Westerns have always been one of the most beloved genres of film and television. After going through a golden age between the ’40s and the ’60s, the genre suffered a difficult period in the ’70s, largely brought on by America’s changing attitude toward itself and the radical shift in storylines caused by a flurry of Italian spaghetti Westerns and a wave of revisionist Westerns that dominated much of the ’70s.
By the 1980s, Westerns were losing some of their cultural significance, and this caused good ones to be considered something of a novelty. While there were still many great ones made in this time, the revivalist tags they were slapped with brought on a difference in standards for what was now thought of as a great Western. As a result, many other great Western movies were left overlooked or serially underrated despite how good they were. With this in mind, here’s a look back at the most underrated Westerns of the ’80s, ranked.
Updated on August 12th, 2023 by Amira Abdel-Fadil: This article has been updated with additional content to keep the discussion fresh and relevant with even more information and new entries.
15 Silverado (1985)
While this film was noted as being a great Western and certainly won its share of plaudits, the fact that Silverado only received a 78 percent aggregated rating on Rotten Tomatoes leaves it somewhat undervalued today. Featuring a cast that included the likes of Kevin Kline, John Cleese, Danny Glover, and the perpetual cowboy Kevin Costner, the film probably deserves a percentile rating in the high 80s to mid-90s.
Revolving around a group of misfit cowboys who stumble across a town in need of help, the film stuck to a classical storyline but handled it wonderfully. The rag-tag group of men who band together each had unique personalities that made for one enjoyable film from start to finish.
14 Three Amigos! (1986)
Since the ’80s were defined by great Westerns being categorized as revivalist films, the genre had little tolerance for anything that departed from its classical tropes. So when the comedy Western Three Amigos! was released, the film was panned badly by critics. Meant as a spoof, it had a variety of Western elements but also poked fun at the genre.
The thing is, it did so in a hilarious and lighthearted manner that never sought to take itself too seriously, so it was probably a little unfair that critics did. Roger Ebert, known for his scathing reviews of silly comedies, was indicative of many critics’ responses to the film. In hindsight, they all seem very self-serious and curmudgeonly; Three Amigos! is just a silly, charismatic, funny Western.
13 Tom Horn (1980)
Another serially underrated movie on Rotten Tomatoes, Tom Horn kicked off the ’80s as a great little Western. For added poignancy, the film was the second-to-last one that the legendary Steve McQueen ever made before his passing in 1980. Playing another legend, the famous American scout, cowboy, and soldier, Tom Horn, McQueen brought his classic charm and swagger to the film that had previously earned him the reputation as “The King of Cool” in Hollywood.
While the film did suffer a little from underdeveloped characters, it was also plagued by competition since United Artists were also developing a movie about Horn for Robert Redford at the time, and McQueen’s own fame and demands reputedly also marred the production.
12 The Long Riders (1980)
Another entrant from 1980, The Long Riders was a well-known film that cast real-life siblings, and not just one pair but a whopping four; David, Keith, and Robert Carradine starred, as well as James and Stacy Keach, the Quaid brothers, Randy and Dennis, and Christopher and Nicholas Guest. This unique casting aside, the group all worked well together; the movie was great, and more than doubled its budget at the box office.
While it was also highly rated, this billing could have been even higher since many believed it to be one of the best, if not the best, Westerns of the entire decade. Featuring a ton of action and a great story, the film was a solid entry from iconic director Walter Hill.
11 The Quick and the Dead (1987)
The 1995 film The Quick and the Dead by Sam Raimi featured a stellar cast that included Sharon Stone and Leonardo DiCaprio. It received plenty of recognition and acclaim, and is the film everyone thinks of when you hear that title. However, back in 1987, the made-for-TV film The Quick and the Dead suffered from a less illustrious cast and far tinier budget.
It was relegated to the realms of a distant memory and has remained there ever since. Yet, the film was based on a book by the legendary Western writer Louis L’Amour and deserves a reappraisal. Featuring the venerable Western actor Sam Elliot, the film had a far deeper story and was a fine film that perhaps only suffered from having a smaller budget than the 1995 film.
10 Sunset (1988)
By the time he made Sunset, Bruce Willis was already an established action star. The film provided a creative take on Westerns as he played Tom Mix, who teams up with the real Wyatt Earp in the movie (played by James Garner for the second time) to solve a murder mystery.
Featuring some great moments, the movie bombed commercially but did earn some positive reviews. Despite its apparent failure, it managed to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Costume Design, harking at the fact that the movie had a lot more to offer than it was given credit for. It’s a unique mash-up of styles that looks wonderful and is a lot of fun.
9 Pale Rider (1985)
Westerns and Clint Eastwood are often a match made in movie heaven. By 1985, having had a string of legendary movies behind him such as Dirty Harry, Eastwood was already a living screen legend. When he made Pale Rider, in comparison to many of his other more legendary films, this one seemed to fade into memory a little.
As a dark and suggestive Western that gave Eastwood’s character an almost supernatural edge since he represented death in the movie, the film was nothing if not unique and creative. This aspect alone made it a noteworthy film, but it was also well-made, well-acted, and a solid Western all round. The film was both a commercial and critical success, yet when one thinks of the best Clint Eastwood Westerns, the movie seems perpetually doomed to always languish in the shadows of his other hit films like Unforgiven and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
8 The Grey Fox (1982)
The Canadian Western film The Grey Fox was certified “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes and boasts a 100% rating. However, as brilliant and acclaimed as the film was, it remains relatively unknown to most mainstream audiences outside of Canada.
