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10 Great Westerns That Brought the Western Back During Their Time

By Ken Miyamoto · August 1, 2022

10 Great Westerns That Brought the Western Back During Their Time

The popularity of western films has always ebbed and flowed, but here are 10 great westerns that brought the genre roaring back.

Despite not being as prevalent in the 21st century, westerns never really left the public eye — they just became less and less of the go-to genre in Hollywood as social and political culture changed, as well as the studio system that relied more and more on international box office receipts to help recoup production costs.

The early silent film days saw the western genre as the go-to for stories, partially because the audience still identified with those times, but once sound came into the picture, musicals, and subsequently, many other genres, became preferable amongst movie-goers.

The Good, The Bad And The Ugly

The Good, The Bad And The Ugly

However, westerns came roaring back into popularity in the 1930s until the 1950s, found new life during the rise of television, took a dive cinematically in the 70s, and experienced another peak in the 1990s with films like Dances with Wolves, Unforgiven, and Tombstone. Most recently in the 21st century, westerns have become most popular among auteurs like the Coen Brothers and Quentin Tarantino.

The western genre will always be there. It’s just a more niche audience these days. But box office elements only partly measure the success of the genre. It’s still one that captures the imagination of the audience, transporting us to another time that is long gone.

With that in mind, here we present ten great westerns (and their scripts) that brought the genre back during their time.

Scripts from this Article

10 Great Westerns That Brought the Genre Back

3:10 to Yuma (2007)

A small-time rancher agrees to hold a captured outlaw who’s awaiting a train to go to court in Yuma. A battle of wills ensues as the outlaw tries to psych out the rancher.

The original film had its merits, but this remake benefits from a bigger budget, better writing, and the experience of seeing two talented actors (Russel Crowe and Christian Bale) chew the scenery. The script itself, written by James Mangold, revels in the most classic elements of western themes —good vs. bad, virtue vs. evil, man vs. man, civilization vs. lawlessness, etc. We see a protagonist and antagonist that are somewhat mirrors of each other in many ways — to the point where they begin to relate with one another. But their personal natures and ethics hidden deep within them cause the inevident choices each has to make to survive.

The gunslinger is very prevalent in many of the great westerns of our time. And this film delivers on that ten-fold as we see numerous gunfights, stand-offs, and tension-filled sequences of gunslinger thrills and action.

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Robert Ford, who’s idolized Jesse James since childhood, tries hard to join the reforming gang of the Missouri outlaw, but gradually becomes resentful of the bandit leader.

Based on the novel of the same name, the script, written by Andrew Dominik, offers us one of the most atmospheric and realistic portrayals of the Old West, and the bank-robbing bandits that terrorized it over time. We have the western go-to characters of gunslingers, paired with another western trope — bank and train robbers.

In this case, we’re told the true story of legendary Old West icon Jesse James. Many westerns look back to the dime novel heroes of the time for stories of the reckless and lawless ways of the Old West. And you’ll find few that manage to take us back into time as much as this one. While there are gunfights and robberies, this brilliant film focuses on the stories of these characters’ lives in between those action-packed moments. We’re shown the costs of being famous as an outlaw versus those that put those outlaws — and their lifestyles — on a pedestal.

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Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

Wyoming, early 1900s. Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid are the leaders of a band of outlaws. After a train robbery goes wrong they find themselves on the run with a posse hard on their heels. Their solution – escape to Bolivia.

This was one of the non-Eastwood westerns that brought the western genre back in the eyes of the paying audience during a time when the genre was struggling to regain relevance. Once again, we have the western trope of bank and train robbers. But this time, we’re shown the glorified version of that story, where the robbers live the good life in a seemingly fun and exciting lifestyle.

However, that comes to a halt as the turn of the century proves to be the beginning of the end for our two heroes, Butch and Sundance, and their outlaw ways. Their days of living large and free are coming to an end. And we watch as the contemporary world slowly closes in on them until a tension-filled iconic gunfight introduces their face once and for all.

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Dances with Wolves (1990)

Lieutenant John Dunbar, assigned to a remote western Civil War outpost, befriends wolves and Native Americans, making him an intolerable aberration in the military.

At a time when westerns were essentially dead in Hollywood and thought to be box office poison, Kevin Costner directed, produced, and starred in this classic tale adapted from Michael Blake’s bestselling novel (which started as a screenplay that Kevin Costner told him to adapt into a novel first) of the same name. The film subverts most of the classic western tropes of Native Americans as “others” to be feared. Instead, we’re given a look into their peaceful existence until the White Man began to invade their lands and kill their people.

We have a unique protagonist that is done with killing and hatred, only wanting to experience the beauty of the frontier before it is gone. Just as he is welcomed into the Sioux community, he’s pulled back into his old world, forcing him to make a choice between where he came from, and who he has now become — Dances with Wolves. It’s part romance and part Frontier Western, with the historical backdrops of the Civil War.

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The Hateful Eight (2015)

In the dead of a Wyoming winter, a bounty hunter and his prisoner find shelter in a cabin currently inhabited by a collection of nefarious characters.

The western genre meets Quentin Tarantino. While Tarantino had dabbled in western elements in Django Unchainedthat story was set in the South amidst the dark era of slavery. The Hateful Eight represents a more niche western subgenre of snow westerns. westerns like The Great Silence and The Day of the Outlaw showcased settings where characters were confined in places during heavy snowstorms. This story element injects even more conflict as characters are forced to deal with one another without the possibility of escape. The compelling aspect of this film is also the marriage of the western and Agatha Christie-like mystery. Stories like And Then There Were None and Ten Little Indians introduced multiple characters that presented a mystery to be solved — one of them was a killer. This created a thrilling, albeit contained, element to the western that had plenty of western tropes within, including bandits, bounty hunters, Civil War soldiers, gunslingers, outlaws, and cowboys. It stands the test of time because it’s one of the most unique westerns we’ve ever seen.

