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Added by JxSxPx on 5 Aug 2015 02:00
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Taste of Cinema - 30 Greatest Westerns

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The Western is one of America’s unique contributions to culture. It reflects American history and has helped shape the nation’s view of itself and how it others see it. However, the history of the Western is so pervasive, that some of the most remarkable films of the genre were actually made in Europe – specifically in Italy and Spain with the Spaghettis Westerns which began in the 1960s. There were also Westerns from Russia and Germany. So, the history of the genre is a complex one, with many different strands and facets, and with more icons and interesting films than is possible to mention in one article.

This list attempts a run-down of the greatest films in the genre; ones which are particularly important because they set certain standards, or those which are some of the most artistically impressive examples of the genre. Certainly, if you are a novice to Westerns, the list will provide an excellent starting point from which to begin your journey through this complicated, violent, morally ambiguous, but always fascinating genre.

List compiled by James Newton
Leone’s epic is an explicit homage to the America Western. It was written in conjunction with two Italian greats, Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento, who compiled the story out of elements lifted from the hundreds of Westerns they watched as research. The film has one of the longest opening titles scenes in film history; where three gunmen wait for Charles Bronson’s character of Harmonica to show.

Leone originally wanted the good, bad, ugly trio of Eastwood, Van Cleef, and Wallach to play the gunmen, so that he could kill them off and draw a line between this and the Dollars trilogy. Apparently only Eastwood declined. Henry Fonda plays the main villain, a blue eyed child killer; and the film has several incredible crane shots, none more impressive than in the moment when the fate of Harmonica’s brother is revealed. Once again, Ennio Morricone provides the score, proving he is as much a presence in the history of the Western as any director or star. This is the perfect Western; epic in scale, romantic, dark, elegiac, with some exciting action, and in places very, very funny.
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Ennio Morricone’s iconic score, which everyone can sing whether they have seen the film or not, puts The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly near the top of any list of great Westerns. In fact, such is the mastery of the cinematic technique displayed by director Sergio Leone, that the film frequently comes near the top of any great film list, Western or not. Eastwood and Van Cleef return in this third of the Man with No Name/Dollars trilogy, and are joined by Eli Wallach to complete the trio of the title. Their double crossing search for buried gold during the Civil War culminates in the ultimate quick draw gunfight in the middle of a huge cemetery. The battle scenes and those set in the prisoner of war camp provide some moments of pathos amidst the nihilistic violence.
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People who added this item 2002 Average listal rating (1278 ratings) 8 IMDB Rating 8.2
Eastwood reportedly held onto the script by David Peoples for ten years until he felt old enough to portray the retired gunfighter William Munny. Now working as a barely successful farmer, Munny is forced to take on the hunt for two cowboys accused of maiming and disfiguring a prostitute. The film, like so many on the list, has a revisionist stance, and examines the mythology of the Old West and the macho characters who epitomise it. It is Eastwood’s last western (to date).
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Clint Eastwood rides into town and may, or may not be, the ghost of the Sherriff murdered when the cowardly townsfolk stood by and watched him whipped to death by three gunslingers, who incidentally are out of jail and coming back to take their revenge. He is hired to protect the town, but not before he gets revenge of his own on those he feels are responsible for his own past trauma. This was the first Western Eastwood directed, and is a stylistic homage to Sergio Leone. It is also indebted to Don Siegel, who directed him in The Beguiled, Coogan’s Bluff, and Dirty Harry.
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People who added this item 680 Average listal rating (335 ratings) 7.7 IMDB Rating 7.5
One of the original midnight cult movies, endorsed by John Lennon among others, Jodorowsky’s incredible film is packed full of extraordinary and surreal images. It begins as an (almost) straightforward western, with a black clad gunslinger saving some people from a vicious and perverse gang, but then morphs into an examination of the meaning of life, religion, and seemingly a million other things. No amount of words can adequately describe El Topo because the experience of it is not in words, but in its imagery.
