The American West and Western Cinema

When I think about the frontier of the American West, I think about tumbleweeds, big hats, and quick-as-a-whip-witted cowboys. This image is called up from childhood, playing good guys versus bad on our imaginary horses. When I got a bit older, my dad showed me some of his favorite Western films from when he was younger such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. When I was in middle school, my family vacationed in Arizona, and we got to visit Old Tuscan and the Apacheland Studios. Many famous Western TV shows, like Bonanza and Gunsmoke, were filmed there.

Westerns as a genre started with Buffalo Bill's Wild West show in 1894. It began as a series of short, single-reel silents and included dancing, trick shooting, and other skills acquired by living in the Wild West. Western movies were wildly popular until the talkies made their debut in 1927. It wasn't until 1939 that the Western film genre was revived with many greats, including Stagecoach directed by John Ford. 1940 to 1960 was considered the "Golden Age of the Western."


The curiosity about how the Western United States expanded endures today. From the Louisiana Purchase and the Corps of Discovery Expedition to the pioneers on the Oregon Trail and beyond. Westward expansion has done much to define this nation. Check out Ken Burn's "The West" docuseries. Get your cowboy fix with the films below. Then hear first-hand from Katherine R. Willson of Dexter, Michigan; genealogist and historian, as she presents America's Westward Expansion: 25 Events in 50 Minutes on Wednesday, September 20.

High Noon

The Magnificent Seven