Westerns were once incredibly popular thanks to their romanticizing the Old West. Surprisingly, there are quite a few that are historically accurate.
- Western films give viewers a sense of traveling back in time to the American Frontier in the 19th century, providing a glimpse into a specific era and location.
- Some Western films, such as Heaven’s Gate and The Big Trail, are not only painstakingly crafted with costumes and locations, but also accurately depict real historical events.
- Westerns, despite their dwindling popularity in the 1970s, remain influential and have experienced a resurgence in recent years, with movies like The Assassination of Jesse James gaining a large fan following.
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In the early years of cinema the Western genre was beloved for how it romanticized the Old West, but, despite that idealistic approach, a number of Westerns are actually quite accurate to real historical events. They were among the first movies ever made with the technology of filmmaking, starting with the short The Great Train Robbery in 1903. Despite the genre’s popularity dwindling by the 1970s, Westerns remain some of the most influential movies ever made, and the genre has been experiencing a resurgence in popularity in recent years.
Western films are typically set in the American Frontier in the 19th century and generally derive inspiration from Wild West stage shows from the 1870s. Using costumes, weapons, and locations, Westerns give viewers a sense of traveling back in time to a specific era and location. Some of these movies aren’t just painstaking world-building, however, but also painstaking recreations of real history. Here are some of the best Westerns that are accurate to real-life history.
10 Heaven’s Gate (1980)
Regarded by Kris Kristofferson as one of his favorite movies of his career, Heaven’s Gate takes place during the Johnson County War of 1889-1893. Sheriff James Averill (Kristofferson) finds himself in the middle of a war of class between immigrant farmers and rich cattle farmers, led by mercenary Nathan Champion (Christopher Walken). As both men clash over their beliefs and their feelings for the bordello Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert), the conflict between immigrants and wealthy landowners culminates in a brutal battle that changes everything.
The movie proved controversial upon its initial release due to its troubled production and accusations of animal cruelty, causing it to receive mixed reviews and fail at the box office. However, in recent years, a re-edited Heaven’s Gate has received a warmer reception for its insights into the conflicts of the Johnson County War. Critic Nicholas Barber of the BBC states the political aspects of the film are ‘uncannily contemporary‘ to today’s politics. Seen as a movie ahead of its time, Heaven’s Gate is now considered one of the greatest American movies of all time.
9 The Big Trail (1930)
Set between 1837 and 1843, The Big Trail tells the story of Breck Coleman (John Wayne), as he leads a wagon train of pioneers across the Oregon Trail. He leads the group through deserts, storms, and attacks from Indians as they travel to new lands, all the while falling for young Ruth Cameron (Marguerite Churchill). While Coleman tries to bring the pioneers to the West, he also seeks revenge on Red Flack (Tyrone Power Sr.) who was responsible for the death of his mentor.
Director Raoul Walsh went to great lengths to ensure the movie accurately portrayed the Wild West during the 19th century, acquiring more than 4000 animals (including 1400 horses), over 700 natives from five different Native American tribes, and 185 different wagons. It was also the first major film to star John Wayne before he became a household name in later years. The movie’s usage of the natural landscape across five different states helped it to be recognized as ‘historically significant’ by the United States Library of Congress and preserved by the National Film Registry.
8 Arizona (1940)
Based on the 1939 novel by Clarence Budington Kelland, Arizona looks at pioneer Phoebe Titus (Jean Arthur) who desires to succeed in her freight and cattle business. When California bound, Peter Muncie (William Holden) arrives in town, she sees him as the perfect person to help her run her business and slowly the two fall in love. But Phoebe’s desires are put to the test when con-man, Jefferson Carteret (Warren William) hatches a plan to cheat her out of her business and is willing to go to any lengths to do so.
As the title implies, this movie was set in Tuscon, Arizona, and used period-correct costumes and firearms and added in extra details to ensure the audiences believed that the movie was set in the 1860s. The Old Tuscon set was later used as the set for other Westerns such as Tombstone and Little House on the Prairie. Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Score, Arizona is considered one of the most underrated Western movies.
7 The Alamo (1960)
Another John Wayne classic, The Alamo looks at the legend of Col. Davy Crockett and his involvement in the 1836 Battle of the Alamo. The film depicts the battle between General Santa Anna (Ruben Padilla) and his Mexican troops and General Sam Houston (Richard Boone) and his Texas army. Despite recruiting the legendary Crockett, it soon becomes clear that the Texans are fighting a losing battle as they try to prevent Santa Anna from destroying Texas.
