Movie Reviews

10 Great Westerns Where The Hero Isn't Actually A Gunslinger

Summary

  • Gunslinging isn’t essential in Western movies, as proven by heroes like Bowie in “The Iron Mistress” and Mattie in “True Grit.”
  • Critically thinking protagonists like Mattie in “True Grit” show that pacifism can still prevail in the Wild West.
  • Stark depictions of violence in movies like “The Ox-Bow Incident” serve to caution against mob mentality in the lawless West.



The Western genre features many characters known for their gunslinging abilities, but some of the greatest Western heroes aren’t gunslingers at all. Whether it’s by using a different weapon, or that their story doesn’t hinge on gun violence which necessitates a gun, these protagonists didn’t go down in history for how well their bullet hits a target. Though the shootout is a well-loved trope in Westerns, these movies and the characters in them prove it isn’t necessary to create a compelling plot and thrilling narrative.

Pacifism is a virtue rarely rewarded in Western movies.


Clint Eastwood played many deadly gunslingers throughout his filmography, but what made those characters iconic wasn’t just their sharpshooting, it was their characterization. If a protagonist is interesting, brave, and refuses to give up, they don’t need a gun in their hand, and they can often find the solution to their problem by thinking critically. Pacifism is a virtue rarely rewarded in Western movies. However, the ability to judge when violence is absolutely necessary is the mark of a character who will up-end the tropes and pitfalls of the Western genre.

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10 The Iron Mistress (1952)

Directed by Gordon Douglas


Alan Ladd stars as Jim Bowie, the man the Bowie knife is named after in The Iron Mistress, a movie about the life of the man that mythologizes how the original knife was made. Like any classic Western, The Iron Mistress elevates Bowie to an almost god-like status as he continuously bests men in fights with only his knife when they wield swords and guns. Much of the story revolves around his contentious relationship with Judalon (Virginia Mayo), a young woman who scorns him for his lower social status.

However, even though Bowie rarely touches anything but his knife, the action scenes are just as engaging, and arguably better-choreographed than any gunfight. In an unforgettable scene, his knife is made even stronger when a blacksmith uses the ore from a meteorite in its forging. Whether or not many of Bowie’s exploits really happened isn’t important, all that matters is that he maintains his honor and manages to evade danger at every turn with only a knife in his hand.


9 True Grit (2010)

Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen

A young Hailee Steinfeld shines as Mattie and both Jeff Daniels and Matt Damon are strong counterparts in her companions on her journey to apprehend the man who killed her father.

The Coen brothers’ famous remake of the 1969 film starring John Wayne easily justifies itself and the need for a remake very quickly. The Coen brothers’ True Grit is the best version for many reasons, but mostly because of how well it expands upon and develops Mattie as a character. A young Hailee Steinfeld shines as Mattie and both Jeff Daniels and Matt Damon are strong counterparts in her companions on her journey to apprehend the man who killed her father. As the protagonist, Mattie is fantastic and unexpected within the Western genre.


She’s a young woman with a good education but certainly no sharpshooter, which is shown when she shoots and misses when confronted with her father’s killer. However, Mattie’s “grit” lies somewhere quite different. Her determination and will to survive and catch the man who murdered her father pushes her to travel across the West and transform herself into someone new. Though her companions know their way around guns, they aren’t the heroes of the story, as Mattie and her journey is what the plot hinges on.

True Grit Movie Poster

True Grit

An adaptation of Charles Portis’ 1968 novel of the same name, True Grit tells the story of 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), who enlists the help of morally-questionable lawman Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) in order to avenge the death of her father by apprehending the criminal Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). They are joined by a cocksure Texas Ranger named Labeouf (Matt Damon), who insists upon collecting the bounty on Chaney’s head. The three travel across the Arkansas plains in pursuit of Chaney, risking life and limb against outlaws and wild animals in pursuit of justice.

Director
Ethan Coen , Joel Coen

Release Date
December 22, 2010

Writers
Joel Coen , Ethan Coen

Runtime
110 minutes


8 Giant (1956)

Directed by George Stevens

Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean all cut a striking figure in Giant​​​​​​, a story about legacy and the future of the American West as times change. Their dynamic shifts over the years as they grow older and the movie tracks the changes of the Benedict family over twenty years. Taylor and Hudson play Leslie and Bick Benedict, a couple who own an enormous tract of property in Texas. Though Giant could be considered both a drama and a Western, all of its subject matter is directly tied to the issues of the American West in the 20th century.


There is no clear-cut hero of Giant, but as the West is no longer the “lawless” land that older Westerns make it out to be, Bick and Leslie are a part of upper-class society. They no longer need to fight with guns and their wealth and influence fight for them. Drilling for oil and the money this provides their family and others is a huge part of the plot as this is where true power lies by the end of the film. Bick isn’t the heroic figure he grew up fantasizing about, but he learns to become a better man.

