Best Western Movies

WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley ranks the best western movies of all time in the gallery below.

Not seeing your favorite movie? It’s probably in a different genre! Check out the full list here.

Worth Watching

Famous purely for Alfred Newman’s iconic western score, “How the West Was Won” is ambitious in its epic scope but doesn’t really hold up with a distracting miscast of major stars like Jimmy Stewart and shifting tones from four different directors (Henry Hathaway, John Ford, George Marshall and Richard Thorpe).

30. ‘Ride the High Country’ (1962) – Sam Peckinpah

Before his masterpiece “The Wild Bunch,” Sam Peckinpah delivered his first great western with Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott as aging outlaws trying to “enter their house justified.”

29. ‘The Cavalry Trilogy’ (1948-1950) – John Ford

After his “Stagecoach” debut, John Wayne became a star in John Ford’s Cavalry trilogy of “Fort Apache,” “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” and “Rio Grande.”

28. ‘True Grit’ (1969) – Henry Hathaway

John Wayne won his career makeup Oscar as the iconic bounty hunter Rooster Cogburn, a role reprised by Jeff Bridges in the Coen Brothers’ 2010 remake.

27. ‘3:10 to Yuma’ (1957) – Delmer Daves

Narrowly edging out its stellar 2007 remake, the original “3:10 to Yuma” finds Van Heflin hired to put outlaw Glenn Ford on the 3:10 train to Yuma as the latter’s gang plots to free him.

26. ‘Winchester ’73’ (1950) – Anthony Mann

Anthony Mann mastered the genre from “The Naked Spur” to “Man of the West,” but his best followed a prized rifle as it changes hands between ill-fated owners, from Jimmy Stewart’s marksman to Shelley Winters’ neglected wife to Rock Hudson’s chief.

25. ‘The Magnificent Seven’ (1960) – John Sturges 

Elmer Bernstein’s iconic score carries this western remake of Akira Kurosawa’s “The Seven Samurai” with a deep cast of Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson.

24. ‘The Outlaw Josey Wales’ (1976) – Clint Eastwood

Clint Eastwood directed himself in one of his most iconic roles, but it feels backward in its celebration of a Missouri farmer who joins Confederate guerrillas on the run from the Union Redlegs who killed his family.

23. ‘Django Unchained’ (2012) – Quentin Tarantino

Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz are a charming duo, Samuel L. Jackson is a memorable Uncle Tom and Leo DiCaprio is terrifying as the master of the Candyland Plantation in this revisionist slave western that won the Best Screenplay Oscar for Quentin Tarantino.

22. ‘High Plains Drifter’ (1973) – Clint Eastwood

You might initially be put off by the violence as Clint Eastwood’s Stranger rapes and pillages his way to painting the town red — until the genius twist that he’s actually the reincarnated town sheriff back for revenge.

21. ‘Gunfight at the O.K. Corral’ (1957) – John Sturges

Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas shine as Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday in this western classic, spending ample time in Dodge City to set up the climatic gunfight in Tombstone.

20. ‘Tombstone’ (1993) – George Cosmatos 

“I’ll be your huckleberry.” Val Kilmer was never better than as Doc Holiday helping Kurt Russell’s Wyatt Earp face the Clanton Gang in the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

19. ‘My Darling Clementine’ (1946) – John Ford

Decades before “Tombstone,” John Ford directed this definitive version starring Henry Fonda as a chair-rocking Wyatt Earp and Victor Mature as a mirror-smashing Doc Holliday, building to the famous final gunfight against Walter Brennan’s Clanton Gang.

18. ‘The Ox-Bow Incident’ (1943) – William Wellman

This western fable casts Henry Fonda as the conscience of a small town divided over whether or not to lynch three suspected killers in a fascinating morality play.

17. ‘Cat Ballou’ (1965) – Elliot Silverstein

Lee Marvin won an Oscar as the drunken gunman hired by Jane Fonda, while Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye strummed the title tune in a lighthearted western that wasn’t an outright spoof like “Blazing Saddles” (see our Comedy list) but still didn’t take itself too seriously.

16. ‘Johnny Guitar’ (1956) – Nicholas Ray

This pioneering feminist western finds Joan Crawford as a saloon owner defending her property in a woman-on-woman showdown with the sinister Mercedes McCambridge.

15. ‘Red River’ (1948) – Howard Hawks

A montage of wailing cowboy close-ups kicks off a cattle drive from Texas to Missouri, where John Wayne’s tyrannical behavior sparks a mutiny by adopted son Montgomery Clift in his breakthrough role.

