Top 10 Western Movie Characters of All Time
Throughout the history of cinema, the Western movie has had a powerful appeal for people around the world. The American Western is a genre of itself – a movie that traditionally pits a rugged cowboy (often blurring the lines between hero and outlaw) against clear cut villains. The heroes of Western movies were archetypes of masculinity, and they became famous for their roles – people like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. While the heyday of the Western is long over, many directors are reinventing the genre with their own gritty takes on the frontier stories. These are the best 10 Western characters of all time – from both the old and the new schools of Western movies.
The Man with No Name – Clint Eastwood
There have been many western movie character names in history, but Eastwood was different.
For most people that grew up in the 20th century, Clint Eastwood simply was the greatest Western actor of all time – playing some of the most memorable roles in movies that won critical and popular acclaim. The most popular series of Western movies of all time, the Man With No Name series, was directed by Sergio Leone as a reinvention of the tired Western genre. Clint Eastwood played a half-outlaw and half-hero hybrid, a man that spoke little and wore an iconic poncho throughout the movie. From underneath his black cowboy hat, and usually from behind a cigar, Clint Eastwood peered out of the screen into living rooms across American – becoming the most famous Western actor of all time and cementing his portrayal of The Man With No Name as the character that most people think of when they think of Western movies.
American Icon – John Wayne
John Wayne didn’t just play cowboys, he was a cowboy. John Wayne was in dozens of Western movies – and his accent/speech was so synonymous with Western movies that people still try to copy him to this day. John Wayne’s characters were usually a little clearer cut than Eastwood’s, and were closer to the stereotype of the “good” Western hero and the lawful sheriff that brought justice to the frontier. John Wayne had an extremely long career in Western movies – appearing for many decades from the 1930s all the way through the late 1960s.
Augustus ‘Gus’ McCrae – Robert Duvall
Much beloved for his portrayal of other characters in Oscar-winning dramas and comedies, Duvall tried his hand at Westerns with the 1989 series Lonesome Dove. This was one of the first “mini-series” of modern broadcast television – allowing his character to undergo more complex character development than would have been possible with a simple movie or television show. Duvall played Gus McCrae, an older frontiersman that was trusted and valued for his experience in the American West.
Harmonica – Charles Bronson
Even though the character only appeared in a single movie (Once Upon a Time in the West), Harmonica makes the top 5 list of best Western Characters of All Time because he added some authenticity to the Western genre with his combination of Hispanic appearance/culture and American frontier values. Charles Bronson would go on to state that Harmonica was the best character he ever had a chance to play – and he was certainly one of the most colorfully dressed, usually wearing a long overcoat over a brightly colored shirt that almost seemed out of place in the brown and tan desert.
Angel Eyes – Lee Van Cleef
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is widely considered to be the best Western movie ever made – so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that yet another character from the movie made it into the top ten. Something about Lee Van Cleef’s face just makes him perfect for playing the villain – and his piercing eyes made it clear that he was up to no good as Angel Eyes.
Doc Holliday – Kirk Douglas, Val Kilmer
Doc Holiday was a real historical figure – and there is so much mystery and intrigue surrounding the events of his life (and the seminal “showdown at the O.K. Corral”) that he has been portrayed in all kinds of different movies by a rotating cast of actors. These two actors – from very different time periods – portrayed Doc Holliday in the most memorable way, capturing every nuance of his character and his (sometimes dubious) morality.
Al Swearengen – Ian McShane
My personal favorite from this list, Al Swearengen was a tough no-nonsense business owner from the show Deadwood that was constantly trying to find a way to make a buck in the American West. Instead of being dressed in the typical cowboy costume of the time, Swearengen wore fine business clothes and suits to accentuate his station in life. While he was known in the town for owning the tavern/brothel, he also found ways to get into every illicit operation that was going on in the region. Throughout the show, Swearengen also showed a sensitive and kind side on occasion – so he was far from a static character.
Tuco – Eli Wallach
Yet another character from “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” is Tuco. Tuco is “the Ugly” out of the trio – and he’s definitely a fan favorite. Tuco is a bandit that starts the movie out by shooting his way through a bunch of bounty hunters before fleeing – and much of the movie revolves around his interaction with Clint Eastwood’s character as they take advantage of his bounty to play the local bounty hunters off of each other. Tuco wore a Mexican poncho throughout much of the movie – the perfect costume piece for a character that was supposed to be wanted on both sides of the border.
The Stranger – Sam Elliott
Much like “the Man with no Name”, the Stranger is well know because of his mystery – he never lets on what his backstory or real name is, he just rides into town at the nick of time to save the day. What makes this character even more interesting is the movies that he’s been in. Sam Elliott reprised the character in Tombstone and The Sacketts (almost 15 years apart) but then also played the same character in the cult-classic non-Western The Big Lebowski.
Bill Munny – Unforgiven
Unforgiven was Clint Eastwood’s last Western movie – but his older age makes the character very different than the ones he played in his youth. Bill Munny grew up as a criminal – doing whatever he had to do to survive, but he switched to bounty hunting when he found out that hunting criminals paid better than being one. What is especially interesting is Eastwood’s costume as this role – a leather trench-coat that seems just as aged as he is.