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This is another category that isn't necessarily my strongest, mostly because there are still a whole host of westerns I have yet to see (including many of the "singing cowboy" and other early westerns).  There are several "horse dramas" which I have seen and consider classics though, and I do know the genre well enough to notice some chronological phases in its evolution. Because I prefer some kinds of westerns over others, I have separated the films here into categories which may help you decide which ones you prefer as well. And feel free to recommend a few of your favorites to me.

Traditional Westerns | Transition Westerns | Modern Westerns | Comedies

Traditional Westerns:

My definition of a Traditional Western is just what the title implies -- what you usually think of when you think of a western.  That is to say, Good versus Bad -- The Law versus The Lawless -- in the Old West.  In the good ones, the characters are somewhat complex (usually bringing some kind of personal history into the situation), but the plots aren't necessarily difficult to sort out, and there's little confusion as to who is Good and who is Bad.  In the end, Good and Bad shoot it out, and if there's a girl, Good usually gets her.  Just because the endings are easy to predict however, doesn't mean that getting there can't be entertaining and even thought-provoking.  Below are a few that do a better job than most.


One of the Great American Westerns, shot by John Ford among majestic Monument Valley settings, and making western icons out of such players as John Wayne, Claire Trevor, Andy Devine and John Carradine, STAGECOACH combines intriguing characters with definitive action sequences which still impress today.  Nominated for seven Academy Awards including Best Picture, STAGECOACH is a must-see for any western enthusiast.


Another John Ford western, this one telling the story of Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, the Clantons, and the inevitable shoot-out at the O.K. Corral.  Again, a film with characters and action, but this time hampered a bit by performances from Victor Mature and Linda Darnell which don't sit well opposite veteran western players Henry Fonda and Walter Brennan.  Still, another classic and worth a look.


Another movie version of a classic western legend, this time directed by William WylerWalter Brennan plays the infamous Judge Roy Bean who is prepared to hang Gary Cooper on a false charge of stealing horses when Cooper spins a tall tale about being on intimate terms with Lily Langtry, the Judge's favorite pin-up.  The tale buys Cooper time to get involved in a land dispute between ranchers and homesteaders, but Wyler's sense of humor keeps things from getting too dramatic or serious, and in many ways the film seems a parody of itself -- unique for its time.


John Ford yet again, this time with the second of his U.S. Cavalry trio.  John Wayne is a veteran officer about to retire who refuses to walk out on an impending war with the Indians.  There are several impressive action sequences in this movie, filmed with Oscar-winning Technicolor cinematography by Winton Hoch.  But the real highlight of the film is the chemistry among Ford's "stock company" -- the group of actors including John Wayne, Victor McLaglen, Harry Carey, Jr., Mildred Natwick and Ben Johnson -- who consistently appeared in Ford's films.  The life and personality which the supporting players in this film bring to their characters make them almost as entertaining as the central plot, and the romantic sparring between Joanne Dru and John Agar holds up as well.  An all-around goodie.


The first western ever to win a Best Picture Oscar, CIMARRON is the sweeping saga of a man and his wife (Richard Dix and Irene Dunne) trekking out into the West to make a life together, and the story follows them over forty years as they eventually go their separate ways.  It's a little dated and melodramatic today (not to mention racist at times), but the epic Oklahoma Land Run sequence almost makes the whole picture worth it.


The third of Ford's Cavalry trilogy, RIO GRANDE was the first film to team John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara whose fiery onscreen chemistry make this story of an estranged father and his new recruit son (Claude Jarman, Jr.) work better than many of the other conflicts of emotions in Ford's earlier films.  Again, the Ford stock company delights with injections of humor which keep the story moving.  And although not as dramatic as some of his earlier films, Ford's action sequences in RIO GRANDE don't disappoint either.  Be prepared for a little more music than you may be used to however (courtesy the Sons of the Pioneers).

WINCHESTER '73 (1950)

Still a Traditional Western but hinting at many of the Transitional elements that were to define the genre in the coming years, Anthony Mann's WINCHESTER '73 is one of the first "revenge" westerns, featuring a central Good character driven to the verge of Bad by intense personal emotion.  What makes this aspect of WINCHESTER '73 so dramatic however, is the fact that the Good is played by Jimmy Stewart, making the ferocious intensity of his quest to find the man behind his stolen gun all the more fascinating.


