From 'Rio Bravo' to 'Brokeback Mountain': 7 of the Best Westerns of All Time

Courtesy of Everett Collection
'Once Upon a Time in the West'

With Tommy Lee Jones' 'The Homesman' hitting theaters Nov. 14, THR's film critics pick their favorites from a still-vital genre

This story first appeared in the Nov. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

RIO BRAVO (1959)

Directed by Howard Hawks with his sly sidearm grace, this is top-of-the-genre stuff. How can you miss with Walter Brennan at his crotchety best, Dean Martin's jittery portrayal of an alcoholic gunslinger, Ricky Nelson strumming out a heartfelt tune, Angie Dickinson as the upstairs girl with the heart of gold and — the icing on the cake — surly, stubborn John Wayne, who vanquishes the bad guys in the end? — DUANE BYRGE

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THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (1962)

John Ford's masterwork about a lawyer (Jimmy Stewart), a farmer (John Wayne), the woman they love (Vera Miles) and a gun-toting bully (Lee Marvin) is filmed with the director's typical precision and majesty. It also weaves big themes — masculinity, violence, the West's shift from lawlessness to order, the power of myth and memory — into a tale that has the force of a fable and the lingering ache of a sad poem. — JON FROSCH

HUD (1963)

Martin Ritt's superb black-and-white film draws a contrast between an upright cattle rancher (Melvyn Douglas) and his son, the amoral, seductive Hud (Paul Newman) — a new breed of Western antihero. Certain works by John Ford and Howard Hawks included sexual byplay, but few could match the wit and tension of scenes between Hud and the slatternly housekeeper played by Patricia Neal. — STEPHEN FARBER

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ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1968)

In this epic Spaghetti Western, Sergio Leone tells the story of the railroad's bloody expansion toward the Pacific. From its trademark opening, which builds giddy tension out of boredom and a buzzing fly, to the Ennio Morricone-backed duels, the film is gritty and mythical, glorious and violent. But Leone's greatest feat was turning nice guy Henry Fonda into a sadistic killer, offing men and children alike with a cool smile. — JORDAN MINTZER

MCCABE & MRS. MILLER (1971)

A Western for people who don't like Westerns, Robert Altman's portrait of a gambler (Warren Beatty) and a madam (Julie Christie) immerses the viewer in the mud and blood of frontier life. Now seen as one of the finest works of the genre, it inverts all the classic tropes: Heroism is a sham, love is weaker than money or opium, and there's no nobility in death. — LESLIE FELPERIN

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THE SHOOTIST (1976)

Has any screen icon ever had a more perfect cinematic swan song? Don Siegel's elegiac Western stars John Wayne in his final role as a reformed gunfighter dying of cancer. From the chemistry between Wayne (who gives one of his finest performances) and co-stars Jimmy Stewart and Lauren Bacall to the climactic showdown, the film is a fitting, deeply moving tribute to its legendary star. — FRANK SCHECK

BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (2005)

"The gay cowboy movie" — in which the love that unexpectedly electrifies two herdsmen (Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal) in 1963 Wyoming continues to smolder for the next 20 years — is the best Western of this still-young century. The titular mountain represents both a real physical space and an imagined land where the two would be allowed to love each other. The former is real; the latter, heartbreakingly, is not. — BOYD VAN HOEIJ

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