The Western is a fascinating genre of film. Once the most popular movie at the box office, and now more of a niche project. They are heavily inspired by the American West but also heavily rely on stereotypes and historical inaccuracies and oftentimes embody the concept of Manifest Destiny, where the United States, the typically white protagonist, is meant to take over and expand over the North American continent over the ingenious people who already live there. The first Western movie to lay down the foundations of the genre was the silent film The Great Train Robbery (1903); however, it’s arguable that even earlier, in 1878, the first Western cinema began to appear on the scene (with one of the first motion pictures, Horse in Motion, or Sallie Gardner at a Gallop).
When one imagines a Western movie, several images come to mind: Clint Eastwood or John Wayne, the lone cowboy on the frontier, outlaws, saloons in the outposts of a rural town, horses in dust, and so on. However, it is also important to note that Western films have done their part to recreate, mythologize, and romanticize a period of American history, coding it in language and imagery that may not be factually correct and may even be offensive in terms of representation and themes. Without the core group of films that made the genre what is known for today, history, as many perceive it, would’ve looked a little different. With that in mind, look at the greatest Westerns of all time and how they shaped the genre.
Many masterpieces didn’t make the cut due to limited space. Jimmy Stewart’s Westerns with Anthony Mann, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Red River, Cat Ballou, Rancho Notorious, The Gunfighter, The Big Sky, The Proposition, Meek’s Cutoff, The Nightingale, Rio Bravo, the Budd Boetticher Westerns, and more. That being said, these are a few of the best Western films of all time that did make the cut.
Updated on September 19th, 2023, by Timothy Lindsey: This article has been updated with additional content to keep the discussion fresh and relevant with even more information and new entries.
35 The Hateful Eight (2015)
Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, The Hateful Eight is a Western with a hard-edged story and one of Tarantino’s most compelling scripts ever written. It features a dialogue-heavy plot that keeps the audience on edge, right until its brutal, nihilistic ending. Every character carefully chooses their words with their survival in the line, with tensions rising and secrets revealed.
The ensemble cast features the talents of Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Demián Bichir, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, and Channing Tatum. Each one offers a powerful performance, narrating events that led them to the destination of the unlikely reunion. The violent resolution happens fast, but it’s more than fulfilling, considering the long-winded buildup of this incredible story. It’s an exceedingly pessimistic look at American history across its Western development, but an excellent one.
34 Home on the Range (2004)
Home on the Range was released in theaters nearly two decades ago. The motion picture showcases three cows, whose farm is about to be repossessed. To prevent that from happening, they, along with the help of a wannabe hero horse, end up going after a wanted cattle rustler.
The reward for his capture is exactly the amount needed to save the cow’s farm. The music and underrated family humor in the film are certainly positives. Casting for the film was spot-on as Judi Dench, Cuba Gooding Jr., Randy Quaid, Estelle Harris, and Steve Buscemi were just some of the headlining voices of the characters. This animated Disney comedy earned $76.5 million worldwide at the box office and earned a grade of “A-” by the folks at CinemaScore.
33 Tombstone (1993)
Tombstone is one of the most stylish Westerns ever put to screen. The all-star cast includes Kurt Russell, Sam Elliott, and Bill Paxton as the Earp brothers, with Val Kilmer as Doc Holiday. The movie is directed by George P. Cosmatos and written by Kevin Jarre. It’s a chronicle loosely based on the real-life incidents of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and the Earp Vendetta Ride. In the film Wyatt Earp and his brothers move to Tombstone, hoping to find a peaceful life. Their plans are disrupted when they have to fight for their right to hold property.
This film went toe to toe with Kevin Costner’s Wyatt Earp film, which was written, produced, and directed by Lawrence Kasdan. The critics and moviegoers praised Tombstone for being fast-paced and historically accurate, while the movie by Kasdan was panned as long and tedious. The leading trio of actors portraying the Earp brothers do a magnificent job, but Kilmer’s Doc Holiday stole the show, especially with the ad-libbed line, “I’m Your Huckleberry.”
