little anxious. Eastwood, however, had nothing to worry about. This western legend was just as skilled at directing as he was acting.
Years after the western golden era, Unforgiven has become recognised as one of the best westerns ever made. Eastwood proves it takes one to know one! He was credited for directing a mature but classic western that stays authentic throughout.
Eastwood, playing William Murray, heads out on his final mission in search of a group of men who disfigured a brothel worker. After years of leaving his violent past behind him, he takes up old habits in the search for justice. This narrative ironically follows the history of the western genre.
Undoubtedly this is the best modern classic western. With a 96% Rotten Tomatoes score and 8,8/10 on IMDb, it holds the most impressive stats out of any film on this list.
Our top pick has to be taken by one of the westerns made in its golden era. The story is as western as it gets following an American Indian hating civil war Veteran. This John Ford film starring John Wayne has been formally recognised as one of the “greatest and most influential films ever made”. Being named the best American western in 2008 by the American Film Institute, it came 12th on the top 100 greatest American movies of all time.
Interestingly, this was the first major film to have a purposely made behind-the-scenes documentary. With its success, we are so grateful to be able to see the work that went into this iconic film.
After being recognised as such a significant film, surprisingly, it did not receive a flood of awards. Nonetheless, its impact on the film community has been huge. Even Buddy Holly’s track, That’ll Be The Day, was inspired by the John Wayne line in the film.
Westerns have such an important role to play in the history of film. What once dominated the scene was nearly wiped from existence in a short time. More modern takes, however, like Brokeback Mountain and El Camino prove that Neo-Westerns have their place in modern film culture. It is hard to recreate what was once so loved by many. Instead, taking influences from the original titles and injecting them into a modern film, gives us a successful modern subgenre.
Whether the original spaghetti westerns or the modern neo variations are your thing, we can all agree western is a much-loved genre by all generations. A potential rise in the modern popularity of good western movies would be welcomed by many.
If you’ve got this far it’s safe to say you’re maybe a little bit of a film buff. Don’t stop indulging here, geek out with these similar articles! The Best Spy Movies: What Are The Best Spy Movies Of All Time?, Best Fantasy Movies Of All Time: 10 Of Our Favourites and Best Sci-Fi Movies: What Are The Best Sci-Fi Movies Of All Time? should be right up your street!
Need financial backing to support your project? Our film investment can back projects of all sizes from independent short films to major releases covering all corners of the globe. If that wasn’t enough, promote your work, list your upcoming films and allow fans to pre-order or buy them with your very own Showcase site. Finally, with our concierge and service and extensive music library, allow us to help you find music for your film. Check out our Music Licensing service for starters!