Though it’s easy to conjure up tired tales of gunfighters standing in the street waiting to draw when you think of Westerns, the genre is actually home to a surprising range of diversity. It’s been part of cinema since the very earliest days of Hollywood, and has produced some of the greatest films ever made that go far beyond such masterpieces as The Searchers or The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. To dive into the entire genre is to find a wide array of subgenres, thematic concerns, performances, filmmaking styles, and even conclusions about the American West itself.
In other words, there’s at least one great Western for everybody. To prove it, we’ve compiled a list of 35 of the best films the genre ever produced, spanning more than 80 years of movies.
1. Stagecoach (1939)
Widely viewed as the film that elevated the Western out of B movie territory and into the realm of mainstream premier cinema, John Ford’s story of a band of stagecoach passengers just trying to survive a harsh journey has lost none of its kinetic majesty in the more than 80 years since its debut.
2. The Ox-Bow Incident (1942)
Many of the best Westerns are straightforward tales with major moral dilemmas at their core. And one of the greatest titles to ever follow that formula is The Ox-Bow Incident, which stars Henry Fonda as a cowboy unwittingly roped into a posse to catch an apparent murderer. It’s a lean, gripping tale of mob mentality and the evil that men do.
3. My Darling Clementine (1946)
One of the most beautifully shot black-and-white Westerns ever made, John Ford’s My Darling Clementine is a masterpiece of shadow and light, as Henry Fonda’s Wyatt Earp navigates tension and romance in the days leading up to the legendary Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. The story is compelling, but the cinematography is enough to make you pause to look at every single shot.
4. Pursued (1947)
In the 1940s, the sensibilities of the Western and film noir merged to give us the subgenre known as “psychological Westerns.” One of the finest films to ever practice the form is Raoul Walsh’s Pursued. Starring an ice-cold Robert Mitchum as a seemingly cursed man navigating one tough break after another, it’s a beautiful exercise in inner turmoil churning beneath the gunfighter mystique.
5. Red River (1948)
John Wayne stars as a determined rancher who aims to drive his massive herd north by any means necessary in Howard Hawks’ Red River, which delivers both the darker side of Wayne’s persona and the cool steadfastness of Montgomery Clift for a thrilling one-two punch. It’s one of Western cinema’s great portrayals of the particular kind of madness that sets in when a man pins his dreams on a new frontier and then finds a series of nightmares instead.
6. Winchester '73 (1950)
The first film in a long collaboration between director Anthony Mann and star Jimmy Stewart, Winchester '73 is both a gripping story of revenge and the tale of the title rifle as it passes from person to person like a lead-filled Spear of Destiny. The film, which features plenty of action and a great supporting performance from Shelley Winters, is arguably Stewart’s finest hour as a Western actor.
7. High Noon (1952)
Many, many Westerns are all about building tension until a showdown in the final minutes, but no other film has ever done it quite as well as Fred Zinnemann’s Oscar-winning High Noon. Gary Cooper remains compulsively watchable as Will Kane, a departing town marshal who realizes he has to stay behind as the town’s last line of defense against a notorious criminal. But what’s most remarkable about High Noon today is its real-time pacing: it’s 85 minutes of build-up to see if one man’s moral high ground is the hill he’ll die on.
8. Shane (1953)
The ultimate American expression of the “gunfighter with a dark past” story, Shane is driven by several definitive Western elements. The cinematography is a beautiful Technicolor storyscape, Alan Ladd’s performance in the title role is captivating and smooth as silk, and the film’s ability to keep building tension right up until Shane’s final moments of heroism remains spellbinding.
9. Johnny Guitar (1954)
Like Shane before it, Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar deals in the tale of a fighter with a mysterious past. But unlike Shane, Johnny (Sterling Hayden) isn’t at the center of the story. That honor goes to Joan Crawford as a determined saloon owner who refuses to be forced out of town by her rivals without a fight. It’s one of the first, and one of the best, female-led Westerns—and one of Crawford’s best roles.
10. Vera Cruz (1954)
Before the Westerns of the 1960s brought a revisionist view of the genre full of amorality and shades of grey, there was Vera Cruz. Starring Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster as a pair of gunfighters hired to escort a wealthy countess to the title city, it’s full of the kinds of darker flourishes later Westerns would become known for. Throw in director Robert Aldrich’s expertly crafted final gun battle, and you’ve got an underseen but extremely influential classic.
11. The Searchers (1956)
John Ford is on this list more than any other filmmaker because he remains the greatest practitioner of Western cinema in the genre. But even among a career full of classics, The Searchers is his masterpiece. Starring John Wayne as the leader of a band of men determined to hunt down the abducted survivors of a Comanche raid, it’s a film laced with unforgettable visuals and simmering emotions, and it’s made better because Ford’s not afraid to let Wayne get dark, and even frightening, with his portrayal of Ethan Edwards.
