Is the Western the most American of movie genres? You can make an argument for the Western film’s internationality on the names of the directors who have contributed to its iconography: You have your John Fords and your Anthony Manns, your Sam Peckinpahs and your Samuel Fullers, but over in Europe you also have filmmakers like Sergio Leone, Enzo G. Castellari and Sergio Corbucci, among many, many others, as authors of Western offshoots that influence filmmakers even today. (And of course there are those great entries in the Western canon that were lifted wholesale from Akira Kurosawa’s filmography.) Hell, let’s flash from the Western’s glory days to the last decade, where Kim Jee-woon and Takashi Miike have put their individual stamps on its tropes and motifs. For these reasons, there’s certainly an argument to made that the Western is truly “universal.”
But no matter where Western movies are made, no matter what subgenre classifications they are individually accorded, and no matter who makes them, the films always engage with symbols, eras and images that are quintessentially “American.” The Western is the domain of the cowboy, the solitary hero. It’s a place where law and chaos are ever in conflict with one another and where the difference between survival and death usually comes down to who is faster on the draw. It’s a testament to the rich, awesome power of the Western as a narrative mode that filmmakers from around the planet have found stories worth telling within its purview, but even the Italian maestros simply added their own unique (and significant) flourishes to a cinematic tradition that is American in its DNA.
Maybe it’s more accurate to say that they made the Western their own. Spaghetti Westerns are, after all, a cousin to American Westerns in terms of style, content, themes and morality. The Italian Westerns are literally gritty where American Westerns are polished and clean; they deal in ambiguity instead of black and white. The average Spaghetti Western hero looks like a total bastard next to the clean-cut heroes of American Westerns, who uphold all of the best and most commonly accepted standards of heroism as we know them. Who would you rather save the day for you? Will Kane, or the man with no name? There’s a divide separating the Westerns made by Europeans and those shot by Americans, but if you can sort these movies out by their varying approaches, you can’t keep them all from standing under one umbrella. (A better point of debate: Did the Spaghetti Western become a thing in 1958 or 1964?)
Like the wide and sprawling landscapes that are so much a part of the Western’s character as a genre, the Western itself is a big, open canvas for storytelling of all stripes. With that in mind, we here at Paste set about collecting Westerns from all over the map and across the ages to assemble our picks for the 100 best Western films of all time. —Andy Crump
100. The Quick and the Dead
Sam Raimi’s sincere neo-Western is notable for several reasons: Joss Whedon’s contributions to the script (along with, reportedly, John Sayles); the American film debut of Russell Crowe; the final screen appearance of Woody Strode (Spartacus, his close friend John Ford’s Westerns The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, 7 Women and Two Rode Together); a gender-bending narrative that sends Sharon Stone’s monotone gunfighter, “The Lady,” on a righteous quest into the town of Redemption (natch) to avenge her father’s death via quick-draw contest. Gene Hackman relishes his turn as the tyrannical mayor, not so subtly named Herod, responsible for said killing, as does a pre-Titanic Leonardo DiCaprio as cocked-brow smartass “The Kid.” Not the least of note here is Dante Spinotti’s characteristically vivid cinematography. —Amanda Schurr
99. Cheyenne Autumn
Director: John Ford
John Ford’s portrait of the 1,500-mile trek on the film’s namesake trail is a respectable if flawed attempt at cultural atonement. Richard Widmark stars as a cavalry captain charged with bringing in several hundred Cheyenne who, starving after the U.S. government doesn’t deliver promised supplies to their Oklahoma reservation, venture back to their ancestral Wyoming home. Sympathetic to the plight of the tribe, led by Chiefs Little Wolf (Ricardo Montalban) and Dull Knife (Gilbert Roland), Captain Archer decides to help them, nudged along by his feelings for a Quaker schoolmarm who’s been teaching the indigenous children. At two-and-a-half hours, the film considers both the Cheyenne people’s exodus and Archer and co.’s fundamental dilemma. It’s every bit the conciliatory epic Ford intended, if tediously so. Points for Academy Award-nominee William H. Clothier’s sweeping 70 mm cinematography and Ford’s casting of Navajo Indians (though the subbing of Navajo dialogue for Cheyenne resulted in crude jokes); points lost for casting Latin actors Montalban, Roland and Sal Mineo in the lead Native American roles (apparently, Warner Bros. insisted); a giant question mark for a completely unrelated though not unenjoyable 20-minute intermission sketch featuring Jimmy Stewart as Wyatt Earp. In any case, Cheyenne Autumn is a noble coda to Ford’s “official” Western cycle. —A.S.
