Modern Westerns? Yes, Please

Wednesday Matinee

Destination: The American and Canadian West and Australia

Movies: Modern Westerns

by Jane Louise Boursaw

This month, in keeping with our American Western Road trip, Jane Boursaw brings us  five modern Westerns. If the scenery lures you, however, be advised that Brokeback Mountain was filmed largely in Canada, as well as scenes in New Mexico and in Wyoming, while Unforgiven was  filmed entirely in some very enticing Canadian locations. Quigley Down Under, of course, was filmed in Australia–another tempting location for a road trip.

Most of us are familiar with the classic westerns starring the likes of John Wayne, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. Then came the era of the spaghetti westerns — Sergio Leone films starring Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Terence Hill.
But my favorite westerns are more recent, made in the past 20 years or so. I guess you’d call them modern westerns, though they don’t all take place in modern times. But these are films with a little more depth and emotion than the classic cowboy themes. Let’s take a look at five of my favorite modern westerns.

1. Unforgiven (1992)

Photo courtesy of Warner Brothers

Clint Eastwood seemed all but done with westerns, and then along came Unforgiven. He stars as William Munny, a retired killer who turns to fatherhood and farming, two things he’s ill-suited to do. When his wife dies, he decides to take one last job and return to the only thing he truly knows how to be: a cold, heartless killer who sips whiskey for breakfast. This internal struggle between good and evil is what makes Unforgivenmore than just your classic western, and no one does conflicted like Eastwood. Morgan Freeman, Gene Hackman, Richard Harris, Frances Fisher, and Jaimz Woolvett round out the brilliant cast.
2. Quigley Down Under (1990).

Quigley Down Under
Photo courtesy of MGM

Sometimes a movie just gets in your soul and won’t let go, even as the years pass one into the other. That’s how it is with this western starring Tom Selleck as Matthew Quigley, a Montana sharpshooter who’s hired by an Australian rancher. But when Quigley arrives Down Under, things are not as straightforward as they seem. Alan Rickman sealed his place in cinematic history as the quintessential bad guy, and Laura San Giacomo is both sweet and loopy as Crazy Cora, turning in my favorite performance of all of her films. Gorgeous Australian locations, beautiful original music by Basil Poledouris, and a mystical storyline about the Aborigines make this one of the most soulful westerns ever made.

3. 3:10 to Yuma (2007).

This remake of the 1957 film finds Russell Crowe in the Ben Wade role originated by Glenn Ford. The story seems straightforward enough: A small-time rancher agrees to hold a captured outlaw who’s awaiting a train to go to court in Yuma. But it’s the battle of the wills wherein the outlaw tries to psych out the rancher that turns this into a full-fledged drama like no other. Based on a short story by Elmore Leonard, 3:10 to Yuma makes it clear that no one is either all good or all bad, but rather somewhere in that misty gray area in between.

(Note from ATL. Curious about the Yuma Territorial Prison? You can visit when you take a road trip through Arizona.)

4.Tombstone (1993).

Val Kilmer in Tombstone
Val Kilmer autographed photo from Jane Boursaw's collection.

I interviewed Powers Boothe a few years ago and asked if the cast realized they were making something very special. “Having grown up in Texas, to be in any western is a dream come true for me, particularly if it turns out to be a huge success and, indeed, a classic like Tombstone,” said Boothe. “The cast are all my heroes. I was amazed that we were able to assemble all that talent in one movie. I think that, because the script was so brilliant, anyone wouldn’t resist trying to be a part of it. It is absolutely one of my favorite experiences in my career.” That pretty much says it all, but I’ll add that Val Kilmer as the alcoholic Doc Holliday is surely one of the great western movie roles of all time, and had some of the best lines, as well.

(Note from ATL: Much of the movie actually made in Tombstone. When you visit, you can grab this Tombstone walking guide by Jane Eppinga)


5.Brokeback Mountain(2005).

