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What Movies Most Accurately Reflect the Historic Old West?

By Staff 
Originally published on Published Online: December 04, 2008 
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Tombstone. Copyright Buena Vista Pictures. Courtesy Everett Collection. Many filmmakers have tried to capture the events at the O. K. Corral.
Tombstone. Copyright Buena Vista Pictures. Courtesy Everett Collection. Many filmmakers have tried to capture the events at the O. K. Corral.
The Old West was fictionalized even as it was happening. Writers like Ned Buntline—who was born Edward Zane Carroll Judson—sensationalized people and events and created myths that endure to this day. When Westerns made the leap from printed page to film . . . well, let's just say that moviemakers love myths. So do their audiences.

Regardless, many filmmakers have tried to present their subjects in historically accurate ways. History Net wants to know: What movies do you think most accurately reflect the historic Old West? Your choices may appear on our 100 Greatest Westerns list or may be other titles. Tell us in the comments section below. No sign-up required.

65 Responses to “What Movies Most Accurately Reflect the Historic Old West?”

  1. 1
    Joe says:

    Tombstone, The Grey Fox and Jesse james (Brad Pitt version)

    are the three closest movies that depict the west as it REALLY was- ie clothing,l firearms, character mannerisms.

    In Tombstone, when Morgan Earp is talking about life after death issues and seeing a "bright white light" was a period correct subject. From the 1880's thorugh the early 20th century, life after death, spiritualism and being able to contact the dead were very popular topics for discussion in the US.

    • 1.1
      bruce little says:

      I agree with Joes comments,especially the movie Tombstone with its appropriate use of victorian type costuming and dialogue and no use of hollywood (buscadero

      I agree with Joe, especially on Tombstone, with its victorian costuming and excellent dialogue. there was no Hollywood (buscadero) hoisters either!


  2. 2
    Dow Heard says:

    "Red River"- unquestionably states the essence of the early cattledrive and the West.
    A close second is a tie between "Broken Arrow" and "Ulzana's Raid". The first is historically accurate story of Jim Jeffords (the first Indian agent for the Chiricahua Apaches ) and Ulzana is a no b. s. , no romance portrayal of the Arizona indian war.

  3. 3
    DennisB says:

    With the fighting between whites and Indians, Fort Apache and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon shows the hostilities on both sides.

  4. 4
    John says:

    Will Penny, The Searchers, Culpepper Cattle Co., A Thunder of Drums, Rio Bravo, The Professionals, The Wild Bunch, Ride the High Country, Red River, Man in the Wilderness.

  5. 5
    Mark Slaughter says:

    Any movie that is based on Louie Lamore is going to be very accurate. Hondo, Searchers, Lonesome Dove, Stage Coach, Shane,Red River,

    • 5.1
      Caroline Hartman says:

      Loved your choices. Must point out Lonesome Dove was written by Larry McMurty, another great western writer.

  6. 6
    deathwind1 says:

    Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid Seems to me to belong in this group as it tells the life of American Outlaws very close to how their life played out !

  7. 7
    Duke says:

    None of them, for the most part they are all entertaining but each is influenced and tailored to and by the era in which it was made. While a movie made today may appear more accurate through clothing, style etc. than a movie made in 1955, it is still at least a century removed from the real way people spoke, acted and lived. This doesn't make the movies bad, it just solidifies what they are, fictional entertainment.

  8. 8
    Eric Jamborsky says:

    Tumbleweeds (1925)
    Cowboy (1958)
    The Ride Back (1957)
    The Virginian (1929)
    John Ford's Cavalry Trilogy, Fort Apache, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (John Wayne's best performance) and Rio Grande
    The Tall T (1957)
    The Searchers (1956) This deals with some very complex issues
    Ulzana's Raid
    Monte Walsh (1970 and 2003)
    Four Faces West (1948) A Western without a single gunshot.

  9. 9
    Jack says:

    The most recent western movies seem to be the most realistic for reasons previously stated here. Three movies that I enjoyed for accuracy were:

    Wyatt Earp (Kevin Costner)

    Jesse James (Brad Pitt)

    Dances With Wolves (Kevin Costner)

  10. 10
    El Cutachero says:

    The Searchers
    Broken Arrow
    Possibly the Shootist. but definitely if you include twentieth century stories, then include the masterpiece North to Alaska, one of the greatest comedies and authentic to its time.
    Maybe we need a category of "Northerns". Losts of good arctic tales on film.
    And though the "Wild Bunch" was great, it is not a Western it is a Mexican.