98. True Grit
Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
With True Grit, Joel and Ethan Coen remake one of the better cowboy films of the 1960s, a film that influenced countless other films, including Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. They also take on the genre’s biggest star—John Wayne, who played the irascible marshal Rooster Cogburn in the original ’69 adaptation of Charles Portis’ straightforward and engaging novel. Casting, however, has never been a Coen weakness, and Jeff Bridges wholly reinvents the role for which Wayne received an Oscar. There is a simplicity about the performances here that jives well with the rich landscapes and the authentically recreated, urban settings of 19th-century Arkansas and Indian territory. That, and the genuine attire of the times, allows the Coens to create a world where the actors can play real characters, not caricatures of reality. It’s a talent that keeps begging the question, “What’s next?” —Tim Basham
97. The Hateful Eight
Director: Quentin Tarantino
“Looks can be deceiving,” says Michael Madsen to Kurt Russell upon first introduction in The Hateful Eight. No four words could be more appropriate to the moment, or to the movie, a sprawling film with an intimate core. More so than most marquee movies and tent poles claiming to be “epic,” it actually lives up to the word. There’s a pomp and grandiosity to the weight of the film—the cast is stupendous, the dialogue dazzles, disgusts and delights in equal measure, and the craftsmanship is peerless. Quentin Tarantino is chiefly interested in the exchanging of barbs and threats more than he is in action. Make no mistake, The Hateful Eight is insanely violent, but it’s fixated around violent talk and violent reverie before physical violence. Frontier justice does quench our thirst, but the themes of social justice that drive the film are more satiating by far. It all adds up to a towering work, as profound as it is profane. —Andy Crump
96. Dead Birds
Director: Alex Turner
Evil Dead meets the Civil War in director Alex Turner’s first feature, which deftly injects the Western with Lovecraftian horror. On the lam after a gold robbery, a group of Confederate army deserters retreats to an abandoned mansion in the midst of a forgotten plantation in order to regroup, tend to their wounded and plan their next move. As the night progresses, the renegades discover they are not alone. The ghosts of the plantation owner and his family haunt the manse. Even worse are the creatures prowling the cornfield, which the gentleman owner unleashed during his experiments on his slaves. Magic rituals intended to resurrect his wife instead opened the doorway to demonic creatures who took possession of the remaining slaves as well as his children. The house now acts as a lodestone, drawing corrupt individuals in as fuel for demonic transformation. Unwittingly opening themselves to psychic attack, the renegades are slowly consumed by their individual greed, which turns to mistrust and paranoia that one or several of the others in their gang are working together to abscond with all the gold. Turner’s horror-Western hybrid might offend the purists in both genres, but the film is a powerful example of the Weird Western. Thanks to the work of a strong ensemble cast, including Henry Thomas, Patrick Fugit, Michael Shannon and Isaiah Washington, as well as its stylish cinematography, Dead Birds is legitimately unsettling, drenched in equal parts dread, spooky atmosphere and rawhide leather. You can almost smell the sweat and fear. —Joe Pettit Jr.
95. The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean
Director: John Huston
Screenwriter John Milius (Apocalypse Now, Jeremiah Johnson) took inspiration for this oater from the real-life story of the self-appointed frontier judge. At the film’s start, the titular scalawag is robbed, beaten and left for dead until he is rescued by Pam of TV’s Dallas, er, Victoria Principal, only to return to the scene of his assault and institute his own brand of “law west of the Pecos.” He reads up on legal process (if only to disregard it), deputizes a gang of visiting thieves, who in turn dispense with various criminals who pass through their Texas border town, and renames the local saloon after his favorite performer, Lillie Langtry (played late in the film by, get this, Ava Gardner). It’s a bizarre, bittersweet tall tale and seriocomic vehicle for Newman, then at the apex of his career. Anthony Perkins, Ned Beatty, Stacy Keach, Richard Farnsworth and Roddy McDowall are among the ensemble of characters, and Tab Hunter shows up, as does an Andy Williams tune, because why not? Then there’s director John Huston stepping in front of his own camera to portray a mountain man by the name of Grizzly Adams, who gives Bean and his lady love a bear for a pet (sure). It’s little surprise that Huston himself called the film a “pure fantasy,” to Milius’ chagrin. But Newman’s charms cannot be overstated in the success of this episodic saga—along with those of the scene-stealing bear. —A.S.