Another Traditional "hate, murder and revenge" western with Transitional elements, Fritz Lang's RANCHO NOTORIOUS features Arthur Kennedy on a quest to find the man who raped and murdered his fiancée.  For the most part, Good and Bad are clearly defined, except when it comes to Marlene Dietrich, the woman who runs Chuck-a-Luck, the bandits' hideout, where Kennedy attempts to infiltrate the band of outlaws and learn their secrets.  Saddled with some disappointing sound stage photography and a laughable theme song, the film nevertheless features some very intense and surprisingly violent sequences.  It also raises the issue of myth and legend in the Old West -- probably its strongest attribute.


The story of two brothers on opposite sides of the law, NIGHT PASSAGE features Jimmy Stewart as a wandering accordion player hired by the railroad to protect a payroll, and Audie Murphy as Stewart's outlaw younger brother, 'The Utica Kid,' who makes his living robbing payrolls trains.  The ultimate conflict is inevitable, but supporting performances by Dan Duryea and Jack Elam, as well as Dmitri Tiomkin's score, some great Colorado location shots, and an impressive final shoot-out, make NIGHT PASSAGE a better-than- average 90 minutes of entertainment.


  • TRUE GRIT (1969)

Transition Westerns:

Starting in the late 1940s and continuing through the 1950s, the western developed a certain awareness of itself as a genre which began to affect the way new westerns were made.  First, instead of being easily recognizable as Good or Bad, characters became more individual and complex, introducing an element of "People are not as they seem."  Often the Good didn't start out Good; something had to happen to them first.  And at other times, the real Bad guys turned out to be characters who seemed to have been Good at the beginning.  Still other times, the Good and Bad are found to co-exist in the same character, and it's up to him to fight it out with himself.  

Similarly, the hero of these Transition westerns is also different from those of Traditional westerns.  He is seen to have faults and weaknesses; he isn't always right or even the fastest draw; he frequently embodies a different kind of manliness and bravery, or at least develops a new understanding of such attributes in others.

Lastly, these Transition westerns are very aware of myth and legend, and frequently their characters find themselves struggling to live up to their reputations.  Violence is a last resort, and shoot-outs begin to assume a mood of necessity and regret instead of heroic excitement.  

Requiring more from my westerns than just good action, I tend to prefer films that fall into this Transition category -- what might also be called the more "mature" westerns.  And it's not mere coincidence that women in these movies begin to play characters that have more to do than be fought over or defended.  Nor is it coincidence that the production values surrounding these Transitional western stories begin to assume a more artistic approach to framing the film.


The first of John Ford's Cavalry trilogy, FORT APACHE appears at first glance to be a Traditional western -- the U.S. Cavalry versus Cochise and the Apaches in the post-Civil War West.  But as the film builds, other tensions -- between the veteran Captain (John Wayne) and the new Colonel (Henry Fonda) who arrives to take charge of the fort; among the Colonel, his daughter (Shirley Temple) and her romantic leading man (John Agar) of whom the Colonel does not approve; between a Captain who is on the verge of retirement and his worried wife -- take the fore.  In the end, the shoot-out takes place with the Indians, but this aggression is seen to be misplaced.  Unusually complex plot, characters and themes make FORT APACHE a Transition western with a very Traditional feel.

PURSUED (1947)

One of the first (if not the first) film-noir westerns, Raoul Walsh's PURSUED is the story of a feud between families in the Old West and a man (Robert Mitchum) who finds himself caught in the middle, not even knowing why he's involved. Mitchum is out to discover the truth about his past, and there's some well-acted, tense romance between him and Teresa Wright, as well as good supporting performances from Dean Jagger and Judith Anderson.  A better romance than most westerns, PURSUED is also in many ways a very psychological, claustrophobic and stylized film (hence the "noir" attribute) with a theme of vengeance which makes it further worthy of the Transition category.

RED RIVER (1948)

One of John Wayne's greatest films, Howard Hawks' RED RIVER is perhaps the epitome of the Traditional-Transitional western evolution.  Wayne and partner Walter Brennan set out to start a cattle ranch in Texas and adopt a young boy (Montgomery Clift) who has been orphaned by an Indian attack.  Wayne raises Clift like a son, but after spending a few years away during the Civil War, Clift returns with some differing values.  The old guard (Traditional) versus young guard (Transitional) tension eventually comes to a head on an epic cattle drive when the men attempt to take 10,000 cattle from Texas to the railroad in Kansas.  An engrossing story of evolving values on the first Chisholm Trail drive, everything about RED RIVER makes it a classic western not to be missed. 


