Our staff, trustees, advisors, and volunteers ranked a list of more than 85 western films from 1930 onward. Here’s our best 20 of the bunch.
How did you rank these films?
Each film was ranked on a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being the best. The film with the highest average score was declared the winner.
Does this list factor in historical accuracy?
Not really. This list is about the most enjoyable Western films, fact or fiction. Some of the best cowboy stories blur the lines between myth and reality!
Where can I watch these films?
We’ve provided info on where you can stream (free or with a subscription) or rent these films. Each section has links to movie trailers — just click on the orange movie title. It’s a great time to sit down and watch a Western classic!
Is it a “film” in a traditional sense? Maybe not. This miniseries is split into four episodes for a total watch time of 6.5 hours. They call it “an epic as big as the West” for a reason.
Don’t be daunted by the watch time alone — this is one of the best Western stories ever told. “Lonesome Dove” falls into weekend binge-watching territory and it’s worth the time investment. Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones make for easy viewing.
“Great storyline. Accurate firearms, saddles and tack. Really shows the hardships of the early Cowboy lifestyle.” – Mike L, Security & CFM
To say this is one of Humphrey Bogart’s best performances might seem like an overstatement. But it’s this role that best captured his range of acting talent. Never has there been a character so charming, so paranoid, so greedy — so undone by his own audacity. “The Treasure of The Sierra Madre” is somehow both an easy adventure watch and a bleak cautionary tale. It’s a must-see on anyone’s Western film or classic film list.
This isn’t your classic Leone-Eastwood Spaghetti Western. A quirky, fast-paced style is swapped for something slower and more somber. The results are spectacular. When other filmmakers try to parody Western films, they often mimic this film. Turns out mimicry is a form of flattery. Watch “Once Upon a Time in The West” if you’re looking for tension, action, and some grade-A cowboy bad boys.
“You watch the massacre scene — pure ruthlessness from a bad-as-they-come hired gun. You can’t see his face. Then the camera pans around and it’s Henry Fonda! You know, the only guy on earth who is sweeter than Mister Rogers. The ultimate subversion of expectations. Fonda gives me sweet grandpa vibes and this film knows everyone feels that way — so it flips that notion right on its head.”
– Levi M., PR & Marketing
Director John Ford pulls every punch in this late ’40s classic. It’s this film that set the stage for more nuanced Ford epics in the years to come. John Wayne’s star rises even higher as a Cavalry veteran with one last job to do.
While it might not rank as highly as some of the other Ford flicks on this list, it’s a worthwhile watch. Watch it on its own or throw it in a Ford/Wayne movie marathon.
One year after the release of “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” came “Winchester ’73.” Jimmy Stewart shines as a a cowboy hunting down a murderous fugitive. However, he’s not the main character. This is, above all, a story about a rifle that causes jealously and malice amongst men.
Look out for some famous western characters in this one. Clocking in at 92 minutes, it’s an excellent weeknight watch.
Ahh, the movie that made John Wayne a star and John Ford a visionary. This is the oldest and perhaps most distinguished entry on this list and for good reason — it cemented the Western as a serious film genre and showed us what the West feels like in its vast, gritty glory. The oddball cast of characters in this story make it all the more interesting and relatable.
You can say you love John Wayne. But if you haven’t seen “Stagecoach” you haven’t seen the birth of The Duke.
“This film is a classic character play with a group of people building a strong community no matter their backgrounds. – Kim Z., Accounting
“Dances with Wolves” is one of a few Best Picture winners to crack our top-20 list. It’s the antithesis of many pretentious Westerns that came before it, offering a gentle sense of humor and realistic lens in which to view the West. Kevin Costner gives the performance of his life in this four-hour epic.
Save this one for a rainy Saturday to fully immerse yourself in this modern Western classic.
If you asked the author of this article his opinions on this film, he would say it’s the most criminally underrated film on this list. He’s a millennial and a ’90s kid and there’s something about this film he finds comforting and nostalgic. Does his mother — like many mothers around the world — have a teeny-tiny crush on Tom Selleck? Can you blame her?
Moms aside, there’s plenty to love about this oft-overlooked Western. A unique setting, a clear-cut battle between good guys and black-hat villains, an emerging Alan Rickman, and a Wyoming cowboy who goes to great lengths to do what is right in a world of wrong.
For a Western that paves its own path, this is your choice. Easy weeknight or weekend watching.
