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The 15 Most Dastardly Villains in Classic Westerns – TheFantasyTimes

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By Jitin Gambhir

The 15 Most Dastardly Villains in Classic Westerns



Classic Western films have brought some of the most unforgettable characters to the big screen, from brave cowboys to cunning outlaws. Among them are the ruthless and cunning antagonists who often steal the show with their ability to evoke both repulsion and fascination in audiences. These classic Western villains continue to leave a lasting impact, bringing danger and suspense to the screen that remains unforgettable to this day.

As of June 10, 2023, this article has been updated by Mona Bassil, providing additional information on some of the greatest Western villains of all time. From the sadistic and terrifying Frank Usher to the scheming and ruthless Liberty Valance, these dastardly opponents are the ones who make us root for the hero even harder, knowing that the odds are stacked against them.

The following 15 villains are some of the most unforgettable foes in Western cinema, brought to life by captivating and compelling performances from their respective actors.

15. Dude – Yellow Sky (1948) – Richard Widmark’s portrayal of Dude is that of a man with a dark and checkered past, whose life as a gambler has led him down a path of crime. He is a member of a gang of criminals who have just robbed a bank and are on the run from the law. Dude is depicted as the cruelest member of the group, a cold and ruthless killer who will stop at nothing to protect his share of the loot. Despite his reputation as a heartless thug, Yellow Sky reveals that there is more to Dude than meets the eye. He is intelligent and resourceful, with a complex personality that is slowly unraveled as the story unfolds. His feelings for the female lead, Constance, add an element of complexity to his character as he struggles to balance his loyalty to his criminal partners with his growing emotions for her.

14. Jessica Drummond – Forty Guns (1957) – Written, produced, and directed by Samuel Fuller, Forty Guns is a Western that stands out for its portrayal of a villainous female lead, Jessica Drummond. Barbara Stanwyck plays the role of a tough and whip-wielding rancher who rules Cochise County with her 40 gunslingers. She has bought both the sheriff and the governor and is a force to be reckoned with.

13. Elliott Marston – Quigley Down Under (1990) – Alan Rickman is perfectly cast as the wealthy and eloquent landlord, Elliott Marston, in Simon Wincer’s Quigley Down Under. Marston is obsessed with keeping less privileged citizens at bay, but he doesn’t like to dirty his hands (except when it comes to abusing women) and employs gunslingers to do his work. When Quigley refuses to do his cruel bidding, he sends other men to take him out.

12. Cicero Grimes – Hombre (1967) – Directed by Martin Ritt and based on the 1961 novel of the same name, Hombre stars Paul Newman, Fredric March, Richard Boone, and Diane Cilento. Boone plays the crude Mexican gunslinger and outlaw Cicero Grimes, who revels in intimidating people, is a master of robbing stagecoaches, relishes abusing women, and drinks whiskey instead of water when thirsty. Grimes is a character that invokes anger, with his cold and calculated ferocity.

11. Cobb – Silverado (1985) – Lawrence Kasdan’s Silverado is a quick-paced Western starring Kevin Costner, Scott Glenn, Kevin Kline, and Danny Glover. Brian Dennehy portrays Cobb, a ruthless and corrupt sheriff with a firm grip on the townsfolk and their businesses. Even the deputies that this dictator has hired are violent and lack morals.

10. Frank Usher – The Tall T (1957) – Richard Boone’s portrayal of Frank Usher is that of a notorious outlaw whose reputation precedes him. He is a cruel and experienced criminal with a violent streak and will stop at nothing to achieve his goals. Despite his brutal and criminal tendencies, Usher is not devoid of intelligence and culture.

9. John Herod – The Quick and the Dead (1995) – Directed by Sam Raimi and starring Sharon Stone, Gene Hackman, Russell Crowe, and Leonardo DiCaprio, The Quick and the Dead follows the story of Redemption’s tyrannical sheriff, John Herod, played perfectly by Gene Hackman. He enjoys imposing insane taxes on the townsfolk, physically torturing his victims, humiliating them in public, and finishing them off.

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8. Little Bill Dagget – Unforgiven (1992) – Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven explores the complexities of human nature and the destructive nature of violence, with Gene Hackman’s portrayal of Little Bill Daggett at the center of it. Daggett is the sheriff of Big Whiskey, who is fiercely committed to maintaining order in his town. On the other hand, he is also quick to resort to violence and intimidation to achieve his goals, often abusing his power to further his interests.

7. Frank – Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) – Henry Fonda’s portrayal of Frank in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West is captivating and nuanced. He is a ruthless and calculating killer, hired by a corrupt railroad baron to clear out the lands of local farmers so that the railroad can be built. His ability to carry out these brutal acts with detachment and precision makes him a force to be reckoned with.

