The 20 Best Western Movies About the Old, Wild West

These movies set in the Old West bring the American Frontier to life. Even if you don't like Westerns, you should check these out!
The 20 Best Western Movies About the Old, Wild West

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The American Frontier, more commonly known as the Wild West or the Old West, was an intimidating place. Spanning the mid-1800s to early-1900s, it was a time unlike any other in American history.

There's a long and storied history of movies set in the Wild West, which gave rise to the Western genre and all the iconic themes and archetypes the genre is still known for: cowboys, corrupt sheriffs, prostitutes, scorned lovers, saloon brawls, pistols at dawn... those sorts of things.

So-called Westerns also have a certain aesthetic that may not appeal to viewers who aren't used to these kinds of movie—viewers who only know that Westerns were a favorite of old folks, so obviously these films are outdated, ancient, and boring. Right?

Well, hold your horses! The truth is, many of the best Western movies transcended the genre to become beacons of cinema.

From spaghetti Westerns to revisionist Westerns to Western-themed comedy classics, here are the best movies set in the Old West that are worth watching, even if you aren't a fan of the genre. Who knows? You just might find out what all the fuss is about!

20. The Sisters Brothers (2018)

Directed by Jacques Audiard

Starring John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal

Drama, Western (2h 2m)

6.9 on IMDb87% on RT

The Sisters Brothers may not be an Oscar-winning classic, but it's a solid introduction to the Western genre for those who are unattuned. It's modern, it boasts a familiar all-star cast, and it has a crowd-pleasing tone of humor, wit, and drama. Perfect!

Two hitmen brothers go on a quest to find two other men who are searching for a Gold Rush jackpot in 1851. Wagon trails, grizzly bears, and brothels await them on this journey before them.

The Sisters Brothers is a reliable pick for any Frontier film buff, who can rest assured that all the beloved tropes will be met. Plus, we're treated to a surprisingly tender ending where the true meaning of the protagonists' lives boil down to the movement of a curtain in the breeze...

19. Blazing Saddles (1974)

Directed by Mel Brooks

Starring Cleavon Little, Gene Wilder, Slim Pickens

Comedy, Western (1h 33m)

7.7 on IMDb90% on RT

Sometimes, the best way to understand the depths and nuances of a genre is to deconstruct it—and that's exactly what Blazing Saddles does. It's a lot like a deconstructed Michelin star cheesecake, except prepared by Mel Brooks, Cleavon Little, and Gene Wilder.

This classic movie from 1974 sets out on a mission of satire. It's only goal is to mock the various tropes of the Old West. And even though it's old by modern standards, the movie still holds up remarkably well.

The most interesting thing? Watching Blazing Saddles may actually make you realize that Wild West movies aren't so bad. In making light of the conventions, you see them in a different perspective... and you might even be sold on them (much to your grandpa's delight).

18. Dances With Wolves (1990)

Directed by Kevin Costner

Starring Kevin Costner, Mary McDonnell, Graham Greene

Adventure, Drama, Western (3h 1m)

8.0 on IMDb87% on RT

Dances With Wolves has grown more complicated over the years, with viewers still debating its controversial depiction of Native Americans.

While Native portrayals during the "Golden Age of the Western" (1940 to 1960) tended towards racist stereotypes, Dances With Wolves subverts the "White Savior" trope by having the Sioux tribe save the white Union Army Lieutenant (played by Kevin Costner).

That aside, Dances With Wolves is rightfully criticized for being inauthentic to Lakota history. It doesn't even bother to get the language right! I suggest watching it and making up your own mind, given that it was the first Western to win Best Picture in almost 60 years!

17. Hell or High Water (2016)

Directed by David Mackenzie

Starring Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges

Crime, Drama, Thriller (1h 42m)

7.6 on IMDb97% on RT

What exactly is a neo-Western? If you aren't versed in literary or cinematic jargon, "neo" simply means new or revived. So, neo-Western films take traditional Western themes and place them in contemporary settings. Say, modern-day Texas?

Instead of classic train robberies, the antiheroic Howard brothers (played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster) carry out bank heists to save their family ranch in Hell or High Water, all while being pursued by a Texas Ranger (played by Jeff Bridges).

Hell or High Water is a critically acclaimed harmony of hot-action thrills blended within a slow-burning character study, shot through a contemporized Western lens.

16. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)

Directed by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen

Starring Tim Blake Nelson, Willie Watson, Clancy Brown

Comedy, Drama, Musical (2h 13m)

7.3 on IMDb89% on RT

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a compilation of six short films that are chain-linked into one superb anthology, resulting in a film experience that gives you a real bang for your buck.

An unusual approach for a mainstream Netflix movie, these mini-vignettes are all connected by their Western settings, rolling out across New Mexico, Oregon, and Colorado.

Singing cowboys, limbless theater actors, and literal gold diggers make up this quirky barrel of Frontier fun, directed by the idiosyncratic Coen brothers and starring Tim Blake Nelson, Clancy Brown, James Franco, Brendan Gleeson, Zoe Kazan, Liam Neeson, and more.

15. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

Directed by George Roy Hill

Starring Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Katharine Ross

Biography, Crime, Drama (1h 50m)

8.0 on IMDb89% on RT

The Old West was filled with robbers, criminals, pranksters, and gunslingers—like Billy the Kid. About a decade after young Bill was shot to death, Butch Cassidy was leading the Wild Bunch (an early, somewhat-organized crime unit) in the Bighorn Mountains.

Harry Longabaugh, also known as the "Sundance Kid," was a member of the train-robbing gang, who all fled to Bolivia out of the belief that it was an Eden for thieves. (It wasn't.)

George Roy Hill brings us a fictionalized version of events surrounding the infamous bandits as they run from the law, starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford for assured Academy Award success.

14. Unforgiven (1992)

Directed by Clint Eastwood

Starring Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman

Drama, Western (2h 10m)

8.2 on IMDb96% on RT

Clint Eastwood isn't just a towering figure of the Wild West, but the most recognized actor/director of the genre. (Barring John Wayne, of course.)

Eastwood has played a role in the making of 15 different Westerns, including the psychological Civil War drama The Beguiled in 1971 and the cheesy musical Paint Your Wagon in 1969.

Unforgiven may have been late to the Western boom, but it's widely considered to be one of Eastwood's top three movies, which he directed, produced, and starred in to the count of four Academy Awards.

Unforgiven takes the retired-criminal-returning-to-the-game narrative and deprives it of the Hollywood Western glam, resulting in a stark examination of violence in the Old West.

13. True Grit (2010)

Directed by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen

Starring Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin

Drama, Western (1h 50m)

7.6 on IMDb95% on RT

The Coen brothers are clear fanboys of the Old West given their filmography, and only they could remake the classic John Wayne flick True Grit and do it justice. Or even surpass it!

Jeff Bridges once again saddles up for a trek across Texas, and he's still planted firmly on the right side of the law (though, admittedly, he's the meanest fed around these parts). Rooster Cogburn is a US Marshal who's hired by 14-year-old girl Mattie to catch her daddy's killer.

Both Mattie (played by Hailee Steinfeld) and Rooster use their headstrong grit to catch Lucky Ned Pepper in the Indian wilderness, turning the distressed teenage damsel into a strong female lead.

12. Killers of the Flower Moon (2023)

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, Lily Gladstone

Crime, Drama, History (3h 26m)

7.6 on IMDb93% on RT

Now that the Wild West craze has died down, few Frontier features make it to the box office. But with Martin Scorsese directing, you know a film is going to be a hit no matter the current demand for the genre.

Proving that he really can direct anything—not just mafia gangster flicks—Martin Scorsese's first Western film is speculated to be the last big Western in Hollywood for a long time. Fortunately, it was great (even if it was snubbed out of 10 Oscar nominations).

Leonardo DiCaprio is no stranger to Westerns, sliding on some fake teeth to play the weak and gullible family man Ernest Burkhart. Based on a real guy, it's unclear whether Ernest was aware that his wife was being poisoned as part of the Osage Indian mass murders in Oklahoma, but Martin Scorsese suggests he was...

11. The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

Directed by Andrew Dominik

Starring Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Shepard

Biography, Crime, Drama (2h 40m)

7.5 on IMDb77% on RT

And the award for longest film title goes to... not this one, actually. The movie with the longest title was 38 words long and directed by James Riffel, but The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford is still quite a mouthful.

The epic revisionist Western paints an artsy stroke onto the staunchly conventional Hollywood genre, which you might have guessed would happen from its unusually artsy title.

