10 Western Movies That Reinvented The 120-Year-Old Genre

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Summary

  • Modern Westerns have reinvented the genre by doing away with harmful stereotypes and incorporating other genres like sci-fi and comedy.
  • Movies like
    Cowboys & Aliens
    and
    Rango
    have combined the Old West with elements like aliens and anthropomorphic animals, adding a unique twist to the genre.
  • Films like
    No Country for Old Men
    and
    Django Unchained
    have modernized the Western genre by incorporating crime and revenge storylines, creating compelling and gritty narratives.

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Westerns have been around for over a century, yet many movies over the last few decades have reinvented the genre. The Great Train Robbery, released in 1903, is considered the start of the Western film genre. Since then, hundreds of different Westerns have graced the screen and many, like Unforgiven​​​​​​, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Cimarron, have won major awards.

Modern Westerns have done away with the more problematic tropes of their predecessors, such as the harmful stereotypes of Native Americans and the romanticization of certain brutalities of the time in which they were set. Westerns have also started to be combined with other genres. There are horror-Westerns, Western-comedies, and sci-fi Westerns, each with very popular examples. These kinds of Westerns have been reinventing the genre in recent years.

Related: The 20 Best Westerns Ever Made Ranked

10 Cowboys & Aliens (2011)

A sci-fi Western that set out to be original

Jake and Woodrow at the desert looking to the distance in Cowboys and Aliens.

Sci-fi Westerns were hardly new at the time — the sci-fi Western TV series The Wild Wild West premiered back in 1965 — but Cowboys & Aliens took it up a notch. The film stars Daniel Craig as an amnesiac outlaw who attempts to save a town from an alien attack. The inclusion of advanced weaponry and aliens in a 19th-century frontier town adds a level of humor. Cowboys & Aliens attempted something unusual by combining the Old West with alien abductions.

9 Blazing Saddles (1974)

A Western comedy directed by Mel Brooks

Gene Wilder and Cleavon Little in a police station in Blazing Saddles

Blazing Saddles

Written and directed by Mel Brooks, Blazing Saddles stars Cleavon Little as Bart, a black sheriff appointed in a small frontier town by Hedley Lamarr, a railroad man who believes Bart’s appointment will destabilize the town enough to drive everyone out and allow him to build a new railroad line through it. Instead, with the help of gunslinger Jim the Waco Kid, Bart works to thwart Lamarr’s schemes. Gene Wilder and Harvey Korman star alongside Little.  

Release Date
February 7, 1974

Director
Mel Brooks

Cast
gene wilder, Mel Brooks, Cleavon Little, Madeline Kahn, Harvey Korman

Rating
R

Genres
Western, Comedy

Blazing Saddles is a Western parody that utilizes multiple tropes, from the gunslinger to the righteous lawman to the money-chasing villain. It’s one of Mel Brooks’s most well-known films. It does make references to certain truths of the Old West, with the railroad being built by Black, Chinese, and Irish workers who aren’t being treated well and who want to be accepted into the town of Rock Ridge. Brooks’s parody films use comedy to expose what is often hidden in the more serious works his films are based on.

8 Rango (2011)

An animated Western full of anthropomorphic animals

Rango looking at a rock in Rango

Rango

Release Date
March 4, 2011

Cast
Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, Timothy Olyphant, Abigail Breslin, Ned Beatty, Alfred Molina, Bill Nighy, Stephen Root, Harry Dean Stanton, Ray Winstone, Ian Abercrombie, Blake Clark

Rating
PG

Genres
Animation, Action, Adventure

Rango is one of the more adventurous Westerns, as its main character is a chameleon who wants to be an actor. When his terrarium ends up in the middle of the Mojave Desert, the chameleon takes on the identity of “Rango” in the town of Dirt. Despite its child-friendly atmosphere, Rango is still just as riveting and suspenseful as any classic Western. With villains like Rattlesnake Jake and Bad Bill, and the conflict with a corrupt mayor, Rango stakes its claim as an unforgettable take on the Western.

7 The Hateful Eight (2015)

A Tarantino Western mystery that takes place during a blizzard

The Hateful Eight

Release Date
December 25, 2015

Cast
Zoe Bell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Michael Madsen, Tim Roth, Channing Tatum, Bruce Dern, Kurt Russell, Samuel L. Jackson, Walton Goggins, James Parks

Rating
R

Genres
Mystery, Thriller, Drama

Eight strangers get stranded in a blizzard together in Quentin Tarantino’s Western thriller The Hateful Eight. Each character is hiding something, and some have been holding grudges. As the film progresses, the situation gets more and more dire for the characters when someone poisons the coffee in the haberdashery. Placing eight shady strangers in a haberdashery during a blizzard is not a common plot for a Western. Most Westerns take place in small towns or the wide frontier. Containing the backstabbing and the shootouts to a store is a unique spin on the genre.

