Western Movies

Western Movies

The Western film usually revolves around a plot of law and order on the frontier with a simple conflict of good vs. bad. It is often set amongst the struggle in the American West with the landscapes of nature playing a prominent part in the setting. Clint Eastwood has said: "As far as I'm concerned, Americans don't have any original art except Western movies and jazz." Though, "in many ways, the cowboy of the Old West was the American version of the Japanese samurai warrior, or the Arthurian knight of medieval times". The films on this list are generally well-regarded examples of the genre. There are online streaming options available through Kanopy and Hoopla as well.


Compiled by:
Brandon R.
3:10 to Yuma
Adult Audiovisual DVD - Thr

Based on a short story by Elmore Leonard, this film is notable for being shot in black-and-white after most Westerns by this point were in color and having Glenn Ford in a rare villain role.
This was remade rather well in 2007 as well.


The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Adult Audiovisual DVD - Ass

Based on the Ron Hansen novel, this is a slowly meditative take on the classic Jesse James story that includes a closer portrayal of the man credited with killing him. A personal favorite more in the vein of a Terrence Malick film than a traditional Western, but the investigation of the nature of celebrity and infamy shows how equally relevant it was then and now.


Cimarron (1931)
Adult Audiovisual DVD - Cim

This epic western was the first of the genre to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards (the second did not occur again until 1990's Dances with Wolves). While it perhaps does not hold up as well in retrospect (it was remade in 1960), the story, set during the Oklahoma land rush of 1889, was a successful spectacle released in the midst of the Great Depression.


Duel in the Sun
Adult Audiovisual DVD - Due

The most expensive Western ever made by 1946, producer David O. Selznick intended this as his epic follow-up to Gone with the Wind (this time starring his wife Jennifer Jones). Nicknamed "Lust in the Dust", many Western fans find it too melodramatic. However, "the National Legion of Decency did condemn the film even after Selznick worked closely with the MPAA to ensure that the film would meet Production Code requirements."


High Noon (1952)
Adult Audiovisual DVD - Hig

High Noon was released in an environment of HUAC investigations and the so-called Second Red scare. Its frontier plot is seen to have clear allusions to the Hollywood blacklist which screenwriter Carl Foreman was subjected to when being called to testify during the production of this film (which surely had an effect on keeping it from winning its heavily favored nominations for Best Picture and Screenplay). The moral dilemma proposed to Gary Cooper's sheriff is the focus of the nearly real-time paced film, a departure from most Westerns at the time.  Though, its ending scenes have inspired, or have been outright re-used, in countless films since.


The Man from Laramie
Adult Audiovisual DVD - Man

The final Western in a long collaboration of actor James Stewart and director Anthony Mann (Stewart has said that this was perhaps his favorite of theirs). Beginning with Winchester '73, Stewart developed a new onscreen persona in these films that was a bit harsher and more violent than previously in his career. These films especially take advantage of the scenery of the natural locations and this was one of the first Westerns to be shot in widescreen Cinemascope. The plot also has allusions to Shakespeare's King Lear.


McCabe & Mrs. Miller
Adult Audiovisual DVD - Mcc

This revisionist western was deliberately created to ignore or subvert established conventions of the genre. Director Robert Altman shot in his usual loose, collaborative style (the picture was never intended to have snow scenes near the end, but they just used it for what would become some of the most memorable parts of the picture). The film notably only uses songs by Leonard Cohen for music, with the exception of songs heard within the action of the Church in the film.


My Darling Clementine
Adult Audiovisual DVD - My

While director John Ford once described this "as essentially a film for children", due to what could be seen as a simplistic idealism, it is considered one of his best. The story of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday has been told numerous times, though Ford claims that he got the story first hand from Earp as a younger man.


Once Upon a Time in the West
Adult Audiovisual DVD - Onc

So-called Spaghetti Westerns became popular in the mid-1960s, mostly because of director Sergio Leone's trilogy of films with Clint Eastwood. This one, developed by later non-Western directors Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento, came directly after that trilogy with a villainous performance by Henry Fonda like no one had seen him before. "The film features long, slow scenes in which there is very little dialogue and little happens, broken by brief and sudden violence. Leone was far more interested in the rituals preceding violence than in the violence itself." For other good Italian westerns see also: The Great Silence, also on Kanopy.


