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The Best Free Western Movies You Can Watch On YouTube Right Now

Between an era-specific cultural affection for solemn cigarette smoking, southern California's miles of majestic desert scrub countryside, and the equestrian population boom that stemmed from postwar Americans eating less and less horse, it only makes sense that Hollywood developed a fervent interest in westerns during the mid-20th century. There was a time when sweeping tales of pioneer chivalry were Hollywood's steadiest meal ticket, thanks to the public's seemingly insatiable appetite for films about rugged cowboys living hard lives out on the trail while apparently also maintaining stringent skincare regimens and, in many cases, arranging musical numbers in their free time.

And now, thanks to YouTube's small army of 100% free movies, you can revisit this beloved genre, at your leisure and free of charge. We looked through the streaming site's extensive list of zero-dollar flicks and picked out a few of the rootinest, the tootinest, and, lest we forget, the shootinest.

Blackthorn

The story of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is legendary even by the standards of epic westerns, thanks in no small part to the classic Paul Newman/Robert Redford film from 1969. The duo was purportedly gunned down by the Bolivian army in 1908 after years on the run, but the lack of firm evidence surrounding their ultimate fate has helped to solidify "what if they escaped?" as a favorite go-to scenario for historical fanfiction writers and overly eager historians alike.

2011's "Blackthorn" posits one such situation, in which Butch Cassidy (Sam Shepard) outfoxed his would-be killers and spent the next two decades living quietly in South America. After receiving word of the death of Etta Place, the famed duo's equivalent of the fifth Beatle, he decides that it's time to return home.

The result is a bleak, unforgiving assessment of a life spent successfully running away, and what decades of outpacing your problems can do to a person's morality. Special praise was heaped on Shepard's performance, which Time Out New York called his best work since "The Right Stuff."

A Fistful of Dynamite

This one has just about everything you could want from a 1970s spaghetti western, including Sergio Leone behind the camera, James Coburn in front of it, and a compulsory confusing title — the film was released under the names "Giù la testa," "A Fistful of Dynamite," "Duck, You Sucker!," and "Once Upon A Time ... The Revolution."

Released five years after the conclusion of Leone's "Man With No Name" trilogy, "A Fistful of Dynamite" takes place during the Mexican revolution. Coburn plays John Mallory, an explosives expert strong-armed into assisting local revolutionaries after he's framed for a crime that he didn't commit. The result is an unlikely friendship, a cross-country adventure, and the requisite explosion-to-machine-gun ratio one expects from a Leone western. It's difficult to overstate just how much stuff gets dynamited in this movie. By the film's final scene, even the fourth wall has been exploded.

Man of the West

If the world made any sense, "Man of the West" would have been a classic from the start. It was written by Reginald Rose, the creator of "12 Angry Men," and starred Gary Cooper at the height of his ability to wear a large hat and look troubled. It told a story with beats that still resonated half a century later when they were co-opted by "Red Dead Redemption" — an aging man facing changing times, forced to come to terms with the choices that he made in his misspent youth.

But by all accounts, "Man of the West" didn't get much love when it first came out. An early shout-out from Jean-Luc Godard helped to turn it into a proto-hipster moment for western movies. It became the genre's obscure-band-you've-probably-never-heard-of equivalent, eventually reeling in a cult audience and earning a retrospective 93% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Today, it's regularly referred to as one of Cooper's greatest pictures.

Quigley Down Under

Westerns were just about finished by the time the '90s rolled around, so it's a little remarkable that "Quigley Down Under" ever happened. After spending the better part of two decades in development hell, the film's existence seems to have been the direct result of a point in history when the words "Tom Selleck is really interested" still held sway in Hollywood.

Selleck plays the titular Quigley, an American sharpshooter brought to Australia by the promise of paying work. Unfortunately for him, the whole kerfuffle takes place well before the dawn of LinkedIn profiles, so he has no idea that he's about to be employed by an Alan Rickman character — bad news for any character hoping to stay morally tenable in a movie released this close to "Die Hard." The result is an ethical dilemma with direct ties to some of the most horrifying moments in U.S. history.

Critics weren't sure what to think of "Quigley Down Under" when it debuted in 1990. Unquestionably an anachronistic movie, it lost points for its familiar plot beats, but the actors had plenty of praise heaped on their dusty shoulders. Roger Ebert even went so far as to assert that the film established Laura San Giacomo as more than "just another pretty face and a great set of eyebrows," which, if nothing else, was a historically weird thing to write down and then hand to his editor.

Lawman

Given enough time and success, any film genre is destined to turn in on itself and start pumping out pieces with less action and more introspection, to mixed critical results. It's what's known in show business as the "Iron Man 3" principle.

1971's "Lawman" features a bevy of familiar names. Burt Lancaster stars, with appearances by Robert Duvall, John Hillerman, Lee J. Cobb, and Wilford Brimley. Lancaster plays the eponymous lawman, Jared Maddox, in an early example of a western trading its black and white hats for headwear in shades of gray. Maddox is tasked with securing the surrender of a group of drunken cowboys after a bender ends in a shooting spree, and questions like "does legal authority give a person the ethical right to kill a man?" are explored more than you generally see in movies about gunning down no-good varmints. Critical reception was mixed, but with the benefit of hindsight, "Lawman" is remembered as a classic western with a hint of thoughtfulness.