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Top 5 Cowboys in Movies

On the fourth Saturday of July – falling on July 23rd this year – National Day of the Cowboy celebrates cowboy culture and history.

For over forty years in the 20th century, the perception of a cowboy was symbolized by the “Marlboro Man” created by advertising executive Leo Burnett for one of the tobacco industry giants. Curiously, the image of a masculine, stoic, and soft-spoken “master of herds and the wilderness” served as a symbol to promote Marlboro cigarettes as a brand for men in the 1940s after it was introduced as a brand of women’s cigarettes back in 1924.

Cowboy popularity has been continually promoted by the movie industry since The Great Train Robbery, the very first feature Western directed by Edwin S. Porter in 1903 and shot in New York. After the release of the first Western melodrama Was He a Coward? directed by D.W. Griffith in 1910 in Southern California, the torch was officially handed over to Hollywood. Since then, hundreds of stories centered on the life of a nomadic male drifter, cowboy or gunfighter, who rides a horse and is armed with a revolver and/or rifle, have been produced and released.

The genre of the Western has always been a unique element in American culture: it was born in the USA like jazz and comic books. Its popularity as a movie genre has been fluctuating through the years with an obvious rise over the last few years. Jane Campion’s Power of the Dog which won the Golden Globe for Best Drama earlier this year along with many other accolades is one of the brightest examples.

Let’s have a look at the top five onscreen cowboys in pop culture that come to mind in addition to the “Marlboro Man.” Other memorable cowboy actors include John Wayne, Lee Van Cleef, Charles Bronson, Ben Johnson, Henry Fonda, James Stewart, Paul Newman, and more.


William S. Hart was a Western star of the silent era and one of the most popular movie stars during the 1910s and early 1920s. In His Hour of Manhood in 1914, Hart created the role of the Western storybook hero – well-mannered and honest – “The White Hat” cowboy. Interestingly, since 1917, Hart rode a brown and white pinto named Fritz who would become the inspiration for many future movie horses.


Gary Cooper became a star in 1929 after the release of The Virginian, the first major sound Western. Inheriting Hart’s legacy, Cooper has been considered the star most responsible for the Western’s popularity. His portrayal of the iconic Marshall Will Kane in High Noon, starring Grace Kelly as Kane’s wife Amy, garnered him the first Golden Globe of his career in 1953.


Golden Globe-winner Clint Eastwood has always been the ultimate screen cowboy since the early days of his career through his recent drama Cry Macho which he directed and acted in last year. It’s hard to name a more iconic Eastwood character than The Man with No Name, a mysterious protagonist of Sergio Leone’s genre-defining Dollars Trilogy consisting of A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For A Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966). Every screen cowboy since then lives in the shadow of The Man.


The son of Lloyd Bridges, Gary Cooper’s deputy in High Noon, Golden Globe-winner Jeff Bridges has appeared in quite a lot of Westerns and Western-related movies. His role in Hell or High Water garnered him his second Golden Globe nomination in 2017. Though not playing an actual cowboy, Bridges is considered one of the major stars of this genre, his role in the Coen Brothers’ True Grit included.


One of the most well-known onscreen cowboys is obviously Sheriff Woody– an old-fashioned pull-string cowboy rag doll and a star of the Disney-Pixar Golden Globe-winning Toy Story animated franchise.

Named after Woody Strode, a character actor known for many roles in Western films, Sheriff Woody is voiced by Golden Globe-winner Tom Hanks though Clint Eastwood and Paul Newman were considered for this role. With his voice-box activated by pull-strings to say such phrases as ‘reach for the sky!’ or ‘you’re my favorite deputy,’ Woody has been Andy’s favorite toy since kindergarten and the leader of the toys in Andy’s room. Curiously, he is faced with the challenge of competing for Andy’s love with a space ranger named Buzz Lightyear, thus becoming a metaphor for the fact that space sci-fi sagas succeeded in replacing Westerns in pop culture at a certain point.