5 Westerns That Capture the Essence of the American Wild West

March 19, 2021 Updated: March 20, 2021

Here are five Westerns that capture the essence of the American Wild West of the 1800s—two humorous, two serious, one comedic-dramatic, all top-notch, all good watchin’.

‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’

PG | | Biography, Crime, Drama | 24 September 1969 (USA)

In 1969, this Western won four Oscars, was a massive hit, but got critically trounced. It’s stood the test of time. Why? Four words: Robert Redford, Paul Newman.

Butch (Paul Newman) is the amiable bank & train robbing boss of the notorious Hole-in-the-Wall Gang, based in the Wyoming Rockies. The Sundance Kid (Robert Redford) is Butch’s best bud and partner, but really more of a lone operator. Butch is the ideas guy, and Sundance is the fastest gun in the West.

Butch’s gang pulls one too many robberies of freight trains owned by Mr. E.H. Harriman of the Union Pacific Railroad. They’re warned off numerous times (to no avail) by Harriman’s hilariously hapless, loyal-as-a-dog, nasally bookkeeper Woodcock (George Furth), who braves getting dynamited rather than let Butch into the train’s money safe.

6 western outlaws in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" in Five Westerns That Capture the Essence of the American Wild West
The Hole-in-the-Wall Gang (L–R): Tim Scott, Robert Redford, Ted Cassidy, Paul Newman, Dave Dunlap, and Charles Dierkop, in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” (20th Century Fox Film Corp.)

Harriman, completely fed up, puts together a crack posse of super-persistent lawmen led by a legendary native tracker, like hellhounds on Butch and Sundance’s trail.

The two, like a couple of harried Wiley E. Coyotes, can’t shake this posse, which is the source of the movie’s main running gag: the two outlaws peering around this butte or over that bluff, head-scratching, and muttering, “Who are those guys?” Talk about “runnin’ from the law”—this is the definitive example.

two cowboys spying on a law posse in Five Westerns That Capture the Essence of the American Wild West
Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman, L) and the Sundance Kid (Robert Redford), trying to figure out who’s relentlessly tracking them, in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” (Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.)

Following a narrow escape, Butch has the bright idea of ditching the USA for Bolivia, taking Sundance’s schoolteacher girlfriend, Etta Place (Katharine Ross), with them. Having fantasized about arriving in a cosmopolitan place, the chicken and llama-dung-filled train station produces a hilarious slow burn from Sundance, who’s furious that he let himself fall for another of Butch’s hare-brained schemes.

one woman, two men in Bolivian train station
(L–R) Etta Place (Katharine Ross), the Sundance Kid (Robert Redford), and Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) arriving in Bolivia, expecting luxury (and Sundance is not happy), in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” (20th Century Fox Film Corp.)

“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” features the two leads in their golden era of 1970s mega-movie-stardom. Brad Pitt’s archetype was similar to Redford’s, but Pitt’s charisma paled in comparison to the ’70s peak-career Redford, and the shockingly handsome ol’ blue-eyes Newman had no peer, then or since. It features classic alpha-male buddy dialogue; the ribbing and one-upping is classic.

Best moment: Needing to jump off a high cliff into a river to escape the lawmen posse, Sundance hems and haws, and Butch says, “Would you make a jump like that if you didn’t have to?” Sundance: “Well I have to and I’m not gonna.” Sundance’s wincing look of fuming shame when he’s forced to admit he can’t swim, under the barrage of Butch’s derisive hooting, is priceless.

The only false, cutesy note was Newman joy-riding a newfangled contraption called a bicycle, to the extreme-muzak-friendly tune “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.”

‘Jeremiah Johnson’

GP | | Adventure, Drama, Western | 10 September, 1972 (Sweden)

Robert Redford in beard mode, same as Clint Eastwood, looks supremely rugged and suited to portraying characters of the American West. What the hat-and-poncho-wearing, stubble-bearded Eastwood is to the high plains desert, the bush-bearded, fur-capped Redford is to deep-snow hunter-trappers of the Colorado Rockies.

Reflecting America’s post-Vietnam War mood, Johnson, a war-weary mid-19th century U.S. Army vet, wants to get away from it all and find some peace, living in nature in the Rockies. This is the definitive lone-wolf mountain man tale.

Johnson, a greenhorn in the ways of wilderness survival, fortunately crosses paths with a seasoned gray-beard trapper named Bear Claw (Will Geer), who teaches him primitive skills as well as proper etiquette in dealing with the native Crow tribal warriors.

Highlights: Trying to fish an icy creek, Jeremiah becomes royally frustrated with his fishing gear, jumps into the river, and splashes about, trying to grab himself a trout. Looking up suddenly, he sees a taciturn Crow brave sitting on his horse a ways off in the distance, silently observing this inept clown show.

men in furs and beards in Jeremiah Johnson in Five Westerns That Capture the Essence of the American Wild West
Bear Claw (Will Geer, L) and Jeremiah Johnson (Robert Redford), in “Jeremiah Johnson.” (Warner Bros.)

Meeting Paints His Shirt Red (a member of the Crow tribe) years later, Bear Claw interprets for Johnson: “He says he knows you. He says you fish poorly.” As the old trapper further explains, “Paints His Shirt Red speaks English fine. He just does this to aggravate me.”

Johnson unavoidably violates an Indian burial ground and winds up losing his new Indian wife and their adopted child to a vendetta between himself and the Crow tribe. Johnson, however, proves a match for their warriors in one-on-one combat.

