20 Gritty Westerns to Cut Your Teeth On


Getting to cut your teeth means learning by experience. It’s the act of doing or getting to make do as we go in life. The Wild West was a time when many people had to learn how to lead new lives one day at a time. Many sought fortunes in new territories; others tried their best to settle down and peacefully grow their families and communities.


The western genre offers multiple accounts of the ways of life in the Wild West. Some stories are encouraging and filled with hope, while others lay evidence of the dark nature of people, some of whom wanted nothing but to hoard riches and land for their benefit or political power. Many western movies embrace the supernatural aspect of the occupation of foreign land.

Knowing which film should be the first choice for audiences unfamiliar with the western genre can be challenging, especially when there are so many to choose from. Just as the settlers did, doing is the best way to learn. The following is a selection of western films that are a little grittier than the rest while offering a great overall impression of the genre.


20 Dead Birds (2004)

Dead Birds is a western horror film written by Simon Barret and directed by Alex Turner. The movie stars Michael Shannon, Henry Thomas, Nicki Aycox, Isaiah Washington, and Patrick Fugit. The story follows a Confederate soldier who has deserted the army with a crew of men. The group adds a runaway slave and a nurse as they make a plan to rob a bank. After the deed is done, the group holes up in a derelict house where strange things begin to happen at night.

Why It’s a Great Western Film

Dead Birds is an excellent exploration of the chaotic nature of the Wild West. The film is set in an unspecified period of the American Civil War. Still, it works as a perfect reflection of the state of mind of many soldiers who found themselves drafted into fighting or looking at the tide turn for the worse for the Confederacy. Mixing the lawlessness and chaos of the era with supernatural elements makes for an incredibly claustrophobic viewing experience.

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19 Eyes of Fire (1983)

Eyes of Fire is a folk horror story written and directed by Avery Crounse, who gained notoriety for being a still photographer. The cast includes the talents of several working actors, such as Dennis Lipscomb, Guy Boyd, and Rebecca Stanley. The story is told from the viewpoints of a woman named Fanny and a child named Meg, about a group of fallen settlers to the French Military. The survivors narrate the story of an adulterous woman and a priest who embraced their forbidden love and face horrific consequences.

Why It’s a Great Western Film

Plenty of films explore the most tumultuous periods of American settlement, but only a few explore the days of the colony. The people who traveled on The Mayflower were not the only ones to set foot in the country, as people from France, Spain, and the Dutch Republic sought to build a new life here. Eyes of Fire explores the social dynamics of the era where an accusation was enough to make anybody guilty.

Love also plays a heavy role in the story as the betrayed husband of the adulterous woman tracks her down, unwilling to let her go, only to find himself trapped by the demonic entities that wipe out the settlers of the cursed valley.

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18 El Topo (1970)

El topo

Release Date
December 18, 1970

Director
Alejandro Jodorowsky

Cast
Alejandro Jodorowsky, Brontis Jodorowsky, José Legarreta, Alfonso Arau, José Luis Fernández, Alf Junco

Rating
NR

Genres
Western, Action, Adventure, Documentary

El Topo is the probably most unconventional entry in this ranking. The film is written, scored, directed, and acted by Alejandro Jodorowsky, a filmmaker known for having an ambitious vision for his unmade version of Dune. The rest of the cast includes Chilean and Mexican talent, such as the director’s son Brontis Jodorowsky, Mara Lorenzio, David Silva, and Paula Romo.

The trippy story follows a single outlaw known as El Topo as he faces off against the Four Masters of the Desert for a woman’s love. Once he wins, he feels fulfilled. That is, until his new wife betrays him, leaving him broken and alone in the care of a tribe of outcasts who view him as a holy man.

Why It’s a Great Western Film

Alejandro Jodorowsky is a surrealist, highly influenced by the likes of Federico Fellini, Jean Luc Godard, Sergio Leone, and Buster Keaton. You can see surreal imprints in the story, which should be viewed with an open mind.

El Topo is a trippy film that requires a certain mindset to be fully appreciated, and it uses a linear narrative in unconventional ways. The work of Jodorowsky in this movie has influenced some of the most famed names in the entertainment industry, such as David Lynch, Darren Aronofsky, Eric Andre, and even Limp Bizkit’s Wes Borland.

17 Appaloosa (2008)

Appaloosa

Appaloosa

Release Date
September 19, 2008

Director
Ed Harris

Cast
Robert Jauregui, Jeremy Irons, Timothy V. Murphy, Luce Rains, James Tarwater, Boyd Kestner

Rating
R

Genres
Crime, Documentary, Drama, Western

Ed Harris should be a familiar face for modern western fans, with his excellent turn as a villain in HBO’s Westworld. The actor previously directed Appaloosa, a film based on the novel of the same name by Robert B. Parker. Harris also wrote the screenplay with the help of Robert Knott.

