The Western genre has evolved greatly through its more than a hundred years of existence. From silent tales of honor and dignity, through the iconic look of John Ford and the coolness of Clint Eastwood, all the way to the deconstruction of the genre, each decade has had its share of the genre. The first years of the 20th century saw the Western become part of Hollywood’s agenda, and from the ’40s to the early ’60s, the genre reached its “golden age.”
From the ’60s onward, a much-needed reinvention of ideas and conventions found the genre-shifting toward the present. A new generation of filmmakers gave Westerns their own twist, eventually spawning a variety of subgenres that have been explored all the way into the present. Contemporary works like The Keeping Room, Power of the Dog, or The Rider, where a female-led cast or non-traditional masculinity is at the forefront of the movie, respectively, show just how exciting and diverse the genre has become.
With a rich past, an exciting present, and a bright future, Westerns are more alive than ever. These are the best of each decade, ever since the dawn of the twentieth century.
Updated January 14, 2024: This article has been updated with additional Westerns from the current decade, along with where to stream them.
The Great Train Robbery (1903)
One of the first-ever Westerns was made when the myth of the Old West wasn’t even that ingrained into society. The stories and legends of the American Frontier still managed to find their way into the American public through word of mouth and pocket novels, and so it arrived all the way to the East Coast in the mind of film pioneer Edwin S. Porter. The 12-minute silent film conveyed the story of a group of outlaws who plan to rob a train in the southwest. The gang not only succeeds in taking off with the look but also terrorize the passengers on board.
The Great Train Robbery Is The True Pioneering Western
The creator of over 250 films between 1901 and 1908, Edwin S. Porter, made this crisp short film a thrilling ride for its time. With breakneck pacing, innovative cinematography techniques, and enormous potential, The Great Train Robbery became even more iconic because of its final shot consisting of the lead bandit taking aim at the audience, bringing viewers into his world of thrill and danger. In a way, Porter’s creative storytelling laid the framework for structuring the narrative for a Western. Martin Scorsese paid homage nearly 90 years later, ending Goodfellas similarly. Stream on Kanopy
Hell’s Hinges (1916)
Before Clint Eastwood, even before John Wayne, there was William S. Hart. This legend from cinema’s silent age was the first superstar of Westerns, who typically embodied characters who were honorable and morally incorruptible. In the one-hour film Hell’s Hinges, he plays a dangerous gunman named Blaze Tracy, who is commissioned by the local bartender and his accomplices to run out of town a recently-arrived priest and his sister. In turn, he is won by their sincerity and stands in their defense.
Tortured Gunslinger And His Silent Redemption
Directed by Charles Swickard, Hell’s Hinges came into movies just when the Western genre had begun to bloom. With Hart playing the intense anti-hero and bringing his Shakespearean to every scene, it was impossible for the film not to stand out. His conflicted knack for justice fuels every pulse-pounding cinematic shootout. While the drama and suspense were heavy and artistic enough, the complex character study hooked audiences. Hell’s Hinges proved that Westerns could also be a sophisticated form of entertainment. Stream on The Roku Channel
Speaking of William S. Hart, the old master continued with this underrated 1925 film, which was also his last. Self-financed, produced by and starring him, Tumbleweeds depicts the Cherokee Strip land rush of 1893. The movie sees his character, Don Carver, lighting up for one last adventure. This time however, he simply wanted to buy some land and settle down with Molly Lassiter, whom he fell in love with at first sight. Marked by warmth and wisdom, the movie celebrated Hart’s indelible impact on turning westerns into vehicles for storytelling.
Tumbleweeds Is An Iconic Cowboy’s Final Ride
In 1939, Tumbleweeds was revived by Astor Pictures and enjoyed another theatrical run. The film now began with an eight-minute monologue by William S. Hart in which he reflected on the Old West and his heyday. This was the only time audiences ever heard his voice, which is much more moving when put in the context that Tumbleweeds was his last ever film. By the mid-’20s, however, audiences were no longer interested in Hart’s brand of westerns, for which he was subsequently dropped by Paramount. Despite its critical praise, the film performed mildly at the box office and has been largely forgotten, which is a huge shame. Stream on Fubo TV
Despite being director John Ford’s first Western in over a decade, Stagecoach is to this day one of the most important Westerns ever made. It redefined the genre by being more than what it promises. Its profound narrative is really an allegory for the formation of The United States. The plot follows a group of people traveling on a stagecoach as they learn from one another through the journey and its perils. Being locked in a tense and claustrophobic environment really sets the stage for massive character studies. One of John Ford and John Wayne’s most enduring classics provides fantastic insight into social classes, prejudice, and change.