94. Riders of Destiny
Director: Robert N. Bradbury
After the box office failure of Raoul Walsh’s major studio epic The Big Trail in 1929, a movie intended to make the young John Wayne a Western star, the budding actor dusted off his chaps and fled to smaller independent studios to hone his craft. For the next decade, until John Ford resurrected him in 1939 as a bona fide screen presence in the iconic Stagecoach, Wayne became a matinee idol in numerous entertaining though mostly forgettable B-movie oaters. Riders of Destiny, his first of many for Monogram Pictures, is notable for a number of reasons. Among them—it marked Wayne’s first performance as a singing cowboy, and the movie’s action sequences are brilliantly choreographed by the legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt, who also plays one of the villain’s henchmen in the picture. As with many of these so-called Poverty Row Westerns of the 1930s, Riders of Destiny is a brisk narrative and high on sensational plot twists. Villains are dastardly, in this case a corrupt savage capitalist played by Forrest Taylor, who intends to steal all of the water from surrounding ranchers, charging them an exorbitant fee for its use. And our hero is stalwart and true, here played by Wayne. What makes this singing cowboy more interesting than all of the yodelers who would appear on screen afterward is a simmering violence and darkness within him. None of it is laid on too thick; Wayne’s character is ultimately true blue and on the side of goodness. But neither Gene Autry nor Roy Rogers would ever sing about the “blood a-runnin’” just before showdown. A minor though significant entry in Wayne’s filmography. —Derek Hill
93. The Violent Men
Director: Rudolph Maté
Rudolph Maté’s The Violent Men breezes by, but it isn’t exactly a breeze. The film falls under the same umbrella as movies like Forty Guns and Johnny Guitar, where the cattle baron is replaced with a cattle queen. Those comparisons are intrinsically unfair, though, as Maté is neither Samuel Fuller nor Nicholas Ray; The Violent Men suffers in the shadow of its relatives in this particular genre niche. The good news is that the film is over the top enough to be worth checking out, particularly as it concerns Barbara Stanwyck, who plays the ruthless and calculating Martha Wilkinson with just the right amount of percolating menace, as well as Glenn Ford, playing a fairly prototypical Western hero type with burly brio. (If you get flashes of Double Indemnity at the presence of Edward G. Robinson, well, that’s just to be expected.) Maybe this film is done better elsewhere in the Western canon, but The Violent Men is certainly done well enough. —A.C.
92. The Unforgiven
Director: John Huston
For a genre steeped in racism and misogyny, among other unfortunate Western signatures, John Huston’s 1960 film was ahead of its time in its progressiveness, albeit ambivalently so. Burt Lancaster and Audrey Hepburn play siblings living in the Texas panhandle; their father was killed by the Kiowa tribe, leaving Lancaster’s Ben as the head of the household (which also includes brothers Audie Murphy and Doug McClure, along with Lillian Gish as the matriarch). When news come to light that Hepburn’s Rachel may not in fact be Ben and his brothers’ biological sister—and in the words of her suitor’s bigoted mother, a “dirty Indian” taken from the Kiowa—neighboring ranchers shun the family, and violence ensues. The film’s message of tolerance is half-assed at best (take Hepburn’s casting, for starters), but it was nonetheless an enlightened entry in a film canon whose anti-Native American sentiments are frustratingly pervasive. —A.S.
