American cinema – especially our country's homegrown genres – can show you not just what was actually true, but what, more importantly, was believed to be true. Take your average Western. Even if you haven't seen classics like The Magnificent Seven, High Noon or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, there are certain touchstones that are ingrained in our collective national consciousness.

Evidence of how these movies have affected us can be seen with modern movies like Disney/Pixar's Toy Story or shows like Joss Whedon's Firefly: the pull of movies set in the American West is inescapable. That said, what's better than actually figuring out how deeply rooted they are in our pop culture sensibilities — even in something as simple as a Chuck Norris joke? Watching movies about the American West isn't really learning about the American West at all: in the end, it's learning about how our American identities became what they are — and what they mean to us today.

From film classics to documentaries to the stuff that's a little more out there, here is your ultimate cinematic guide to learning everything you need to know about the wild, wild West in America with only your trusty, rusty Netflix account.

The West (1996)

Documentarian Ken Burns' multi-part miniseries The West is a litmus test for the verifiability of narratives – in our case, mainly film narratives – that precede it. His eight-episode documentary is an ambitious project that begins with the arrival of the conquistadors to the dawn of the First World War, and it doesn't cater to the nostalgic whims of romanticized Hollywood Westerns (which got their cue from whitewashed, 19th-century concept of "Manifest Destiny"), including the stories of women and people of color, all derived from first-hand accounts and documents from the eras discussed.

Almost all of these episodes are voiced by renowned actors Ossie Davis, Blythe Danner, John Lithgow and Jimmy Smits, among others, and feature interviews by writers N. Scott Momaday and Maxine Hong Kingston, and historians like J.S. Holliday and Richard White.

The multivaried plot points are almost effortless in their tapestrial knitting – despite the variety of real-life people – including pioneers, Native American heroes and martyrs, hardcracker Western women, traveling gun-toting performers, and more. It is impossible to forget their stories and how Burns connects them — all in a way that seems more grandiose than the story of the West, and, like most of Burns' works, more a story about the human condition itself.


High Noon (1952)

Considered one of the seminal entries in the Western genre, High Noon has a simple enough plot: Will Kane (Gary Cooper), is a retired marshal in the New Mexico Territory who has put away his gun – seemingly for good – after marrying Amy (Grace Kelly), a pacifist. He returns to his former life after discovering that Frank Miller (Ian McDonald), an exonerated outlaw, is hell-bent on revenge and wants Kane dead. The marshal decides to stay in town rather than flee with his wife — a decision that may or may not have tragic consequences. (Fun fact: the film was also notable for its pacing: the entirety of the plot happens in real-time.)

What is a surface-level tale about carnal vengeance and old-school justice in the Old West was in truth complex commentary on the times. Screenwriter Carl Foreman wrote High Noon as an allegory for McCarthyism, which was at its height when the film released. Foreman was himself blacklisted shortly after the movie hit theaters, despite the fact that it was eventually nominated for four Oscars.

High Noon proves that even in old American tropes like bravado and machismo lie darker truths about the culture of the western frontier: persecution, fear, and the end result of what happens when individuals are put in extreme – and sometimes lethal – situations. In short: High Noon is a study in how the master American narrative and the story of its violent underbelly can exist in a single space.


The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

Made 10 years after High Noon, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is one of the bona fide pinnacles of the traditional American western: starring John Wayne and directed by John Ford, the black-and-white picture contains a showcase of old-timey saloons, bloodthirsty outlaws, high romance, and street shootouts — with a little bit of homestead arson for good measure.

Considered one of Wayne and Ford's best collaborations, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance also stars Jimmy Stewart, who plays a newly arrived lawyer named Ransome "Ranse" Stoddard, who has plans to open an office in cowboy Tom Doniphon's town of Shinbone. Eventually, both team up to go after the outlaw Liberty Valance, who will continue to terrorize the citizens of Shinbone unless the two intervene.

As The New York Times' Hal Erickson wrote in a retrospective review of the film, "It questions the role of myth in forging the legends of the West, while setting this theme in the elegiac atmosphere of the West itself, set off by the aging Stewart and Wayne." And to add to its cultural relevance, Paramount announced this week that it will be remaking The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, with Matt Jackson set to produce.

