No film genre is more quintessential to the American soul than the Western. The virtues Westerns champion—courage, moral clarity, self-reliance, individualism—are American virtues; their vices—excessive or hokey moral simplicity, caricatures of the enemy—are American too. Westerns are so synonymous with the legend that is America that it’s little wonder that from their heyday in the 1950s until today, they’ve played a key role in shaping our perception of ourselves, as well as the world’s opinion of us.
The white-hatted cowboy standing firm against long odds is iconic, and not only within our borders. Western imagery has had such a powerful impact across the globe that Gary Cooper’s character in “High Noon” (No. 3) was used by the anti-Communist Polish party Solidarity in a poster campaign urging people to overcome their fear of tyrannical system and show their true colors at the polls.
While B-movie white-hat, black-hat simplicity can be fun to watch, the best Westerns have something to say about the morality of bloodshed. They keep moral lines strong while giving the characters room to be complex, a difficult balance to achieve.
With their clear-eyed moral messaging, Westerns are a great antidote to much of the modern filmmaking landscape, where audiences are asked with ever-greater frequency to identify with the bad guy. Also, because many of the best Westerns were made before 1970, the violence in them is often non-graphic, and clean enough for at least older children to watch.
Whether you’re brand-new to the genre or an old hand looking for a guide to re-exploration, these top ten Westerns (and ten additional recommendations) will help get you and your family started.
1. ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’ (1962)
No paragraph can fairly summarize the strengths of “Liberty Valance,” and why it endures as not just the greatest Western, but as one of the greatest films ever made. The fictional town of Shinbone is governed by two men, one evil and unrestrained (Lee Marvin’s Liberty Valance), and one who brings order at the point of his own gun, Tom Doniphon (John Wayne).
All is not right in Shinbone, but life is predictable, with Doniphon ready and able to do violence to those who threaten that stability. But then encroaching civilization comes to town in the form of Ransom Stoddard, attorney at law (Jimmy Stewart). After his own violent encounter with Valance, Stoddard insists that he will mete out justice through the rule of law, and refuses Doniphon’s help, arguing that his brand of “justice” is no different than Valance’s. But can the law endure without the gun? “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” gives as interesting an answer to the question as any that’s been given.
2. ‘The Searchers’ (1956)
A strong contender for the No. 1 spot, this John Ford classic is loosely based on the real life story of Cynthia Ann Parker, who was abducted by the Comanche who murdered her family when she was nine years old. In the film version, Civil War veteran Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) heads a years-long quest to find his abducted niece Debbie and her sister, after most of their family is murdered in a raid.
Ethan starts out pretty tough, but over the years of searching, his hatred for the Comanche corrupts him wholly, and his savage tactics descend to the same level. When he finds Debbie after a half a decade of living as one of the Indians, he’s ready to kill her for becoming one of them. Like “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” “The Searchers” recognizes that violent men may have secured the frontier, but there can never be a place for them in civilization.
3. ‘High Noon’ (1952)
Sometimes the best exemplars of a genre are those that bend its rules just enough to make things interesting, while retaining the essentials. So it is with 1952’s controversial Western “High Noon.” Wayne was so incensed by the leading man (Gary Cooper, in a spectacular performance that won him an Oscar for Best Actor) temporarily succumbing to fear that it prompted him to star in his own answer to “High Noon,” “Rio Bravo,” which is worth watching in its own right (it’s No. 8 below).
Town marshal Will Kane (Cooper) is about to hang up his star to start life with his pacifist Quaker bride (Grace Kelly), when he receives the news that a vicious criminal he put behind bars will arrive on the noon train to extract his revenge. “High Noon” proceeds in live time, making the viewer count down the minutes to the approaching train alongside the characters.
Kane’s appeals to the townspeople he has long protected go unheeded, which, along with the Communist leanings of its screenwriter, make this the Left’s favorite Western. But you shouldn’t let that prejudice you against a great movie.