“Jeremiah Johnson” features gorgeous wilderness scenery, humor, and, like 2015’s “The Revenant,” provides the viewer with an immediate appreciation of the comforts of modern life.

The only problem with “Jeremiah,” similar to “Butch Cassidy,” is the cheesy ’70s music and the long pauses, which, in the 1970s seemed normal. Now, if a pause goes longer than 10 seconds, fingers itch for smartphone checking. Scratch that; that was the case 10 years ago—now, cellphones are on throughout entire movies. Makes you want to get away from it all.

mountain man in furs in Jeremiah Johnson
Jeremiah Johnson, the original mountain man (Robert Redford), in “Jeremiah Johnson.” (Warner Bros.)

‘Unforgiven’

R | | Drama, Western | 7 August 1992 (USA)

Of all the Clint Eastwood Westerns, “Unforgiven” carries the most gravitas. It’s also the movie Eastwood starts spoofing his age to hilarious effect, trying to catch pigs and slipping in the mud, attempting to mount his horse and falling off, and, as a former gunfighter with a reputation not to be messed with (probably his “High Plains Drifter” character)—no longer able to shoot straight.

William Munny (Eastwood) is a widower with two young kids, who gave up shooting and drinking after marrying. His wife died of smallpox in 1878, but he continues to scratch out a living on their hog farm and trying to be the kind of man his wife would have wanted him to be.

When a prostitute is disfigured by a pair of cowboys in Big Whiskey, Wyoming, her fellow house-of-ill-repute workers offer a reward to kill them. Big Whiskey’s Sheriff Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman) is not happy about this arrangement, disallowing, as he does, vigilantism in his town.

man drinks coffee in unforgiven in Five Westerns That Capture the Essence of the American Wild West
William Munny (Clint Eastwood) in “Unforgiven.” (Warner Bros.)

Two groups of gunfighters, one led by Munny and the other by a Brit, Bob (Richard Harris), come to collect the reward, clashing with each other and the sheriff.

This is Eastwood’s tribute to realism, cutting out the romance of the Western (that he himself fueled more than any other actor) down to the harsh, bare-bones, existential struggle of suffering that was, by and large, the diet of the American frontier.

‘Rango’

PG | | Animation, Adventure, Comedy | 4 March 2011 (USA)

This recommendation of Wild West Westerns would not be complete without one cartoon entry, and it’s gotta be “Rango,” although an excellent case could be made for the 1960s hit cartoon “Road Runner.”

“Rango” has got all the Western, desert-y romance stuff (along with talking tarantulas and rattlesnakes drinking in saloons) and supports the early American myth that the western frontier was the place where you could manifest your dreams.

In an aquarium situated in the back of a car, lives a nameless, green chameleon (voiced by Johnny Depp). His is the unlikely cartoon story of a pet chameleon’s hero’s journey to the West.

He has a tremendous imagination, this lizard; he sees himself as an actor. But pretending that the inanimate objects in his aquarium are his friends and fellow actors has grown boring. He knows he needs a challenge. He’s having an identity crisis. It’s the height of the existential quandary particular to the chameleon: He wonders how best to stand out, when it’s deeply in his nature to … blend in.

His aquarium is jolted out of the car, and he’s off on his transformational hero’s journey, accidentally winding up in a frontier town called Dirt, where he becomes the town’s new sheriff. After seeing the word “Durango” on a bottle of cactus juice, in a bar filled with all manner of drinking vermin, the chameleon claims that his name is … Rango.

a chamleon and a mole in Rango
Beans (L, voiced by Isla Fisher) and Rango (voiced by Johnny Depp), in “Rango.” (Paramount Pictures)

Being a classic goofy Johnny Depp character, Rango fakes it till he makes it, with all manner of bluster and mishap. When someone asks if he killed some outlaws known as The Jenkins Brothers, Rango claims to have done it with just one bullet. And so on and so forth.

Eventually exposed as a sham and disgraced, he makes his way back to the two-lane highway he came from and collapses. This part is, believe it or not, deeply tragic and moving. He is then carried over the desert in a dream, where he encounters The Spirit of the West. The Spirit gives Rango courage.

This Spirit of the West is one of the film’s most inspired concepts, for the Spirit, although you never really see his face, has a hat, two-day beard, poncho, smokes a cheroot, speaks in a husky whisper, and drives a golf cart containing a bunch of Academy Awards. He’s voiced by Timothy Olyphant, doing a dead-on Clint impression.

Rango eventually grows into his new role (this was his challenge, you see) and brings sustenance to Dirt in his role as sheriff. Which is known in the parlance of the hero’s journey as “Bringing the gold back to the village compound.”

‘The Revenant’

R | | Action, Adventure, Drama | 8 January 2016 (USA)

man getting mauled by bear in "The Revenant"
Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) getting mauled by a grizzly, in “The Revenant.” (Twentieth Century Fox)

The main reason that “The Revenant” is on this list is that it depicts more than any Western to date, the miasma of suffering that hung over humankind, pre-industrial revolution. When it was freezing, there was no central heating; when it was boiling-hot in the summertime, there was no air conditioning or bug spray; when food was scarce—which it always was—hunger hung about like a vulture; and when people took ill, they were dead and buried in no time.

It harks back to the lessons of the sages, that life on earth is for the sole purpose of paying back karma through pain. “The Revenant” depicts this, as mentioned, more than any other film. Read my review of it here. Enjoy!

Follow Mark on Twitter: @FilmCriticEpoch