  11. 11
    ethom01 says:

    My vote for most accurate, best etc. goes to "Lonesome Dove".
    Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duval are magnificent.

  12. 12
    Steven X says:

    i think get smart and spongebob the lost city (the movie) was the best ever. also bruce almighty was a great western movie

  13. 13
    Bo Jangles says:

    Personally i enjoyed the western films that had John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. They made it very entertaining to watch. Also i think that Blazing Saddles was a swell movie, not only was it hilarious but it was funny. Brokeback mountail however was not a good western because of the homosexuality. Please Hollywood never have a gay western film again. Ok?? Thanky you.

  14. 14
    tazer93 says:

    Tombstone (1993) is pretty accurate. Although it does have it's minor historical goofs, it captures the whole picture quite well. Plus, very entertaining to watch.

  15. 15
    Matt Stephenson says:

    Wild Bill (Jeff Bridges, 2000), Culpepper Cattle Co., Monte Walsh (2003), The Cowboys, Lonesome Dove, The Assasination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Deadwood Series, Conagher (even though most of Louis L'amour's westerns made great movies, most of the characters were way too idealized to be realistic. However Con Conagher was not), Geronimo (1995 I think), Appaloosa (2007, Ed harris and Viggo Mortenson). These are the most realistic Western Movies ever made in my opinion. I am a graduate student in Museum Studies and Cultural Resource Management and have devoted most of studies to this particular period.

  16. 16
    Dickie Swindle says:

    Although not a movie but a mini series Lomsemoe Dove gets my vote and
    Red River

  17. 17
    Jack Beebe says:

    Lonesome Dove,,,Culpepper Cattle Co.,,,Tombstone,,,,Hondo,,,,Hombre,,,,Stagecoach(with John Wayne),,,One-Eyed Jacks,,,Left-hand Gun,,,Outlaw Josey Wales,,,,Unforgiven,,,,Will Penny,,,,Shane,,,Monte Walsh,,,Mountain Men,,,Assasination of Jesse James,,,Good Ole Boys,,,

  18. 18
    Andrei Garcia says:

    Not sure, maybe Appaloosa

  19. 19
    zach odom says:

    deffinatly lonesome dove series formost, then all of louis lamours westerns, wyatt earp, dances with wolves, assassination of jesse james, pat garrett and billy the kid, butch cassidy and sundance kid, wild bunch, ulzana's raid, jeremiah johnson, once upon a time in the west( thought it had it's unrealistc parts for most part yeah it was on this list) monte walsh, hombre, shane, gettysburg, gods and generals and son of the morning star,

  20. 20
    Johnny says:

    Contrary to popular opinion, the closer to the era a film is made is actually a better depiction of its reality. Having been born in 1956, I already witnessed changes in how people view characters. To be honest, well over 90% of films after 1970 depict characters who obviously think they are on camera (not God's camera, but a public eye), and this is how people feel nowadays, but it wasn't before. In fact, the Westerns from the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s have much more realistic value in terms of how characters acted, while films after 1965 gave us less credible characters with more realistic dust. Recent Duvall films, among others, have gone back to somewhat more realistic characters. Note the similarities between "Open Range" and "Shane", both of which gave mostly realistic conflicts, and behavior we could believe.
    The best Custer, in my opinion, was a character not even given the name of Custer-Henry Fonda's portrayal in "Fort Apache", in which he had many faults, but also some favorable qualities. While the older Wyatt Earp films weren't as good in actual events, the characters were much more like the real characters. "Tombstone" is a complete joke, and a great example of 21st century people from a computer age dressing up like 19th century Western actors, but it is impossible to buy into it.
    "Union Pacific", even with its spectacular look, actually has about the most believable characters of any on the list. Of course "Shane" is probably the most real.
    I didn't like "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid", because it was very trite and dull, but I admit it was very much how the people acted for the time. They were trite and dull people.
    Many people praise "Ulzana's Raid", but it still was a caricature of the Apache as a super human. Audie Murphy's film about Clum and the capture of Geronimo bent a few facts, but was much more realistic.
    The spaghetti westerns nearly destroyed the Western with their complete lack of realistic situations and one dimensional characters each trying to "out-evil" each other, which looks ignorant to any objective viewer not on drugs, while taking away the grand scenery and costumes. These films failed on all levels. Thank goodness the film industry realized their mistake by now and reverted to something that doesn't make us puke.
    "Ride With the Devil" was a very realistic looking piece, and a much improved version of the weak "Kansas Raiders". Like the Duvall westerns, it doesn't picture 18th century Americans as products of a computer age.

