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10 best Westerns of all time, ranked

Eli Wallach as Tuco smiling and holding two guns while Clint Eastwood as Blondie looks at him with annoyance in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
Produzioni Europee Associati

Of the many genres in cinema, none is as distinctively American as the Western. Typically set in the American frontier during the mid to late 1800s, the Western is crucial to the very fabric of American cinema. It features numerous archetypes that would become deeply ingrained in pop culture, most notably the cowboy, who has outright become synonymous with the United States.

Although the Western has been part of American cinema since the medium’s inception, it experienced a boom during Hollywood’s Golden Age, where many of the genre’s undisputed classics were born. The following is a collection of the all-time best Western movies, undisputed classics that have heavily contributed not only to the genre itself but to the overall lexicon of the United States. Be it for their memorable plots, characters, or conventions, these Westerns stand tall among their peers.

10. The Misfits (1961)

Montgomery Clift, Marilyn Monroe, and Clark Gable standing next to each other in The Misfits
Image via United Artists

Ironically, one of the all-time best Western movies is also one of the most atypical. Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, and Montgomery Clift star in John Huston’s 1961 contemporary Western The Misfits, adapted by Arthur Miller from his short story. Set in Reno. Nevada, the plot centers on Roslyn Tabor, a newly divorced woman who develops strong connections with several key figures, notably old-school cowboy Gaylord Langland and rodeo enthusiast Perce Howland.

The Misfits is a singular and bittersweet movie. It features remarkable turns from Gable, in arguably his finest performance, and especially Monroe, who delivers her most vulnerable, nuanced, and arresting work. A different and somewhat subversive take on the genre, The Misfits is a love letter to melancholy itself, a story of people seeking purpose; even if they can’t quite find it, at least they agree to be lost together. The Misfits is among Monroe’s best movies, a truly original and insightful Western in a sea of films with similar themes, tones, and styles.

The Misfits is available to stream on Pluto TV.

9. McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)

Warren Beatty and Julie Delpy as McCabe and Mrs. Miller looking ahead in the film McCabe & Mrs. Miller.
Warner Bros.

The late great Robert Altman directs Oscar winners Warren Beatty and Julie Christie in the 1971 revisionist Western McCabe & Mrs. Miller. The plot centers on the unlikely dynamic between experienced gambler John McCabe and crafty prostitute Constance Miller, who open a brothel in a small mining community. When a powerful company threatens their enterprise, the duo will have to rise to the challenge.

A masterpiece of anti-Western sensibilities, McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a deconstruction of the genre from one of the most distinctively American filmmakers. Romanticized yet strangely somber, the film is technically stunning and emotionally poignant. Unlike other Westerns, McCabe & Mrs. Miller is not the stuff of legends; on the contrary, it’s a tale of small people living small lives, captured by the lens of a man far more concerned with what’s left out of the history books. There’s love but no charm, poetry but no heroism, in this sad . McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a Western that defies conventions, expectations, and ideals, a singular take on the Old West that remains refreshing and remarkably daring.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller is available to rent or purchase on Amazon and other digital vendors.

8. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

Paul Newman and Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
20th Century Studios

Paul Newman and Robert Redford star in the classic Western buddy film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The pair play the titular roles, whose real names were Robert LeRoy Parker and Harry Longabaugh, joined by Sundance’s lover, Etta Place (Katharine Ross). Following a series of train robberies, the trio must elude the authorities chasing them as they try to make their way to Bolivia.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a bizarre Western. Its themes and setting fit with the genre 100%, but there’s a sense of melancholy throughout. Newman and Redford are worthy Western heroes, and the now-iconic soundtrack by Burt Bacharach and Hal David is an inspired addition. The story is as much about friendship as it is about crime, purpose, and lawlessness, resulting in a distinctive and profoundly influential Western that has become synonymous with the genre, not to mention a defining film in the New Hollywood years.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is available to rent or purchase on Amazon and other digital vendors.

7. Shane (1953)

Alan Ladd as Shane smiling and looking off-camera in Shane.
Paramount Pictures

Alan Ladd stars as the gunslinger Shane in the eponymous 1953 classic. The plot sees Shane pursuing a normal life, taking a job as a farmhand and forming close bonds with his boss’s wife and young son. However, he is soon drawn into conflict once more after discovering the ongoing struggle between the townsfolk and the ruthless cattle baron Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer).

Few Westerns are as visually striking as Shane. In many ways, the film defined the visual approach of the Western genre, capturing the beauty of the desert landscapes and turning the American frontier into a narrative tool rather than just a setting. Shane is a coming-of-age tale of masculinity and justice, a story of strawman heroes and how legends start that is as compelling today as it was in the 1950s — perhaps even more. The film had a profound influence in shaping the Western genre, and its now-iconic ending has been referenced and parodied to hell and back.

Shane is available to stream on PlutoTV.

6. Stagecoach (1939)

Three people sticking their heads out of a train in the film Stagecoach.
United Artists

1939 was a golden year for Hollywood that saw the release of timeless classics like Gone with the WindThe Wizard of Oz, The Women, and, of course, Stagecoach. John Ford’s influential masterpiece stars Claire Trevor and John Wayne in the role that would launch him to stardom. It follows the passengers of the Overland stagecoach as they contend with an escaped outlaw and the threat of an Apache attack as they make their way to New Mexico.

Stagecoach is very much a film of its time, featuring less-than-pleasant depictions of Native Americans. Still, it remains a riveting adventure that first introduced and thus defined some of the Western’s most enduring archetypes. By exploring issues of equality and social disparity, Stagecoach legitimized the Western as a proper genre with something to say beyond lionizing icons of the Old West. Like most of his other films, Ford sees his characters not as archetypes but as conflicted individuals, which further separates Stagecoach from other films of its time.