91. Four of the Apocalypse
Director: Lucio Fulci
There’s a pervasive melancholy to this Fulci Spaghetti Western that most may not anticipate from either its creator or its genre. Fulci is, after all, the guy who brought us such gory gems as The Beyond, City of the Living Dead, The Black Cat and Zombie Flesh Eaters, and the Western and all its subgenres tends to be a place of high values, higher gestures and little room for ennui. But Four of the Apocalypse is, in a word, sad, a real downer of a film about a card shark, a pregnant prostitute, a drunkard, and a disturbed man who claims to see dead people, each on the run from a pack of murderers. Maybe that sadness is just a reflection of the era: The 1970s saw the inevitable heat death of the Spaghetti Western realized, and Four of the Apocalypse’s mournful tone feels like a concession of sorts to the demise of its category. —A.C.
90. Pale Rider
The first mainstream Western to be produced after the colossal critical and financial bust of 1980’s Heaven’s Gate (see No. 50) wound up the most successful of its ilk for that decade. Director-star Clint Eastwood’s oater owes as much to Biblical scripture as to the 1953 classic Shane (No. 19), following another Man with No Name, the enigmatic “Preacher” who helps defend a mining camp from a greedy interloper during the California Gold Rush. Of the title’s referencing the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Eastwood’s character is a supernatural entity lifted directly from the Book of Revelation, Death itself riding in on four legs from the Sierra Nevada—Eastwood called his clerical collar-wearing vigilante “an out-and-out ghost.” Pale Rider paints its not-so-mysterious parable of divine retribution in moody tableaux—sometimes heavenly, others more akin to a hellish, light-starved descent—and with Eastwood’s inimitable economy of dialogue. He’s not on screen here as much as in entries like The Outlaw Josey Wales and Unforgiven, but his avenging loner is felt at all times. Just like the Johnny Cash spiritual “The Man Comes Around,” Eastwood’s preacher man is never not around these parts. —A.S.
89. The Hired Hand
Director: Peter Fonda
Just a couple years after working with his buddy Dennis Hopper on the landmark indie film Easy Rider, Peter Fonda decided to take a spin in the ol’ director’s chair himself with The Hired Hand. Unlike Hopper, though, Fonda didn’t meet with immediate runaway success; critics pooh-poohed its hippie-dippiness and its religious symbolism, and audiences didn’t care enough to go see it. For a time, The Hired Hand remained filed under “failure.” But time heals all wounds, and around the early 2000s, The Hired Hand enjoyed a new restoration and, upon reexamination, heaps of critical praise. So it goes. For what it’s worth, The Hired Hand is absolutely a better movie than its initial response allowed, a laid-back and poetic bit of existential musing about the unglamorous side of the cowboy way, brutal when it needs to be but mostly defined by its overarching sense of pining. —A.C.
88. The Missing
Healing the rift between an estranged father and daughter is not the first plot that comes to mind when thinking of the great Western film stories. Chances are it wouldn’t even make your list. In their adaptation of Thomas Eidson’s novel, The Last Ride, director Ron Howard and screenwriter Ken Kaufman end up crafting an underrated, classic film using just that particular hook. Maggie Gilkeson (Cate Blanchett), a small town healer in the New Mexico territory, refuses to reconcile with her father Samuel Jones (Tommy Lee Jones) when he unexpectedly shows up at her door. Years ago, Jones abandoned her mother to a life of hardship and early death so he could go native with the Chiricahua tribe. That grudge falls to the wayside when Maggie’s oldest daughter is captured by the brujo Pesh-Chidin (Eric Schweig), a dark shaman whose totem is the rattlesnake and who is quite proficient at casting evil spells from far away. He and his band of followers pillaged the countryside killing white settlers and abducting their daughters to sell them into slavery in Mexico. Ultimately Gilkeson must rely on her father’s tracking skills to find the brujo and get her daughter back safely. Howard caught a lot of flak for the violence and the scares—a New York Times review claimed the film lacked subtlety and labeled it akin to “Stephen King’s Little House on the Prairie.” Time has been kind to Howard’s revisionist Western though. It’s a work of complexity that takes no easy way out in navigating the clash of cultures between the Native Americans and the white settlers during the tail end of Western expansion. The good, the bad, the indifferent and the cowardly exist on both sides. There’s hardly a whiff of sentimentality or sanctimoniousness in Howard’s approach, just assured storytelling as Gilkeson learns to put aside prejudices and misconceptions, while traveling through a larger and more varied world than the one she comes from. After learning to accept help from those she loathes, her path ultimately leads to reconciliation with the past and the more pressing matter of the salvation of her eldest daughter. —J.P.