In the end, sometimes a classic is just a classic.


Grayeagle (1977)

Sometimes it pays to watch middling-to-maudlin movies when learning about film genres linked (however tenuously) to history. This goes not just for the actual cinematic value, but for what the movie was attempting to do and how it failed or succeeded. Charles B. Pierce's Grayeagle is one such example, and its failure is more of a disappointment than a gleeful-to-watch disaster — but important nonetheless.

The film can be counted (by the selection on Netflix, at least) as one of the first Westerns to attempt to subvert the Native American stereotypes that are deeply rooted in the genre. It still makes use of tired cliches: the entire plot is centered around a Cheyenne warrior named Grayeagle (Alex Cord) who kidnaps a white girl named Beth (Lana Wood) to bring back to his tribe. Even though that particular prejudiced archetype is cleared up as the movie unfolds, overall, the film is more or less accidentally racist — compounded by the fact that Cord himself is from Italian descent, and that no Native Americans were cast in the movie (though Iron Eyes Cody, who played Standing Bear, is probably best remembered for playing a Native American in the infamous "Keep America Beautiful" anti-pollution commercial).

What makes Grayeagle an important watch, despite its shlock factor, is that it did so poorly in representing the Native American experience in the Old West. That isn't surprising for a rip-off of John Ford's The Searchers helmed entirely by white people. More devastatingly, it's how the white mainstream viewed these self-same people, even when they were attempting to be sympathetic. Even now, it serves as a microcosmal example of a larger problem: how difficult it is for systematically oppressed people to reclaim their own stories.


The Homesman (2014)

According to Lancaster University lecturer Brian Baker, Westerns – and what we perceive to be essential to the American West – are more often than not a man's game, "bound up with ideas and ideals of America and American-ness... masculinity is encoded as a central mythic narrative of the frontier... [paired with] a centrality of violence."

2014's The Homesman, starring and directed by Tommy Lee Jones, turns the whole Western genre on its head by displaying these attributes in its mostly female lineup, while at the same time accurately portraying the immediate threat of simply being a woman in the West.

In The Homesman, Hilary Swank plays a school teacher-turned-pioneer-and-landowner named Mary Bee Cuddy. Despite her ostensible success, her depression has left her emotionally quarantined and alone. After a particularly brutal winter, three women (played by Miranda Otto, Mamie Gummer, and Sonja Richter) who have been driven insane by the horrors they have seen on the unforgiving frontier (infanticide, diphtheria and repeated rape).

Cuddy volunteers to take them to the closest asylum hundreds of miles away, and is eventually joined by a claim jumper named George Briggs (Jones) after Cuddy saves him from being hanged. What ensues is a bleak and often desolate vista of a more realistic West, which thematically mirrors the prospects that women were given — even after they were promised a liberating freedom that could be found from the ideation of Manifest Destiny. The Homesman might not be the most uplifting movie made about the Old West, but it certainly is one of the most honest.


Walker, Texas Ranger (1993-2001) and Firefly (2002)

So what do Chuck Norris, the name that hath punched a thousand ships (and, as many Chuck Norris jokes assume, a lot of other things), and Joss Whedon's TV space epic Firefly have in common? Their Western roots, of course.

While on the air, both shows took the deeply entrenched mythos of the Old West and turned it into something completely new — more so in the case of the intergalactic Western Firefly (and later, it's 2005 big-screen sequel Serenity). It took the typical, canonical antihero in the form of Mal (played by Nathan Fillion) and his own band of raggedy outlaws, and posited them in the nether regions of the universe with unforgettable blended Western motifs.

As M.E. Russell wrote for The Weekly Standard, Firefly was built on "wisecracks, old-timey Western-paperback patois... [it was] mostly simple genre exercises: train heists, double-crosses, duels at dawn, running from the law."

It's true that Chuck Norris' Walker, Texas Ranger remained in more familiar TV territory as a hybrid police procedural – albeit with kitsch and kung fu – his Cordell Walker was a descendant of the many cowboys who came before him, and the moralistic underpinnings of the show are straight out of a John Ford handbook.



Happy trails, compadres!

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