Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid
This 1969 movie isn’t your traditional Western. The bad guys are the good guys, and one of the bad guys isn’t even all that good with a gun and he’s never killed anyone before. And the main bad-ass bad guy? He can’t swim. There’s tons of humor to be found in Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, but it’s not an out-and-out comedy. There’s also plenty of action, and ending is quite sad, leaving you with a nostalgic feeling for the Old West and the two main characters.
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
The first Clint Eastwood entry on this list, and you knew he’d be here. As any Western fan will know, Eastwood starred in three movies in the 1960s that have come to be known as The Dollars Trilogy. First there was Fistful of Dollars, then For a Few Dollars More and finally The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. I picked this one of the three for this list because of several reasons, mainly being that The Good, The Bad and The Uglyis probably the best of the three. This film has the biggest and most broad storyline of these three films, and it includes actor Eli Wallach as the sometimes bumbling, but always deadly bandit Tuco. Lee Van Cleef also gives a solid performance as the assassin Angel Eyes, though I’ve always felt Cleef did a better job as Colonel Mortimer in For a Few Dollars More(though to be fair, Colonel Mortimer was more important to the storyline in that movie and gave Cleef much more to work with). Another great thing about The Good, The Bad and The Uglyis the score by Ennio Morricone. Quite probably the greatest score to any Western film, if not any film ever.
Based upon the novel of the same name by Larry McMurtry, this 1989 TV movie starred Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall. The story takes place over a series of months as a couple of retired Texas Rangers and their cowhands herd a group of cattle up to a spanse in Montana. Along the way, one of the greatest Western stories ever told unfolds, including an attack by a renegade Indian, the finding of a lost love, heartbreaks, terror, stubbornness, life and death. There’s no way in this space to completely and competently tell of all the events and emotions stemming from Lonesome Dove. You just have to watch it.
Once Upon a Time in the West
If Clint Eastwood had agreed to do another spaghetti western after The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, this might have ended up being that movie. Instead, Once Upon a Time in the West stars Charles Bronson as the main character. In what was a bit of a shocking twist to audiences when this 1968 movie was released, Henry Fonda portrayed the film’s villain. This movie has been accused of being too slow and long by a number of Western fans. It does take a good while to reveal all the players, and for the plot to blossom, but I’ve always felt it was appropriate. The end justifies the means. And this movie has one of the best openings to a Western ever filmed, and one of the longest at 11 minutes of opening credits; I won’t spoil anything be revealing what happens here, so you’ll have to see for yourself.
The Outlaw Josey Wales
Clint Eastwood makes the list again, and he not only starred in this 1976 movie, but he directed it, too. The story isn’t as epic in scope as many other westerns, the focus being mostly upon the Eastwood character of Josey Wales, but there are epic and heroic elements that make this film nearly more than a Western. It’s a tale of loss and revenge, but with elements of pathos. And it has some of the wickedest gun fights ever!
You knew John Wayne was going to show up on this list, and The Searchers might possibly be his best movie ever. The plot of this 1956 flick involves a Civil War veteran who is on the vengeance trail after a Comanche chief who has killed members of his family and kidnapped a niece. The story works out over many years, it taking that long for Wayne’s character to find the Comanche. Along the way there are numerous, bloody adventures. And the ending is somewhat startling and unexpected.
This 1953 movie might be the first Western to have as its main protagonist the mysterious gunfighter who wanders into town to set things right; if it’s not the first such film, it’s at least the first one that was a hit at the box office. Alan Ladd stars as Shane, a softspoken, wandering gunfighter who becomes embroiled in a battle between a powerful cattle rancher and homesteaders. Once you see this movie, you’ll see that it has had an obvious effect on so many other Westerns over the years.
Tombstone and the similar Kevin Costner flick Wyatt Earp came out about the same time, 1992 and 1993, but I’ve always felt Tombstone was the better of the two movies. In my opinion, Wyatt Earp is probably more realistic in its portrayal of the historical characters, but Tombstone seems more authentic in its portrayal of events. And, frankly, Tombstoneis a more entertaining film. I mean, come on, who doesn’t like Val Kilmer’s version of Doc Holliday with all his little quips? I’m your huckleberry.
John Wayne actually won Best Actor awards for the Academy Awards and Golden Globes for his portrayal of U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn in this 1969 film. And the award was justified. Wayne has often been accused of not being a great actor, that he always just plays himself, but he really shines in True Grit. The basic storyline involves Marshal Cogburn teaming up with a Texas Ranger and the 14-year-old daughter of a murdered man to find the killer. There are thrills along the way, but there’s also plenty to laugh at. And John Wayne uttered what might be one of the best lines from a Western ever, “Fill your hands, you son of a bitch!” Maybe you had to be there. I thought it was great.
Perhaps the darkest Western of all time. It’s one of those movies you either hate or love. I hated it the first time I saw it. Clint Eastwood just didn’t seem like Clint Eastwood. Then I saw Unforgiven a second time. And a third. And a fourth and fifth and so on. Gradually, the sheer genius of this movie dawned upon me, and today I find it to be one of the greatest Westerns ever made. Many reviewers have commented that Unforgiven is the last word on the American Western, and perhaps that’s true as we enter the 21st century. Really, what more can be said? I’m sure someone will come up with something eventually, but until then, I find nothing in recent Western films that have surpassed 1992’s Unforgiven.