Westerns have been around nearly as long as movies themselves. One of the most revered early feature films, The Great Train Robbery (1903), was a western and, for a long time, the genre remained the most popular. From the frontier films of John Ford to the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone, westerns were long the bread and butter of the movie industry. After a lull in the 1980s that followed Michael Cimino’s 1980 disaster, Heaven’s Gate, when most critics and audiences agreed that the classic American western was all but dead, Kevin Costner breathed new life into the genre with his Oscar-winning Dances with Wolves. It seems that every so often, just as moviegoers are writing off the genre as outmoded or irrelevant, an inspired moviemaker will deliver a new, thought-provoking take on the genre, restoring the public’s faith in the genre.
And, judging by future releases, the notion of what constitutes a “modern western” continues to change. Witness next summer’s big-budget, much buzzed-about Cowboys & Aliens (directed by Iron Man‘s Jon Favreau, and starring Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig), which adds a healthy dose of science-fiction to the old west mythos.
In theaters now is another example of a modern western—the Coen brothers’ highly anticipated re-imagining of True Grit. The film is a faithful adaptation of Charles Portis’ acclaimed novel (rather than a remake of the 1969 Henry Hathaway movie), which follows a grizzled U.S. Marshal (Jeff Bridges, in the role that nabbed John Wayne an Oscar) as he helps a young woman (newcomer Hailee Steinfeld) track down the man who murdered her father. Co-starring Matt Damon, Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper, and loaded with the Coen brothers’ signature blend of unexpected violence and dark humor, True Grit has all the makings of a modern western classic. In celebration of the film, join MM as we take a look back at 10 of the best modern westerns from the past 20 years.
Dances with Wolves (1990)
directed by Kevin Costner
In Kevin Costner’s Oscar-winning epic, the actor-director-producer plays John Dunbar, a Civil War lieutenant, who, while positioned on the western frontier, befriends a Sioux tribe, gradually earning their respect and shedding his white man’s ways in the process. The film swept the 1991 Oscars, winning statues for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. Dances with Wolves also broke new ground in the genre by being morally ambiguous in its portrayal of “Cowboys and Indians;” in the film, the Native Americans are viewed more sympathetically than the soldiers.
City Slickers (1991)
directedv by Ron Underwood
This Billy Crystal hit comedy effectively utilized the Western genre in telling the story of a group of friends going through mid-life crises who become transformed after going on a cattle driving vacation. Daniel Stern and Bruno Kirby play Crystal’s adventure-seeking friends who help take on the birthing of a calf, drunken cowboys and “Ben & Jerry.” Jack Palance, a Western veteran in films like Shane, won an Oscar for playing Curly, the group’s cranky yet likable guide.
directed by Clint Eastwood
Following the success of Dances with Wolves, Unforgiven was the second Western in just three years to be named Best Picture at the Oscars. Clint Eastwood directed and acts in this grim, violent drama about a retired Old West gunslinger who reluctantly accepts one last assignment after the brutal murder of a prostitute. Co-starring Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman, Unforgiven is a groundbreaking modern Western which, like Dances with Wolves, breaks from the typical genre conventions. Unlike classic Westerns, the supposedly noble sheriff in Unforgiven (Hackman) is actually the villain and the traditional bad guy, a deadly assassin (Eastwood), turns out to be the sympathetic protagonist.
The Quick and the Dead (1995)
directed by Sam Raimi
Before he became known for the Spider-Man franchise, Sam Raimi (then known as the mastermind behind the Evil Dead trilogy) took a stab at Westerns with this bloody, action-packed tale of a lady avenger (Sharon Stone) who participates in an elimination tournament hosted by a ruthless gunslinger (Hackman in another solid supporting role). Previous Westerns portrayed women as damsels in distress, homemakers worried over their dear loves’ safety or Native American beauties. The Quick and the Dead allowed the fairer sex an equal part in the adventure. Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe, both relative unknowns at the time, also star.
Open Range (2003)
directed by Kevin Costner
Thirteen years after Dances with Wolves, Costner returned to the director’s chair for another Western tale. The actor-director stars as a former soldier forced to take up arms when a corrupt town marshal threatens him and his cattle crew. Co-starring Robert Duvall and Annette Bening, the film received mostly positive notices from fans and critics for its gritty approach to the genre. At 139 minutes, the movie runs under Costner’s previous directorial effort’s 181 minutes, making Open Range that much more enjoyable.
Down in the Valley (2005)
directed by David Jacobson
Far from a typical Western, this film is a fascinating deconstruction of the genre. Edward Norton stars as Harlan, a delusional, possibly dangerous man who believes he’s a cowboy and seems to live his life according to the old west mythology. After arriving in San Fernando Valley, Harlan strikes up an intimate relationship with a rebellious teenager (Evan Rachel Wood). This ambitious, at times surreal, film depicts modern-day San Fernando Valley as the new American West, one in which quaint small towns are revealed to be Western movie sets.
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
directed by Ang Lee
It’s hard to imagine this Oscar-winning tearjerker being made in the golden age of Westerns. Based on an Annie Proulx short story and co-scripted by Lonesome Dove novelist Larry McMurtry, the tragic film revolves around the forbidden and secretive romantic relationship between two cowboys (Jake Gyllenhaal and the late Heath Ledger) over their years as cattle herders. The unconventional Western was a surprise success with both audiences and critics, earning an Oscar win for Ang Lee’s direction and a Best Picture nomination.
3:10 to Yuma (2007)
directed by James Mangold
Based on an Elmore Leonard short story (which also inspired a 1957 film of the same name), 3:10 to Yuma is arguably one of the best modern Westerns on this list. Christian Bale stars as small-time rancher Dan Evans who agrees to escort dangerous outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) to the 3:10 train to the town of Yuma, where Wade will await trial for murder. Along the perilous journey to the station, the two men engage in a battle of wits in which both transcend the obvious “good versus evil” battle that concerns them—creating psychologically complex characters that the audience cares about. But, make no mistake, the film isn’t solely character-driven. There are old-fashioned shootouts galore and an uber-creepy supporting performance from Ben Foster as Wade’s psychotic right-hand man.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
directed by Andrew Dominik
Everything you need to know about this leisurely paced character study is pretty much summed up in that mouthful of a title. Based on the book by Ron Hansen, the film delves into the final years of the life of infamous outlaw Jesse James (Brad Pitt), who was shot in the head by Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), a young man who idolized and, in some respects, wanted to be James. Despite the movie-star presence of Pitt, the real heart of the film is Affleck, who gives a creepily intense yet sympathetic performance as lifelong loser Ford, whose only claim to fame is killing James. With its emphasis on character rather than action and dreamy cinematography by Roger Deakins, the film brought an unconventional twist to the Western.
directed by Ed Harris
Writer-director Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen (reuniting after playing enemies in A History of Violence) star as two friends hired to patrol a small town that is suffering under the rule of a tyrannical rancher (Jeremy Irons). The men find their job further complicated by the arrival of a young widow (Renée Zellweger) who catches their eye. While Appaloosa didn’t set the box office afire, this low-key, under-appreciated western features strong, character-based work from its ensemble cast, and a strong eye for period detail and atmosphere.