06 July 2024

Historicals with Horses


Since my column here at SleuthSayers about period fiction last week, I've had some interesting conversations with fellow writers about the Western genre. Some of them like it, some hate it, etc. Some don't even consider those stories historical (but they are). As I think I've said before at this blog, Westerns are just historical fiction with horses. To me, one good thing about writing Western stories--whether they're novels, shorts, or screenplays--is that they can usually be considered mysteries as well, and therefore marketable as mystery fiction, because a crime is almost always involved. (Uness maybe it was the movie version of Old Yeller, where the only crime was the older brother's attempt at a Southern accent. But that's another story.)

As I said to one of my writer friends in an email on this subject the other day, part of the Western genre's appeal to me is the definite line those stories draw between right and wrong. It's a black/white structure: there were good people and evil people, with very few gray areas in between--unlike the way our world is today. This is especially true in the older Westerns, the ones I watched in the movie theater and on TV as a kid. 

In that long-ago world--Bonanza, The Rifleman, Gunsmoke, etc.--it was easy to identify the villain or one of his friends, because the good guys always shaved every morning and wore clean clothes, while the bad guys appeared to have been been dragged into town behind the stagecoach. Another thing: the streets of Virginia City or North Fork or Dodge City were always neat as a pin, with nary a sign of mud or ruts or horse droppings. In fact, the downtown thoroughfare in all those different shows often looked suspiciously like the same street. (How could that be? Even as a kid, I knew Nevada and New Mexico and Kansas were a long way apart.)

Other puzzling things happened, as well. As Clint Eastwood once said in an interview, why did the good guy always wait for the bad guy to draw first? He said that made no sense. And when a reporter asked Stagecoach director John Ford why the Indians chasing the coach didn't just shoot one of the horses, Ford replied, "Because that would've been the end of the movie." That, I guess, does make sense. Later, of course, Westerns got smarter in that regard, and way more authentic, although the standoffs in the street and the hero waiting politely for the other guy to draw have persisted to this day. 

Having said all that, these recent discussions of the horse opera and its fans have prompted me to revisit some of the movies I've watched and re-watched over the past years. Here are a few observations, by me and me alone, so feel free to disagree.

My 10 favorite Western movies, in no particular order:

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

The Big Country (1958)

Unforgiven (1992)

For a Few Dollars More (1965)

Shane (1953)

Dances with Wolves (1990)

High Noon (1952)

The Magnificent Seven (1960)

Open Range (2003)

The Searchers (1956)

NOTE 1: There actually is sort of an order to these. I consider Once Upon a Time in the West and The Big Country the absolute best of the bunch.


The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966)

Tombstone (1993)

The Man from Snowy River (1982)

Hondo (1956)

Will Penny (1967)

The Hanging Tree (1959)

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)

Rio Bravo (1959)

The Wild Bunch (1969)

A Fistful of Dollars (1964)

True Grit (remake, 2010)

Quigley Down Under (1990)

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

Hombre (1967)

NOTE 2: I didn't include the wild and crazy Cat Ballou (1965), Blazing Saddles (1974), From Noon till Three (1976), The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), or Rustler's Rhapsody (1985), but if you haven't seen those, I recommend them. 

Good Westerns you might not have heard of:

The Homesman (2014)

The Last Sunset (1961)

Bone Tomahawk (2015)

Hostiles (2017)

Duck, You Sucker (1971)

The Proposition (2005)

McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)

Lone Star (1996)

7 Men from Now (1956)

Old Henry (2021)

One-Eyed Jacks (1961)

The Salvation (2014)

Appaloosa (2008)

News of the World (2020)

Ride the High Country (1962)

NOTE 3: I also didn't include any TV series or mini-series in my lists, but of those, I think the best, by far, are Deadwood (2004-2006) and Lonesome Dove (1989). Runners-up might be The English (2022) and--if you count it as a modern-day Western--Justified (2010-2015). Once again, my opinion only. Disagreements are welcome.


What's your view, on Westerns old and new? Like 'em? Hate 'em? Tolerate 'em? Do you agree with any of the above choices? What are some I overlooked? If you do like Westerns, have you tried writing any, either novels or short stories? Have you had any published? In what markets? Were they standalone stories, or installments in a series? Was writing them work, or fun? Please let me know in the comments section.

