The Greatest Western Films In All Of Cinema History

There was a time when John Wayne ruled theaters, starring in Western after Western to great critical acclaim. Audiences loved the genre, devouring every tale of gunslinging drama like there was no tomorrow. These days, that particular type of movie is largely out of fashion, but the influence of Wayne, John Ford, and other prolific filmmakers can’t be denied. 

Over the course of the decades, Westerns helped to form the face of modern-day cinema. Movies like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly hailed a new era in movie making, while others like Johnny Guitar became sleeper hits. Let’s take a look at the creme de la creme of cowboy capers. 

Year: 1956
Starring: John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, Natalie Wood
Est. Production Cost: $3.75 million*


Based on the 1954 novel of the same name, The Searchers brought in the best in the business. John Wayne held the starring role as an uncle trying to find his missing niece, played by Natalie Wood. According to famed movie critic Roger Ebert, Wayne’s character was “one of the most compelling characters the director Ford and Wayne ever created.”

Many of Ebert’s peers echo that sentiment, with The New York Times dubbing it a “ripsnorting Western.” By this point, John Ford was old-hat at directing movies in this genre but audiences were still eating it up, even though the director used the same stock of actors

Year: 1969
Starring: William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan
Est. Production Cost: $6 million*


Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch was subject to a lot of buzz even before it hit movie theaters. Many thought the over-the-top violence was crude and unnecessary, but ultimately, it’s remembered as a piece of cinematic art. Despite the controversy around it, the movie was nominated for two Oscars. 

Made on a relatively big budget for its time, The Wild Bunch proved a box office hit, taking $11 million in total. It fast became the 17th highest-grossing movie of 1969. This feature may not have raced to the top spot, but it’s still among the best of the best. 

Year: 1952
Starring: Gary Cooper, Thomas Mitchell, Lloyd Bridges, Grace Kelly
Est. Production Cost: $750,000*


This 1952 feature was released to much fanfare, largely because it starred a plethora of names like Gary Cooper, and the future Princess of Monaco, Grace Kelly. High Noon has it all, from beautiful women to a conflicted town marshal faced with a ruthless band of killers. What’s not to love? 

The movie is so highly regarded that in 1989 the National Film Registry selected it for preservation. This was especially notable as it was the NFR’s first year. John Wayne was originally set to star in the movie but declined as it went against his political views. 

Year: 1939
Starring: Claire Trevor
Est. Production Cost: $531,000*


It may be hard to imagine it now, but in 1939 John Wayne was still relatively unknown. When he partnered with John Ford for the role of Ringo Kid in Stagecoach, he was 32 and still waiting to catch his big break. This movie adaptation of a short story by Ernest Haycox proved to be the start of something amazing for both Ford and Wayne. 

Many critics have praised the story of a group of strangers traveling along a dangerous trail for being more than your bog-standard Western. Even viewers who aren’t fans of the genre can appreciate the complex characters and witty, clever script.


Year: 1962
Starring: John Wayne, James Stewart, Vera Miles, Lee Marvin, Edmond O’Brien
Est. Production Cost: $3.2 million*


Among many of the movies directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne is 1962’s Who Shot Liberty Valance. The black-and-white feature was another work based on a short story, but just like always, the boys managed to pull it off. 

This time, the plot focused on the funeral of a Texas man and one of the attendees, Senator Ranse Stoddard. Cue the flashback of the young Stoddard 25 years prior being brutally robbed by Liberty Valance. This feature proved popular with audiences, bringing in ticket sales of over $8 million, much to the delight of everyone involved.

Year: 1959
Starring: John Wayne, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson, Angie Dickinson
Est. Production Cost: $1.25 million*


1959’s Rio is the Western that just keeps on giving. For a start, it puts John Wanye with handsome crooner Dean Martin. The plot follows the sheriff of Rio Bravo, Texas, as he tries to fend off a troublesome rancher’s gang. The Howard Hawks feature was selected for preservation in 2014.

The politics behind the movie also caused a stir, as Hawks said it was a response to High Noon, a movie largely taken as a shot at blacklisting in Hollywood. Hawk said, “I didn’t think a good sheriff was going to go running around town like a chicken with his head cut off asking for help, and finally his Quaker wife had to save him.”

Year: 1971
Starring: Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, Rene Auberjonois
Est. Production Cost: $1 million*


McCabe and Mrs. Miller is largely regarded as a Western that isn’t really a Western at all. Although it looks like it does what it says on the tin, the premise of the feature diverts substantially from the usual mold. Warren Beatty and Julie Christie star in the 1971 movie which sees a gambler strike up a relationship with a woman of the night. 

Interestingly, Leonard Cohen’s music is the only score that the picture has, with three songs being utilized in an iconic way. Roger Ebert dubbed McCabe and Mrs. Miller a triumph, stating, “It is like no other Western ever made.”