22 Classic Westerns We Love

Features
by The Playlist Staff
December 22, 2010 6:01 AM
23 Comments
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There are two genres that every filmmaker wants to tackle: the musical and the western. Having flirted with the latter a number of times, the Coen Brothers, undoubtedly one of the foremost filmmaking teams of their generation, have finally delivered their first full-flung oater with "True Grit," a second adaptation of the Charles Portis novel made famous for winning John Wayne his only Oscar the first time around.

The Coens' "True Grit" is something of a triumph in general, but perhaps the biggest surprise is how traditional the film feels -- there's little post-modernism or revisionism in there, and you feel that even The Duke himself would have approved. With the picture hitting theaters today, we decided it was as good a time as any to take a look over the most American of genres.

If we're being honest, this list could have run to double the length (and we may yet follow it up with a part two) -- the western is one of the oldest archetypes in cinema, even if it's fallen out of favor in recent years. As ever, we've tried to re-examine some terrific pictures that are overlooked these days, but there are a few stone-cold classics that we couldn't resist writing about too. It's by no means comprehensive, but if "True Grit" gets you itching to revisit the Old West over the holidays, these are some good starting points.

“The Ox-Bow Incident” (1943)
Playing rather like a nihilistic Western version of “12 Angry Men” (complete with a conflicted Henry Fonda) if “The Ox-Bow Incident” had been made now, we would probably accuse it of being a too-on-the-nose analogy for U.S. involvement in the War on Terror. But it was made in 1943, and as the prominent War Bonds advertisement displayed at the end of the print we saw attests, it’s really talking about a different war altogether. However, that it is a parable about mob rule, the dangers of someone’s-gotta-pay mentality and the immorality of never suspending the rule of law EVER, is in no doubt -- this rather talky film was clearly made to teach us a lesson. And aside from a strangely episodic first third, it does that extremely well -- the simple story of an illegal posse who ride out looking for revenge and end up exacting it on the wrong people, still has the power to make the blood boil. Featuring early standout performances by Dana Andrews and Anthony Quinn, this largely forgotten film should be required viewing for anyone thinking of, I don’t know, denying person X’s civil liberties or torturing person Y in the "national interest." [B+]

“Shane” (1953)
An all-time classic of the genre and Alan Ladd’s finest non-noir hour, this film is a summary example of how telling a familiar story from a different angle can make it feel completely fresh. The story: an ex-gunfighter happens into a job on a farmstead where his respect and love for the family he joins ends up driving him back to the life he was trying to escape, in the ultimate act of self-sacrifice. The angle: it’s mostly told through the eyes of a child. Somehow the naivety and black-and-white innocence of little Joey’s hero worship makes Shane’s choices all the clearer, and all the harder too. Stakes? It’s got ‘em in every single scene, making “Shane” a riveting and truly touching watch. Aside from “The Dirty Dozen,” this is one of the few films that men are officially allowed to cry at with no ensuing loss of masculinity. [A]

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23 Comments

  • Brian | July 4, 2013 12:38 PMReply

    Jeremiah Johnson. No list is complete without it.

  • Tuco | March 1, 2013 3:06 PMReply

    The man with no name trilogy and Django (1966). These are the top 4 westerns. period.

  • Perry | December 23, 2010 5:39 AMReply

    I really don't get your logic. You say you want to avoid the usual suspects so that's why we don't see any of Leone's pictures on here. But High Noon, Rio Bravo, Stagecoach, Unforgiven, these aren't usual suspects? And I love The Quick and the Dead, but there is no way it should be on a list of classic westerns over Once Upon A Time in the West or any of the Man With No Name flicks.

  • cirkusfolk | December 23, 2010 4:03 AMReply

    Wow, suddenly I'm being called out for being too hip. Guess my mention of Dead Man outweighed my opinion on Shanghai Noon. At least I got accused of watching too much PTA instead of Edgar Wright. You guys are just too cool for school.

  • Nathan | December 23, 2010 4:03 AMReply

    I'm not usually one to nitpick on these lists, but...no The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly?? Nor Once Upon a Time in the West?

    Rest of the list is solid, but without those two it's missing a big chunk of the genre. Though hey, it's a list of ones that you guys love, not best ever, so to each his/her own.

