Val Kilmer stars in this 1992 film from director Michael Apted loosely related to actual events in a 1973 incident when a group of Native Americans commandeered the town of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, for more than two months. In Thunderheart, Native Americans clash with government agents after a murder occurs on a reservation. An FBI agent, the son of a Sioux father and a white mother, is assigned to the case, but his identity raises questions among the local tribe: Is he what he seems or is he the embodiment of an ancient prophecy sent to save them?
9. The Man from Snowy River
This 1982 Australian western may be the feel-good movie of the genre from the last three decades. There’s a secret at work in a story about Jim, a young man left alone in a rugged mountain outpost after the sudden death of his father, and Jessica, the young beauty who changes his life. When the young man takes a job for a powerful rancher, he becomes smitten with Jessica, the man’s daughter. The pair quickly fall in love – adding to her father’s increasing displeasure with both of them. But the father has a past known only to a lone prospector who has taken Jim under his guidance. Soon, Jim is called upon to save the day, and all’s well that ends well. The cast is anchored by the presence of Kirk Douglas who plays two parts here key to the film’s backstory. Aside from the breath-taking cinematography, Snowy River offers moviegoers a great score well worth the price of admission and earned composer Bruce Rowland the 1982 AFI Award for best original score.
8. Open Range
Kevin Costner makes the first of his two appearances on this list with this traditional 1880s tale emblematic of the range wars taking place across the country in a time when the open range began to disappear, and cattle barons and free rangers clashed over grazing rights. Costner plays Charley, a Civil War-soldier-turned-gunslinger haunted by the grim deeds of his past. Charley finds work as a cowboy and signs on to help drive a cattle herd across country. Soon, he and his outfit run afoul of a hostile landowner who controls most of the nearby town — including its sheriff. Push comes to shove, and Charley is forced to settle the matter once again using his gun. Costner directed and starred, fashioning a film where lines are clearly drawn and moral ambiguity is only slightly in question. The supporting cast is stellar and includes Robert Duvall and Annette Bening.
7. Lone Star
This modern-day tale from John Sayles set in Texas earned a respectable $12 million on its $5 million budget, but it scored so impressively with critics for its originality, direction and acting that it stands out as an example of a beautifully-crafted, modern-day western. Kris Kristofferson, Chris Cooper, Elizabeth Pena and Matthew McConaughey star in this mystery involving three generations in a small border town. When the skull of a long-missing sheriff is discovered in the desert, the present-day sheriff reopens the case only to be warned by many that what he may find might be better left unknown. Sayles picked up an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay. Critics praised the 1996 movie for its thoughtful examination of attitudes about race relations in contemporary American society.
6. Pale Rider
Is it a ghost story? Director and star Clint Eastwood as much as said so in an interview about this 1985 film which casts the perennial Oscar nominee as a gunslinger who rides into a old West mining town after a young girl prays for deliverance from a band of murderous thugs. The film scored high marks from critics and became the highest-grossing western of the 1980s. Featuring Carrie Snodgress, Michael Moriarity and Christopher Penn, Pale Rider evokes memories of the classic western Shane, another saga about a lone rider who comes to a small settlement to save the day.
5. True Grit
The second film in 40 years to be adapted from the 1968 Charles Portis novel of the same name, the project from Joel and Ethan Coen suggests these two edgy filmmakers might be inclined to put their skewed spin on everything short of science fiction and fantasy, but they are relatively young, so stay tuned. The story of a young girl out to avenge her father’s death with the assistance of an aging, whiskey-loving, one-eyed lawman first came to screens in 1969 starring John Wayne. The 2010 version offers a reimagining of the story with Jeff Bridges as lawman Rooster Cogburn, joined in the cast by Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon and Barry Pepper. Fans of the Coen brothers will enjoy this if for no other reason than seeing their unique sensibilities superimposed on a classic American art form. The film captured 10 Academy Award nominations and was a box office smash.
4. Brokeback Mountain
Director Ang Lee broke ground with this bittersweet western love story in which two cowboys thrown together by circumstance and isolation lose themselves to their repressed emotions on a desolate mountaintop. Lust, forbidden desire, devotion, denial, bigotry and regret play equal parts in this movie starring Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michele Williams and Anne Hathaway. A tearjerker from start to finish, the film adapted from a now-classic Annie Proulx short story features lush cinematography, heart-rending performances and invites moviegoers to examine their own notions of passion, pride and commitment. Winner of the Golden Globe for best picture and Oscar front-runner with eight nominations, Brokeback took home three trophies at the Academy Awards — including best director for Lee and best adapted screenplay for Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry — but ultimately lost the best picture prize to Crash in a photo finish.
3. No Country For Old Men
Based on the Cormac McCarthy book, adapted and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007’s No Country for Old Men offers a top-notch cast in Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Woody Harrelson, Kelly McDonald, and Tess Harper. Set in a Texas border town, the protagonist is a weary, aging lawman who can’t make sense out of his prey, a dispassionate hit man with a seemingly indiscriminate predilection for killing whoever crosses his path. Typical of the themes of earlier Coen films Fargo and Blood Simple, this dark thriller discards any notion of cause and effect, crime and punishment, right and wrong. The film earned Oscar wins in four categories, including best picture.
Clint Eastwood won an Oscar for best picture in Unforgiven, a picture that has become synonymous with the phrase “revisionist Western.” Eastwood’s character easily qualifies as a bad guy, the leading lady is a hooker, and the sheriff is the villain. Party favors all around. Seriously, Eastwood’s long-held penchant for violent films involving guns earned him all manner of street credibility to create this tableau — the small period western town as setting for morality play, as the reluctant and conflicted gunslinger develops a conscience. Off the charts with critics, bringing in more than $100 million at the domestic box office, Unforgiven became the third Western to win best picture and took home four Oscars in all.
1. Dances With Wolves
Kevin Costner directed and starred in this grand frontier epic telling the post-Civil War story of a lone soldier who immerses himself in a Native American tribe which names him after his affinity for playing with a friendly wolf. The film won seven Oscars, among them best director and best picture. Short on gravity but long on earnest intent, like a Hallmark card for nature lovers, this lush feature depicts the untamed beauty of a lost America. The film co-starred Graham Greene and introduced mainstream audiences to stage actress Mary McDonnell. Screenwriter Michael Blake first wrote the story as a script, but Costner urged him to rework it as a novel, which the actor later optioned. Shot for $19 million and ridiculed by pundits when Costner took the film over its $15 million budget, Dances with Wolves earned a staggering $424 million worldwide; it was so successful, some have credited Costner’s effort with changing Hollywood attitudes toward Westerns as contemporary cinematic subjects.