We all know that in real life the celebrated “heroes” of the old west were a pack of corrupt and/or outrightly criminal thugs who would have had a pretty redneckish worldview. And let’s face it, by our standards their personal hygiene habits would have been pretty disgusting. But since the Frontierado holiday is all about celebrating the myth of the West and not the grinding reality of it here’s my list of the Top Four Westerns Based On Real-Life Figures. Coming up with lists like this is one of the perks of being the international commissioner of Frontierado (along with the seven-figure income and a staff of three hundred people).

1. BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969) – Redford and Newman set the standard for the “buddy western” with this magnificent movie. Newman once described this flick by saying “It’s a love story between two guys. The girl is incidental.” It’s tough to pull off an action comedy that doesn’t devolve into slapstick but this movie managed it brilliantly. It’s also one of the most quoted westerns of all time, from “Who are those guys” to “This could be the Atlantic City, New Jersey of all Bolivia for all you know” through “For a minute there I thought we were in trouble.”

2. TOMBSTONE (1993) – “The lawman wore tennis shooooooooes!” Had to be said. Countless previous films had tackled the legendary clash between the Earps and Doc Holliday and the Clanton crime organization, but this one finally got it right (cinematically at least, not factually). Kurt Russell and Michael Biehn turned in the performances of their careers as Wyatt Earp and John Ringo, respectively, but Val Kilmer stole the show with his “Bohemian artist” portrayal of Doc Holliday. For once we had a Holliday who was the total package – young, charming, taciturn and visibly dying.  

3. YOUNG GUNS (1988) – Billy the Kid’s involvement in the Lincoln County War is retold on a large scale in this blockbuster. Emilio Estevez forever made the well-known character wholly his own, much like Val Kilmer did with Doc Holliday in our number two movie. Estevez as the Kid is charismatic, charming, reckless and more than a little crazy. Ignore the poorly-conceived sequel, which is one of those films that doesn’t even realize how hateable it makes its lead character.

4. TOM HORN (1980) – Forget the David Carradine version called Mr Horn, THIS film with Steve McQueen in his final role is the one to go with if you want a romanticized portrayal of the real-life gunslinger. The movie touches on most of the elements of the Tom Horn legend – his service in the Spanish-American War, his role as a hired gun in BOTH the Pleasant Valley War and the Johnson County War, his time as an army scout in conflicts with Native Americans and even his apocryphal saloon brawl with boxer Gentleman Jim Corbett.  This film employs the perfect biopic approach that the movie Patton used – instead of jumping around to different points in the lead character’s life it just featured the crucial time period with dialogue referring to the other events in that life. 

Honorable mention goes to The Long Riders (1980), which is easily the  highest quality depiction of the James-Younger Gang. The movie transcends the western genre and is sort of a “Godfather” style dive into the lifestyle of the Confederate die-hard bandits best represented by Jesse James, Cole Younger and their brothers. The Long Riders reeks of atmosphere, but I can’t get past the main characters’ fondness for the late Confederacy. 




© Edward Wozniak and Balladeer’s Blog, 2011-2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Edward Wozniak and Balladeer’s Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.     




  1. Woman

    Val Kilmre was brilliant in Top Gun… but he was perfect as Mister Holiday.

    And boy oh boy… Young Guns? I love that movie and always had!!! If I recall correctly, that was the very first fight I had with my sister. Who Lou Diamond Philips would like more!!! LOL!!! What can I say? I was eight.

    Great list and I’ve actually seen a couple of these so I really love this post!!!!

    • Thank you! I know it’s odd when I cover films people have actually seen since most of my articles are about obscure items.

      Lou Diamond Philips is still active as the host of movies on the Military History Channel.

  2. Rose

    I love all these movies except for Tom Horn which I don’t remember. BUT, in my opinion, Casablanca should be number one. I know it’s not a western but I love the movie so much that I believe it should be #1 on ANY movie list. Here’s looking at you kid!

  3. Love all of these but where is American Outlaws ???
    And here you go – a New Zealand western: Good For Nothing

    • Thank you for this link! You are as, always, the woman: the legend!

      As for American Outlaws that movie raises an interesting question: is it better to “clean up” the image of the James/Younger gang like that film did (especially on racial matters) or is it better to be more truthful like The Long Riders and keep their (by today’s standards) very VERY uncomfortable infatuation with the fallen Confederacy.

  4. Awesome flicks! Never saw Long RIders or Tom Horn, though.

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