The movie stars Harris, Viggo Mortensen, Renée Zellweger, and Jeremy Irons, and tells the story of a duo of guns-for-hire named Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch, who take on rancher Randall Bragg, who’s been terrorizing the town. The situation gets more complicated when widow Allie French gets between the men and their unique friendship.

Why It’s a Great Western Film

Appaloosa is an underrated gem. Harris plays to perfection the type of stoic, silent gunman of old spaghetti westerns of the 1960s. Mortensen plays a more nuanced, sensitive role, prone to fall for a pretty face. And Jeremy Irons practically steals the show as the story’s villain, although he’s sometimes a bit bombastic. The film has all the ingredients of a classic western story as the setting portrays the state of New Mexico in the last years of the 18th century.

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16 The Shadow of Chikara (1977)

The Shadow of Chikara is an old-school western, mixing elements of adventure and horror. The movie was written and directed by Earl E. Smith, and the cast features the talents of Joe Don Baker, Sondra Locke, and Ted Neeley. The story centers around two former Confederate Captains going on a trip to track down a batch of diamonds they left stashed in the mountains of Arkansas.

The journey proves troublesome, but it gets worse when both men begin to be hounded by Native American spirits known as the Chikara, who are in place to protect the mountain’s treasures.

Why It’s a Great Western Film

As with many indigenous cultures, the myths and folk tales of Native Americans are a great source of material for films. The story is closely tied to some elements of the U’wa people, a native tribe that migrated to South America and still stands today as a beacon of hope, having achieved the protection of their land from private oil companies that sought to drill in their territories.

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Related: The 10 Best Revisionist Westerns, Ranked

15 Dust Devil (1992)

Dust Devil is a small-scale production written and directed by Richard Stanley. This peculiar film feels more like a Mad Max spinoff with a horror twist, but the story’s setting allows it to get away with its status as a western. The casting includes the talents of Robert Burke, Chelsea Field, and Zakes Mokae. The movie tells the story of a man regarded by many as the Dust Devil, as anyone who encounters him ends up dead. He crosses paths with a recent widow and a cop with a dark secret.

Why It’s a Great Western Film

Dust Devil is an intriguing story where not everyone is what they seem to be. The man known as Dust Devil is a natural empath with the ability to feel the suffering of others. His encounter with Wendy triggers something in him even though he tries his best to keep her at bay. Ben Mukurob is a cop who finds himself in the middle of everything without realizing he’s facing forces beyond his comprehension. The unique cinematography of Steven Chivers also really helps to add ovetall vibe.

Stream it on The Criterion Channel

14 Westworld (1973)

westworld

Westworld

Release Date
August 15, 1973

Director
Michael Crichton

Cast
Yul Brynner, Richard Benjamin, James Brolin, Norman Bartold, Alan Oppenheimer, Victoria Shaw

Rating
PG-13

Genres
Action, Adventure, Documentary, Horror, Sci-Fi, Thriller, Western

Westworld is a sci-fi western written and directed by Michael Crichton based on his own novel. The movie stars Yul Brynner, Richard Benjamin, and James Brolin. The story takes place in the future where adults can visit an amusement park named Delos to live their fantasies in three different settings. Guests can partake in any activity with the park’s androids, even those R-rated in nature. Peter Martin and John Blane visit the park and are having a good time when, suddenly, all the androids go rogue and begin killing the park’s guests.

Why It’s a Great Western Film

Westworld was a revolutionary film when it was released. It was the first movie ever to use computer-generated effects, which are used to enhance the robotic look of actor Yul Brynner. The movie was a box office hit and one of the many stances instances where a western is paired with a secondary genre to tell a successful story. The film also paved the way for the series released by HBO 43 years later, which magnificently expanded the story.

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13 Dead Man (1995)

Dead Man is an unconventional western story written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, starring Johnny Depp, Billy Bob Thornton, Iggy Pop, Crispin Glover, and John Hurt, among many others. The story is set in the early 1800s as William Blake, a mild-mannered accountant, is on the run after murdering a man. He crosses paths with a Native American guide nicknamed Nobody, who thinks he’s the reincarnation of the English poet of the same name.

Why It’s a Great Western Film

Even with such a strong cast, Dead Man sadly went unnoticed when it was released. The script is filled with actual references to William Blake’s poetry, with Nobody reciting many of them in his native tongue. It’s a strange yet comforting film with a tragic ending for Nobody, who fulfills his promise to Blake as he finally rests in peace.

