The 1980s have been largely forgotten in the history of Western cinema. The genre was on the verge of collapse after the ’70s and was given new life in 1992 with Unforgiven, but that doesn’t mean the ’80s lacked Western substance. On the contrary, the decade was filled with critically acclaimed Westerns that deserve a second viewing for their mastery of the genre. From Pale Rider to Young Guns to more obscure fare like Near Dark, these are the best (and some of the worst) Western movies of the 1980s!
Heaven’s Gate Crushed The Genre
An epic Western released in 1980, Heaven’s Gate cost a whopping $44 million to make and only made $3.5 million theatrically worldwide. Even with a star-studded cast that included Sam Waterston, Christopher Walken, Jeff Bridges, and Kris Kristofferson, the movie failed to make an impact other than crippling the Western genre.
Reflecting on the movie in 2008, Joe Queenan of The Guardian wrote, “This is a movie about Harvard-educated gunslingers who face off against eastern European sodbusters in an epic struggle for the soul of America… This is a movie that has five minutes of uninterrupted fiddle-playing by a fiddler who is also mounted on roller skates. This is a movie that defies belief.”
Silverado Was Oscar Nominated
The year 1985 was a big one for ’80s Westerns. Not only did Pale Rider come out to critical acclaim and financial success, so did Silverado. Written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan, the film starred Kevin Costner and Kevin Kline and earned $32 million at the box office.
The exciting film was hailed by Peter Stack of the San Francisco Chronicle. “[The film] delivers elaborate gun-fighting scenes, legions of galloping horses, stampeding cattle, a box canyon, covered wagons, tons of creaking leather and even a High Noonish duel.” It was nominated for Best Original Score and Best Sound at the Academy Awards.
Near Dark Combined The Western And Horror Genres
The second film directed by Kathryn Bigelow, Near Dark was a modern-day mash-up of the Western and horror genres. Described as a Neo-Western horror film, the plot follows a man in the Midwest who gets mixed up with a band of nomadic vampires.
At the time of its release, Near Dark failed to find an audience. Critics were fans, but the odd multi-genre exercise was left out to burn in the sun. Years later, Near Dark would find an audience as a cult classic. Bigelow would go onto become the first woman to ever win Best Director at the Academy Awards for The Hurt Locker.
Young Guns Launched A Movie Studio
Released in 1988, Young Guns was the first film to be produced by Morgan Creek Productions. Looking to catch a younger audience, the core cast included Emilio Estevez, Kiefer Sutherland, Dermot Mulroney, and Lou Diamond Phillips.
The plot is a retelling of Billy the Kid’s adventures during the Lincoln County War from 1877 until 1878. Made for $11 million, it went on to gross $45 million at the box office despite receiving mixed reviews from critics. A sequel was released in 1990.
The Tracker Was A Legendary Director’s Final Film
The Tracker was released in 1988 and premiered on HBO. It tells the story of a former US Army scout tracking down a gang of escaped outlaws. Directed by John Guillermin, The Tracker starred Scott Wilson and Kris Kristofferson.
For Guillermin, it was the 36th film he directed, as well as the last one. Before ending his career with a made-for-TV movie, the iconic director worked in big-budget cinema, helming a variety of films including the Towering Inferno, Death on the Nile, and King Kong (1976).
Old Gringo Earned Its Place In History
Anyone curious about seeing a Western that has gone down in history as one of the worst ever made should check out Old Gringo. The movie starred Gregory Peck and Jane Fonda and was famously booed when it debuted at the Cannes Film Festival.
Despite the negative festival reception, the movie was released theatrically in 1989. It only made $3.5 million, a small portion of its reported $27 million budget. Roger Ebert wrote, “There is a potentially wonderful story at the heart of Old Gringo, but the movie never finds it–the screenplay blasts away in every direction except the bulls-eye. … It’s heavy on disconnected episodes, light on drama and storytelling.”
Three Amigos! Brought Comedy To The Old West
Written by the creator of Saturday Night Live, Three Amigos! was a comedy Western released in 1986 that starred Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, and Martin Short. It was directed by John Landis.
The three actors play a trio of silent film stars in 1916 who are mistaken for heroes in a small Mexican village. By the end of its theatrical run, the film had grossed just under $40 million. Chevy Chase has remarked that it was the most fun he ever had making a movie.
Pale Rider Was The Highest-Grossing Western Of The Decade
Produced, directed by, and starring Clint Eastwood, Pale Rider was released in 1985 and became the highest-grossing Western of the ’80s. The actor plays a character named “Preacher” who shows up in a California town just at the right time.
Pale Rider is most notable for being one of the first big Westerns released after the failure of Heaven’s Gate. Roger Ebert was effusive in his praise of the movie, “Pale Rider is, overall, a considerable achievement, a classic Western of style and excitement.”
Outland Took The Wild West Into Space
As popularity in Western films dwindled after Heaven’s Gate, movie studios began playing with ways to revive the genre. One of those attempts was Outland, a science-fiction Western movie that takes place at a mining outpost on one of the moons of Jupiter.
