On Saturday, Sept. 23, at 6 p.m. Montana PBS presents a free screening of the documentary “C.M. Russell and the American West” at The Emerson Center for Arts and Culture in downtown Bozeman. The documentary, which has been touring the state, examines Russell’s arrival in Montana as a youth, his apprenticeship and work as a cowboy on the open range, and his self-taught, almost explosive growth into an iconic American artist whose impact continues today.
“C.M. Russell and the American West” is the first major film exploration of Russell’s life, art, writings, and enduring legacy. The film tells Russell’s story through interviews with scholars, biographers and experts. It also incorporates archival photographs, film and actor-voiced writings and recollections of Russell, his wife, Nancy Russell, friends and fellow cowboys.
From the filmmakers’ perspective that Russell has been unjustly overshadowed by contemporaries like Frederic Remington and Winslow Homer, the film is an effort to give Russell due respect and place him, and his very personal and unique version of Western art, in the canon of great American artists.
Russell’s body of work has been called panoramic and surprisingly modern in his sensitivity to subject matter, from a reverence for the land to his depictions of American Indians. One of his legacies can be seen in the C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls, largely considered the most prestigious museum of Western art.
In addition to his artistic contributions, Russell serves as a significant historical figure who provides substantial insight into the last days of the 19th century and the open range frontier. His particular vantage point, knowledge and influence extend into the 20th century and the beginning of the era of Hollywood Westerns. Russell not only painted and sculpted what he saw and knew, but sent illustrated letters to prominent figures such as Douglas Fairbanks and Will Rodgers, which provide additional entryway into this region’s western heritage.
In the summer of 2015, Montana PBS presented a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the documentary film for a Russell symposium celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Montana Historical Society in Helena. The filmmakers already had logged 100 hours of footage and dozens of interviews, and the 26-minute documentary about the making of the documentary features an array of rough cut, but potentially important, historical material, including the uncrating of Russell’s rarely seen “History of the West,” and a pre-dawn walkabout the Sid Richardson Museum with Russell scholars Brian Dippie and Rick Stewart.
In the final film, prominent actors have come together to narrate the film. Kathy Baker voices lines from Nancy Russell’s memoirs, J.K. Simmons narrates, Bill Pullman reads Russell’s letters, assorted writings and published stories; and Dylan Baker reads from writings and recollections of Russell’s protégé Joe De Yong.