Six-shooters and ten-gallon hats, homesteads and horses, frontier towns and Monument Valley – these are the icons of the western, though they do not quite describe its essence. The western is the American mythology, the drama of the frontier: man against nature, yes, but also man against man, trying to master himself through sheer force of will outside the stable confines of society. At its core, the genre concerns two narratives, which are at odds with each other yet continually feeding in and out of one another: either nature must be tamed by society, or society is a tyranny over nature. The western, then, is a backdrop against which the opposing political philosophies of the last several centuries are always playing out their conflict.
Like most genres, the western is a formula, but this need not mean westerns are staid or boring. What makes the best westerns interesting is the subtle ways in which they adjust the formula. This is not a “best of” list; for that, you’d be better off looking at FilmFisher’s lately published Undefended entries. My aim with these ten films is, firstly, to capture the essence of the western, and secondly, to show how that essence crosses over into other genres.
#1 – My Darling Clementine
1946, dir. John Ford
Less than a decade after he played Honest Abe in Young Mr. Lincoln, Henry Fonda collaborated with John Ford for another biographical portrait of a lonely man compelled inexorably toward his destiny as an American legend. Fonda plays Wyatt Earp as a man who wants to be left alone but is slowly drawn into the life of the town of Tombstone; Ford frames him on the porch of the town hotel, visually poised between civilization and wilderness, just as he is emotionally poised between the demands of honor and his sublimated yearning for his darling Clementine.
HONORABLE MENTION: A nearly perfect film, Stagecoach (1939, dir. John Ford) elevated the western into a genre that could be taken seriously with a Casablanca-esque cross-section of society and an iconic chase sequence that prefigures Raiders of the Lost Ark.
#2 – The Searchers
1956, dir. John Ford
After his iconic introduction in Stagecoach, John Wayne played many cowboys for John Ford, but the director and actor never created a character as hardened, challenging, and compelling as The Searchers’ Ethan Edwards, a perpetual outsider and bitter racist on an epic quest to reclaim (or revenge) a niece abducted by Comanches. Most of Ford’s great westerns are shaded in with undercurrents of ambivalence, but none are as tortured as this film, a darkly heroic saga powered by compromised motives and irreparable isolation.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: Taxi Driver (1976, dir. Martin Scorsese) and Paris, Texas (1984, dir. Wim Wenders) transplant the lonely obsession of The Searchers into the modern world with hauntingly tragic results.
#3 – Once Upon a Time in the West
1968, dir. Sergio Leone
Sergio Leone’s magnum opus is a work of awe-inspiring, operatic pathos, depicting an era on the verge of extinction as the railroad brings civilization to the Wild West. While spaghetti westerns tend toward a cynical, amoral view of the world, Once Upon a Time in the West ultimately lives up to its fairy tale title, as lawless rogues and vagabonds devote themselves to building a brighter future even though they know it has no place for them. The film is a marvel of perfect casting, from Charles Bronson’s simian inscrutability to Henry Fonda’s folksy twang (suddenly turned terrifyingly sinister in one of his only villainous roles), and I don’t know that any movie has ever had a soundtrack more breathtakingly sad and beautiful than Ennio Morricone’s work here.
HONORABLE MENTION: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1967, dir. Sergio Leone) matches Once Upon a Time in the West in terms of craft and epic scale, though not in terms of emotional weight.
#4 – McCabe & Mrs. Miller
1971, dir. Robert Altman
One of the least glamorous westerns ever made, McCabe & Mrs. Miller plays like one of the mournfully enigmatic Leonard Cohen ballads on its anachronistic soundtrack, a story of futile striving and achingly unfulfilled longing. Beneath its vividly naturalistic picture of frontier life, set against the stunning beauty of the American Northwest, the film’s sadness runs deep, buried under an avalanche of doomed schemes to get rich enough to be happy. You can buy a house, but you can’t buy a home; you can buy the company of a woman, but you can’t buy love.
HONORABLE MENTION: Deadwood (2004-2019, created by David Milch) is a similarly vivid rendering of a living, breathing frontier town, shot through with unexpected moments of rough-hewn beauty (and written in something like Shakespearean iambic pentameter).
#5 – RoboCop
1987, dir. Paul Verhoeven
In RoboCop, a gun-twirling sheriff faces a covert alliance between the outlaws plaguing his town and the corrupt businessmen running it – a dynamic lifted from Once Upon a Time in the West and later revisited in The Lone Ranger. Verhoeven relocates this classic western premise into futuristic urban cityscapes, but retains the genre’s ambivalent relationship with the notion of progress. RoboCop (Peter Weller) may be a technologically perfect law enforcement machine, but the real drama of the film turns on whether or not he can ever regain his lost humanity.
