In many ways, Cowboys were the first American superheroes. Even today, the cowboy theme permeates superhero stories, especially on the big screen. Take “Captain America: Civil War” and “Suicide Squad” for example; both are essentially stories about rounding up posses to achieve a set goal. The camaraderie within cowboy and superhero stories is another common thread, and one that audiences love to see unfold on the big screen. Whether it’s a close friendship, like the one between Steve Rogers and Sam Wilson, or a relationship based on mutual dislike, like Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes, seeing a band of heroes banter back and forth is a lot of fun. And seeing them commiserate over a tragedy can be cathartic.
Some of the best Westerns benefit from that same sense of connection, as well as slick action shots and, these days, awesome special effects. The cowboy teams in the following list toss each other insults and comebacks as well as any Justice League members, while the movies’ high production values make multiple viewings go down smooth. If you love superhero stories and films, you should definitely check out these 10 westerns!
10. The Lone Ranger (2013)
Armie Hammer as the Lone Ranger and Johnny Depp as Tonto have a fun chemistry that is reminiscent of Robert Redford and Paul Newman in their heyday. They bicker like an old married couple, until it comes time for some teamwork. That’s when they work their plan to take down a corrupt railroad magnate, with exciting results!
“The Lone Ranger” didn’t make much at the box office, only earning $89 million against a purported $215 million budget. It didn’t garner much critical praise, either. In fact, “The Lone Ranger” won the 2014 Razzie for worst remake. But the problem with the film is a lackluster script, not the leading men or the all-important action factor. Director Gore Verbinski and producer Jerry Bruckheimer are veteran action movie men, so as you might expect, the action sequences on horseback, on the train and in the tunnel are inventive and fun. If the story had more heft, and the dialogue had more meaning, this team of men could have easily made a successful sequel.
9. Cowboys & Aliens (2011)
Based on a graphic novel from Platinum Studios, “Cowboys & Aliens” sees Daniel Craig stagger into a dusty Western town as Jake Lonergan. He has no memory of who he is or where he’s been, or why he’s wearing a strange shackle on his wrist. The townsfolk, including a cynical Harrison Ford, shun him; that is, until a mysterious enemy rains down on them from above. Lonergan slowly begins to remember who he is, why he’s there and how to use the device on his wrist. He winds up leading the townspeople in defending themselves against alien intruders.
Combining two very different genres into one story could have been catastrophic, but “Cowboys & Aliens” handled it reasonably well. It made a healthy amount at the box office, too, thanks to the prickly performances of Craig, Ford and other notable cast members, like Clancy Brown, Sam Rockwell and veteran cowboy Keith Carradine. Their grizzled group comes together to create both touching and terrifying moments. Meanwhile, Olivia Wilde’s mysterious character adds to the allure of the movie, while also serving as a tough female character in a male-dominated film. Of course, Harrison Ford is the movie’s biggest draw. While he had never played a Western cowboy before, he had played space cowboy Han Solo. He proved to be a natural, and his easy humor plays well against Craig’s stern demeanor.
8. Bad Girls (1994)
“Bad Girls” has four things going for it: Drew Barrymore, Madeleine Stowe, Andie MacDowell and Mary Stuart Masterson. All four actresses were at a smoking-hot point in their careers when they made “Bad Girls.” Stowe had just starred in “Last of the Mohicans” with Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis; MacDowell was Hollywood’s darling, having starred in “Sex, Lies, and Videotape,” “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “Groundhog Day;” Stuart Masterson was earning raves for her roles in “Fried Green Tomatoes” and “Benny & Joon;” and Drew Barrymore was riding the wave of her comeback after successfully escaping the curse of being a child star.
Seeing four incredibly attractive women in roles that are traditionally played by men has a unique allure. Like MacDowell’s character Eileen Spenser asked, “Do I look like a criminal to you?” Audiences came for the sexy, but stayed for the rebels-turned-heroes story. Their characters learn to shoot, ride and stand up for their rights, outsmarting the authorities, out-shooting the enemy and generally out-doing everyone trying to hold them down. Talk about superhuman feats!
7. The Quick and the Dead (1995)
If the idea of Sharon Stone playing a gunslinger seems preposterous, picture a blind kid trying to toss Russell Crowe some bullets in time to win a gun fight. Now that’s preposterous! “The Quick and the Dead” is a dark comedy, featuring over-the-top shoot-outs and melodramatic plotlines, so don’t take this Western too seriously; it purposely borrows the most egregious spaghetti Western clichés to create a great meta parody.
Director Sam Raimi, who is known for directing the Tobey Maguire “Spider-Man” movies, puts to good use his eye for creating comic book-like frames. Gun fight after gun fight features trick shots and split-second maneuvers. Meanwhile, a young Leonardo DiCaprio deftly plays an innocent kid, and Gene Hackman chews up the scenery as the movie’s villain.
Several characters pull together to face down Hackman’s Herod, whose fate is decided by an unspoken agreement, which sees shooters from far and wide falling one by one until only the fastest gun in the West is left standing.
6. Silverado (1985)
Director Lawrence Kasdan’s “Silverado” combines several elements that make it a smart and entertaining Western. Part classic cowboy flick, part buddy cop movie, it follows a group of talented gunslingers from both sides of the law as they find themselves united against a common enemy. The gun fights in “Silverado” aren’t amazing because of the number of bullets that fly, or the number of bodies that hit the floor, but because the heroes are so terribly clever. They outsmart their opponents more than they out-shoot them. Many times they fight with broken pistols or rusted rifles, and still manage to win.
