Westerns tend to have some of the most gorgeous opening and ending scenes ever seen in.
Except for perhaps the film noir, the western is the most essential genre in American cinema. Its setting in a simpler time with more lenient laws and less civilized society allows filmmakers to tell stories that are tantamount to American myths. There are also revisionist westerns that deconstruct those myths and spaghetti westerns that ramp up the violence and the ugly historical context.
A lot of western directors, like John Ford, Sergio Leone, and Howard Hawks, are gods of cinema who pumped out masterpiece after masterpiece. Some of the finest movies ever made have been westerns. The genre has some of the big screen’s greatest opening moments – and some of its greatest endings, too.
10. BEST OPENING: Unforgiven (1992)
Clint Eastwood’s final Western (and the one that arguably ended the genre as we know it) was a gritty deconstruction of the genre he’d dedicated a large chunk of his career to. The opening scene of Unforgiven establishes its bleak and ugly tone when a cowboy and his friend disfigure a prostitute for laughing at his small genitals.
This leads the movie to its true protagonist, pig farmer William Munny (Eastwood), who is dragged back into his old life as a gunslinger to kill the cowboys after the sheriff lets them off the hook.
9. BEST ENDING: Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid (1969)
William Goldman had a tough time getting Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid made because at the time, Hollywood was reluctant to produce a Western in which the so-called heroes flee to Bolivia in the face of adversity instead of making a heroic final stand.
The final moments of the movie has the titular duo go out guns blazing, in the face of the troops that have tracked them down. It’s the perfect counterpoint to the neat conclusions of the usual Western myths, which was the point of the deconstructive Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
8. BEST OPENING: Django Unchained (2012)
In the opening moments of Quentin Tarantino’s revisionist Western epic/Southern Django Unchained, the title character is being taken through the desert as part of a chain gang led a pair of white slavers on horseback.
As night falls, Dr. King Schultz arrives on his wagon, kills one of the slavers and injures the other, frees Django, and allows the rest of the chain gang to do what they want with the surviving slaver. The stage is set perfectly for this ultraviolent antebellum-era revenge fantasy. Fittingly, the movie that inspired Django Unchained also made it to this list, but in the ending category.
7. BEST ENDING: High Noon (1952)
The ending of High Noon is so iconic that it’s been copied by countless movies ever since. Many of them aren’t even Westerns. Kane shoots Miller dead, tosses his marshal’s badge in the dirt, and rides off with Amy. this isn’t the clear-cut happy ending that Westerns usually have, but it’s an iconic one nonetheless.
Kane is an individual who stood up to an institution. From Paths of Glory to The Wire, this subject matter will always be fascinating, and High Noon can be read as an allegory for pretty much any political upset.
6. BEST OPENING: A Fistful Of Dollars (1964)
Ever since the immense success of A Fistful of Dollars legitimized the genre, almost every Spaghetti Western has opened with a lone gunslinger drifting into a small town. They usually end up pitting two rivaling gangs against each other in a larger scheme to bring them both down.
Sergio Leone already nailed this opening in his original Westernization of Yojimbo. Clint Eastwood’s the Man with No Name is the epitome of lonesome Spaghetti Western gunslinger, saying more with an icy stare than any number of words ever could.
5. BEST ENDING: Django (1966)
Justice doesn’t get more poetic than in the climactic showdown of Sergio Corbucci’s Django. After spending the movie trying to avenge his girlfriend death at the hands of the sadistic Confederate Major Jackson, Django has been beaten and tortured and all his fingers have been broken.
In his final showdown with Jackson, Django holds his revolver in the palms of his hands and uses Zaro’s headstone to push the trigger, killing Jackson and his men. Django leaves his pistol on Zaro’s grave and exits the cemetery, ready to start a new life as the title song blares out one last time.
4. BEST OPENING: The Searchers (1956)
The opening scene of The Searchers has one of the most iconic character introductions in the history of cinema, hands down. Here, John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards strides into the doorway of his brother’s homestead in the Texan wilderness.
In the years since John Ford’s masterpiece hit theaters, the doorway shot has been shamelessly copied by every filmmaker from Howard Hawks to Quentin Tarantino.
3. BEST ENDING: The Searchers (1956)
The Searchers is such a perfectly made Western that it has both one of the genre’s greatest openings and one of its greatest endings.
The ending mirrors the opening, except this time Ethan Edwards is leaving the doorway instead of entering it. Just as mysteriously as he entered this humble homestead all those years ago, all alone, he leaves to find his next mission.
2. BEST OPENING: Once Upon A Time In The West (1968)
The opening train station scene from Once Upon a Time in the West is one of the most tense, most cinematic sequences ever put on film. Sergio Leone set a very high benchmark for the rest of the movie in that opening scene.
Throughout Breaking Bad’s five-season run, whenever a new director was hired, Vince Gilligan would show them this scene to give them a sense of the kind of suspense and tension they should go for.
1. BEST ENDING: Shane (1953)
One of the most perfect endings in movie history on par with Casablanca is the final scene of Shane. Discussions of this scene often revolve around Shane’s gunshot wound and whether he dies offscreen or not, but that misses the point. Whether his injury is fatal or otherwise, Shane decided to move on because his past caught up to him and he realized he couldn’t change. And if he stayed any longer, he’d drag innocent people into his personal hell.
“There aren’t any more guns in the valley” ranks among the most iconic quotes in the Western. As Shane rides off, Joey’s cries of “Shane, come back!” paired with the final sounds of Victor Young’s score, concluding this tragic story in the best way possible.