4. ‘Stagecoach’ (1939)
Often considered Wayne’s A-list debut, this beautifully shot black and white film shot in Monument Valley tells the story of a stagecoach ride through hostile Indian territory. The diverse passengers, thrown together in the ride of their lives, all have different reasons for making the trek, from social ostracism and love to greed and revenge.
Like many Westerns, it uses the characters to highlight the reconciliation between North and South after the war and Reconstruction. Although they come from different regions and social backgrounds, the passengers find their fates are bound together in “Stagecoach.”
5. ‘Winchester ’73’ (1950)
A classic Western tale of two brothers, one good and one evil, set against each other in the attempt to get even, gets a fresh take in this inventive movie by being told through the “eyes” of a coveted prize rifle. As the coveted gun changes hands between worthy and unworthy men, the plot proceeds around it to inevitable conclusion. “Winchester ’73” features a thrilling final shootout, and is arguably American hero Jimmy Stewart’s greatest Western performance, barring “Liberty Valance.”
6. ‘Shane’ (1953)
A taciturn gunslinger keen to hide his bloody past happens upon a remote ranch, where he learns that the family that owns it, along with the good people of the valley, live in fear of a gang of rogues paid by a cattle baron with designs on their land. As Shane returns to what he does best in service of civilization, he troublingly realizes that Joey, the young son of the rancher, is starting to idolize him for his violent ways, and does what he must to secure peace in the valley.
“Shane’s” enduring message is that sometimes what one wants must be set aside for what is right. An amoral society floating in hedonistic relativism could certainly benefit from a dose.
7. ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ (1966)
I’m not a big fan of Spaghetti Westerns, which eliminate a lot of the moral clarity of the genre in favor of artistic cinematography. In a way, Sergio Leone’s trilogy is a European’s idea of an American art form.
That being said, it’s undeniable that “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly,” which launched a charismatic and young Clint Eastwood into stratospheric stardom, has made its mark on audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. Arguably, it also boasts the greatest soundtrack ever written; well worth watching for Ennio Morricone’s world-famous score alone.
8. ‘Rio Bravo’ (1959)
I tried hard not to play favorites with this list, but “Rio Bravo” was undoubtedly my favorite movie as a child (and my father’s favorite when he was growing up in Communist Poland). “Rio Bravo” was produced as a response to Will Kane’s vacillation in “High Noon.”
Following essentially the same plotline, Wayne’s Sheriff John T. Chance squares his shoulders against seemingly impossible odds, and recruits an odd collection of misfits to help him against the forces of cruelty and lawlessness. Bonus features of this film include possibly the only great acting performance ever turned out by Rat Pack crooner Dean Martin, and a haunting theme written by Morricone.
9. ‘Red River’ (1948)
Is there anything more traditionally Western than a grand cattle drive? “Red River” tells the story of a risky drive up the Chisholm Trail, but its real greatness lies in the relationship between its two central characters: Wayne as the elder cattle magnate and sometimes tyrannically tough John Dunson, opposite Montgomery Clift as the orphan boy brought on from a wagon raid that killed Dunson’s love.
“Red River” borrows from the classical: the need of a son to fight his father in order to become a man himself. Portraying Dunson’s transition from white-hatted protector to inflexible bully teetering on the edge of lawlessness, then into despair and finally redemption may be Wayne’s greatest performance as an actor.
10. ‘The Magnificent Seven’ (1960)
Like restaurants with great views, it often seems to be an unwritten rule that movies with too many well-known actors are disappointing. Not so with “The Magnificent Seven,” which manages to channel its star wattage into genuine delight for its audience.
Based on the Japanese film “The Seven Samurai,” and transported into the West, “The Magnificent Seven” follows a gradually gathered band of gunslingers, hired to help protect a small Mexican village from bandits. Its inclusion in this roundup of the best of the genre, however, comes from its message: that building civilization is more important even than protecting it from destruction. Just avoid the 2016 version.
Ten Deeper Cuts
Want deeper cuts? Here are another ten great Westerns to get you started. Did I miss a favorite? Share in the comments!