  • Chris Broderick | December 23, 2010 2:21 AMReply

    "Magnificent Seven" should be on this list -- great story adapted from Seven Samurai, great cast, great music, great fun. Unlike some of these, it holds up well after all these years.
    "Wild Bunch" should be on it too - yes, I think it's overrated by critics but still groundbreaking for its time.
    "Butch Cassidy" - a Western that didn't take itself seriously. "Blazing Saddles" has to be mentioned at least.
    More recently, I liked "Silverado" -- entertaining and fun -- and "3:10 to Yuma" (the remake) was well made and acted despite a dumb ending.
    "Jeremiah Johnson" isn't on here either and it's one of the most authtentic films ever made by Hollywood about the real West in the 1800s. "Dances with Wolves" should be on the list as well. Both these films should be on the list if 'McCabe and Mrs Miller" and the "Misfits" are on it. Those are not Westerns.
    You missed some good ones, particularly anything about Native Americans ...

  • Edward Davis | December 23, 2010 1:47 AMReply

    well, we didn't want to say it, but you nail it on the head. They are the true classics and that's what we've been saying internally for a while now, but the fact of the matter is -- for most young people -- the reverse "cooler" '70s westerns are in fact the usuals suspects and these ones -- the original classics -- are films a lot of people shrug at.

    Ask this circusfolk guy how many of these he has seen? He's probably been too busy watching Cameron Crowe and PTA films like 7 times instead of getting deep into any of these.

  • bonzob | December 23, 2010 1:42 AMReply

    Those two statements are antithetical.

    The early true classics ARE the usual suspects. Search for any "best Westerns" list and try to find one that doesn't mention High Noon, Shane, The Searchers, Stagecoach, or Rio Bravo.

    Nice to see some of that old Playlist condescension toward its readership, though.

  • Katie Walsh | December 23, 2010 1:33 AMReply

    You people don't read. The Headline is "22 Classic Westerns We Love" NOT "The Best Most Unimpeachably Classic Westerns That Are the Only Ones That Matter Ever In The Universe The End."

  • edward davis | December 23, 2010 12:27 AMReply

    Glad no one actually reads. We didn't forget anything, we chose to focus on certain westerns. We figured we'd skip a certain bunch of usual suspects for now in favor of the early true classics that not a lot of people of this generation have actually watched.

  • cirkusfolk | December 23, 2010 12:13 AMReply

    You also forgot one of the wittiest westerns of all time, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and think what you like about Mel Gibson but Maverick is a damn entertaining film.

  • cirkusfolk | December 22, 2010 11:35 AMReply

    The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is flat out the best western of all-time...spaghetti or not. Much better than Leone's own Once Upon a Time in the West. I also liked Jarmusch's Dead Man in a strange way. But then again, I like Shanghai Noon as well. It had all the western cliches but did them on purpose and in a fun way...much the same way Back to the Future 3 did. And no mention of which is better...Tombstone or Wyatt Earp? My vote has always been fopr Wyatt Earp.

  • bobs | December 22, 2010 10:57 AMReply

    "Ride The High Country" would have been the appropriate Peckinpah western to add to this list.

  • Christopher Bell | December 22, 2010 10:52 AMReply

    I do like "The Searchers," but man, that movie really has no sense of time. I don't remember the time frame - a few years, no? - but it feels like a week tops.

  • Tom Voyten | December 22, 2010 10:00 AMReply

    The Shootist has a place here. A slow walk of inevitability.

  • brit | December 22, 2010 9:45 AMReply

    how about The Great Silence? Maybe Johnnie To's Exiled. Perhaps even Sholay...

  • Xian | December 22, 2010 9:04 AMReply

    So glad you mentioned "Open Range"... it is very underrated and much better than "Dances"... one of the best recent Westerns and very entertaining.

  • Paul | December 22, 2010 8:29 AMReply

    Is THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY out because it's a Spaghetti Western?

  • ThePlaylist | December 22, 2010 7:58 AMReply

    While we like some of them, we decided to sort of skip the usual suspects, though we had planned to do the Wild Bunch and it fell through on the sked.

    But Magnificent Seven is not only played out, it's simply not that good, especially compared to a lot of these classics.

  • Rashad | December 22, 2010 7:50 AMReply

    Whoa, no Magnificent Seven?

    I didn't like My Darling Clementine. I wished someone else had played Holliday. Mature was wrong for it. I would have like someone like Mitchum. And the girl was all wrong too

  • bonzob | December 22, 2010 7:13 AMReply

    Not to be grade quibbling guy, but...

    The Quick and The Dead is a guilty pleasure, no doubt, but a B? Really?

    And Unforgiven a B+? I think you mean A+.

  • Gary Berger | December 22, 2010 6:58 AMReply

    I am sad to not see "The Longriders" and "The Outlaw Josey Wales" not on your list. They are certainly better than "Open Range", don't get me wrong still a solid movie, but not close to these two.

  • Kimber Myers | December 22, 2010 6:44 AMReply

    Killer work, guys. I'm going to use this as a primer for all the films I need to see in the genre.

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