What are the best Westerns of all time? Over the years, the genre has given us thrilling soundtracks, beautiful landscapes, and some of the most striking antiheroes to ever grace the big screen. In short, despite going in and out of fashion, Westerns are a cinematic staple that have stood the test of time.
Be they spaghetti Westerns of the ’60s, modern revisionist Westerns, or even hilarious parodies, there is something about the open plains and the hope of new beginnings that still attract us to these thriller movies today. But like any big genre, there are a lot, and I mean a lot of films to sift through and multiple sub-genres that cinephiles have to wrangle up before they can enjoy their movie night. Well, have no fear, partners, because The Digital Fix is here to help.
From the golden age of the ’50s to modern retellings of the final frontier, we have scoured far and wide for the finest picks that cinema has to offer. So, grab your spurs and get ready to buckle up, cowboys – here is our list of the best Westerns of all time.
What are the best Westerns of all time?
- Once Upon a Time in the West
- The Searchers
- True Grit
- Blazing Saddles
- High Noon
- Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
- The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
- The Assassination of Jesse James by the coward Robert Ford
- Johnny Guitar
Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
Do you like harmonicas and revenge? If the answer is yes, then you are going to love Sergio Leone’s masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in the West.
In this Spaghetti Western, we see Henry Fonda as the cutthroat villain, Frank, who is after a piece of land that is needed for a railway advancement into the West. Killing everyone who gets in his way, his actions soon lead the widowed Jill McBain to align herself with a mysterious gunslinger who has a history with the merciless outlaw.
The tone in Once Upon a Time in the West is starkly bleaker to Leone’s past flicks, such as Fistful of Dollars. It is a slow burn that takes its time unpacking grief and setting up one of the most satisfying standoffs in cinema. From its gorgeous cinematography, action, and sombre score – here is a Western that truly has it all.
The Searchers (1956)
Named the greatest American Western by the American Film Institute, if you fancy yourself a fan of the cinematic frontier, The Searchers is an unmissable classic. Directed by John Ford, the film stars John Wayne playing against type as a nasty anti-hero who loses his humanity in the pursuit of revenge.
The chase is on: Best action movies
Ethan (Wayne) is your standard Texan war hero looking to start a regular life after his time in service. However, when his brother’s family is killed, and his niece is captured by a native American war chief named Scar, the man once again must leave home and turns into a relentless bloodhound as a result.
Searching for his niece and Scar for five long years, we see the wild west change Ethan to the point of no return. Full of action and sharp character journeys, The Searchers demonstrates the brutality of the West on the human soul like never before.
True Grit (2010)
Directed by the Coen Brothers, True Grit is a standout modern Western that is full of atmosphere and moody shots. Adapted from Charles Portis’s 1968 novel of the same name, it follows the young Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), who hires Deputy U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to capture her father’s killer.
However, it turns out that revenge isn’t going to be easy, as the wanted criminal has fled with a crew, with Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) also hot on his heels and gunning for his capture. Mattie must hold her own, brave through her companion’s pessimism, and the unforgiving wilderness to achieve her goal.
True Grit is a harsh movie that showcases determination, survival, and perseverance in a way that captures attention. So, although trying to understand what Jeff Bridges is saying half the time can be a nightmare, True Grit has rightfully earned its spot on this list.
Blazing Saddles (1974)
The Western spoof to end all spoofs, Mel Brook’s Blazing Saddles isn’t just one of the best comedy movies ever made, but it’s also the funniest deconstruction of the genre. Blazing Saddles is pure ridiculousness on a silver platter, complete with over-the-top gags, slapstick, and cowboy farting bean jokes… I mean, what more can you ask for?
The film follows a gang of greedy railroad businessmen who want to cut through a small town in the West. However, their plans soon backfire when their appointed sheriff shows moxie. Putting aside all of the goofball antics, the film also holds powerful social commentary about Westerns in general, never shying away from racist and sexist struggles – which are issues still closely linked to the genre today.
It is a movie that makes you laugh while confronting the reality of the heroic myth through nonstop outlandish jokes where no one is spared.
High Noon (1952)
Directed by Fred Zinnemann, the acclaimed film High Noon is a dramatic triumph that is often remembered for its stellar performances and clever writing.