The Alamo marked one of only two times that John Wayne appeared as a director as well as an actor. He rose to the challenge by using his experiences in Westerns to help create a thrilling take on the legend of Davy Crockett. The battle sequence received the highest praise from Rotten Tomatoes for its ‘inexorable climax‘ between the Texans and Mexicans and is regarded as a decent, if flawed take on the story of this American folk hero.
6 Brigham Young (1940)
The 1940 black-and-white is an autobiographical film that looks at the life of Brigham Young (Dean Jagger) and his involvement in the Church of Latter-Day Saints. After its leader is assassinated, Young is selected as the new leader and rallies the Mormons to begin a new life in the promised land of Utah.
Directed by Henry Hathaway, this film used authentic props, clothes, and wagons to help portray life for Mormon followers in the 1800s and how they established their church. The setting was so realistic that some viewers believed that still shots from the movie were old historical photos from the era it portrays. One of the first films to look at the life of the Mormon leader, Brigham Young‘s premiere in Salt Lake City was one of the biggest in film history.
5 The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
Considered a modern-day Western classic, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford dramatizes the personal relationship between historic outlaws Jesse James (Brad Pitt) and Robert Ford (Casey Affleck). Touching on the last seven months in the life of Jesse James, the story shows how groupie Robert Ford idolizes the famed outlaw and aspires to fit into his gang. But as time passes, Ford gradually becomes resentful of James and strives to become the one who brings down his former idol.
The movie received high praise for its portrayal of James and Ford’s relationship, its cinematography, and its realism of the lives of the real-life outlaws living in the 1880s. In particular, both Pitt and Affleck received multiple nominations for their performances. The Assassination of Jesse James has gained a large fan following since its release.
4 Monte Walsh (1970)
Nothing can last forever, as this 1970 movie shows. Monte Walsh (Lee Marvin) and his partner Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) find themselves at the end of the Wild West. Unsure about their purpose or their futures, they try to settle down in the town of Harmony, reconnecting with old friends and trying to establish new lives. But starting a new life is never easy and Monte and Chet struggle with letting go of the lives they once knew.
This movie gives audiences a softer take on life in the West, showing how railways and business slowly wiped out the need for men on horses. As Chet points out to Monte ‘Nobody gets to be a cowboy forever‘ and the lives they once knew and loved are slowly dying out. The tragedy of the movie is that it shows how all eras, even life in the Wild West, must come to an end. It does an excellent job of mirroring the real-life slow decline of the Wild West and the outlaw way of life.
3 The Iron Horse (1924)
A silent film directed by John Ford, this movie sees Davy Brandon (George O’Brien) returning to his hometown of Springfield, Illinois, to fulfill his father’s dream of building a railway to the west. When he returns, he finds the crew trying to finish the first transcontinental railroad. When the workers go on strike, Brandon’s childhood friend Miriam (Madge Bellamy) convinces him to aid in the completion of the project, but landowners and saboteurs are determined to stop him.
The Iron Horse is regarded as a milestone in John Ford’s career. He used expansive backgrounds to realistically show what the landscape would have looked like during the time period the movie is set in and had a real locomotive constructed for the railroad. The Iron Horse is considered a classic silent film and tells a monumental tale of the first transcontinental railroad in America.
2 The Covered Wagon (1923)
Released by Paramount Pictures in 1923, The Covered Wagon shows two groups of pioneers leaving their lives in Kansas behind and traveling to start afresh in Oregon. As they make the 2000-mile journey, the groups encounter mountain snow, desert heat, extreme hunger, and an attack from the Indians. As the journey becomes more desperate, friends slowly begin to turn on each other as the journey to a new life becomes more desperate.
This film is regarded as one of the first Western films to accurately portray historical events. Created in 1923 with no sound or special effects, The Covered Wagon shows the true hostilities between cowboys and Native Americans during the 1800s and the struggle for survival in the Wild West. It’s a film regarded as a milestone in Western film and considered one of the best silent films to ever be released.
1 Cimarron (1931)
The first Western film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, Cimarron is regarded as one of the best Western movies to ever be released. Set during the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889, the movie sees married couple Yancey (Richard Dix) and Sabina (Irene Dunne) move their family to Oklahoma to claim free land for themselves. As time goes by though, Yancey begins to feel trapped, so he leaves for Cherokee Strip, leaving Sabina to fend for herself as everything changes around her.
The movie accurately depicts for viewers what life was like in the West. Set between 1889 and 1929, Cimarron shows how society in the West drastically changed for everybody as Oklahoma transformed from a lawless frontier into an official state of the union. A movie that stood the test of time, Cimarron proved realistic in its portrayal of historical events in the 19th century and is seen as one of the best Western movies ever made.