One of the most underrated of the great Transition westerns, William Wyler's THE BIG COUNTRY collects a stellar cast (including Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Charlton Heston, Carroll Baker, Burl Ives and Charles Bickford) to create a fascinating statement on bravery, violence and revenge.  This story of two cattle barons fighting over water is made all the more impressive by Wyler's shot selection, Franz Planer's widescreen Technicolor cinematography and Jerome Moross' lyrical score (perhaps the greatest music ever written for a western film).  Complex characters who are not always what they seem, excellent performances, and an artistic approach which enhances the message of this movie in a manner never quite achieved before, THE BIG COUNTRY is a must-see -- even for those who think they don't like westerns. 


A western in many ways ahead of its time, THE GUNFIGHTER is the story of an aging gunslinger (Gregory Peck) who begins to tire of his outlaw lifestyle and considers settling down.  What he finds however, is that his reputation (of having killed a long list of men at the draw) won't let him.  He has become known as the greatest gunfighter in the West, and all the young upstarts who aspire to take his place feel they must beat him first.  He is not allowed to retire and go softly into that good night.  The film is Traditional in the sense that Good and Bad are relatively well-defined, but Transitional in its psychological approach to the theme of legend and its reflection of changing values. 


In John Ford's THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart are perfectly cast on opposite sides of a debate over how best to keep the peace in a growing western town. Stewart plays the Eastern lawyer trying to keep peace without a gun, and Wayne is the wise man of the West who knows how things really have to be done. They're not exactly spring chickens anymore in this film, and Vera Miles doesn't seem quite worthy of the dispute over her, but the conflict is still a good one. Told with a flashback narrative structure, THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE deals head-on with the issue of western mythology and the society that perpetuates it.  Note however, that the famous Gene Pitney song does not appear.


  • HIGH NOON (1952)
  • THE SEARCHERS (1956)
  • THE FAR COUNTRY (1955)
  • GIANT (1956)
  • SHANE (1953)
  • THE NAKED SPUR (1953)
  • HUD (1963)
  • BLOOD ON THE MOON (1948)
  • JOHNNY GUITAR (1954)
  • WAGON MASTER (1950)
  • FIRECREEK (1968)
  • THE SHOOTIST (1976)

Modern Westerns:

As opposed to the Transition westerns which attempt to take the elements established by the Traditional westerns and turn them in a new direction, Modern westerns take those same elements and turn them completely around upon themselves.  Frequently very cynical and derogatory toward their parent genre, Modern westerns (perhaps more accurately called anti-westerns) are usually about debunking the myth of the Traditional western.  There are no Good guys in Modern westerns -- just some characters who are less Bad than others. (Unless of course, the film deals with Native Americans (as the Indians are now known), who are almost always depicted as blameless in any conflict as modern filmmakers attempt to make up for the degrading 'redskin warrior' stereotypes of the past.)  Heroes are rare, but antiheros are everywhere.  Unfortunately, in my opinion, such characters tend to get uninteresting very quickly.

Violence is also everywhere.  Modern westerns frequently employ gratuitous violence purely for more shock in their entertainment value, or more nobly, in an effort to show 'realistically' how destructive, gory and violent 'real' violence can be.  Whereas Traditional westerns tend to depict death as relatively quick, painless and stainless, Modern westerns have a tendency to throw buckets of fake blood on bodies convulsing and writhing in slow motion while they are riddled with bullets, until eventually they spit-up their last dying breath. Unfortunately, this approach frequently backfires because it ends up glorifying these sanguineous deaths, raising the audience's level of tolerance for this kind of violence and encouraging it to want more instead of to turn away in disgust.  There seems to be a fundamental conflict between means and purported end when a director maximizes an element's power and importance onscreen in order to minimize its power and importance offscreen.

Overall Modern westerns can have their strong points.  Some are interesting character studies of their antiheros, while others find elements of Traditional westerns to invert in new and original ways.  Still others continue the trend prevalent in many Transitional westerns of addressing contemporary social issues in a western context.  And there are always those which might lack originality in plot, theme or characters, but are still notable for their meritorious artistic presentation.  But beware of those anti-westerns that are just entertaining, because at a certain point the repetition of these anti-elements begins to insult the audience's anti-intelligence.