32 Westworld (1973)
As far as Westerns go, Westworld broke the mold of everything made with the genre back in 1973, blending science-fiction with Western tropes. The story follows the misadventures of Peter Martin and John Blane as they visit Westworld, a theme park offering three different worlds where guests can partake in their heart’s desires. This sci-fi story is written and directed by Michael Crichton, who also authored the novel. The movie stars Yul Brynner and Richard Benjamin.
Each world is filled with androids indistinguishable from real humans, with the caveat that they never feel pain or disgust. As human nature dictates, guests behave horribly with androids by constantly abusing them in any way they can. The androids begin to experience malfunctions, with technicians not knowing what is happening to them. All hell breaks loose as the androids dismantle their programming sequence and start killing everyone in the park. The movie was eventually adapted into the highly praised HBO sci-fi drama of the same name.
31 The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
The Coen brothers made a name for themselves for their takes on Westerns, from modern tales like No Country for Old Men to classical set ones like True Grit. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a classic set Western with a contemporary comedy sensibility.
This remarkable anthology film features a cast of multiple familiar faces across six different stories. Each tale has its own tonality and offers something unique to the spectator. None of them miss the mark and are all great, making this one of the best Westerns of all time.
30 The Shooting (1966)
An extremely formalistic, dark, and existentialist Western film from the underrated director Monte Hellman, The Shooting features Jack Nicholson in one of his most interesting roles. Written by the great Nicholson collaborator Adrien Joyce (Five Easy Pieces, The Fortune) and co-starring Millie Perkins, Will Hutchins, and Warren Oates, The Shooting is a mysterious thriller, a Western that seems to have been written by Jean-Paul Sartre or Samuel Beckett.
Making spectacular use of the Utah desert (simultaneously with another great Hellman / Nicholson film, Ride in the Whirlwind), The Shooting features a delightful Warren Oates as a former bounty hunter who has settled down with his buddy for a more quiet life. When a woman in supposed distress offers them a large amount of money to escort her to a strange town, the pair reluctantly agree, only to realize that they’re being stalked by a man in black (Nicholson). A tense, ambiguous, and philosophical Western, The Shooting has the best of both worlds — classic Western elements with an arthouse vibe.
29 The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975)
The Apple Dumpling Gang is one of the best overall family Western films of the last five decades. The film tells the story of a polished gambler (Bill Bixby) who gets tricked into taking care of three orphan children in 1879.
Once the kids learn of their fortune that was left to them by their late father, a lot of people, who don’t necessarily have the orphans’ best interest at heart, try to get their money. It is up to the gambler and some of the townsfolk to both protect the kids and their fortune. The film nearly made $37 million at the box office in total and is one of famed actor Don Knotts’ best films.
28 Bone Tomahawk (2015)
Try to remember this: each time Kurt Russel is involved in a Western, the film is likely a good ride. Bone Tomahawk is a story about four men who embark on a search mission to rescue a group of captives from a pack of cannibalistic tribesmen. It sounds like a pretty straightforward venture the movie gives insight into the activities of the tribespeople as they mutilate and dismember their prisoners in front of their captives to instill fear in them.
This incredible film was written and directed by S. Craig Zahler. The movie perfectly blends Western and slasher genres, which you don’t get to see daily. The unflinching brutality is not held back, as the film is graphic. The most gripping experience is the pain and desperation displayed by the remaining characters as they stand helpless while trying to hold it together and devise an escape plan. This film is a wild ride, but not for the faint of heart.
27 3:10 To Yuma (1957/2007)
While there is undoubtedly some debate to be had, the 1957 and the 2007 remakes of 3:10 to Yuma are arguably equally gripping. Glenn Ford and Russell Crowe play Ben Wade in their respective editions, and Van Heflin and Christian Bale present Dan Evans.
Lowly rancher, Dan agrees to hold wanted outlaw Ben as he awaits his fate at court in Yuma. A film about willpower and a battle of wit as Ben attempts to psychologically prey on the vulnerable Dan.