These 15 classic Western villains have left a lasting impression on cinema history, bringing danger and suspense to the screen that remains unforgettable to this day. They continue to captivate audiences with their captivating performances and complex personalities.

Classic Western films have given audiences some of the most memorable characters in cinema history, from fearless cowboys to cunning outlaws. And then there are the dastardly antagonists, who often steal the show with their ruthless, relentless, and downright evil ways. Sometimes, they’re even so charismatic that audiences are both repelled and fascinated by them. These classic Western villains have left a lasting impression to this day, bringing an unforgettable sense of danger and suspense to the screen.


Update June 10, 2023: This article has been updated by Mona Bassil with more information and additional great Western villains.

From the terrifying and sadistic Frank Usher to the scheming and ruthless Liberty Valance, the most dastardly opponents in famous Westerns are the ones who make us root for the hero even harder, knowing that the odds are stacked against them. These 15 villains are some of the most unforgettable foes in Western cinema, and the actors who brought them to life with their captivating and compelling performances.

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15 Dude – Yellow Sky (1948)

Dude (Richard Widmark) - Yellow Sky (1948)
20th Century Fox

Richard Widmark’s character, Dude, is a man with a checkered past whose life as a gambler has led him down a path of crime. With a bullet lodged in his chest, he is a member of a gang of criminals who have just robbed a bank and are now on the run from the law. He is depicted as the cruelest group member, a cold and ruthless killer who will stop at nothing to protect his share of the loot.

RELATED: Best Western Movies of All Time, Ranked

Despite his reputation as a heartless thug, the story of Yellow Sky reveals that there is more to Dude than meets the eye. He is intelligent and resourceful, with a complex personality that is slowly unraveled as the plot unfolds. His feelings for the female lead, Constance, played by Anne Baxter, add an element of complexity to his personality as he struggles to balance his loyalty to his criminal partners with his growing emotions for her.

14 Jessica Drummond – Forty Guns (1957)

Forty Guns
20th Century Fox

Written, produced, and directed by Samuel Fuller, Forty Guns stands out as a Western because it features a villainous female lead, Jessica Drummond, portrayed by Barbara Stanwyck. Drummond is a tough and whip-wielding rancher who rules Cochise County with her 40 gunslingers and has bought both the sheriff and the governor.

13 Elliott Marston – Quigley Down Under (1990)

Alan Rickman in Quigley Down Under
MGM

Alan Rickman was no stranger to embodying the bad guy, and he did so perfectly as Elliott Marston in Simon Wincer’s Quigley Down Under, opposite Tom Selleck as Matthew Quigley. Marston is a wealthy and eloquent landlord obsessed with keeping less privileged citizens at bay. But he doesn’t like to dirty his hands (except when it comes to abusing women) and employs gunslingers to do his work. And when Quigley refuses to do his cruel bidding, he sends other men to take him out.

Fun fact: Rickman only agreed to play the part because principal photography took place in Australia, and he had always wanted to visit that distant country.

12 Cicero Grimes – Hombre (1967)

Richard Boone in Hombre
20th Century Fox

Directed by Martin Ritt and based on the 1961 novel of the same name, Hombre stars Paul Newman, Fredric March, Richard Boone, and Diane Cilento. Boone plays the crude Mexican gunslinger and outlaw Cicero Grimes, who revels in intimidating people, is a master of robbing stagecoaches, relishes abusing women, and drinks whiskey instead of water when thirsty.

Per Ruthless Reviews, “He terrorizes and bullies everyone with a cold and calculated ferocity that is so believable that it invokes anger. He delivered every line with arrogant disdain for the recipient, and not only does he look scary and act scary, but he does it with such infuriating precision.”

11 Cobb – Silverado (1985)

Brian Dennehy as Cobb in Silverado
Columbia Pictures

Helmed and produced by Lawrence Kasdan, Silverado is a quick-paced Western starring Kevin Costner, Scott Glenn, Kevin Kline, and Danny Glover. The antagonist, portrayed by Brian Dennehy, is Cobb, a ruthless, corrupt sheriff with a ferocious and firm grip on the townsfolk and their businesses. Even the deputies that this dictator has hired are violent and lack morals.

10 Frank Usher – The Tall T (1957)

Frank Usher (Richard Boone) - The Tall T (1957)
Columbia Pictures

Frank Usher, portrayed by Richard Boone, is a notorious outlaw whose reputation precedes him. He is a cruel and experienced criminal with a violent streak and will stop at nothing to achieve his goals. Many people in the community fear him and view him as a daunting adversary. However, Usher is not a one-dimensional character; he has a complex set of values and a sense of honor that he abides by.