Giant

Director
George Stevens

Release Date
November 24, 1956

Writers
Edna Ferber , Fred Guiol , Ivan Moffat

Cast
Elizabeth Taylor , Rock Hudson , James Dean , Carroll Baker , Jane Withers , Chill Wills

Runtime
201 minutes


7 A Big Hand For The Little Lady (1966)

Directed by Fielder Cook

Since Mary is placed in the position of the gambler, she takes on the role of hero and is the proprietor and keeper of her family.

This Western-comedy starring Henry Fonda and Joanne Woodward takes on another exciting and enjoyable aspect of Western movies, an old-fashioned game of poker. In Westerns that lean more toward comedy than drama, gunfights are often played for laughs, or to insert elevated tension into a lighthearted scene. However, in Big Hand for the Little Lady, all the stakes come from one poker game. In it, Mary (Woodward) must win to win back her family’s savings after her husband Meredith (Fonda) bets it all.


Watch
Big Hand for the Little Lady
on Hulu.

In the best movies about poker, the stories draw from many genres, but Big Hand for a Little Lady is an early example of a subversion of gambling on film. Since Mary is placed in the position of the gambler, she takes on the role of hero and is the proprietor and keeper of her family. This, along with the game of poker, is usually reserved for male characters in cinema, so giving her this power is better than a gun. However, the final twist proves how ready Meredith and Mary are for any card game that comes their way.

6 Meek’s Cutoff (2010)

Directed by Kelly Reichardt


In many Westerns with female leads, the protagonist isn’t a gunslinger because so few women were allowed to develop and exercise this skill. Many women characters who are expert shooters are part of revisionist history or are one of the few well-documented from this time. In Meek’s Cutoff, there are elements of truth in the story of a group following the Oregon Trail, and Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams) who refuses to let the men around her dictate their path forward. She takes matters into her own hands, even if that means risking her life.


Though Meek’s Cutoff leaves the character’s fate open-ended, Emily succeeds in her quest to do what she feels is right. There is a pivotal moment when she raises a gun against Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), the man who led the group astray, and though she isn’t familiar with guns, the threat holds as much weight as if she were. Part of this is thanks to William’s performance as Emily, as well as the deliberately slow pace which builds anticipation until Emily’s actions become inevitable.

Meek’s Cutoff

Director
Kelly Reichardt

Release Date
September 5, 2010

Writers
Jonathan Raymond

Cast
Paul Dano , Bruce Greenwood , Shirley Henderson , Neal Huff , Zoe Kazan , Tommy Nelson

Runtime
104 minutes

5 The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)

Directed by William A. Wellman


The dangers of mob mentality are displayed in The Ox-Bow Incident, a searing indictment of what people are capable of when they’re driven by fear. Based on the novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark, Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan star in the movie as part of a group of men searching for the people who stole cattle and murdered a local ranch owner. The Ox-Bow Incident can be difficult to watch because of how brutal and decisive the mob becomes when they’re driven by a thirst for vengeance and the desire for violence.

It’s important that no one is a gunslinger or heroic rogue marksman who heads up the mob or tries to stop it, as
The Ox-Bow Incident
doesn’t want to mythologize the West or the people who lived there.


It’s important that no one is a gunslinger or heroic rogue marksman who heads up the mob or tries to stop it, as The Ox-Bow Incident doesn’t want to mythologize the West or the people who lived there. It’s supposed to be regular people who get caught up in the murders of innocent men, as only seven of the group vote against their killing. When it comes out that the men they killed weren’t responsible for their supposed crimes, it’s merely confirmation, but it’s a crushing blow to the characters and an impactful message to the audience.

The Ox-Bow Incident

Director
William A. Wellman

Release Date
May 21, 1943

Writers
Lamar Trotti , Walter Van Tilburg Clark

Cast
Henry Fonda , Dana Andrews , Mary Beth Hughes , Anthony Quinn , William Eythe

Runtime
75 Minutes

4 The Searchers (1956)

Directed by John Ford


Perhaps John Ford and John Wayne’s greatest collaboration, The Searchers is one of the best and most influential Westerns of all time and is well remembered by any fan of the genre. As one of the movies that defined John Wayne’s career, The Searchers sees him playing a much more nuanced character than the typical infallible cowboy. He plays Ethan Edwards a Civil War veteran looking for his niece, convinced that she needs saving. From the start, the audience is unsure about his motivations and past as he was a Confederate soldier.


The Searchers is a complicated and nuanced take on the relationship between the white colonizers overtaking the West and the Indigenous people defending their land whom they come into conflict with. Ethan’s pursuit of his niece takes over five years, and in that time she’s become someone new, and so has he. By the end of the film, with his morals unrecognizable, Ethan is just a man who tried to conquer the West when it was never an entity that could be conquered.

the searchers poster

The Searchers

The Searchers is a 1956 Western drama starring John Wayne. Wayne stars as Ethan Edwards, who goes searching for his missing niece after his brother’s family is killed by the Comanche tribe. Helmed by director John Ford, The Searchers is now considered one of the greatest American Westerns ever made.