Final thoughts:

1. I'm looking forward to seeing Kevin Costner's recently-released Horizon. Haven't gotten around to it yet.

2. If you haven't written a Western story but you want to . . .

"Slap some bacon on a biscuit and let's go."--John Wayne, The Cowboys (1972)


  1. Like you John, I love westerns. Back when I was a young whippersnapper there were no Saturday morning cartoons. They showed old westerns from the 1930’s. The good guys wore the white hats, the bad guys black.

    A movie I’d add to your list is The Shootist, John Wayne’s last movie. Some critics consider it his greatest role. Thanks for the leads. I’ve seen most but not all that you mentioned.
    Edward Lodi

    1. Edward, I think the white/black hat look lasted until sometime in the 50s. I've heard it started out in the silent-movie era, so that in action scenes the audience could always tell who was who. As for the Shootist, I loved the movie, and at one point it was on my list, but I thought I might be overloading it with John Wayne movies. (These lists of my favorites seem to change from day to day anyhow.)

      Thanks as always!

  2. I would watch Stagecoach again just to see John Wayne handle the horses

    1. I actually did watch it again a few months ago. Corny in so many ways (look at Duke's cuffed blue jeans sometime--I had a pair of those as a kid), but still a great movie, wasn't it?

      I love what Ford said about the Indians not shooting one of the six horses pulling the stagecoach. I'd thought of that years ago, during one of the first times I saw the movie. And he was right: that would've ended everything, right there!

  3. Hombre (1967) would be at the top of my list.

    1. Jim, I did so enjoy Hombre--I saw it for the first time in college. I'm not sure there's ever been a better ending to a movie. I need to watch that one again--I have it right here close by. I thought Richard Boone made a great bad guy, and his Mexican sidekick was one of my favorite characters ever. Good memories of that show!


    2. Richard Boone at his finest and most menacing.

  4. You missed my favourite! "Support your Local Gunfighter" with Suzanne Pleshette - with one of the funniest lines of all time: "Aaaaaa - Everyone hide! It's the Sidewinder!!" Henry Morgan: "Your sister's name is Patience." WHY don't they make movies like this anymore? Melodie

    1. Melodie, I should've listed that alongside the four or five lighthearted Westerns I mentioned. My favorite moment was when Garner shot the washer he'd thrown into the air to prove his marksmanship. Then the skeptical onlookers put a strip of tape over the hole in the washer and he shot it again, same way. I could watch that movie a hundred times. Thanks for reminding me!

  5. Tombstone ranks higher on my list, but simply because of Val Kilmer's Doc Holliday. Wow.

    Magnificent Seven, for sure. (And people really should watch Seven Samurai, because Toshiru Mifune is, as always, a force of nature. Plus it's the original, which the Western is stolen from...) And I had my Modern Japanese History students watch Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars (which is based on Yojimbo), pointing out that two of the major Westerns of the 1960s were based on Japanese Samurai movies, which I think is... very interesting.

    1. Eve, a few years ago I watched Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars back-to-back (comparing, of course) and that was a lot of fun. Haven't done that with Seven Samurai and Magnificent Seven, but I should.

      It's interesting and surprising how many movies use previous movies' plots: Pale Rider was obviously based on Shane, El Dorado was a reworking of Rio Bravo, and Last Man Standing (Bruce Willis) was just an updated version of A Fistful of Dollars. It's fun to see those and recognize that that's what happened.

    2. Whoa, Eve, I didn't address your first point. I agree that Tombstone is great. In putting this together, what I did was rate the movies based on how often I find myself wanting to watch them again (I'd be embarrassed to tell you how many times I've sat through some of these, and I love 'em every time). So those were my top ten. As for Val Kilmer, I think it's everyone's opinion that he made the best Doc Holliday ever. I certainly agree, and I've see every one of the Earp/Doc/O.K. Corral movies--there are at least half a dozen of them.

    3. I thought Val Kilmer deserved an Oscar for Doc Holliday from the first time I saw that movie. He got nominated for an MTV award (two—the other was Most Desirable Male Actor) and that was it. These days I'd say the writer should probably get some credit too.

    4. Liz, you and I would always think the writer should get some credit, right?

      As I said to Eve, I do think Kilmer was fantastic in that role. The other actors who played Holliday (the ones I remember most--can't recall who played him in Cheyenne Autumn) were Kirk Douglas, Stacy Keach, Dennis Quaid, and--I think--Jason Robards. I liked 'em all, but Kilmer was best. I think maybe Costner was the best Wyatt Earp. Hey, my opinion only.

