Even if there were only one existing theme available to use, the western, I am 100% certain, could tell 1,000 stories with it. It isn't simply an opinion, I don't think, as over 100 years of westerns on the big screen, on the radio, in comic books, and on television exist as proofs...the western is timeless and versatile.
I decided to pick a few favourite westerns from each decade to make my point; some decades are sparser than others, and other decades have too many to pick a mere three per (three is the limit, I decided). Also, I'm not including John Wayne or Mountie movies, because there wouldn't be room for any others...it's difficult enough to make a list as it is! Same goes for Spaghettis.
The Virginian (1929) Gary Cooper: A splendid talkie in which Cooper tangles with a pretty school teacher and struggles with the fact that his pal is a no-good, consarned cattle theef!
The Iron Horse (1924) George O'Brien: This John Ford silent film about the journey of the railroad to the west is one of the best looking silent films ever made, and is pretty exciting, to boot. Definitely a showing of things to come by the young Ford.
In Old Arizona (1929) Warner Baxter: Basically the first western to use sound and the first soundie film to be filmed outdoors, this was an Oscar winner for Warner Baxter in his role as the Cisco Kid. It's a very good movie, and I reviewed it previously HERE.
Rawhide (1938) Lou Gehrig: Probably the funnest western of all time! Baseball Legend Lou Gehrig retires from Baseball, joining his sister on the family ranch. There's a baddie trying to get control of all the ranches...but Lou has different ideers. Baseball is cleverly used throughout!
Destry Rides Again (1939) Jimmy Stewart: Jimmy did piles of amazing westerns, and this is one of the best. In a town run by a ruthless saloon owner, an aging deputy calls on the son of a legendary sheriff...only to find that he doesn't carry a gun! Bigtime fun ensues.
Frontier Marshal (1939) Randolph Scott: Scott rips it up as Wyatt Earp opposite Cesar Romero's Doc Holliday. Of all the versions of the Earp legend this is my fave, and having John Carradine, Ward Bond, and Lon Chaney Jr. Don't hurt it none!
Yellow Sky (1948) Gregory Peck: Peck plays the boss of a band of bank robbers on the run; they hide on an abandoned town and meet up with an old man and his lovely granddaughter. Weirdness ensues.
San Antonio (1945) Errol Flynn: Because Errol Flynn, that's why.
Station West (1948) Dick Powell plays a military intelligence man investigating a gold robbery involving two dead soldiers; it's film noir in cowboy hats, complete with snappy patter. It's a winner.
Destry (1954) Audie Murphy: Purt' near exactly the same story as the Jimmy Stewart film, but with Audie Murphy! Absolutely one of my fave westerns. If the two films were to duke it out, this version would win by a nose.
Shane (1952) Alan Ladd: Here Alan Ladd gives one of the legendary performances in cowboy films. He plays a drifting gunfighter who encounters a family of settlers and becomes friends with them (including their somewhat irritating progeny). When the land baron of the area tries to force them out, Shane takes serious umbrage, and cleans house!
Big Country (1958) Gregory Peck: In one of his many great western roles, Peck plays a retired sea captain caught in between two rival land barons in a prairie war. Nearly everyone thinks that he's going to be useless out on the open range, but he proves them wrong to a spectacular degree.
The Professionals (1966) Burt Lancaster: A rich man hires an appropriately motley crew of specialists to extract his Mexican wife (ostensibly) from the cruel grip of a wild Bandit leader. Things don't turn out as planned for any of the above, to the entertainment benefit of any and all viewers.
The Stalking Moon (1968) Gregory Peck: A white woman and her half-breed boy-child are rescued by the U.S. Army from an almost Ninja-like Indian warrior. The woman asks a retiring Army tracker & guide (played by Peck) to escort them far away, before the warrior hunts them down...the boy is the warrior's son, and he'll kill anyone in his way!
A Man Called Horse (1969) Richard Harris: A British lord is on safari in the American west, hunting wild beasties...as British lords are often wont to do. His guides get murder'd and he's taken captive by wild, but very human Indians, and bit by bit, his nibs goes, if one will pardon the expression, "native". A completely fun film.
