TOP 10 – Westerns are known for their tense gunfights, but they’re also full of impressive acting performances. Let’s take a look at the most iconic western heroes – in style, ranked by week.
Although some people think of westerns as simple action movies starring cowboys and bounty hunters, the genre is home to some of the greatest performances in film history. Some of Hollywood’s greatest actors have become stars by playing the heroes of classic westerns, such as John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. These and other giants of the genre dazzled audiences not only with their marksmanship and wide-brimmed hats, but also with their nuanced and memorable portrayals of characters that were good, bad and often in between.
There is no shortage of star performances in western films, but some performances rise above the rest. So let’s take a trip through film history and look at the best Western heroes, ranked in order.
Kurt Russell – Tombstone (1993)
Kurt Russell reinvented the rugged anti-hero with his roles in the John Carpenter films of the 1980s, and in many ways characters like Snake Plissken in Escape from New York and Jack Burton in Big Trouble in Little China seem like they were plucked from an old-fashioned western. It was no surprise that Russell was a perfect fit for the western material, and in 1993’s “Tombstone” he gave one of the most memorable performances in the company as Wyatt Earp’s noble lawman.
Russell further shaped the role of the modern protagonist with roles in experimental westerns that challenged preconceptions about the genre. 2015’s “Bone Tomahawk” combines western, horror, mystery and fantasy influences in a gruesome cannibal thriller, and Russell’s riveting performance as veteran sheriff Franklin Hunt helped the film retain its emotional undertones even in the most sordid moments.
Gary Cooper – High Noon (1952)
Hollywood great Gary Cooper stars as town marshal Will Kane in the classic 1950s western, High Noon. When he challenges the rule of an outlaw gang, the townspeople turn on him and leave him to take on the gang alone. In the role of Kane, Cooper exemplifies the strong moral code and hard-edged stoicism that later Western heroes would be modelled on. His courage is shown primarily through his actions, and throughout he wears a stern, semi-tragic look. This role earned Cooper a well-deserved Academy Award for Best Actor and cemented his legacy in the history of Western films.
5. Paul Newman – Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
Westerns are just one genre that Paul Newman has highlighted throughout his incredible career, but it’s in these that he gave his best performances. Newman was known for portraying his characters in an emotionally authentic way; the dramatic stakes felt more realistic because of his nuanced approach to the characters.
Newman’s westerns generally fell on the serious side. In 1963, he starred as the title character in “Hud”, an adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s popular novel “Riders Passing by”. McMurtry was known for his willingness to question traditional notions of masculinity, and Hud is a toxic character who rebels against his strict father. Newman would bring the same dramatic sensibility to the revisionist westerns “Hombre”, “The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean”, “Hombre” and “Buffalo Bill and the Indians”, but he also co-starred with Robert Redford in the buddy comedy “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”, one of the most entertaining westerns ever made.
Steve McQueen – The Magnificent Seven (1960)
It was a different era, when television and film were not treated as equally as they are today, but McQueen’s remarkable performance caught the attention of the big Hollywood studios. One of the earliest signs of McQueen’s cinematic potential was his breakthrough role as bounty hunter John Randall in the western TV series Wanted: Dead or Alive. His prominence in cinematic Westerns grew, thanks to his fan-favourite role as Vin Trimmer, the aloof tramp in The Magnificent Seven.
McQueen’s gruff, rarely outspoken personality made him perfectly suited to darker western projects, and he gave a multi-layered performance in the 1966 western thriller Nevada Smith. The title character starts out as an idealist, but hardens after the murder of his parents. Later in his career, McQueen helped to shape the modern-day neo-western with his roles as the hooligan Boon Hoggenbeck in “The Reivers”, the former rodeo champion Junior Bonner in “Junior Bonner” and the aging gunman in the title role in “Tom Horn”.
John Wayne – The Searchers (1956)
When John Ford’s The Searchers was released in 1956, leading man and Hollywood legend John Wayne was no stranger to playing heroes in western films. But in this film, Wayne turns to evil as the vengeful Ethan Edwards. When Comanches kidnaps Edwards’ niece, Edwards goes on a violent, murderous revenge spree that ends with nearly killing the niece he was trying to save. With his trademark sass and iconic poise, Wayne beautifully portrays the hero-turned-villain, making this his best performance of all time. Even as the actor’s legacy becomes cloudy, he is remembered fondly for roles like this.
Charles Bronson – Once Upon a Time in the Wild West (1968)
Charles Bronson starred in several Wild West films, but his most famous western role was as the wandering bounty hunter known simply as ‘Harmonica’ in Sergio Leone’s 1968 masterpiece Once Upon a Time in the Wild West. Henry Fonda, unusually, was cast as the film’s ruthless antagonist in an out-of-type role, and Bronson was far from the traditional hero. His stoic performance was perfectly matched to Leone’s slow, methodical pace, and his use of harmonica was deftly integrated into Ennio Morricone’s incredible score. One of the best films ever made, Once Upon a Time in the West was about the end of the Western era, when the intercontinental railroad made the cowboy’s practice irrelevant.
Bronson brought dramatic heft to lighter films like The Magnificent Seven, as his character Bernardo O’Reilly struggles after a series of professional failures and desperately needs money. Even if he wasn’t the lead, Bronson filled in as a supporting actor to the big western stars in their biggest films. He starred alongside Burt Lancaster in “Apache”, Gary Cooper in “Vera Cruz” and Rod Steiger in “Arrow Run”.
Clint Eastwood – The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)
Sometimes the most iconic performance in a genre is also the best performance. It would be hard to imagine a more central figure in the Western genre than Clint Eastwood as the ‘Man with No Name’ in Sergio Leone’s trilogy of the same name. In The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Eastwood becomes the quintessential modern Western hero: half hero, half outlaw; a steely-eyed, quick-handed man who can’t decide whether money or honour is more important. According to the Express, Eastwood said of the character in 2015: ‘I felt the less he spoke, the stronger he became and the more he grew in the audience’s imagination’. It seems Eastwood’s instincts were correct, as more than 50 years later, the Man with No Name remains the undisputed greatest hero of the Western genre.