The Timeless Appeal of Ford-Wayne Collaboration
Stagecoach is a must-watch for any enthusiast of the Western genre because of its ability to keep creeping forward toward a greater sense of understanding. Ford sharpens his genius for layered narratives and riveting action set pieces to comment on a society that is ever-evolving. As for John Wayne, the actor comes into his own alongside veterans like Thomas Mitchell, Claire Trevor, John Carradine, and more. From the landscape to the sparse dialogue, the film is simply an hour-and-a-half-long masterpiece of the genre. Stream on Prime Video
My Darling Clementine (1946)
My Darling Clementine is one of the few times when John Ford and Henry Fonda came together to create an enduring classic. The film, which follows the legendary Western character Wyatt Earp and his brothers, is a beautifully romantic revenge story. Arriving at the town of Tombstone for a night of rest, Earp wakes up and discovers that one of his brothers has died and their cattle are stolen. Despite the urgency of the plot, the Western remains unique in the legendary director’s filmography for its patient pacing and tone. It’s a quiet masterpiece that often gets overlooked compared to the many that Ford has made.
Why My Darling Clementine Is A Cultural Touchstone
Few director-actor combos were as successful as John Ford and John Wayne. However, people often forget they had other classics aside from their Westerns, and people often forget, as well, that Ford was just as brilliant in his works as Henry Fonda. In the 1946 film, the director found boundary-pushing heights by unlocking a softer side to the genre. Its subtle and soulful amalgamation of romance, violence, and justice in the untamed West reminds you of the tenderness that lies beneath the rough. Fonda, as usual, imbues his character with both immense grit and vulnerability. Rent on Apple TV
The Searchers (1956)
The Searchers find Ford and Wayne at the top of their capacities, creating a morally ambiguous Western whose influence is felt up to this very day. It concerns a Civil War veteran who, for years, searches for his abducted niece while being accompanied by his adopted nephew. For its underlying narratives tackling race relations, prejudice, and moral dilemmas, and its iconic use of the audiovisual language specific to the medium of film marked a before and after in not only Westerns but in cinema itself.
The Frontier’s Edge Has Never Been More Glorious
As long as there have been Academy Awards, there have been major snubs. The 29th edition of the Oscars left out, without a single nomination, one of the most lauded and influential motion pictures in film history. Only later has its impact been recognized, with the American Film Institute naming the film as “greatest American Western.” Like few other films before or since The Searchers radically changed the game by showcasing America’s darkest aspects. From the identity crises to shifting social sands, its bleak interpretation of what’s to come in the future poses more questions and concerns than answers and comfort. Rent on Apple TV
Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
As times and film changed, the 1960s saw an exhaustion of the traditional formula of Westerns. A new way of using the genre came to be through the brilliant mind of Sergio Leone. His reinvention of the genre came to be known as “spaghetti westerns” and was very different from your traditional tales of the Old West. Once Upon a Time in the West follows the story of a mysterious harmonica-playing gunslinger who becomes the only person to protect Jill McBain’s life and newly inherited land from bandits scheming to seize it from her.
Leone’s Slow-Paced Western Is A Blessing To Cinema
Leone’s ‘Dollars Trilogy’ with Clint Eastwood began to cement his legacy, and by 1968, he created the definite western of the ’60s. Framed against the epic scope of America’s Western expansion, its surprising plot twists and intricate details make the film high art. Once Upon a Time in the West is an all-star affair featuring Henry Fonda unusually cast as a villain and a magnificent story made with the help of, surprisingly, Dario Argento and Bernardo Bertolucci. With Ennio Morricone’s humble score pulsing through like a heartbeat, the film is an homage to the genre as well as a step forward in it and has some of the best performances in any Western film. Rent on Apple TV
McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)
Described by director Robert Altman himself as an “anti-western,” McCabe and Mrs. Miller is a profoundly original and modern take on the genre. Witty, funny, romantic, and heartbreaking, the film is part of Altman’s great run in the early ’70s and uses the West as an excuse to talk about America itself. Set in the 19th-century Pacific Northwest, the plot follows a gambler and a prostitute who fall in love and do business together. Their initial success, though, is fatally doomed.
How McCabe & Mrs. Miller Subverts Clichés Within The Genre
Altman strips all conventions bare here. He recasts the West as an anti-romantic fairy tale and gives us a moldy and muddy picture of the frontier village. The period setting and the epic production value make even its bleakest aspects seem realistic and accurate. Warren Beatty and Julie Christie’s soulful leads are so fascinating that you cannot help but root for them to end up together. That said, the film’s iconic approach, landmark setting of snowy Vancouver, and a deeply depressing score by Leonard Cohen set it apart from any other Western ever made. Rent on Apple TV
Heaven’s Gate (1980)
Directed by Michael Cimino, Heaven’s Gate tells the story of County Sheriff James Averill, who is tasked with protecting immigrants in 19th-century Wyoming. But as change progresses and political tensions between the two parties rise, he finds himself embroiled in a game of betrayal and violence. Nate Champion, the man appointed by Averill to keep the stockmen in check, commits a crime and ends up in a feud with the Marshalls. The film follows a dispute between poor immigrants, wealthy cattle farmers, and the woman they love.
