In a matter of days, millions of us will saddle up with the Van der Linde gang and try to outrun the law, the steady progress of civilization, the dangers of the wild, and fate itself. Our anticipation for Red Dead Redemption II led many of the staff to replay the original game to refamiliarize ourselves with Rockstar’s open world take on the Western. We’ve also been spending a lot of time watching Western films and TV series to get us in the mood for Arthur Morgan’s suicide mission to preserve the bonds of the gang and keep the only life he’s ever known from falling apart. We’ve compiled a list of 20 great Westerns that not only serve as a great appetizer to Red Dead Redemption II, but also share some thematic or cinematic similarities to the series.
3:10 To Yuma (2007)
The original 3:10 to Yuma is no slouch but the remake, directed by Logan’s James Mangold, is among the most fascinating and complex character studies the Western genre has ever produced. A poor rancher (Christian Bale) is tasked to escort a notorious outlaw (Russell Crowe) to a train as the bandit’s group tracks them to free their leader. While the gunfights are tense and the plot is interesting, the ever-evolving relationship between Bale, Crowe, and Ben Foster (who plays the outlaw’s second-in-command) steals the show. From friendship to animosity and deep respect, all the characters in 3:10 to Yuma are constantly shifting their perspectives on one another even though the rules of the world, and the situations of every character, forces them to play the roles forced upon them. A shocking, poignant conclusion marks this remake as one of the best modern Westerns out there.
The Red Dead Connection: For all its gunslinging, the heart of Red Dead Redemption is humanistic storytelling on an epic scale. Yes, the original game’s sprawling vision of the West was engrossing but it was John Marston’s role as a man trapped between the past and the future that cemented the game as a classic. The sequel looks set to explore even more complex relationships among notorious bandits as their world falls apart. We look forward to seeing how John, Morgan, and Dutch’s relationship plays out in particular.
The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford
If you’re looking for an endless string of gunfights, you can skip this measured and methodical revisionist Western. Following the last years of infamous outlaw Jesse James (Brad Pitt), this work from writer/director Andrew Dominick moves at the languid pace of a Terrence Malick film. As the younger cousin of a James gang member being recruited into the outlaw life, Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) learns over the course of the film how far his mythic image of the renegade life is from reality. His own path turns from perusing infamy to self-preservation as he sees how precarious a life outside the law can be.
The Red Dead Connection: The train heist shots from the early Red Dead Redemption II trailers look to be heavily inspired by a similar scene in this film. Since the game follows the eventual unraveling of the Van der Linde gang, we expect it explores similar themes of a gang members’ disillusionment with a charismatic leader.
Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid hardly needs an introduction. A mash-up of buddy comedy and Western, the film immortalized itself with fantastic performances from Paul Newman (Butch) and Robert Redford (Sundance) as the two wise-cracking outlaws. A world apart from the bloody The Wild Bunch (also released in 1969), Hill’s film is content to use the old cliché of lovable, mostly huckster outlaws to explore the value of friendship – even in the face of doom. The movie’s blaze of glory freeze frame is easily one of the most famous endings in all of cinema.
Hey, who knows? Maybe they made it to Bolivia. Right?
The Red Dead Connection: Red Dead Redemption is so renowned for its well-told tragic tale that people often forget just how funny the game is, particularly when it comes to banter between John and characters like Nigel West Dickens, a bumbling snake oil salesman. Trailers for Red Dead Redemption II have shown a fair amount of similar banter, with Morgan telling one of his crew at one point “I’m good as long as we get paid…or you get shot!”
Deadwood’s Shakespearian approach to dialogue can be tough for some to penetrate, but once you embrace the unconventional approach to the Western genre you can revel in the interactions of its complex and memorable cast of characters. Saloon operator/quote machine Al Swearengen may be HBO’s best written anti-hero – yes, we’re including Tony Soprano and Tyrion Lannister in that conversation – and the show features cameos from many well-known folk heroes like Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane. Charting the town’s growth from a lawless gold prospecting camp to annexation, show runner David Milch had ample fodder for exploring the nebulous and violent birth of communities during the era of Western Expansion. The critically acclaimed series had one fatal flaw – HBO abruptly canceled the show, leaving the story with no proper resolution.