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People who added this item 259 Average listal rating (143 ratings) 8 IMDB Rating 7.8
This subversive Spaghetti western is one of the bleakest films ever made. Its hero is the brooding, silent type – literally. Having been made mute by a horrific attack on him as a child, he is now working as a bounty hunter, and is hired to protect a town beleaguered by the policies of the local banker and property owner. The finale is a downbeat, brutal conclusion to the film, and was said by the director Corbucci to be an allegory for the contemporary assassinations of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Che Guevara. Ennio Morricone provides one of his best soundtracks.
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People who added this item 1417 Average listal rating (952 ratings) 8.1 IMDB Rating 8.3
Sergio Leone’s sequel to his ground-breaking A Fistful of Dollars is longer, more accomplished, and provides the first example of a complex three way dynamic between heroes and villain which the director further explored in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and Once Upon a Time in the West. Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name teams up with Lee Van Cleef’s bounty hunter to foil a gang of bank robbers led by the brilliant Italian actor Gian Mario Volante. Ennio Morricone’s iconographic theme has been reborn in dance remixes, and the film is filled with gallows humour and moments of pathos; especially the extraordinary moment where Volante plays with a dying beetle while he listens to the sound of his men dying in a gunfight outside.
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Yet another elegiac film lamenting the end of the old West, this time told through the story of the former friends turned adversaries of the title. Bob Dylan provides the score, and has a supporting role, and the soundtrack includes Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door. Sam Peckinpah’s film is brutal and beautiful, and contains quite savage imagery, in particular during the opening scenes where live chickens are buried up to their necks to be used as target practice. Kris Kristofferson plays Billy, and James Coburn plays Garrett, and the film is a slow meditation, rather than a fast paced action film.
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This is the definitive screen version of real life legends Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and the events culminating in the Gunfight at the OK Corral. Unlike other versions of the tale, this is a low key, subtle, and quite gentle take of how real life Earp became lawman of the town of Tombstone. Earp actually told his tale to director John Ford himself, with inevitable slant in his favour no doubt, and is played by Henry Fonda. Other versions of these events include the 90s movies Tombstone, with Kurt Russell, and Wyatt Earp, with Kevin Costner.
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People who added this item 203 Average listal rating (147 ratings) 7.3 IMDB Rating 7.6
El Dorado is one of three Howard Hawks westerns based around the similar scenario of an unlikely band consisting of veteran John Wayne, an inexperienced young gunfighter, and an alcoholic former lawman. The first was Rio Bravo in 1959, the last was Rio Lobo in 1970. Sandwiched in between is this, the best and most consistently entertaining of the three. James Caan and Robert Mitchum complete the cast. The film has a comic tone, but that only masks an emotional core. And the film is a perfect example of Hawks’ themes of solidarity in the face of unfavourable odds, and the importance and honour of professionalism.
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People who added this item 778 Average listal rating (529 ratings) 7.9 IMDB Rating 8
Some would place this film at the top of the list. John Ford’s epic features an uncompromising performance by John Wayne as Ethan Edwards – searching for his niece who has been kidnapped by Commanches. Driven by hatred of the Native American, Edwards is even ready to kill the girl when he finds her at the end and discovers that, after five years of living with the tribe, she has fully assimilated into the lives of the Commanche who took her. The character of Edwards was even one of the inspirations for Travis Bickle, the near psychotic character in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver.
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People who added this item 66 Average listal rating (47 ratings) 7.1 IMDB Rating 7.1
Damiano Damiani’s Spaghetti Western is a film focusing on the politics of the Mexican revolution, and works as an allegory for contemporary imperialist wars of the time it was made. Gian Mario Volante plays a bandit who originally holds up trains motivated solely by the money, but comes to learn that the revolution is a cause worth fighting for. The film also stars Klaus Kinski and Bond girl Martine Bestwick.
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People who added this item 318 Average listal rating (199 ratings) 7.8 IMDB Rating 7.8
Red River (1948)
Based on the tale of the Mutiny on the Bounty, Red River is a classic Howard Hawks film about drama and rebellion between John Wayne and Montgomery Clift on a cattle drive from Texas to Kansas. The stampede scenes, among others, are referenced and parodied in many later films, including the 90s comedy City Slickers.
