Best Westerns of the 1980s, Ranked

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The 1980s were a difficult time for the Western genre. After the wave of Italian and revisionist Westerns in the ’70s, the genre had ceased to be the cultural juggernaut it had been in decades past and had now become a novelty, with any major Hollywood production being heralded as a “revival,” though usually an unsuccessful one. The decade marked a shift into science fiction films like Star Trek, Aliens, and Terminator.

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Despite the Western’s decline, several noteworthy Westerns were made during the ’80s, including a few outright classics. These films stood out in a decade sandwiched between the Spaghetti Western period and the revival that would come in the 1990s with films like Dances with Wolves and Unforgiven. Here is a ranked list of the decade’s best.

Update December 11, 2023: This article has been updated with even more great underrated Westerns from the 1980s and where the titles are streaming.

18 Tom Horn (1980)

A thoughtful dramatization of true events that occurred in the life of a legendary frontiersman, Tom Horn follows the titular gunslinger who is hired by John Coble, a cattle company owner, to hunt cattle rustlers. But as Horn falls deeper into a life of violence and paranoia, he finds himself unable to walk away from his dark work and questionable methods of enforcing justice. Soon, a murder is pinned on him, leading to an epic clash of events.

What Makes It Great?

Directed by William Wiard, Tom Horn presents a multi-layered and complex portrait of the Old West. Steve McQueen, who plays the main character, is mesmerizing. He depicts the conflicted Horn with ease, being dangerous and fragile at the same time because his descent into chaos is partly due to reasons beyond his control. Overall, the film is crafted meticulously and it remains entertaining and thought-provoking throughout.

Rent Tom Horn on Apple TV

17 The Shadow Riders (1982)

The Shadow Riders is a television Western based on the book of the same name written by Louis L’Amour. It follows two estranged brothers who fought on opposing sides during the Civil War. The last thing Mac and Dal want is to work with each other. But when their family members are mysteriously abducted, they get help from Dal’s girlfriend, Kate, and their trouble-making uncle, to catch the criminals responsible.

What Makes It Great?

Authenticity is this film’s greatest strength. Shot on atmospheric locations and with an incredible gaze, the film transports you to the decade’s frontier. The brothers, played by Sam Elliot and Tom Selleck, avoid being stereotypical even though their principles and pasts pull them apart. While not reinventing the genre or anything, The Shadow Riders succeeds through small details like the murky vistas, period-centric visuals, and very human characters.

Stream The Shadow Riders on Fubo TV

16 Barbarosa (1982)

Set against the backdrop of pre-Civil War Texas, Barbarosa follows Karl Westover, who is on the run from the police and finds himself entering Mexico to escape the consequences of a crime he committed. He locks horns with Barbarosa, a famous bandito living outside the law as a wanderer. Barbarosa teaches Westover about living life his way and soon, the two men are surviving the desert together. However, they’re being chased by an outlaw and a gangster, with their life hanging by a thread.

What Makes It Great?

This Western is particularly compelling because of the enduring bond shared by its two complex heroes. The chemistry between Gary Busey and Willie Nelson makes their caring relationship profound and believable. Barbarosa also features gorgeous scenery of the southwestern desert, and director Fred Schepisi skillfully turns the same into a stage for both these characters’ personal journey.

Stream Barbarosa on Peacock

15 The Mountain Men (1980)

It’s a story about two trappers named Henry and Bill as they navigate the Rocky Mountains hunting for beaver pelts. In their travels, they must fight hostile Native American tribes and rival trappers and do their best to survive in the wilderness. The Mountain Men is a straightforward film with zero pretenses that captures the rough life of the American cowboy while showcasing the adventures and dangers faced by those with peculiar lines of work of the era.

What Makes It Great?

Not many films explore the big business it was to be a trapper in the 19th century. As a matter of fact, the only film we can recall at the moment exploring this old profession is The Revenant. The Mountain Men is a movie directed by Richard Lang with a script written by Fraser Clarke Heston. The superb casting includes eternal badass Charlton Heston alongside Brian Keith and Victoria Racimo. The Mountain Men is currently unavailable to stream.

