Western movies aren’t for everyone, that’s for sure. They can be old, slow, depict a way of life that’s hard to relate to, and sometimes feel like they blend together. This is especially true for old Westerns, because while someone like John Wayne was admittedly a cinematic icon … he was kind of just John Wayne in most of his movies, and he was in like, 500 of them.
As such, the following eight Westerns might be good picks for those who usually find themselves resting through Westerns. They all without a doubt qualify as Westerns, but either distance themselves from the more standard Western tropes in interesting ways, or otherwise deconstruct, critique, or parody the more dated parts of Westerns. They will hopefully be appealing to people who aren’t Western fans, but are willing to give the genre another chance (or eight).
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)
Sergio Leone’s masterful Western / adventure / war / buddy comedy is, from that description, clearly more than “just” a Western. At nearly three hours, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly finds time to dip its toes into a range of genres, making for an epic film that’s funny, tense, exciting, and sometimes even a little emotionally moving.
It ramps up with every new set piece, culminating in a final 20-25 minutes that might be the best ending in any film of all time. Ennio Morricone’s music, the gigantic graveyard set, the characters finding the treasure they’ve spent the whole movie hunting for, and then that tense three-way shootout … it’s all filmmaking perfection. Because of what a wild ride this film is – and the fact it does more than function as just a Western – it’s worth watching for all film fans; not just fans of Westerns.
The Rider (2017)
A few years before directing the Oscar-winning Nomadland, Chloé Zhao made the equally compelling The Rider, which is about a young man who’s something of a modern cowboy, and how he adjusts to life after suffering a significant injury from a rodeo accident. Like Nomadlandit features beautifully filmed scenery, naturalistic performances from mostly non-professional actors, and an emphasis on mood and characters over a strictly defined plot.
It’s a Western without guns and violence of course, but still retains the feeling of a Western because of its characters, its visuals, and the way it captures the spirit of the (modern) West. It might not sound exciting on paper, but the acting is compelling and Zhao’s direction is outstanding, making for a quiet but compelling modern Western / character study.
Rango is an animated film by Gore Verbinski about a Western world populated by animals. It involves a chameleon named Rango getting tangled up in a series of recognizably Western misadventures after accidentally being made sheriff of a dangerous town called Dirt.
Rango is first and foremost a Western, even while it gently pokes fun at the genre. It might not be an all-out parody, though it’s certainly more comedic than the average Western. Another thing that makes it stand out is the odd and unique animation, which is sleek and colorful, but also a little unsettling at times. It has a unique tone and very unique look to it, so could be appealing to anyone looking for a Western with some unpredictable sensibilities.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is more of a buddy comedy that just so happens to be set in the West, rather than a full-on Western. It’s the chemistry between stars Paul Newman and Robert Redford that people remember the most, as well as all the one-liners and funny / exciting adventures they get up to when evading the law forces them to travel to South America.
It’s such a good time that it’s hard to imagine anyone disliking it, regardless of how much they usually like the Western genre. There’s plenty of action, comedy, and memorable music, and the film is remarkably fast-paced for its time, too. Newman and Redford prove why they’re acting legends here, and the ending scene in particular solidifies Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as an absolute classic.
The Great Silence (1968)
Sergio Corbucci was the second most well-known director of Italian “Spaghetti” Westerns with Sergio as a first name, after Sergio Leone of course. He was responsible for the original Django film, but his masterpiece is probably The Great Silencewhich features a mute main character, a town terrorized by disturbing and legitimately threatening villains, and a uniquely snowy setting.
It’s one of the best Italian Westerns ever made, but as a word of warning, it is very dark and downbeat, stripping all the glory and heroism out of the Western genre. The fact it’s so bleak and willing to deconstruct tropes while also having a far colder feel than most Westerns means it stands out, and is worth watching for anyone who might feel like most Westerns aren’t despairing or gritty enough.
High Noon (1952)
High Noon involves one marshal standing up to a gang of criminals who are seeking personal revenge for imprisoning their leader. The hook of the film is that they’re arriving in town at noon, and events play out in real-time from about 10:45 am, with the marshal trying (and failing) to get support from the townspeople he’s always been sworn to protect.
The real-time element to the plot means that this works well as both a thriller and Western. It also features more prominent female characters than most westerns of its time, and a willingness to admit that even “good” characters were flawed or cowardly, with an ending that’s quite dark by 1952 standards. It’s also a lean 80 minutes long, so there’s not much of a time commitment when it comes to watching this classic; In fact, it may be the very best American Western of all time.
Blazing Saddles (1974)
Mel Brooks’ filmography is pretty consistent overall, but Blazing Saddles undoubtedly stands out as one of his very best. It’s a full-on comedy, parodying the Western genre while also making fun of racists and prejudice in general, in its story of a small town that reacts badly when they find out their new sheriff is African-American.
Much has been made about the political incorrectness of the film, and yes, while some jokes are out there, it always makes fun of the right target. As far as the main plot goes, the joke is never on Cleavon Little’s Sheriff Bart, who’s overall genuinely cool and charming, and instead, the movie makes fun of the people who are racist and prejudiced. There may be some side characters who do not fare quite as well when it comes to humor, but if you cut it some slack for being from a very different time (and being forward-thinking at least when it came to racial themes), it holds up as an excellent comedy, and perhaps the gold standard for Western spoofs.
Unforgiven is one of the best movies that Clint Eastwood has either starred in or directed (here, he did both!) It’s an excellent deconstructionist Western that presents the American West more realistically than most films, highlighting the imperfect people, morally gray values, and rampant violence that existed at the time, all explored through its revenge-related storyline.
It deservedly won the Oscar for Best Picture for 1992, and aside from having Eastwood acting at the top of his game, also features memorable performances from Gene Hackman, Morgan Freemanand Richard Harris. It’s a great film – not just a great Western film – and is essential viewing regardless of how you usually feel about cowboys, horse-riding, saloons, and old-fashioned shootouts.
NEXT: The Best Westerns of the 21st Century So Far