Red Dead 2: 15 Fantastic Western Films To Watch After Playing RDR 2
By Dan Auty on
The western has had a long and strange history, which has seen it change from being one of the most popular movie genres, for decades until the 1960s, to one of the least popular in the '80s and '90s. But while interest in the Old West has varied, it's an era that has continued to fascinate filmmakers, from the earliest days of cinema to the present day, both in the US and in other countries. This is a genre that allows directors to experiment with conventions, address social and political issues, and introduce other genres into mix--from horror westerns to comedy westerns, via brutal bloodbaths, thrilling action, and haunting introspection. Some of the greatest actors and directors of all time became famous for their work in the western, and there are exceptional examples still made every year.
The influence of the western stretches beyond the theater, too--to TV, comic books, and video games. When Red Dead Redemption was released in 2010, it was met with rave reviews and massive sales. This was a game that threw the player into an incredibly immersive version of the old west and Mexico, one that drew heavy influence from western movies. Grizzled hero John Marston was clearly based on Clint Eastwood's Man with No Name, the violence was straight out of Tombstone or a Peckinpah movie, and the grand vistas of the west took their inspiration from the classic movies of John Ford and John Wayne.
Red Dead Redemption 2 has finally released on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, and fans can expect an even more detailed, immersive world in which to work, kill, and explore. If you've been playing it to death since its launch, chances are that you're just about finished and are likely in the mood for more stories like it. Lucky for you there's a pantheon of amazing Western films out there that'll satiate your desires. Here are 15 must-see westerns that show the great breadth of the genre. Let's saddle up and ride into town.
If you're keen to learn more about the upcoming open-world western, read our Red Dead 2 review. Red Dead Redemption 2 is adding a bunch of exciting new mechanics that are incredibly exciting and intriguing, so be sure to check out our in-depth feature showcasing them all. Though, if you're more intrigued about the game's development and some of its major inspirations and influences, you should read our feature discussing how previous Rockstar games, like Bully, Max Payne 3, and L.A. Noire impacted its mechanics.
In the meantime, tell us which western films you love the most in the comments below!
1. The Man With No Name Trilogy (1964/1965/1967)
Dir. Sergio Leone
For decades, the Italian film industry was known for churning out its own variation on successful American genres, whether horror, sci-fi, or crime movies. Sergio Leone's classic western trilogy--A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly--kickstarted the spaghetti western cycle that lasted throughout the late-'60s and '70s. It also made a star of Clint Eastwood, who would himself go on to direct several classic westerns. Leone's movies stripped the genre down to its most basic elements, as Eastwood's unnamed bounty hunter navigates a ruthless, immoral West with few words and lots of shooting. All three movies are marked by their violence, dark humour, and stylish direction, with Ennio Morricone delivering a series of iconic, inventive soundtracks.
2. Django (1966)
Dir. Sergio Corbucci
If the Man With No Name is the best known of all the spaghetti western heroes, then Django is easily in second place. Unlike Eastwood and Leone's great character, Django has been played by a variety of actors across many films, and to date, there are more than 30 Django movies. But the man most associated with him will always be the Italian icon Franco Nero, who starred in Sergio Corbucci's classic original. Django is a former soldier who find himself caught up in a race war between American soldiers and Mexican bandits a few years after the end of the Civil War. Django is a gritty, thrilling movie with heavy political overtones that was highly controversial at the time for its levels of violence and torture, but now stands as a true cult classic.
3. The Great Silence (1968)
Dir. Sergio Corbucci
Sergio Corbucci is best known for Django, but with The Great Silence, he delivered one of the all-time great spaghetti westerns. Set in the snowbound mountains of Utah (although shot in the Italian Dolomites), it features the great French actor Jean-Louis Trintignant as a mute gunslinger who roams the countryside, in pursuit of those he perceives as evil. His main target is Loco, a terrifying killer played by cult favourite Klaus Kinski. The Great Silence is about as pessimistic and cynical as westerns get, with the incredible location photography and intense performances making it a must-see, particularly in the beautiful restored blu-ray that was released earlier this year.