14 Death Hunt (1981)

The story follows a manhunt in the Yukon during the 1930s. Reclusive trapper Albert Johnson is wrongfully accused of murder after fighting off a few bandits running a dog ring. Sergeant Edgar Millen takes the lead in investigating the events, aiming to bring Johnson to justice. It’s a great movie taking the three men on a dangerous pursuit through the unforgiving wilderness while testing their survival skills and forming an unlikely bond.

Related: Every Movie Directed by Robert Redford, Ranked

What Makes It Great?

Well, what do you know? Another film with trappers in it. In Death Hunt, however, the fine art of getting animal furs is not central to the movie’s plot. Peter R. Hunt directed this movie with a script written by Michael Grais and Mark Victor. Based on the real story of a man named Albert Johnson on the account made in the registry of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The cast features Charles Bronson, Lee Marvin, and Carl Weathers.

Stream Death Hunt on Plex

13 Sacred Ground (1983)

Sacred Ground tells the story of a Cherokee rancher named Ned, who must face a series of escalating conflicts as white settlers encroach on his land. With the increasing tensions in the background, Ned’s son falls in love with a white woman, further intensifying cultural clashes. It’s a great film exploring racial prejudice, love, and the right to protect our heritage in the changing landscape of the Wild West of the 19th century.

What Makes It Great?

Not many films have explored the intertwined stories of Native Americans and settlers without painting a bad light on one of the sides for the sake of storytelling. Sacred Ground went a totally different route and made our ranking for daring to do something different. This film was written and directed by Charles B. Pierce with the assistance of Earl E. Smith. The featured cast is mostly working actors of the era, such as Tim McIntire, L. Q. Jones, and Jack Elam.

​​​​​​​Stream Sacred Ground on The Roku Channel

12 Walker (1987)

Walker
Universal Pictures

The story is loosely based on the real-life antics of William Walker, played by Ed Harris, with Marlee Matlin and Keith Szarabajka rounding up the cast. The story begins with Walker escaping American justice; as a firm believer in Manifest Destiny, he marries a woman and plans to open a paper when his wife suddenly dies. Things spiral out of control as Walker forms a team of mercenaries and takes over Nicaragua. His cruelty and delusions made him declare himself the nation’s ruler until his eventual assassination by American forces years later.

What Makes It Great?

Walker has to be the weirdest pick on the list, but it’s such an enchanting movie that it’s hard to let it pass. Although set as a period piece taking place in 1853, Walker is full of postmodern anachronisms, such as the presence of lighters, soda, and a modern chopper in the very last scene. The film is a brutal critique of American interventionism, especially in the region of Nicaragua, which has always been subject to the whim of American politics. The movie is directed by Alex Cox and written by Rudy Wurlitzer.

​​​​​​​Walker is currently unavailable to stream.

11 The Milagro Beanfield War (1988)

In The Milagro Beanfield War, a group of farmers stands up to these so-called venture capitalists by diverting water from an irrigation ditch to their farms. The story’s central figure is a Hispanic farmer Joe Mondragon, the man who defies local authorities to prevent the loss of his farm. This act of rebellion sparks the flames of confrontation between the two sides.

What Makes It Great?

Some of the best cowboy stories explore the immense acts of injustice committed by large corporations and developers. It’s a remarkable film directed by Robert Redford, with a script by David S. Ward, based on the novel of the same name by John Nichols. The casting call went out to Rubén Blades, Richard Bradford, and Sonia Braga, and they all delivered. Overall, a great film, with multiple humorous takes and great social commentary, in the background of a fight for land and cultural identity in the face of modernization.

​​​​​​​Rent The Milagro BeanfieldWar on Apple TV

10 Young Guns (1988)

The life of Billy the Kid has been fodder for Westerns almost since movies began, but the Kid is usually utilized merely as shorthand for “Western outlaw” or even “Western hero”. Few films evinced any interest in depicting him with any historical accuracy. Young Guns is unique – and commendable – for trying to stay the course of historical accuracy and for realizing that the actual events of the Lincoln County War that brought the Kid to national notoriety are fascinating and exciting on their own, without excessive embellishment.

