An old staple that has been part of Hollywood since the silent era, Westerns have gone through a dramatic transformation over the years, often to rekindle interest after falling out of public favor. Gone are the stalwart heroes in white hats battling men in black during the 1930s and '40s, and in their place are the brooding antiheroes of the 1960s and '70s. Though few are made in this day and age, Westerns remain one of Hollywood's tried and true genres. Here are seven classic Westerns from four very different decades.
This groundbreaking film directed by John Ford and featuring John Wayne in a star-making performance set precedent for generations of Westerns that followed. Wayne played The Ringo Kid, a fugitive prison escapee picked up by a stagecoach carrying a motley crew of passengers through dangerous Apache territory. Ringo wants revenge on the man who killed his family and sent him to jail on false testimony, but finds himself under arrest by a U.S. Marshal aboard the stagecoach. After a decade of starring in B-movies, Wayne finally became a major star, while Ford directed one of the greatest, most influential films ever made while turning Utah’s stunning Monument Valley into the very image of the Western itself.
Director Howard Hawks worked with John Wayne for the first time in this sprawling Western centered around a cattle drive from Texas to Missouri. Wayne played a brooding frontiersman who struggles with his adopted son (Montgomery Clift) over how to manage the drive, an escalating conflict that blossoms into a full-blown feud. The breaking point comes when the relentless and hard-driving Wayne pushes both man and beast to their limits – and even kills anyone challenging his authority – which leads to his son taking his men and herd away. A beautifully shot epic, Red River was a big hit and one of the best, if not more underappreciated Westerns ever made.
With this classic Western, James Stewart began a fruitful collaboration with director Anthony Mann the resulted in five great films. Stewart starred as an expert marksman who wins a prized Winchester rifle in a Dodge City shooting contest, only to have a hated rival (Stephen McNally) steal it and set off into the desert, triggering a battle of nerves as Stewart goes on a relentless search with blood on his mind. Mann’s revisionist psychological Western, which ruminated on the nature of heroism and honor in the face of violence, became a hit and helped revive an ailing genre that had fallen out of favor with audiences.
Director George Stevens’ Shane uses the old canard of a mysterious stranger (Alan Ladd) protecting an isolated family from a greedy land baron (Emile Meyer) and elevates the material to near-mythical proportions. Ladd starred as the titular drifter, who accepts the hospitality of a farmer (Van Heflin), only to find himself helping to fend off the baron’s minions. Meanwhile, the farmer’s wife (Jean Arthur) takes a liking to Shane, while a black-clad hired gun (Jack Palance) wants nothing more than an all-or-nothing showdown. Perhaps a little hokey for today’s audiences, Shane was a popular film that later inspired a number of other Westerns while its famed “Come back, Shane” ending remained one of the most iconic in cinema history.
Before reaching career heights with the historical epic Ben-hur, William Wyler directed this epic Western about two families feuding over water rights. Gregory Peck starred as a retired sea captain tagged as a coward for his aversion to violence, who travels to the American frontier to be with his fiancé (Carroll Baker), only to find himself caught in the middle of the feud while dealing one too many times with the land baron’s cocky foreman (Charlton Heston). To avoid further entanglement, he takes up with a headstrong schoolteacher (Jean Simmons), only to finally be forced into action when she’s kidnapped. Clocking in at nearly three hours, Wyler’s sprawling and beautifully photographed Western remains a hidden gem for those looking to dig a little deeper into the genre.
Once the forthright hero of many Westerns, actor Henry Fonda turned the other direction and delivered a chilling performance in Sergio Leone’s great spaghetti Western. Fonda played Frank, a sadistic killer who leads a band of outlaws trying to clear valuable land for a railroad company. Standing in his way is a beautiful young widow (Claudia Cardinale) who refuses to give up her newly dead husband’s land and a mysterious harmonica player (Charles Bronson) who protects her while harboring his own motivations for taking on Frank. Fresh from his famed Dollars Trilogy, Leone’s brooding epic was both grittily violent and beautifully lyrical, while offering Fonda the opportunity to deliver one of the most memorable performances of his career.
Certainly one of the most violent Westerns ever made, Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch is also one of the best. Starring William Holden, Ernest Borgnine and Robert Ryan, his revisionist take on an old Hollywood staple featured a group of aging outlaws with one foot still in the past trying to flee across the Mexican border following a failed payroll robbery. Along the way, they leave a trail blood and mayhem in their wake in a desperate attempt to outrun an encroaching modern world. At the time of its release, The Wild Bunch polarized critics for its unrelenting violence – due in big part to its operatic final shootout featuring an unrelenting Gatling gun – but has been hailed by contemporary audiences as an all-time classic and Peckinpah’s undisputed masterpiece.