10 great films about the American frontier

As acclaimed pioneer tale First Cow arrives in cinemas, we go west in search of other tales of exploration and new beginnings on the American frontier.

27 May 2021

By Matthew Thrift

First Cow (2019)

The days of the American frontier were still recent history when, from 1905 onwards, thousands of nickelodeons began springing up in storefronts across the United States. Just the previous decade, when Eadweard Muybridge was busy projecting his hand-painted animations at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the wild west was in full bloom and ready to inspire the earliest cinematic pioneers.

That was 1893, the same year that cultural theorist Frederick Jackson Turner published his seminal ‘Frontier Thesis’. Settlements were well-established across the west, and the iconography that would fuel a century of myth-making on the silver screen was already cast in stone.

For Turner, the frontier – that westward-moving boundary between established settlements and ‘virgin’ land – represented the margin at which Europeans would be transformed into a new people. It was a place of violent conquest and occupation, which would see generations of Native Americans stripped of their land. From the colonial perspective, it was a place of treacherous new beginnings, of survival and cross-cultural pollination. New communities and economic systems would emerge, laying the foundations of a new America through a network of towns and ranches.

One such emergent community serves as the setting for Kelly Reichardt’s poignant tale of capitalist enterprise, First Cow. Reichardt’s film takes us to Oregon Territory, setting up camp in the woodlands of the Pacific Northwest. It finds a baker and a Chinese immigrant joining forces to sell biscuits to the mud-caked locals, their secret ingredient being milk that they surreptitiously harvest from the “first cow in the territory”. A tender, heartbreaking story of male friendship and lactic larceny, First Cow examines the foundational myths of an embryonic America.

With this in mind, we hitched our wagon to the Reichardt Trail, and sought out some of the greatest frontier stories. Here are 10 more tales of hardship and new beginnings that chronicle the dawn of modern America. Wagons west!

First Cow is in cinemas nationwide, including BFI Southbank, from 28 May 2021.

The Gold Rush (1925)

Director: Charles Chaplin

The Gold Rush (1925)

The prospect of finding gold in the uncharted territories beyond the frontier swept like wildfire through the popular imagination of 19th-century America. By the early 1920s, as Charlie Chaplin was looking for material that might top the success of The Kid (1921), cinema screens were filled with tales from the California gold rush of 1849 and the Klondike gold rush of 1896. Chaplin was obsessed. He’d read a book about the Donner party, the pioneers who’d resorted to cannibalism after becoming lost in the snowbound Sierra Nevada mountains. A story emerged of a Klondiker who’d boiled his boots for broth.

“Out of this harrowing tragedy,” said Chaplin, “I conceived one of our funniest scenes. In dire hunger I boil my shoe and eat it, picking the nails as though they were bones of a delicious capon, and eating the shoelaces as though they were spaghetti.” The sequence, just one of a handful in The Gold Rush that would become immortal, was shot 64 times over three days. The shoes – some 20 pairs of them – were made of sugar, the laces of liquorice. Chaplin nailed take after take, while his co-star Mack Swain was struck with diarrhoea before the first day was over, screaming at his director: “I cannot eat any more of those damn shoes!”

The Wind (1928) 

Director: Victor Sjöström

The Wind (1928)

While inclement weather is a staple of many a frontier yarn, few come as elementally charged as this silent masterwork from the great Swedish filmmaker Victor Sjöström. Lillian Gish is the woman who “came into the domain of the winds”, travelling cross-country to set up home with her cousin on his erroneously named Sweet Water ranch. She’s warned of the wind’s devastating effects, especially were a ‘norther’ to come – a brutal northerly gale laid out in the first act with Chekhovian foreboding.

“The Injuns call it the land o’ the winds,” she’s told of her new home, “Day in, day out, whistling’ and howlin’ – makes folks go crazy – especially women!” With a series of suitors in aggressive pursuit, Gish’s mental state begins to unravel, the relentlessly cyclonic nights taking on a psychosexual charge. Sjöström shoots The Wind with a nightmarish subjectivity, the black skies pregnant with bestial visions of stampeding horses. Nowhere else in representations of frontier hardship on screen is the battle against the landscape rendered with such hallucinatory, phantasmagorical force.

The Big Trail (1930)

Director: Raoul Walsh 

The Big Trail (1930)

The vast, wide-open spaces of the frontier lent themselves to cinematic visions of escalating grandeur. By the late 1920s, Hollywood had begun to embrace the idea of widescreen presentations. For a short period of time, it looked as though 70mm celluloid was set to become the industry standard, and no film led the charge like The Big Trail, Raoul Walsh’s colossal saga of a wagon train headed west.

