Ok, I’ve loved the Western genre since childhood. I find it to be a genre not used enough today in Hollywood. So here are my Top 5 Westerns:

1) The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: John Wayne + Jimmy Stewart = great movie. One of John Ford’s more philosophical films, this movie has very interesting comments on the formation of political societies, the basis of law, and the nature of America’s regime. Echos of Lincoln and Aristotle can be heard rustling in the wind.

2) Unforgiven: Clint Eastwood’s last Western proved his deepest. Books could be written on this film, but central to it is the nature of total depravity. However much we think we’ve reformed ourselves, apart from Christ our old lives remain ever-ready to take hold again.

3) The Searchers: Another John Wayne/John Ford combo. Here questions of civilization, hatred, and family ties mix to form a troubling plot and a terrific movie.

4) High Noon: Gary Cooper is perfect in this role that underscores the necessity of virtue, especially courage, in any free society. The Church takes a hit in the film, at least the one in the story. The film also contains a subplot that rejects pacifism in an interesting manner.

5) High Plains Drifter: Maybe the darkest work on this list, Eastwood tells a ghost story in the form of a Western. Humanity’s ability to descend to depths of evil and to endure heights of tyranny are shown with unflinching realism (and a touch of dark humor).

So, what do you think?


  1. I’m not such a fan of the older westerns, but I loved:

    The Proposal
    The Assassination Of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
    Ned Kelly

    and I’m looking forward to watching
    3:10 to Yuma

    hewhocutsdowns last blog post..2008 Mixtape

  2. Since I already had a Top 15 prepared from a couple years back, I paste in the Top 10. I don’t think anything has really changed for me. Leone still rules the pack with Eastwood a distant second.

    1 – Once upon a Time in the West (1968)
    Lyrical, operatic, lilting, and sumptuous. C’era una volta il West (Once upon a Time in the West) is the capstone to Sergio Leone’s western masterpieces. Once more he blends sight and sound (once more with the aid of Ennio Morricone) to weave a tapestry of death, a requiem to the old West. Not your typical western, this is still, really, as good as it gets. Henry Fonda is chilling but the most winning part belongs to Jason Robards and the rascally Cheyenne.

    2 – The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966)
    With his Dollars trilogy, Sergio Leone almost singlehandedly breathed life into a dead/dying genre of period piece. Sure there were other Italians making westerns (spaghetti westerns), but his were the best – and the only ones to receive fanatical accolades even decades later. Il Buono, il Brutto, il Cattivo (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly) is the pinnacle of Leone’s raw madness as a blender of frenetic sight and sound. And it’s climactic stand-off is the one by which all other such duels must be measured against – it is the unqualified best thus far committed to film. Funny, irreverent, violent, and beautiful, Il Buono, il Brutto, il Cattivo is one of those movies that can draw in even those who believe they dislike westerns.

    3 – High Plains Drifter (1973)
    High Plains Drifter may be the most religiously-themed western every put to celluloid. But that’s not what makes it good. Eastwood’s sophomore directorial effort, a western ghost stroy and tale of divine retribution is steeped in eerie horror – though not of the typical “horror movie” kind. Eastwood’s justice is hard to swallow – like justice so often is. The story seems to have developed out of a fevered High Noon. As well, it has 70s sensabilities written all over it. It seems that John Wayne was affronted so deeply by Drifter that Eastwood received from him a sternly worded criticism, claiming that such was not what the western was to be about. As if there was ever something noble inherent to the western – it seems Wayne had forgotten his on seminal piece, The Searchers.

    4 – Unforgiven (1992)
    Eastwood closes out his own reflection on the genre with an ode to the aging gunfighter – a man long since domesticated by the care of a woman and the concerns of family life. Still, no myth can die a quiet death sans fire and glory; and so, the toothless lion sharpens his claws and becomes a danger once more. At the time Unforgiven was released, I had just finished a Clint Eastwood kick lasting several months, during which I had devoured all his westerns, loving especially the celebrated dollars trilogy. And at the time, expectations riding high, hoping for neo-Leone, I was disappointed. Unforgiven is certainly not Leone. It is subdued. It is quiet. It is thoughtful. And it really is a wonderful treatment of the mythos that made the director an actor of legend, and hence opened doors allowing him to direct some of the most wonderful films over the last three decades.

