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47 voters

The Top 25 Must-See Quintessential Western Movies

Updated October 1, 2019 455 votes 47 voters 1.4k views25 items

List RulesVote up the Western movies that define the genre and should be required viewing for beginners in an Intro to Westerns class.

For years in the United States, Western movies were the most popular films around. Before we ever launched a man into space, kids everywhere wanted to be cowboys as they represented humanity bravely exploring uncharted territory. A lot of this perception had to do with Westerns, which often glorified life on the wild west and presented cowboys as heroic figures. At one point in time, John Wayne was America's hero and everyone rushed to theaters to see the latest Westerns. If you want to understand American film, these are must-see movies. 

However, Westerns have been on the decline in recent years, especially after Blazing Saddles provided a sharp deconstruction of the genre that highlighted some of the less savory details of life on the frontier. However, Westerns are nevertheless important to cinematic history as they helped refine filmmaking tropes and techniques during the height of their popularity. If you're ready to learn more about the influential genre, consider these Western movies for beginners! 

There are hundreds, if not thousands of Westerns, but these are the essential Western movies everyone should watch. You can use this list as an intro to the genre that brought us classics like High Noon and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Watch these famous Westerns and then give your favorites a thumbs up below. 

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  • Video: YouTube
    The Searchers is a 1956 American Technicolor VistaVision Western film directed by John Ford, based on the 1954 novel by Alan Le May, and starring John Wayne as a middle-aged veteran who spends years looking for his abducted niece, accompanied by his adoptive nephew. Critic Roger Ebert found Wayne's character, Ethan Edwards, "one of the most compelling characters Ford and Wayne ever created". The film was a commercial success, although it received no Academy Award nominations. Since its release, it has come to be considered a masterpiece, and one of the greatest and most influential films ever made. ...  more
    • Actors: John Wayne, Natalie Wood, Vera Miles, Ward Bond, Lana Wood
    • Released: 1956
    • Directed by: John Ford
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  • Video: YouTube
    Rio Bravo is a 1959 American Western film produced and directed by Howard Hawks and starring John Wayne, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson, Angie Dickinson, Walter Brennan, and Ward Bond. Written by Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett, based on the short story "Rio Bravo" by B. H. McCampbell, the film is about the sheriff of the town of Rio Bravo, Texas who arrests the brother of a powerful local rancher in order to help his drunken deputy/friend. With the help of a cripple and a young gunfighter, they hold off the rancher's gang. Rio Bravo was filmed on location at Old Tucson Studios outside Tucson, Arizona in Technicolor. In 2014, Rio Bravo was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically...  more
    • Actors: John Wayne, Dean Martin, Angie Dickinson, Ricky Nelson, Walter Brennan
    • Released: 1959
    • Directed by: Howard Hawks
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    True Grit is a 1969 American western Technicolor film written by Marguerite Roberts, directed by Henry Hathaway, and starring John Wayne as U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn; Wayne won his only Academy Award for his performance in this film and reprised his role as Cogburn in the 1975 sequel Rooster Cogburn. Historians believe Rooster was based on Deputy U.S. Marshal Heck Thomas, who brought in some of the toughest outlaws. The picture is the first adaptation of Charles Portis' 1968 novel True Grit. The supporting cast features Glen Campbell, Kim Darby, Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper and Strother Martin....  more
    • Actors: John Wayne, Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper, Wilford Brimley, Strother Martin
    • Released: 1969
    • Directed by: Henry Hathaway
    16
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    El Dorado is a 1966 American Western film produced and directed by Howard Hawks and starring John Wayne and Robert Mitchum. Written by Leigh Brackett and loosely based on the novel The Stars in Their Courses by Harry Brown, the film is about a gunfighter who comes to the aid of an old friend—a drunken sheriff struggling to defend a rancher and his family against another rancher trying to steal their water. The gunfighter and drunken sheriff are helped by an aging Indian fighter and a young gambler. The supporting cast includes James Caan as the young gambler, Charlene Holt, Paul Fix, Arthur Hunnicutt, Michele Carey, and Christopher George. El Dorado was filmed on location in Tucson, Arizona...  more
    • Actors: John Wayne, James Caan, Robert Mitchum, Ed Asner, Jim Davis
    • Released: 1966
    • Directed by: Howard Hawks
    10
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