15 Grossly Overlooked Westerns

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Westerns are one of the sturdiest genres to emerge from the American subconscious. It persists because of how regional it is in its depiction of a particular era of the American frontier, starting at the beginning of the Gold Rush in 1849 and ending around the closing of the frontier in 1890. We see several visual and thematic motifs repeated ad nauseam: horses, tumbleweeds, guns, duels, and the battle of a moral center versus an untamed lawlessness that matches the unconquered American West. 

These are tried-and-true images that define the genre. Its ubiquity is matched only by the quantity of its output. Westerns have proven themselves as a genre here to stay, from Edwin S. Porter’s iconic Great Train Robbery to modern prestige television such as Yellowstone or Tulsa King. With such a vast number of Western stories, it’s easy to see how a few can slip through the cracks. Today, we’ll be taking a look at some westerns that, for one reason or another, went under the radar. Get those six-shooters loaded because we’re going to fire away!

1. Ulzana’s Raid 

Photo Credit: Universal Pictures.

Old Hollywood journeyman Robert Aldrich’s violent revisionist Western follows a group of Army trackers on the hunt for an Apache war party led by the infamous Ulzana. As bleak as the Western genre gets, this devastating dirge feels like the film of a young filmmaker despite being directed by a then-54-year-old Aldrich. It is a film about the end of the Old West that feels appropriately nihilistic. 

2. The Hellbenders 

Photo Credit: Alba Cinematografica.

Master of the Spaghetti Western—a subgenre of Western coming out of Italy between the 1950s and 1970s—Sergio Corbucci directs this two-fisted tale about a group of ex-confederate soldiers who plan to end the Union’s cause by looting a caravan full of banknotes and stuffing the money in the coffin of a dead soldier. This is one stupefying slice of EuroWestern you do not want to miss, featuring plenty of technicolor violence and a rousing score by Ennio Morricone!

3. Cut-Throats Nine 

Photo Credit: Films Triunfo S.A.

Joaquín Luis Romero Marchent’s Spanish Exploitation Western follows a group of sadistic prisoners who escape after a raid on the wagon that’s holding them captive. One of the few films to mix the iconography of horror films and Westerns, this exquisite sickie proves that the Western can still be just as satisfying, if not more so, in the grindhouse.

4. High Plains Drifter 

Photo Credit: The Malpaso Company.

Clint Eastwood’s third film as a director, following his Play Misty for Me and Breezy, follows an unnamed drifter who wanders into Lago and claims to be the gunslinger they were looking for. Eastwood’s return to his Western roots is a mean-spirited neo-western, tearing down the image of the traditional Western hero in favor of the violent sociopath who wants to claim the town of Lago for himself.

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5. Hot Snake 

Photo Credit: Conacite Dos.

Another Spanish Western, this supernatural western follows a bounty hunter who travels to Hot Snake. There, his mission is to take on the bounty of a man who murders a woman and steals money belonging to the Army. In taking the bounty, however, he discovers he may be gambling away his life.

6. Rio Lobo 

Photo Credit: Cinema Center Films.

Howard Hawks’ final film follows the formula he established with his earlier film Rio Bravo. The film follows John Wayne as Cord McNally, a union soldier who fails to protect a shipment of gold from a confederate raid. Once he learns the confederacy had help from the inside, McNally tries to find the traitors responsible for the raid. Though they were both elder statesmen at this point, Hawks’ and Wayne’s final collaboration is one for the ages.

7. Cheyenne Autumn 

Photo Credit: Warner Bros.

Though this wouldn’t be John Ford’s final western—that honor goes to 1967’s 7 Women—Cheyenne Autumn feels like the grand finale of Ford’s mythic career as a director of Westerns. The film follows the Northern Cheyenne Exodus, a true story of the Cheyenne people trying to return to their land in the north after being forced on southern reservations by the United States military. It is a fitting swan song for the master of the American West.

8. A Time for Dying 

Photo Credit: Etoile Productions.

The final narrative film by genre workhorse Budd Boetticher follows a wannabe bounty hunter who meets his untimely end after encountering Judge Roy Bean, Jesse James, and the wrong end of a gun. A tight potboiler that evokes the films of Boetticher’s height, the film has a shockingly cynical ending that has to be seen to be believed.

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9. Rancho Notorious 

Photo Credit: Fidelity Pictures Corporation.

German expressionist Fritz Lang’s foray into the Western genre follows Vern Haskell, an outlaw driven to revenge after he discovers that his wife has been murdered in a robbery gone awry. His quest takes him to the Chuck-A-Luck saloon, run by a former lounge singer. What lies within the saloon’s walls makes up much of Lang’s exciting B-western, his only film in the genre. 

10. Vera Cruz 

Photo Credit: MGM.

Vera Cruz is said to have inspired Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy. This 1954 effort from Robert Aldrich centers on a group of mercenaries in the Franco-Mexican War who doubt their alliances when they are tasked with transporting a shipment of imperial gold to Veracruz. The film plays as the template for future neo-Westerns, with its frank depictions of violence and morally complicated characters setting the standard for the next two decades of Western filmmaking.

11. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid 

Photo Credit: MGM.

Sam Peckinpah’s elegiac Western follows the tumultuous relationship between its titular characters, following them until the law decrees that one of them meet their inevitable demise. Much slower-paced than many of the films on this list, the film is finally available in its original director’s cut, having only been available on home video in various butchered versions. 

12. Bone Tomahawk 

Photo Credit: Caliber Media Company.

Neo-exploitation director S. Craig Zahler’s horror Western follows a search party on the hunt for a missing woman who’s been abducted by a group of roving cannibals. Featuring a disgusting disembowelment that has to be seen to be believed, this 2015 shocker is for the Western fan with a strong stomach.

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13. Terror in a Texas Town 

Photo Credit: United Artists.

Written by blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, Joseph H. Lewis’ stylish Western centers on George, a Swedish-American whaler who returns to his Texas home after being at sea for two decades. Problems arise when George discovers his father has been murdered. Hellbent on revenge, he grabs a harpoon and gets to work in this exciting tale of justice and morality.

14. Massacre Time 

Photo Credit: Mega Film.

Primarily known for his horror films, Italian exploitation director Lucio Fulci’s take on the West follows a man who must return to his hometown after a greedy land baron and his sadistic son plan to run the town into the ground. Though it lacks much of the atmosphere he’s known for, Fulci leans into the violence and grit of the piece in a way that makes this for-hire job extremely satisfying.

15. Kill Them All and Come Back Alone 

Photo Credit: Fida Cinematografica.

Action director Enzo G. Castellari’s Civil War Western follows a group of militiamen who must storm a Union base to find the gold hidden within it before the Confederacy raids it. Taut and precise, this obscure cheapie is ripe for rediscovery by the discerning Western fan.

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