Despite this, it is widely regarded as a masterpiece and has recently been restored and re-released in 4K. It starred the equally underrated Richard Farnsworth, who was an American actor and stuntman who was twice nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Supporting Actor (1978) and Best Actor (2000) categories, respectively.
7 The Shadow Riders (1982)
Another made-for-TV Western that starred Sam Elliot, with a great turn by Tom Selleck too, The Shadow Riders was also based on a Louis L’Amour novel. It revolves around two brothers who fought on different ends of the Civil War. After they reunite, they find that their siblings have been abducted and must put aside their differences and work together to save them.
The film’s intriguing plot provided it with some brilliantly understated political food-for-thought and probably deserved a lot more recognition than it got. It was also the second time in three years that Elliot and Selleck had teamed up for a Western, following The Sacketts in 1979.
6 Barbarosa (1982)
1982 proved to be an exceptional year for brilliant Westerns, as Willie Nelson’s Barbarosa also proved. The film did receive some much-deserved critical acclaim but was largely panned by audiences. It never received any prestigious award nominations, yet also boasts a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Barbarosa revolves around two fugitives who encounter each other while on the run. The older of the two, played by Nelson teaches the younger (played by Gary Busey) essential survival skills and some other less than ethical skills too. A gem of a film, it was made even more impressive by the fact that Nelson is first and foremost a musician, yet has proved to be multi-talented as an actor.
5 Young Guns (1988)
Young Guns is entertainment at its best. The Western was directed by Christopher Cain and gathers the charming cast of Emilio Estevez, Kiefer Sutherland, and Lou Diamond Phillips. The actors went on to have great success and this is a fine example of their earlier good work. In Young Guns, a group of boys are targeted by the men of a rancher who’s been killed.
They now must survive and toughen up. Everything in the film is over-the-top which is one of the reasons it is such a fun watch. You have rock music, action, thrill, and adventure. Youngs Guns is your typical Western, only with more hype in how it presents itself.
4 The Man from Snowy River (1982)
The Man from Snowy River is a simple story of stepping a foot into a world that requires you to be tougher and more present. After living 18 years in the mountains of Australia, Jim Craig’s father dies. Just as death’s effect is expected, Jim’s life will never be the same as it was, and now he must figure out how to gather money to get back the farm on track. In the process, he is challenged by other men, he falls in love and he steps into his strength and wisdom.
The Man from Snowy River’s beauty is in its simplicity and scenic atmosphere, and touching score. In a world that has become fast-paced, it’s beautiful to see a life lived in the mountains, one that celebrates nature and its grandeur. It’s beautifully laced together to bring out a movie that is uplifting, romantic, and adventurous. The Aussie tale also is perfect for those who love horses and want to be dazzled by them on screen!
3 Sacred Ground (1983)
Sacred Ground is an unknown film to many. It follows the harsh battle between a man and his pregnant wife who accidentally inhabit a Pauite Indian’s sacred burial land. Now, they must deal with the local tribe and try to find a middle ground.
Yet, even though the mountain people had good intentions and wanted no conflict, things begin to take a wild turn and matters become more complicated than they had been in the first place. Sacred Ground is interesting and authentic as it feels like you’re watching a reality unfolding effortlessly. The movie feels minimalist but is visually stunning and atmospheric.
2 Heaven’s Gate (1980)
Written and directed by Micheal Cimino, Heaven’s Gate is set in Wyoming, wealthy cattle owners are enraged by immigrant farmers and want them out of there. It doesn’t just stop at this, they get the government’s approval to declare violence on them and gun them out if necessary. On the other hand, James Averill, the Sheriff of Johnson County’s empathy lies with the immigrants but his hope runs low for them.
The film does not shy away from violence and from showing man’s cruelty to man. The film, however, was a complete flop when it was released and it received terrible reviews and caused disastrous financial strain on United Artists. Yet, the film, despite its reputation still has depth to it and a great idea that perhaps may have had more potential to be actualized in a better manner but one that doesn’t deserve the sheer amount of hate it did.
1 The Tracker (1988)
The Tracker is a solid but overlooked Western with a great ensemble cast. Starring Scott Wilson, Mark Moses, and Kris Kristofferson, the film chronicles the battle between a group of cowboys led by “Red Jack” and Noble Adams, his men, and his son. Noble Adams had retired and bought the land where he intended to live peacefully with his family. However, his plan is interrupted when Red Jack’s group starts murdering people viciously, he is asked to capture them like he captured the bad guys in his old days.
Needing more men, he allows his son to participate in a tale that becomes challenged by father-son dynamics and the violence Noble thought he left behind. The film seems to have been forgotten, although it is well-rounded Western with a lot to offer. The cast gives a captivating performance, especially lead actor Kris Kristofferson who ruthlessly pursues the killers. The cinematography is beautiful and rich as we explore several locations that are a joy to the eye. All in all, The Tracker is worth a watch for all Western movie fans.