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12 Slow West (2015)

Slow West

Slow West

Release Date
April 16, 2015

Director
John Maclean

Cast
Kodi Smit-McPhee, Caren Pistorius, Aorere Paki, Jeffrey Thomas, Hayden Frost, Kieran Charnock

Rating
R

Genres
Action, Documentary, Romance, Thriller, Western

Slow West is the type of thriller with too many coincidences to feel realistic, yet as the first offering by writer and director John Maclean, the film excels at telling a solid story. The film gathers a solid cast with outstanding performances by Kodi Smit-McPhee, Michael Fassbender, Ben Mendelsohn, and Rory McCann. The movie follows a young Scotsman traveling to America to find his beloved. The man, named Jay, proves to be too meek for the American West, so he enlists the help of a bounty hunter named Silas for his protection.

Why It’s a Great Western Film

Slow West is a story full of terrible people who do nothing but double-cross each other at every turn. Jay and Silas seem like allies, but Silas is using the young man as bait, while former associates of Silas get a hold of the bounty for the woman he seeks and do everything they can to slow Silas in his tracks. Sadly, this likely reflects many of the dealings in the real Old West, as everything had a price, even the heads of people who only wanted peace.

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11 The Great Silence (1968)

The Great Silence is the first spaghetti western to make it in our ranking. The film was written and directed by Sergio Corbucci, with the assistance of four other contributors who helped him shape the idea. The cast features the talents of working actors such as Jean Louis Trintignant, Klaus Kinski, Frank Wolff, and Luigi Pistilli. The story pits a group of bloodthirsty bounty hunters against a group of outlaws who have taken to the hills in Utah to try to escape.

Why It’s a Great Western Film

The film is notorious for having multiple cuts with different endings, something Sergio Corbucci himself pursued to make the film more appealing to diverse audiences. The movie is regarded as the ultimate spaghetti western due to its chaotic nature, having been re-released in theaters multiple times. The lack of clear good guys and bad guys also makes the film incredibly unique. The Great Silence is considered part of the “Mud and Blood” trilogy Corbucci created, which also incluses Django and The Specialists.

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Related: Best Spaghetti Westerns of All Time, Ranked

10 The Missing (2003)

The Missing

The Missing

Release Date
November 26, 2003

Director
Ron Howard

Cast
Tommy Lee Jones, Cate Blanchett, Evan Rachel Wood, Jenna Boyd, Aaron Eckhart, Val Kilmer

Rating
R

Genres
Adventure, Thriller, Western

The Missing is a period drama written by Ken Kaufman and directed by Ron Howard, starring Tommy Lee Jones and Cate Blanchett. The story is based on the novel The Last Ride by Thomas Eidson. The movie begins in 1885 when Samuel Jones comes looking for his eldest daughter, Maggie Gilkenson. Maggie rejects him and drives him away. Just as he’s about to leave, Maggie’s eldest daughter is kidnapped, so Sam saddles up to do everything possible to get his granddaughter back.

Why It’s a Great Western Film

The Missing feels like a Golden Age movie, even if it’s merely 20 years old. It depicts an exaggerated recount of something widespread just as the USA was about to enter the XX century. The story of Sam is not exactly sympathetic, but his search for redemption gives him the strength to support his daughter, even if she doesn’t want anything to do with him. Surprising as it seems, this film bombed at the box office back in its heyday, but it’s worth revisiting, given the solid story presented.

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9 Ravenous (1999)

Ravenous is a western that depicts a unique take on the legendary folk tale of the Wendigo. Ted Griffin wrote the story, and Antonia Bird directed the movie. The cast features the talents of Guy Pearce, Robert Carlyle, Jeffrey Jones, and David Arquette. The story begins in 1840 during the Mexican-American War. The film follows Captain John Boyd as he must investigate a missing person’s report at Fort Spencer.

Why It’s a Great Western Film

Ravenous is another excellent western that went unnoticed despite having a solid cast and an exciting story. The film is a harrowing depiction of human nature and misguided beliefs.

Stream it on The Criterion Channel

8 Blueberry (2004)

A scene from the acid Western, Blueberry (2004)
Sony Pictures

Blueberry is a film written by Gerard Brach and Matt Alexander, directed by Jan Kounen, and starring Vincent Cassel, Juliette Lewis, Michael Madsen, Ernest Borgnine, and Djimon Hounsou. The story is based on a comic book series of the same name authored by Jean Giraud (a.k.a Moebius). In the movie, we follow Mike Blueberry after his return to his former hometown with a score to settle.

