10 Classic Western Movies

Hollywood Taps into the Appeal of the Old West

No film genre is more distinctly American than the western. Over the years, classic western movies have romanticized the Old West, vilified native Americans, idealized settlers and then switched all the stereotypes around again.  Westerns come in all forms, from silent movies to full-on spoofs.  Here are ten classic westerns that are worth a look.

With Gary Cooper and a radiant Grace Kelly, High Noon is the tale of a dutiful sheriff deserted by the cowardly townspeople he has served as a gang of desperadoes descends on the town. Spare, tense, and told almost in real time, the film pares the conventional western to its bones as the sheriff stays to fight over the protests of his friends and his pacifist Quaker wife. Interpreted variously as a preachy liberal fable, an allegory of the McCarthy era and as a commentary on U.S. involvement in both Korea and WWII, it stands first and foremost as a fine, classic western movie.

One of the great movies of 1939, "Destry Rides Again" is the story of a sheriff who doesn’t like to carry a gun. One of the first movies to spoof the western genre, it has the requisite lawless town, cheating gamblers, upright townsfolk, and rowdy cowpokes, along with the best dancehall hostess/fallen angel ever, Marlene Dietrich. (She gets three musical numbers, including “See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have.”)  Lanky, likable Jimmy Stewart is irresistible as Destry, the peaceable, slow-talking sheriff who tames the town.

Shot by director John Ford against the spectacular vistas of Utah’s Monument Valley, "The Searchers" is a bleak tale of the violent struggle between settlers and Indians. John Wayne, who more often played genial cowboys and dashing soldiers, plays a darker, more complex role here as a vigilante who spends years in a single-minded, relentless search for the Indians who killed his brother’s family and kidnapped his niece. While not all of it holds up today, it remains a compelling, layered story.  Wayne was never better.

Mel Brooks’ beloved, laugh-out-loud western spoof "Blazing Saddles" was marketed with the tagline: “Never give a saga an even break.”  Silly, crude and so politically incorrect no one would dare film it today, it features a noble black sheriff trying to win over the locals with the help of a laid-back drunken gunfighter, a dancehall floozy (Madeleine Kahn in a hilarious take on Marlene Dietrich)  and former NFL great Alex Karas as a simple-minded frontier thug. It's famous for the beans-around-the-campfire flatulence scene alone. (Watch it anyway.)

Something of a counterculture western, this beguiling film pairs two of Hollywood’s most watchable stars - Paul Newman and Robert Redford - as peaceable, old-school bandits trying to make it on the increasingly civilized frontier. With a warm, clever script by William Goldman, the movies follows Butch and Sundance as they seek adventure farther and farther south. Loosely based on the lives of real outlaws, the movie also features a standout performance by Strother Martin.

A western remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Japanese classic "The Seven Samurai," "The Magnificent Seven" has Yul Brynner leading a band of gunslingers hired to protect a tiny Mexican village from the ravages of bandits who come to steal the crops and rape the women. Sparely told, it features standout performances from the exceptional cast, including Eli Wallach, James Coburn, Steve McQueen, Robert Vaughan and Charles Bronson. Horst Buchholz in heavy makeup as “Chico” is a little hard to take, but forgivable in an otherwise moving story.

The most iconic of Italy’s “spaghetti” westerns, "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" can be conjured in the mind with just a few notes of Ennio Morricone’s score. There’s Clint Eastwood (the good). Lee Van Cleef (the bad). and Eli Wallach (the ugly). A noose, a treasure, brutal violence, dark humor, double-dealing and a clever plot make this a must-see. The third in Sergio Leone’s “dollars” trilogy (​"A Fistful of Dollars", "For a Few Dollars More"), it assured Eastwood’s place as a western movie star.

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"Little Big Man" - 1970

Little Big Man
Little Big Man. National General Pictures

A quirky, counterculture satire that idealizes native Americans, "Little Big Man" turns the classic western epic upside down. Dustin Hoffman is superb as a young white settler kidnapped by the Indians and raised as one of them, who is abruptly “rescued” to return to the white world.  He spends his long life between the two cultures, swinging between folly and tragedy, the only white survivor of Custer’s last stand. Faye Dunaway is a slyly lusty preacher’s wife, and Chief Dan George all but walks away with the movie as Little Big Man’s Indian grandfather.

Humphrey Bogart was never better as he plays a venal American fortune hunter driven to madness by greed and suspicion in this classic set on the South American frontier. John Huston directed his own father, Walter Huston, to an Oscar for his performance as a grizzled prospector who teams with two American drifters and strikes it rich in the mountain wilderness. It features the classic line: “Badges? We don’t have to show you no stinkin’ badges!”

A rare Oscar for a comic performance went to Lee Marvin for his dual role as hopeless drunk Kid Shelleen and villainous gunslinger Silvernose in this fun, silly western spoof, enlivened by songs from the odd duo of Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye. Starring Jane Fonda as the pretty schoolmarm, it’s an enjoyable send-up of the western genre, from outlaws to railroad barons. 

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Boeder, Laurie. "10 Classic Western Movies." ThoughtCo, Aug. 6, 2017, thoughtco.com/classic-western-movies-728706. Boeder, Laurie. (2017, August 6). 10 Classic Western Movies. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/classic-western-movies-728706 Boeder, Laurie. "10 Classic Western Movies." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/classic-western-movies-728706 (accessed November 22, 2017).