Top 5 westerns with great performances from veterans

Joel Searls Avatar

Veterans have played many roles on-screen across the spectrum of cinema history. Westerns seem to fit naturally for a military veteran whether it be from their service or maybe part of their upbringing. Here are the top five veteran performances in westerns, some of which may be new to you.

  1. Unforgiven with Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman.

Eastwood’s seminal western is one of his greatest works, and stars three military veterans: Eastwood (Army), Hackman (Marines) and Freeman (Air Force). Unforgiven won multiple Oscars such as Best Picture, Best Director for Eastwood, Best Supporting Actor for Hackman and for Best Editing (Cox). Eastwood and Hackman both garnered a Golden Globe each as well — one for Best Director and one for Best Supporting Actor.

Eastwood served in the Army in the early 1950s at Fort Ord in California. Hackman spent over four years in the Marine Corps during the late 40s to early 50s as a radio operator stationed in China, Japan and Hawaii. Freeman served in the Air Force from 1955-1959 as an Automatic Tracking Radar repairman.

Logline: Retired Old West gunslinger William Munny (Eastwood) reluctantly takes on one last job, with the help of his old partner Ned Logan (Freeman) and a young man, The “Schofield Kid.”

Photo courtesy of

2. Once Upon a Time in the West starring Charles Bronson, Claudia Cardinale, Henry Fonda and Jason Robards.

Bronson, Cardinale, Fonda and Robards play wonderful parts rich with character and life. Fonda plays against type as the villain and is shockingly cold in his portrayal. Bronson is the harmonica playing protagonist. Robards is a wry gunslinger. The film is worth watching for Fonda alone.

Bronson, the original tough guy, served during World War II in the Army Air Corps as an aerial gunner in a B-29 squadron conducting missions in the Pacific. Fonda spent his service with the US Navy as a quartermaster and then in air combat intelligence during World War II. Robards served in World War II in the Pacific as a Radioman First Class.

Logline: A mysterious stranger (Bronson) with a harmonica joins forces with a notorious desperado (Robards) to protect a beautiful widow (Cardinale) from a ruthless assassin (Fonda) working for the railroad.

3. The Wild Bunch with William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Ben Johnson and Warren Oates.

It’s one of the grittiest, most violent and bleak westerns of its time directed by the quintessential tough guy director and Marine Sam Peckinpaugh. The main characters are basically bad guys on the run, which was rare in the 1960s and prior for a western to focus on such unlikable yet likable leads at the time. Great slow-motion action effects during the gunfights too.

Holden served in World War II in the US Army Air Corps supporting training films while Ernest Borgnine was in the US Navy for 10 years from 1935 to 1945 earning the rank of Gunner’s Mate First Class and serving in World War II as well. Oates spent his time in the Marine Corps as an aircraft mechanic for two years from 1946 to 1948 and earned the rank of corporal.

Logline: An aging group of outlaws look for one last big score as the “traditional” American West is disappearing around them.

From left to right Johnson, Oates, Holden and Borgnine in The Wild Bunch. Photo courtesy of Britannica.

4. The Magnificent Seven starring Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Eli Wallach, Charles Bronson, James Coburn and Robert Vaughn.

A strong and unique cast of actors makes up the seven famous gunfighters going against superior numbers and the odds not being their favor with a large rival gang of bandits. Great shootouts, overall action, dialogue and acting. This is one of Sturges’s best and it put a lot of the cast on the map for future careers as leading men in Hollywood. Namely McQueen, Bronson, Coburn and Vaughn.

Military veterans in the cast include McQueen, a Marine that served in the late 40s and early 50s, Bronson a World War II Army Air Corps veteran, Coburn spent time in the Army in the early 50s, Wallach served in World War II as a medical administrator on both the enlisted and officer sides and Dexter served in the US Army Air Corps in World War II where he befriended Karl Malden.

Logline: Seven gunfighters are hired by Mexican peasants to liberate their village from oppressive bandits.

The Seven from left to right are Brynner, McQueen, Buchholtz, Bronson, Vaughn, Dexter and Coburn. Photo courtesy of

5. Night Passage with Audie Murphy and Jimmy Stewart.

Stewart and Murphy star in this classic noir-style western with Stewart having served as US Army Air Corps turned Air Force officer in World War II through the Vietnam War. As an Army soldier, Murphy earned every US military combat award for valor available for his service in World War II. He later served in the Texas National Guard and US Army reserves as an officer through the 1950s to late 1960s.

Logline: A fired railroad man (Stewart) is re-hired and trusted to carry a ten thousand dollar payroll in secret, even though he is suspected of being connected to outlaws (Murphy and Dan Duryea).

Murphy (left) and Stewart (right) in Night Passage. Photo courtesy of