Westerns have been a genre of film since the dawn of the silver screen. Movies that take place in the American West have come to be some of the most beloved and iconic films in history. Even today, movies like The Revenant and Django Unchained pay homage to the spirit of the Wild West. But when it comes to the definitive classic westerns, there are a few that stand out above the rest.
From Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, to John Ford’s story-telling masterpieces, these timeless classics have left an indelible mark on cinema and culture. Here are 10 of the best westerns of all time—an in-depth look at the genre’s definitive classics.
1) The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966)
Directed by Sergio Leone and starring Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach, and Lee Van Cleef, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly is widely considered to be the greatest western ever made. The film follows the story of three gunslingers who are locked in a desperate search for a hidden $200,000 in Confederate gold. The story is full of unforgettable moments and dialogue that has become part of the western canon. Additionally, Leone’s visual style and Ennio Morricone’s iconic score have made this movie a must-see for anyone interested in the western genre.
2) The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
Directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne and James Stewart, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a classic western that captures the spirit of the classic western genre. Set in a small town in the American West, the story follows two men, a naive lawyer (Stewart) and a larger-than-life outlaw (Wayne), as they become embroiled in a showdown with a villainous rancher. This film is renowned for its exploration of the tension between civilization and savagery—subject matter that the genre is often lauded for.
3) True Grit (1969)
John Wayne stars as Rooster Cogburn, an aged U.S. marshal tasked with delivering justice in the old west. Wayne earned an Academy Award for his performance as the surly lawman, and the film stands as an enduring masterpiece of classic filmmaking. Witty dialogue and expertly choreographed action sequences make True Grit an unforgettable western classic.
4) Unforgiven (1992)
Written, directed, and produced by Clint Eastwood, Unforgiven is the story of an aging outlaw (Eastwood) attempting to leave the gunslinging life behind. However, a chance to make some easy money sends him back into a world of violence and bloodshed. The film explores themes of justice, morality, and redemption while creating a powerful and moving story.
5) The Wild Bunch (1969)
Directed by Sam Peckinpah and starring William Holden and Ernest Borgnine, The Wild Bunch is widely considered to be one of the most influential westerns of all time. A story of loyalty and desperation, the film follows a ragtag gang of outlaws trying to stay one step ahead of the law. The Wild Bunch is widely respected for its violent and graphic depictions of the wild west.
6) The Searchers (1956)
Starring John Wayne as a Civil War veteran who must search for a niece who was abducted by Native Americans, The Searchers has been said to be one of the most significant films in the history of westerns. Directed by John Ford, the film is renowned for its exploration of racism, morality, and the American West.
7) Shane (1953)
Directed by George Stevens and starring Alan Ladd, Shane tells the story of a gunfighter trying to bring justice to a small town in the Old West. The film is considered to be one of the greatest westerns of all time, with its riveting story, memorable characters, and unforgettable score.
8) Red River (1948)
John Wayne stars as the leader of a cattle drive from Texas to Missouri in Red River. Directed by Howard Hawks, Red River is notable for its exploration of masculine themes, its focus on relationships, and an unrelenting sense of action and adventure.
9) Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
Starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid has become one of the most beloved westerns of all time. Directed by George Roy Hill, the film follows two outlaws as they attempt to survive and elude capture while travelling across the American West.
10) High Noon (1952)
Directed by Fred Z