    5. Kilmer captured the recklessness that certain Western figures had (like Wild Bill Hickock) - the absolute, I-don't-give-a-damn attitude. Kirk Douglas was too tormented, and the others were just missing something or other.

    6. I agree, Eve.

      By the way, considering where you live, I hope you've watched Deadwood, an HBO series from years ago that got unexpectedly cancelled after three seasons. The actor who played Bill Hickok (Keith Carradine) was fantastic. Or at least he's what I would've imagined Hickok looked like. It was a controversial show, but I thought it was great.

  6. Great post about some great movies. Westerns not only entertained but inspired many other genres. Even the original Star Wars drew heavily on some Western tropes.

    1. It sure did, Mike. Lucas even mentioned that, a few times. And there was an SF movie called Outland years ago that was obviously an outer-space Western, inspired directly by High Noon. Sean Connery played the Gary Cooper role, and if I recall, there were even three villains who arrived in the end, gunning for the hero who could find no one to help him.

  7. I remember one Deadwood scene that was funny as hell. Timothy Olyphant's character said, "shut up, you son of a bitch" before he and the villain (Ian McShane?) Got into it and fell off the balcony with an innocent bystander getting shot in the leg. LOL!

    1. Yep, Ian McShane, who has a villainous face if ever there was one. That scene was the only one in the 36-episode series that had the two of them in a real fight with each other.

      Thanks, Justin.

  8. Big fan of westerns, in print and in film. I would personally shuffle the order a bit, but all are good ones. I won't ever watch the Shootist again as I know how sick John Wayne was with cancer and that is enough. I know way too much about cancer.

    As to the Costner deal--- I was interested until I learned that it is part one of four parts. I don't know why their is a craze to make multi part movies, but I think it is annoying nonsense and am not fooling with it.

  9. Me too, Kevin. And I agree that the order I listed doesn't suit everyone. Many of the Western best-of lists include How the West Was Won and others I didn't name--as mentioned, these are my choices only.

    I still want to see the Costner movie--but you are correct, it seems nothing ever gets made these days without leaving room for a sequel or an extension. Money talks!

  10. I enjoyed reading your post and the ensuing comments. I grew up in the era that made lots of Western movies and TV shows. My father and I would watch them together. My Western novel THE KILLING LAND is a tribute to the genre. I enjoyed doing the research and following the history.

    1. Good for you, Jacqueline! I'll have to check out your Western novel--I didn't know about it. Is it on Amazon?

  11. Great lists, John! A couple of other thoughts:
    (1) Gregory Peck's "The Gunfighter"; it's like Unforgiven's opposite. Instead of Eastwood's gunslinger coming out of retirement, Peck plays a gunslinger desperate to retire, if his past doesn't catch up first.
    (2) No horses and almost no guns, but one of your (and my) favorites, "Bad Day at Black Rock" is in many ways a modern western. Mysterious stranger comes to a town. A town with a secret and any number of potential baddies. And the stranger's going to have to clean up.

    1. Good ones, Dan! I've always liked The Gunfighter (Gregory Peck's Westerns are always great), and yep, I'm glad you remembered that I too am a fan of Bad Day at Black Rock. Spencer Tracy's easy to root for anyway, and Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin were two of those actors who can play either good guys or bad guys equally well.

      Funny thing--I sold a short story a couple years ago to Mystery Magazine called Bad Times at Big Rock. It's more of a typical Western (1880s), and nothing at ALL like the Black Rock movie, but I just liked the title. I wonder if anyone who read it even thought about the soundalike movie title.

      Thanks as always for dropping by SleuthSayers.

  12. Elizabeth Dearborn06 July, 2024 17:10

    We watched John Wayne in "Rio Lobo" recently.

    1. Hey Elizabeth! Those shows never get old to me. If I remember right, Rio Lobo is considered by some to be a third "remake" of Rio Bravo--but even with similar plots, those movies are always watchable. Wish they were making more Westerns these days. (But I'm holding up my end, continuing to write Western stories. At least now and then.)

      Thank you as always for your thoughts. Keep writing!!

  13. Again, I'll recommend the fine series of paperback collections of Western short-stories from about thirty years ago edited by Greenberg and Pronzini. They included titles like "The Northerners," "The Californians" and "The Lawmen," and stories by Bret Harte, Edward D. Hoch and Johnston McCulley.

    1. So glad you mentioned this, Jeff. I usually think of Pronzini anyway, when the subject is Westerns. I have several of his Western novels and a collection of his Old West short stories. Many thanks!


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