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The Revenant (2015)

A frontiersman on a fur trading expedition in the 1820s fights for survival after being mauled by a bear and left for dead by members of his own hunting team.

Part Frontier western and part Revenge western, The Revenant balances the two western subgenres with stellar location shooting and a fierce Oscar-winning performance by Leonardo DiCaprio. We truly feel like we’re back in the 1820s in the decade’s most bleak underbelly of the frontier. It feels real. Too real. And the intense story grows when the protagonist is left for dead, betrayed by his own men. Revenge is a continual trope of westerns, and this is perhaps one of the greatest examples of how that theme can pull in an audience. Revenge is a primal emotion and goal. It is one that creates instant empathy for those seeking it. Amidst all of that is a film that gives us a true sense of how vast the frontier was. And that is yet another example of the strength of the Frontier western subgenre — we want to see what it was like when there was such an undiscovered frontier. Movies like Dances with Wolves and The Revenant offer a look into what that may have been like.

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Tombstone (1993)

Famous lawman Wyatt Earp’s plans to retire anonymously in Tombstone, Arizona are disrupted by the kind of outlaws he was famous for eliminating.

Known by many as one of the greatest westerns ever made, offers us almost all of the themes and imagery we look for when we watch a western. We have cowboys, lawmen, outlaws, saloons, gunslingers, gunfights, good vs. evil, right vs. wrong, and, again, revenge. Debuting alongside the Kevin Costner-starring Wyatt EarpTombstone manages to be the better option by choosing a window in the life of the iconic character instead of trying to tell his whole life story.

The script is almost mythical in its portrayal of the real-life characters. If there were ever a throwback to the dime novel portrayals of the Earp brothers (and Doc Holliday) and the foes they faced, this is it. Evil is evil. Good is good. And there’s no gray area between the two in this film, which is also a throwback to the grand gunslinger and lawmen westerns of the 1930s through the 1950s.

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Unforgiven (1992)

Retired Old West gunslinger William Munny reluctantly takes on one last job, with the help of his old partner Ned Logan and a young man, The “Schofield Kid.”

While 1990’s Dances with Wolves brought the western back, Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven offered an amazing 1990s sophomore followup by subverting the gunslinger western subgenre that Eastwood himself practically created with his Spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s and 1970s. If the Jesse James film featured above showed us the life in between gunslinging and robbing, Unforgiven shows us what happens when these mythical figures reach their twilight years after having stepped away from their killing ways. Now the themes of atonement and dealing with demons and past sins hits these almost anti-hero protagonists. The script plays on nearly all of the cliches found in old gunslinger westerns, but not in a self-sacrificing way. Instead, we’re given a more realistic point of view on each of them from the hindsight of aging outlaws and aging lawmen struggling to cling to their own legend.

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The Wild Bunch (1969)

An aging group of outlaws looks for one last big score as the “traditional” American West is disappearing around them.

Much like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid the same year, The Wild Bunch featured bank and train robbers dealing with the turn of the century, and the dying Old West. The year is 1913. The first automobiles are being seen within the west, threatening to replace the trustee horses the men of the Wild Bunch have been riding their whole lives. And now they’re looking for one last score to ride off in the sunset with. The stars of the film had previously been featured in the more romantic age of the Old West shown in the westerns of the 1940s and 1950s.

What stands out most about this classic is the controversy behind it. It was the first truly brutal depiction of Old West violence — and controversial because of it during its release. It was bloody, gory, and depicted bloodshed and carnage in a more realistic way of the times. It wasn’t just the heroes and villains dying amidst the gunfire. Bystanders were killed. Women were used as human shields. The film became an inspirational piece for up-and-coming filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, John Woo, and Quentin Tarantino (among others), all of whom offered their own raw and violent visions within their respective gangster flicks.

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Young Guns (1988)

A group of young gunmen, led by Billy the Kid, become deputies to avenge the murder of the rancher who became their benefactor. But when Billy takes their authority too far, they become the hunted.

Yet another example of a film that “brought back” the western during their respective decades, Young Guns managed to accomplish something additional — it introduced the genre to the younger generation. The script, written by John Fusco, focused on the true story of the Regulators that Billy the Kid rode with early in his outlaw career — all of which were in their late teens and early twenties.

In the 1980s, youth cinema was huge thanks to the films of John Hughes and other iconic offerings. So the perfect storm of young characters and young actors collided, offering audiences a chance to see some of their favorite heartthrob Hollywood stars play cowboys and gunslingers. Thankfully, the script, filmmaking, and performances were so good that the film managed to become one of the more memorable westerns of contemporary cinema. Billy the Kid has been portrayed in hundreds of films and television series throughout the history of cinema — and this portrayal of the character is perhaps the most memorable so far.

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The western has experienced many rises in popularity throughout history. Though its heyday has long since passed, it’s certainly a genre that is kept alive by filmmakers who were inspired by it. We’ll have to wait and see if the next generation of filmmakers, who didn’t grow up watching countless westerns in the theater or on TV, will continue that tradition or if they’ll reinvent it entirely to create something new and exciting. Maybe they will be the ones to blaze the trail for the next iteration of this classic American genre.

Scripts from this Article