  21. 21
    remounts says:

    Ride With the Devil
    Silent Tongue
    Going South

  22. 22
    Candace says:

    I think Open Range is very period detailed. Shalako, while obviously flawed in a number of aspects, does a good job of depicting the peculiar form of Western Safari that took place in large numbers. The Ox Bow Incident is a wonderful character study into the times. Finally, the 1903 silent film, The Great Train Robbery, if for no other reason than its proximity to the times, available property, and having been pulled from the headlines. Perhaps my favorite is Big Jake. It embraces the headlong rush to modernization that happened all over the west, while acknowledging people's real resistance to change in difficult circumstances. A number of things are flawed, but it does a pretty good job.

  23. 23
    Bigdick Longmember says:

    I really liked the Deadwood series but disagree with the decision to put such foul mouths on Victorian characters. They did it so the viewer would understand they talked in a shocking manner… totally unnecessary. Also in Deadwood, did Victorian America really have that extensive a vocabulary? Wow! Like, pass me the dictionary, Scooby.

  24. 24
    D.R. Cayabyab says:

    To me the following are the best western movies:

    1. Shane 2.Last Train to Gun Hill 3. They Died With Their Boots On 4. Gunfight At the OK Corral 5. The Wild Bunch 6. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance 7. Dances With Wolves 8. The Big Country 9. The Bravados 10. Clementine

  25. 25
    James Patuto says:

    I actually believe few movies show the historical reality of the West. Where are the Mormons, Chinese, Basques, Miners, Blacks Populists, and hard scrabble farmers. Matewan a John Sayles movie about West Virginia is a great "Eastern" Western. Showing the violence of the Labor movement in West Virginia. How many movies refer to the radical and violent Western Labor movement . I have never seen a reference to the Wobblies who dominated the Western landscape in mining and lumber camps for much of the early part of the Twentieth century. Unfortunately our movies track the dime store novels of the 1880's and rarely get beyond the same themes; gunfighters, cattle barons, and Indian Wars. One of the few movies that transcended this cramped genre was "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" it is haunting and beautiful . Still holds up.

  26. 26
    Debbie Johnson says:

    Appaloosa for sure. The set, costumes, even the weapons were closest to historical accuracy (as much as one can be in the entertainment industry) The phrases and vocabulary appeared to reflect what I had read from journals of the 1880's.

  27. 27
    Wayne says:

    Always wondered why John Wayne never used period correct firearms
    in any of his westerns…Oh well, leaving that aside…I think the classics would be:
    1. Duel in the Sun
    2. Shane
    3. Ft Apache
    4. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
    5. Red River
    6. High Noon
    7. The Searchers
    8. Unforgiven
    9. The Shootist
    10. Jeremiah Johnson
    Not necessarily in order, and I can think of 10 more just as good!

  28. 28
    John says:

    best – Stagecoach, red river, open range, red river

  29. 29
    Jim P says:

    Applossa with Ed Harris great story and acting one of the best I have seen

  30. 30
    rob says:

    "The Missouri Breaks"!!!

    Jack Nicholson, Harry Dean Stanton and Randy Quaid are believable as the good-natured, likeable horse thieves who unfortunately catch the attention of a psychopathic 'Regulator' played with horror and also great comedy by Marlon Brando. The acting, scenery and dialogue are superb. A hugely underrated film. If you haven't seen it, get it, get a beer and enjoy.

