In the mid-twentieth century, guys like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood made names for themselves by portraying archetypal symbols of masculinity, mowing down bad guys on horseback while emitting eminent rays of self-confidence every trot along the way.
The most impactful portrayals, however, are those that bounce off one another in ways that result in tantalizing dialogue and realistic character development with striking desert backdrops as a bonus. Some of the best movie casts of all time come from the Western genre, so it’s time to check them out.
Sidenote: if you don’t enjoy movies featuring John Wayne, you came to the wrong place.
10. Desperado (1995)
Okay, I know what you’re all likely thinking with regard to the caliber of the film itself, but hear me out: Antonio Banderas of course stars in this wacky neo-Western alongside Salma Hayek in her breakout role, and the momentum by no means stops there. Supporting members include Steve Buscemi, Quentin Tarantino, and Cheech Marin—those last two are longtime friends/collaborators of Robert Rodriguez, and their chemistry with the director shows.
His “Mexico Trilogy,” which also features the movies El Mariachi from 1992 and Once Upon a Time in Mexico from 2003, is often regarded as the weaker of popular Western trilogies, as their plots tend to throw any elements of verisimilitude out the window.
But nonetheless, I feel the cast performed much more valiantly than the typical viewer’s subconscious might give them credit for.
9. The Magnificent Seven (1960)
Before rising to prominence with his subsequent Sergio Leone collaboration in this same decade (more on that later), Eli Wallach played the lead antagonist of this star-studded cast that included Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson—both of whom would go on to co-star in The Great Escape just two years later, also under the direction of John Sturges.
While he might not be the most popular name, Robert Vaughan rounds out this cast to land The Magnificent Seven a here at, appropriately, the seventh spot.
8. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)
Now, remember, everyone: this list is ranking the casts of these films, not the product as a whole. If that were the case, this would likely come out on top. Actually, now that I think of it, I could see—no, sorry. Separate list. Another time.
This starring role of Clint Eastwood’s is perhaps the most popular Western character of all time: The Man With No Name. He played this valiant and soft-spoken cowboy on three occasions throughout the sixties in Sergio Leone’s “Dollar Trilogy,”—which, contrary to Rodriguez’s, is widely considered the best Western trilogy you can find—and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is without a doubt the most iconic entry thereof.
Enough about Eastwood, though. I’d be remiss not to mention the likes of Eli Wallach and Lee Van Cleef, who, if you weren’t aware, are absolute legends of the genre in their own right. They deserve just as much credit.
7. Unforgiven (1992)
Moving right along with the first “modern” Western—by today’s standards, at least—I’m sure you all expected an Eastwood-directed film to materialize at some point or another. After appearing in Sergio Leone’s Dollar Trilogy in the 1960s, Eastwood went on to direct himself in a number of iconic American Aesterns throughout the subsequent decades, perhaps none as prolific as Unforgiven.
Opposite the brooding cowboy was Gene Hackman in the antagonistic role, which garnered positive reception across the board—including the Oscars, who gave him the award for best supporting actor. Morgan Freeman tops everything off to a wonderful degree, and a minor role from Richard Harris just solidifies Unforgiven amongst the genre’s greatest casts.
6. Stagecoach (1939)
As I said off the bat, if you don’t like John Wayne, then this list isn’t for you. Prepare for the takeover.
This is a rather green Wayne—it’s his breakout performance, after all. The one that set the stage for his legendary career in the three subsequent decades. The one that set him apart from his contemporaries as the preeminent Western star of the era, and perhaps of all time.
Of course, this list explores casts in their entirety, and Stagecoach is at number six by virtue of other performances by Claire Trevor (who received top billing status for her role as Dallas), Andy Devine, John Carradine and Thomas Mitchell. While those names might appear unfamiliar to more modern audiences, trust me when I emphasize their star power at the time.
5. Rio Bravo (1959)
And just like that, we have more John Wayne. Here, he acts as a sheriff in Texas holding a murder suspect in jail until the U.S. Marshall rolls through, and he leads a crazy-good cast of established thespians from Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson to Angie Dickinson and Walter Brennan.
Tarantino famously cited this as his “favorite ‘hangout’ movie,” claiming that if any given date of his does not like the film, the relationship would come to an immediate end. I had heard the contemporary director discuss this film at length before actually sitting down to watch it, but I’m now confident in saying both its 98% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and its induction into the National Film Registry are in large part due to its astonishing array of actors.
4. Tombstone (1993)
In this the most prolific iteration of Wyatt Earp’s famous story from the O.K. Corral, and one of the more popular post-Unforgiven Westerns out there, Kurt Russell stars as the aforementioned Wyatt, while Sam Elliot and Bill Paxton play his brothers, Virgil and Morgan.
Somehow, though, it was Val Kilmer that stole the show, lending his chops as the fan-favorite outlaw Doc Holliday. Add in minor roles from actors like Harry Carey Jr. and Billy Bob Thornton, and this cast was locked, loaded, and ready for a gunfight against any cowboy the genre had to offer.
3. Django Unchained (2012)
While Jamie Foxx and Kerry Washington nailed it as the titular Django Freeman and his wife Broomhilda von Shaft, the trio of supporting performances from Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson were the true talk of the saloon. Waltz won the best supporting actor Oscar for his role as Dr. King Schultz, Leo gained acclaim for pushing through a scene after injuring his hand, and even still, Jackson may have been the crème of the crop.
After accounting for appearances from Jonah Hill, Bruce Dern, and Quentin Tarantino himself, future filmgoers will likely refer to this cast as one of the all-time greats.
2. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
With The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, director John Ford put together an A-list cast in exchange for the sanity of everyone on set. The horror stories of its production are fairly well-known, though not quite as famous as the actors that took part.
A popular tagline featured on the movie’s poster— “Together For the First Time”—referenced the two leads, James Stewart and John Wayne, numbers three and thirteen (respectively) on AFI’s list of America’s twenty-five greatest male movie stars.
That those two actually appeared on screen together after spending so much time around the Hollywood block is a miracle in itself, let alone the fact that they led a brilliant cast of Lee Marvin, Vera Miles, and Lee Van Cleef, among many renowned others.
1. How the West Was Won (1962)
With Eli Wallach, Debbie Reynolds, Walter Brennan, Agnes Moorehead and Lee Van Cleef, it was difficult to consider anything topping How the West Was Won for this list. Film fans unfamiliar with those names will likely recognize the likes of Gregory Peck, Henry Fonda, James Stewart and of course, the clear-cut king of cowboys, John Wayne.
Look—it’s no mistake that roughly half of this list features the same dude. If your movie doesn’t have John Wayne in it, is it really a Western? Seriously, though: peruse for a moment that extensive list of absolute legends delineated above, then try to convince me that this cast wasn’t already sitting at the sheriff’s station with its bounty in tow while the rest of its competitors still trudged through the desert.
Thanks for Reading!
As much as it pained me to exclude Once Upon a Time in the West, High Noon and 3:10 to Yuma, this list just wasn’t big enough for… the three of them?
I tried. Have a good day, everyone.