Westerns are a great film genre. They often portray the human condition with good stories, interesting characters, and fantastic scenery. Like other genre's, not all westerns are good, so what makes a particular movie great? First, I will admit many of the movies on this list are not particularly diverse, but we really need to take that element out of the equation at times. A great western has a good story, well developed characters, and of course, good and bad guys (and it is sometimes difficult to tell the difference).
The List (in no particular order)
1. High Noon (1952): Marshall Will Kane (Gary Cooper) is married to Quaker Amy (Grace Kelly) and preparing to retire and settle down in a small New Mexico town. He gets word that a vicious outlaw he put behind bars named Frank Miller (Ian McDonald) has been released and is seeking vengeance and arriving on the noon train. Lee Van Cleef is one of the other hombre's. Amy seeks guidance from Will's former lover (Katy Jurado). Will's deputy Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges) and predecessor Marshall Lowe (Lon Chaney) refuse to help. A grim and determined Gary Cooper will face them alone...but ends up with some help from Amy. Always good.
2. Rancho Notorious (1952): Ranch hand Vern's (Arthur Kennedy) fiance is assaulted and murdered. As Vern starts tracking down those responsible, he eventually hears one of them mention "Chuck a luck". Vern then finds out a woman named Altar Keane (Marlene Dietriech) is associated with Chuck-a-luck. He rides with Frenchy (Mel Ferrer) and meets Altar at Chuck-a-luck, which is actually an outlaw hideout. 50 year old Marlene Dietrich running an outlaw hideout? What! She also sings a throaty saloon song which was the inspiration for Madeline Kahn's number in Blazing Saddles. Corny story but I love it.
3. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973): The story of Billy (Kris Kristofferson) and Pat (James Coburn) as directed by Sam Peckinpah. I love this movie. Great quotes ("keep the change Bob"). Great character actors (Slim Pickens, Katy Jurado, Richard Jaeckel, Chill Wills, Jason Robards, Jack Elam, L.Q. Jones). Bob Dylan is even in it and wrote the soundtrack. "Knocking on Heaven's Door" was one of the songs.
4. One Eyed Jacks (1962): Rio (Marlon Brando) and Dad (Karl Malden) pull off a robbery but Dad double crosses Rio who is picked up by the Federales and spends five years in a Mexican prison. Rio seeks vengeance and finds out Dad is a Sheriff in Monterey, CA and married (Katy Jurado). The two come to an uneasy truce until Dad finds out his daughter Luisa (Pina Pellicer) is seeing Rio. Dad bullwhips Rio in the middle of town (one of the most vicious beatings in movie history). There is a final showdown of course, as it is a western after all. Cast includes Ben Johnson and Slim Pickens.
5. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966): Sprawling western epic with Blondie (Clint Eastwood), Tuco (Eli Wallach) and Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef). Lots of double crosses, great quotes, squinting bad guys (and good guys) and shootouts. Soundtrack by Ennio Morricone is fantastic. After the character introductions, the story revolves around the American Civil War and lost gold....and betrayal..maybe. Watch this one.
I know what you're thinking. What sort of list is this! No John Wayne movies? Movies hardly anyone has seen? I love John Wayne movies. Stagecoach (1939), Searchers (1956) and Red River (1948) are some of my favorites. I love Jimmy Stewart westerns like Winchester '73 (1950) and Oxbow Incident (1943). Some more recent westerns have been fantastic. The remake of 3:10 to Yuma (2007) was great. Unforgiven (1991) was superb. To many to mention really, but true, the above list may have a few you have not seen, but should.