Yee Haw! The Best Westerns From The 1950s

Let’s travel back in time to the 1950s when John Wayne dominated the cinema with Western classics including The Searchers and Rio Bravo. “The Duke” wasn’t the only major star headlining the genre – Gary Cooper, Spencer Tracy, and James Stewart all found success putting on cowboy hats and saving the day. These are the best Westerns of the ’50s to take you on a trip down memory lane!

3:10 To Yuma Was Preserved By The Library Of Congress

310-to-yuma 1957
Columbia Pictures
Columbia Pictures

Starring Glenn Ford as a rancher tasked with escorting a notorious outlaw to justice, 3:10 To Yuma was selected by preservation into the United States National Film Registry in 2012 for its historical impact.

In 2007, 3:10 To Yuma was remade by director James Mangold with Russell Crowe and Christian Bale in the lead roles. Both versions of the film were critical and commercial hits, with the original being nominated for Best Film by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA).

The Big Country Has A Rare Supporting Performance From Charlton Heston

the-big-country western film
United Artists
United Artists

Starring Gregory Peck and directed by William Wyler, there is a lot to discuss about the classic Western The Big Country. Perhaps most notably, the film features a rare supporting role from Charlton Heston.

Although the film received mixed reviews upon its release, it ended up being nominated for two Academy Awards – Best Supporting Actor for Burl Ives and Best Original Score for Jerome Moross. Ives took home the golden statuette for his performance.

The Searchers Set The Bar For The Genre

the searchers 1956
Warner Brothers
Warner Brothers

Starring John Wayne as a Civil War veteran searching to find his kidnapped niece, The Searchers has stood the test of time since originally being released in 1956. Based on the 1954 novel of the same name, the film has gone on to influence the styles of legendary filmmakers Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.

The American Film Institue (AFI) has also showered The Searchers with praise, listing it as the best Western of all-time, and ranking it the 12th best movie made in the last 100 years in 2007.

Old Yeller Is A Classic Tearjerker

old-yeller 1957
Walt Disney Pictures
Walt Disney Pictures

One of the rare Westerns aimed at a family audience, Old Yeller was released in 1957 and is based on the Newberry Honor-winning novel of the same name that was released in 1956.

Praised for the performances by the cast, the film is most remembered for its heartbreaking ending. Rotten Tomatoes’ critical consensus for the film reads, “Old Yeller is an exemplary coming of age tale, packing an emotional wallop through smart pacing and a keen understanding of the elemental bonding between humanity and their furry best friends.”

Hondo’s Ending Was Filmed By John Ford

hondo 1953
Warner Brothers
Warner Brothers

Released in 1953, Hondo was a troubled production starring John Wayne that went over schedule, leading a forced change in director. Credited director John Farrow was committed to directing a different film that conflicted with the Western after shooting went longer than expected.

Needing to finish the movie, Wayne asked John Ford to step in and finish the film as a personal favor. The iconic director was uncredited for his role in making sure the film was finished.

Giant Was The Last Film James Dean Made

giant 1956
Warner Brothers
Warner Brothers

During his short but iconic career, James Dean starred in three films. Giant, released in 1956, was the last of the trio and his only Western. Directed by George Stevens, the film was a huge hit despite its nearly three and half hour running time.

Dean earned his second Oscar nomination for the film, losing to Yul Brynner for The King and I. Stevens did take home the Best Director statuette, though.

Shane Is Notable For Its Cinematography

shane 1953
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

Shane, released in 1953, was directed by George Stevens and starred Alan Ladd. Named the number three Western of all-time by AFI, the movie is most notable for its sweeping cinematography, which won an Academy Award.

The film follows a drifter with a mysterious past in Wyoming Territory. Bosley Crowther, a film critic for The New York Times, wrote it, “contains a very wonderful understanding of the spirit of a little boy amid all the tensions and excitements and adventures of a frontier home.”

Rio Bravo Was Remade In 1966 By Its Original Director

rio-bravo 1959
Warner Brothers
Warner Brothers

Originally released in 1959, Rio Bravo was directed by iconic director Howard Hawks and starred John Wayne and Dean Martin. The story saw a sheriff arrest the brother of a local rancher who then has to wait for a U.S. Marshall to pick him up.

In 1966, Hawks made El Dorado, a loose remake of Rio Bravo again starring John Wayne. Both versions of the movie are rated 100% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, with the original being named one of the ten best Westerns of all-time by AFI.

High Noon Won Four Academy Awards

high-noon 1952
United Artists
United Artists

High Noon starred Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly, was released in 1952 and was nominated for seven Academy Awards, taking home four. The unique tale unfolds in real-time as a town marshal is forced to decide how to face a dangerous gang.

Cooper won Best Actor for his portrayal of High Noon’s troubled protagonist. In 2007, AFI listed it as the 27th greatest film made in the last 100 years. One year later, the heralded institution named High Noon the second-best Western ever made.

Johnny Guitar Is Considered A Contemporary Work Of Art

johnny-guitar 1954
Republic Pictures
Republic Pictures

When it was initially released in 1954, Johnny Guitar was given a lukewarm critical reception. Starring Joan Crawford, one critic wrote, “It proves [Crawford] should leave saddles and Levis to someone else and stick to city lights for a background. [The film] is only a fair piece of entertainment.”