  31. 31
    Jay says:

    The shootist
    OutLaw Josie wales
    The searchers
    Open range

  32. 32
    fabian Comrie says:

    Jose Whales

  33. 33
    lyndon says:

    Midnight Cowboy
    Lonesome Cowboys
    Even Cowgirls Sing the Blues

  34. 34
    Jay Moore says:

    "McCabe and Mrs. Miller"
    and, although an HBO series, "Deadwood"

  35. 35
    E Willie says:

    Believe it or not, "Cowboys and Aliens" tops the list in depicting the old west…as far as the props, clothing, guns and characters (minus the aliens of course). Revolvers were scoured from museums or duplicated from museum pieces. The prop people did their homework in this piece…even better than Tombstone, altho the lingo in Tombstone is still unmatched.

  36. 36
    Dave says:

    The Missing was underrated in being very authentic. Especially the chiricahua apache language dialog.

  37. 37
    Alfred says:

    Personally I think Shane has to be on the most reflective western films that stayed with me since my youth. Reliving the movie each time is like watching it for the first time. Another one is the Man without a Star and He died with his boots on.

  38. 38
    Butch says:

    Little Big Man. The Wild Bunch. The Deadwood miniseries.

  39. 39
    Percy says:

    I feel that Monty Walsh shows the true effect of an era passing and what happens to those left behind. That also applies toThe Wild Bunch.

  40. 40
    dave says:

    Most of these answers seem to have missed the point entirely. The question was not, "What are the greatest Westerns ever?," or "'What is your favorite Western?" The question is which are the most realistic – which come closest to capturing the Old West as it really was? We'll never know for sure, obviously, but I've always thought that Culpepper Cattle Co. was pretty good in that regard.

  41. 41
    joad58 says:

    I'm not here to deliver a 4 hour lecture, just a list.
    1. The most recent "Alamo". The characterizations of Bowie, Crockett,Travis, and Houston are ver accurate. Also, the stories of Gen. Cos, Jaun Segiune, and the Esperanza brothers are well done, and while not 100% accurate,still get the role played by Tehanoes in Texas history across.
    2. The Wild Bunch.
    3. HE Profesionals.
    4. Ft Apache
    5. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.
    6. Lonesome Dove
    7. Tombstone. The best portrail of Doc Holiday.

    • 41.1
      statia dougherty says:

      Tombstone is a great movie, however didn't stick to the facts at all. Lonesome Dove gets my vote.

  42. 42
    James. Russell says:

    Tombstone had the more entertaining portrayal of Doc Holliday, but Dennis quaid brought Doc back to life even endangering his own health to be so gaunt in the face and frail. That's why he was nominated for best supporting actor for that role. Costner isn't as interested in history in certain areas but Tombstone was more historically accurate in certain aspects and Wyatt Earp was more accurate in other areas such as his younger years.

  43. 43
    Chuck Kopsho says:

    The thing I'm wondering about is how our language degraded from our nation's forefathers time, to the old west era.

  44. 44
    Ardee says:

    I would truly love to see a historically accurate Western. People were just as fashion conscious as they are now and even if you were a cow hand or a farmer, going to town required primping, after all your not a heathen. People who owned, mostly men and mostly doubles, if they carried them did Not carry openly. Walking down the street with a sixer on your hip, one in your belt and a bandolier slung around your shoulder will get you noticed, usually by the Law who were not as inept as usually portrayed. Even in the "commerce" sections of boom-towns, nobody went looking for trouble and most disputes were settled with fists. That's why public duels were very big news. People want to see action but what leads up to the confrontation is the real story.

  45. 45
    Jill from Wyoming says:

    I am somewhat disappointed and surprised that I see no reference anywhere on this website to Broken Trail with Robert Duvall and Thomas Haden Church. This 3-hour made for TV western comes about as close to portraying the lot of women in the West–especially the marginalized ones–as any film ever has. Lest the boys worry it's a chick flick, may I remind you that NOBODY rides more beautifully than Robert Duvall, the horses in the movie are as important as the humans, and the gunslinging is impressive.

    • 45.1
      statia dougherty says:

      I agree. Broken Trail is a true story and based entirely on factual events. Good call. And good movie.

  46. 46
    lyndon says:

    Where actually did the "Great Gatsyt" serve in France 1917?

  47. 47
    lyndon says:

    good, bad and the ugly

  48. 48
    lyndon says:

    Even Cowgirls get the Blues?

    No sweat!!!

  49. 49
    Layne Corneliuson says:

    Ulzana's Raid is a great movie. No b.s. indeed!