    5 – Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
    An amusing look at a pair of robbers, Butch and Sundance is at once charming and unaffected. Paul Newman and Robert Redford exhibit a camaraderie unmatched by any other western duo. And of course, the ending is famous.

    6 – A Fistful of Dollars (1964)
    Before Leone decided to remake Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, there was nothing astouding to his record. He had worked for years in the Italian film industry without note. Finally, he found his element. The success of Per un Pugno di Dollari (A Fistful of Dollars) is owed as much to Eastwood’s iconic ronin cowboy and Morricone’s phenomenal treatment of music as it is to Leone’s directorial prowess. The three would team for two more sequels (in the loosest sense of the term) and each would long be celebrated in the western canon. It is with this film that the idea of the western was changed for all time.

    7 – The Shootist (1976)
    This is the only John Wayne film I have ever enjoyed. Ironically, it was the final film of his career (at least he went out well as opposed to Orson Welles whose grand finale was the giant robot planet that eats robots and planets in Transformers: The Movie). The Shootist succeeds where other Wayne vehicles fail because Wayne plays into where his own mythos should have naturally lead. Like Eastwood’s gunfighter in Unforgiven, Wayne’s character is old and brittle and wants nothing so much as quiet dignity. Still, myths never want to lies back to pass on quietly. Even as Beowulf had his last battle in his Autumn, so must Wayne’s shootist. And Howard’s hero-worship plays into it nicely.

    8 – Dead Man (1995)
    Weird. Neat. Spooky. Cool. Weird. “I understand you, William Blake. You were a poet and a painter. But now you are a killer of white men.” ‘Nuff said.

    9 – For a Few Dollars More (1965)
    Easily the most intense of the Dollars trilogy, Leone shows himself becoming more and more comfortable with the subgenre he helped to create. Also features perhaps the best and most innovative score of the trilogy.

    10 – High Noon (1952)
    Turgid with anxiety, High Noon seems to be the more realistic template from with television’s 24 was spawned. As much a study in human nature as Lord of the Flies, Zinnemann’s movie (and specifically its ending) was declared “un-American” by John Wayne. And this at a time when that kind of attention was the last kind of attention a filmmaker would want. Really, it’s just a good, quick western that harbours no illusions about the courage of man to do right in the face of difficulty.

    The Danes last blog post..20081119.ChurchLies

  3. @Adam – I purchased The Searches because it’s widely hailed as one of the best (if not The Best) Westerns ever crafted. I’m not sure if I was just in a bad mood when I took it in, but though I thought it was worthwhile, it didn’t sing to me even half as much as something like Treasure of the High Sierra. I’ll probably give it another shot because I want to treat it fairly. Before I do, is there anything you’d especially recommend keeping in mind in order to enrich the viewing?

    The Danes last blog post..20081119.ChurchLies

  4. Dane,

    I understand not grabbing onto The Searchers right away. It grew on me over time. One thing I noticed as I watched was the amount of unspoken subtlety in the film. The relationship between John Wayne’s character and Martha, his brother’s wife, is interesting in how much it tells without words. They seem to be in some sort of unspoken and un-acted-upon love. This is interesting as a possible motivation for his endless search for her daughter.

    Another is the question of civilization. Wayne and the native american Scar Ford are both barbarians and tragic heroes in similar ways, ways their characters would be loathe to admit. Both seek revenge on the other’s race for atrocities they witnessed, atrocities they felt powerless to stop and now wish by vengence to retroactively amend. Neither has nor wants law or justice collectively understood; he seeks vengence and approves of the essential lawlessness of the West that allows for such actions.

    Finally, there is the theme of racism and its link to murder. Wayne’s reaction when he sees his niece as an Indian is heartbreaking and fascinating. Which is stronger, love of family or hatred of race? Those are some things I ponder when watching it.

    Oh, and I also greatly enjoy Once Upon a Time in the West and A Fistful of Dollars.

  5. Jason,

    The Wild Bunch is a great movie, too. Definitely in my Top Ten. Peckinpah was a great director, though I enjoy his earlier stuff more than what came later after this film. He seemed to lose something later on.

  6. Adam,

    Love the list; and thanks for putting my favority, THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE at the time. I remember seeing it as a kid, and being rocked: a Western whose central question wasn’t if we should get rid of the bad guy, but what is the morally correct way to do so. I’m thinking that the Nolan brothers must have seen this movie before writing THE DARK KNIGHT.

    Sean Gaffneys last blog post..Theology of Story Talk

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