In narrative terms, The Big Trail does little that The Covered Wagon – one of the earliest western epics – hadn’t done back in 1923. Fox wanted spectacle, and Walsh gave it to them in spades. Structured in cycles of movement and rest, the film throws everything at its caravan, from buffalo stampedes to sand storms, dangerous river crossings to impenetrable blizzards. The action peak comes with an Indian attack, the wagons forming an immense circular barricade as arrows fly.

This cycle of 70mm ‘specials’ would be short-lived, but its success reinvigorated the genre, paving the way for the B-westerns that followed in its wake. The Big Trail gave John Wayne his first leading role, nearly a decade before Stagecoach (1939) made him a star.

Wagon Master (1950)

Director: John Ford

Wagon Master (1950)

Much like The Big Trail, Wagon Master follows a caravan west, this time to the virgin lands of San Juan river country, where a Mormon family intends to establish a settlement. Yet the two films couldn’t be more different. Where Walsh’s eye is on the horizon, John Ford casts his gaze inward, fixing it on his motley company hastening along the road. There’s peril down the trail, not least when a band of bank robbers infiltrate the group. But Ford’s chief interest here is in the dynamics of the party, the disparate elements that spark a nascent community.

One of Ford’s greatest works, Wagon Master is a film of music and romance, of singing and dancing; one that finds poetry – all of life, even – in the smallest of moments and gestures. While the film has a plot, so to speak, and – in the arrival of the bandits – doesn’t want for conflict, the resolution of both holds a purifying significance en route to the fresh beginning that lies ahead in the Mormons’ valley. Their arrival is transcendent, a finale of unqualified beauty and rebirth unlike any in Ford’s cinema, encapsulated in the closing shot of a young horse springing up the river bank to pastures new.

Westward the Women (1951) 

Director: William A. Wellman

Westward the Women (1951)

“Come to California! A great country for marrying!” So reads the sign in the town hall in Chicago, where hundreds of women have gathered. They’re there to sign up for a 2,000 mile trip “through hell” to Whitman’s Valley, a prime slice of western soil populated only by men. “Better recruit 150 of them,” says Robert Taylor’s guide to the landowner. “With a bit of luck we’ll only lose one in three.”

Three years before Johnny Guitar (1954) subverted the iconography of the west, William ‘Wild Bill’ Wellman – that brawling bruiser best-known for his cinematic celebrations of rough-n-tumble masculinity – directed one of the great female-driven oaters. If the women of the west had, until now, largely been depicted as either homemakers or sex workers, Wellman – working from a story by Frank Capra, of all people – gave the difference in capabilities between men and women on the frontier trails short shrift. A rousing adventure film that upends the genre’s traditional power, gender and cultural dynamics, Westward the Women sees Wellman lionising these no-nonsense dames in heroic tableaux straight out of a Soviet propaganda film. It’s one of the great westerns, and in dire need of restoration.

The Big Sky (1952) 

Director: Howard Hawks

The Big Sky (1952)

“Sure is big country. Only thing bigger is the sky. Looks like God made it and forgot to put people in it.” If you haven’t recognised The Big Sky as a Howard Hawks joint in the first few minutes, you will once the first punch is thrown. That’s how Jim Deakins (Kirk Douglas) and Boone Caudill (Dewey Martin) meet, and a slug to the jaw is just the first step in the Hawksian bonding ritual that sees the pair become fast friends. Soon they’re propping up a bar together, singing ‘Whisky, Leave Me Alone,’ fully immersed in step two. 

For all the location-shot vistas of The Big Sky – the director’s biggest production this side of Land of the Pharaohs (1955) – this is ultimately, as so often with Hawks, a tale of male friendship. One might even call it a love story. Sure, there’s a girl – Teal Eye, the Blackfoot princess held for leverage as the men steer their keelboat up the Missouri River – but her role is secondary to the male relationship that holds centre stage. A coon-skinned tale of trade and conquest, The Big Sky may be the least-known of Hawks’ westerns these days, but it’s every bit as deserving of its place in this remarkable filmmaker’s canon.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) 

Director: Robert Altman

McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)

It’s something of a miracle that this ravishing New Hollywood frontier tale made it through production. Director Robert Altman and star Warren Beatty were at each other’s throats from the off, as the script – what little there was of one – underwent rewrite after rewrite. Both had a version of the film in their minds, but neither looked the same. “We didn’t have a clue what we were making,” noted co-star Julie Christie. Beatty seemed to have some idea, at least as far as he was concerned. “This picture is about me as a movie star and Julie second, and then all the rest of the people in this picture, who don’t count.”

