The Western genre isn’t entirely comprised of spaghetti or John Wayne talking out the side of his mouth: From its earliest days, filmmakers were putting a comic spin on stories set on the dusty trail, with the genre hitting its apex between the mid ’70s and mid ’80s. We’ve gathered this collection of comedy Westerns — some you’ve seen and some you haven’t — to watch maybe after you see Seth MacFarlane’s A Million Ways to Die in the West.
Released in 1974, this classic comedy takes place exactly a century earlier, in Mel Brooks’s wacky, wily version of the Wild West. Throughout a hilarious plot full of fart jokes and racial tension, a conniving politician (Harvey Korman) and his band of mismatched henchman take on an accidental sheriff (Cleavon Little) and his drunken sidekick “The Waco Kid” (Gene Wilder) over the shenanigans-filled fate of a small town named Rock Ridge. But it isn’t until the people of Rock Ridge build a fake town that things start to get real — a little too real — with an ending that uses humor to blend the borders between Hollywood and historical fiction.
Few comedic westerns earn the status of cult classic, but 1986’s ¡Three Amigos! rightfully wears that crown. Why? In part because it was borne out of Saturday Night Live royalty. Written by frequent guest Steve Martin and executive producer Lorne Michaels and starring SNL OGs Chevy Chase, Martin Short and Martin himself, this buddy comedy seemed destined for greatness. In reality, it opened to mixed reviews, but nonetheless, it’s remained a popular Sunday afternoon cable TV staple.
In December 2012, we wrote that Quentin Tarantino had upended the Western with Django Unchained, a movie filled with memorable gags, both obvious (“[Jamie] Foxx riding to a Tennessee plantation in full Little Lord Fauntleroy regalia,” wrote film critic Stephanie Zacharek), and subtle (the silly name of Leonardo DiCaprio’s villain, Calvin Candie).
In our interview with Tarantino before the movie came out, the director said he had been Googling “Django,” looking for articles about the movie, and finding most of them purely speculative: “I’m gonna actually have to get rid of my iPad for a while,” he said then. Eighteen months later, the movie’s got a grip on an 88 percent “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes — placing it behind only Pulp Fiction (94%), Reservoir Dogs (92%), and Inglourious Basterds (89%). Despite the pre-release worry that it might be his undercooked Western, it’s really only ever pissed off the far right (and America’s bigots — “‘kill white people?’ I am outraged!”), an honor in its own right. We can hardly wait for The Hateful Eight.
You won’t see the Jack Nicholson-directed Western Goin’ South on many top ten lists — maybe because Nicholson, who looks like a drifter you’d avoid eye contact with if you passed him on the dusty trail, tries to win us over the way Lemmy did with Motörhead — which is to say, by being a total slimeball. Opposite a young Mary Steenburgen — who only appears to be an ingénue — as Julie Tate, his well-mannered, normal, last-minute wife, the horse thief Nicholson has barely escaped the gallows and plays a total creep who plans on stealing Steenburgen’s gold. They dislike each other until they don’t, and of course, there’s a cache of gold involved and a trip to Old Mexico. Trivia: Steenburgen would pair up with Christopher Lloyd (who played the town sheriff), some twelve years later for 1990’s Back to the Future Part III, a Western that would have made this list had it not aged so, so poorly.
If you can forgive Billy Crystal’s denim-looking Mets hat and his wife’s urging that he go “find his smile,” City Slickers deserves to be more than a punchline about what happened to Crystal’s career. In 1991, it was a massive cultural touchstone for every office drone who’d survived the money-mad ’80s only to wonder if they’d become a wimp. As a bonus, not only did City Slickers resurrect the career of one-arm push-up king and 72-year-old badass Jack Palance (who found enough depth in the movie that he won himself an Oscar), if you look close you can even catch the screen debut of Jake Gyllenhaal as Crystal’s embarrassed son who lies to his class that his lame dad is really a submarine commander.
Even computer-animated towns seem to have trouble keeping a good sheriff around. In Gore Verbinski’s celebrity-packed 2011 Academy Award winner, the animal residents of a desert town named Dirt find a new head honcho in a chameleon named Rango (Johnny Depp). After a car accident transports Rango from his days as a pampered pet into a life of survival in the middle of the Mojave, Rango plays tough to fit in with his new neighbors and soon inherits the sheriff’s badge — along with all of Dirt’s problems, including bank robbers and a mysteriously diminishing water supply. Bonus points if you can catch the film’s clever nods to Hunter S. Thompson.
My Little Chickadee
Mae West was so annoyed that W.C. Fields got (undeserved) equal credit for writing this script about a banished woman who fake-marries a con man that she never worked with him again. It’s a damned shame. What the two comedy titans lack in sexual chemistry, they make up for with a on and off-camera competitiveness that make their scenes crack with tension. No wonder My Little Chickadee was the second-biggest hit of 1940 after Gone With the Wind, and responsible for the best one-liners of West’s career. On trial for making out with a masked bandito, when West is accused of showing contempt of court, she huffs, “No — I’m doing my best to hide it.”
Young Guns II
One look at the poster for the first Young Guns movie tells you everything you need to know about it: this here is an excuse to get some up and coming actors dressed up like cowboys. And hey, who among us wouldn’t want to watch Jack Bauer, Ritchie Valens, and the coach of The Mighty Ducks firing six shooters in the Old West? Exactly. And while the original has that amazingly absurd sequence where everyone gets wild on peyote, it’s not quite as much fun as it’s very silly sequel. From trying just a bit too hard to make “I’ll make ya famous” in to a one-liner to remember to Emilio Estevez in completely unnecessary old man make-up for a framing device that directly contradicts the ending of the original film, Young Guns II is the perfect movie for those nights when you want to watch Independence Day-level no-brain-needed cinema without actually watching Independence Day. And hey, it’s got “Blaze of Glory” on the soundtrack, so there’s that too.