26 The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)
Inspired in both name and narrative by author Asa Earl Carter’s fiction work, Clint Eastwood’s screen adaptation, The Outlaw Josey Wales is a Civil War era chronicle about a Missouri farmer, Josey Wales (Clint Eastwood).
Wales’ existence is occupied by his farming work and family, that is until a group of unionists murders his wife and son in cold blood. In an ultimate illustration of retribution, Wales embarks on a journey of revenge, joining up with a group of Confederates as he tracks down the culprits.
25 A Fistful of Dollars (1964)
The first installment of Sergio Leone’s acclaimed Dollars trilogy had the Japanese pioneer Akira Kurosawa to thank for his phenomenal samurai movie, Yojimbo, which formed the basis of A Fistful of Dollars. The film signified the birth of the Man with No Name, with Clint Eastwood taking on the role of the squinty, laconic lone wolf in all three films.
The Western classic explores the story of the man shrouded in deep mystery as he trots in on horseback to the New Mexico town of San Miguel. Risking being caught in the crossfire of its two warring factions, the lonesome man methodically plays the two off against one another.
24 For a Few Dollars More (1965)
With A Fistful of Dollars becoming a critical and commercial triumph, the man with no name returned to the silver screen just a year later, this time under the For a Few Dollars More umbrella. The picture details the man with no name trailing a notorious criminal.
El Indio (Gian Maria Volonté) joins forces with a fellow bounty hunter, Colonel Douglas (Lee Van Cleef). They agree to divide the bounty between them upon capture. Leone outdoes his previous outing with development in both a filmmaking and narration capacity.
23 No Country for Old Men (2007)
No Country for Old Men was the point that the Coen brothers realized they had a penchant for making Westerns, with True Grit and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs following thereafter. The neo-western comprises conventional elements of the historical genre with several specific characteristics only associated with their filmmaking techniques, making the film such a distinctive and compelling watch.
The fusion of styles works exceptionally, traversing the saga of Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a hunter who finds a briefcase containing millions of dollars after a drug deal has gone wrong. Hot in pursuit of the novice is one of the most memorable Western characters, the seasoned, cold-blooded killer, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), who stops at nothing to acquire what he wants.
22 The Magnificent Seven (1960)
The Magnificent Seven follows a bandit who terrorizes a small Mexican farming village each year. Several village elders send three farmers into the U.S. to search for gunmen to defend them. They end up with seven (hence the title), each of whom comes for a different reason. This landmark Western from director John Sturges is a remake — in an Old West style — of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 Japanese film Seven Samurai.
This 1960 version was then remade into a 2016 film directed by Antoine Fuqua and starring Denzel Washington. The original was both a critical and commercial success and spawned three sequels and a TV series. In 2013, the film was selected for the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
21 Three Amigos (1986)
It is hard to find a funnier Western film than Three Amigos. Starring the legendary trio of Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Chevy Chase, the film follows three Western movie stars who are coming off of a failed movie, which causes them to be fired.
However, when a villager named Carmen offers them a high-paying job in her Mexican village, the group jumps at the opportunity. But, Carmen believes that they are real heroes who can protect her village from a group of dangerous outlaws. After originally bad reviews, the film is now seen as a cult classic and a beloved comedy film from an old era.
20 The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
Taking place in Missouri in the early 1880s, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford dramatizes the last seven months in the life of famed outlaw Jesse James (Brad Pitt), beginning with the Blue Cut train robbery of 1881 and culminating in his assassination at the hands of Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) the following April. In the time between these two fateful events, the young and jealous Ford befriends the increasingly mistrustful outlaw, even as he plots his demise.
Adapted from Ron Hansen’s 1983 novel of the same title, this 2007 revisionist Western film was written and directed by Andrew Dominik. To achieve the visual style he wanted for the movie, Dominik reportedly took influences from many sources, including still photographers, images clipped from magazines, stills from Days of Heaven, and even Polaroids. Although a box-office bomb, the film received positive reviews from the critics, with Pitt and Affleck’s performances receiving widespread acclaim. It has since gained a large fan following, with many organizing re-releases of the film under the “Jesse James Revival” banner.