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People who added this item 198 Average listal rating (114 ratings) 7.3 IMDB Rating 7.2
This extraordinary film teams Clint Eastwood with his Coogan’s Bluff director Don Siegel. He plays a Yankee soldier lost and injured behind enemy lines during the American Civil War, who gets taken in and cared for by an isolated school for girls in the Deep South. During his slow recovery he sleeps with several of the teachers and pupils, and causes a jealous firestorm to develop amongst them. This gothic melodrama concludes with a terrible fate for Eastwood’s character, who is closer to a cowardly scumbag than the taciturn killers he typically played in Westerns.
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People who added this item 167 Average listal rating (96 ratings) 7.4 IMDB Rating 7.4
One of five Westerns James Stewart made with director Anthony Mann, including Winchester ’73 and The Far Country. Stewart plays a bounty hunter out to track down Robert Ryan, and is a tormented, psychologically damaged hero. Mann’s film is about the moral complexities of the West, with no character a straightforward hero or villain.
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Along with Bonnie and Clyde this film changed the way screen violence was portrayed forever. Sam Peckinpah used slow motion and numerous squibs to emphasise the bloody and often beautiful nature of a cinematic gunfight. The story centres on the fading embers of the Old West, with four ancient bank robbers out of time and out of place with the changing modern world (it is set in 1913 and contains, among other things, a motor car and semi-automatic weapons). The final shootout, when they take on a cohort of the Mexican army and intentionally go down in a blaze of glory, is one of the most sustained and bloody shootouts in screen history.
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People who added this item 281 Average listal rating (169 ratings) 7.9 IMDB Rating 7.7
Typically written about in psychoanalytical terms due to the abundant symbolism it features, Nicholas Ray’s colourful Western is unusual in that it focuses on the female characters played by Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge, rather than the often weak and almost ineffectual male lead played by Sterling Hayden. It is a film packed with melodrama, and was lauded by the French critics and filmmakers of the new wave in the 1960s.
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People who added this item 60 Average listal rating (25 ratings) 7.1 IMDB Rating 0
Like the more famous High Noon, Silver Lode is a similarly allegorical tale about McCarthyism in America during the 1950s. Martin Scorsese cited the tracking shot towards the end, where the falsely accused hero Ballard makes his way across town in an uninterrupted take, as one of his favourite moments in the documentary A Personal Journey Through American Movies.
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People who added this item 382 Average listal rating (256 ratings) 7 IMDB Rating 7.5
Kevin Costner’s film is less famous than his other Western, Dances with Wolves, but is a more traditional, tougher, and morally complex work. He directs as well as stars as a cowboy who battles, along with Robert Duvall, Michael Gambon’s villainous land baron. The final shootout is messy, fast, and violent, with the intention of creating a greater sense of realism.
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People who added this item 194 Average listal rating (127 ratings) 7.4 IMDB Rating 7.7
The Shootist (1976)
John Wayne died of cancer only three years after playing the ageing gunfighter in Don Siegel’s plaintive Western, who coincidentally happens to be terminally ill with cancer. Instead of dying on his deathbed, he wants to go out in a blaze of glory, so he picks a fight with three of his enemies in a deserted saloon. The film was Wayne’s last, and ended a career dating back to the silent film era.
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Clint Eastwood directed himself as Josey Wales, a Southerner out for revenge against the soldiers who killed his family and on the run from the bounty hunters hired to kill him. What makes the film different from other films sharing similar narratives is the band of followers Wales accumulates along the way. They represent the marginalised, the down trodden, and those rejected by society; including native Americans who eventually help him regain a sense of humanity. Chief Dan George plays Lone Watie, and provides much of the film’s sly humour.
