The relationship between the history of the Old West and its portrayals on-screen has always had tension. From the exaggeration to the omission to the fabrication of history, the Western film genre has been guilty of all three. That said, many directors have strove hard to match their cinematic vision to historical accounts within the framework of a 2-hour film. In some ways, as an art form the Western genre does have license to modify actual events for dramatic purposes but the danger is when audiences automatically accept a given film depiction as historical fact.

The director and scriptwriter are responsible for the distance a Western may leave between film and historical accounts but audiences are also involved in this process. If a Western film recounts the tale of historical Old West figures such as Billy the Kid or Jesse James, the audience is given agency to research and learn more about such figures.

An upcoming PBS series focusing on the Old West provides audiences one such opportunity for learning and historical reflection. Beginning this January 10th, the PBS program American Experience will profile six famous Old West figures during its “Wild West Month”. The documentary schedule is as follows:

Tuesday, January 10th @ 9pm – Billy the Kid

Tuesday, January 17th @ 8pm – Custer’s Last Stand

Tuesday, January 24th @ 8pm – Wyatt Earp

Tuesday, January 24th @ 9pm – Geronimo

Tuesday, January 31st @ 8pm – Annie Oakley

Tuesday, January 31st @ 9pm – Jesse James

Here is a trailer:

Consult your local television provider for which channel carries PBS. A link to the American Experience website and broadcast schedule is provided here:

(Copyright – Chad Beharriell)

One comment

  1. Yup, we as audiences have a duty to research historical facts; I liked the way you put it: We as audiences accept what we see on screen as historical fact.

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