How The West Was Won: 7 Great Cowboy Movies

Friday, February 17 by Joseph Gibson

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You're probably familiar with the American Cowboy from his appearances in cigarette advertisements and giant Las Vegas neon signs. But did you know that he was once the subject of countless feature films, both from America and around the world? It's true! Here are seven of the best cowboy movies ever. Yee-haw, and whatnot.

"Stagecoach"

There were cowboy movies before "Stagecoach," but they were mostly aimed at little kids. John Ford's seminal western changed all that and ushered in the era of the cowboy movie, thanks to its mature themes, elegant style, and breakthrough performance from none other than John "A Cowboy" Wayne. The stunts and action are exciting, the emotions resonant, and Wayne is at his youthful best.

"Red River"

Just one of the many dark, mature westerns to come from Hollywood in the 40s and 50s was "Red River," one of Howard Hawks' best contributions to the genre. The story spans many years, covering the ups and downs of a cattle-driving outfit run by John Wayne and Monty Clift. One of the most impressive sequences in a movie that's full of them is a brutal stampede scene, showing wagons and people alike being crushed underfoot by a herd of rampaging cattle.

"Rio Bravo"

 

Another great Howard Hawks western, this one part of what Quentin Tarantino called the "hangout movie" genre. And can you think of a cooler bunch of cowboys to hang out with than John Wayne (again), Dean Martin, and Walter Brennan? The scenes of them sitting around shooting the breeze are just as important to the movie as the climactic shoot-out with the bad guys-in fact, they're more important.

"The Searchers"

OK, no more John Wayne movies after this, we swear (although there are a bunch more you should watch). In what many critics agree is his greatest performance, Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, a Civil-War-veteran-turned-criminal who is deputized to find his niece Debbie, who was taken by Comanches after her family was slaughtered. The problem is that Edwards is so twisted by racism and bigotry that he doesn't plan to rescue Debbie, but to kill her since she's been violated by the hated tribe.

"The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly"

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Not all cowboy movies were made in America. There was a small cottage industry of them in Italy-these westerns are known as "spaghetti westerns" and they can be just as exciting as the American cowboy movies they're emulating. One of the best of the bunch is "The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly," featuring Clint Eastwood in the role that made him a star. The shoot-outs are long, the close-ups extreme, and the story classic.

"The Gunfighter"

One of the things that has kept cowboy movies so relevant is their ability to impart important lessons in between all the shooting and adventure. The lesson of "The Gunfighter" is simple: It's not easy being on top. Gregory Peck is the titular cowboy, and he's recognized far and wide as the fastest gun in the West. Consequently, he's constantly being harassed by young bucks who think they can earn the crown. So next time you wish you were the best at something, remember to make sure you're up to the challenge.

"Blazing Saddles"

Not all cowboy movies are serious business-at least not the ones from Mel Brooks. His cowboy spoof "Blazing Saddles" is one of the funniest movies ever made, and star Cleavon Little makes as good a cowboy as these other guys (if you can get past the whole height thing). You also have genuine certified cowboy Slim Pickens in a supporting role, so this is a great movie to watch if you're in the mood to hang out with some cowboys but you also want to laugh so hard it hurts.