In Hollywood’s beginning, there was the Western.
Put a white hat on one person, a black hat on another, give them each a gun and point them toward one another.
Add horses, a frontier facade and innocent townsfolk caught in the crossfire, and it’s 90 minutes (or so) of drama and action, made on the cheap and guaranteed to pile up the quarters at the early 20th-century box office.
The movies shaped our view of the Old West and launched tourism industries in small towns that retained their turn-of-the-century appearance.
Here are 10 influential Westerns that told tall tales while shaping our views of the country’s rough-and-tumble frontier history.
‘Treasure of the Sierra Madre’ (1948)
Not the first movie to follow desperate men on a hunt for gold, but one of the best. The film belongs to Humphrey Bogart as a hard-luck miner who comes across a grizzled prospector who swears there’s treasure in Mexico. It’s not so much about the hazards of mining but the dangers of finding what you’ve sought, especially when word gets out.
‘High Noon’ (1952)
This Western set the bar for showdowns. Gary Cooper plays the clock-watching marshal who just hung up his guns after getting married. But when he finds out that trouble (and the gang leader he sent to prison) is on the noon train, he returns to finish what he started. The tension builds as the townspeople abandon him one by one until it’s high noon. Though it would be criticized today for its predictability, it was iconic in the golden age of Westerns.
‘The Searchers’ (1956)
The John Ford-directed classic may not have put Monument Valley on the map, but it gave the nation a desire to visit. John Wayne co-stars with the landscape as a Confederate soldier on a mission to rescue his niece from Comanches. You could debate for hours the racist overtones of the film (which can’t be written off by saying it was shot in different times), but its scope and complicated themes brought some heft to the genre.
‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ (1966)
Millennials may be surprised to learn that this was a film and not just a way for sportswriters, columnists or movie reviewers to list the best and worst of the year. Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach play the titled characters who battle over a fortune hidden in a cemetery. But there’s so much more going on in the last of Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti Western” trilogy (following “A Fistful of Dollars” and “For a Few Dollars More.”)
‘The Wild Bunch’ (1969)
Director Sam Peckinpah lets the bullets fly and blood flow in this tale of an aging gang trying to hold onto the last vestiges of the Old West of 1913. The outlaws, who include a grizzled Ernest Borgnine, ride to Mexico for one last job. It doesn’t go as planned, resulting in a ballet of violence perfectly choreographed by Peckinpah.
‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’ (1969)
The pairing of Paul Newman and Robert Redford elevated this film as well as the genre. After yet another robbery puts a posse on their trail, Butch Cassidy (Newman) and the Sundance Kid (a young and dashing Redford) make haste for Bolivia. The adventure with a sharp sense of humor earned two Oscar nominations, for Best Picture and Best Director (George Roy Hill). It lost Best Picture to “Midnight Cowboy” (not a Western).
‘High Plains Drifter’ (1973)
A Western that puts the “rev” in revenge. Clint Eastwood is the Stranger who appears out of nowhere to protect a peaceful mining town from outlaws. He proves his worth by picking off a few gunslingers, but he is hardly a good Samaritan. By the time the town discovers the Stranger’s true motives, it’s too late. Add a dash of the supernatural and you have a Western happy to play with the tropes of good vs. evil.
‘Blazing Saddles’ (1974)
Mel Brooks turns the genre on its head with bad puns, slapstick humor and a campfire scene near and dear to any fourth-grader’s heart. But for all its zany humor, it worked well as a social satire of race relations. Cleavon Little played the black sheriff with a wink and a knowing smile because the laughs were at the expense of the town.
‘The Unforgiven’ (1992)
Westerns were all but ready for Boot Hill when Clint Eastwood climbed back into the saddle as a retired gunfighter who picks up his sidearm one more time to take on a heavy-handed sheriff and his cronies. The movie earned four Oscars, including for Best Picture, Best Director (Eastwood) and Best Supporting Actor (Gene Hackman).
Though 1957’s “Gunfight at the OK Corral” got the legend rolling, “Tombstone” is the one that got it right. Starring Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp and Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday, historians and enthusiasts alike give this movie high marks for accuracy. Add Sam Elliot and Bill Paxton as Virgil and Morgan, and it’s the best Earp clan since the original.