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A surreal Western and unofficial Django film, though in reality it is related to Corbucci’s film only in name. The film is intentionally closer to a gothic horror movie than a Western, born of the fact that director Giulio Questi had no real love of the genre. The film begins with Django crawling out of a mass grave, and has a recurrent fascination with images of gold. In one startling sequence a man is shot with gold bullets and then torn apart by people with their bare hands trying to dig out the nuggets. In another, one of the villains gets molten gold poured over his face after it melts during a fire.
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A macho Hollywood ensemble film, with a famous Elmer Bernstein score. The plot is lifted straight from Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, with a team of gunslingers hired to protect a village from bandits let by Eli Wallach. The film had several sequels and Yul Brynner later played homage to the character he plays here in Michael Crichton’s science fiction film Westworld; as a black clad, Terminatoresque robot gone insane.
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People who added this item 270 Average listal rating (184 ratings) 6.8 IMDB Rating 7
Hang 'Em High (1968)
This was Clint Eastwood’s first American Western after he had been out in Italy starring as the Man with No Name in Sergio Leone’s Dollars films. He stars as a sheriff out to take down the men who lynched him, the scar from the noose still raw around his throat. The story and visual style is a mixture of the traditional American Western, but influenced in the cinematography and the frequently baroque touches by the Spaghetti Westerns which were becoming so popular at the time.
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John Ford’s film is dark and cynical, and brings together three American Western legends in John Wayne, Lee Marvin, and James Stewart. Unlike many of his films, the Monument Valley setting is absent, with much of the action shot on sound stages. It is a film about reputations and myths; with a politician Stoddard’s (Stewart) reputation owing everything to him shooting down Marvin’s Liberty Valance, even though it is Wayne’s character who actually did the deed – from behind and from the shadows. It was Ford’s penultimate Western (not including a segment for How the West Was Won).
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The most recent version of the tale of the outlaw Jesse James, stars Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck as the title characters. Australian director Andrew Dominik is a former music video director, and his film is his follow up to his superb debut, Chopper, which similarly riffs on the links between crime, fame, and legend. The film has a melancholy, almost lyrical tone, which is aided by Roger Deakins’ warm and evocative cinematography.
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People who added this item 378 Average listal rating (226 ratings) 7.8 IMDB Rating 7.7
Robert Altman’s unusual Western stars Warren Beatty as a gambler who owns a brothel with Madam Julie Christie. The snowy backdrop is beautifully photographed and the film is a critique of big business and capitalism. A sorrowful, quite melancholy film.
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People who added this item 354 Average listal rating (230 ratings) 7.2 IMDB Rating 7.3
Sergio Corbucci made numerous Spaghetti Westerns, but none more famous or notorious as this. It replays the basic plot of Yojimbo, used by Sergio Leone for A Fistful of Dollars in 1964, of a lone stranger playing off two villainous gangs against the other, but adds in extra violence and baroque touches. These include a machine gun hidden in a coffin, which the hero drags behind him, plus a scene where a man’s ear is sliced off and fed to him. The figure of Django was so popular that it spawned numerous unofficial sequels, remakes, and spin offs (including Tarantino’s Django Unchained). Corbucci’s film had only one official sequel; Django Strikes Again in 1987).
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William Wellman’s film starring Henry Fonda is an anti-lynching and anti-mob rule film. Fonda tries to stop the posse from fulfilling its role, but rather than simplistic moralising, the film is made complex through its characterisation. It also has a rough, occasionally brutal tone; especially evident in one early scene where Fonda punches a man out in a bar and then uses the leverage from the bar and a door frame to lift himself up and stamp on the man’s head.
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The first Western ever made? While it is unlikely to be enjoyed in the same way as others on the list, this deserves to be mentioned for inventing so many of the conventions and recognisable iconography on which the Western was built. It is a straightforward story of a train heist and the subsequent hunting of the robbers, told with pace and with lots of action. Two scenes stand out – a poor unfortunate being sadistically forced to dance to avoid having his feet shot, and the closing shot of a gunman firing straight at the audience. Both scenes, incidentally, are explicitly referenced in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas.
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