The most interesting aspect of “Silverado” is its casting against type. While Scott Glenn and Brian Dennehy play their typical tough characters, John Cleese, Kevin Kline and Danny Glover aren’t actors you expect to see in a Western. Kevin Costner, before he became famous, is a lot of fun as a silly sharpshooter who’s good with the ladies. Plus, Rosanna Arquette is the perfect combination of strong and fetching.
5. Young Guns (1988)
Like “Bad Girls” on this list, “Young Guns” is more about seeing a hot cast in leather duds than making a classic Western. The cast — Keifer Sutherland, Emilio Estevez, Lou Diamond Phillips, Charlie Sheen, Dermot Mulroney and Casey Siemaszko — were Hollywood’s favorite leading men in the ’80s, thanks to movies like “The Outsiders,” “Lost Boys,” “The Breakfast Club” and “St. Elmo’s Fire.” This group of bad boys were also friends in real-life, which is evident onscreen.
In “Young Guns,” a group of young men are recruited to work a man’s cattle ranch. While they work, he also insists on having them learn to read and write. Meanwhile, the rancher’s competitor has a group of men who are loyal to him shoot down the rancher. The titular “young guns” wind up deputized in order to hunt down his killers, but rather than arrest them, they mete out justice in their own way.
“Young Guns” was successful enough to warrant a sequel, bringing in over $45 million at the box office.
4. The Long Riders (1980)
“The Long Riders” not only tells the true story of brothers in crime, but also stars real-life brothers. David, Robert and Keith Carradine; James and Stacy Keach; Randy and Dennis Quaid; and Christopher and Nicholas Guest all play out the story of the James-Younger gang. Wanted for robbing trains and banks after the Civil War, the outlaws seem like loving patriarchs, who are just trying to provide for their families, rather than simply murder like cold-blooded criminals. Their real-life affection for each other is palpable onscreen.
“The Long Riders” is full of amber-toned lighting, slow motion action and countless blood packs. The final shoot-out between the Pinkertons and the James-Younger gang is a marvel of staging and choreography, and rivals any superhero movie you might see today. Even the horses manage to pull off some incredible stunt work. The accompanying soundtrack, with music by Ry Cooder, is at once fanciful and mournful, providing the perfect musical backdrop to a story full of paradoxes.
3. Tombstone (1993)
“Tombstone” is another movie on this list that is based on real-life events, telling the story of legendary lawman Wyatt Earp and his good friend Doc Holliday. Earp is looking to retire in a quiet town in Arizona called Tombstone, where he and his brothers plan on going into business together. He also rekindles his friendship with Doc Holliday, a rascal with a terminal disease and a penchant for gambling. Their bucolic life is disrupted when a gang tries to take over the town. Earp rallies to restore peace to Tombstone in a shoot-out at the OK Corral that became legendary.
The close-ups and quick-draw shots in “Tombstone” make it highly entertaining, with Kurt Russell‘s Wyatt Earp as a deftly-played reluctant leader. But it’s Val Kilmer who steals the spotlight. His performance as a man suffering in the final stages of tuberculosis is mesmerizing. Doc Holliday’s quote, “I’m your huckleberry,” remains one of the best lines from a Western ever, just as “Tombstone” continues to be one of the genre’s modern best.
2. 3:10 to Yuma (2007)
Westerns tend to tell complicated tales about loyalty and family, and “3:10 to Yuma” is no exception. The 2007 version, starring Russell Crowe and Christian Bale, is a remake of the 1957 classic that starred Glenn Ford and Van Heflin, and follows rancher Dan Evans, whose son William aspires to live the glamorous life of a gunslinger. Russell Crowe plays Ben Wade, the leader of a gang of heartless thieves and murderers. When Evans witnesses Wade’s gang at the end of a stagecoach robbery, he winds up being Wade’s jailer, until they can catch the train that will take him to where he’ll stand trial. The two men engage in a battle of will and wits as they learn more about each other, and themselves, than they bargained for.
Bale’s performance is a perfect counterpoint to Crowe’s. Where Bale is full of quiet turmoil, trying to do the right thing while still keeping his son’s respect, Crowe is boisterous and cocksure. The movie has plenty of great shoot-outs, but the final emotional scene is what makes “3:10 to Yuma” one of the best Westerns ever, and a great character study from which many superhero film directors could learn.
1. The Wild Bunch (1969)
“The Wild Bunch” is the quintessential Western about a group of outlaws who are riding and shooting their way across Texas. Led by William Holden’s Pike Bishop, these men rob banks during the Mexican Revolution; but like all good Westerns, there’s a traitor who sets them up for a fall.
“The Wild Bunch” was only the beginning of Sam Peckinpah’s string of violent movies, which also includes “Straw Dogs” and “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.” The opening scene of “The Wild Bunch” — a bank robbery that turns into a shoot-out when a group of bounty hunters is spotted outside — is only one of many bloody scenes that marks the film as an action classic.
“The Wild Bunch” stars several classic film actors, including Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Ben Johnson and Warren Oates, who play dark, morally complicated characters. While these characters are the stars of the movie, you’re not exactly rooting for them. They are ruthless men, who would just as easily turn on each other as they would lawmen; a bit like the Suicide Squad are meant to be.
After watching a spectacular train robbery and a moving scene between comrades at the campfire, it’s hard to imagine the film’s finale would top the rest of the movie. But it does. The final scene in “The Wild Bunch” is as shocking today as it was in 1969, escalating to machine gunfire and a terrible body count. Although several movies on this list are entertaining and fun, “The Wild Bunch” asks difficult questions, while serving up a dark portrayal of men, be they super or otherwise.
Which western films do you find super? Let us know in the comments!
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