The Red Dead Connection: You can see some minor influences from Deadwood in the early trailers, particularly where Arthur Morgan uses more flowery language as a weapon against a man who owes the gang money. The fight scene that spills into the muddy thoroughfare also calls to mind the epic fistfight between Al Swearengen’s righthand man and one of mining magnate George Hearst’s enforcers.
Another in a long line of recent revisionist Westerns, Django Unchained is longtime Spaghetti Western aficionado Quentin Tarantino’s first work in the genre. Taking place a few years before the Civil War, Tarantino takes a comic book brush to the character canvas of his tale, delivering dastardly plantation owners, Stockholm syndrome slaves, and one of the most unlikely duos in film history. Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz pair perfectly as a revenge-fueled former slave and German dentist-turned-bounty hunter teaming up to hunt down a warrant. The film is indulgent and uncontained like many recent Tarantino flicks, but it’s an entertaining romp nonetheless.
The Red Dead Connection: Rockstar games also has a great appreciation for colorful characters, and we expect to run into more than a few in Red Dead Redemption II.
The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly
Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy are three of the most important works in Western film, essentially breathing life into a genre that had been left for dead by Hollywood. However, if you can only watch one of them, the third one is simply the one you must watch. Iconic from beginning to end, with rivalries, pursuits, treasure hunts, and showdowns galore, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly is an easy contender for the most important Western ever made.
The Red Dead Connection: There’s just so much that Red Dead Redemption borrows from The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly by the nature of it being a Western game in the first place. There’s even Clint Eastwood’s trademark poncho in the game as an unlockable outfit. Dead Eye showdowns are a direct descendent of the famous graveyard duel at the end of the movie. Huge battles and blowing bridges are also both in Leone’s film and Red Dead. More than anything perhaps it’s the sheer sense of scale that Red Dead successfully pulls off that does the most justice by the endearing legacy of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. And on that front, its sequel looks to do the same.
The most recent work on this list, this 2017 Netflix limited series earned widespread praise for its unique approach to the Western genre. After a tragic mining accident takes the lives of all the men in a remote town, it’s up to the women to put their settlement back together. Their rebuilding efforts are complicated when a local woman shelters a young outlaw Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell) being tracked down by his former mentor Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels), a complex villain who one minute isn’t above killing women and children but the next moment tends to a wounded horse. Daniels steals nearly every scene he is in with a commanding performance, which earned the highly decorated actor his second Emmy. Merritt Weaver also took home an Emmy for her performance as the tough-as-nails town leader unafraid to stand up to the opportunistic men circling the camp like vultures.
The Red Dead Connection: Many of the Red Dead Redemption themes appear in this series, notably a protégé rising up against mentor, and a charismatic gang leader who makes convincing arguments for his villainy.
The Hateful Eight
Quentin Tarantino’s second Western film, The Hateful Eight is built almost entirely on the famed director’s penchant for filming tense verbal standoffs. When two bounty hunters (Samuel L. Jackson and Kurt Russell), a fugitive (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a newly minted sheriff (Walter Goggins), a Confederate general (Bruce Dern) and several other colorful characters seek shelter in a Wyoming inn from an unrelenting blizzard, the early salvo of verbal volleys between the parties eventually gives way to lead bullets. Legendary Spaghetti Western composter Ennio Morricone penned the original score.
The Red Dead Connection: The establishing shots of extreme weather in The Hateful Eight look to have served as inspiration for Red Dead Redemption II’s early sequence where the gang tries to lose the lawmen on their tail by taking refuge in the snowy mountains. Of course, a cabin stand-off leads to extreme violence as well.
Hell On Wheels
AMC’s drama about the construction of America’s first transcontinental railroad centers on the life of a former Confederate soldier Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) who is trying to reconcile his troubled past while charting a new future. In typical Western fashion, this path begins with a revenge quest. Across the five seasons, you can expect run-ins with prostitutes, outlaws, mercenaries, and other ne’er-do-wells. The show is currently available to stream on Netflix.
The Red Dead Connection: Cullen Bohannon, like John Marston, has a past he isn’t proud of and wants to rebuild his life. He’s also quite often running errands or completing tasks for men of power.
Early in his career, Academy Award winning director Sydney Pollack (Out of Africa) teamed up with Robert Redford to make this critically acclaimed Western. Written by Edward Anhalt and John Milus (the writer of Homefront and inspiration for The Big Lebowski’s Walter Sobchak), Jeremiah Johnson follows a disaffected soldier who leaves civilization behind in favor of a spartan existence in the unrelenting wilderness. This adventure giveth and it taketh away in equal measures, as he marries a Native American woman, sets up an idyllic life among the pine trees, loses everything, and sets on a bloody quest of revenge.