87. The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid
Director: Philip Kaufman
Depicting the disintegration of the James-Younger Gang after the failed bank robbery referred to in its title, iconoclastic director Philip Kaufman’s first commercial film deliberately deconstructs the Jesse James legend to bare the deftly concealed psychopath at its heart. James, Cole Younger and their brothers are granted clemency by the Missouri legislature, who views their Robin Hood-style lootings in the sympathetic light of southern peasantry having to adjust to post-Civil War challenges brought about by the triumph of northern industry. The bankers, however, do not share these sympathies and hire a squad of Pinkerton detectives to bring the gang to justice. Younger (an almost unrecognizable Cliff Robertson), the brains of the operation, wants them all to lay low, retire and enjoy the unexpected freedom that has been granted to them. Jesse James (Robert Duvall) wants to keep pillaging, latching onto an old Younger scheme to rob a bank in Northfield, Minn., rumored to be the largest in the West. Nothing goes to plan, and things fall apart in an almost comedic travesty of missteps, miscalculations and unexpected interference. Kaufman thoroughly researched his material and offers up his vision of how it really was, with some poetic license, of course. While The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid can be disappointing on first viewing, what lingers is Duvall’s interpretation of Jesse James. When he finally explodes into action, he’s a collection of nervous tics, cold-hearted malice and violent fury. It’s a chilling and, most likely, very realistic depiction of the outlaw who has long been upheld as a folk hero for the common man. —J.P.
86. Little Big Man
Director: Arthur Penn
Dustin Hoffman, then 33, aged from 17 to 121 in this ambitious screen yarn about Jack Crabb, an orphan raised by the Cheyenne nation who came of age through various adventures involving a snake-oil salesman, Wild Bill Hickok and, most fatefully, General Custer. Equal parts satire and tragedy, Arthur Penn’s revisionist Western was anti-establishment not only for its sympathies toward Native Americans (who also were beginning to star, a sea change from their typical onscreen portrayals by Caucasians) but its anti-Vietnam ideology (granted, a debated historical context). As our mythmaking raconteur, Hoffman is outstanding; you can’t imagine anyone else stepping into his bumbling, self-deprecating, physically diminutive but emotionally towering shoes. Penn’s narrative structure is as audacious as his fabled approach, and the supporting cast—including Faye Dunaway as a preacher’s wife-turned-prostitute, Richard Mulligan as the deranged Custer, and most notably, Academy Award-nominee Chief Dan George as Hoffman’s adopted grandfather Old Lodge Skins—is inspired. As filmic looks at a white man amid Indian culture and community go, Dances with Wolves had nothing on this sprawling, moving epic. —A.S.
85. Django Unchained
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Vocal fanboy Quentin Tarantino paid blatant homage to Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 masterpiece (see No. 13) in this solid revisionist saga. Christoph Waltz is marvelous as Dr. Schultz, an erudite, gentlemanly but deadly bounty hunter who enlists the film’s enslaved namesake (a never better Jamie Foxx) to help him track down a trio of outlaws. As usual, Tarantino’s casting is canny, from Don Johnson’s Colonel Sanders-esque plantation boss Big Daddy to Leonardo DiCaprio as the repellent owner of Django’s wife to Samuel L. Jackson as DiCaprio’s equally racist house servant—who has to be heard to be believed, if not at all understood. The relationship between the newly liberated Django and his now colleague Schultz is a pleasure to watch; the horrifying “Mandingo fight,” not so much. Django Unchained is sickening satire, bloody, uneasily hilarious and entertaining in that Tarantino fashion that squarely divides audiences. We argued between this and Tarantino’s more recent The Hateful Eight—which featured a fine Tim Roth doing, basically, his best Christoph Waltz—but Waltz’s singular performance put this one over the top. —A.S.
