Greatest Westerns

Greatest Westerns



Greatest Westerns: 1980s-1990s
Film Title/Year/Director/Length/Studio, Setting (or Time Period) and Brief Description
Movie Title Screens

Heaven's Gate (1980)
d. Michael Cimino, 149 minutes, United Artists

During the period of the Johnson County War (in 1892) in northern Wyoming around 1890, although the film opened years earlier at Harvard University in 1870, and ended in the year 1903

Pretentious auteur director, the Oscar-winning Michael Cimino (for the multiple-award-winning The Deer Hunter (1978)), brought out this multi-million dollar failure for United Artists - a detailed, over-long epic western which contributed to the genre's weakening. The overindulgent director had been given unprecedented creative control and a large budget for the production of his long-brewing, flawed script titled The Johnson County War.

The expensive 'boondoggle' film and revisionistic Western told about the Johnson County War between starving Eastern European immigrant farmers and mercenaries hired by the cattlemen. It featured a cast of prominent actors (Christopher Walken as hired mercenary Nathan D. Champion, John Hurt in a minor role as Billy Irvine, Kris Kristofferson as US Federal Marshal James Averill, and French actress Isabelle Huppert as young brothel madam Ella Watson).

The ponderous and flawed film (with beautiful cinematography and art direction, but often muffled dialogue) included abundant nudity, violence throughout, a love triangle (between Averill, Champion, and Ella), a cock fight, a country-western roller-skating sequence, and a lengthy series of bloody battles and deaths at film's end.

Mercenary Nathan Champion suffered a fiery death outside his wall-papered frontier cabin by the hired killers of evil, black-garbed cattlemen association leader Frank Canton (Sam Waterston) - with his hasty writing of a farewell note to his friends knowing that he would die. The film also concluded with the surprising shock ambush killings of both local entrepreneur John L. Bridges (Jeff Bridges) and young bordello madam Ella wearing a beautiful white dress (she died in Sheriff Averill's arms).

Pale Rider (1985)
d. Clint Eastwood, 116 minutes, Warner Bros.

In the fictional, small mining community of Lahood, California, in the 1880s (during the Gold Rush)

Producer/director/star Eastwood's quasi-religious (good vs. evil) western film was reminiscent of Shane (1953). And his ghostly, other-worldly "Preacher" (pale rider) character resembled similar ones in his 'spaghetti westerns' ("The Man With No Name") and High Plains Drifter (1973). [Note: This would be Eastwood's last western until Unforgiven (1992).]

The film opened with the attempted takeover of the small gold-mining town of Lahood, California by ruthless strip-mining company owner Coy LaHood (Richard Dysart) with his son Josh LaHood (Christopher Penn) and other hired guns.

The prayers of young 15 year-old Megan (Sydney Penny) (the daughter of Sarah Wheeler (Carrie Snodgrass)) for a miraculous savior to help defend the town's victimized miners and take a stand came in the form of a 'Pale Rider' - a gunslinging Preacher (Eastwood) riding into town on a pale-colored white horse. The mysterious drifter joined up with unofficial miner leader Hull Barret (Michael Moriarty), Sarah's panhandling fiancee, to organize opposition among the innocent prospectors and to counteract LaHood's brutalities, persecution and bribery.

Rather than accept an offer of $1,000 per claim, the miners decided to resist. LaHood's mining facility was blown up with dynamite, and the Preacher executed corrupt county Marshal Stockburn (John Marshall), hired to clear out the town.

The film concluded with a Shane-like ending after the town's salvation: the Preacher rode away into the nearby Sierra Madre Mountains as Megan cried out after him.

Silverado (1985)
d. Lawrence Kasdan, 133 minutes, Columbia Pictures

In the year 1880, in and around the town of Silverado

The revisionistic western with an ensemble cast was a cliched and rousing tribute to the big-budget, large-casted westerns of the 1950s and 1960s, although it fared poorly at the box-office. Chance encounters brought together four disparate and unlikely heroes in the town of Silverado:

  • (1) cowboy Emmett (Scott Glenn), just released from prison and ambushed by three gunmen whom he killed,
  • (2) drifter Paden (Kevin Kline), robbed and left to die in the desert until rescued by Emmett,
  • (3) Jake (Kevin Costner), Emmett's feisty younger brother awaiting execution in jail for killing a man in self-defense, and
  • (4) Malachi (or "Mal") Johnson (Danny Glover), a black range rider run out of the town of Turley by English sheriff John Langston (John Cleese).

Meanwhile, greedy cattle rancher Ethan McKendrick (Ray Baker) was driving off homesteaders with a murderous posse to maintain an open range for his herds. One of McKendrick's victims was Mal's father Ezra (Joe Seneca).