“The Magnificent Seven” has been parodied, copied, referenced, and completely remade over the past 60 years. Nothing comes close to the original. This is the classic buddy Western — a tale of seven men from completely different circumstances who come together for the same goal.
However, it’s worth noting that this film is a remake itself. It pulls from “Seven Samurai” by Akira Kurosawa — a masterpiece of film and a Western (thematically speaking) in its own right.
“The Magnificent Seven” does justice to its source material and employs an unprecedented number of A-listers such as Steve McQueen, Yul Brynner, Eli Wallach, Charles Bronson, and Robert Vaughn among others. That could easily weigh a film down as stars fight for the spotlight — but it doesn’t happen here. The chemistry amongst the cast is what lands the film so high on this list.
“I love the bond and trust the group in The Magnificent Seven creates in a short amount of time for a town they don’t even know. They just want to protect it and along the way find out who they truly are.” Nicole T, Whitney Western Art Museum
The Western comedy never carried much weight with film critics or the masses until “McLintock!.” Decades of historical dramas and rootin’ tootin’ cowboy action films filled seats and excited critics. But with every movement comes a counter-movement, which is how “McLintock!” came to be. It made big money at the cinema and filled a void in the industry.
Behind the scenes, “McLintock!” signaled an era where John Wayne became as powerful (or more powerful) than the film industry itself. He was given more room to inject his views into his films, be it political or otherwise. It also gave The Duke a bit more agency to show off his comedic side — something many Ford/Wayne films only gave us a glimpse of. Wayne’s charm and wit had always been unmatched and “McLintock!” took it to the comedic extreme.
It’s not everyone’s cup of tea — much like another well-known comedy coming up on this list — but it certainly plowed a new road in the Western movie landscape.
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How many times will we see John Wayne and John Ford on this list? With “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” we’re finally getting to the good stuff. This film is often viewed as one of the best Westerns (and films) of the 1960s.
Pairing John Wayne with Jimmy Stewart and making the conscious decision to shoot in black and white in the infancy of technicolor earned this film a big box office haul and international acclaim. While some critics felt the final act left them wanting, “Liberty Valance” cemented John Ford as one of the directors of all time. It’s a must-watch (or re-watch) for anyone interested in Westerns.
“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” includes the line, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”. To me, that sums up the entire Western genre.” – William W., Trustee
There has never been a Western where time means so much — where every minute that goes by cranks up the tension. That’s the magic and suspense of “High Noon.” Starring Gary Cooper and including performances by Lloyd Bridges and Grace Kelly, this film asks a simple question: what happens when four very bad men is coming for revenge at noon?
Strong characters and a simple premise make this film a highly engaging watch. It’s hard to look away from the screen the closer you get to noon. “High Noon” might be short at 1 hour, 25 minutes but that’s an eternity to go without blinking.
“High Noon is a favorite because it is an exciting character-study based western. It manages to be quiet and calm while also being tense and engaging.” – Greta R., Registration
To say that this film is based loosely on fact would be an understatement. It’s thrilling all the same. With 1899 Wyoming as a beautiful backdrop and the perfect one-two punch of Paul Newman and Robert Redford as the titular characters, “Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid” has all the fixings of a great Western.
With a budget of only $6 million, “Butch Cassidy” grossed more than $100 million worldwide. It’s a film that’s best watched on the biggest screen possible. Pop some popcorn, pour yourself a Diet Coke, and settle in for a blockbuster Western experience at home.
“The actors were magnificent. The music and sets were memorable.” – Cynthia H., Advisor
On our 1 to 10 rating scale, “Blazing Saddles” received 10s and 1s. Surprised? This film is known as a comedy classic in some circles and a complete misfire in others. Regardless, it changed how people think about western tropes and stereotypes.
John Wayne almost made an appearance in the film, either as a cameo or the Waco Kid. He read the script and declined. Oh, what could’ve been.
After nearly three decades of Western films that took themselves seriously, “Blazing Saddles” took the wagon in the opposite direction and created a controversial and memorable commentary on cowboys and the West.
“Blazing Saddles throws the western on its haunches to call out every stereotype, every bias, and every fallacy that comes with the genre. A welcome comedy to a long run of brooding and often predictable western movies.” Rebecca W., Collier-Read Director of Curatorial, Education, and Museum Services
For any other film, landing at #6 on a “best of all time” list would be an honor. But for “The Searchers,” it seems like an unfair spot for what is often considered the greatest Western of all time.