Director: Charles Marquis Warren
Hate and bigotry go both ways in this Technicolor Western, which pits Charlton Heston’s chief of scouts against Jack Palance’s allegedly civilized Apache warrior. The Army, as is its entirely realistic, pacifistic way, is trying to broker peace with the Apaches before shuffling them off to Florida reservations. Heston’s Bannon is having none of it, skeptical that an Eastern education has done anything to reform the Indian renegade Toriano (Palance), and that to foolishly think otherwise spells annihilation for the well-meaning cavalry. (Of course, the white man is right.) “Anything Toriano’s for, I’m against!” he declares reasonably at one point. Needless to say, the xenophobia is rampant. With its overt themes of ethnic and religious cleansing and deeply offensive racial stereotypes, Arrowhead is oft discussed as a McCarthy-era anti-Communist screed. Frankly, the not-so-sub-text is frighteningly apt today. Aside from its disturbing timeliness, the film benefits from bracing action and an ensemble of Western regulars (Katy Jurado as a, gulp, seductive “half-breed,” Robert J. Wilke, Milburn Stone, James Anderson), along with Brian Keith in his film debut. —A.S.
83. Rio Grande
Director: John Ford
The third and final installment in John Ford’s “cavalry” series (after Fort Apache and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon) may not have happened had the director not agreed to the film to get his dream project, The Quiet Man, made. Essentially a domestic drama set on the Texas frontier, Rio Grande has John Wayne reprising his role as Kirby Yorke who, 15 years after the Shenandoah Valley Campaign, has been promoted to Lieutenant Colonel on a river border outpost and is hurting for troops as he keeps the Apaches at bay. No sooner does Yorke learn of his teenaged son’s flunking out of West Point does the kid show up among his latest batch of recruits, followed closely by his estranged wife (Maureen O’Hara) to take the youth home. In the first of their five onscreen teamings, Wayne and O’Hara are a convincingly complex duo. The bravado horse-riding stunt work and battle scenes are breathtaking, and even the (over)abundance of folk songs by the Sons of Pioneers (who would later perform the theme for The Searchers) feels authentic. What’s more, somehow Monument Valley looks even more vivid in low-budget black and white. —A.S.
Director: Sergio Corbucci
A Zapata Western starring the incomparable Franco Nero. For many, Nero’s very name is synonymous with the Spaghetti Western, and while he made more iconic movies with Sergio Corbucci throughout his career—like, say, Django—Compañeros ain’t too shabby in the grand scheme of things. As is typical of the Zapata Western, the story revolves around bandits stealing arms and selling them to self-made rebel generals during the Mexican Revolution; unlike many Zapatas, though, Compañeros gets downright Biblical with a healthy dose of crucifixion. If you think Jack Palance is badass when he has both arms, try messing with him when he plays a dude with a prosthetic wooden arm. Palance and Nero up the film’s awesome quotient significantly, leaving ostensible lead Tomas Milian somewhat outmatched, which is arguably one of Compañeros’s biggest problems. As problems go, though, that’s not a bad problem to have, and the movie remains a blast regardless. —A.C.
81. Blazing Saddles
Director: Mel Brooks
Western purists might wrinkle their noses at this particular inclusion. Mel Brooks’ film, after all, isn’t a “real” Western, but rather a pastiche of Western tropes stitched together using his uniquely zany cinematic grammar. Above all else, Blazing Saddles skewers the many staple characteristics of the Western while mocking Hollywood’s racist mythologizing of the American West. But in many ways that just makes Blazing Saddles the ultimate Western film: It is so stocked with all of the “stuff” we expect from Westerns, plus a side of Brooks’ own madcap vision and human satire, that it ends up being a great comic Western and more. The film is so effective at being both a parody and an earnest story about a corrupt politician’s thwarted attempts at land-snatching from the good (if ignorant) people of Rock Ridge that we almost forget we’re watching pure, unabashed nonsense of a cleverly progressive bent. —A.C.
Director: Mateo Gil
If you ever wondered what really happened to Butch Cassidy after he and his erstwhile partner, Harry Alonzo Longabaugh, a.k.a the Sundance Kid, had their fateful final run-in with the Bolivian Army, you need only watch Mateo Gil’s excellent and underappreciated English language debut, Blackthorn, to find the answer: He grew old, got nostalgic, and struck out on a new adventure. Blackthorn is a gorgeously shot series of overlapping plot threads, in which the death of Etta Place, a quest to recover money stolen from powerful industrialists, and the interference of a retired Pinkerton agent either supersede or tie into one another. More importantly, though, is that it’s fabulously acted. Cinema best remembers Paul Newman as the man who immortalized Cassidy for the screen, and yet Sam Shepard’s quiet, stoic work here forges his own compelling legend. —A.C.