Why It’s a Great Western Film

Blueberry is quite the character; his years away from home have taught him a fierce disposition, making him a notable peacekeeper among the Native American Apaches and the white settlers. His knowledge of shamanic rituals proves to be a crucial plot point in the story.

This peculiar film is a French production but was filmed in English to keep the aesthetic value of The Wild West as perceived by American audiences. Sadly, the movie failed to catch people’s attention when it was released, which is a shame considering the solid casting and great story.

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7 Unforgiven (1992)

Unforgiven (1992)

Unforgiven (1992)

Release Date
August 7, 1992

Director
Clint Eastwood

Cast
Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, Richard Harris, Jaimz Woolvett

Rating
R

Genres
Western, Drama

Unforgiven is likely the best western film ever made by Clint Eastwood, who has single-handedly carried the genre for a long time. David Webb Peoples wrote the story, but the movie is produced, directed, and acted by Eastwood with co-stars Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, and Richard Harris.

In the movie, we follow former outlaw William Munny, who takes on the job of bringing a couple of cowboys who maimed a prostitute to collect the $1,000 bounty. The local Sheriff, Bill Dagget, has no tolerance for vigilantism, but things get heated when a man named English Bob turns up in the town seeking the bounty as well.

Why It’s a Great Western Film

It’s nearly impossible to make a list of westerns without including a production with Clint Eastwood. The man has been making these types of movies since his youth, and he’s still starring in them in the present day. Unforgiven is Eastwood’s best vision of the American Wild West to date. He dispels the romantic notions of the era, using the character of Gene Hackman to fill in the audiences about the realities of the Wild West.

The movie went on to win multiple accolades, including nine nominations for Academy Awards in 1993 and four wins, including Best Picture and Best Director.

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6 Django Unchained (2012)

django unchained

Django Unchained

Release Date
December 25, 2012

Director
Quentin Tarantino

Cast
Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Samuel L. Jackson, Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, Christoph Waltz

Rating
R

Genres
Adventure, Documentary, Drama, Western

Django Unchained is the first of two westerns written and directed by Quentin Tarantino to land on this list. The large cast features the talents of Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, and Don Johnson, among many others.

The story depicts the saga of Django, a slave saved by the extravagant Dr. King Schultz, who enforces his profession as a bounty hunter and requires Django’s assistance to capture a couple of bandits. After collecting the reward, Django is freed by the Doctor, and together, they go on a killing spree, hunting the worst criminals in the South until word gets back to them that Django’s wife is working on the plantation of Calvin Candie.

Why It’s a Great Western Film

Django Unchained is a revenge story, unlike anything you’ve ever seen. While there are historical accounts of freed slaves advancing in society, Tarantino takes one step ahead by creating a world where a Black free man acts as executioner to the worst elements of the Civil War era in the USA.

While Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz offer outstanding performances, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie steals the show with Sam Jackson as a close second, playing an unashamed Uncle Tom-like character who’s willing to spew vitriol against other slaves only because they don’t see the master with the same eyes as him.

Stream it on Prime Video

Related: 15 Most Popular Spaghetti Westerns Featuring the Django Character

5 True Grit (2010)

true grit

True Grit

Release Date
December 22, 2010

Director
Ethan Coen, Joel Coen

Cast
Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper, Hailee Steinfeld, Paul Rae

Rating
PG-13

Genres
Adventure, Documentary, Drama, Western

While the original True Grit starring John Wayne is considered a classic, the 2010 remake written and directed by the Coen Brothers is a far superior version of the story. The all-star cast features the talents of Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper, and Hailee Steinfeld.

The story begins when a 14-year-old named Mattie Ross hires lawman Rooster Cogburn to hunt and kill the outlaw who killed her father. She joins Cogburn in the quest to make sure the contract is fulfilled. On their trip, they find a Texas Ranger pursuing the outlaw for his own reasons.

Why It’s a Great Western Film

The unique storytelling style of the Coen Brothers shines throughout this film, thanks to the work of cinematographer Roger Deakins. The chemistry between the rugged Cogburn and the feisty Mattie plays like a father and daughter dynamic as the man slowly warms up to the girl’s presence, even if it prevents him from doing his job on account of protecting her.

The film earned multiple accolades, but it’s considered to have endured one of the most significant snubs in the Academy’s history as the film got ten nominations but didn’t get any awards.

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4 The Wild Bunch (1969)

The Wild Bunch earned its name as one of the greatest western films ever made for being a gruesome, violent depiction of the outlaw life in the remnants of the Wild West. The movie is written and directed by Sam Peckinpah. It features a large cast of working actors, such as William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, Edmond O’Brien, Ben Johnson, and Warren Oates.