Despite his brutal and criminal tendencies, Usher is not devoid of intelligence and culture. Boone’s powerful performance in The Tall T captures the character’s confidence, intelligence, and brutality, bringing him to life on the screen. As the story progresses, he becomes an increasingly compelling and captivating character, with many layers that make him appear more than just a simple villain.

9 John Herod – The Quick and the Dead (1995)

Gene Hackman in The Quick and the Dead
Sony Pictures Releasing

The Quick and the Dead is directed by Sam Raimi and stars Sharon Stone, Gene Hackman, Russell Crowe, and Leonardo DiCaprio. A former outlaw and now the town of Redemption’s tyrannical sheriff, John Herod is perfectly portrayed by Gene Hackman. He enjoys imposing insane taxes on the townsfolk, physically torturing his victims, humiliating them in public, and finishing them off.

Audiences might explain his sadism, cruelty, and hunger for power with his childhood abuse. His father was a psychotic, abusive, and murderous judge who eventually killed himself. Regardless of if his actions can be justified or understood, this is another great villain Hackman played in a Western. His other iconic Western villain is the next film up.

8 Little Bill Dagget – Unforgiven (1992)

Unforgiven
Warner Bros.

Directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, Unforgiven is a masterful Western film that explores the complexities of human nature and the destructive nature of violence. At the center of this exploration is Little Bill Daggett, the sheriff of the town of Big Whiskey, who is portrayed with great nuance and power by the prolific Gene Hackman. Daggett is a fascinating and multifaceted character. On the one hand, he takes great pride in his role as a lawman and is fiercely committed to maintaining order in his town.

On the other, he is also quick to resort to violence and intimidation to achieve his goals, often abusing his power to further his interests. The final confrontation between Daggett and William Munny (Eastwood) is a key moment in the film’s exploration of themes such as revenge, justice, and the nature of violence. It is a tense and dramatic showdown that brings to the fore the complex and contradictory aspects of Daggett’s character.

7 Frank – Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

Henry Fonda - Once Upon a Time in the West
Paramount Pictures

Henry Fonda’s portrayal of Frank in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West is a captivating and nuanced depiction of a Western villain. He is the primary antagonist, a man with sharpshooting skills and an icy stare that strikes fear into the hearts of anyone who crosses his path. He is a ruthless and calculating killer whom a corrupt railroad baron has hired to clear out the lands of the local farmers so that the railroad can be built. Frank’s ability to carry out these brutal acts with detachment and precision makes him a force to be reckoned with.

His very first scene in the movie sets the tone for his character. He emerges from the desert with his men, a group of murderers who are just as vicious as he is. In a chilling display of his evil nature, they kill an immigrant settler and his young daughter in cold blood, leaving the farmer’s son to watch. Frank then proceeds to shoot the boy point-blank, demonstrating the depths of his cruelty. As the movie progresses, we discover more about Frank’s backstory, which adds layers to his already complex character.

6 Jack Wilson – Shane (1953)

Jack Wilson (Jack Palance) - Shane (1953)
Paramount Pictures

Jack Wilson is an unforgettable villain in George Stevens’ classic Western Shane, masterfully portrayed by the legendary actor Jack Palance. Wilson is a skilled gunfighter and a hired gun for Rufus Ryker, a ruthless cattle baron who is determined to drive a homesteading family off their land, so he can claim it for himself. Palance’s performance as Wilson is both chilling and captivating, with his piercing eyes and deliberate movements conveying a sense of danger and unease throughout the film. He is a cold-blooded killer who takes pleasure in taunting his opponents before striking, making him a formidable adversary for the film’s protagonist, Shane.

Wilson’s indulgent smile reveals the evil lurking beneath his exterior in some of the movie’s most iconic scenes. His swift and merciless attacks are nearly unstoppable, and he revels in the fear he instills in his opponents. Despite his relatively limited screen time, Palance’s portrayal has become one of Western cinema’s most memorable and enduring villains.

5 Calvera – The Magnificent Seven (1960)

Calvera (Eli Wallach) - The Magnificent Seven (1960)
Alpha Productions

The Magnificent Seven is an epic Western film that revolves around a group of gunslingers hired by a poverty-stricken Mexican town to protect them from a notorious gang of bandits led by the cunning and intelligent Calvera, played by the legendary actor Eli Wallach. Despite being a brutal and ruthless villain, Calvera possesses undeniable charm and wit, making him all the more dangerous and fascinating. His knowledge of human nature enables him to manipulate his opponents and win over his followers, even when the odds are against him.