Director
John Ford

Release Date
March 13, 1956

Writers
John Ford

Cast
John Wayne

Runtime
119 minutes

3 The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre (1948)

Directed by John Huston

However, in
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
, Bogart set aside his typical film Noir inclinations for a stab at the Western genre, in one of the earliest examples of the adventure movie.


Humphrey Bogart is usually envisioned in a well-tailored suit in a dimly lit office surrounded by cigar smoke and femme fatales. However, in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Bogart set aside his typical film Noir inclinations for a stab at the Western genre, in one of the earliest examples of the adventure movie. He plays Fred Dobbs, a traveling worker who gets wind of rich gold deposits in the mountains of Mexico. However, the promise of wealth soon causes him to turn against his allies and leads to his downfall.


Exploring the intersection between greed and desire for a better life, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre makes Dobbs face his inner darkness and doesn’t let him get off easily with far-range gun fighting. The film is considered one of the greatest Western adventure stories of all time. Though there are plenty of action sequences, the film’s success is primarily because of the fantastic performances and tight storytelling. The internal struggles of the characters are more interesting than their fights.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre Movie Poster

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

In this classic adventure, Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) and Curtin (Tim Holt) team up with an experienced prospector Howard to hunt for gold in Mexico’s Sierra Madre mountains. Amidst treasure and peril, they confront ruthless bandits and inner demons fueled by greed, risking conflict and betrayal in their quest for riches.

Director
John Huston

Release Date
January 24, 1948

Writers
John Huston , B. Traven

Cast
Humphrey Bogart , Walter Huston , Tim Holt , Bruce Bennett , Barton MacLane

Runtime
126 Minutes

2 Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Directed by Ang Lee


It’s difficult to argue that Brokeback Mountain is one of the greatest love stories ever told, and it just so happens that this tale of LGBTQ+ love and the intolerance of others falls within the Western genre. Both Ennis (Heath Ledger) and Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) are modern cowboys, as the film takes place from the 1960s to the 1980s. They meet on the titular Brokeback Mountain when the pair are hired as ranch hands to herd sheep for the summer. This marks the evolution of the cowboy lifestyle in the 20th century.


Additionally, seeing two cowboys in a queer relationship was monumental for Western cinema, as hypermasculinity and violence toward people who break the heterosexual mold are common features of Western films. Neither one of the men is well-versed with guns or violence, as that’s not what the West is during the events of the movie. However, they are still plagued by the same fear and insecurities as those in the Wild West. However, they have evolved to understand their feelings and relationship with each other better.

Brokeback Mountain Movie Poster

Brokeback Mountain

From director Ang Lee, Brokeback Mountain tells the story of a forbidden love between two cowboys beginning in 1960s Wyoming. The film stars Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal as Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist, who after being hired for a summer job herding sheep, begin a romantic relationship that lasts two decades. As the two struggle to cope with their feelings for each other against the pressures of a society that will never accept them, various tragedies and other obligations threaten to pull them apart for good. Anne Hathaway and Michelle Williams also star. 

Director
Ang Lee

Release Date
January 13, 2006

Writers
Larry McMurtry , Diana Ossana

Runtime
134 minutes

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1 The Power Of The Dog (2021)

Directed by Jane Campion

Phil is a roughened rancher, but it’s later revealed that he studied the classics at Yale, and his behavior is a desperate attempt to be closer to the idealized version of masculinity to protect himself from scrutiny.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays the complicated and unlikable Phil Burbank in The Power of the Dog, a film about a group of settlers in Montana during the 1920s. When Phil’s brother, George (Jesse Plemons), marries Rose (Kirsten Dunst), he has difficulty adjusting and takes this out on Rose and her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Phil is a roughened rancher, but it’s later revealed that he studied the classics at Yale, and his behavior is a desperate attempt to be closer to the idealized version of masculinity to protect himself from scrutiny.


Women directors are rarely elevated in Hollywood and given ample opportunities, but Jane Campion received acclaim for her expert direction. This, along with the performances from the cast, made The Power of the Dog a standout film in 2021, and one that should be better remembered for its contribution to the Western genre. Similarly to Brokeback Mountain, it explores the pitfalls of sexual repression, but it takes a darker and more sinister approach.

POFD Teaser Vertical 27x40 RGB THEATRICAL EN US

The Power of the Dog

The Power of the Dog is a Western drama film adapted from the novel by Thomas Savage. When a widow and her son move into a ranch, she captures the attention of a kindly gentleman named George, much to the chagrin of his brother, Phil. After they marry, Phil’s temper begins to flare, and he begins to torment the two – but his behavior may spell disaster when his new nephew’s darker side comes to light.

Release Date
November 17, 2021

Runtime
126 minutes


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