Set in the town of Presbyterian Church in the Pacific Northwest (though shot in British Columbia), it’s a film about antiheroes and failure, with Beatty’s brothel proprietor persistently baffled and bewildered by minds greater than his. Altman shot as the set was being built, escalating his experiments in sound design, while cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond toyed with his zoom and ‘flashed’ the film – exposing it to light before shooting – to achieve the singular hues and textures that make McCabe & Mrs. Miller look like nothing else in cinema.

Buck and the Preacher (1972)

Directors: Sidney Poitier, Joseph Sargent 

Buck and the Preacher (1972)
Preserved by the BFI National Archive

Hollywood has a long, troubled history of whitewashing the American frontier on screen. Native Americans may be ubiquitous in cinematic tales of the old west, but they’re invariably depicted as unindividuated hordes, rather than anything approaching three-dimensionality. African Americans were practically invisible – a historical nonsense given some 30% of Texans were slaves in the period approaching Reconstruction. While westerns with Black leads were popular with audiences of colour in the 1930s, it would be another three decades before Black actors featured in the west of mainstream Hollywood in any meaningful way.

Sidney Poitier had led a western in 1966 with Duel at Diablo, but it wasn’t until his directorial debut that he set out to truly reclaim the genre. Buck and the Preacher finds his civil war vet leading a wagon train of newly freed slaves west, with a band of psychotic vigilantes in pursuit. Joined on the trail by his wife (the magnificent Ruby Dee) and a no-good preacher (Harry Belafonte), the three partner up with a Native American tribe to usher the people to safety. It’s a rip-roaring adventure steeped in archetype, which uses the chemistry between Poitier and Belafonte to maximum effect. That it’s so often described as ‘subversive’ is less a testament to what the film is doing, but rather what the rest of mainstream Hollywood wasn’t.

The New Land (1972) 

Director: Jan Troell

The New Land (1972)

Few frontier films can stake a claim for the term ‘epic’ quite like this one. At the 1973 Academy Awards ceremony, the Swedish director-cinematographer Jan Troell had two films up for multiple Oscars. The Emigrants (1971) was in the running for best picture, while its follow-up, The New Land, was nominated in the best foreign language film category – the only time in Oscar history that a film and its nominal sequel were in the running the same year.

Sequel isn’t really the right word for The New Land, though. It’s the second part of a six-and-a-half hour saga that, as the two titles suggest, charts the emigration of an extended family of Swedes to the New World. The Emigrants meets them in Småland province where, facing religious persecution, they set out on an arduous Atlantic crossing towards 1850s Minnesota. “We must start as peasants,” says Max von Sydow’s patriarch to his wife (Liv Ullmann) at the beginning of The New Land, as pastoral cycles dictate the rhythms of hardship and rest. From borrowing a cow and building a home, through to the brutal Sioux uprising of 1862, The New Land is driven by the tides of history, not least an unforgettable, fantastical excursion to the horrors of the gold rush.

Meek’s Cutoff (2010)

Director: Kelly Reichardt

Meek's Cutoff (2010)

“We’ve come to a terrible place.” Where they are is anyone’s guess. The first word we see in Kelly Reichardt’s enigmatic masterwork, before any is spoken, is ‘Lost’ – carved into the side of a fallen tree. We’re in Oregon, 1845. A bad shortcut has taken three families, headed west with their wagons, off the marked trail. The women of the party cook, wash and follow behind as the men hold increasingly frustrated powwows over which direction to take. It isn’t long before the group’s fear of Indian attack manifests itself in the form of Rod Rondeaux’s Native American loner, held captive by the party as their search for water becomes more desperate.

Shooting in natural light, Reichardt uses her boxy aspect ratio to miraculous ends, transitioning between shots of the parched terrain with beautiful, elongated dissolves. Inspired by real-life diaries kept by women of 19th-century Oregon, Meek’s Cutoff steadily foregrounds its female characters as the moral and pragmatic centres of its trail narrative, lending a distinctly feminist perspective to the male-dominated landscapes of the ‘western’ on screen. As the travellers shed the signifiers of civilisation, lightening their load by throwing furniture from the wagons, Reichardt likewise discards the tropes of genre, hand in hand with her women as they cross the frontier, into the unknown.

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Originally published: 27 May 2021