The Most Controversial Genre: Name Your Favorite Silent Westerns

“I like everything but westerns” is a pretty common remark to hear when discussing classic film. Look, I get it. I’m not the biggest fan of some the must-see films in the genre but I do enjoy a nice dose of people in spurs shooting one another.

Silent era audiences loved the west and sub-genres sprouted up to meet demand. There were epic westerns, dark westerns, western comedies, western spoofs, you name it.

This is where you western fans (full-time, part-time or “I just like one”) come into the picture. What are some of your favorite silent westerns? Are there any that are particularly good at winning over non-fans?

I am a noted fan of William S. Hart, who was basically Clint Eastwood before Clint Eastwood was Clint Eastwood, but I also love Harry Carey and am particularly fond of his comedy Beyond the Border. I mean, how can you resist intertitles like this?

I am looking forward to hearing from you!


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  1. John Seal

    I hate westerns but am quite fond of John Ford’s 3 Bad Men (1926), which he later remade as 3 Godfathers in 1948. I prefer the original!

  2. richardsd3

    I like silent westerns, partly because they show what a grimy mess the old west was, unlike most sound westerns. “Hell’s Hinges” is amazing and breathtaking to look at. I recall liking “Iron Horse” and “Three Bad Men” a lot.

  3. Joe Thompson

    Hi Fritzi. I love Broncho Billy movies, Hell’s Hinges, The Lady of the Dugout, The Iron Horse and many others, but my favorite is probably The Great K&A Train Robbery, which is one of the few surviving and readily available features that Tom Mix made for Fox.

  4. Mitch

    I liked 3 Bad Men, Wild Horse Mesa, Tumbleweeds (without Hart’s talking prologue), The Covered Wagon, Redskin, and The Vanishing American (except for the long prologue). I wish they hadn’t killed animals – intentionally or not – in The Covered Wagon, but it was a glimpse of an era that had been lived by most of the extras. In the 1910s, western towns hadn’t changed much from the 1880s, people still got around in stage coaches, cowboys in silents were mostly real cowboys, as were a good number stunt men. I find that authenticity fascinating. I love the fact that, most of the time, true Native Americans were used as extras. In The Vanishing American, when Lois Wilson leads the Indian children in the pledge of allegiance, the look on her face when they recite “one nation with liberty and justice for all” speaks volumes about the guilt she felt. When she met Native American while making The Covered Wagon, she became interested in their lives and sympathetic to their view of history.

  5. Marie Roget

    Hell’s Hinges, hands down. Also have a soft spot for Hart’s short Bad Buck of Santa Inez because, well, it’s Hart, plus live near and love the beautiful and evocative Santa Inez Valley.

    Closest runner- up has to be The Covered Wagon.

    Riders of the Purple Sage can be a fun double bill when paired with Sennett’s Riders of the Purple Cows. Do have to admit a preference for straight man Ralph Graves vs. Vernon Dent’s comic villain in the latter to Tom Mix pretty much doing anything in the former πŸ˜‰

  6. gmatusk

    I have not seen many silent westerns. My father lived in Oklahoma for a few years (the 1920s) during the silent era and he liked the movie of Tom Mix. I watched one Tom Mix silent, but I did not especially like it. Any recommendations for better Tom Mix movies? I do like the W.S. Hart movies that I’ve seen. My dad had a scar on his back — he saw some guys beating up a Native American and he intervened to protect the Indian and he got knifed in the back. Years later he returned to Saint Louis — when I was a child he taught me rope spinning tricks he had learned from cowboys. When he rook me to cowboy movies he explained that real cowboys did not dress in fancy duds like those sometimes worn by Roy Rogers. He used to talk about once watching Yakima Canutt doing stunts on horses during a filming in Oklahoma. Of course, we all know that Canutt was involved in the chariot race scenes in “Ben Hur.” My favorite westerns are from the sound era — “Ride the High Country” (Joel McCrea was a great favorite of the legendary writer/director Preston Sturges –highest marks for that!) and “True Grit” (which has some of the most eccentric dialogue in movies).

  7. Shari Polikoff

    It’s a tie between ‘Tumbleweeds’ and ‘The Iron Horse.’ I saw the 1939 re-release version of ‘Tumbleweeds,’ with Hart’s spoken preface – an emotional, wistful tribute to both the Old West and the silent era. I had known of Hart since I was 11 and we visited his ranch in Newhall, California.

