10 Great Westerns Where the Hero Dies

10 Great Westerns Where the Hero Dies

The Western genre led the way for the Golden Age of Hollywood and built the careers of film industry legends like John Ford, Sergio Leone, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. The genre is known for exploring life on the frontier and exploring themes of morality, masculinity, adventure and self-reliance. Ranging from treasure hunters to rebels who defeat oppressors, the genre has offered audiences a range of heroes to identify with. While many of these legendary protagonists save the day and ride off into the sunset, others are less fortunate.

Western movies have garnered a reputation in Hollywood as one of the genres with the highest stakes for its heroes. Whereas superheroes and fantasy warriors are given almost impenetrable plot armor, cowboys and gunfighters are almost as likely to perish as they are to survive. From classic heroes to modern figures in revisionist stories, the genre has imparted some of its best messages by having heroes give their lives, so others can go on, often going down in a blaze of glory.

10 Bone Tomahawk Is A Western Horror

Bone Tomahawk begins when, after the murder of his friend by unseen men, a criminal wanders into the small town of Bright Hope, where the sheriff takes him into custody. During the night, those responsible for the earlier murder — later revealed to be a lost tribe of cannibalistic Native Americans — abduct the man and several other residents. In response, Sheriff Hunt organizes a small posse to ride out and rescue the missing townspeople. Along the way, the four men overcome their differences to stay alive but soon find themselves overwhelmed by the ferocity of the tribe.

Bone Tomahawk doesn’t just kill its hero, Sheriff Hunt, but does so in brutal fashion, mortally wounding him by cutting him open and forcing a hot flask inside the wound. As another man, Arthur O’Dwyer, successfully rescues his wife, Hunt’s last stand can be heard as he fires a handful of shots in the distance, only for things to suddenly turn quiet.

9 The Great Silence Presents a Bleak Ending

the great silence


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The Great Silence follows the titular character, Silence, the orphaned son of two victims of bounty killers, who was left mute after having his throat cut by one of the criminals. Now a silent gunslinger, he is hired by a widow, Pauline, to avenge the murder of her husband at the hands of a notorious bounty killer named Loco. Stepping in to aid the impoverished people on the frontier, who have been forced to steal to survive, Silence confronts Loco, as well as the man who murdered his parents.

The Great Silence ends on one of the bleakest notes in film history, with the villains gunning down Loco, Pauline and the outlaws they tried to help. In many ways, this is the epitome of the revisionist genre, dispensing with the mythology of the legendary gunfighter and showing that, in the real Old West, the bad guys often won.

8 The Cowboys Kills Off John Wayne

The Cowboys

The Cowboys casts John Wayne in the role of Wil Andersen, a cattle rancher who reluctantly employs a small group of boys to assist him in managing the ranch. However, when they discover a gang of rustlers led by a ruthless criminal named Watts, a confrontation ensues, with the criminals using intimidation tactics to try and steal the cattle. When Andersen finally confronts the thieves, he is murdered by Watts. Upon his death, the boys he mentored set out to avenge their surrogate father and complete the cattle drive.

It’s important to note that, with notable exceptions, John Wayne virtually never died in his films, even rebuffing the story of books like Three Godfathers and True Grit, so his stories would embody a more optimistic outlook. In The Cowboys, his demise is a key part of the story as it forces the boys to move beyond the role of students and take matters into their own hands.

7 3 Godfathers (1936) Sees a Trio of Outlaws Band Together

Characters in Three Godfathers tend to baby boy

3 Godfathers tells the story of a small band of outlaw bank robbers who, after becoming fugitives in a nearby town, ride off into the desert. While searching for refuge, they come across a wagon, with a dying mother inside with her child. As she dies, the three men promise to keep her baby safe, even giving up their own supplies as they do. The film primarily focuses on the young, hotheaded Bob Sangster, who is initially the cold member of the group willing to leave the child to die. However, as his friends give their own lives for the child, Bob realizes that the baby boy’s life matters more than his own.

The ending to 3 Godfathers sees Bob give up his own life by drinking from poisoned water, calculating that the sustenance would allow him to reach the town before it would take his life. The final scene sees the outlaw, near death, stumble into a church, where he’s able to go knowing he’s in safe hands. The film is based on Peter B. Kyne’s novel of the same name which, though it has been adapted several times, is the best version of the story that, unlike the Wayne version, sees the main protagonist die in the end.

6 Not Everyone Walks Away In The Magnificent Seven


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The Magnificent Seven tells the story of seven gunfighters, who come together to take on a job that entails the defense of a small town from bandits. When the heroes, each with their own unique histories and skill sets, arrive in the town, they befriend and, in some cases, romance the locals. However, after several standoffs against the bandits, everything comes to a head in an epic last stand, which sees the heroes mount a defense of the village against a small army. Due to the overwhelming odds, not everyone walks away from the battle.

The Magnificent Seven, which was remade in 2016, doesn’t see all of its heroes perish but makes a point of killing off some of its biggest stars. In the original version, the characters of Charles Bronson and James Coburn are among those killed, while the 2016 version kills off Chris Pratt, one of cinema’s biggest box office draws at the time. In both versions, the characters go down fighting, with some giving their lives to save the day.