12. Seven Men From Now (1956)
The first in a series of collaborations between director Budd Boetticher, star Randolph Scott, and writer Burt Kennedy that would eventually be known as “The Ranown Cycle,” Seven Men From Now is a stripped-down, stylish Western with a great energy. The story of a former lawman trying to track down all seven suspects in a deadly robbery, it works as a straight-up revenge thriller, then becomes something else when it starts to take a few artful twists.
13. Forty Guns (1957)
Starring Barbara Stanwyck (Double Indemnity) as the wealthy land baron who commands the 40 gunmen of the title, Samuel Fuller’s Forty Guns is a beautifully filmed saga of romance and treachery set against the backdrop of a town struggling to control its own destiny. Stanwyck is magnetic in the lead role, and Fuller’s playful, witty script succeeds in creating a genuine sense of unpredictability.
14. Rio Bravo (1959)
Crafted as a response of sorts to High Noon, Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo is a portrait of John Wayne as a steadfast sheriff trying to hold off a gang as he attempts to enforce justice after a murder in his town. More than 60 years later, it still works as a clever, often funny, always thrilling story of a ragtag band of fighters joining together against an impossible outer force. As if to prove its greatness, Hawks and Wayne basically tried to remake the film twice (with El Dorado and Rio Lobo) and never quite got back to the lightning in a bottle that is Wayne and Dean Martin onscreen together.
15. The Magnificent Seven (1960)
It would have been easy for The Magnificent Seven to simply coast by on being “the Western Seven Samurai” and arrive as a by-the-numbers, generally entertaining genre picture. Instead, thanks to director John Sturges, an ensemble cast led by Steve McQueen, and Elmer Bernstein’s magnificent score, it becomes one of the purest distillations of the raw power of the genre, a jolt of guns-blazing energy right to the heart.
16. One-Eyed Jacks (1961)
When One-Eyed Jacks had trouble keeping a director, star Marlon Brando stepped in for the only time in his career to helm the rest of the film himself, and came away with one of the greatest Westerns of the 1960s. Brando and Karl Malden star as two former partners who had a falling out after a robbery gone wrong, and chronicles the years-long journey toward vengeance for one of them. Of course, because it’s Brando and Malden, watching them act is just as thrilling as watching them shoot.
17. The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (1966)
Sergio Leone’s “Dollars Trilogy” popularized spaghetti Westerns around the world, and while all three films are legendary, the third and final installment remains the best. Anchored by thrilling performances by Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and Eli Wallach as the title characters, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly remains in contention for the title of single best Western film ever made, and features one of the all-time great showdown scenes in all of cinema.
18. Django (1966)
Sergio Leone may be the undisputed king of the spaghetti Western, but he’s far from the only game in town. Sergio Corbucci was also one of the subgenre’s great practitioners, and his collaboration with star Franco Nero on Django remains one of the greatest spaghetti Westerns. The story of a gunfighter who carries his own coffin around with him, it’s both unapologetically violent and consistently gripping.
19. The Shooting (1966)
In 1965, director Monte Hellman and stars Warren Oates, Jack Nicholson, Millie Perkins, and Will Hutchins went out into the desert to shoot two Westerns back-to-back. Both are classics, but The Shooting retains a certain otherworldly edge over its sister film, Ride in the Whirlwind. A simple story of a journey, a mysterious gunfighter, and a secret, it’s an almost mystical, bare-bones journey into the heart of darkness.
20. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
Sergio Leone seemed to have made his definitive Western statement with 1966’s The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. But just two years later, he proved he had much more to say about the genre with this sweeping, epic tale of a group of gunfighters and cutthroats all converging on the same house in the desert in search of the treasure it holds. Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Claudia Cardinale, and Jason Robards are all fantastic in the film, but the true star is the cinematography, which rises to ambitious heights that even the Dollars Trilogy never reached.
21. The Wild Bunch (1969)
Sam Peckinpah’s Westerns are all about deconstructing and peeling back the pageantry of the films that came before them, until nothing remains but blood, grit, and survival. The Wild Bunch is perhaps the purest version of this aesthetic, packed with brutal shootouts and Peckinpah’s signature use of slow-motion action, as well as great performances from the ensemble cast, including William Holden and Ernest Borgnine.
22. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
One of the all-time great buddy movies as well as an all-time great Western, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid thrives on several key elements all working together to capture magic. There’s George Roy Hill’s confident direction, William Goldman’s endlessly clever script, and of course, the crackling chemistry of Paul Newman and Robert Redford. From issues with swimming to their final call to go out with guns blazing, they’re a perfect big-screen pair.
23. McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)
Leave it to Robert Altman to make a Western film that’s simultaneously so laid back and yet so filled with emotional urgency. Warren Beatty and Julie Christie are fantastic in the film’s title roles as a fast-talking entrepreneur and the woman he hires to run his growing brothel, and they fit perfectly within Altman’s roving, relaxed filmmaking style. It’s a film you could happily keep watching even if nothing ever happened, which means that when Altman turns the tension up, you really lean forward.
