10 Saddest Westerns Of All Time

This article contains mention of violence and assault.

Summary

  • The intense sadness in Western movies comes from themes like loss, dying of the West, and gunslinger loneliness.
  • Tragic heroes embody the ideal of individualism but also show that singularity leads to heartbreak.
  • Recent Western films subvert expectations, question morality, and offer nuanced portraits of the Old West.

Western movies grapple with many themes, but the intensity and violence that have come to define Western narratives have led to some of the saddest movies of the genre. This sadness could stem from the loss of an important character, the dying of the West, or the loneliness of the gunslinger lifestyle. Many of the tragic heroes who make up the central figures of the West isolate themselves and embody the ideal of individualism that is celebrated by these movies. However, hidden within this ideal is the message that this sense of singularity can only lead to heartbreak and unhappiness.

Subverting expectations and questioning the morality of the traditional Western leads to complex interrogations of the myth of the American West.

However, many different character archetypes populate Western films, and in recent years, movies have been playing with the form of the Western to exciting results. Subverting expectations and questioning the morality of the traditional Western leads to complex interrogations of the myth of the American West. The most rewatchable Western movies of all time are nuanced portraits of the Old West, incorporating multiple themes and genres and making emotional appeals to the audience. Even if the people on screen cannot fully express the depth of their sadness, it’s easy for the viewer to be moved by these types of films.

Rio-Bravo-Angie-Dickinson-Red-River-John-Wayne-Shane-Jack-Palace Related 10 Seminal Western Movies That Defined The Genre

The western is a cornerstone of American cinema. From Shane to The Searchers, a lot of the earliest genre-defining westerns still hold up today.

10 The Rider (2017)

Directed by Chloé Zhao

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The bright spots of familial and friendship connections and Brady’s pure love of riding and horses provide respite in his darkest moments.

Chloé Zhao is a landmark director, and her early, lesser-known works are some of her most moving. Working with real people who experienced the film’s story firsthand, Zhao portrayed the lives of several Lakota Sioux people on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. The Rider stars Brady Jandreau as a rodeo star who suffers a near-fatal accident and must stop riding or risk permanent brain damage. Though this seems like a clear choice, for Jandreau’s character, also named Brady, giving up riding would be saying goodbye to one of the biggest parts of himself.

The Rider is an underrated Western from the 2010s that more people should see, as it blends the narrative and documentary styles of filmmaking flawlessly. There is not a moment in the story in which the audience doesn’t feel deeply for Brady and the people that populate his life. However, it should be noted that The Rider doesn’t merely exploit Brady’s suffering or paint his life as one of pain and nothing else. The bright spots of familial and friendship connections and Brady’s pure love of riding and horses provide respite in his darkest moments.

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9 The Searchers (1956)

Directed by John Ford

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The director of The Searchers, John Ford, collaborated with legendary Western hero and star John Wayne many times, but The Searchers might be their most complex narrative. For a Western from the 1950s, The Searchers takes a nuanced approach to portraying Wayne’s character, Ethan. While, at first, he’s painted as the stereotypically masculine American man who would do anything for his family, the lengths he goes to for the sake of his ego soon grow disgusting and tragic. Though Ethan claims to be chasing his niece, Debbie, to rescue her, it’s merely a justification for his violent actions.

The depiction of the injustice and relationship between the Comanche people and the white settlers is by no means perfect in The Searchers, far from it, in fact. However, there is no question that Ethan is the villainous anti-hero of the story and that the audience shouldn’t be rooting for him. In seeing the lengths he and the other characters, the audience grasps the brutality of the West, especially when Ethan almost kills Debbie rather than see her remain with the Comanche. There is little happiness to be found within The Searchers, only desperate characters who are beyond redemption.

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The Searchers is a 1956 Western drama starring John Wayne. Wayne stars as Ethan Edwards, who goes searching for his missing niece after his brother’s family is killed by the Comanche tribe. Helmed by director John Ford, The Searchers is now considered one of the greatest American Westerns ever made.

Director John Ford Release Date March 13, 1956 Cast John Wayne Runtime 119 minutes

8 The Gunfighter (1950)

Directed by Henry King

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Peck’s character, Jimmy Ringo, is constantly harangued by up-and-coming gunslingers who wish to challenge him and take their place as the next great outlaw.

Gregory Peck’s best movies show him playing intellectuals in movies like To Kill A Mockingbird or the romantic lead in Roman Holiday. However, he makes a surprisingly convincing former outlaw in The Gunfighter, a movie that questions how far a man can go before he can no longer return home. Peck’s character, Jimmy Ringo, is constantly harangued by up-and-coming gunslingers who wish to challenge him and take their place as the next great outlaw. Unfortunately, this prevents him from reuniting with his wife and son.

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However, Jimmy has reneged on his fatherly and husbandly duties for many years, and his wife is hesitant to let Jimmy back into the life of her and their son. Whether or not Jimmy deserves his wife’s forgiveness is of less concern to the story than the consequences of living a life of excitement and notoriety for as long as one can. Of course, just when Jimmy is ready to change, he’s fatally shot by one of his young competitors who hasn’t yet learned that life as the best comes at a cost few are ready to pay.