4. The Wild Bunch (1969)
Dir. Sam Peckinpah
The late '60s was a watershed time for American cinema, when the depiction of sex and violence in studio movies increased, thrilling younger audiences but also causing considerable controversy amongst older viewers and critics. Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch was a key movie at this time, one which waved farewell to an older era of western cinema. A group of veteran outlaws face the end of the line while they are pursued by their former gang-member turned lawman, and take on a dangerous mission for a corrupt Mexican general. The movie is best known for its incredible, blood-splattered, slow-motion final gun battle, but the whole movie is a masterpiece that is by turns brutally violent and deeply moving.
5. Once Upon A Time In The West (1969)
Dir. Sergio Leone
While the Dollars trilogy are Sergio Leone's best known westerns, his true masterpiece is Once Upon A Time In The West. Leone planned to retire from the genre, but an offer from Paramount to direct and the chance to work with screen legend Henry Fonda convinced him otherwise. Fonda plays against type by portraying a ruthless killer, and the movie centers around a land battle over the construction of a railroad. It's a long and often slow film, but utterly engrossing, with a morally ambiguous characters and a dark, pessimistic tone very different to the more cartoonish fun of the Dollars movies.
6. McCabe And Mrs. Miller (1971)
Dir. Robert Altman
Robert Altman tackled many genres across his long career, from the war comedy M*A*S*H* to the Hollywood satire The Player and the murder mystery Gosford Park, but his films are unified by his interest in character over story and a determination to do things his own way. McCabe and Mrs. Miller is his brilliant western, in which a gambler called John McCabe (Warren Beatty) sets up a brothel in a small town with the help of drug-addicted English traveller Constance Miller (Julie Christie). It's a strange film, with a loose structure, jarring editing, and disorienting sound design. But it's utterly intoxicating, the amazing photography, hypnotic atmosphere, and a fascinating refusal to play by the rules of the genre making it one of the best westerns of the '70s.
7. High Plains Drifter (1973)
Dir. Clint Eastwood
By 1973, Clint Eastwood had already started his directing career, and followed his debut Play Misty for Me with his first western as director. High Plains Drifter is an offbeat movie that took influence from the work of Sergio Leone rather than other American directors, such as John Ford or Howard Hawks. Eastwood again plays an unnamed stranger who is hired to protect a town from some very bad men. But while the material was generic, the movie is not. The eerie tone and atmosphere feels more like a supernatural horror movie than a western, and it's packed with wonderfully surreal touches. It might not be as well known as some of Eastwood's other westerns, but it's up there with the best.
8. Unforgiven (1992)
Dir. Clint Eastwood
The script for Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven was written by Blade Runner's David Webb Peoples, and was first given to the director/star back in the early '80s. But knowing that he was not yet old enough to play the role of veteran killer William Munny, Eastwood waited a decade, until he was in his 60s, to direct and star. The result was an all-time classic; a dark, brooding meditation on violence and redemption. The incredible cast includes Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, and Richard Harris, and the movie went on to win four Oscars. Unforgiven remains one of the most powerful westerns ever made, which strips away the clichés of the genre while also delivering so many of the elements that fans love.
9. Tombstone (1993)
Dir. George P. Cosmatos
1993 was the year of Wyatt Earp, with two movies released within six month of each other, both based on the legendary lawman. Kevin Costner's Wyatt Earp is a well crafted and very traditional western--but Tombstone is way more fun. It actually had lots of behind-the-scenes problems, with director George P. Cosmatos brought on to replace original director Kevin Jarre during production. But you wouldn't know it--it's a fast-moving, thrilling action western, with Kurt Russell perfectly cast as Earp, and a stellar supporting cast that includes a scene-stealing Val Kilmer (as Doc Holliday), Sam Elliott, Bill Paxton, and Michael Biehn.