6 3:10 To Yuma (2007)

A remake of the 1957 film

Christian Bale and Russell Crowe on horseback in 3:10 to Yuma

3:10 to Yuma

Release Date
September 7, 2007

Cast
logan lerman, Christian Bale, Dallas Roberts, Ben Foster, Peter Fonda, Russell Crowe

Rating
R

Genres
Drama, Crime, Action, Western

This remake of the 1957 classic of the same name is again based on the 1953 short story by Elmore Leonard. Christian Bale stars as a rancher in desperate need of money. He agrees to transport an outlaw (Russell Crowe) to the 3:10 train out to Yuma Territorial Prison. Like many Westerns, 3:10 to Yuma deals with double-crossing, violent gangs of outlaws, and the unrelenting nature of the Old West. The ending was changed from the original, adding to the drama of the story as Evans is killed despite Wade trying to help him. It’s not often that the hero of a Western doesn’t make it to the end.

Related: Why Ben Helps Dan (& Gets On The Train) In 3:10 To Yuma

5 The Quick And The Dead (1995)

The Lady gets revenge

Sharon Stone aiming a gun in The Quick and the Dead

The Quick and the Dead revolves around one of the classic Western tropes: the duel. Sharon Stone plays the Lady, who enters a dueling competition in the town of Redemption. She hopes to kill the outlaw who runs Redemption, John Herod, as he killed her father. In older Westerns, few women are central characters, and even fewer would enter a dueling competition. Giving the vengeance trope to the Lady over other characters like Cort or the Kid made The Quick and the Dead a good example of a more modern Western.

Related: 10 Actors Who Are Surprisingly Great In Western Movies

4 The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs (2018)

A Western anthology film riddled with dark comedy and drama

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Release Date
November 16, 2018

Director
Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

Cast
Tyne Daly, Liam Neeson, Tim Blake Nelson, Tom Waits, James Franco, Zoe Kazan

Rating
R

Directed by the Coen brothers, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is an anthology film that traverses the lives of various characters in the West. The film is a journey, from the death of the titular Buster Scruggs to a prospector looking for gold to the unusual stagecoach ride of five strangers. Each short story has a brand of dark comedy to it, and many of them end unhappily for the characters in them. The unique approach to the Western applied in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs makes it a worthy watch.

3 No Country For Old Men (2007)

A crime thriller Western based on a Cormac McCarthy novel

No Country for Old Men

Release Date
November 21, 2007

Cast
Kelly Macdonald, Woody Harrelson, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Tommy Lee Jones

Rating
R

Genres
Thriller, Drama, Crime

Based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name, No Country for Old Men deals with missing money, hitmen, and bounty hunters in Texas in the 1980s. With big stars like Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Woody Harrelson, and Tommy Lee Jones, the film has won many awards, including an Academy Award for Best Picture. Even though it’s a Western not set in the Old West, there’s no doubt that No Country for Old Men fits the genre. The gripping plot and modern twist on the Western put No Country for Old Men on the map among other great Westerns.

Related: No Country For Old Men Ending Explained

2 Django Unchained (2012)

A revenge story full of action and hope

Django Unchained

Release Date
December 25, 2012

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

Rating
R

Genres
Western, Action, Thriller

Another Quentin Tarantino western. Django Unchained follows the newly freed slave Django, who teams up with Dr. King Schultz in order to rescue his wife, Broomhilda. The film is full of the usual Tarantino action scenes with over-the-top stunts and unrelenting violence. Django and Dr. Schultz don’t hold back as they kill numerous slave owners and overseers while on their mission. The cast is full of excellent actors, with Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz playing the two leads. Seeing such horrible characters, like Calvin Candie and “Big Daddy” Bennett being defeated by Django and Dr. Schultz is gratifying in ways that some older Westerns never managed.

Related: 10 Westerns Where The Villain Stole The Show

1 Tombstone (1993)

A tale of the showdown at the OK Corral

Tombstone

Release Date
December 25, 1993

Cast
Bill Paxton, Charlton Heston, Sam Elliott, Powers Boothe, Val Kilmer, Kurt Russell, Michael Biehn, Jason Priestley

Rating
R

Genres
Western, Drama, History, Action, Biography

Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday are among the most prominent figures from the Old West. Tombstone loosely follows their lives in the 1880s, along with Earp’s brothers. The four lawmen seek a quiet life in Tombstone, Arizona, but are forced to reckon with an outlaw gang called the Cowboys who stir up trouble. The film covers the gunfight at the OK Corral and the Earp Vendetta Ride, as well as other run-ins with the Cowboys. Tombstone never won any awards, but it was a critical success. The portrayal of Earp and Holliday’s friendship in Tombstone gave depth to the legendary figures and made them more accessible to a modern audience.