- International filmmakers brought a fresh, critical perspective to the American western genre, showcasing morally gray antiheroes and blood-soaked violence.
- Films like Sukiyaki Western Django and El Topo took the western genre to new, dark, and twisted places, blending different cultural influences and unconventional storytelling.
- Directors like Sergio Corbucci and Sergio Leone pushed the boundaries of the western genre, creating subversive and truly iconic films like The Great Silence and Once Upon a Time in the West.
The western is a traditional American genre, but from The Salvation to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, some of the greatest westerns ever made were produced internationally. The earliest westerns directed by American pioneers like John Ford and Howard Hawks told clear-cut black-and-white stories about good triumphing over evil. When international filmmakers got their hands on the western genre, they had no emotional connection to the United States and therefore depicted the American West from a less flattering and more critical perspective, with morally gray antiheroes and blood-soaked scenes of violence.
Akira Kurosawa used the tropes of American western films in crafting the vision of his groundbreaking samurai films. And those samurai films, in turn, inspired European directors to come up with their own dark, twisted take on the western. From Italian spaghetti westerns like The Great Silence to Australian meat pie westerns like The Proposition to Mexican acid westerns like El Topo, the bleakest and most brutal westerns were produced outside the U.S. There’s a great Danish western starring Mads Mikkelsen and a great Japanese western from the director of Ichi the Killer.
10 The Salvation (2014)
Mads Mikkelsen plays a Danish settler seeking revenge for the deaths of his wife and son in this Danish-made western. The Salvation brings a fresh perspective to the familiar sun-beaten vistas of John Ford and Sergio Leone, with composer Kasper Winding providing Morricone-style guitar twangs on the soundtrack. Mikkelsen’s nuanced, captivating lead performance elevates The Salvation above a standard western revenge thriller.
9 Slow West (2015)
Kodi Smit-McPhee plays a young man searching for his missing lover on the frontier opposite Michael Fassbender as his bounty hunter companion in Slow West, a British and New Zealand co-production. First-time director John Maclean refuses to fall into any of the comfortable genre tropes with this subversively somber take on the western. As the title would suggest, Slow West is a slow burner, but it rewards its audience’s patience with satisfying payoffs.
8 Sukiyaki Western Django (2007)
Directed by Ichi the Killer’s Takashi Miike, Sukiyaki Western Django is a Japanese interpretation of the Italian interpretation of an American film genre. The plot, in which a nameless gunslinger exacts revenge against warring gangs, is nearly identical to Django and A Fistful of Dollars (and their own Japanese source material: Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo). While the movie borrows heavily from the classics of the genre, Miike’s signature high-energy, fast-paced action puts a fresh spin on all the well-worn tropes and conventions.
7 The Power Of The Dog (2021)
A co-production of Canada, Australia, the UK, and director Jane Campion’s native New Zealand, The Power of the Dog is a sobering blend of western and psychological drama. The Power of the Dog is much less action-oriented than the average western; it’s more interested in exploring its complex, three-dimensional characters than getting them into shootouts and chases on horseback. Campion won the Academy Award for Best Director for her precise and compassionate direction, while Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, and Jesse Plemons all give phenomenal Oscar-nominated performances.
6 The Great Silence (1968)
Sergio Corbucci’s bleak, brutal masterpiece The Great Silence – about a mute gunfighter trying to protect his town from a gang of bounty killers – is one of the most subversive westerns ever made. Even the most radical anti-westerns usually have good triumphing over evil, but not The Great Silence. The snowy setting of The Great Silence prepares audiences for a much colder, harsher western than they’re used to. The Great Silence throws the playbook out the window for a truly harrowing viewing experience.
5 The Proposition (2005)
One of the definitive works of the “meat pie western” subgenre, The Proposition transplants western tropes in 1880s Australia. A gunslinger is caught between a rock and a hard place when a lawman offers to free his notorious younger brother if he kills his notorious older brother. The Proposition is notable for its grisly, violent action scenes that leave nothing to the audience’s imagination – especially one excruciating sequence involving a cat-o’-nine-tails – but it’s also been praised for its authentic portrayal of indigenous Australian culture of the late 19th century.
4 El Topo (1970)
Alejandro Jodorowsky defined the “acid western” with his surreal, outlandish Mexican production El Topo. With its blend of western tropes and Eastern philosophy, El Topo has become a cornerstone of cult cinema. It follows a violent gunfighter’s quest to find true enlightenment, with plenty of gonzo, mind-bending vignettes along the way. Jodorowsky wrote, directed, scored, and starred in the movie with a very unique, very strange vision of the familiar western genre.
3 Once Upon A Time In The West (1968)
Sergio Leone left behind his usual cartoonish violence and pitch-black humor for a more somber and contemplative portrayal of life on the frontier in Once Upon a Time in the West. Henry Fonda plays drastically against type as a reprehensible child-killing villain, while Charles Bronson is iconic as a softly spoken gunslinger who lets his harmonica do the talking. From the nail-biting opening sequence at the train station to the glorious climactic revenge, Once Upon a Time in the West is a truly accomplished cinematic vision demonstrating Leone’s unparalleled command of the craft.
2 Django (1966)
After Leone made a western version of Yojimbo, A Fistful of Dollars, to establish the tone and style of the spaghetti western, Corbucci solidified the new subgenre with his own westernized take on the Kurosawa classic. Django stars Franco Nero as the titular gunslinger, who liberates a terrified town from gang warfare. Django is even more uncompromisingly violent than the Dollars trilogy, with an ear-severing scene, a Gatling gun massacre scene, and a final showdown in a cemetery in which Django poetically uses his lover’s tombstone to help him gun down her attackers while holding his pistol with broken fingers.
1 The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly (1966)
Clint Eastwood’s “Man with No Name” antihero embarked on his most epic journey in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, in which he races two other ne’er-do-wells across a war-torn frontier to recover a stash of Confederate gold buried in a graveyard. This is the pinnacle of Leone’s operatic, ultraviolent vision of the Old West. It has one of the greatest scores ever composed, courtesy of Ennio Morricone, it builds to a breathtaking climactic standoff (one of the best-edited sequences in cinema history), and it satirizes its own genre with remorseless characters who care only about the pursuit of money.