It is the single genre that is wholly American; even though other countries have made their own Westerns, the American Western remains the purest form of the genre. The Western is part of the culture of the United States, a part of their history, of the building of a nation. As the nation was bound together by two silver bands called the railroad, civilization came with it, though it did take time. Hard men settling in a harsh landscape, at war with the wilderness, the natives and themselves as many took the right to right, just as many went wrong. Life was cheap, justice was dealt out with a gun, it was a hard time to be alive.
The American West history lasted just thirty-five years, but the amount of history crammed into the time is remarkable. From Boot Hill to Cheyenne to Deadwood to Tombstone, lives were lived and lost, men and women became the stuff of legend. An array of characters highlighted the history, with great stories exploring the heroes, often elevating it to mythical proportions. Billy the Kid, Jesse James, Wild Bill Hickcock, Wyatt Earp, Calamity Jane, Buffalo Bill are just some the names that became legends from the Old West.
Hollywood began exploring the Old West as it was dying, the first great western being Edwin S. Porter’s ‘The Great Train Robbery’ (1902) which was a twelve-minute short, a by-the-book text-book on how to rob a train. During the silent era, Wyatt Earp was an adviser on movies, bringing an authenticity to the films that was remarkable. Westerns did not catch on with audiences until the late thirties, being popular as serial films through the decade, Tom Mix being the biggest star. Gene Autry was the singing cowboy of the thirties, but it was an unknown actor named John Wayne who would become the genre’s greatest star, working with legendary director John Ford.
Ford was the first filmmaker to take his camera and crew outside to make a Western, heading to Monument Valley where the rugged terrain and towering rock peaks dwarfed the actors, making clear the accomplishment of having tamed the country. With ‘Stagecoach’ (1939), the western became an art form and box office, and Wayne would become a major star for the next forty years. Most of the films he starred in were Westerns—three are on this list—and he became the poster boy of the American Western.
The greatest of them are often dark tales of angry men churning with turbulent emotions, doing things that will haunt them for the rest of their lives. The central theme of the Western tends to be one of these: man vs man, man vs the landscape and man vs himself. The best of them manage to bring all these three together and in their collision, art is born. With all that said, here’s the list of top western movies ever made. You can stream some of these best western movies on Hulu or Amazon Prime.
15. Django Unchained (2012)