The Read Dead Connection: A sharpshooting man who just wanted to get away from it all, Johnson shares a lot of similarities to John Marston. Like Marston, his retreat from civilization can’t outpace the unrelenting encroachment of Western expansion, and his violent tendencies are once again put to the test.
The Magnificent Seven
The Magnificent Seven is as good as its premise is simple: seven cowboys band together to defend a town from a gang of bandits. A remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, The Magnificent Seven is a fantastic action-packed movie that does a great job of drawing out the personalities of its characters so they become likeable people rather than dull clichés. A star-studded cast featuring Steve McQueen, Yul Brynner, and Charles Bronson make The Magnificent Seven’s performances just as enjoyable as the action. Just…don’t watch the remake.
The Red Dead Connection: Red Dead Redemption’s best massive shootouts, throwing the player against towns of foes, often felt like scenes ripped straight from The Magnificent Seven (not to mention the throwing knife weapon probably being inspired by this scene). We can’t wait to stage (and hopefully survive) our own last stands in Red Dead Redemption II.
McCabe & Mrs. Miller
McCabe & Mrs. Miller was famous director Robert Altman’s stab at doing a Western…and it is a trip of a movie. Eschewing the gung-ho antics of the classic Westerns, McCabe & Mrs. Miller is mostly a character study, focusing on the title characters’ efforts to build a successful brothel as well as their growing romantic attraction to one another. Altman’s Western is, well, still an Altman film, which means everything is doomed. The business, the romance, everything. McCabe & Mrs. Miller is notable for being an early fatalistic Western that threw the romantic notions of the genre wayside to focus on the suffering of two people caught in unsavory circumstances, finding a measure of peace in each other’s company before tragedy strikes.
The Red Dead Connection: Though it celebrates and captures the thrills that everyone connects to the Western – hunting outlaws, robbing banks, seeking revenge on horseback – Red Dead Redemption is a tragedy about trying to escape a looming, bleak fate. Everything Rockstar has shown of Dead Redemption II suggests the story is similarly tragic in tone, with the days of Dutch’s band of outlaws being outnumbered.
Once Upon A Time In The West
Lesser known and influential than The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West is a fittingly epic cap to his spaghetti Western filmography. A whopping 165 minutes, the movie uses its real estate well, spinning a fantastic revenge story (starring a younger Charles Bronson) and using it as the foundation to hold together a complex plot about ego, industry, and the dying Wild West. After watching the conclusion, a harmonica will never sound the same to you again.
The Red Dead Connection: Along with The Wild Bunch, Once Upon A Time In The West is one of the big Westerns about the end of the era, with modern industry and the government cracking down on outlaws. Both Red Dead Redemptions clearly make this a focal point of their stories.
Written by rock star Nick Cave (who also composed the score alongside fellow Bad Seed Warren Ellis), The Proposition is set in the Australian outback of the 1880s but shares many themes with the traditional American western. When a gang of outlaws rape and murder a family, Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) retaliates by killing most of the gang members. The two survivors are given a torturous proposition. If Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) doesn’t hunt down and kill his deplorable older brother (Danny Huston) then the police will hang his younger brother Mikey (Richard Wilson).
The Red Dead Connection: The Proposition director John Hillcoat has a direct connection to Red Dead Redemption – he directed a short film telling the story of John Marston entirely using in-game assets.
Alejandro Inarritu’s impeccable, bleak adaption of the Michael Punke of the same name became a hot water cooler topic for the brutal and graphic grizzly bear mauling suffered by scout Hugh Glass (played by Leonardo DiCaprio). The compelling narrative about a fur trading expedition gone wrong explores the emptiness of vengeance and is fueled by fantastic performances by DiCaprio and Tom Hardy. But the real star of the film is the picturesque cinematography. Using all-natural light, Emmanuel Lubezki perfectly captured the harsh, unrelenting conditions of winter in the wilderness. The Revenant earned Oscars for Innaritu, Lubezki, and DiCaprio.
The Red Dead Connection: A lot of the image lighting and composition from the first Red Dead Redemption II trailer looks like it was inspired by Lubezki’s remarkable work. We also know an early sequence of the game is set in the unrelenting winter.