This is, after all, the best Western film from the best Western director (John Ford) starring the best Western actor (John Wayne) filmed by the best Western cinematographer (Winton C. Hoch). It captured the West so perfectly — its ruggedness, beauty, vastness, and unforgiving nature. It’s a Western that transcended the genre completely and entered the canon of masterpiece filmmaking. If you haven’t seen it, watch it.
“The Searchers is quite possibly the best Western film ever. It is in my opinion John Ford’s finest film and was produced by CV Whitney, who funded the Whitney Gallery of Western Art.” – Mack F., Rights & Reproductions
“The Magnificent Seven” isn’t the only film to borrow from legendary director Akira Kurosawa. Sergio Leone had to fork over 15 percent of his earnings on “A Fistful of Dollars” (1964) for carbon-copying the plot from Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo.” Kurosawa wrote a letter to Leone saying “This is a very fine film. But it is my film.”
Leone released two films in the next two years: “For a Few Dollars More” (1965) and “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” (1966). While all three films featured a young Clint Eastwood and paved a path for more stylish, violent, and culturally diverse Westerns, it was the third film of the trilogy that seems to stick with audiences the most.
Is it the clever name of the film that keeps it at top of mind? Is it because of Eastwood’s excellent performance? Is it because Leone refined his craft by the third film? Whatever the reason, “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” is very, very good.
“CLASSIC. Amazing soundtrack, characters, and story. Not 100% historically accurate, but this is a great feel-good western you need to see. “ -Brandon L., Raptor Experience
AUTHOR’S NOTE: I spent my entire childhood growing up in Wyoming. My mom showed me every Western film there was to see over the years — I enjoyed about 10 percent of them. In my teenage years, I would’ve rather watched Transformers. Then my mom showed me “Unforgiven” — a darker, more nuanced take on cowboys, Wyoming, and the West.
That’s when things changed for me. I have since watched 66 of the 85 films that were up for consideration. I have seen all 20 films that make up this top 20 list. I can say, without any doubt, that this is my favorite film on the list.
This is prime Clint Eastwood playing a past-his-prime cowboy. It’s a story about the blurred line between justice and revenge. It’s a story about friendship. It’s a story about how some people change for the better and some people don’t — no matter how much they want to.
There’s a reason that Eastwood picked up Best Picture and Best Director for this film. It has an emotional impact second to none in cinema history.
“’Unforgiven’ is Clint Eastwoods’s modern take on the Western. Clint Eastwood is always good to watch and his films, like ‘Unforgiven’, provoke deeper thought.” – Rebecca W., Trustee
Millennials might prefer Jeff Bridges over John Wayne and the electrifying Hailee Steinfeld over Kim Darby. But this voting consisted of staff members who are primarily 40 and older — it’s no surprise that the original (deservingly) wins out here.
There’s a case that the Coen Brothers classic of 2010 is an objectively better film. It’s more polished and it turns in some generational acting performances. But none of it would’ve been possible without the original film’s charm, acting prowess, and — dare I say — grit.
Whether you’re a fan of the old or new version, this is one of the best stories ever told in the Western genre. John Wayne has never been more charismatic.
“True Grit reminds me of sitting at the drive-in theatre with my dad watching John Wayne. Don’t get better memories than that.” – Rich H., Maintenance and Chuckwagon Cook Extraordinaire
We Wyoming folks might be partial to “Shane” with its roots in Wyoming history and its unmistakable Wyoming setting. But that’s not what makes this one of the best films — not just Westerns — of all time.
It’s stunning. Exciting. Thoughtful. Heartbreaking. There are a number of Westerns that drive folks to tears, but you’ll need a an entire box of tissues for this one.
“Shane is a classic coming-of-age tale, with the conflicted title character played superbly by Alan Ladd and the screen debut of Brandon De Wilde (who later appeared in Hud).The cinematography by Lloyd Griggs is stunning.” – Bob M., Advisor
Is it the best film on this list? Perhaps not. However, there isn’t a film on this list (or any list) that offers more in terms of fun, excitement, and adventure. “Tombstone” takes the best things about Westerns over the decades and stuffs them into one movie: the mythic characters and vast landscapes of the ’50s, the Leone-esque Spaghetti melodrama of the ’60s, and the moral ambiguity and realism of the ’70s. Much like Wyatt Earp himself, “Tombstone” is a tough talker with a soft heart. It’s thoroughly deserving of the top spot on this list.
“If I’m going to tell a person to watch a single Western, because it is all they can stomach, care about, muster, last day on earth, there is a good chance it would be Tombstone. It’s your huckleberry.” – Danny M., Cody Firearms Museum