Movie genres grow and wane in popularity, and, throughout much of the 1950s, Westerns were all the rage. It’s hard to say just why Westerns struck a chord with general audiences, but they did. Not only were they incredibly popular, but they earned critical acclaim, as well. To this day, the 50s are generally regarded as the Golden Age of Westerns, being filled with iconic movie stars like John Wayne and many classic films.
No one can agree on which 50s Western is the best, but there are a lot of great ones. These are the best of the best, according to Metacritic.
10 Oklahoma! (1955) – 74
While not necessarily a Western in the traditional sense, Oklahoma! contains many Western tropes. These include a romance between cowboys and farm girls and the territory’s aspiration to be recognized as an official American state, a major Frontier theme that would later be repeated in Deadwood.
The movie is based on the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical of the same name which debuted on Broadway in 1943. It’s a good movie—so good, in fact, that it is now preserved in the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry.
9 Seven Brides For Seven Brothers (1954) – 75
Another musical—musicals being another popular genre of the 50s—Seven Brides for Seven Brothers takes place in the 1850s and won the Academy Award for Best Scoring of a Musical Picture. It earned four other nominations, including Best Picture.
The movie is famous for its unique and unconventional dance numbers that are mainly centered around mundane Frontier activities like raising a barn. It holds a 75 on Metacritic and was recognized as the 21st greatest musical of all time by the American Film Institute in 2006.
8 Shane (1953) – 80
Widely regarded as one of the finest Westerns ever made, Shane was released in 1953 under director George Stevens. It concerns a gunfighter named Shane (played by Alan Ladd) who becomes embroiled in a land dispute between ranchers and a cattle baron in post-Civil War Wyoming Territory.
The movie is often praised for its Oscar-winning cinematography by Loyal Griggs, and it was named the third greatest Western ever made by the American Film Institute in 2008. Shane was also listed as the 16th greatest movie hero.
7 Johnny Guitar (1954) – 83
While placed in the National Film Registry, Johnny Guitar did not find a spot on the American Film Institute’s list, despite holding a higher Metascore than Shane. The movie stars Joan Crawford as a strong-willed saloon owner named Vienna.
Vienna holds a tenuous relationship with her customers and the citizens of her small Arizona cattle town, mainly for supporting the building of a nearby railroad. Locals and rivals of Vienna attempt to drive her out of town, and Vienna fights back with the help of the mysterious Johnny Guitar.
6 Giant (1956) – 84
Released in November of 1956, Giant is mainly remembered for being James Dean’s final role as a leading actor. He was killed in a car accident on September 30, 1955 at the age of 24. Giant is an epic Western, spanning nearly 200 minutes and concerning Elizabeth Taylor’s Leslie Lynnton.
Leslie is a socialite who meets and falls in love with a rancher named Bick. Dean plays Jett Rink, a local ranch hand who quickly falls for Leslie. Like Shane, Giant was directed by George Stevens and earned him his second Oscar for Best Director.
5 Old Yeller (1957) – 84
Like Oklahoma!, Old Yeller isn’t a Western in the traditional sense. However, it does take place in post-Civil War Texas, and many viewers can’t help but associate the time period and setting with the Western genre. The beloved movie is based on Fred Gipson’s novel of the same name, and Gipson helped adapt his novel with co-writer William Tunberg.
Old Yeller is now an iconic piece of American movie history, with Old Yeller’s death being widely considered as one of the saddest moments in cinema.
4 High Noon (1952) – 89
High Noon is an indisputable classic, and its very title has become synonymous with the Western genre and Western-style showdowns. Hollywood icon Gary Cooper stars as Will Kane, an aging and retiring Marshal who is forced to make a difficult decision between domestic life and retirement and his impeccable sense of duty.
High Noon has always been considered a classic, and it was one of the first movies inducted into the National Film Registry when it opened in 1989.
3 Rio Bravo (1959) – 93
Produced and directed by Western icon Howard Hawks, Rio Bravo is often regarded as one of John Wayne’s finest Westerns—and that’s saying a lot. Wayne stars as Texas sheriff John T. Chance who arrests a criminal and is forced to keep him in jail until a US Marshal can relieve him.
Complicating matters is the fact that the criminal has a rich and powerful brother who will do anything to get him out. It’s a fantastic movie, and it sent the Golden Age of Westerns off in incredible and noble style.
2 The Gunfighter (1950) – 94
This is why the 1950s is considered so iconic for the Western genre. Just as Rio Bravo ended the decade in style, so too did The Gunfighter open it. Released in June of 1950, The Gunfighter stars Gregory Peck as Johnny Ringo, an esteemed gunslinger who becomes the target of numerous aspirational gunfighters and those seeking revenge for his past kills.
The film is fondly remembered to this day, with its Oscar-nominated screenplay earning particular praise.
1 The Searchers (1956) – 94
Often regarded as the greatest Western ever made, The Searchers is arguably John Wayne’s finest piece of work. Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, a Civil War veteran on the lookout for his long-missing niece. The film is widely regarded within the Western genre, being named the greatest Western of all time by the American Film Institute.
However, it may also be considered one of the greatest movies period, as evidenced by its placement at #12 on AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) list. Westerns, let alone 50s Westerns, don’t get any better than this.
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