What Makes It Great?

Young Guns received criticism for its Brat Pack casting (Emilio Estevez plays the Kid, leading a posse made up of Kiefer Sutherland, Lou Diamond Phillips, and Charlie Sheen), as well as for a shallow emphasis on action over substance, but those qualities make is a source of nostalgia today for generation X. The film has endured as a fun adventure and at a time when the Western genre was fading from popularity, showed it could connect with younger audiences still.

​​​​​​​Stream Young Guns on DirectTV

9 Pale Rider (1985)

In Pale Rider, Clint Eastwood plays Preacher, who appears in the remote mountain town of LaHood, California, astride a pale horse, seemingly in answer to a prayer. Pale Rider borrows liberally from Shane, and in contrast to the deconstructionist High Plains Drifter, it attempts to dabble in the classic Americana of directors such as John Ford and Henry King.

Related:

Best Western Movies of All Time, Ranked

What Makes It Great?

Clint Eastwood westerns were often credited as the sole remaining standard-bearer of the genre during the ’70s and beyond, but he actually made just one western during the ’80s, Pale Rider. The film revisits the archetype of the lone stranger coming to down to town to bring justice, with biblical overtones referencing the Book of Revelations, a common trope in spaghetti westerns and something Eastwood had played with in his apocalyptic High Plains Drifter.

​​​​​​​Rent Pale Rider on Apple TV

8 Three Amigos! (1986)

This classic comedy from John Landis opens with a winning premise, courtesy of Steve Martin and Lorne Michaels: three silent film stars are recruited by an impoverished village to liberate them from a tyrannical bandit, only they don’t realize this is for real.

What Makes It Great?

Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, and Martin Short play the titular trio, each at the top of their game, and the film is loaded with outrageous silliness and a couple classic musical numbers courtesy of Randy Newman. Incredibly quotable and loaded with sight gags, Three Amigos! transcends simple genre parody to become a celebration of the absurd.

​​​​​​​Stream Three Amigos! on AMC+

7 The Grey Fox (1982)

Based on the true story of stagecoach robber Bill Miner (widely credited with coining the phrase “Hands up!”), this Canadian production stars Richard Farnsworth as the gentleman bandit who decides to rob a train after serving thirty years in prison for a stagecoach robbery. Farnsworth plays Miner as a man out of time trying to catch up with the dawning twentieth century and unable to break away from a life of crime due to his own compulsions.

What Makes It Great?

An undiscovered gem of a western, The Grey Fox was directed by 29-year-old director, Phillip Borsos, who simply wanted to pay homage to the Old West, and thus used every authentic detail of the dusty vistas and cowboy heroism to portray his story of a historical figure, Charming, elegiac, and beautifully photographed, The Grey Fox is a classic end-of-the-frontier tale.

​​​​​​​Rent The Grey Fox on Apple TV

6 The Man from Snowy River (1982)

Adapted from the Banjo Paterson poem of the same name, the thrilling Australian Western drama The Man from Snowy River tells the exciting tale of the young and ambitious Jim Craig as he sets out to earn a substantial amount of money and prove himself a man in order to inherit and fix-up his deceased father’s station in 1880s Australia. Jim is given a job with a seasoned rancher and falls in love with his beautiful daughter but runs into trouble after he gets caught up in a long-standing family feud. He is later tasked with capturing a prize stallion that gets loose.

What Makes It Great?

The heartfelt drama features an impressive dual performance by Kirk Douglas and was praised for its stunning cinematography and wholesome entertainment; it is credited with popularizing the Paterson poem and attracted a large fan following up on its release, earning over $50 million worldwide and nabbing a Golden Globe nomination for Best Foreign Film.