Throughout the movie, Calvera’s devil-may-care attitude is evident as he dispatches his enemies with a smirk. His showdown with the seven gunslingers is a tense and exhilarating climax that keeps the audience on the edge of their seats. Wallach’s portrayal of the main antagonist is a masterclass in acting, and it remains one of the most memorable performances of his long and distinguished career.

4 Waco Johnny Dean – Winchester ’73 (1950)

Waco Johnny Dean (Dan Duryea)- Winchester '73 (1950)
Universal Pictures

In the classic Western picture Winchester ’73, Dan Duryea brings to life the character of Waco Johnny Dean, a crazed and sociopathic-psychotic killer who is equal parts menacing and charismatic. Dean is a cynical gambler and a notorious criminal known for his quick draw and willingness to use violence to achieve his goals. He has a calm demeanor and a wry sense of humor that he uses to outwit his opponents and charm his way out of tricky situations. His cocky attitude and belief that robbing a bank is no more a crime than stealing from a candy store make him a fearsome adversary.

RELATED: 15 Movie Villain Monologues That Go on Forever

Dean’s character serves as a powerful reflection of the dark side of human nature, demonstrating the destructive consequences of unchecked greed and ambition. He is a ruthless and calculating killer but also a charismatic and intelligent criminal capable of masterfully manipulating others to achieve his goals.

3 Liberty Valance – The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) - The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
John Ford Productions

One of director John Ford’s most famous pictures, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, stars John Wayne, James Stewart, and Vera Miles. Lee Marvin’s character, Liberty Valance, is a notorious outlaw who instills fear and terror in the town of Shinbone. He embodies the lawless and anarchic elements of the wild west, striking fear into the townspeople’s hearts with his quick draw and brutal tactics. Valance has a personal vendetta against Ransom Stoddard (Stewart), a lawyer who seeks to bring law and order to the town. He is not just any ordinary criminal.

Valance is a formidable and daunting opponent who relishes in the power he holds over the town. He humiliates Stoddard in public, threatens him with violence and destruction, and all with a devilish smirk. His unpredictable and cruel nature makes him one of the genre’s most captivating and intriguing villains. The film explores themes such as morality, justice, and the rule of law, with Valance serving as a powerful symbol of the chaotic and anarchic elements that threaten to destabilize society.

2 El Indio – For a Few Dollars More (1965)

El Indio in For a Few Dollars More
United Arists
 

In the famous Spaghetti Western For a Few Dollars More, Gian Maria Volonté’s character, nicknamed El Indio, is a formidable antagonist who leads a gang of criminals responsible for a string of violent crimes, leaving a trail of destruction and chaos wherever they go. Indio is a ruthless and dangerous villain with a calm demeanor and cunning intelligence, using his wits to outsmart and manipulate his opponents. He is notorious for his brutal and sadistic behavior, and he never hesitates to kill anyone who disturbs his plans. Rape, murder, bank robberies, double-crossing his partners, nothing stands between him and a sack of money. The actor portrays him masterfully, and no detail is spared to make him seem both repulsive and fascinating, from his sweaty forehead to his insane laugh to the musical pocket watch he carries around and uses in his duels for momentum.

His character is one of the genre’s most captivating and complex villains, driven by a relentless desire for power and wealth. Manco (Clint Eastwood) and Colonel Mortimer (Lee Van Cleef), both bounty hunters with personal vendettas against him, set their sights on him as their primary target. They engage in a dangerous cat-and-mouse game with him, hoping to bring him to justice for his crimes. The audience then learns that Mortimer is mostly motivated by revenge: in the past, Indio raped his sister, and she took her own life with his gun while they were still in bed. Indio’s pocket watch was hers, and Mortimer had the same one. Both men use their watches in the final, epic confrontation.

1 Angel Eyes – The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)

Lee Van Cleef in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Produzioni Europee Associate

Angel Eyes is a character who has left a lasting impression on audiences for his cold-blooded demeanor and unwavering determination to achieve his objectives in Sergio Leone’s most famous film, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Lee Van Cleef’s portrayal of “The Bad” is a standout performance in the Spaghetti Western subgenre, as he embodies the character’s evil nature with quiet intensity and an iconic, piercing squint.

Angel Eyes is not just a killer but a mercenary who will go to any lengths to get what he wants. His unwavering focus on the stolen Confederate gold drives him to relentlessly pursue his targets and dispose of anyone who gets in his way, regardless of their innocence. He is a man who revels in violence and destruction, often taking pleasure in the suffering of others. His willingness to kill even women and children to achieve his objectives makes him a fearsome antagonist.

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