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Director Henry King Release Date August 21, 1950 Cast gregory peck , Helen Westcott , Millard Mitchell , Jean Parker , Karl Malden , Skip Homeier , Anthony Ross , Verna Felton Runtime 85 Minutes

7 The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (2007)

Directed by Andrew Dominik

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The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford did not immediately strike a chord with audiences when it was released in 2007. However, critics couldn’t ignore the stellar performances and gorgeous visual language of the movie, which helped develop the slow and tragic atmosphere of the narrative. No character gets what they want in the entirety of Jesse James, and the narrative focuses on the American idealization of the West and the swift disillusionment with this false tale that follows. The love and idol worship that Robert bestows upon Jesse brings him nothing but pain.

Jesse James and Robert Ford were real figures in American history. However, the story is altered to be a clearer one-to-one comparison with the decline of patriotism and faith in the so-called American Dream. Ford’s journey of realizing that Jesse is not the savior or god Ford thought could be viewed as pathetic if not for the fact that it was a universal experience. As a neo-Western, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford looks back at the legacy of the West and acknowledges the loss that’s felt for something that never was.

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Director Andrew Dominik Release Date October 19, 2007 Cast Brad Pitt , Mary-Louise Parker , Brooklynn Proulx , Dustin Bollinger , Casey Affleck , Sam Rockwell Runtime 160 minutes

6 Paris, Texas (1984)

Directed by Wim Wenders

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Paris, Texas
, toes the line of neo-Western and road movies in its tale of near Shakespearean tragedy.

Paris, Texas, toes the line of neo-Western and road movies in its tale of near Shakespearean tragedy. Wim Wenders is a prolific filmmaker who demonstrates his brilliant understanding of humanity and loss. As much as the film is about the protagonist, Travis (Harry Dean Stanton), and his desire for redemption and acceptance, it’s equally about his young son, Hunter (Hunter Carson), who has barely ever known Travis or his mother, Jane (Nastassja Kinski). Though the dialogue is sparse, much comes across through the setting and actions of the characters.

It soon becomes clear that Travis was abusive to Jane, and that was the reason their marriage deteriorated, and Hunter lives with Travis’ brother. Though the viewer anticipates that Travis is concealing a dark secret, it’s an intense reveal after the audience has been rooting for Travis to reunite with Jane and get closer to his son. However, in the end, Travis makes it possible for Jane and Hunter to be together, removing himself and taking the first step towards becoming a better man. The viewer leaves with the weight of the story and the promise of a better future.

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5 The Proposition (2005)

Directed by John Hillcoat

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The Proposition is an excellent Australian Western that tackles the tenuous intersection between familial bonds, the so-called “lawlessness” of the West, and the devastation and discrimination faced by the Indigenous people of Australia. Watching The Proposition is a harrowing experience as death and destruction populate every scene, and the movie isn’t afraid to portray the most horrible acts in graphic detail. At the heart of the story is a tale of brother against brother, as Guy Pearce’s Charlie Burns is sent to kill his older brother, Arthur (Danny Huston).

By the end of the film, Charlie is unrecognizable and alone, having lost both his brothers and much of his sense of self. He’s forced to commit equally violent acts as the men he despises to protect himself and free his younger brother, but all his actions are for naught. The Proposition gives the viewer little choice but to care deeply for the few characters who contain glimmers of humanity and care for someone other than themselves. Of course, it’s these characters that often suffer the most.

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Director John Hillcoat Release Date September 12, 2005 Cast Guy Pearce , Ray Winstone , Danny Huston , John Hurt , David Wenham , Emily Watson Runtime 104 Minutes

4 The Great Silence (1968)

Directed by Sergio Corbucci

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Directed by Sergio Corbucci,
The Great Silence
is thought of as one of Corbucci’s best films and one of the greatest Spaghetti Westerns of all time.

Like all great Spaghetti Westerns, The Great Silence is in conversation with much more than the Western genre and uses its position as an outsider in Hollywood to comment on bigger political issues. Directed by Sergio Corbucci, The Great Silence is thought of as one of Corbucci’s best films and one of the greatest Spaghetti Westerns of all time. It’s a bleak take on the genre, but the fantastic performances from Jean-Louis Trintignant and Klaus Kinski as the hero Silence and his nemesis, Loco.

The plight of Silence is an enduring sense of sadness throughout the story, as the narrative begins with the slaughter of his family and his loss of the ability to speak. Though he finds some comfort in allies and lovers along the way, Silence’s life is defined by loneliness and his standing up to the injustices of the time. Additionally, though it’s clear that Silence’s fate was always written in stone, his tragic end hits just as hard for the audience after spending the entire film rooting for him.