10. Dead Man (1995)
Dir: Jim Jarmusch
Jim Jarmusch made his name for quirky deadpan indie comedies in the '80s, and in 1995 he tackled his first pure genre movie. Of course, Dead Man is as strange and idiosyncratic as you'd expect from Jarmusch. For a start, it's shot in crisp black-and-white, and while many classic early westerns were obviously in monochrome, it's unusual choice for a modern one. Johnny Depp stars as William Blake, a man from the city who heads west after his parents die and his financée leaves him. This begins a strange trip in which he is accompanied by a Native American called Nobody. Depp spends much of the movie dying from a gunshot wound, and along the way Jarmusch offers a strange, darkly funny, and ultimately very moving film about mortality, technology, and coming to terms with the past. It also features a blistering solo guitar score by Neil Young, which he performed in a single take while watching the movie.
11. The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (2006)
Dir. Andrew Dominik
One of the best westerns of the 21st century, this is an adaptation of the 1983 novel of the same name, with Brad Pitt as legendary outlaw Jesse James and Casey Affleck as fellow bandit Robert Ford. The movie flopped at the box office and there were various behind-the-scenes battles between director Andrew Dominik, who wanted to make a dark, meditation on fame and legend, and the studio who (inevitably) hoped for a faster-paced, more action-packed move. The resulting film definitely favours Dominik's approach more, and this haunting, atmospheric, beautifully-made telling of this famous story lingers in the mind long after the end.
12. True Grit (2010)
Dir. Joel & Ethan Coen
The Coen's brothers' previous attempt at remaking a classic movie--2003's The Ladykillers--was one of their worst films, so there was some trepidation about this new adaptation of the John Wayne favourite True Grit. But there was no need to worry. Jeff Bridges takes on the role of "Rooster" Cogburn, a hard-drinking, rule-breaking lawman, who is hired by a 14-year-old girl to find the outlaw who killed her father. The Coens blend their trademark quirky humor with more traditional western conventions in a hugely satisfying way. It's one of their most accessible movies and it turned out to be their biggest box office by far, making $252 million worldwide, a hugely impressive result for any western in 2010.
13. Django Unchained (2012)
Dir. Quentin Tarantino
For his first western, Quentin Tarantino borrowed the name of the legendary spaghetti western hero, and delivers a movie that, like Sergio Corbucci's classic Django, uses the western format to address issues of race and prejudice. Jamie Foxx plays a slave who is granted his freedom in return for helping a bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) track down a pair of killers. This initial quest soon turns into a search for Django's wife, who is being kept by a cruel landowner, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. As you'd expect from Tarantino, Django Unchained is a movie that skirts constantly around the edges of taste, but for those who can take some of the subject matter, it's hugely entertaining, as it lurches from serious social and historical commentary to over-the-top, blood spurting violence and back again. It also contains some of the most memorable acting in Tarantino's filmography, in particular Foxx's relentless, determined Django and DiCaprio's charming but rage-fuelled slave owner.
14. The Revenant (2015)
Dir. Alejandro G. Iñárritu
The production of Alejandro G. Iñárritu's award-winning western survival movie was beset with problems--including budget overruns and crew members quitting--and when you watch it, it's easy to see why. There are few films that have created such a believably harsh environment for its characters, as we watch a recreation of the story of Hugh Glass, a frontiersman and fur-trapper who made an epic 200-mile journey across a savage landscape to get revenge on the men who left him for dead. Leonardo DiCaprio finally won an Oscar for his portrayal of Glass, and the movie is a harrowing, thrilling experience of the type only cinema can deliver.
15. The Hateful Eight (2015)
Dir. Quentin Tarantino
Tarantino's second western is a very different movie to Django Unchained, and in many ways is most reminiscent of his classic debut Reservoir Dogs. Set mostly in one night, it places eight strangers in a stagecoach lodge during a blizzard. Things start tense and get worse from there, as bodies start dropping and paranoia start to creep in. This being a Tarantino movie, it's long and talky, but the dialogue is as sharp as ever and the incredible cast--including Tarantino veterans Kurt Russell, Samuel L. Jackson, Tim Roth, and Michael Madsen--make it utterly compelling viewing.