I got asked this question the other day and I had to take a while to ponder it, because as both a Western genre book and film fan (I consider the Western genre the purest form of American storytelling) there are so many great films to consider.
Another reason I like Westerns is they remind us all of a time in this Country when Men took ownership of their own lives, Self-Reliance and Rugged Individualism were character traits sought by all, not because they were cool, but because they were necessary for survival. We can all learn a thing or two by watching these movies!
10. Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid (1973)
I consider Sam Peckinpah one of the Finest Western Film Directors of all time, so yeah I am gonna include at least one of his films here, even if it was made in the 70’s. This film holds a special place in my heart, as it was one of the first westerns I saw as a kid that I really liked. Up until that time, most Westerns I had seen were black and white, made in the 50’s and rather dull (at least for a 10 year old). The movie also got me into reading about the West and the many tales of Billy the Kid, an interest that I still have to this day. This film is just jam packed with talent and true western substance. With actors from the golden age of Westerns like Slim Pickens, Chill Wills, R.G Armstrong and L.Q. Jones you just cannot go wrong with this one. Also, I know I cheated a bit including a movie from 1973, but I think the true Western Fan will agree, this movie was way ahead of its time artistically speaking making it “Modern”.
9. Unforgiven (1992)
I was torn which Eastwood western to pick out of his three most modern films, the other two being The Outlaw Josey Wales and Pale Rider, which will most likely get Honorable Mention. I picked Unforgiven simply because as Western story lines go, Revenge is one of the most common subjects explored, and most of the time it can be one of the most BORING, simply because it makes the plot so predictable. What Eastwood did in this film to overcome that short-coming is something he does in almost all his films: He creates characters who are interesting and layered and almost all the time they are all haunted by their past. With an ensemble cast including Morgan Freeman, Gene Hackman and the late-great Richard Harris, (who has a very rich western history in and of himself) this film is a complete joy to watch, and yes, just like other Eastwood films (like Dirty Harry) there are some awesome lines that made film history!
8. No County for Old Men (2003)
Cormac Mccarthy is to Western novels what Sam Peckinpah was to Western Films: Bleak, Violent, Rugged and Individualistic to a fault. Combine that with the artistic vision of the Coen Brothers and what you end up with is an artistic hurricane that re-defined the Modern American Western as we know it. OK, yet again, some folks might argue this does not belong in a Western Film lineup, but remember we are talking Modern Westerns, and no other movie translates better to this genre than this one. The story grabs you by the balls from the beginning and does not let go. Tommy Lee Jones rocks this role as a small town Sheriff fighting the growing threat of Drug Violence along the border in the 1980’s, while Javier Bardem redefines the bad guy role with violent simplicity. Woody Harrelson, Barry Corbin, one of my favorite western actors of all time, gives a stellar dark horse performance also. Be warned: Nobody rides off into the sunset in this one. The story is as bleak as the country in which it is set, but then again, that is the title of the movie, right? As Barry Corbin’s character famously put it: “This Country’s hard on people.”
7. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
First things first: Read Ron Hansen’s book, then watch this movie again. You will find this is one of those unique times where the film actually does the book justice. I thought next to Inglorious Bastards, this was one of Pitt’s finest performances by far. As a fan of all things related to Western Outlaws, I thought this movie was a textbook example of a character study in the man versus the legend. Jesse James was a dark, brooding soul, without a doubt, and Pitt portrays that to a tee in this movie. Sam Shephard’s short role was outstanding, as was the rest of this all-star cast including Jeremy Renner, Sam Rockwell and Casey Affleck. The cinematography is beautiful as well; it captures that late 19th century feel like no other western IMO.
6. Open Range (2003)
It goes without saying that one of the qualities that makes Westerns so appealing to most folks is their simple themes and stories. Open Range is one of those movies, but it is much more than just a simple western story of corrupt big money ranchers stepping all over the rights of the little man; it is a reminder of how much INDIVIDUALISM and SELF-RELIANCE were not just prized traits, but NECESSARY traits for survival in late 19th Century America. We have to remember that the basic rights that we now take for granted as Americans were not so clearly defined in the latter part of the 19th century, there was no such thing as “calling 911” when things went sideways, it was up to YOU the ARMED individual to defend your rights, life and property. In that way, Open Range is really a Pro-Second Amendment film, but I will let you be the judge of that. Costner and Duvall really make a good pair in this film and I would like to see them together again in the future before Duvall get too old.
5. True Grit (2010)
Here we go circling back around to those Coen Brothers..these guys certainly have a knack for good storytelling. In this re-make of the 1969 blockbuster with the “Duke” himself, John Wayne, we see Jeff Bridges really show off his versatility as an actor and pay outstanding homage to a role that for decades nobody else dared touch: Marshall Rooster Cogburn. With an all star cast that includes Hailee Steinfield, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper and Domnhall Gleeson (of The Revenant) we get a bona fide, dyed-in-the-wool Western that lives up to, and in my opinion, exceeds the Original.
4. The Missing (2003)
Tommy Lee Jones really shines in this grim, stark tale of life in 1880’s New Mexico. Cate Blanchett also shines in her role as his estranged daughter. This movie sets itself apart in a very unique way in dispelling any romantic notions of western life and showing the brutality and violence of life along the Mexican border. There is no “romantic notions” of Indians either, as the Comanchero butchers are shown as the brutal savages that they actually were. This is a grim film to be sure, but one of Tommy Lee’s finest performances I think. With a really dark horse cast including Val Kilmer and Ray Mckinnon (of Deadwood fame) this is one you cannot miss.
3. The Revenant (2015)
I remember as a kid being amazed at the stories of the old Mountain men like Jim Bridger and Jedediah Smith, so when I heard about this movie coming out, I got really excited. Of course, any true Western Fan will recognize this as basically a version of the 1971 Richard Harris classic Man in the Wilderness, which tells the amazing TRUE story of Hugh Glass. This is just a beautiful movie from start to finish; the cinematography alone will make any true western fan cry! The story and cast are just top notch all the way through. DiCaprio certainly earned his Oscar in this one, and Tom Hardy, Domnhall Gleeson and Will Poulter are exceptional as well.
2. Tombstone (1993)
I have to admit this was a challenge picking between #1 and #2, but I think all will agree, this is one of the best Modern Westerns of all time. No other movie has had such an impact on cementing the fame of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday than this movie.The story of what happened at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone is the stuff of Western Legend, but more than the Legend is the true stories of the PEOPLE who actually participated in it. No other lawmen in western history is more widely known than Wyatt Earp, that is to be sure and Val Kilmer’s portrayal as Doc Holiday was without a doubt, one of the finest roles of his life. I also liked the Director’s nod to the “old school western” by giving the Role of the Famous rancher John Chisum to none other than “Pry it from my Cold Dead Hands” Charleton Heston.
1. Lonesome Dove (1989)
Now I know Lonesome Dove was a TV mini-series and not a movie, but you have to admit, movie or not, this was one of the finest western saga’s ever made. With a cast too long to list, Lonesome Dove set the bar for what a Modern Western should be. Based on Larry McMurtry’s outstanding novel, it is a western saga with all the right ingredients: Adventure, Love, Revenge, Heartbreak..it’s all here in spades. And with a young Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall leading the charge, and at the same time, unknowingly cementing themselves as fixtures of the true American Western, Lonesome Dove will forever be remembered as one of the finest Westerns ever made to be sure.
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005)
Pale Rider (1985)
Stay Alert, Stay Armed and Stay Dangerous!