There have been fewer figures in history that have had as powerful of an impact on American masculinity as the cowboy. While tales of cowboys began to circulate around the late 1800s, it wasn’t until twentieth-century cinema that the cowboy sealed his place as an icon of manliness. With story lines of all varieties, from avenging a death, to love affairs, and even tear jerking tragedies, Westerns are easily some of the most entertaining films that have ever been created, catering to every moviegoer no matter their favorite genre.
The combination of the decades of time under their belt along with their intoxicating excitement, Western movies reside in their rightful place as classics and must-sees. The list below compounds the ten greatest Westerns ever made, and even though there are well over a hundred paradigmatic films, these ten are so distinguished that it was mandatory they maintain a place in the list.
10. A Fistful of Dollars (1964)
The Man With No Name, who is played by Clint Eastwood, enters the village of San Miguel during a power struggle among the three Rojo brothers against sheriff John Baxter. When a group of Mexican soldiers bearing gold intended to pay for new weapons is detained by the Rojo brothers, the Man with No Name forces himself into the middle of the long-lasting battle, selling false information to both sides for his own benefit.
Best Line: “See, my mule don’t like people laughing”
9. No Country for Old Men (2007)
Although not necessarily fitting into the generic Western genre, No Country for Old Men definitely has the country grit that comes with the other films on the list. The movie is set in 1980, where protagonist Llewelyn Moss finds two million dollars, along with a collection of dead bodies, in a dusty desert. He takes the money, as any man would, but is soon tracked by hitman Anton Chigurh, coercing him to seek help from sheriff Ed Tom Bell. The movie is definitely not a perfect fit into old Westerns, but it definitely has enough in common to make this list.
Best line: “I didn’t put nothing up.”
“Yes, you did. You’ve been putting it up your whole life, you just didn’t know it.”
8. My Darling Clementine (1946)
My Darling Clementine stars Henry Fonda as protagonist Wyatt Earp. In this emotional rollercoaster of a film, Earp and two of his brothers ride into the town of Tombstone, leaving their last brother James behind to watch over the cattle. Finding the town swamped in lawlessness and without a marshal as a vigilante, Wyatt is the only real cowboy because no one else was willing to handle a dangerous Indian in town. Upon returning to the herd, James is dead and the cattle are stolen. As with most Western films, Wyatt vows revenge and stays in Tombstone until the murderers are found.
Best line: “When ya pull a gun, kill a man.”
7. True Grit (1969/2010)
The only marshal with “grit” enough to bring the man to justice who was hired by a young girl, Rooster Cogburn must track down the man that killed her father. The newer remastered version is miles better than the 1969 John Wayne version, which is a first for many remakes of old films. Jeff Bridges, who played Cogburn, did a superb job portraying the character, and in general, the movie just seemed more real and alive.
Best line: “Fill your hand you son-of-a-bitch!”
6. Red River (1948)
Red River is one of many movies that display a betrayal, but one of the few that is between two family members. The great John Wayne plays Thomas Dunson, a determined and occasionally ruthless man who has his mind set on forming the largest cattle ranch in America. With nothing but his Native American trail-hand and a young boy (and Dunson’s adopted son) who survived an Indian attack, he succeeds in his dream. However, a problem arises: to make money, he’s got to get the cattle to market. This leads Dunson sets out on a cattle drive of thousands from Texas to Missouri. His son begins to resent him for his tactics in leadership and steals the cattle, leading Dunson to vow to kill his own child.
Best line: “Get a shovel and my Bible. I’ll read over him.”
5. The Searchers (1956)
In this run of the mill tale of revenge, John Wayne acts in arguably the most intense way of any of his films as a dark and vengeful Ethan Edwards. Edwards is the grief-stricken protagonist who pledges to take retribution the Comanche raiders (a Native American Tribe) who murdered his sister-in-law and brother and kidnapped two of their daughters. John Wayne’s desire for revenge sets up a situation far more entertaining than Cowboys vs. Indians.
Best line: “That’ll be the day.”
4. Rio Bravo (1959)
A small-town sheriff, played by John Wayne, enlists the help of a cripple nicknamed Stumpy, a drunk, and a young gunfighter in his efforts to keep the brother of the local antagonist in jail. Rio Bravo has everything one would desire in an old Western: adventure, action, and fearlessness. There is even a moment at one point that one gets to hear Dean Martin sing a song.
Best line: “Hey, Dude! How do ya like them apples?.”
3. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
Although Clint Eastwood turned down the role of protagonist, over time this film has come to be known as one of the best Westerns of all-time, as one would expect with such a perfect name. The movie follows Jill McBain, who has just moved back home from New Orleans to the Utah frontier, finding her new husband and his kids brutally murdered. She then joins the hunt for the killer, leading to an adventure for which she definitely could not have prepared.
Best line: “How can you trust a man that wears both a belt and suspenders? Man can’t even trust his own pants.”
2. Unforgiven (1992)
Although the majority of the best Westerns were filmed long ago, during a time when good guys wore white and the bad ones wore black, Unforgiven borrows traits from the classics with a more modern approach and an even more modern screenplay. In Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood sheds some light on the morally ambiguous aspects of life in frontier America. Clint Eastwood acts as William Munny, a once infamous and violent killer. After his glory days, he’s just a quiet and tired farmer who is a devoted father and still mourns his wife who had passed away. But Will’s former life comes about once again when he’s asked to bring a cowboy who slashed the face of a prostitute to justice.
Best line: “Hell of a thing, killing a man. You take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.”
1. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966)
Perhaps the most famous Western movie ever made due to the recognizable theme song, the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly set the stage as a template for Westerns that excel in all aspects. Despite being the last of the “spaghetti westerns”, this film has come to stand on its own, and for good reason. Even if you haven’t seen the film, you probably know something about it. If not the iconic music, you have probably seen images and scenes of Clint Eastwood wearing a poncho and smoking a cigar. Yeah, that’s from this movie.
Best line: “When you have to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk.”