  8. Alex

    I am a huge fan of silent movies and a fan of westerns, so this is actually a fun genre for me. Currently my favorite silent western would be The Covered Wagon (1923). Can’t wait for the kino release this month.

  9. Dan Atwell

    Not a really well-known one, but I really like Two-Gun Gussie. Harold Lloyd and mistaken identity humor are two things that always get a laugh out of me. The goofiness of Lloyd’s glasses guy in an old west setting is a nice change of pace. Sure, it isn’t heavy like the William S. Hart stuff I’ve seen, but they don’t all have to be epics!

  10. Stephen Robertson

    I am one of those people who is not a particular fan of westerns, though I can certainly appreciate a good one. The only other genre I don’t really like is war films. I don’t know if this means anything!

    My favourite silent western is the Iron Horse – a fascinating story, well-told. Next is probably 3 Bad Men. Unsurprisingly, my favourite western talkies are by John Ford too.

  11. Jack Dougherty

    Westerns are my favorite silents. I think silents work best when the film has action. Also, the outdoor vistas give a feeling of freedom from the limitations of the medium.

  12. Gene Smiley

    3 Bad Men. Olive Borden – ❀

    Also The Winning of Barbara Worth, which seems to be pretty underrated. I'd like to see The Pony Express again, as I only ever saw it once in a mediocre print, but it had a pretty stellar cast – Betty Compson, Wallace Beery, Ricardo Cortez, Ernest Torrance, and George Bancroft.

  13. Mitch

    I just wanted to mention that in May KINO will release blu-rays of Doug Fairbanks in The Good Badman and The Halfbreed. KINO is really giving us a lot of great stuff. Thanks, KINO. Keep it up! I’m buying every one of them.

  14. Patricia Nolan-Hall (@CaftanWoman)

    Like others here, I’m a fan of 3 Bad Men (which wasn’t remade as 3 Godfathers) and Hell’s Hinges is another fave. The epics The Covered Wagon and The Iron Horse appeal to me as well. Talkies or not, westerns are a comfort to me when the wind blows and the cocoa is hot.

  15. Scott Lueck

    On the more obscure side, I’ve been watching some of Texas Guinan’s films lately. They’re not the greatest films ever made, but they do have lots of action and a certain charm, and it’s always good to see a strong female protagonist (something the silent era had in spades). Be careful of Letters of Fire, though – the branding scene is a tad disturbing.

  16. jennifromrollamo

    Talk about grit, I love the Silent Western The Wind. It’s violent, has a real baddie in it, and there is a murder, but I still like it, due to Lillian Gish and her leading man, Lars Hanson.

  17. Norman Triplett

    How’s this for a shocker: my favorite Western Silent or Sound is…Hell’s Hinges! Other Silent Westerns such as Tumbleweeds and a few Sound Westerns, notably High Noon may have been crafted better, but I doubt that any other film that turns up will top the emotional power that Hell’s Hinges has in my eyes.

  18. Antony Gould

    Hi, I’m going to say ‘The Toll Gate’ because I love Anna Q. Nilsonn. But Hell’s Hinges is definately the one to beat.

  19. Matt

    I’m not much of a Western fan as whenever I see one that involves cowboys versus Indians, my mind immediately goes back to the genocides that people did in the name of Manifest Destiny. When said images flood my brain, I get emotionally overwhelmed and switch to a non-Western as quickly as possible. That said, I do occasionally enjoy a Western that either examines the ugliness head on or has absolutely nothing to do with massacring American Indians. Two silent westerns come to mind as being a part of my short list of favorites: Hell’s Hinges (1916) with its brutal apocalyptic ending and Go West (1925) with its adorable loving relationship between Buster Keaton and Brown Eyes. For sound westerns, I actually enjoyed watching Rio Bravo (1959) but then I’m more of a Howard Hawks fan than a John Ford fan. Keep up the great work on reviewing silent films!

    1. Fritzi Kramer

      Thanks! Yes, I think Go West is my favorite Keaton film because there’s actual emotional connection.

      Have you seen Daughter of Dawn? 100% Native American cast and a great antidote to cowboys & Indians.

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