Five Must-See Movie Westerns

Scott Wallace
30th Jan 2016

The Western is a genre that has seen a bit of resurgence in recent years, and now high budget, high profile movies like The Revenant and The Hateful Eight are sweeping the box office and dominating awards season. Here are five of the most essential Westerns of all time, demonstrating the versatility and depth of the under-appreciated genre.

My Darling Clementine (1946)

Director John Ford is most commonly associated with the tough guy persona of John Wayne in films like The Searchers and Stagecoach, but this 1946 re-telling of the heroic story of Wyatt Earp and the shootout at the OK Corral is among the most delicate and lyrical of all Westerns. Henry Fonda stars at Earp, who, along with his brothers, rides into the boomtown of Tombstone Arizona in 1882. When the youngest of the four Earp brothers, James, is murdered and their cattle stolen, Wyatt, Morgan and Virgil seek revenge. With a cast rounded out by Victor Mature as the hard-drinking Doc Holliday, Cathy Downs as the gentle and beautiful Clementine Carter and Linda Darnell as the smart and sensual Chihuahua, My Darling Clementine is a beautiful and tender Hollywood version of America’s history that is full of character and fascinating tension.

High Noon (1952)

Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly star in High Noon, one of the all-time great Westerns. Cooper plays Will Kane, the long-serving Marshall of Hadleyville, who, following his marriage to beautiful Quaker Amy Fowler (Kelly) is planning to retire from the dangerous profession and settle down. Unfortunately, a spectre from his past emerges in the form of Frank Miller (Ian McDonald), seeking revenge for a brush with the hangman thanks to Kane. High Noon is structured and paced almost in real time, as the sun climbs towards its apex at noon, so too does the tension mount in Hadleyville and Miller's promised revenge on Kane draws near. With stunning black-and-white cinematography, the audience acutely feels the rising panic as Kane faces the prospect of his harmonious new life slipping out of his grip.

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

Best known to most audiences for his “Man with No Name Trilogy” starring Clint Eastwood (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad & the Ugly), Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone pioneered the “Spaghetti Western,” turning the established tropes of the genre on its head. Leone’s masterpiece is arguably Once Upon a Time in the West, a dark and sprawling tale of revenge. Italian starlet Claudia Cardinale plays Jill McBain, arriving at the property near the fictional town of Flagstone that she now owns following the murder of her husband and children. Jill soon finds herself in the middle of a ferocious land war involving a conniving railway tycoon and a cold-blooded hired gun named Frank. With an iconic soundtrack by Ennio Morricone and a cast that includes Henry Fonda and Charles Bronson, Once Upon a Time in the West is a film for the ages.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)

Robert Altman is one of the true geniuses of American film, who always followed his muse wherever it took him. Any Western from him is not going to be a gun-slinging, horse riding affair, and in fact Altman referred to McCabe & Mrs. Miller as an “anti-Western.” Warren Beatty stars as the gambler John McCabe, who arrives at the town of Presbyterian Church in the American north-west. Sly and cunning, McCabe quickly establishes a name for himself, and comes to dominate the town, eventually establishing a successful brothel. Before long, he partners up with Mrs. Constance Miller (Julie Christie), an entrepreneurial prostitute with a savvy mind for business. Shot and structured with a kind of observational distance, with Altman’s signature overlapping dialogue, the film brings out the moral complexity of the lawless Old West, contrasting the impotence of words with the forcefulness of violence.

Meek’s Cutoff (2010)

The films of Kelly Reichardt tend to focus on small people in trying situations. Following up the remarkable Wendy & Lucy, a simple but heart-wrenching tale of a young woman and her dog, Reichardt turned her eye to the Oregon Trail in 1845 for Meek’s Cutoff and reunited with the remarkably versatile Michelle Williams, one of her favourite actors. Like earlier Westerns, Meek’s Cutoff deals with real historical events, but Reichardt’s film evokes a quiet, stoic, far more naturalistic vision of the American West. A group of travellers led by the charismatic Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) begin to suspect that their guide may not actually know where he is leading them. The group becomes desperate and scared as their supplies run low. Meek’s Cutoff explores dynamics of power, gender and race as ordinary people are pushed to their limits to survive. Reichardt draws finely tempered performances from her cast that serve to enhance the terrible power of the American wilderness.