Selecting the 10 best old cowboy movies isn't as straightforward as it sounds. Most people consider westerns and cowboy movies to be different terms for the same film genre. They are not. Cowboy movies are films that involve cowboys, ranchers or the handling of livestock as a central part of the plot. Thus, movies that focus on gunfighters, cavalry and India fighting without some explicit connection to cowboys are excluded from the list of ten best old cowboy movies.
“The Searchers” A taciturn, unpleasant Confederate cowboy returns home after the war to visit his family in Texas. When Comanches kill the family, the cowboy and a companion begin a years long search for his niece, the only survivor of the massacre.
“Shane” Farmers are trying to work their land and build a community, but a powerful cattle baron and his men are determined to drive them from the range. It looks like he will succeed until a reformed gunfighter appears on the scene and sides with the farmers. This is one of the best old cowboy movies because it is based on true events.
“Red River” In desperate bid to save his ranch, a cowboy leads a cattle drive to new beef markets. But, he is such a viscous, tyrannical boss on the trail that his own son leads a coup against his leadership.
“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence” Cattlemen run the territory and hire a brutal cowboy to terrorize the farmers and keep them in line. The farmers are frightened into compliance until a greenhorn lawyer from back east shows up to challenge the most violent of the cowboys and his henchmen. This is one of the best old cowboy movies because of the star power of John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Lee Marvin and Vera Miles.
“The Ox-Bow Incident” A prominent local rancher has been murdered and his cattle rustled. Cowboys form a posse led by a former Confederate major to pursue the killers. The suspense builds in this movie as doubt about the guilt of the perpetrators begins to conflict with the determination of the cowboys to hang the suspected killers regardless of the evidence.
“Dodge City”The town mayor hires a cowboy as marshal to clean up the crime in a cattle town. This is one of the best old cowboy movies because it features another pairing of one of the screen's most famous movie couples, Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland.
“The Virginian” A cowboy originally from Virginia leads the fight for ranchers against rustlers and squatters. When the law fails to act, he lynches rustlers, including one of his own friends. This old cowboy movie is based on the same events as “Shane,” except that it tells the story in a manner sympathetic to the cattle kings.
“The Big Country.” A retired sea captain visits the ranch of the father of his new fiance and finds himself embroiled in a feud between competing families of ranchers. This old cowboy movie features an Oscar winning performance by Burl Ives.
“The Far Country.” A cattleman drives his herd to a town full of Alaskan Gold Rush miners and runs afoul of a self-appointed judge and his gang. This is one of the best old cowboy movies because it is loosely based on the life of famed Western character Soapy Smith.
“McLintock!” A cowboy movie based on one of Shakespeare's plays? It's hard to believe, but that's the basis of this old cowboy movie. The wife of a prominent rancher who left him years ago decides to return home only to find that in her absence, her husband has hired a sexy housekeeper to take care of him. The sparks fly, resulting in John Wayne giving a spanking to beautiful Maureen O'Hara.