5 Logan Is a Brilliant Blend of Genres

Logan looks into the camera in Logan

As the final chapter in Fox’s X-Men continuity, Logan tells the story of an aged Wolverine, now suffering a slow death as his adamantium poisons his body. After discovering the existence of his “daughter,” a female clone of himself named Laura Kinney, he and Professor X drive north to the Canadian border, where she’ll be safe from a band of cybernetic mercenaries, the Reavers. Along the way, they aid a struggling family of farmers against intimidation from a corporation, take on the Reavers and a new clone of Wolverine.

Viewers had a good sense going into Logan that Wolverine would perish, as the trailer was full of the classic themes of a grim Western, from regret to the trope of an aged hero taking one last job. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that director James Mangold is emulating Shane, which becomes all the more clear when Logan is killed while defending a group of young mutants. In classic Western fashion, he leaves Laura with words of wisdom before succumbing to his injuries.

4 The Shootist Is A Touching Sendoff For John Wayne

Artwork of John Wayne in the Shootist poster cropped

The Shootist tells the story of an aged gunfighter, JB Books, who is a legend in the Old West for his reputation as an undefeated shootist. After riding into Carson City, he learns that he’s dying of cancer, and tries to settle down for the remainder of his days. He rents a room from a widow, Bond Rogers, who he befriends and develops feelings for, while taking her son, Gillom, under his wing, imparting wisdom and teaching him how to shoot — much to the consternation of his mother. However, when word spreads of his presence, a revolving door of challengers arrive in the city, looking to earn a reputation as the man who killed the famous JB Books.

When it becomes clear that he won’t be able to spend his final days in peace, Books accepts that his destiny is to go down shooting. With some aid from Gillom, he confronts a group of rivals in a saloon, leading to one of the best shootouts in John Wayne’s career. When Gillom steps in to save Books by shooting one of the gunmen, he tosses away his gun, signaling that he won’t follow in the shootist’s footsteps. This ending serves as a double metaphor, both in how Books’ demise signaled an end to the Western gunslinger and transition into a new era, but also for Wayne’s own life as he too was dying of cancer.

Western cowboy characters in The Shootist 1976 Film Poster

3 3:10 To Yuma Has a Gut Punch Ending

Christian Bale and Russell Crowe in 3:10 to Yuma

3:10 To Yuma begins with the capture of a notorious outlaw, Ben Wade, who is to be transported to the town of Contention, where he will be loaded on the 3:10 train to Yuma prison. Among the posse charged with moving him is Dan Evans, a Civil War veteran turned struggling rancher, who is desperate to provide for his family. Unbeknownst to Evans, his young son tags along, and the pair are later forced to go it alone when the rest of the posse disbands, fearing the wrath of Wade’s gang. Along the way, the two leads form a quiet respect for one another as they both demonstrate a sense of honor.

The ending to 3:10 to Yuma serves as a true gut punch twist when, after fending off an attack, Evans is shot in the back by one of Wade’s men. Enraged, the outlaw empties his gun into the shooter, later voluntarily boarding the train to prison, signaling a true regret for what happened to the film’s hero. As Evans’ son looks on in anger, the outlaw is carried off to serve his sentence.

Russell Crowe and Christian Bale wielding guns on the poster of 3 10 to Yuma

3:10 to Yuma

A small-time rancher agrees to hold a captured outlaw who’s awaiting a train to go to court in Yuma. A battle of wills ensues as the outlaw tries to psych out the rancher.

Release Date
August 21, 2007

2 hours 2 minutes

2 Shane Is Disputed

Shane stands on a homestead on the American Frontier in 1953's Shane


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Shane follows the story of a former gunfighter, Shane, seeking a new life on the frontier as a farmhand for the Starrett family. However, when the homesteaders face intimidation from a wealthy baron, Ryker, who means to run them out so he can take their land, the hero steps up on their behalf. The film famously concludes with the protagonist gunning down Ryker’s men, but being mortally wounded as he does. As the Starrett’s son, Joey, calls out to him, Shane rides off into the night on his horse, with the final shot seeing him pass over a hill — and his fate left unknown.

The fate of Shane is disputed by fans, with some insisting the ending is too ambiguously shot to make a firm determination. Meanwhile, others insist that, if you focus on the final shot, you can see the dead hero slumped over on his horse. Considering how many Westerns inspired by this classic conclude with the death of their heroes, it’s safe to say that, as far as Hollywood is concerned, the hero died — and the film works so much better that way.

1 True Grit Handles Death a Different Way

True Grit follows Mattie Ross, a teen girl who arrives in Fort Smith, Arkansas, where she means to hunt down and kill her father’s murderer, Tom Chaney. She turns to Rooster Cogburn, a seasoned marshal past his prime, who struggles with alcohol and has a reputation for being overly trigger-happy. They are joined by a Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf, who has his own quarrel with Chaney. Despite some arguing among them, the trio later find their target, allowing Mattie to take her revenge. However, her quest comes at a cost as, having been knocked back into a cave by the recoil of a gun, she is bitten by a snake, causing the amputation of her arm.

Where most Western heroes die in the thick of a shootout, True Grit instead finishes with a middle-aged Mattie learning that Rooster passed away from old age. The final scene reveals that, out of respect for her friend, she had him moved from a Confederate cemetery and placed in her own family plot. Rooster is a crucial figure in the story as he serves as a symbol for the legendary Western lawmen. Though he struggles, he later proves himself the man of true grit the legends say, and his death in old age signals the end of the Old West.