  50. 50
    Lyndon says:

    Aussie \ Dad and Dave\ series'

    Have a life, you guys

    No sweat

  51. 51
    statia dougherty says:

    Lonesome Dove, and Buffalo Girls. Larry McMurtry bases his stories on real people and events, and keeps them as close to factual as possible.

  52. 52
    Martin Stern says:

    The key here is the original statement, which asks for not necessarily the best westerns but the most authentic westerns. Ones that accurately show the West the way it was. Here is my opinion on that. I have listed them based on when they were made. I am not ranking them.
    First, STAGECOACH (the original), showing a diverse group of people traveling through the West under adverse circumstances.
    Second, THE OX BOW INCIDENT, real westerners dealing with a real Western problem jumping to conclusions over a problem in their community.
    Third, RAMROD, no fast gun toughest guy, just regular people sadly in conflict being manipulated.
    Fourth, BLOOD ON THE MOON, another tale not based on the fastest gun in the West, but of greed and deception.
    Fifth, FORT APACHE, based on the Custer story. Like all of Ford's trilogy, realistic look at the cavalry.
    Sixth, HIGH NOON, one can actually picture this sort of problem occurring in the early days of the West.
    Seventh, 3:10 TO YUMA, the original. Again, real people dealing with real problems that existed out West.
    Eighth, THE CULPEPPER CATTLE COMPANY, super realistic in character and look of a cattle drive.
    Ninth, PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID, not accurate with regards to the characters, but has an incredibly realistic feel to it. Gunfight between the Billy the Kid character and Jack Elam's character a classic.
    And finally, UNFORGIVEN, the problem of violence and its effects in the West.

  53. 53
    Remo says:

    Having worked on several cattle ranches when a teenager and listening to many old hands who were young men the the late 1800's I have to say Open Range to me most accuratly depicts the era it was meant to represent. So my vote goes to Open Range followed by The Cowboys.

  54. 54
    philip says:

    hey , nobody mentioned bad company (jeff bridges) or spikes gang , which shows gritty reality of life and death and how gunfights were not at noon in the street , but spur of the moment aggression and survival .

    • 54.1
      pip says:

      yep good call , no flashy heroes here , just spur of the moment reactions for survival or anger , and no fancy spurs , rigs etc

  55. 55
    Pat B says:

    Authenticity is crucial for me to connect with a western and I think there are a handful that capture the genuine spirit of the cowboy. Wardrobe and gear have to be good as well.

    Monte Walsh – the Lee Marvin original

    The Good Old Boys – Tommy Lee Jones is the genuine article in this

    Lonesome Dove – It's gold standard

    Appaloosa – I don't think it's ever got the recognition it deserves

    All the Pretty Horses – Matt Damon did a great job in this

    Pocket Money – Lee Marvin and Paul Newman

    Tombstone – Great

    The Cowboys – Can't watch it enough

    The Grey Fox – Richard Farnsworth was the real deal

    Here are couple that are fun and capture \Cowboy\

    Rancho Deluxe – Jeff Bridges

    Goin' South – Jack Nicholson

  56. 56
    Stan says:

    My vote goes to The Bank Robbery filmed in 1908. It was filmed in Cache OK. It was directed by and starred Bill Tilghman who was an actual frontier lawman. Al Jennings, a real (paroled) bank robber and the actual Quannah Parker, who was the last Comanche war chiefalso appeared in the short film. It's a silent film and the photography is pretty bad but you can't get any more authentic. It is on you tube.

  57. 57
    Kit Taylor says:

    I only saw one mention of \Little Big Man\, one of the most accurate portrayals of the old west, especially the incident at Little Big Horn. \True Grit\ (1969 version) gets thumbs up for the 19th century speech patterns.
    As for others, never, ever, trust a western where the holster hangs from a slot in the belt (they were only looped over the belt), and where townsfolk walk around town wearing guns. The \old west\ was actually NRA's nightmare, no one was allowed to wear guns within town limits, except the law. And Wyatt Earp was the famous one to enforce that.

  58. 58
    randy says:

    The long riders, great movie about the James-Younger gang.

  59. 59
    david jameson says:

    She is correct. Any fiction worth believing has sme historic

    al accuracy.

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