Heaven’s Gate Was Too Ahead Of Its Time
At its time, Heaven’s Gate was a commercial and critical flop, which is what happens when an epic film soars too close to the sun. Today, it’s seen as one of the most misunderstood films ever, and a masterpiece in its own right. The infamous production, which had numerous setbacks, influenced critics way before the film was in theaters and is said to have helped destroy the auteur approach of New Hollywood that had developed in the ’60s and ’70s. The new director’s cut of the film gave Heaven’s Gate a new place in history, and rightfully so; it proves to be arguably the most imaginative and accomplished western of its decade. Stream on Prime Video
Charting off into the ‘90s, we have Unforgiven. The film is directed by Clint Eastwood, who also stars in it. Fun fact: Eastwood had been offered the Unforgiven script since the early ’80s but held onto it for a decade until he felt he was old enough to play the lead. He plays William Munny, a former gunslinger and aging outlaw who gave up on his life of violence and remorseless killing after marriage and turned to fighting instead. He takes one last job to earn money for his family and is soon embroiled in a sadistic showdown.
Unforgiven Is The Story Of A Man With A Regrettable Past
The ‘90s were a golden period in Eastwood’s magnificent life when he allowed themes of the Old West to meet their twilight. The result was patient, morally complex, and mature Western films that marked Eastwood’s long relationship with the genre. Along with notable stars like Gene Hackman, Richard Harris, and Morgan Freeman, he crafted an achingly beautiful portrait of the toll violence takes on human life. His poised direction and acting are a poetic declaration of the genre’s influence on him and vice versa. Unforgiven still remains a touchstone of the genre, and the idea of an old retired gunslinger has been the basis for many popular stories, including Logan. Rent on Apple TV
No Country For Old Men (2007)
No Country for Old Men
The Coen Brothers have often played around the Western genre, from the sounds of The Big Lebowski to their remake of True Grit in 2010, but their definitive take on the genre is their 20007 film, No Country For Old Men. This Academy Award-winning masterpiece is led by career-defining performances from Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, and Tommy Lee Jones. The movie is a dark story about the death of the old West and the birth of a much darker new one; it follows the lives of various characters as one of them comes upon a bag full of drug money, a catalyst for the madness that follows.
No Country For Old Men Is A Neo-Western That Flows Like Poetry
The film is based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name, the narrative inhabiting the essence of Western conventions yet steering away from them in a fascinating way. Javier Bardem is malicious as Anton Chugar, playing an ever-changing game with Josh Brolin’s Moss. The movie is set against the backdrop of harsh landscapes, which makes for a complex and haunting mood. For its grim and unforgiving portrayal of modern border life, it surely is one of the most realistic modern Westerns and helped kick off a new-wave of Neo-Westerns for films like Hell or High Water, Logan, and Wind River. Stream on Showtime
The Rider (2017)
Westerns’ ongoing deconstruction is partly thanks to the diversity of filmmakers tackling it. This has allowed for cinematic joy that is The Rider to exist. This ultra-low-budget project follows Brady Blackburn, a once-promising rodeo star, as he adapts to his life as a horse trainer after his skull gets crushed and he is unable to return to riding. Directed by Chloe Zhao, who would later win an Academy Award for Best Director for Nomadland and get a big studio film with Marvel’s Eternals, the film is a gorgeous journey of acceptance. The Rider presents a very different approach to masculinity than the one traditionally found in Westerns.
Why The Rider Is A Tragic And Unconventional Masterpiece
One of the most poignant Westerns to date, The Rider creates a raw and intimate portrait of a man’s identity and his progress as he heals from a jarring life event. The film is led by non-professional actors, with breakout star Brady Jandreau delivering a grounded and graceful performance as the male lead. Sparse in dialogue, rich in experience, and driven by emotion, the movie is a contemporary classic that makes the Western genre more accessible to the new generation. It helped define Zhao as one of the best directors working today and alongside the release of Wind River and Logan that same year, 2017 was a great year for Westerns. Rent on Apple TV
Killers of the Flower Moon (2023)
Killers of the Flower Moon
Quietly examining America’s relationship with those people who turned it into the nation it is today, Killers of the Flower Moon is director Martin Scorsese’s latest epic. It adapts David Grann’s non-fiction book and depicts the true story of the Osage Indian murders in 1920s Oklahoma. The Osage people had become rich after oil was discovered beneath their land, but the darkness only cast upon their lives when Ernest Burkhart returned from World War I and married Mollie Kyle, an Osage woman with headlights, to get close to her family’s money.
Emotional, Brutal, and Magnificent
Robert De Niro, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Lily Gladstone lead a talented ensemble of layered and complex characters. Scorsese channels the same visionary storytelling he’s known for to shed light not only on a forgotten piece of American history and deconstruct the Western genre but also highlight the plight of the Native American people, a community often villanized in early Westerns like The Searchers and Stagecoach. Killers of the Flower Moon paints a horrific portrait of an unsettling time when criminal acts of injustice were shaping the country. From its attention to factual details to the pulsating score, this thought-provoking epic is destined to join the ranks of the most impactful films in the Western genre. Stream on Apple TV