24. Buck and the Preacher (1972)
Sidney Poitier directed and starred in this gripping and often surprisingly funny look at Black settlers contending with racism on the American frontier after the Civil War. Poitier stars as an escort for some of those Black settlers, who hope to reach the promised land of the West before being pushed back by bands of racist gunmen, while Harry Belafonte co-stars as a con man who finds he might just have a little religion in him after all. It’s a great two-hander of a film, and a welcome look at a less-explored corner of the Western experience.
25. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973)
Like The Wild Bunch before it, Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is a violent, relentless roller coaster of thrills and unglamorous masculine power. But unlike that film, this story—about a determined lawman (James Coburn) and a cocky outlaw (Kris Kristofferson)—has an elegiac quality to it, thanks in part to a soundtrack by Bob Dylan. In the end, it seems to be mourning a certain kind of gung-ho energy that the West, and the Western, slipped away from over time.
26. The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)
Clint Eastwood learned from some of the best directors ever to tackle Westerns, then got behind the camera himself for what has become one of the most distinguished careers in American cinema. Among his early Western efforts, it might never get better than this one, in which he also stars as the title character, a man without a country who is bent solely on revenge—until a few people come along who just might change his mind.
27. Unforgiven (1992)
After a series of well-received Westerns like The Outlaw Josey Wales, High Plains Drifter, Pale Rider, and more, Eastwood delivered what might be his definitive vision of the genre with this Best Picture-winning classic. Beautifully shot, anchored by great performances from Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman, and featuring Eastwood laser-focused on the brutality of the West, it’s in the running for best revisionist Western ever made.
28. Tombstone (1993)
By the 1990s, the Western had diminished as an American movie staple. But the best filmmakers still working in the genre made it through in part by incorporating the action movie aesthetics of the 1980s and 1990s into the mix. Tombstone, led by Kurt Russell and an incredible Val Kilmer, is one such film—a beautifully made merging of old and new that remains one of the most compulsively rewatchable films of its era.
29. The Quick and the Dead (1995)
Sam Raimi adds his own stylistic flourishes to every genre he touches, and that includes Westerns. With The Quick and the Dead, the story of a female gunfighter (played by Sharon Stone) and her quest for revenge in the midst of a quick-draw tournament, Raimi dialed his own quirky camera work up to 11 while never letting go of the essential Western-ness of his story. It remains one of his finest films.
30. Dead Man (1995)
Jim Jarmusch’s black-and-white, meditative take on Western cinema follows an accountant (Johnny Depp, in one of his best performances) who’s unwittingly roped into a shootout and thus becomes the target of a manhunt. As he attempts to flee, he bonds with a Native man (Gary Farmer in one of his best performances) and learns some eye-opening truths about life, death, and the space in between between. In other words, it’s a Western as only Jim Jarmusch could do it.
31. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
Long, sumptuous, and full of deeply human moments, Andrew Dominik’s film is not bothered by the fact that the title gives away its ending. It’s far more focused on watching the intricate dance of personalities unfold between Brad Pitt’s Jesse James and Casey Affleck’s Bob Ford, until one day the dance turns deadly. In that way, it becomes a film about the inevitability of a certain kind of life with a certain kind of ending, and that’s as beautiful as it is haunting.
32. No Country for Old Men (2007)
Though the Coen Brothers have since dipped into more traditional Western fare, it’s their neo-Western adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel that remains the best expression of Western cinema sensibilities within their work. The story of a man (Josh Brolin) on the run from an assassin (Javier Bardem) and the sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones) trying to make sense of their pursuit, it’s a tale that could be transplanted into any era, yet roots its perspective firmly in that of a world which has moved on from the days of pure justice.
33. Meek's Cutoff (2010)
Many of our finest Westerns are stories of gunfights and battles, robberies and quick draws. But with Meek’s Cutoff, Kelly Reichardt proved that sometimes all you need for a great Western is the will to survive. The story of a desperate wagon train lost on their way West, Meek’s Cutoff is a slow-burning, patient film that’s nevertheless constantly simmering with a sense of clawing dread.
34. Hell or High Water (2016)
Chris Pine and Ben Foster play two bank robbing brothers, and Jeff Bridges is the lawman on their trail. It sounds like a story that could play out in 1880, but director David Mackenize and writer Taylor Sheridan root Hell Or High Water firmly in the modern sense of feast-or-famine economics and desperation. It’s a smart move that makes the film both a gripping neo-Western and a statement on all those times in old-school Western films you wanted to root for the bandits.
35. The Power of the Dog (2021)
Though Brokeback Mountain has long been considered the gold standard depiction of homosexuality contrasted with hyper-macho tropes in Western cinema, Jane Campion’s Oscar-winning adaptation of Thomas Savage’s novel is arguably a better variation on that theme, in large part because of its willingness to confront a certain degree of ugliness in its characters. Campion’s film, rooted in classical Western compositions and landscapes juxtaposed with its modern sensibilities, is a powerful meditation on what resentment can do to a person, and what happens when it turns to poison.