Stagecoach is available to stream on Tubi.

5. Unforgiven (1992)

Clint Eastwood as William Munny aiming his rifle at someone off-camera in Unforgiven.
Warner Bros. Pictures

Clint Eastwood is synonymous with the Western genre. The four-time Oscar winner has starred in many of the genre’s most famous and acclaimed entries, but 1992’s Unforgiven might be his most highly-regarded. The film follows the aging gunslinger William Munny, who arrives at a small town looking to claim the reward for the murder of a group of cowboys. There, he immediately clashes with the rigid sheriff and the competing bandits who are also after the money.

As the title implies, Unforgiven is a fascinating tale of vengeance, justice, and redemption. Eastwood’s meditative examination of the American West seeks to deconstruct the genre, placing the action in a town where the lines between “right” and “wrong” are blurred. There are no heroes or villains — instead, Unforgiven offers a bleak look at frontier life, concluding that, in such a violent and ruthless world, there is no morality or certainty, and the cycle of violence is neverending. Unforgiven is Eastwood’s greatest directorial effort, a revisionist take on the Western genre suitable for ’90s audiences.

Unforgiven is available to rent or purchase on Amazon and other digital vendors.

4. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

Charles Bronson in Once Upon a Time in the West.
Paramount Pictures

Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West is one of the most recognizable Westerns ever made. Henry Fonda shines against-type as the now-iconic villain Frank, joined by a cast including Claudia Cardinale, Jason Robards, and Charles Bronson. The plot follows several characters clashing following the murder of a man whose land is of interest to a ruthless rail baron.

Once Upon a Time in the West is deeply influential, with directors like Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino citing it as an influence in their work. Coupled with Fonda’s outstanding villainous performance and a now-legendary score by the mighty Ennio Morricone, the film is a true giant of the Western genre. It obeys its rules but isn’t afraid to bend them to its will; its story is classic Western, but the execution is less streamlined, blending shock with subdued restraint in ways few other films have. Once Upon a Time in the West effortlessly channels the rebellious nature of the fast-changing ’60s — more impressively, it’s never anachronistic or subversive, grounding its approach firmly on Western themes.

Once Upon a Time in the West is available to stream on Paramount+.

3. The Searchers (1956)

John Wayne as Ethan Edwards in the desert looking intently at something off-camera in The Searchers.
Warner Bros.

To many, The Searchers is the epitome of the Western genre. Based on the eponymous 1954 novel and set during the Texas-Indian wars, John Ford’s epic stars John Wayne as Ethan Edwards, an aging veteran searching for his his kidnapped nieve accompanied by his adopted nephew.

Edwards is Wayne’s best character, a complicated figure who is engaging, off-putting, treacherous, occasionally appalling, and tremendously compelling. In many ways, The Searchers is the ultimate Western, an ode to a bygone time that a few lost souls desperately cling to. It’s as much about the Old West as it is about Edwards’ quest, obsessively searching for an idea in an attempt to re-establish a status quo that was never really there. The Searchers demystifies the Old West, presenting it as the home of men of hatred and vengeance, no matter the color of their skin. Moreover, it points to the idea of the evil within everyone and how easily it can be misconstrued for righteousness.

The Searchers is available to rent or purchase on Amazon and other digital vendors.

2. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1969)

Clint Eastwood in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
Produzioni Europee Associate

The Spaghetti Western to end all Spaghetti Westerns, Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is a seminal classic and arguably the most influential entry into the revered genre. The film is the third and final entry into Leone’s  Dollars Trilogy and once again stars Clint Eastwood as The Man with No Name. Set during the American Civil War, it centers around three men trying to find a cache of Confederate gold in the Southwest.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is Leone’s crowning achievement. The film features many of his trademarks, including an over-the-top approach, fast-paced gun fights, a biting and occasionally morbid tone, and a clear desire to go against notions closely related to the Western genre. Eastwood cemented his place as a cinematic icon with his performance as The Man with No Name, supported by the equally impressive Eli Wallach and Lee Van Cleef. The film has many of the Western genre’s most recognizable scenes, including the Mexican stand-off between the three titular characters. Haunting yet electrifying, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is Western cinema at its finest.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is available to stream on Max.

1. High Noon (1952)

Gary Kooper and Grace Kelly as Will and Amy looking at each other in the film High Noon.
United Artists

Gary Cooper stars in Fred Zinnemann’s groundbreaking Western High Noon. Told in real-time, the plot centers on soon-to-be-retired Marshal Will Kane, who must decide whether to leave his small town with his new bride or stay and face a dangerous criminal seeking revenge. However, as he tries to rally the town against the attack, Kane finds out everyone cowardly refuses to stand up to the criminals, leaving him to face the threat alone.

High Noon is the best Western ever produced. Ironically, it achieves this honor by rejecting all the notions that built the genre. It is arguably the first genuine revisionist Western, telling a story about morality and the rejection of archaic notions of “right” and “wrong.”

Subdued to the point of being introspective, High Noon is the antithesis of the traditional Western, a contemplative story about self-discovery and courage against the mounting pressures of life. It set a precedent for the one-versus-many approach that countless future movies would adopt and proved that, at their core, Westerns are less about the action and more about humanity itself and how the individual can and must rise, even in the face of certain doom.

High Noon is available to stream on Paramount+.

David Caballero
David is a Mexican freelance writer with a deep appreciation for words. After three years in the cold world of Marketing…
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