The story begins with an aging outlaw gang planning their last hit near the Mexican border. Things go south when the gang realizes they have been set up by one of their former members.

Why It’s a Great Western Film

The Wild Bunch felt like a rallying cry for the genre just when it was on its last legs. The film was critically acclaimed for making things fresh again in a stale movie genre that was on its way out, thanks to the new wave of talent offering more stylized productions in other genres. All the characters in The Wild Bunch express their desperation and betrayal to the audience as the film advances. This grand epic feels like the last hurrah of an era, something that is hammered home by its somber ending.

3 The Hateful Eight (2015)

hateful eight

The Hateful Eight

Release Date
December 25, 2015

Director
Quentin Tarantino

Cast
Demián Bichir, Michael Madsen, James Parks, Dana Michelle Gourrier, Lee Horsley, Gene Jones

Rating
R

Genres
Western, Crime, Documentary, Mystery

The Hateful Eight is the second western written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, but the film certainly feels more like a mystery thriller filled with tense moments. Like most Tarantino productions, the movie features a large cast of all-stars, including Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Demián Bichir, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, and Bruce Dern.

The story begins with a bounty hunter heading towards Red Rock Town while carrying a fugitive. They encounter another bounty hunter and a man claiming to be a sheriff. Together, they seek refuge from a blizzard in a stagecoach stopover, where they find four more strangers.

Why It’s a Great Western Film

Tarantino crafted the eight most horrible people to ever live in the Wild West and put them in a shack. Most of the story takes place in a single location, and each word spoken by every character counts towards something in the larger scheme of the story being told. A series of flashbacks are in place to explain the ties that bind these characters and who they really are. This seemingly random encounter between eight people ends in a Mexican stand-off where all secrets are revealed.

Stream it on Netflix

2 Bone Tomahawk (2015)

Bone Tomahawk

Bone Tomahawk

Release Date
October 23, 2015

Director
S. Craig Zahler

Cast
Patrick Wilson, Kurt Russell, Sean Young, Lili Simmons, Matthew Fox, Zahn McClarnon

Rating
NR

Genres
Western, Adventure, Documentary, Horror, Thriller

You may have noticed Kurt Russel’s name in many of these entries, and with good reason. The man can’t help himself and keeps pumping great westerns every chance he gets. Bone Tomahawk is a western with horror elements written and directed by S. Craig Zahler, starring Russel alongside Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox, Richard Jenkins, and Lili Simmons.

The story begins when a group of townsfolk are kidnapped by a wild tribe of inbred Indigenous troglodytes, so it’s up to Sheriff Franklin Hunt, his deputy, and two other men to mount a rescue. They quickly find themselves overwhelmed and captured.

Why It’s a Great Western Film

Bone Tomahawk is likely one of the most brutal films you’ll ever see despite being made on a meager budget of $1.8 million. The film tells a gripping story about survival and desperation. Audiences experience the sudden realization of being in way over their heads simultaneously with the characters on the screen. We feel the pain and anguish of the husband trying to rescue his wife. We feel the horror as the Sheriff realizes what the savages do with their victims. It’s a powerful story deserving of your attention.

Stream it on Hulu

1 Tombstone (1993)

tombstone

Tombstone

Release Date
December 25, 1993

Director
George P. Cosmatos

Cast
Kurt Russell, Val Kilmer, Sam Elliott, Bill Paxton, Powers Boothe, Michael Biehn

Rating
R

Genres
Action, Adventure, Documentary, Drama, History, Romance, Western

Tombstone is arguably the greatest western film ever made. The story, written by Kevin Jarre, was directed by George P. Cosmatos, who, according to several crew members, was a stand-in for Kurt Russell, who actually directed most of the film himself. The all-star cast features the likes of Russell, Val Kilmer, Sam Elliot, Bill Paxton, and Powers Boothe.

The story is set in 1879 when the Earp brothers are finally reunited in Arizona to begin settling down in the town of Tombstone. While the family seeks to lead a peaceful life, trouble soon finds them as the gang of the Cochise Cowboys led by Curly Bill begins to make trouble for them and their neighbors. It’s up to Wyatt and his brothers to make things right and bring peace to the land they call home now.

Why It’s a Great Western Film

Unlike most movies in this list, Tombstone is based on historically accurate people. Tombstone is a loose depiction of the historical events that took place during the shootout at the O.K. Corral and the Vendetta Ride, which saw Wyatt Earp become a deputy US Marshal to hunt down and bring to justice all members of the Cochise Cowboys after they killed his brother. The movie itself has become a revered cult classic, with Val Kilmer being the standout performer for his role as Doc Holiday.

Stream it on Paramount+



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