Top Ten Western Novels

(in my opinion)

Haunted Mesa1o. Haunted Mesa, by Louis L’Amour

One of Louis L’Amour’s longest and clearly most researched novels, Mesa  is equal parts contemporary mystery and historical thriller. While a detective working to solve a murder makes up the plot, the marrow of this novel is the mesmerizing history of the Anasazi that L’Amour weaves in so seamlessly.

The Man Who Killed the Deer9. The Man Who Killed the Deer, by Frank Waters

Frank Waters was a historian who was a poet who was a novelist. The story explores both the physical world and the metaphysical as Martiniano, a Pueblo Indian, struggles to find balance between the old, traditional ways of his family, and the new, inevitably commonplace ways of the white man.

jesse james hansen8. The Assassination of Jesse James, by Ron Hansen

With a few tiny tweaks of the narrative style, this could easily be a non-fiction book, and a great one at that. Even better though is Hansen’s ability to blend real history into a novel about idolization, despondency, and fame. This is as close as we will ever come to knowing Jesse James and his killer.

little big man berger7. Little Big Man, by Thomas Berger

A modern classic about a man who finds a place in both the frontier army and the Cheyenne Indians they’re pursuing. Told by a narrator who may or may not be reliable, Little Big Man is about an inconsequential man caught up in a lot of consequential events. Kind’ve like Forrest Gump set in the Old West

michener centennial western6. Centennial, by James Michener

Epic and informed – the signature style of its author – Centennial tells the story of eastern Colorado. The whole story. From the formation of the prairies and streams, to the dinosaurs, the horses, the Indians, the mountain men, the ranchers, all the way to the modern day country singer.

sea of grass richter5. Sea of Grass, by Conrad Richter

Slim yet expansive, poetic and powerful, Grass makes every word count. This is the kind of book you ingest slowly, purposefully, like a quality wine. The effect is a deep, somber understanding of what the west was, and why it changed.

ox-bow incident western4. The Ox-Bow Incident, by Walter Van Tilburg Clark

Written when the Third Reich was at its peak, Ox-Bow is a harrowing story about mob-mentality and man’s thirst for vengeance even in the face of reason. When most western authors were writing pulp, Tilburg Clark was writing literature.

Lonesome Dove greatest western3. Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry

One review on the back cover says, “If you only read one western novel in your life, read Lonesome Dove.” Sound advice. For me, the soul of this immortal adventure/romance/historical novel is summed up when Augustus says, “I can’t think of nothing better than riding a fine horse into a new country. It’s exactly what I was meant for.”

all the pretty horses western2. All the Pretty Horses, by Cormac McCarthy

Set in the middle of the last century, the characters’ ability to simply mount their horses and begin (but not continue) simpler lives in northern Mexico is a solemn reminder of how far and how fast civilization has progressed. The romance behind John Grady’s escape is only pronounced by the tragedy of his return.

call of the wild western1. The Call of the Wild, by Jack London

Set in what is perhaps the only remaining American frontier, Call of the Wild is the best of the western novel’s three main pillars: adventure, adaptation, and wilderness. Most of all, it is the story of the primitive, alive and wild self lying dormant but not dead within us.

Top Ten Western Movies

(My favorites anyway. Click for trailers.)

man from snowy river1o. The Man From Snowy River

Based on the 1890 poem by Banjo Patterson, River features an untamed Australian landscape, Kirk Douglas in twin roles, and some of the very best horsemanship ever shown on film.  A sequel would follow, as would a television series, soundtrack, and musical.

giant james dean poster9. Giant

A sprawling classic, Giant encompasses a plethora of themes – greed, family ties, prejudice, oil, ambition – each one intrinsic with the west. Set in mid 19th century Texas, Giant was also James Dean’s third and final film.

butch cassidy 8. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Probably the most fun of all the movies on this list. This is a buddy cop movie in reverse with Paul Newman and Robert Redford as two famed and doomed outlaws. The scenery is beautiful too with much of the filming having taken place in Durango, Colorado.

brokeback mountain trailer7. Brokeback Mountain

Widely considered a great film, Brokeback is often neglected as a great western. No matter how you feel about the subject matter, the theme of dangerous, inhibited love is universal and brilliantly brought to life by all the players involved, including the two western legends that wrote it – Larry McMurty (screenplay) and Annie Proulx (short story).

Blazing Saddles6. Blazing Saddles

Not only one of the greatest westerns of all time, but also one of the greatest comedies. There’s enough one-liners worth repeating to last  a lifetime. And the setups are so wild and ridiculous that if they ever did happen, you know they happened in the old west.

tombstone movie western5. Tombstone

A bit, how you say, Hollywood-ized, but still a whole helluva lot of fun. The legendary gunfight at the O.K. Corral is gory and intense, and you can’t help but root for Wyatt as he takes off on his famous vendetta ride. But it’s Val Kilmer’s smooth-talking and sickly Doc Holliday that immortalizes the film.

no country for old men4. No Country For Old Men

A dark, violent image of the wild that still exists in today’s west, especially on the border. With their signature wit and surprising, realistic brutality, the Coen Brothers could not have found better source material than a novel by Cormac McCarthy.

Good-bad-and-ugly western3. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

A classic. After two brilliant precursors, Sergio Leone finds utter perfection in the third installment of the Man With No Name trilogy. It remains one of the only Hollywood films to depict the Civil War in the west.

dances-with-wolves western2. Dances With Wolves

In the long history of westerns, Wolves was a landmark for its elegant portrayal of Indians as humans instead of simply as antagonists. It was, and still is, a poignant glimpse from the eyes of those swept over by Manifest Destiny.

assassination of jesse james western1. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

About as true to history and its source material as a movie can be, this adaptation of Ron Hansen’s novel features characters that are heartbreakingly familiar, lyrical storytelling, grimly beautiful cinematography, and about the best damn acting ever caught on camera.