The Searchers (1956)
This movie isn’t just a classic western, it’s one of my selections for the top 10 greatest movies of all time. The story is great, but try to notice the cinematography that is employed along the way. Watch for the way John Ford frames his shots, and the emotional intensity that it creates. A core component of all westerns is the sense of isolation that the main character typically feels and his unflinching, uncompromising adherence to his moral code (whatever that code may be). The final scene of the movie is one of my all-time favorites, and is the perfect picture of heroic isolationism. This movie touches on revenge and forgiveness, relentless pursuit, and the meaning of love, family and belonging, and is worth seeing again and again.
Once Upon A Time In The West (1968)
If Stagecoach created the archetype for the early Western in cinema, Once Upon A Time In The West turned those archtypes on their heads. Director Sergio Leone (the father of the “spaghetti western”) has created a masterpiece of depth, style, and pacing. He brilliantly cast Henry Fonda against type as the sadistic killer Frank, one of the first Westerns to have the lead actor portray the villain. Pay particular attention to the terrific musical score and Leone’s use of close-ups. Leone borrowed freely from High Noon, The Searchers, and Shane but still created a unique vision of the old west and helped change the tone of the Western for a new generation of movie-goers.
The film that single-handedly brought the Western back into cinematic prominence. Directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, the movie is a brilliant treatise on the myth of the heroic gunslinger, the consequences of violence, and aging. The movie strips away any glamour present in the four earlier films on this list. This old west is a dirty, brutal place of moral ambiguity. Most characters are neither heroes nor villains and many continue to change in mind and soul as the movie progresses. The act of killing someone (and the consequences of that act) has rarely been treated with such thought and care in any previous Westerns.