The film, released in 1981, was directed by Peter Hyams and starred Sean Connery. It was a minor success at the box office and was received favorably by critics.
Sunset Starred An Up-And-Coming Bruce Willis
The same year that Die Hard cemented Bruce Willis as a Hollywood hero, he starred in Sunset. The Western followed the character of Tom Mix as he teams up with Wyatt Earp to solve a murder in 1929.
Sunset was the second feature where James Garner portrayed Earp. The movie was a financial failure, as many Westerns at the time were, but found its way to an Oscar nomination for Best Costume Design.
The Long Riders Played In Competition At Cannes
Released in 1980, The Long Riders didn’t do the Western genre any favors financially at the start of the decade. Directed by Walter Hill and starring David Carradine and Keith Carradine, the curious film only made $15 million during its box office run.
Before hitting theaters, The Long Riders was entered into competition at the Cannes Film Festival, losing to All That Jazz. Still, critics praised the film for casting real-life brothers in the lead roles of sibling outlaws.
Tom Horn Was One Of Steve McQueen’s Last Films
Steve McQueen was working on filming Tom Horn when he had trouble breathing and discovered he had a rare form of lung cancer. Because of the diagnosis, the Western film ended up being one of the last films he ever made.
Based on the writing of the real-life Tom Horn, the film was also the only McQueen film to ever receive an R-rating. When it was released theatrically, it made $9 million.
The Grey Fox Is A Canadian Masterpiece
Not as well known as other Westerns from the ’80s, The Grey Fox was a Canadian production that received high praise and was nominated for several awards. Released in 1982, the film tells the true story of Bill Miner.
The Grey Fox takes place after Miner was released from 33 years in prison. A free man, he decided to rob a train and settle down in British Columbia. Will his crime catch up with him? You’ll have to watch to find out!
Barbarosa Is A Willie Nelson Western
Barbarosa tells the story of a cowboy on the run of the law who teams up with a bandito and learns about life. Released in 1982 and starring Willie Nelson and Gary Busey, the movie earned critical acclaim but was mostly overlooked by audiences.
On review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes, Barbarosa received a 100 percent fresh score with no negative reviews. Legendary film critic Pauline Kael hailed it as “spirited and satisfying.”
The Shadow Riders Went Straight To Television
Airing on CBS in 1982, The Shadow Riders starred Tom Selleck and Sam Elliot and told the tale of two brothers fighting on opposite sides of the Civil War. When they return home, they find out their other siblings have been kidnapped and set out on an adventure to rescue them.
The Shadow Riders was the second Western that starred Elliot and Selleck, with the first being The Sacketts in 1979.
The Quick And The Dead Was Headlined By Sam Elliot And Kate Capshaw
Before Sam Raimi directed the better-known ’90s movie The Quick and the Dead, there was a made-for-TV movie with the same name starring Sam Elliot and Kate Capshaw. The movie was based on the 1973 novel (also with the same name) and aired on HBO in 1987.
The movie tells the story of a family leaving Wyoming and traveling west to start a new life. Of course, things don’t go as planned, and they lose two of their horses to a gang and must get them back.
Stagecoach Was Remade As A Television Movie
Most movie fans know Stagecoach as a classic film from 1939 directed by Tom Ford and starring John Wayne. In 1986, CBS remade the classic Western as a made for TV movie starring Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson.
Nelson plays Doc Holliday in the movie that follows a group of strangers on a stagecoach headed east. While some changes were made from the original film, the remake roughly follows the same plot.
Billy The Kid Was An Underrated Success
Starring Val Kilmer as the title character, Billy the Kid first aired on TNT on 1989 and didn’t receive the attention it deserved. Directed by Gore Vidal, critics praised the film as well as Kilmer’s performance.
Today, the film is regarded as one of the more historically accurate portrayals of the Western icon. Perhaps if it had been released at a time when Westerns were more popular it would have reached a wider audience.
Gone To Texas Tells The Story Of Sam Houston
In 1986, CBS aired Gone to Texas, a made-for-television movie about Sam Houston’s years as the Governor of Tennessee up through the Texas Revolution. Starring Sam Elliot, the movie today is most notable for not featuring Davy Crockett in the Battle of the Alamo.
The director of the movie, Peter Levin, was a veteran of television at the time. Before Gone to Texas, he directed Popeye Doyle and A Reason to Live, among others.
The Mountain Men Missed The Mark
You would think a movie starring Charlton Heston would be a slam dunk Western. That wasn’t the case with The Mountain Men. The film was written by Heston’s son and was the directorial debut of Richard Lang.
Released in 1980, the film was despised by critics, with Leonard Maltin calling it a “crude, bloody and tiresome good-guys-vs-Indians western.” Heston would later lament the production: “the film that you saw was not the film that we conceived or shot. We compromised. My son’s script was much darker. It emphasized the sort of autumnal recognition that they earned as trappers. I confess that I miss that aspect bitterly.”