During the age of mood rings and free love, your average cowboy didn’t stand a chance. The sixties were the last stand of the Western, the genre’s Alamo. But before fading into relative obscurity, there was an explosion of Westerns that showed that vitality remained in the genre of Wayne and Eastwood — whether people recognized it or not — breathing new life into the American myth and creating another ten years of dazzling films. Cynical, savage, strange, bloody, and classic — here are the top ten Westerns of the sixties.
10. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
The film starts with a funeral — and no wonder: director John Ford was effectively paying his last respects to the genre he pioneered. But Ford uses the chance to push the Western into postmodern territory, with a story of multiple conflicting perspectives. James Stewart and John Wayne embody opposing forces, and the result is a self-referential, deconstructive Western that — while it drags a bit — serves as a fitting introduction to the sixties, clinching the tenth spot.
9. El Dorado
Director Howard Hawks showed that he wouldn’t let the Western go down without a fight by making El Dorado, a true crowd-pleaser and throwback. While other pics of the era struggle to reinvent the horse opera, El Dorado allows the formula to work, and it does. Yes, the tale of a tough sheriff trying to defend his town from outlaws might seem familiar — the movie’s a spot-on remake of Hawks’s own Rio Bravo — but you know what? It’s still superb. For sheer old-fashioned audacity, El Dorado edges into the ninth spot.
This realistic, character-driven Western shows a lifestyle that has run its course — a West that holds little value or hope for Hud, a rancher’s son. The flick can be tough to watch, given its symbolic slaughter of diseased cattle, but Paul Newman’s terrific, a cowboy anti-hero — arrogant and rebellious, wounded and angry. More a modern character drama presaging the seventies than a conventional Western, Hud‘s ranking of number eight sounds about right.
The Magnificent Seven is The Dirty Dozen on the high frontier. Its cast of miscreants — working for money but eventually fighting for higher values — have plenty of roguish appeal and present a fun variation on the usual white-hat-versus-black-hat dynamics. Meanwhile, the all-star firepower of Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, and James Coburn made the movie enough of a crowd-pleaser that The Magnificent Seven makes the seven spot its rightful roost.
6. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
The famed charismatic outlaws — played by Paul Newman and Robert Redford — provide a brief respite to the Western’s death knell. At its core, Butch Cassidy is a buddy movie with a countercultural edge: Butch and Sundance are basically a couple of shaggy hippies, leading a bohemian lifestyle and sticking it to the man by robbing banks. All the same, the movie’s still a little syrupy for my admittedly maudlin taste, leaving this duo in the middle of the pack.
5. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
No, the central character isn’t Clint Eastwood but dirt, grime, spit, the blazing sun, and the howling wind. While earlier Westerns made frontier towns seem like rustic suburbs, Leone’s
ill-mannered West is spattered with blood. This final entry in the Dollars Trilogy sums up the best qualities of the lot, even ending in a showdown to end all showdowns. It speaks to the quality of the decade’s other Westerns that Leone’s masterpiece lands only at number five.
4. The Great Silence
Hollywood could never make a Western as nihilistic as The Great Silence, an Italian import. Unfolding in the middle of a blizzard, the movie’s icy atmosphere penetrates every frame, in which bounty hunters kill Mormon rebels for money under the guidance of Klaus Kinski. Kinski makes an all-time great villain, and the darkness of the movie melds with the snowbound setting to create a surreal environment. But it’s the gut-dropping ending — unique in the Western canon — that lands the movie at number four.
3. The Shooting
Low budget and starring Jack Nicholson, The Shooting unfolds with the menace of a bad acid trip, perfect for the sixties. Nicholson is a heartless gunslinger moving with the relentlessness of death itself, but his actions take place in a fog. Running just over 80 minutes, this psychologically thrilling flick packs a punch with an enigmatic ending that will leave you reeling and ranks right up there with The Twilight Zone for mind twists. For its ragged beauty and its story, the little-known Nicholson work makes the top three.
2. Once Upon a Time in the West
With this operatic epic, the Western was given a sentimental send-off that makes the myth of the West seem real and new again. Visually stunning in every respect, it begins with a bravura credit sequence that’s one of the greatest movie openings ever. But most importantly, Once Upon a Time operates as an encyclopedia of past Westerns, packing every convention known to man into the film — the Mexican standoff, the train robbery, you name it — in a kinetic collage. As the summation of decades of Westerns, the pic claims the runner-up position.
1. The Wild Bunch
Sam Peckinpah’s bloody masterpiece, squeezing into the last year of the decade, was a visceral curtain call for the Wild West — the Western’s apocalypse, ending in a massacre to end all massacres. A symptom of the Vietnam era, the movie is a mess of conflicted sympathies: its heroes are bandits (albeit bandits whose fault is honor), and the good guys are immoral and ultimately victorious. Both a thoroughly modern movie and a fitting paean to the Western, The Wild Bunch hits the bull’s-eye and earns the No. 1 spot.