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The Most Accurate Movies About The Wild West

Updated July 27, 2020 185.5k views14 items
Editor's Note: Voting and Reranking have been closed.

The best Wild West movies make you feel like you've been transported back in time for a couple of hours. They do this by creating a sense of realism, which can take many forms. Sometimes the film has costumes and weapons that are authentic to the time period. Other times, sets and locations do the heavy lifting, giving audiences a vibrant setting in which to get lost. From time to time, an actor's performance playing a real-life historical figure is what makes it all click. In the absolute best cases, all of these things are present. 

Have you ever wondered which of the best Old West movies are also the most realistic? That's what this list will determine. Westerns have been around virtually from the dawn of cinema, along with Western TV shows. Of course, those of the 1920s are much different than those of the 1960s, and they, in turn, are different from those of the 1990s. Regardless of when they were released, a number of Westerns have at least a degree of realism.

In each of the below entries, we will look at what the movie in question gets right in terms of historical accuracy and where it falls short. Vote up the top Wild West movies based on which ones you think are the most accurate. 

  • The Covered Wagon is a silent Western released in 1923. Based on the novel of the same name by Emerson Hough, it follows two caravans making the trek from Missouri to Oregon. 

    What It Gets Right: The film represents one of the earliest examples of a motion picture going above and beyond in the name of authenticity. Paramount Pictures and director James Cruze did not build replicas of covered wagons. Instead, they hired people whose families owned real wagons that had actually been used by pioneers to move west. Those people knew how to drive them, too. 

    Where It Falls Short: Some critics and Western blogs, like Jeff Arnold's West, have noted that, in focusing on just these two caravans, the movie fails to "address the epic scope of the great trans-continental treks and the settlement of the frontier."

  • Brad Pitt portrays Jesse James and Casey Affleck is Robert Ford in this look at the events leading up to the titular slaying.

    What It Gets Right: The moment in which Ford takes out James has been meticulously recreated by director Andrew Dominik. This is as faithful a dramatization of that event as can be, based on known facts. Perhaps most telling is that the film has been praised for its accuracy by the James Family Preservation Trust, run by one of Jesse's descendants. They say that when watching Brad Pitt's performance, "the public meets Jesse James as they would in real life, with his public persona on display, masking a very complicated person beneath." 

    Where It Falls Short: In depicting the Blue Cut train robbery, James's aggressive side - which included smashing in people's faces - is emphasized. In reality, he also showed a more genial side, allegedly helping a woman who fainted and returning the money he took from her. 

  • Tyrone Power and Dean Jagger star in the 1940 Western about the title figure, the newly appointed leader of the Mormon Church who leads his followers to Utah. 

    What It Gets Right: Brigham Young gets across how influential Mormonism was in the establishment of the American West. Throughout Utah, the Mormons built farms, churches, and schools, and also laid out irrigation systems. The West would not have become what it did without their efforts. 

    Where It Falls Short: The film downplays certain elements that were controversial about the Mormon Church, most notably polygamy. It additionally leaves out crucial details that provide context to the character of Joseph Smith, including the fact that he once burned a printing press that was critical of his leadership. Perhaps most egregiously, it falsely portrays Young as defending Smith in court, which never happened. 

  • Billy the Kid (Emilio Estevez) and his cohorts the Regulators seek revenge against the individuals responsible for slaying their benefactor. 

    What It Gets Right: As portrayed in the 1988 film, the Regulators did become deputized. That gave them a certain sense of legitimacy they otherwise would not have had. How some of the characters look, with unkempt facial hair and rotting teeth is also accurate, as personal hygiene products were not what we know them to be today. 

    Where It Falls Short: Bounty hunter Buckshot Roberts did not hunt down the Regulators in real life. That's a fictional creation on the movie's part. The truth is that they ambushed him as he was trying to pick up a check for the sale of his ranch because they thought he might have been responsible for the slaying of John Tunstall.