Greatest Westerns

Greatest Westerns



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

Open Range (2003)
d. Kevin Costner, 139 minutes, Touchstone Pictures

On the free-range frontier of 1882 in Montana, threatened by the close of the American frontier

Some thought that this traditional western by co-star, co-producer, and director Kevin Costner helped to redeem his reputation - it was his first film since the unpopular The Postman (1997). However, it was mostly a sentimental vanity project with cliched western themes.

During range wars and cultural clashes in the 1880s between ranchers and free-grazing cowboys in the open prairie of Montana, two law-abiding cattlemen - veteran "Boss" Spearman (Robert Duvall) and his hired hand partner of 10 years, ex-Civil War soldier and guilt-ridden gunslinger Charley Waite (Kevin Costner), found themselves confronted by threatening and ruthless, big-time land baron-rancher, Irish immigrant Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon).

The corrupt Baxter was in control of local Sheriff Poole (James Russo), and his hired gun Butler (Kim Coates) attacked two of Boss' men. Gentle giant Mose Harrison (Abraham Benrubi) was killed and 16 year-old Mexican orphan Button (Diego Luna) was seriously wounded.

During a predictable climactic mid-day shoot-out against Baxter and his men, the vengeful Boss and Charley were aided by local old-timer Percy (Michael Jeter) and Doc Barlow's (Dean McDermott) middle-aged sister Sue (Annette Bening). Boss was wounded, but Baxter ended up mortally-wounded.

Peace was restored, after which Charley proposed to Sue in the anti-climactic, hackneyed love story, and he and Boss decided to settle down in nearby Harmonville as saloon owners.

3:10 to Yuma (2007)
d. James Mangold, 122 minutes, Lionsgate Films

Set in 1884, opening in Bisbee, Arizona Territory, then in a hotel room in the boom town of Contention City

An action-movie remake of the original 1957 classic, a psychological western and intense character study.

It opened with a typical stagecoach payroll robbery by legendary, black-hatted outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) and his gang. Injured bounty hunter/Pinkerton guard Byron McElroy (Peter Fonda) was taken to Bisbee, Arizona for treatment, where Wade was captured by the authorities.

Two-faced railroad representative Grayson Butterfield (Dallas Roberts) offered $200 to a crippled (by friendly fire), one-footed Civil War veteran - a struggling small-time farmer named Dan Evans (Christian Bale), to join a posse that would take Wade to the Contention train station in a nearby town, three days away across dangerous Apache Indian land. There, the 3:10 train would take Wade on a prison car to Yuma for a quick Federal trial before his hanging-execution.Wade's sadistic, slightly fey and treacherous right-hand gunman, Charlie Prince (Ben Foster) led Wade's gang to liberate their charismatic leader.

Meanwhile, Butterfield bargained further with the beleaguered Evans (who wished to regain his son's respect) - he promised to safely escort Evans' 14 year-old hot-tempered, judgmental son William (Logan Lerman) home, pay off Evans' debts, ensure his water rights, and provide $1,000 to Evans' wife on Butterfield's return. As Evans put Wade on the train, he was shot to death.

In the improbable conversion sequence in the conclusion, Wade vengefully murdered every single one of his own gang members, then boarded the train by himself - respectfully paying tribute to the martyred rancher.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
d. Andrew Dominik, 160 minutes, Warner Bros.

In 1882, beginning in frontier Missouri, ending in the year 1892

This highly-acclaimed, historically-accurate, epic-length psychological western retold the story of charismatic, frontier Missouri fugitive outlaw Jesse James (Brad Pitt). Sam Shepard co-starred as Jesse's devoted older brother Frank James.

The legendary Jesse James was felled (shot in the back after disarming himself) on April 3rd, 1882 by Judas-like, young 19 year-old gang member Robert "Bob" Ford (Casey Affleck), lending him mythic status.

Many motivations were suggested for the assassination - jealousy, a desire for fame or the bounty reward, disillusionment with his idol, resentment, or the promise of a pardon.

After the killing, the Ford brothers become notorious, exploitative celebrities with a Manhattan theater show that re-enacted the assassination. Bob played himself, while older brother Charley (Sam Rockwell) acted as Jesse James. As Jesse's fame as a folk hero increased, the two brothers were ultimately undone. A terminally-ill case of TB caused Charley to commit suicide in May of 1884. Eight years later in 1892 in Colorado, Bob was murdered by Edward O'Kelley (Michael Copeman) - who was later pardoned.

Appaloosa (2008)
d. Ed Harris, 115 minutes, New Line Cinema

Set in 1882, in the small western mining town of Appaloosa, New Mexico Territory

Unrelated to The Appaloosa (1966) starring Marlon Brando.

Noted as the second film for actor/director Ed Harris, who starred as newly-appointed lawman Virgil Cole in the New Mexico town of Appaloosa, with his buddy/partner - deputy Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen).

This traditional western's bad guy was intimidating rancher Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons), responsible for the recent cold-blooded murders of the town's Marshal Jack Bell (Robert Jauregui) and two of his deputies. After Bragg was tried for murder and found guilty, he was rescued during train transport to his execution by brutish, gunslinging brothers Ring and Mackie Shelton (Lance Henriksen and Adam Nelson).

The outlaws had taken along with them Cole's attractive yet fickle love interest, recently widowed Allison "Allie" French (Renée Zellweger). Bragg was freed by the Sheltons, leading to the inevitable showdown between the two sides - Cole and Hitch were wounded, while the two Sheltons and their cousin Sheriff Russell (Argos MacCallum) were killed, although Bragg again escaped.

Since it was impossible for Cole to arrest Bragg (who was secretly engaging in illegalities and romancing Allie on the side) after he returned to Appaloosa with a presidential pardon, Hitch turned in his deputy's badge and challenged Bragg to a duel - and the terrorizing, ruthless rancher was finally killed.

True Grit (2010)
d. Joel Coen, 111 minutes, Paramount Pictures

At Fort Smith (Arkansas), then on a mission into Choctaw Indian territory

A superb, more violent remake of the classic 1969 western with John Wayne, made by writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen. An exceptionally fine narrative of the Old West - this renewed version had a flashbacked structure.

Determined 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) enlisted the aid of notorious, broken-down, hard-drinking, aging yet resourceful one-eyed federal Marshal Reuben "Rooster" J. Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and cocky and vain Texas Ranger La Boeuf (Matt Damon) in her relentless quest to bring her recently murdered father's killer Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) to justice. Mattie stubbornly joined the other two lawmen to pursue Chaney, to be assured that he would be hanged.

The film's climax involved the deaths of the two main outlaws: Chaney (killed by Mattie wielding La Boeuf's rifle) and his desperado partner "Lucky" Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper) (shot by La Boeuf from 400 yards away). Mattie suffered a rattlesnake bite, and was sped on horseback to a doctor by Cogburn, but she had to have the arm amputated to avoid gangrene poisoning.

The film concluded 25 years later, when Mattie missed reuniting with Cogburn who had died three days earlier. She had his body buried in her family cemetery.

Greatest Westerns
(chronological by film title)
Introduction | Silents-1930s | 1940s | 1950-1955 | 1956-1959 | 1960s | 1970s | 1980s--Present

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