Back when Western stars were big screen superheroes, their greatest quotes made for instantly iconic one-liners. In more recent decades, cowboy movies provided contemporary actors a chance follow the boot steps of the always quotable John Wayne and Clint Eastwood.
The following eight quotes demonstrate the frontier wisdom and fighting words uttered by some of the Western genre’s greatest characters.
“A gun is a tool, Marian; no better or no worse than any other tool: an ax, a shovel or anything. A gun is as good or as bad as the man using it. Remember that.”
—Alan Ladd as Shane in “Shane” (1953)
Although it’s not as ingrained in silver screen lore as young Joey’s film-ending plea (“Shane! Come back!”), the titular character’s best quote remains a sound pro-gun argument.
“That’ll be the day.”
—John Wayne as Ethan Edwards in “The Searchers” (1956)
An often-overlooked rock music legend states that Buddy Holly, Jerry Allison and Sonny Curtis loved this line so much that they used it as a title of a future Crickets hit. The song “That’ll Be The Day” had an immeasurable impact on popular music. It later became the Beatles’ first recording under prior band name the Quarrymen. In short, this quote puts just one degree of separation between the Duke and the Beatles!
— John Wayne as Tom Doniphon in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962)
Pretty much every Wayne impersonation stresses his supposed tendency to nickname others “Pilgrim.” On the contrary, he only spoke the line in two films. He first used it as a nickname for Jimmy Stewart’s character in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. It makes sense that John Wayne’s legacy as a quotable cowboy is tied to this film, as it’s an all-time great Western. He uttered the line the final time a year later in McClintock.
“I know enough about men to steer clear of them.”
—Katharine Hepburn as Eula “Goodnight in Rooster Cogburn” (1975)
The cantankerous pairing of Eula Goodnight (Hepburn) and Rooster Cogburn (John Wayne) made for a funny and heartwarming tale chock full of memorable quips. Ms. Goodnight exemplifies the women who, due to the unpredictable nature of the frontier, knew how to hold their own with words or a weapon.
“Dying ain’t much of a living, boy.”
—Clint Eastwood as Josey Wales in “The Outlaw Josey Wales” (1976)
It’s hard to pick just one quote from this film’s string of memorable one-liners. However, this quote best captures the resolve all of Eastwood’s Western characters needed in the face of endless and gratuitous violence.
“We’ll give you a fair trial, followed by a first-class hanging!”
—Brian Dennehy as Sheriff Cobb in “Silverado” (1985)
Dennehy established himself as the right man to wear a sheriff’s badge, especially if there’s unwanted drifters in town, in original Rambo film First Blood. He was just as effective as the crooked lawman in this star-studded 1985 film.
“It ain’t dying I’m talking about, it’s living. I doubt it matters where you die, but it matters where you live.”
—Robert Duvall as Gus McCrae in the “Lonesome Dove” TV miniseries (1989)
The fearlessness and wisdom of Captain McCrae was on full display when he uttered this line. Like the quote from Shane, it remains a sound code of living beyond its fictional Wild West setting.
“I’m your Huckleberry.”
—Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday in “Tombstone” (1993)
Nearly 24 years since its release, Tombstone remains the most quotable Western not starring John Wayne or Clint Eastwood. The seminal line is an old saying that basically means “I’m the right person for the job.” Surely as colorful a character as the real-life Doc Holliday harnessed the cocky swagger and strong self-dependence shown by Val Kilmer.