The history of the Western in movies goes back to the early days of Hollywood. Some of the earliest silent movies were Westerns, such as The Great Train Robbery and some of D.W. Griffith's early one-reel westerns. Indeed, when the movie industry was first blossoming in then-rustic California, the Old West still existed in many ways, so many of the western actors and stunt men included real-life cowboys, gun-slingers, stagecoach drivers, and other western heroes.
The best western movies always combined the grittiness of the real old west with a romanticism that only Hollywood could bring, creating a very specific Western world that movie audiences all around the globe can recognize.
The first great true western is John Ford’s The Iron Horse (1924). Though born in Ireland, John Ford would prove to be America’s greatest western filmmaker, and his epic about the forging of the transcontinental railroad stands the test of time as an exciting, moving adventure.
Ford would later bring the Western into the sound era with the classic Stagecoach (1939), a film that introduced John Wayne to the world. Stagecoach is considered by many to be the classic Western by which all others are judged. Its structure, characters, and action are a perfect prototype: from the band of misfits coming together, the harlot with a heart of gold, and the final shootout in the street between the good guy in a white hat and the bad guy in a black one.
Howard Hawks dipped his hat in the Western stream several times, most profoundly with Red River (1948), another film starring Wayne. The rare film where John Wayne plays against type as a villain, Red River tells a multi-generational tale of adopted sons, wayward fathers, and the history of Texas.
The anti-communist paranoia of the early 50s created the environment for a very different kind of Western in Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954). The film in many ways is more of an intellectual melodrama (Ray’s specialty) than a true Western, but the setting is entirely old west and the film ends in a classic western confrontation. Star Sterling Hayden would later re-appear in Dr. Strangelove and The Godfather.
The 1960s were a changing time for society and classic westerns began to be fall out of fashion, with older directors like Ford and Hawks either retiring or finding smaller and smaller audiences for their work. Into this gap came the Italian western filmmakers, most prominent among them Sergio Leone. His Fistful of Dollars was a wholesale re-make of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, but Leone quickly perfected his craft and produced 1966’s The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. For many this is the first “modern” Western, with a morally ambiguous anti-hero, brutal violence, and a darker vision of the Old West. Star Clint Eastwood would come to define the modern western in the way that John Wayne defined the classic genre.
Eastwood later matured into a talented director in his own right, and in 1992 led the neo-Western revival with the powerful Unforgiven, a film that examines the morality and psychology of these romantic guns for hire. The film was so well-written and crafted that it became the first true Western to win the Oscar for Best Picture since 1931.
There are many more great examples of this quintessentially American genre, but these titles are a wonderful starting point for the budding Western fan.