14. ‘Pale Rider’ (1985) – Clint Eastwood

While “High Plains Drifter” saved its twist for the end, “Pale Rider” explains up front that Clint Eastwood’s heroic Preacher is an allegorical horseman of the apocalypse riding in on his white horse.

13. ‘Stagecoach’ (1939) – John Ford

John Ford pioneered the western by creating archetypes of the folks on his stagecoach, from Thomas Mitchell’s boozy doctor to John Wayne’s star-making role as the Ringo Kid.

12. ‘There Will Be Blood’ (2007) – Paul Thomas Anderson

“I drink your milkshake!” Daniel Day-Lewis won an Oscar as sadistic oilman Daniel Plainview, who “abandons his child” in a blood-for-oil allegory at the turn of the century.

11. ‘McCabe and Mrs. Miller’ (1971) – Robert Altman

Warren Beatty’s gambler and Julie Christie’s prostitute become business partners in Robert Altman’s anti-western with a hazy sepia look, snowy shootout climax and opioid-dream framing device.

10. ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ (1968) – Sergio Leone

Sergio Leone’ masterful spaghetti western opens with textbook creaking suspense, then follows Charles Bronson’s Harmonica as he teams with Jason Robards’ Cheyenne, romances Claudia Cardinale’s Jill and clashes with Henry Fonda’s ruthless Frank.

9. ‘Rio Bravo’ (1959) – Howard Hawks

Angie Dickinson won the Golden Globe wooing John Wayne’s sherif, who enlists a cripple (Walter Brennan), a drunk (Dean Martin) and a rookie gunfighter (Ricky Nelson) to hold an outlaw in jail in this colorful western by the great director Howard Hawks.

8. ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’ (1962) – John Ford

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Jimmy Stewart’s Eastern lawyer meets John Wayne’s Western gunslinger in John Ford’s ultimate personification of the genre’s rugged individualism vs. settler domestication. Ain’t that right, pilgrim?

7. ‘Shane’ (1953) – George Stevens 

Impressionable kid Brandon De Wilde idolizes Alan Ladd’s title hero, who rides up to Jean Arthur’s homestead to settle a rancher conflict against the sadistic Jack Palance.

6. ‘Unforgiven’ (1992) – Clint Eastwood

This Best Picture sought to “bury” the western by flipping the archetypes: Clint Eastwood falling off his horse, Morgan Freeman afraid to shoot and Gene Hackman’s corrupt lawman, building to a climax where the “unforgiven” hero can’t even see his own reflection in a saloon mirror.

5. ‘High Noon’ (1952) – Fred Zinnemann

Gary Cooper’s dutiful marshal Will Kane preempts his honeymoon with Grace Kelly to defend his town alone in this allegory for McCarthyist blacklisting, as clocks tick in real time to Tex Ritter’s “Ballad of High Noon” awaiting villain Frank Miller on the noon train.

4. ‘The Wild Bunch’ (1969) – Sam Peckinpah

At the height of Vietnam, master filmmaker Sam Peckinpah turned western violence into a bloody ballet of daring cuts, shifting speeds, scorpion symbols and a fatalistic tone for its cast of William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan and Ben Johnson.

3. ‘Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid’ (1969) – George Roy Hill

Paul Newman and Robert Redford spit buddy comedy gold from William Goldman’s sparkling script as B.J. Thomas sings “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” and George Roy Hill directs freeze frames in a western romp that gave its name to the Sundance Film Festival.

2. The Man with No Name Trilogy: ‘A Fistful of Dollars’ (1964), ‘For a Few Dollars More’ (1965) / ‘The Good, The Bad & The Ugly’ (1966) – Sergio Leone

Clint Eastwood rose to fame as the silent-but-deadly Man With No Name, first in “A Fistful of Dollars,” then in “For a Few Dollars More.” Yet his most iconic role came as the “Good” to Lee Van Cleef’s “Bad” and Eli Wallach’s “Ugly,” as Spaghetti Western master Sergio Leone directs the final showdown with tense close-ups to Ennio Morricone’s legendary score, from the howling main theme to the epic “Ecstasy of Gold.”

1. ‘The Searchers’ (1956) – John Ford

John Wayne gives his career performance as “soul searcher” Ethan Edwards, who must overcome his racism toward Native Americans. His wardrobe evolves from Confederate grays to Union blues, as director John Ford paints iconic doorway bookends around a forbidden romance told with visual symbolism in the opening chapter, adding a much deeper layer to the title search. Will anyone make a better western? “That’ll be the day.”

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Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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