​​​​​​​Rent The Man from Snowy River on Apple TV

5 Straight to Hell (1987)

From idiosyncratic auteur Alex Cox comes this wild spaghetti Western pastiche about three bumbling hitmen hiding out in a derelict Mexican town, only to discover that it’s run by trigger-happy, coffee-addled cowboys. Given Cox’s affection for Italian Westerns, one might have expected a love letter to the genre or at least an affectionate homage. Instead, Cox delivers a punk rock Three Amigos!

What Makes It Great?

Straight to Hellis equal parts nihilism and nonsense with an incredible cast of musicians and actors, including Joe Strummer (of The Clash), Courtney Love, The Pogues, and cameos by Dennis Hopper, Elvis Costello, Grace Jones, and Jim Jarmusch.

​​​​Stream Straight to Hell on Tubi TV

4 Silverado (1985)

Touting a large ensemble cast including Kevin Kline, Danny Glover, and Kevin Costner, Lawrence Kasdan’s rousing Western Silverado centers on a group of eccentric cowboys who head to the titular town in hopes of building up their respective fortunes only to go toe-to-toe with a money-hungry rancher and crooked sheriff.

What Makes It Great?

The Oscar-nominated picture was lauded for its classic approach to the genre as well as its compelling performances, electrifying action sequences, and breathtaking imagery and production design; it has been credited with reviving the Western in cinema with Roger Ebert calling it “sophisticated” and elaborating, “This is a story, you will agree, that has been told before. What distinguishes Kasdan’s telling of it is the style and energy he brings to the project.”

​​​​​​​Stream Silverado on Netflix

3 Near Dark (1987)

Near Dark
Warner Independent Pictures

This horror/western/neo-noir was the solo directorial debut of Oscar-winner Kathryn Bigelow and subverted the traditional Eastern European vampire character, transforming the trope through the lens of country western, dirtbag Americana. Adrian Pasdar stars as the unlucky recipient of a vampire bite that brings him into a group of psychotic bloodsuckers roaming the American West.

Related:

Best Vampire Movies of the 80s, Ranked

What Makes It Great?

This startling genre fusion is notable for its incredible cast (including Bill Paxton, Lance Henriksen, and Jenette Goldstein giving career-best performances) and strong atmosphere thanks to Adam Greenburg’s shadowy cinematography and the soundtrack by Tangerine Dream. A cult classic, Near Dark has gone on to have a large influence on the horror genre, often copied but never equaled.

​​​​Near Dark is currently unavailable to stream

2 The Long Riders (1980)

Recounting the real-life exploits of the James-Younger Gang, The Long Riders was notable at the time of its release primarily for casting actual brothers in its lead roles, with James and Stacy Keach as Frank and Jesse James, the Carradines as the Youngers, Randy and Dennis Quaid as the Millers, and Christopher and Nicholas Guest as the Ford Brothers. Today, however, it’s clear that The Long Riders is more than a casting gimmick, its director Walter Hill’s greatest triumph.

What Makes It Great?

The Long Riders powerfully evokes a feeling of authenticity thanks to Jack T. Collis’ set design, Bobbie Mannix’s costumes, and the great Ry Cooder’s rustic score. The real-life camaraderie between the actors comes across onscreen to great effect, and Hill pulls out all the stops, most memorably during the startling Northfield raid sequence that recalls Sam Peckinpah in its depiction of violence.

​​​​Stream The Long Riders on Tubi TV

1 Heaven’s Gate (1980)

Sprawling in length and scope, Heaven’s Gate is a true American epic that nonetheless has a very human core in the love triangle between an aristocratic lawman (Kris Kristofferson), an immigrant sex worker (Isabelle Huppert), and a killer with a guilty conscience (an outstanding Christopher Walken).

What Makes It Great?

Inspired by the horrific true events of the Johnson County War, Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate was derided on its release for its perceived excess, but today, it is largely recognized as a masterpiece. Heaven’s Gate deals with themes of class, violence, and culture clash, but its most memorable qualities are its score and visual design. Heaven’s Gate is an astonishingly beautiful film, one that stays with you long after it’s over.

Stream Heaven’s Gate on Tubi TV

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