Based on the novel—which itself is based on a true story—Andrew Dominik's drama shows the complicated relationship between guerrilla leader Jesse James (played by Brad Pitt) and his obsessed follower Robert Ford (played by Casey Affleck).

Abstract, original, and character-driven, the film was hailed for its mesmerizing cinematography and poetic narration.

10. Stagecoach (1939)

Directed by John Ford

Starring John Wayne, Claire Trevor, Andy Devine

Adventure, Drama, Western (1h 36m)

7.8 on IMDb100% on RT

Artistically influential as well as a commercial milestone, Stagecoach is the Western that triggered the Western genre. Long before John Wayne established himself as the Western icon, another John was establishing the genre itself: John Ford.

Director of My Darling Clementine and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, John Ford was the first "auteur" director and he shot the first of many Westerns in Monument Valley for Stagecoach.

Questionable Native American representation aside, Stagecoach unravels over the course of a journey from Arizona to New Mexico, during which four strangers get to know one another.

Somehow, not only did Stagecoach set the pitch for Wild West movies, but it also eclipsed the genre before it even began!

9. The Revenant (2015)

Directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Will Poulter

Action, Adventure, Drama (2h 36m)

8.0 on IMDb78% on RT

The Revenant looks a little different from most Westerns because you don't have the creaky saloon doors and sandy village roads with gunslingers shooting at the feet of victims to make them dance.

Instead, in The Revenant, there's snow everywhere and and Leonardo DiCaprio's beard is frozen stiff with icicles as he plays the real-life frontiersman Hugh Glass in 1823.

Fighting off bears, enemies, starvation, and frostbite, Hugh Glass must traverse the unforgiving ice caps of South Dakota. Not only that, he also has links to a Native American tribe, haunted by the spirits of his Pawnee family (which he welcomes on his lonesome journey).

8. Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Directed by Ang Lee

Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Heath Ledger, Michelle Williams

Drama, Romance (2h 14m)

7.7 on IMDb88% on RT

Gay cowboys are a huge LGBTQ+ archetype, mainly because of their over-the-top machoism and tendency to work alongside each other... alone. There's even a whole song called "Cowboys Are Frequently, Secretly Fond of Each Other."

That said, as widespread as the archetype is, Brokeback Mountain is the only real gay cowboy movie in mainstream cinema.

Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger star as the denim-wearing men-of-few words who must hide their affair in the Wyoming mountains while getting married and having kids per society's expectations.

Passionate, heartbreaking, and a huge milestone for queer cinema, Brokeback Mountain is a tender tale of love and masculinity. (For more of this vibe, check out the recent short film Strange Way of Life, starring Ethan Hawke and Pedro Pascal. Yee-haw!)

7. The Searchers (1956)

Directed by John Ford

Starring John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles

Adventure, Drama, Western (1h 59m)

7.8 on IMDb94% on RT

The Searchers is not only a Western landmark, but also an incredible, finely tuned piece of cinematic craftmanship that influenced the industry forever. What Citizen Kane did for deep focus, The Searchers did for framing—and it's feverishly studied as a masterclass in storytelling.

However, the John Wayne ranger-hunter classic can't be separated from its context. The whole Western genre is born (as filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer once said) from a history of genocide, and The Searchers is a particularly potent example of this.

The Searchers presents a "savage" Native American stereotype (similar to what The Birth of a Nation did for African-Americans) and for that it has to be knocked down several pegs from number one.

6. No Country for Old Men (2007)

Directed by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen

Starring Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin

Crime, Drama, Thriller (2h 2m)

8.2 on IMDb93% on RT

It's Joel and Ethan Coen again with yet another entry on this list, coming out well ahead of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.

Despite being just some guy with a dodgy haircut and few words, Anton Chigurh (played by Javier Bardem) is one of the most intimidating villains in cinema. Chigurh isn't out to destroy the world, but he is killing strangers with a captive bolt pistol, straight-faced and with little reason.

The Coens give equal weight to the desert plains of the American Frontier and the violent, cowboy-hatted characters that occupy it. No Country for Old Men is a truly tense, unforgiving neo-Western book adaptation that refuses to rush itself.

