The Western is the quintessential American movie genre. Its iconography has been seared into our collective conscious: the solitary cowboy riding the endless frontier, towns struggling to survive in a lawless land, the quick-drawing gunfighter. Generations of filmmakers have engaged with those symbols, building an entire cinematic language on a genre that began with the simple premise of good “white hats” vs. bad “black hats.” In doing so, they have created mythologies, torn down legends and subverted what it means to be an American.
My exposure to the West began in the living room of my parents’ house. My father, a Sephardic Jew born and raised in Greece, shared with me the movies he loved as a child. Over the years my enthusiasm for the genre only grew as I became a history buff, a lover of myths, and eventually a filmmaker. In interviews, I’m often asked to name my favorite Western, a near impossible task given the sheer range of the genre. IndieWire was smart enough to ask me to make a list.
12. “For a Few Dollars More”
The forgotten film in Sergio Leone’s “Man With No Name” trilogy is also the best of the bunch. Two bounty hunters (Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef) become reluctant partners in the hunt for valuable outlaw Indio (Gian Maria Volonte). What at first seems like a story of nihilistic violence becomes in the final moments something else entirely. With a few simple chimes of Ennio Morricone’s incredible score, the entire film is redefined as one of loss and vengeance.
John Ford’s classic Western follows a motley group of strangers as they travel together through dangerous Apache territory. The epic that launched John Wayne as a global icon also introduced us to the quintessential stock characters that would inhabit Hollywood’s West: the suave gambler, the crooked banker, the drunk, and the prostitute with a heart of gold.
10. “The Ballad of Cable Hogue”
No one expected Sam Peckinpah to follow up the stunning, ultra-violent Wild Bunch with this unconventional Western. Jason Robards plays the title character, a prospector left to die in the desert by his partners (Strother Martin and LQ Jones). When he finds water “where it wasn’t,” he builds a way station and waits for his chance at revenge. What follows is a movie that is at once slapstick and elegant, lecherous yet heart-wrenching. Stella Stephens is magical as Hildy, a prostitute run out of town by the moral league. It is Peckinpah’s favorite of his movies, and it never fails to bring a tear to my eye.
9. “High Noon”
In this archetypal Western, which is simultaneously iconic and subversive, Gary Cooper plays Will Kane, a retiring Sheriff faced with the imminent return of a notorious criminal. When the town turns against him, the desperate Cooper must choose to run with his Quaker bride (Grace Kelly) or stand alone and outnumbered against a gang that wants him dead. Yes, it’s an allegory of blacklisted Hollywood and an indictment of McCarthyism. It’s also a damn fine Western.
8. “The Man From Laramie”
This was the last of four Westerns Jimmy Stewart made with director Anthony Mann. In each of them Stewart plays a man on a mission, driven to the point of obsession. In this film, Stewart plays an AWOL army Captain hunting down gunrunners to avenge his brother’s death. His quest takes him to a New Mexico town run by an aging cattle baron (Donald Crisp) and his psychotic son (Alex Nicol). With shades of “King Lear” and a harsh landscape beautifully captured in CinemaScope, this is an under-appreciated gem.
7. “Red River”
John Wayne, Montgomery Clift, and Walter Brennan lead 10,000 head of “beef” out of Texas in Howard Hawkes’ epic Western, once described as “’Mutiny on the Bounty’ with stirrups.” Wayne plays Thomas Dunson, a tortured, bullheaded cattleman, whose violent single-mindedness eventually forces his adopted son (Clift in his first screen role) to stand against him. When John Ford saw Wayne’s performance, he said, “I never knew that big son of a bitch could act.” Stunningly shot with epic cattle scenes, including a terrifying stampede and river crossing, “Red River” is one of the quintessential Westerns.
6. “Rio Bravo”
In Howard Hawks response to High Noon, John Wayne plays a lone sheriff protecting his prisoner from a wealthy rancher and his gang of outlaws. The townspeople come to his aid in the form of classic Western stock characters. Dean Martin is the alcoholic deputy, Walter Brennan the crotchety sidekick, Angie Dickenson is the gambler and Ricky Nelson the young, hotshot gunfighter. This is a charming, old-fashioned Western that’s so much fun, Hawks ended up remaking it twice.
5. “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”
This is a Western about Westerns. Senator Ransom Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart) made his name as “the man who shot Liberty Valance.” But when he returns home for the funeral of his long-forgotten friend Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), he reveals the lie behind the legend. The movie is told in flashback, and director John Ford cannily differentiates truth from fiction by shooting the modern sequences in Monument Valley and the flashbacks on a studio lot. This film has an incredible cast including Vera Miles, Lee Marvin, Edmond O’Brien, Andy Devine, Woody Strode and John Carradine.
Clint Eastwood sat on this script for 10 years until he was old enough to play Willam Munny, the notorious and violent murderer who gave up his psychotic ways to settle down. But with his wife dead and his farm failing, he forsakes his vows for money and sets off to kill two cowboys who mutilated a woman. For two hours we’re treated to an insightful, tragic self-reflection on violence as we try to reconcile the weak old man onscreen with the legendary killer everyone tells us he was. But Eastwood isn’t just making a simple character study — he wants to implicate us in the violence. And when Munny finally takes that sip of liquor and unleashes his inner demon, the violence released is almost orgasmic.
3. “Once Upon a Time in the West”
Everyone talks about the magnificent opening of this film, but for me it’s the second scene that captures what makes Sergio Leone’s epic Western a masterwork of mythology. We meet an Irish family of homesteaders, full of hope and joy as they prepare a wedding feast. They are the American Dream personified. Then a gunshot rings out. The daughter falls dead. Within moments bullets tear apart the rest of the family until only a little boy is left. The music rises as the killers emerges from the brush. Leone’s camera takes its time sweeping around the gang and up their leader’s jet-black coat before revealing the iconic face of Henry Fonda. This is the actor who played Abraham Lincoln and Wyatt Earp. Who personified all that is good and right in our country. Leone has Fonda raise his six gun and murder a child in a stunning act of violence that tears down our mythology before he builds it back.
2. “The Searchers”
Considered John Ford’s greatest Western and one of the finest films ever made, “The Searchers” tells the tale of unrepentant Confederate veteran Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), who spends years hunting for a niece who was abducted by Comanche raiders. It is a complex, morally ambiguous tale anchored in Wayne’s fierce performance as a complicated and racist man. Also, it has the best, most moving bookend shots in cinema history.
1. “The Wild Bunch”
This is the best of the Western genre in one movie. It is a magnificent, violent reflection on friendship that that is simultaneously brutal and beautiful. Following a group of outlaws in a frontier rapidly giving way to civilization, Peckinpah’s classic stars everyone from William Holden and Robert Ryan to Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates, and Ben Johnson. I still get chills when Pike, played by William Holden, gathers his ragtag band of aging outlaws and with two words, “Let’s go,” they set out for Mexico to save their friend.