Westerns At Their Height?

Everybody talks about the “heyday of the westerns” and the time when they were at their peak.

I have loved westerns for as long as I can remember and have seen hundreds of them. There is something in me that delights in seeing strong men, beautiful women, horses, blazing guns, comradeship, and daring courage on the silver screen.

I love the stories of morals, character, and good triumphing over evil. Stories chock full of men who did what was right in spite of intense pain, men who had not only grit, but also the sound moral judgement and discernment that enabled them to meet the challenges and tests thrown at them with boldness. The fight of a man with courage who stands up for justice and truth against evil men and ideas never looses it’s appeal to me. Westerns are wonderful films.

When you’ve watched a broad variety of western films you start to see patterns.  I’ve watched western films made in 1903 and in 2016, and everything in between.  One thing that I noticed is that different elements (and worldviews) were at their peak in different decades— and that all the elements of a fine western film are seldom present at the same time in history. Or in the same film. Which makes it very hard to pick a certain time that westerns were at their best.

Not popularity or quantity wise, but in quality–the BEST films.

Everyone has differing preferences on this, below are my general opinions.  Do keep in mind that there are many exceptions to each of these..they are more of an average rather than a hard and fast rule!

  • The color of westerns was at it’s height in the 50’s and 60’s–take Rio Bravo, Hondo, The Tall T, or The Comancheros as fine examples of the best of western lighting. They captured the very atmosphere and mood in a way that I’ve seldom seen equaled–especially in Rio Bravo (which I hope to review someday). One notable exception to that is the 1941 Randolph Scott film Western Union.


  • The music of westerns was at it’s height in in the 60’s with Elmer Bernstein’s breathtaking scores.


  • The B-films were at their height in the late 30’s and early 40’s. By the 50’s they were far inferior to their precedents.


  • The singing cowboy films were at their height in the 1940’s. The 30’s films were fun, just not quite as good, but the 50’s singing cowboy movies were quite poorly done.


  • The humorous character-actor side-kicks were at their height in the 30’s. 🙂


  • The most skillfully crafted stories (plot, style, etc.) were at their height in the 40’s and 50’s.


  • The moral heroism and character of the protagonist was at it’s height in the 30’s and 40’s (partially a result of the production code…but also a result of the worldviews at the time)


  • The originality of the situations that a cowpoke found himself in–and the unusual type of his subsequent solutions was at a humorous peak in the 1910’s-the late 1930’s.


  • The height of attention to authentic nitty-gritty detail is the specialty of the 1920’s (in locations, clothes, and and actions) and the 2000’s and 2010’s (in props and wounds)


And my list could go on for a long time…

I greatly prefer older westerns– 1970’s and before. But out of those older films it’s hard to choose.

In the end there is something perfectly beautiful and wonderful that I’m terribly fond of in almost every one of the old decades…something that I would be loath to part with. And once I finally decide on “the era of the best westerns” I end up watching a film from the decade previous and falling in love with the techniques and fine stories of valor in that era. So, I just appreciate each decade for it’s strengths…and as of yet have not decided which decade I think represents the western at it’s best.

Maybe someday I will.

What do you think of my list? Would yours differ? In which decade do you think westerns were at their height?

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4 Responses to Westerns At Their Height?

  1. I think that’s a really good breakdown! I completely agree about the musical scores, the golden era of the B-Westerns, the storytelling and cinematography.

    I haven’t seen any silent Westerns myself, and very few post-1960s (in fact The Cowboys might be the only one), but I’ve seen some photos from Westerns of recent years, and I have to say the costuming doesn’t appeal to me. Everyone seems to have long unkempt hair and wear dark, drab colors and long coats. That seems to be the modern view of the 19th century, but I tell you, when I read fiction from that era, I don’t get that impression of bleakness and colorlessness.

    • Annie says:

      Silent westerns can be very fun–and quite comedic! I’d recommend trying one someday. Of course there are some bad ones, but many of them are good and highly amusing.

      As far as post 60’s-70’s films go, I must say that I concur wholeheartedly with what you said about the costuming. The entire lighting of the majority of modern western films seems to have caught that depressing drabness too. 🙂 Aesthetically they are not nearly as pleasing as their forerunners. In my experience it is hard to find one that is worthy–both in morals and story. I’ve only seen a handful, but most of the time they’re disappointing.
      I’d recommend sticking to the old ones–I think they are highly superior! Give me a clean-cut hero over an unkempt one any day!

      • Hamlette says:

        This is one of the things that a friend of mine really liked about the recent remake of “The Magnificent Seven.” It had colors! Lots of colors! Not the washed-out dustiness of so many recent westerns. We both like that about “Slow West” too.

        • Annie says:

          I’ve never seen “Slow West,” but judging from the stills on your blog 😉 it does appear to be above average in that respect. I hope it returns to the western genre in full force because I personally don’t like the modern “drab west” look in the slightest!

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