5. Django Unchained (2012)

Directed by Quentin Tarantino

Starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio

Drama, Western (2h 45m)

8.4 on IMDb87% on RT

Quentin Tarantino is known for having skipped film school and learning everything about the craft by watching movies.

This inevitably included watching Westerns, which clearly had an influence on him, especially in Django Unchained. (He'd later try again with The Hateful Eight, but that one flopped by comparison. His first stab at the genre is undoubtedly his best.)

Most Westerns gloss over the fact that slavery was thriving across the South at the time, but Django Unchained puts a spotlight on plantation brutality when Django (played by Jamie Foxx) is literally unchained, taken in by a German bounty hunter (played by Christoph Waltz), and wreaks revenge on the white man (played by Leonardo DiCaprio).

4. The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966)

Directed by Sergio Leone

Starring Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach, Lee Van Cleef

Adventure, Western (2h 58m)

8.8 on IMDb97% on RT

The term "Spaghetti Western" was born during the genre's heyday, when Italian filmmakers took on the American Frontier and imbued it with excessive violence and distinct camerawork.

The subgenre is mostly thought of in conjunction with Sergio Leone, who directed the first Spaghetti Western in 1964 with A Fistful of Dollars, starring Clint Eastwood.

That was followed up by Leone's The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, which was actually a chronological prequel that succeeded so well that it became the iconic symbol of the Western film.

The extreme eye close-ups in the tense lead up to a climactic pistol duel was also turned into a Western trope (and later a cinematic convention), which can be traced back to The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

3. There Will Be Blood (2007)

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Ciarán Hinds

Drama (2h 38m)

8.2 on IMDb91% on RT

Many have heard that The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is Quentin Tarantino's favorite film, but he also loves There Will Be Blood! Paul Thomas Anderson is the bold and meticulous epic filmmaker who chopped, sanded, and polished There Will Be Blood like a true auteur.

The Western genre has strict conventions, but it's often the deviant movies that break out and stand above the rest. ("Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist," as Picasso once put it.)

To that end, There Will Be Blood exchanges end-to-end butchery and valiant, Old-American cowboy heroes for a milkshake-thirsty antihero and a 15-minute opening that's devoid of dialogue.

Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Dano both give tour-de-force performances, going head-to-head as oilman and priest in 1890s California.

2. Shane (1953)

Directed by George Stevens

Starring Alan Ladd, Jean Arthur, Van Heflin

Drama, Western (1h 58m)

7.6 on IMDb97% on RT

In this day and age, people are more likely to have watched X-Men than any classic Western. But if you've seen Logan—arguably the best X-Men film even though it's technically a spin-off—then you might have wondered what Shane was all about.

The recurring motif of Shane in Logan was employed as a narrative mirror of the stranger-turned-father-figure trope. The code of the lonely American outlaw with a compromised moral compass. The sentiment of sacrifice. These aren't just themes shared by both films, but prevalent ideas in the Old West itself.

Shane is not only a visual treat, but a bittersweet heartwarmer about a wandering gunslinger (played by Alan Ladd) who eventually finds his lost sense of home, directed by George Stevens.

1. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

Directed by Sergio Leone

Starring Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Claudia Cardinale

Western (2h 46m)

8.5 on IMDb96% on RT

People frequently argue about which Western film is the greatest of them all. And sure, the discussion might be moot because taste is subjective... but there's a reason why Once Upon a Time in the West is so widely considered to be the unmatched winner.

Directed by Sergio Leone, this epic Spaghetti Western marked the perfect close to the Western's golden era as it tells a legendary tale of mysterious hitmen, fugitives, and railroad barons fighting over land in Arizona.

Sergio Leone chased it down with a Prohibition-themed gang film sequel called Once Upon a Time in America that you'd be forgiven for thinking was directed by Martin Scorsese!

More Honorable Mentions

If you've gotten this far and enjoyed most of the films above, then you're definitely a fan of Westerns! Here are several more recommendations to sink your saddle into:

  • Red River (1948)
  • The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
  • High Noon (1952)
  • Johnny Guitar (1954)
  • The Magnificent Seven (1960)
  • The Wild Bunch (1969)
  • Tombstone (1993)
  • Maverick (1994)
  • The Quick and the Dead (1995)
  • 3:10 to Yuma (2007)
  • Rango (2011)
  • Lawless (2012)
  • The Beguiled (2017)
  • The Harder They Fall (2021)