Contemporary re-evaluation of the film has changed the popular opinion surrounding it, though. Martin Scorses more recently wrote that Johnny Guitar is, “an intense, unconventional, stylized picture, full of ambiguities and subtexts that rendered it extremely modern.”

The Man From Laramie Was The Last Collaboration Of Two Hollywood Heavyweights

the-man-from-laramie 1955
Columbia Pictures
Columbia Pictures

Released in 1955, The Man From Laramie is a Western collaboration between Anthony Mann and James Stewart. The story follows a stranger who defies a local cattle baron, leading to conflict and chaos all around.

The movie was the last collaboration between its star and director, who had a disagreement over a previous film, the bad blood of which spilled into The Man From Laramie. Mann even quit the movie partway through filming, believing Stewart only agreed to star in it so he could play his accordion.

Bad Day At Black Rock Is A Noir Western

bad-day-at-black-rock 1955
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Starring Spencer Tracy, Bad Day at Black Rock is a film noir Western about a mysterious man who shows up in an isolated town searching for someone. It was adapted from the short story “Bad Time at Honda,” and was released theatrically in 1955.

The film was highly praised by Variety, which wrote, “Considerable excitement is whipped up in this suspense drama, and fans who go for tight action will find it entirely satisfactory. Besides telling a yarn of tense suspense, the picture is concerned with a social message on civic complacency.”

Rio Grande

rio-grande 1950
Republic Pictures
Republic Pictures

The Western that launched the 1950s, Rio Grande was directed by John Ford and starred John Wayne. It is the final installment of Ford’s “cavalry trilogy” that started in 1948 with Fort Apache and was followed in 1949 by She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.

At the time of production, Ford had no interest in making another Western. He was actually hoping to make a romantic comedy set in Ireland, but the president of RKO pictures was adamant that he direct Rio Grande.

The Naked Spur Is An Underrated Masterpiece

the-naked-spur 1953
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

The Naked Spur stars James Stewart and was released in 1953, earning high praise, and an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay. It was the third Western collaboration between Stewart and director Anthony Mann.

Although it was a commercial and critical success, the ’50s were so full of Westerns that The Naked Spur has seemingly been forgotten today, which is a shame for the movie Empire called, “a masterpiece that’s too easy to take for granted… the best of an outstanding run of Westerns.”

Annie Get Your Gun Overcame Production Problems To Be A Hit

annie-get-your-gun musical
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

With all the awards that Annie Get Your Gun garnered after being released in 1950, you would be hard-pressed to guess how troubled the production was. Originally budgeted at $1.5 million, the final cost to make the movie ended up at $2.3 million, a hefty increase back then.

Judy Garland was originally cast to play the lead, but several clashes with the director, and overall exhaustion from issues with her personal life, left MGM no choice but to fire her mid-shoot. Betty Hutton was ultimately cast, and the movie was finished. It went on to earn $7.7 million at the box office.

Man Of The West Saw Anthony Mann Replace Stewart With Cooper

man-of-the-west 1958
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

During pre-production on Man of the West, it was rumored that James Stewart desperately wanted to be cast in the lead role. When director Anthony Mann chose Gary Cooper over his longtime collaborator, it officially ended the working relationship between the two.

Critics weren’t kind to the film when it was first released, although world-renowned French filmmaker and critic Jean-Luc Godard hailed it as the best film of the year.

The Gunfighter Was Nominated For Best Picture Story At The Oscars

the gunfighter 1950
20th Century Fox
20th Century Fox

The second of six collaborations between actor Gregory Peck and director Henry King, The Gunfighter stands the test of time as a modern-day masterwork. It was so well received when it first came out that writers William Bowers and Andre de Toth were nominated for Best Picture Story at the 23rd Academy Awards.

The Gunfighter was praised in 1950 for its portrayal of its protagonist as, “one of the most fascinating Western heroes who has ever looked down a six-shooter’s barrel.”

Gunfight At The O.K. Corral Is A Loose Retelling Of The Truth

gunfight-at-the-ok-corral western movie
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral loosely retells the true-life story of the 1881 event that teamed Wyatt Earp with Doc Holiday. Burt Lancaster plays Earp in the film while Kirk Douglas takes on the role of Holliday.

The film was positively received, and despite several historical inaccuracies, was nominated for multiple Academy Awards. A decade later, director John Sturges revisited the story to tell a more accurate version. Hour of the Gun starred James Garner and Jason Robards and was released in 1967.

Bend Of The River Helped Change James Stewart’s Persona

bend-of-the-river western film
Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures

Before starring in a series of 1950s Western films, James Stewart was seen as an everyman by audiences. After Winchester ’73, a darker side to his personality came out and was later fully established in Bend of the River.

Audiences enjoyed the grittier, rougher around the edges Stewart, who played Glyn McLyntock in the movie, a tough cowboy attempting to deliver supplies to a region after gold is discovered there. The film was a hit upon its release, grossing an estimated $3 million.

Oklahoma! Brought Music To The Wild West

oklahoma musical
RKO Radio Pictures
RKO Radio Pictures

Taking place in the Oklahoma Territory, Oklahoma! tells the story of a farmgirl being courted by multiple suitors. The musical was a smash hit in 1955 and earned four Academy Award nominations, winning two statuettes.

The movie was given a rave review by The New York Times and was named a “New York Times Critics Pick,” In 2007, it was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress to be placed in the United States National Film Registry.