The Wild Bunch (1969)
Sam Peckinpah’s masterpiece is cited as among the best Westerns ever made, and its bloody finale easily ranks as the greatest Western gunfight on film. The gun battle takes place between a gang of middle-aged outlaws led by Pike Bishop (William Holden, pictured), who take on a gritty Mexican army. In keeping with its theme of changing times, the extremely graphic gun battle involves Model 1911 Colt semi-automatic pistols, Winchester pump shotguns, bolt-action military rifles, and even a Browning water-cooled machine gun. With its slow-motion shots of spewing blood and gore, the gunfight has been described as a “ballet of death.” It nearly earned the film an X-rating from the MPAA. The tone and style of The Wild Bunch (and other Peckinpah films) has held up over time, influencing many directors. In fact, so many film directors and videogame makers have imitated Peckinpah’s groundbreaking, styled violence that it’s now commonplace, for better or worse. Fun fact: The movie’s original screenplay, written by Walon Green, was nominated for an Academy Award but lost out to William Goldman’s screenplay for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969).
Open Range (2003)
Whether it’s a magnificent buffalo hunt (Dances with Wolves) or a big gunfight, actor/director Kevin Costner (pictured) knows how to film action scenes. This excellent Western is based on Lauran Paine’s Western novel The Open Range Men (Thorndike Press, 1990). The climactic shootout begins with Charley Waite (Costner) and his cow boss (Robert Duvall) fighting it out with a cattle baron and his gang of henchmen; it ends with most of the local townsfolk taking up arms and gunning with the heroes. It’s not only a lengthy gun battle—coming in at more than 17 minutes—but it’s also realistic. The gunfighters, including Costner, miss their human targets (a lot), just like in the Old West.
“What was important for me in the gun battle was not to make the gun battle of all times but to make a logical fight that had chaos,” Costner says. “I wanted to also create moments of breathing in trying to figure out and knowing that this battle was not over…and I think that part of the enjoyment of the audience is that it just doesn’t start and stop… It starts, it stops, it winds itself back up. It becomes maybe more violent than they even anticipated. The surprises are greater than even the first one.”
True Grit (1969)
It’s probably the most-recited Western movie dialogue ever (yes, even more than, “I’m your Huckleberry”). John Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn faces the Ned Pepper gang across a mountain meadow and tells Pepper, viciously played by Robert Duvall, that he intends to shoot him dead or see him hanged at Fort Smith. “I call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man,” taunts Duvall. An angry Wayne rears back and shouts, “Fill your hand you son-of-a-bitch!” Wayne and the gang gallop towards each other, guns blazing. Cue the great Elmer Bernstein score, and we have perhaps the most unforgettable John Wayne/Western film moment.
Though Charles Portis’ 1968 novel True Grit and the movie are set in western Arkansas and Indian Territory (Oklahoma), the film was mostly shot in the Colorado Rockies. The Coen brothers released a fine version of their own starring Jeff Bridges in the Cogburn role. But as far as the shootout is concerned, John Wayne, reins clenched in his teeth with a Colt revolver in one hand and his signature Winchester in the other, is a cinematic touchstone.
Tie: My Darling Clementine (1946) & Tombstone (1993)
The Oct. 26, 1881, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona Territory, pitted the lawmen Earp brothers, Wyatt, Morgan, and Virgil, along with Doc Holliday, against the Clanton and McLaury brothers and Billy Claiborne. The explosive shootout, 30 shots in 30 seconds, has been re-imagined by filmmakers many times, but the best of the bunch are John Ford’s My Darling Clementine and Tombstone. John Ford knew Wyatt Earp personally and claimed direct knowledge of the gunfight from the old lawman. True or not, Ford’s version, while enjoyable to watch, hardly resembles the actual gunfight. Filmed in rich black and white with Monument Valley as a backdrop, Ford’s shootout is considerably slowed down. A cloud of dust from a passing stagecoach obscures part of the action (the “fog of history”?). The tubercular Doc Holliday, played by Victor Mature, is killed due to an ill-timed cough. The real Doc, as all Old West buffs know, survived the gunfight. The showdown as depicted in the popular Tombstone is quicker and much bloodier, with Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday stealing the scene. (But don’t count how many times Kilmer fires his guns without reloading—it’ll just make you mad.)
How the West Was Won (1962)
Here’s the sleeper on the list. To protect his family, lawman Zeb Rawlins (George Peppard) must kill outlaw Charley Gant (a badass Eli Wallach), who wants revenge against Rawlins for killing his brother. As Gant and his gang attempt to rob a moving train, Rawlins and friends are waiting for him. The resulting shootout is pure mayhem (I love the falling bad guy who takes out a saguaro cactus next to the tracks) and concludes with an awesome train wreck. This epic film chronicles four generations of a pioneering family, with a cast of major stars: Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, John Wayne, Gregory Peck, Richard Widmark (pictured), and Debbie Reynolds, to name a few. It was filmed entirely with groundbreaking Cinerama cameras, which contained three lenses and three separate film rolls in order to fill the large, curved Cinerama movie screens (three projectors ran simultaneously). The movie clocks in at 162 minutes and builds and builds to the grand finale. Directed by Henry Hathaway (who also helmed True Grit), the amazing shootout between Rawlins and Gant must have been spectacular on the Cinerama screen.