HONORABLE MENTION: Though it is equally indebted to classic war movies and samurai films, Star Wars (1977, dir. George Lucas) is the most successful, influential meeting ground between the science fiction and western genres, and Lucas’ later Attack of the Clones (2002) includes yet another modern retelling of The Searchers.
#6 – Porco Rosso
1992, dir. Hayao Miyazaki
Despite its Italian setting, Porco Rosso is not a spaghetti western but an Old Hollywood western through and through, mixing the influences of John Ford and Howard Hawks into a boiling pot with fairy tales and classic cartoons. He may have an airplane instead of a horse, but the hero of Porco Rosso is a cowboy in every other respect, a gruff loner with an outmoded code of honor and a hidden heart of gold, living in a lawless world that is on the verge of passing away forever. The epilogue is a thing of bittersweet beauty.
HONORABLE MENTION: “Zuko Alone,” episode 2.7 of Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005-2008, created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko), pulls off a better adaptation of the classic western Shane in 20 minutes than Logan could manage in 137.
#7 – The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
2007, dir. Andrew Dominik
An elegiac ballad of a film, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is the legend of the west at its grandest and most melancholy, as impressive as the myth of Jesse James and as tortured as the man behind the myth. Nick Cave’s haunting score, Roger Deakins’ images, and the ornately pitiless narration (much of it courtesy of Ron Hansen’s novel, on which the film is based) combine to give the film larger-than-life dimensions, but its human tragedy is anchored in Brad Pitt’s Jesse and Casey Affleck’s Bob Ford, two of the most despondent performances put to film in recent memory.
HONORABLE MENTION: Only a few years later, Deakins brought a similarly evocative visual palette to True Grit (2010, dir. Joel and Ethan Coen), which leavens Jesse James’ despair with rousing glimpses of hope. Like Hansen, the Coens are wordsmiths; the film’s verbal skirmishes may be even more thrilling than its gunfights.
#8 – The Lone Ranger
2013, dir. Gore Verbinski
Misunderstood and unfairly maligned upon its Fourth of July release in 2013, The Lone Ranger – Gore Verbinski’s third and richest attempt to remake Once Upon a Time in the West – is both a love letter to westerns and a sprawling, meta-fictional investigation of their history. In the clash of ideals between the Lone Ranger (Armie Hammer) and Tonto (Johnny Depp), not to mention the tug of war between the film’s dueling narrators, Locke goes head to head with Rousseau, John Ford with Sergio Leone, Jimmy Stewart with Clint Eastwood. The Buster Keaton-inspired climax, set to the William Tell Overture, is the best action sequence to come out of Hollywood in the last decade.
HONORABLE MENTION: Verbinski warmed up for The Lone Ranger with Rango (2011), the greatest animated western ever made – a wacky, subversive, lovingly crafted tribute to the genre (and to cinema in general).
#9 – Fargo, Year 2
2015, created by Noah Hawley
“It was real High Noon, my day,” sighs State Trooper Lou Solverson (Patrick Wilson) upon returning home from a series of showdowns with an old-fashioned Minnesota crime family and the ultra-modern Kansas City mob. The second season of Fargo, inspired by the Coen film of the same name (and others from their catalog), sets an array of western types – upright lawmen, small town doofuses, Native American killing machines, drunken attorneys, corrupt businessmen looking to expand their operation into new territory – against the backdrop of a nation reeling from the Vietnam War, a society teetering on the brink of a return to the state of nature. All that prevents such a collapse, in the Fargo cosmos as well as our own, is humble, ordinary decency.
HONORABLE MENTION: One of the series’ major influences is No Country For Old Men (2007, dir. Joel and Ethan Coen), which taps into the same vein of post-Vietnam malaise with its Solomonic evocation of Texas as a barren wasteland groaning for deliverance from vanity.
#10 – Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
2019, dir. Quentin Tarantino
Quentin Tarantino has always loved to pay homage to Sergio Leone, and most of his films have some amount of western DNA in them. My favorite is Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, about the camaraderie between a man who plays a cowboy on TV and a man who acts like a cowboy in real life. The film’s wistful nostalgia and deep, abiding love for the romanticized past extend to its washed-up characters: as Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) live out the final days of the Golden Age of Hollywood, they are also living out the tropes of the Wild West, a place that may never have existed except in the popular imagination of the American people.
HONORABLE MENTION: Released the same summer as Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, Toy Story 4 (2019, dir. Josh Cooley) also centers on a pretend cowboy who fears the world has left him behind. The Toy Story films have always had a sheriff for a hero, but none draw so deeply from the western genre as this one, which is as preoccupied with duty as High Noon and as tenderly romantic as My Darling Clementine.