79. Gunfight at the O.K. Corral
Director: John Sturges
John Sturges’ initial foray into portraying the events behind the monolithic historic shootout is fairly epic in scope, spanning multiple settings (Fort Griffin, Texas, Dodge City, Kansas and ultimately ending in Tombstone, Ariz.), and showcasing a large cast including Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, DeForest Kelley, Rhonda Fleming, Jo Van Fleet, John Ireland, Lee Van Cleef, Jack Elam, Dennis Hopper and Martin Milner. At its heart though, the film is ultimately a straightforward story of brotherly love between Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, showing how the two men grow to respect one another by keeping each other in check and helping each other grow as men in the face of violent turmoil. While Sturges and screenwriter Leon Uris reportedly heavily researched the incidents, the film is still a fairly fanciful treatment of the events in Tombstone. Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is at times emotionally overwrought, teeming with cinematic open vistas and eye-poppingly lush color used for the interior sets; it’s not hard to see why Sturges later referred to the film as “a slick horse opera with the accent on opera.” In his interpretation of Doc Holliday, Kirk Douglas is quite compelling and yes, overheated, playing him as a volatile, manipulative, emotionally abusive, yet ultimately loyal rapscallion of a dandy. Frankly, he steals the show from top-billed Burt Lancaster’s dour, stoic portrayal of Wyatt Earp. —J.P.
78. The Claim
Director: Michael Winterbottom
How can a movie that’s coated in snowfall be considered a Western? Michael Winterbottom’s The Claim is divorced from traditional Western locations, situating itself in Californian mountain ranges circa the Gold Rush of 1849; it’s a film that prefers its climate chilly instead of sun-scorched, and that pervasive cold complements the film’s thematic undercurrent of remorse and shame. The Claim goes against the genre in other ways, too, favoring talk over action and showcasing courage not through force of arms but strength of perseverance, but what lets the film stand out most of all is its tendency to gut punch us right in our emotions. Winterbottom’s film adapts Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, transplanting it from rural England to a recognizably American historical stage. The shift in surroundings works, aided by Winterbottom’s careful, deliberate direction, Alwin H. Küchler’s sumptuous cinematography and an arresting performance by Peter Mullan. —A.C.
Director: Enzo G. Castellari
Keoma is one of the unloved children of the Spaghetti Western boom that began in the 1960s and ended in the 1970s; it’s so loopy and surreally experimental that it makes movies like Django look positively normal. Franco Nero, a frequent flier on this list, plays the title character, a part-Indian, part-white soldier returned home after spending the Civil War fighting on behalf of the Union, only to find the place has been taken over by a tyrant and his three corrupt half-brothers, who have abandoned their father. So naturally, Keoma makes it his mission to visit justice upon the quartet, enlisting the aid of dad and Woody Strode in his pursuit of rightness. Keoma is an often lugubrious affair that cleaves as closely to Greek tragedy as it does to Western cinema, a work peppered by occasional and possibly supernatural entities; these quirks are the characteristics that make the film tick and give it high value as an underrated and essential late-stage entry in the Spaghetti Western canon. —A.C.
76. Django Kill… If You Live, Shoot!
Director: Giulio Questi
This is one of the most surreal and violent Westerns ever made, rivaled only by Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo a few years later. After the success of the original Django in 1966, the European movie studios cranked out numerous “sequels” with mysterious gunfighters patterned off the original character. None of them are direct sequels. Starring the charismatic Tomas Milian in the title role, Django Kill… If You Live, Shoot! heightens the violence to wonderfully absurd degrees and adds a peculiar element of surrealism to the mix. On the surface, this is typical Euro Western fare: Milian is double-crossed by his gang and left for dead. But after he literally rises from his grave and seeks revenge on a town ruled by an eccentric villain and his leather-clad S&M cowboys, we have left the straightforward machismo of the Western and entered a lurid dreamscape of carnage and Catholic psychedelicized Christ obsession. It all plays like a hallucinatory horror Western … still nothing quite like it. —D.H.