High Noon (1952)

Marshall Will Kane (Gary Cooper) is retiring from the life of a Western lawman, having just that morning married a devoutly-religious woman who abhors all violence, but then he gets some bad news. Frank Miller, his arch enemy, has dodged the gallows and is heading for town with his gang to kill Kane - and anyone who gets in the way. He'll be there at noon. It's 10:35. Kane has 85 minutes (it takes place in real time) to round up some deputies and mount a proper defense, but no one will help him.

Everyone is either fleeing, refusing to fight or is already leaning Team Miller. At the moment you find out who your real friends are, Will Kane learns he doesn't have any. He's the One Brave Man surrounded by both evil and weakness. What now? Abandon the ungrateful citizens to their cowardice and leave like he was planning, or stand and do the right thing even if they don't deserve it? The film's final shots are probably the best non-verbal presentation of the sentiment "f**k you!" ever.

Shane (1953)

A wandering gunfighter (Alan Ladd) takes a job as a farmhand for a simple homesteader who's being harassed by a cattle baron. He finds himself the target of attention from his host's wife and his hero-worshipping young son, leading to unspoken but charged tension between the two men. Who's the real hero of The West? Shane the mythic cowboy, or the hardworking family man - and does it matter?

If nothing else, see it to get that one part of The Negotiator.

The Searchers (1956)

If you only seek out one film from this list, make it this one. Often called the greatest of all Westerns, even Wayne often called it his finest film. It's the ultimate American anti-hero movie - the father of every "bad guy as good guy" story from Dirty Harry to Taxi Driver.

Wayne is Ethan Edwards, an ex-soldier with a dark, likely-criminal past. He's also a violent racist with a psychotic hate for Indians. When his nieces are abducted by Commanches, Ethan takes up leadership of the hunt. During the years-long search, the posse's will is tested as the others realize that Ethan is likely to kill the girls to save them from the shame of being "tainted" by Indian captivity rather than rescue them. What will he do? Yes, it's a movie (partially) about honor killing, and still among the best versions of "what happens when you need a bad guy?"

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

Jimmy Stewart is Ransom Stoddard, a politician legendary for turning a rough territory in the middle of nowhere into a thriving, well-educated state when as a young lawyer he found himself marooned there after his wagon was ambushed by criminal Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) - whom Stoddard would earn his greatest fame for killing in a gun duel. Upon returning to town for the funeral of reclusive local "nobody" Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), Stoddard recounts the real story of his life, his friendship with Doniphon, their clash over the love of a girl, and the truth about that fateful duel.

It may seem like a tame star vehicle today, but this is probably John Ford's darkest Western other than The Searchers. It's a slow-burn dramatization of a pretty big question: Who really won The West: - men of vision like Stoddard, or men of action like Doniphon?

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