High Plains Drifter (1973) Clint Eastwood: A gunfighter arrives in town and makes life Hell for everyone...literally.
Chato's Land (1972) Charles Bronson: OK...when a native (that looks surprisingly like Charles Bronson) kills a white guy in a fair fight, just let it go...believe me. Bronson is like an avenging spirit in this; silent, dogged, and without mercy.
Jeremiah Johnson (1972) Robert Redford: Though probably this should be excluded as a mountain man film, I'm including it here because, and just because. It's just about my favourite western-type film of all time, with all the requisite Indian fights and wilderness. That Redford is really quite more than a handsome chap.
Silverado (1985) Kevin Kline: A rousing homage to the classic westerns of old, Silverado is also a great western on it's own. It has the rare distinction of both honouring the western as western fans love them, while also of carrying very modern sensibilities. Lots of in-jokes for fans of cowboy pictures.
Lonesome Dove (1989) Robert Duvall/Tommy Lee Jones: Technically a TV mini-series, this one counts because A) It's Lonesome Dove, dammit, and it's one of the greatest western stories put on film, and B) it's the 80's, folks...there aren't too many movies to put on here that can top this prime cowboy entertainment.
The Tracker (1988) Kris Kristofferson: A sterling made-for-TV picture, with Kristofferson playing a skilled tracker who comes out of retirement to hunt down a gang of ruthless killers. It's really good, sturdy western stuff.
Conagher (1991) Sam Elliott: Sam Elliott does here what he does best; he shoots stuff, he looks tough as a Buffalo hoof, and he delivers some of the best whollops a bad guy's chin ever got. It's worth watching way more than once!
Quigley Down Under (1990) Tom Selleck: I mostly like this fun little movie about a wild west sharpshooter in Australia. Selleck is great in it, and only the repulsive "acting" of the hideous Laura San Giacomo keeps it from being a total blast.
Back to the Future III (1990) Michael J. Fox: Included in a small part to fluff up my 90's numbers, this is a really fun cowboy movie! I found myself shocked that it could be taken very well as a western movie, if maybe the only one with a time-traveling automobile.
3:10 to Yuma (2007) Russell Crowe/Christian Bale: A slam-bang western action film if there ever was one. Christian Bale gets hired by the railroad to deliver the outlaw Ben Wade to the 3:10 train to Yuma prison. Russell Crowe as Ben Wade is as fantastic a western character as there ever has been; charismatic, ruthless, and complicated.
Open Range (2003) Kevin Costner/Robert Duvall: Besides being a vehicle for virtuoso acting by Robert Duvall, Open Range has, in my opinion, the honour of having the single best gunfight in western film history (feel free to disagree). Costner did a great job with this one.
Yahşi Batı (2010) Cem Yılmaz: The first and only foreign film on the list, and not simply because the rest of the westerns in this era suck. Yahşi Batı translates into English as the "Mild West", and involves the rollickin' adventures of two agents of the Ottoman sultan, charged with delivering a valuable gift to the U.S. President. It's very entertaining from beginning to end.
(So, while there have been westerns made in the 2000's besides the above, I consider them uniformly awful, as they are generally either straight to DVD, or existing mostly to further nonsensical social agendas.)
I think that most people still enjoy westerns, in spite of commonly held post-modern attitudes and politically correct views on the all-encompassing evils of the past. Though it's unlikely that the old west is the place that most modern people would like to be, I think that there's a spot inside a lot of us that craves a simpler life; a life where hard work, clean air, and the wide-open wilderness occupy the bulk of each day. There have been a few attempts these days to do westerns, for sure, but I look at them less as actual westerns than as historical dramas set in the west. Unlike what has become known as the 'classic' western, these new attempts try to make them overly gritty, dirty, and, worst of all, too realistic. The Spaghetti Western proves that a western doesn't have to be realistic to be great, in the same way as making Hercules like a regular Joe wouldn't improve upon Greco-Roman mythology. The western has evolved a general identity that can absorb much, and can tell almost any story; here's to hoping the western fans get back to making good westerns again.
PS: PALE RIDER and THE UNFORGIVEN weren't on my list because I consider them very loose remakes of HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER...but not nearly as good.