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Director Sergio Corbucci Release Date January 27, 1969 Cast Jean-Louis Trintignant , Klaus Kinski , Frank Wolff , Luigi Pistilli , Mario Brega , Carlo D’Angelo , Marisa Merlini , Maria Mizar Runtime 105 Minutes

3 Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Directed by Ang Lee

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Equal parts romance, drama, and Western, Brokeback Mountain was a groundbreaking film that was an early mainstream depiction of an LGBTQ+ relationship that received great critical and audience acclaim. Starring Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal as the main couple, Ennis and Jack, the movie is set in the early 1960s and chronicles the doomed relationship between the two men who never get the chance to live as their true selves. It’s this fear and shame that keeps them apart and never allows them to bring their passion and love into the open.

Jack wants to see each other more and explore his queerness, while Ennis is too ashamed to act on his feelings with anyone but Jack when they’re alone on the mountain. This prevents Ennis from ever admitting the full scale of his love for Jack until it’s too late. Unfortunately, Brokeback Mountain also grapples with the realities of how dangerous it was to be queer during this period, and Jack is killed in a hate crime. It’s absolutely heartbreaking on its own, and seeing Ennis’ reaction and his goodbye to Jack is emotionally harrowing.

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From director Ang Lee, Brokeback Mountain tells the story of a forbidden love between two cowboys beginning in 1960s Wyoming. The film stars Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal as Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist, who after being hired for a summer job herding sheep, begin a romantic relationship that lasts two decades. As the two struggle to cope with their feelings for each other against the pressures of a society that will never accept them, various tragedies and other obligations threaten to pull them apart for good. Anne Hathaway and Michelle Williams also star. 

Director Ang Lee Release Date January 13, 2006 Cast Jake Gyllenhaal , Heath Ledger , Michelle Williams Runtime 134 minutes

2 True Grit (2010)

Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

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Though she’s just fourteen, Mattie quickly proves herself to be resourceful and determined to find money and a Deputy U.S. Marshall to track down her father’s killer and see him hanged.

The Coen Brother’s reimagining of the classic 1969 film of the same name, True Grit, is a tale of woe from the start. Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) is left on her own to contend with the brutality of the West when her father is murdered. Though she’s just fourteen, Mattie quickly proves herself to be resourceful and determined to find money and a Deputy U.S. Marshall to track down her father’s killer and see him hanged. She never expected that this man, Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), would become a surrogate father figure and that her life would change even more.

Throughout the movie, Mattie and Cogburn are separated, kidnapped, and faced off with the meanest men in all the West, but Mattie’s spirit is never broken. It’s easy to forget that she’s only a child dealing with forces and cruelty that she had never been exposed to before. In the end, Cogburn saves her, but their relationship is not one that can exist outside the open country. It’s devastating when the movie jumps forward in time, and just before they’re about to be reunited, Cogburn dies, leaving Mattie alone again in the world.

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An adaptation of Charles Portis’ 1968 novel of the same name, True Grit tells the story of 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), who enlists the help of morally-questionable lawman Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) in order to avenge the death of her father by apprehending the criminal Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). They are joined by a cocksure Texas Ranger named Labeouf (Matt Damon), who insists upon collecting the bounty on Chaney’s head. The three travel across the Arkansas plains in pursuit of Chaney, risking life and limb against outlaws and wild animals in pursuit of justice.

Director Ethan Coen , Joel Coen Release Date December 22, 2010 Cast Jeff Bridges , Barry Pepper , Josh Brolin , Matt Damon , Hailee Steinfeld Runtime 110 minutes

Alan-Ladd-in-The-Iron-Mstress-Elizabeth-Taylor-in-Giant-and-John-Wayne-in-The-Searchers Related 10 Great Westerns Where The Hero Isn’t Actually A Gunslinger

Though shootouts and marksmanship are essential parts of the Western genre, plenty of movies allow their hero to have many other talents.

1 Unforgiven (1992)

Directed by Clint Eastwood

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Of all the Westerns Clint Eastwood made, Unforgiven, which he directed and starred in, was his magnum opus. In the film, he grapples with his legacy as a Western star and his movie’s impact on culture and cinema. His character, Will Munny, an extension of Eastwood himself, is an aging gunslinger who saddles up for one more adventure against one of the most heinous villains in movie history, Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman). The cruelty of Daggett is casual and cutting, forcing the morally ambiguous Munny to take up the mantle of hero, even if he doesn’t wear it well.

There are quite a few casualties throughout Unforgiven, and though Munny makes it out alive, it’s not without great cost. There is an air of grief and sadness from the movie’s start, as Munny is a widower raising his children alone. His loss is almost painted as recompense for his past as a violent outlaw. Even when Munny demonstrates amazing feats of skill, it’s with a heavy heart, and there are no winners by the conclusion of the story. The heroic cowboys soon turn out to be scared, weak men who all have something to hide and be ashamed of.

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Unforgiven, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, is a Western that delves into the myths of the American West. The film follows William Munny, a retired and widowed outlaw, who takes on one last job with his old partner and a young gunslinger. They aim to avenge a disfigured prostitute in a corrupt town controlled by a brutal sheriff. The film explores themes of redemption, the brutal realities of frontier justice, and the consequences of violence.

Director Clint Eastwood Release Date August 7, 1992 Cast Clint Eastwood , Gene Hackman , Morgan Freeman , Richard Harris , Jaimz Woolvett , Saul Rubinek , Frances Fisher Runtime 130 Mins

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