The four misfit cowboys prepared to restore order in Silverado by confronting corrupt and malevolent Sheriff Cobb (Brian Dennehy) who was in cahoots with McKendrick, and running the local saloon with Stella (Linda Hunt).

The overly long western concluded with a climactic showdown between the heroes and the villains: a shoot-out and gunfight sequence, before the four parted ways.

Dances with Wolves (1990)
d. Kevin Costner, 181 minutes, Orion Pictures

Set during the Civil War era (beginning in 1863), and among the Lakota Sioux Indian tribe near the remote post of Fort Sedgwick (in the Dakota Territory)

Producer/actor Kevin Costner's politically-correct three-hour dramatic epic (his directorial debut film) was a box-office and critical success, credited with revitalizing the western genre.

The revisionistic western received twelve nominations and seven Oscar awards including Best Picture and Best Director. It was noted as one of the few westerns that cast Indians in acting roles, used Lakota Sioux sub-titles, and viewed Native Americans in a sympathetic way and not as blood-thirsty savages. Although the film was officially sanctioned by the Sioux, not all Native American groups were sympathetic to its portrayals.

One of the film's best set-pieces was the buffalo stampede-hunt.

The film's plot followed the adventurous life of a disillusioned Civil War hero - Union Army First Lieutenant John J. Dunbar (Costner), who after the war moved westward to the deserted frontier post of Fort Sedgwick in Dakota Territory. He became acquainted with the local Sioux Indians through widowed Stands With a Fist (Mary McDonnell), a white orphan raised by the tribe's medicine man Kicking Bird (Graham Greene).

He also cavorted with a wolf named "Two Socks" for its white forepaws - the derivation of the film's title and his given Sioux name. He found himself living between two worlds when he went native.

After helping the Sioux tribe repel warring Pawnee, he married Stands With a Fist. Due to a misunderstanding, however, he was charged with treason and was being taken East for trial when the Sioux freed him. To avoid having the Indians blamed for his circumstances, he retreated with Stands with a Fist leave on horseback.

In the film's epilogue, it stated that thirteen years later, the last freed band of Sioux submitted to the US Army at Fort Robinson in Nebraska.

Unforgiven (1992)
d. Clint Eastwood, 130 minutes, Warner Bros.

Mostly in the town of Big Whiskey, Wyoming in the 1880s

This was producer/director/star Clint Eastwood's own tribute to his legendary legacy in Sergio Leone's low-budget 'spaghetti' westerns. It was the winner of four Academy Awards, including Best Picture - the third western to win the top prize.

Eastwood's acclaimed revisionist western examined life on the frontier, with Eastwood in the role of mythological, retired gunslinger William Munny, also a struggling pig farmer, father and widower.

He teamed up with the bounty-hunting Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolnett), to confont injustices (including an attack on prostitute Delilah (Anna Thomson)) and collect the $1,000 bounty, in a town run by mean sheriff Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman, winner of Best Supporting Actor), and to seek bloody revenge for the gruesome death of his friend Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman).

With Munny's famous line: "It's a hell of a thing, killin' a man...You take away all he's got and all he's ever gonna have."

Tombstone (1993)
d. George Cosmatos, 130 minutes, Buena Vista Pictures

Set in Tombstone, Arizona in the 1880s

This action-oriented, violent western about the taming of the West was a dramatization of the real-life events of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and the Earp Vendetta, seen earlier in John Ford's My Darling Clementine (1946) and other films.

It told the story of the law-abiding Earp brothers in the town of Tombstone, Arizona, terrorized by outlaws: retired Dodge City marshal Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell), Virgil (Sam Elliott) and Morgan (Bill Paxton), and the relationship with Earp's TB afflicted friend, gambler and gunslinger Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer).

Because of his laudanum-addicted wife, Wyatt began an extra-marital romance with saucy traveling theatre actress Josephine Marcus (Dana Delany), then became a town deputy with Morgan when his brother Virgil became the town's marshal and instituted a weapons ban.

The resultant conflict between the red sash-wearing, roughneck Cowboys (and the Ike Clanton (Stephen Lang) clan) and the Earps resulted in the legendary Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (Virgil was injured and Morgan was killed).

Shortly later, Wyatt returned for a vengeful vendetta as U.S. marshal against the leader of the Cowboys, first "Curly Bill" Brocious (Powers Boothe) and then sharpshooter Johnny Ringo (Michael Biehn). During a final showdown, Doc killed Ringo and the Cowboys were defeated.

Greatest Westerns
(chronological by film title)
Introduction | Silents-1930s | 1940s | 1950-1955 | 1956-1959 | 1960-1965
1966-1969 | 1970s | 1980s-1990s | 2000s-present

Previous Page Next Page