The ten best westerns

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The Independent Culture

1 PAT GARRETT & BILLY THE KID Sam Peckinpah (1973)

Assume everyone knows the story - how Garrett and the Kid are set up in deadly rivalry to dramatise the modernising of the West - and then the beauty of this slow, circling movie settles in. It is meant to feel like a reference book cut with a family album and played out against Dylan's mournful score.

2 RIO BRAVO Howard Hawks (1959)

Here is proof that the West was a place for the tricky women and cross-talk of every Howard Hawks movie. John Wayne is the sheriff under siege; Dean Martin his drunken sidekick; Angie Dickinson the troublesome woman. It's actors making up a film as they go.

3 RED RIVER Howard Hawks (1948)

Hawks again, this time with the inspired casting of Wayne and Montgomery Clift as father and adopted son tackling liberty and tyranny while getting cattle to the railhead. Wayne was never better - white-haired, mean-spirited and driven into real acting by the laconic grace of Clift, who owns the prairie with his moody Actors' Studio glance.

4 WINCHESTER 73 Anthony Mann (1950)

Follow the gun. Anthony Mann reveals every facet of the West in the pursuit of a prized weapon - the Winchester 73 rifle. The details include family vengeance, Tony Curtis as a raw soldier, Rock Hudson as an Indian chief and the neurotic determination of James Stewart, that great troubled hero of the 1950s.

5 SHANE George Stevens (1953)

The kid who tells the story can't see that Alan Ladd is too tiny to be the hero, the gunfighter who comes out of nowhere to help a farming family against cruel ranchers. Ladd stands cool and erect against the landscapes of Wyoming and knows - as Jack Palance knows - how their fight must end. A serious statement about the politics of memory.

6 THE MISSOURI BREAKS Arthur Penn (1976)

A failure in its day, here is the West cracking up under its own bright sun to re-form as absurdist comedy. Marlon Brando's regulator is not just out of control, he is an actor who puts on different hats and characters for every scene.

7 ULZANA'S RAID Robert Aldrich (1972)

The obligatory Western from the Indian viewpoint. Here, the cavalry, with Burt Lancaster as its veteran scout, is hunting a rogue Apache who has quit the reservation. It's a parable of Vietnam and a tribute to the cruel nobility of the Indian nations who had no option but self-destruction, leaving their white victors to wonder how civilised they were.

8 THE SEARCHERS John Ford (1956)

John Ford's tour of Monument Valley stretches out over five years as John Wayne hunts down his niece, taken by the Comanches. Is rescue or vengeance and racial purity his aim? The niece, Natalie Wood, is saved but Wayne's character can't go home and is left to wander the desert.

9 THE RIGHT STUFF Philip Kaufman (1983)

A Western with jet planes breaking the sound barrier and early space travel? Have no fear, this is Gary Cooper meets the twentieth century, a witty satire on what the idea of space can do to human ambitions and a true record of how far the old Eastern power base in the US has shifted to the West.

10 CHINATOWN Roman Polanski (1974)

Don't go crazy. I know it's film noir. But John Huston is a land baron who has seized the water supply to make a modern Los Angeles; Jack Nicholson the lone operator who puzzles out the plot and may bring him to justice. Here is clinching proof that the old Western doesn't need to be remade - just study the ongoing history of the development of the West.