19 Dead Man (1995)
One of the most original Westerns of all time is also one of the best of the past 30 years. Dead Man is Jim Jarmusch’s deadpan dissection of Western cinema, and while its content is rambling and surreal, its form is a perfect reflection and even progression of the genre. Immaculate black-and-white cinematography from Robby Müller captures both the claustrophobic mess of urban areas capitalized by companies at the turn of the 20th century and the sprawling landscapes of Ohio.
Johnny Depp plays William Blake in one of the film’s many ironic references, an accountant whose life is quickly ruined after someone takes his job and gets involved in a freak death. Blake begins a bizarre odyssey into the depths of America, aided by an Indigenous group and accompanied by a man named Nobody. Violence and confusion follow him wherever he goes, all set to the humming, perfect score from Neil Young. With an incredible supporting cast (Gary Farmer, Crispin Glover, Lance Henriksen, Michael Wincott, John Hurt, Robert Mitchum, Iggy Pop, Gabriel Byrne, Billy Bob Thornton, Alfred Molina), Dead Man is a bit too weird for everyone but is a perfect Western for anyone seeking out the darker and stranger facets of the American West.
18 Rango (2011)
In one of the most creative animated Western flicks of all time, Rango showcases a chameleon (voiced by Johnny Depp) that travels to a desert town named Dirt. After being named sheriff of a town whose water supply has been stopped, Rango must finally be the hero that he is destined to be.
He discovers his true heroism after duels with a desert outlaw and the town’s mayor, who later reveals himself to be the real outlaw. The film ranked first atop the international box office twice in March of 2011 and was given a score of 88% on Rotten Tomatoes.
17 Shane (1953)
There’s hardly been as bland a script directed and filmed with such brilliance as Shane. The film shouldn’t work — it’s filled with tropes that were already tired by 1953 (the stranger/drifter who comes to town just wanting to outrun his past but is forced to confront inevitable violence) and had a highly problematic production (lead star Alan Ladd, playing a master gunslinger at five-foot-six, hated guns and was terrible at handling them, to the extent that one shooting scene had to be filmed 116 times; Jack Palance, who should be the intimidating villain on horseback, was terrified of horses at the time, with the single successful dismount Palance achieved being used multiple times throughout the film).
However, George Stevens and cinematographer Loyal Griggs manage to film this traditionally dull ‘good vs. evil’ story with such utter mastery that Shane is immediately entrancing. The way dirt, faces, animals, and vistas are filmed is breathtaking, and its pioneering use of a new widescreen system captures landscapes with a stunningly epic sensibility while allowing Stevens’ excellent close-ups to be hypnotically expressive. Every frame of Shane is a compositional masterpiece, with the film’s visuals going on to define the typical, mythical image of the American West for decades to come.
16 The Power of the Dog (2021)
The Power of the Dog is a controversial choice, but it’s an important film that’s arguably the zenith of a new era of Western cinema. It stars Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, and Jesse Plemons, an all-star and very modern cast unexpected in a Western. Cumberbatch and Plemons portray two brothers; one had just gotten married and brought his wife home. Envious of this new development, the other brother begins to treat them cruelly as the film plunges into dark psychosexual games. The Power of the Dog was nominated for numerous honors at the 2022 award shows, including Best Picture at the Academy Awards., winning a Best Director Oscar for the great Jane Campion.
The Power of the Dog continues (and masters) the interesting trend of what may be called ‘post-Westerns,’ alongside The Harder They Fall and Old Henry. These films utilize the grand imagery of the traditional Western but subvert their more conservative ideologies with a very contemporary kind of deconstruction. The Power of the Dog exposes the homoeroticism, cruelty, misogyny, loneliness, and class struggle buried beneath the dust of many classic Westerns, and as a result, remains a provocative text that will likely be influential for decades. Many people love the film, while many others hate it. Either way, it’s certain to elicit a visceral response, and how a viewer approaches it may say more about them than the film itself.