5 Western Films for Kids Who Love Cowboy Adventures

Most Western movies are either very brutal (Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti westerns, for example), too adult (Blazing Saddles), or not exciting enough for today’s kids (sorry, Gene Autry and John Wayne). We saddled up and hit the trails in search of the right mix of tradition and excitement, and found these five wonderful westerns:

City Slickers

1991, PG-13

For years, three lifelong friends have taken an annual vacation during which they can do something life-affirming and just plumb crazy — the film opens with the trio running with the bulls in Pamplona. Cautious, pessimistic Mitch (Billy Crystal) is an advertising salesman at a radio station who has the perfect nuclear family; humdrum Phil (Daniel Stern) is a grocery store manager who works for his father-in-law and is so tired of his wife he literally falls asleep in her presence; and know-it-all Ed (Bruno Kirby) is an aging playboy who’s having second thoughts about his recent marriage to a 24-year-old model.

This year, for Mitch’s 39th birthday, they decide to go on a bona fide cattle drive. No dude ranch for these three risk-takers! Early scenes of the three learning to rope and ride before they hit the trail are not only hilarious, the actors are very convincing in their horn-holding, butt-bouncing and elbow-flapping. The trail proves rockier than any of them would have thought and the menacing, well-armed boss Curly (Jack Palance) seems to have it in for Mitch. Mitch, who refers to the tough old cowboy as “a saddlebag with eyes” is truly afraid for his life, until one day when the two bond over the birth of a calf. Alas, their new friendship doesn’t last long and things go from bad to worse as one calamity follows another.

Dances with Wolves

1990, PG-13

Dances with Wolves is definitely Kevin Costner’s movie. He’s the star, he’s the director, and he’s the producer. The character he plays, Lieutenant John Dunbar, is unforgettable; but remember: Without that wolf, Dunbar never would have danced. And without his trusty steed, he never would have met the Lakota Sioux tribe who became his surrogate family. You see, some Sioux kids try to swipe Dunbar’s horse, but the horse foils them. The only person allowed to thieve that horse was Dunbar — that’s how he acquired the buckskin in the first place.

Dunbar has another animal friend; a white-footed wolf he calls Two Socks. The animal is shy and wary, but is drawn to the man and his horse and is compelled to follow them when they ride out to explore the surrounding territory. One day, the local Indians ride in. Dunbar scares them off, but fate draws the white man and the Lakota Sioux together again. As Dunbar and the Indians grow to trust each other, he and Two Socks also come to trust each other.

As Dunbar becomes more involved with the tribe, he starts to adopt their ways and eventually deserts his post to live among them. He falls in love with a woman (Mary McDonell) who’s lived with The People since she was a little girl, and becomes closer than a blood brother to Wind in His Hair (Rodney A. Grant) and Kicking Bird (Graham Greene). Needless to say, this does not sit well with the U.S. Army at the height of the Plains Wars. Sadly, it’s Cisco and Two Socks who pay most dearly for Dunbar’s “insubordination.”

Dances with Wolves is a classic, and certainly one of the best Westerns ever made. Touching, timeless, and beautiful; it’s a must-see for all kids whether they’re future cowboys or not.

The Misfits

1961, NR

I first saw this offbeat Western on television when I was a kid (a child cannot live on Disney alone) and I’ve loved it ever since. It’s not your typical Western but it still fits.

The story follows four melancholy misfits in the modern west — recently divorced beauty Roslyn (Marilyn Monroe), aging mustanger Gay (Clark Gable), heartbroken mechanic Guido (Eli Wallach), and small time rodeo rider Perce (Montgomery Clift) — who meet, and bond. Each in their own way, the men fall for Roslyn, and she toys with them. They are all going to Nevada for a big roundup, and the horses they’re after are misfits, too. The mustangs too small to ride, and too small in number to be much good for anything but dog food.

The ill-fated horses are an allegory, and while the symbolism is heavy-handed it’s still incredibly effective. Each character is laid bare in the showdown over the lives of six scrappy horses, including a mother and colt. Gay and Guido have no qualms about the brutal way in which the animals are captured, while Roslyn tearfully protests and Perce wavers in his loyalties. The most memorable moments show Gay in a battle of wills with Roslyn, using a scrawny but tough stallion as the pawn.


2004, PG-13

Starting off with an artistic tip of the (cowboy) hat to surrealist Western painter Bev Doolittle, Hidalgo introduces us to the title character as his natural coat camouflage blends in seamlessly with his wilderness surroundings. The mustang hears a beckoning whistle, and gallops to his best friend, Frank T. Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen). Above all Hidalgo is a “boy and his horse” adventure.

Based on a true story, Hidalgo opens with the battle at Wounded Knee where half-breed soldier Hopkins struggles with his conscience as he fights for the Americans and mourns for the Natives. Cut to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, where a guilt-ridden Hopkins can barely ride anymore, so soused is he. Redemption comes in the form of a challenge from a wealthy Saudi sheik (Omar Sharif) who finds public claims that Hidalgo is the fastest horse in the world a personal affront to his own racehorse. A patchwork mustang faster than a purebred Arabian stallion? Impossible! The sheik sends lackeys to the West with a gauntlet-down invite for Hidalgo and Hopkins to travel to Arabia to compete in the Ocean of Fire, a 3,000 mile endurance race across brutal and barren desert sands.

There are some harrowing moments, but ultimately Hidalgo is a heartwarming adventure drama.

King of the Grizzlies

1970, G

Taking place at the tail end of the Old West era, King of the Grizzlies documents the story of Moh-Sum-See Wahb, a grizzly who’s missing a toe (this will be important later, when someone starts tracking him).

He lives an idyllic life with his mother and his twin sister. He hunts, plays, meets a marmot, and a badger, and even does some snow sledding on a vessel made of bark. As the events unfold, a narrator (Winston Hibler) tells us what we’re seeing and what Wahb is presumably thinking and feeling.

Enter, Man. But luckily, this man is a Cree Indian, who means the animals no harm. Moki (John Yasno) served in the white man’s army and has taken on the white man’s ways, the narrator explains matter-of-factly. Moki has just returned to the home of his youth; the high country known as Takakawa. He has a bear paw print tattoo on his hand denoting his place in the Clan of the Bear and he still remembers the old ways, but he’s also got to eat. So he works for a cattleman, Colonel Pearson (Chris Wiggins). The Colonel tries to capture the bear cub, but the little one gets away.

As the movie progresses, we get constant updates on the bear’s weight. (This could give a bear a complex. I can see the late-night infomercials now: “Did you gain a little weight during hibernation?”) Sometime between 800 pounds and 1,250 pounds, Wahb finds his way down the mountain and onto Pearson’s cattle ranch. When the bear playfully terrorizes pointy-booted cowboys with names like “Slim” and “Shorty”, Moki has to confess to the Colonel that he spared the bear’s life many years ago. It’s then that choices must be made between the ranch, and the call of the wild.

What are some cowboy flicks you enjoy watching with the kids? Share your favorites with us!

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