THE LEFT-HANDED GUN is one of the earliest psychological character studies of a western antihero, and because it debunks the heroic myth of a notorious criminal (Billy the Kid, played by Paul Newman), instead of a lawman like many of the later and more cynical Modern westerns, audiences can watch this film without feeling that their values are being corrupted.  The film essentially depicts Billy as a psychologically disturbed juvenile delinquent, and the part is very well acted by Newman.  With all the character analysis that goes on, the excitement can drag a little at times, but the violence isn't overly intense, and some stylized photographic angles and effects make this black-and-white western visually interesting as well.


The film often blamed for starting the outbreak of excessive violence in Modern westerns (although it was really BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967) which lead the way in obliterating that taboo), Sam Peckinpah's THE WILD BUNCH is the story of a band of aging outlaws (including William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates and Ben Johnson) who find their way of life becoming anachronistic in 1913.  Chased, after a bank robbery massacre, by Robert Ryan and posse (who are only on the right side of the law because it is more convenient at the moment), the bunch flees to Mexico where they continue to discover that their formidable reputation cannot assure their survival in the changing times.  What could have been a fascinating film about the death of the Old West however, becomes instead a blood-letting fantasy ballet as Peckinpah allows his statement on 'real' violence to overwhelm the film's other merits.  Definitely an interesting movie and worth a look, but not for the faint of heart.


  • ONE-EYED JACKS (1961)
  • THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY (1966) (a.k.a. Il buono, il bruto, il cattivo)
  • ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1968) (a.k.a. C'era una volta il west)
  • UNFORGIVEN (1992)

Western Comedies:

Humor comes in all shapes and sizes and can be set in all times and places, so it was inevitable that comedy should find its way into the western genre.  Usually more comedy than western, these films often make satirical jabs at certain western stereotypes, but are generally fun and not terribly derogatory toward their parent film category.


Jimmy Stewart and Marlene Dietrich make a memorable comedy set in the Old West. Stewart is a non-violent law man and Dietrich is the local saloon attraction loyal to the band of corrupt officials and outlaws who are holding the town hostage.  Dietrich sultrily sings out a few memorable numbers, and Stewart stutters his way through several amusing stories while he attempts to restore law and order. Definitely more a comedy than a western, DESTRY RIDES AGAIN is a fun 94-minute diversion and also has one of the best bar brawls you'll ever see on film.

RIO BRAVO (1959)

A Traditional western exceedingly rich in characterization and humor, Howard Hawks' RIO BRAVO features John Wayne leading a team of deficient deputies (limpy and toothless Walter Brennan, drunk Dean Martin and cocky Ricky Nelson) in an attempt to keep a suspected murderer in custody until the district judge can arrive to try him.  Throw in Angie Dickinson as a distraction, and it's easy to see why Wayne has such a hard time with what would have been, in his earlier days, a fairly simple task.  Featuring the obligatory action sequence finale accentuated with dynamite in addition to the traditional bullets, RIO BRAVO is held in highest regard today for its humor -- in the spirit of several of Hawks' best screwball comedies, but scaled down a little bit for the more mature times.


Not to forget Alaska as part of the West, Henry Hathaway's Klondike comedy NORTH TO ALASKA features John Wayne and Stewart Granger as prospectors who strike gold and then turn their attentions toward finding some female companionship.  Granger sends Wayne back to Seattle to retrieve the fiancée he left behind, but when Wayne discovers she's married someone else in the meantime, he returns with Capucine instead.  Wayne, Granger and Granger's younger brother Fabian get so distracted by the female in their midst that they neglect their claim and suddenly discover it isn't theirs anymore.  Nothing philosophical about this one.  Punch-drunk and love-struck, it's a heck-of-a-lotta fun.


Doris Day in a western?  But not just any western -- a western musical comedy featuring Day as one of the West's favorite tomboys and Howard Keel as Wild Bill Hickok.  Great voices, great songs, quick pacing, cards and liquor, six-shooters, cavalry, Indians and a little cross-dressing make for fun escapist entertainment.


John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara really go at each other in this western 'Taming of the Shrew' -- another tale set in the West that's more a comedy than a real western.  Check out O'Hara taking a mud bath and Wayne trying not to lose his temper.  Although perhaps a little offensive to today's feminist sensibilities, even progressive women, if they can can put their politics aside for a couple of hours, will enjoy this one.


Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda are poor, aging cowpokes who think their luck has changed when Stewart finds out he has inherited 'The Cheyenne Social Club' from an uncle.  They ride nearly a thousand miles only to discover that the club is really a high-class brothel run by Shirley Jones.  Their moral dilemma provides for a series of entertaining antics as only Stewart and Fonda can play them.

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