Westerns are said to be an American art form, but the very first western was filmed in 1899 in the English countryside, in a town called Blackburn. Filmmakers created a one-minute movie titled “Kidnapping by Indians” four years before “The Great Train Robbery,” the movie most film historians name as the first in the genre.

Since those early depictions of life and frontier justice in the Old West, filmmakers have explored a wide array of themes and characterizations — what it was like during this tumultuous period of American history. Although the genre has waned at times, it continues to evolve. Modern westerns include more intricate, inclusive themes told from perspectives other than the typical cowboy hero. However, many Westerns from the earliest days of filmmaking continue to show up on lists of the genre’s top films in cinema history.

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1. The Shootist

A legendary gunfighter faces his mortality in a way he didn’t expect after being diagnosed with cancer in this 1976 film adapted from a novel. John Wayne plays J.B. Brooks, a hardened gunslinger who’d rather die with dignity in a shootout than face a lingering death. James Stewart plays Doctor Hostetler, who delivers the life-altering news. Lauren Bacall, Ron Howard, Richard Boone, John Carradine, and Scatman Crothers, are just some of the notable actors who bring this story to life. The movie received critical acclaim, as well as Oscar, BAFTA, and Golden Globe nominations and a place on the year’s top films list.

The Shootist 1976 western
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