Film Reviews for HIST 431


An optional assignment in HIST 431 is to review a film of merit pertaining to the Great Plains. The following films, one way or another, meet the definition of “films of merit” for review in this course. Others—well, ask, and maybe we can work something out. Please use library or commercially offered copies if available. To check out an item from Prof. Isern’s collection, write a Facebook message to the HIST 431 page, and he will bring it to class. (The request has to be made by message, so that we have a coherent record of who has borrowed what.)





Powwow Highway


Promo blurbs call this “the first Native American road movie.” Embedded in it are all sorts of allusions and observations about reservation conditions in the late 20th century.

Red River


John Wayne as the semi-deranged drover bringing a herd up the Chisholm Trail. You have fun critiquing the historical flubs, but this is a classic, and so don’t discount its mythic import.

Friday Night Lights


High school football in West Texas—is this really the way it is?

The Alamo


Billy Bob Thornton as an ambivalent Davy Crockett.

The Searchers


John Ford + John Wayne, but there’s a lot more to say about this disturbing film. It operates off the literary platform of the captivity narrative, raising issues about race and the frontier that are hard to handle.

The Last Picture Show


An amazing cast in Peter Bogdanovich’s rendering of Larry McMurtry’s novel. A cinematic classic, of course, and particularly pertinent to HIST 431 as a treatment of the atrophy of small-town community on the plains.



George Stevens’s rendering of Jack Schaefer’s classic novel. Alan Ladd exemplifies the Western myth, riding into a conflict between ranchers and farmers, pitching in on the side of progress, and then riding away again.



Stifling small town in Kansas, hot sexuality suppressed (William Holden and Kim Novak). The film will seem hokey, but it was sensational at the time.

North West Mounted Police


Gary Cooper, a Texas Ranger come to the Northwest Territories in pursuit of a fugitive, finds himself in the middle of both the Northwest Rebellion of 1885 and a love triangle.

In Cold Blood


Based on Truman Capote’s “nonfiction novel” treating the Clutter family murders in Holcomb, Kansas. Robert Blake’s best role, as Perry Smith, the murderer.



Set in South Dakota, 1959, based on the murderous exploits of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate.



Based on Larry McMurtry’s Horseman, Pass By, the film features Paul Newman as the wayward son of a stalwart rancher, but Patricia O’Neal steals the show.

Sea of Grass


Spencer Tracy stars—more description needed.

Days of Heaven


Cinematography stars in this postmodern, class-conscious lyric drama set on the Texas plains. Featuring Richard Gere before he was big.



Quite a cast (Val Kilmer is the lead, an FBI agent) in a modest, but well-made film. Loosely based on the tribal political situation at Pine Ridge in the 1970s.

Bugles in the Afternoon


Custer at the Little Big Horn—more description needed.

Hell or High Water


Crime drama set in West Texas, with stark realism.

Osage County


Family drama. Merrill Streep is the difficult matron of a family in the Osage Nation of Oklahoma.

The Hi-Lo Country


An end-of-the-West drama set in eastern New Mexico



James Dean steals the show from Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson in a drama from the oilfields of West Texas.

Little Big Man


A deconstruction of the mythic West, starring Dustin Hoffman.

Open Range


Robert Duvall and Kevin Costner in a Montana range war.

The Revenant


Director Alejandro G. Inarritu’s rendition of the venerable saga of Hugh Glass, played by Leonardo DeCaprio.


Got a film to suggest? Post your suggestion on the timeline.


Guidelines for Reviews


1.      Choose a feature film of merit, such as one of those listed in the tables above.

2.      Do some background research on the film, checking online reviews and whatever else is convenient, to prepare you to view the film thoughtfully.

3.      Jot a few notes as you view. Brief quotes, stunning images, key points.

4.      Write the review soon after from your notes and recollections, to a length of 300 words.

5.      Summarize the content, but do more than just summarize. You should point out particular features of interest and give an evaluation of the film.


Rubric for Evaluation of Film Reviews


A good summary captures background and plot of the film.


Critical Evaluation

A critical review points out strengths and weaknesses of the film and, most important, its value to us as students of the Great Plains.


Appropriate Length

Target length: 250-300 words


Matters of Style

Composition, grammar, and punctuation are important to communication.


Points Possible for Review