John Ford didn’t create the Western – he just elevated it to a cinematic artform. Long considered junk entertainment, Ford approached the genre in a novel way, focusing on character development and the spiritual struggles of people in the wilderness. Stagecoach, released all the way back in 1939, is probably the most significant work in his oeuvre and the early Westerns. If you’ve ever found yourself admiring the vistas of The Old West or thrilled by the sight of a cowboy riding into frame, a gun in their hand, you owe your appreciation to John Ford and Stagecoach.
The Red Dead Connection: Stagecoach’s use of landscape is still head and shoulders over most Westerns, with barren wastes and mountains presented as convincingly beautiful but dangerous places – especially in the film’s black and white. Red Dead’s landscape often achieves the same awe, especially as you ride into Mexico, with Jose Gonzalez’s “Far Away” trailing behind you.
There Will Be Blood
If you haven’t seen this Paul Thomas Anderson masterpiece already, you should just to witness acting legend Daniel Day Lewis’ finest performance as oil prospector Daniel Plainview. Hardly above a dastardly grift, Plainview uses his adopted son as a prop for sympathy as he swindles a community out of their oil-rich land. The film lacks the shootouts common to most Westerns, but the period piece is a poignant commentary on obsession, greed, and the destructive forces of capitalism.
The Red Dead Connection: Swindling, unrepentant capitalists are well-trodden fodder in Rockstar games, and we expect Red Dead Redemption II to be no different. We already know one of the trains the Van der Linde gang tries to rob is owned by an oil baron named Leviticus Cornwall, and the map has a region dominated by drilling rigs extracting black gold from the ground.
True Grit (2010)
The original True Grit was an enjoyable enough movie, but the Coen brothers’ remake trumps it and most modern Westerns by a large margin. Old U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) attempts to help orphan Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) track down the man who killed her father and bring him to justice. The Coen brothers’ directing, and the strength of the performances, makes True Grit a great action adventure in a beautifully shot version of the West with more than enough humor and shocking violence to arrest your attention.
The Red Dead Connection: One of the most interesting aspects of True Grit is its spiritual, mysterious undertones, with characters (both good and evil) receiving their comeuppance for violence regardless of the context. The melancholy ending with its spiritualism recalls Marston’s dealings with the stranger, a man who knows all of Marston’s crimes and virtues throughout his life. We’re curious to see what eerie, slightly supernatural elements (if any) return in Red Dead II.
Maybe the most well-known post-modern deconstruction of The Wild West, Clint Eastwood’s masterpiece went topsy turvy with nearly every cliché and legend of the genre. “I’ve killed women and children. I’ve killed everything that walks or crawled at one time or another,” growls protagonist Will Munny. Unforgiven is void of heroics or honor. This is a movie about people giving into their worst selves, with much of the message skewering the honor supposedly attached to wonton violence. It’s a dark, biting film that’s still worth watching nearly 30 years after its release due to its complexity and message.
The Red Dead Connection: One of the things that makes Red Dead Redemption so special is that it aspires (and succeeds) to be more than just a wild ride through the West. At every turn, characters talk about fate, politics, man’s inhumanity to man, racism, and the righteousness of political violence (see the entirety of the Mexico chapter). With the grim tidings that Red Dead Redemption II has shown so far in our hands-on previews and the trailers, we expect Morgan will be having his fair share of these kinds of conversations as well.
The Wild Bunch
Sam Peckinpah’s epic Western was controversial when it came out in 1969, showering the usually bloodless genre in buckets of red while centering not on a group of heroes but bandits and outlaws as the era of the Wild West draws to a close. Still, Peckinpah’s opus has more going for it than just shock value. Years later, the surprisingly sympathetic portraits of ne’er-do-wells, with thieves struggling against their inner nature to preserve the bonds of brotherhood while pursued by the law, is the movie’s strongest quality…well, next to the infamous final shootout pitting the gang of outlaws against an entire army.
The Red Dead Connection: With its focus on outlaws and Gatling gun fights, The Wild Bunch was a huge influence on the original Red Dead Redemption. Red Dead Redemption II looks to pull even more from Peckinpah’s landmark film, exploring the connections between outlaws as they fend off the modern world and encroaching civilization.
For more on Red Dead Redemption II, check out our hands-on preview of the game here.