The Ox-Bow Incident
Adult Audiovisual DVD - Ox

Based on the book about mob violence, many found the subject matter too 'heavily' dramatic for Westerns of the time. This is one of Henry Fonda's personally favorite films. Trivially, it has been most recent film to date to only be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar (and nothing else).


The Proposition
Adult Audiovisual DVD - Pro

An uncompromising, ultra-violent Australian western that takes a great deal of effort to recreate the 19th century Outback, particularly in relation to the treatment of Indigenous Australian peoples. For those that 'have seen every Western', and don't mind the modern violence, try seeking out some of these Australian films for a new perspective on the idea of frontier.


Ride with the Devil
Adult Audiovisual DVD - Rid

Based on Daniel Woodrell's Woe to Live On, the unusual plot of this Ang Lee film "follows Missouri Bushwhackers—guerilla units loyal to pro-Confederacy units of the state—and their attempt to disrupt and marginalize the political activities of Northern Jayhawkers allied with Union soldiers". Jeffrey Wright's performance as an African-American, pro-Confederate soldier stands out here, especially.


Rio Bravo
Adult Audiovisual DVD - Rio

Some consider this Howard Hawks' best Western (it is one of Quentin Tarantino's favorite "hangout" movies), though he and John Wayne would go on make two slight variations on it with El Dorado and Rio Lobo. Hawks and Wayne saw this as a response to High Noon (which Wayne considered "un-American"). Also, Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson both sing in this.


The Searchers
Adult Audiovisual DVD - Sea

Ethan Edwards is perhaps John Wayne's favorite and most complicated character (he named his son Ethan). While some may be turned off by the overt racism on display in the film, it is deliberate and cyclically brutal. Loosely based on a real incident, this film is considered not only one of the best Westerns but one of the best American films of all-time (especially by New Hollywood directors).


Shane (1952)
Adult Audiovisual DVD - Sha

Shane was the first film to be projected in widescreen, but was actually shot in 1.37: 1 ratio. There's always been a controversy about which is better, so FYI. Despite this being considered one of the best American Westerns, director George Stevens had tremendous difficulty with his actors; Alan Ladd needed over 100 takes for the scene where he practices shooting and Jack Palance could barely ride a horse (a particular take is used more than once in the film to show him getting off and on). Anyone familiar with George Stevens' career knows his experiences in WWII changed his view of the world and filmmaking (the great book Five Came Back details this). Here he was interested in showing the 'horrors of violence'; "to emphasize the terrible power of gunshots, he created a cannon-like sound effect by firing a large-calibre weapon into a garbage can. In addition, he had the two principal shooting victims rigged with hidden wires that jerked them violently backward when shot." This definitely had an impact on the use of violence in Westerns from then on.


Stagecoach (1939)
Adult Audiovisual DVD - Sta

Despite this being John Wayne's 80th film, it was his first sound picture and the one that director John Ford used to make him a star. The making of Westerns had decreased since the invention of sound, with the difficulty of recording it on location. A man named Harry Goulding persuaded Ford to come to Monument Valley and the iconography of the American Western was changed forever. Also, Orson Welles has said that he watched this film over 40 times to prepare for making Citizen Kane.


Unforgiven (1992)
Adult Audiovisual DVD - Unf

The most recent Western to win the Best Picture Oscar (and Best Director for Clint Eastwood), this also contains Eastwood's final Western lead role. It is classified as revisionist, in the sense that it comments on and breaks from the types of pictures Eastwood starred in over the years (though he wears the same boots that he wore on Rawhide).


The Wild Bunch
Adult Audiovisual DVD - Wil

The Wild Bunch "is noted for intricate, multi-angle, quick-cut editing using normal and slow motion images, a revolutionary cinema technique in 1969" (its average shot length is three seconds). Its use of violence and focus on the non-heroic aspects of its characters was revolutionary for its time. Director Sam Peckinpah said that this move toward a more realistic depiction of violence was especially influenced by the current Vietnam War.