There is a genre of movies I call “Modern Westerns,” movies that have themes of the fading of the Old West, and others that have a definite Western flavor. It’s odd since the “Old West” didn’t really last that long. For example, when the Comanche invented the culture of “American Indians riding across the Great Plains in feathers on horseback chasing buffalo,” Native Americans didn’t even have horse culture – not until Spanish horses escaped and began breeding in the wild and Spanish Indian slaves escaped and taught other Indians how to care, train, and ride horses. For all practical purposes the American Indian of popular imagination only existed from the Great Pueblo Revolt in 1680 to the Battle of Wounded Knee in 1890, or about two hundred years.
The Old West of “cowboys and cattle drives” has an even a shorter history. The Colt Revolver didn’t become popular or common until the Republic of Texas purchased them for the Texas Rangers. Cattle drives to railheads feeding the Midwest beef market weren’t common until after the American Civil War. The Old West of “Cowboys & Indians,” gunfights on Main Street, and wagon trains really only lasted from about 1850 to 1890 or about forty years. We’ve been making movies about the end of the Old West longer than that.
These are my top ten “Modern Western” films. My only criteria for this list are movies I can think of that are Modern West in nature, or have the theme of the end of the “Old West”. There will be some I’ve missed and some that are out of print. Rancho Deluxe is a movie about modern day cattle rustlers starring Jeff Bridges and Slim Pickens. It’s a nice dramatic comedy, but it’s out of print. Feel free to disagree. This is simply a list of Modern Westerns I think might be worth watching. Their ranking is simply my opinion.
1) The Shootist (1976) This is John Wayne’s last movie and a movie about an aging gunfighter with cancer. It’s John Wayne’s best performance in the latter half of his career. This has to be the considered the greatest “End of the Old West” movie ever made simply because of the iconic symbolism of John Wayne playing an aging gunfighter in his last movie. John Wayne was Hollywood’s greatest Western star, and John Wayne and John Ford invented the serious Western with Stage Coach (1939). It stars John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Lauren Bacall, Richard Boon, Hugh O’Brian, John Carradine, Ron Howard, and Henry Morgan. That’s a great cast!
2) Lonely are the Brave (1962) This is my favorite film on this list. This movie encapsulates what this article is all about. Kurt Douglas plays an anachronistic cowboy in the American Southwest. He breaks out of jail and is chased down by the sheriff played by Walter Matthau. Kirk Douglas is pursued by airplanes, helicopters, jeeps, radios, and telephones, and is only foiled by a skittish horse trying to cross a busy highway in the rain. This is the ultimate “freedom against authority” movie!
3) No Country for Old Men (2007) The Coen Brothers got Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Javier Bardem won for Best Supporting Actor. So this has to be on a list of the best Modern Western movies ever made.
4) Giant (1956) This bigger-than-Texas soap opera epic may be too big and epic for modern tastes, but it’s about West Texas in the transition from longhorn cattle to oil. It stars Rock Hudson, Liz Taylor, Carol Baker, Chill Wills and of course James Dean.
5) Hell or High Water (2016) Jeff Bridges plays a retiring Texas Ranger out to catch bank robbers in modern day West Texas. This is a classic Western except the Texas Rangers drive SUVs, the Indians own casinos, and in Texas concealed carry laws sure can complicate a robbery! This is a must see film for any Western fan.
6) Hud (1963) Paul Newman is the ultimate early 60’s bad boy in this Modern Western drama. Patricia Neal won an Academy Award for Best Actress. Melvyn Douglas won for Best Supporting Actor in a Supporting Role. The famous cinematographer James Wong Howe won for cinematography.
7) Bronco Billy (1980) Quirky sleeper by Actor/Director Clint Eastwood about a modern wild west show. Clint Eastwood is the modern successor to John Wayne as the most iconic western actor. He also directed and starred in the best American Western since the Searchers (1956): Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992) won four Academy Awards.
8) Flesh and Bone (1993) This underrated film is about an unsolved murder in west Texas and the people affected. Meg Ryan, Dennis Quaid, James Caan, and Gwyneth Paltrow in one of her earliest roles.
9) City Slickers (1991) This Billy Crystal comedy was the fifth highest grossing film of 1991.
10) Sicario (2015) Mexico’s “narco” wars make Mexico the third most dangerous war zone in the world after Syria and Afghanistan, so it shouldn’t be any surprise that two films on this list deal with the consequences of the drug war spilling over the US-Mexico frontier. Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, and Josh Brolin all give excellent performances.
The Wild Bunch (1969) Sam Peckinpah’s classic is a pure Western about a group of aging outlaws chased into Mexico during the Mexican Revolution of 1910.
Tom Horn (1980) Steve McQueen’s last movie and a true story about the last of the Western gunfighters.