Can’t take the heat! Best drama movies
Marshal Wil Kane (Garry Cooper) is the best sheriff that Hadleywille has ever had. However, just as he is about to depart with his new wife (Grace Kelly) to raise a family, Kane receives word that an outlaw he arrested has been released from prison and is on his way for revenge. Soon Kane is abandoned by the town that once respected him, as fear grips hold of the community.
High Noon may shock many as it is a Western where pacifism over violence is valued and where the settlers are shown to hold cowardice instead of grit. But it is this new worldview that makes the movie so memorable, and why it stands as one of the most human and captivating films in the genre, period.
If you haven’t noticed already, Westerns have a particular fondness for some good old-fashioned frontier justice. Directed by and starring the Western Icon Clint Eastwood, Unforgiven tells the story of your classic good vs evil tropes turned on their heads.
After a bandit disfigures a prostitute, the ladies of the night band together and place a bounty on the perpetrator’s head. Plagued with financial worries, a retired gunman takes the job. As we see the gunslinger’s journey unfold, the romantic notion of the wild West is shattered. Heros don’t win here, and in reality, morals are grey.
Besides having a gripping narrative, Unforgiven is also one of the only three Westerns ever to win an Academy Award because, yes, it is just that good. It is also the film that holds one of Eastwoods’ most powerful performances, making it, in our opinion, a must-watch.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
Like moustached sheriffs, action-packed heists, and spitting tobacco, what would the Western genre be without its outlaws? Loosely based on real-life legends of the wild West, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid sees two criminals come under fire in a modernising world.
On the run: Best adventure movies
The end of an era is coming, and the leader of a criminal gang, Butch Cassidy, can see the old ways of the untameable West dying in front of his eyes. Butch and his trusty companion, the Sundance Kid, flee the law and head to Bolivia to continue their crime spree as a result.
The film is a high stakes, fun adventure that truly captures the thrills that we all love to see in this genre. From complicated shootouts, cliff jumps, to hitchhiking on a moving steam train, it is impossible not to be delighted and feel like an excitable child again while watching Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)
Our second Sergio Leone pick for this guide, we can’t have a ‘best Western’ list without mentioning the film that catapulted Clint Eastwood into stardom. Probably the most recognisable title in our choices, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, is one of the most iconic Spaghetti Westerns ever to grace the big screen.
Man with no name: Best Clint Eastwood movies
Despite most Westerns taking place during the American civil war, we rarely see the setting in full action. However, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly embraces the violent time period by showing three morally questionable men pursuing a buried fortune in a cache of Confederate gold.
The film is bloodthirsty, stylish, and, despite its lengthy runtime, is enthralling from beginning to end. It should also be noted that the film’s score by Ennio Morricone contains what is hands down the most famous Western theme in history. Even if you’ve never seen The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, you’ve definitely heard its music.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
Directed by Andrew Dominik, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford tells you all you need to know from its long-winded title. Based on the 1983 novel of the same name, it follows the dramatised relationship of the iconic outlaw Jesse James and his biggest fan turned murderer Robert Ford.
Real-life: Best movies based on a true story
If you are a fan of American History, chances are you know about Jesse James – the infamous real-life criminal and leader of the James – Younger Gang. In this film, we get a unique view of the outlaw in his later life. Brad Pitt as the titular role is outstanding, while Casey Affleck as his awkward hero-worshipping killer steals the show.
Paired with the strong performances, few Westerns are as existential as this title. With its plot that revolves around the build-up to death, The Assassination of Jesse James shows how your myth can live on even once your time runs out.
Johnny Guitar (1954)
There is no denying that Johnny Guitar was ahead of its time, and is one of the few Westerns that has a strong female character front and centre. Set on the outskirts of a cattle town in Arizona, a saloonkeeper called Vienna, played by Joan Crawford, is a domineering go-getter who isn’t afraid to host the rough and tough of the West.
But thanks to this forwardness and success, she soon becomes a victim of jealousy and a plot to try and run her business out of town. Luckily her ex-lover, the mysterious reformed gunslinger Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden), comes a-knocking to help, and a whirlwind love/hate relationship ensues.
Johnny Guitar is an explosion of frontier tropes, fun, and is full of spicy relationship plotlines to keep you on your toes. If you are looking for a Western that plays with gender dynamics, and features some popping sexual chemistry; then Johnny Guitar will be right up your street.