Brokeback Mountain
Photo courtesy of Focus Features

Yes, it’s known as the “gay cowboy movie,” though in reality, they were sheep herders. But by the time I got to the end of this film, I was practically crippled with emotional pain. I realized that I’d spent the entire 134 minutes hunched over in agonizing tension. Look, I’m not even sure I’ll be able to watch Brokeback Mountain ever again, but I can’t deny that this heartbreaking western starring Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal as gay lovers still haunts me to this day.


Jane BoursawJane Boursaw is a family entertainment writer specializing in movies and TV. Visit her at ReelLifeWithJane; follow her on Twitter; become a friend on Facebook; email

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20 thoughts on “Modern Westerns? Yes, Please

  1. I grew up with movie Westerns and they have come a long way from the Saturday matinee. A small cast of characters locked in elemental moral and mortal struggle, dwarfed by majestic and uncaring nature. It is Greek drama without the gods.

    The Western is also, perhaps, a uniquely Anglo-Saxon story. A function of the cultural and economic and political baggage that dominated our society in the 19th Century (whatever the actual race of the individuals involved). I have never heard of such a response to the Russian expansion into Central Asia, or even that of Canada, though both these were taking place about the same time.

    And these stories, of course, are not only what happened, but what stories we choose to tell ourselves about what happened. The stories are as much about the story-teller as they are about his subjects. In America, they are our usable past.

    1. Ever go to the Bandit Museum in Ronda Spain? Ronda was near the frontier of Spain in the late 19th century, with a landscape very similar to the western United States and criminal gangs that operated the same. They lay in wait in caves along canyons and preyed on stagecoaches and wagons. What’s even more eerie, a popular literature of the exploits of bandits became very popular in Spain, with their “hero” bad guys paralleling our fascination with Billy the Kid, the shoot out at the O.K. corral, etc.

  2. I can remember watching spaghetti westerns with my dad on rainy Saturdays. No way to pick and choose back then – we got what showed up on TV.

    Loved Unforgiven. Recently watched the remake of True Grit – really didn’t like that one!

  3. Oh yes! The remake of True Grit was fabulous – loved it.

    Alisa – I can’t think of a bad Clint Eastwood movie. Even his sort of goofy ones like 1989’s Pink Cadillac still had that Clint thing going on.

    Casey – Deadwood is on my list. I’ve heard I’ll have to cover my ears through most of it, though.

    Bro – I haven’t seen the original Unforgiven. Will put that on the list.

  4. I just saw Quigley Down Under a few weeks ago for the first time. Great movie. Just curious did True Grit not make this list because it’s a a remake–I was surprised at how much I enjoyed that film.

  5. I’m normally not a western fan either, but I ADORE Tombstone – and speaking of Powers Boothe, I love Deadwood even more.

  6. I forgot that I still haven’t seen Unforgiven. Thanks for that reminder. Has Clint *ever* made a bad movie? I’m trying to remember? I don’t think he has.

  7. My husband adores Westerns. Me, not so much. But I did see Unforgiven and Brokeback Mountain, and enjoyed their take on Westerns very much.

  8. I tend not to be a big fan of westerns and I must confess I thought Brokeback Mountain to be boring. I have never seen these other films, but I have heard of Unforgiven. Maybe I will give that one a try!

  9. It’s interesting that The Unforgiven, 3:10 Yuma, and Quigley Down Under still follow in certain ways the old hero code-formula for Westerns, as in protecting the exploited and abused (often women)and in the end standing up for the right even when the anti-hero hero (reluctantly) has to return to the use of violence. (Cynics will say the women are just an excuse.) While the original Unforgiven (1960) has little in commom with Eastwood’s higher quality work, the original 3:10 to Yuma (1957) is well done with excellent acting, and, of course, less over-the-top techno-violence than the remake.

    1. Interesting comment, Bro. So women like Westerns because they feel taken care of and men like it because it excuses their violent tendencies, right?

  10. a Great list- I’ve only seen the first one on this list. I’m not much into Westerns- maybe because of growing up elsewhere, not sure- but I think I would like to give 3:10 to Yuma a watch- it sounds like something I would love. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

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