If it’s true, as they say, that history is written by the winners, then the movie Western is the most compelling American story ever told: How the West was won.

Of course, what the Western really made famous was a series of oppositions still in play today: the lone cowboy conquering the unknown country from the saddle of his horse, good against evil, civilization versus nature.

The moving pictures of the caballero riding by his wits through the wilderness represented the values of individualism and industry, all qualities dear to an American people who, in their view, had come to the New World in order to tame a savage land -and people. In the Old West, there was a new set of contrasts: If the hero was a civilizing force, then the wilderness was full of savages, so the arithmetic was easy: The hero defined himself by the enemy he was not, and he was definitely not an Indian.

The Westerns were profitable for decades not only because it was a myth-structure which expressed the values dear to the American project. Cowboys and Indians made good cinema, and Hollywood’s golden age was golden because it appealed to the white city people who bought tickets every Saturday afternoon. The broad masses, of course, were no more cowboys than their enemies were Indians. But a good movie (or a profitable one, anyway) can always be made from a story everybody wants to hear.

The fairy tale has lasted: The myths of American nation-building authored by the Western still hold sway as the preferred metaphor for anything done in the name of Americans. Last fall, George Bush’s declarations of war on Afghanistan were full of throwbacks to the language of the Old West: Osama bin Laden was wanted “dead or alive,” he said.

Every Western from the classic era is a story written by a particular kind of winner. We certainly don’t learn anything much about the losers from watching them. What they we can do, however, is find out about the stories the winners tell themselves.

Interestingly, too, the set up of cowboys vs. Indians changed as Westerns evolved, as audiences began to question the view from up there in the saddle. The 1960s “revisionist western” did just that – revise the tired myths to tell the old stories in new ways, with the cowboy emerging as a completely different kind of hero and, often, not a hero at all.

The entire month of August at Montreal’s Cinematheque Québécoise is devoted to a program of 62 Westerns that span the entire history of the filmmaking style. Watching these old movies can be instructional as well as entertaining: they reveal the mythologies that are still in play in our everyday lives.

Don’t think of it as going back to school, either: the program is particularly fun because it’s so varied. Serious classics will be shown alongside everything from Cecil B. De Mille to Bugs Bunny.

Here are some pictures of particular interest: Stagecoach (John Ford, 1939) Aug. 31, 8:30 The seminal director’s first stab at the genre, in which he introduces the themes that would stud his entire career as a maker of Westerns. In it, John Wayne is the outlaw Ringo Kid who protects nine stagecoach passengers from an attack by Geronimo. While the cowboys/lndians theme was long in effect by then, Stagecoach is the movie that set the stage for the opposition to flourish. Critics hail it as the film that raised the Western from a B-movie genre into an art form.

The Grey Fox (Philip Borsos, 1982) Aug. 20, 8:30 The greatest Canadian “revisionist” western (and one of the best Canadian films in any genre), this is the true-life tale of bank robber Bill Miner’s sunset years robbing trains in British Columbia. Famous Native actor Graham Greene also stars, naturally.

Bug Bunny Rides Again (Fritz Frelang, 1947) Aug. 7, 6:30 Need I say more? Followed by Ray Enright’s The Spoilers (7:42), a classic Alaskan Gold Rush tale starring Marlene Dietrich.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford, 1962) Aug. 9, 8:30 This most famous of “revisionist” westerns has John Ford revisiting the story he himself wrote, and finding out that the cowboys aren’t necessarily always the good guys.

Buffalo Bill and the Indians or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (Robert Altman, 1976) Aug. 10, 8:30 Bandit Buffalo Bill Cody (Paul Newman) quits the open range and inaugurates the Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, in which the Old West becomes a pageant of horse tricks and sharpshooters – he even invites his old enemy Chief Sitting Bull into the ring. But the Chief has his own scores to settle with the President and General Custer; which end up giving Buffalo Bill more than he bargained for.

Blazing Saddles (Mel Brooks, 1974) Aug 13, 8:30 Comic relief – nothing highfalutin’ here at all, just the cowboys coming down a notch.

Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood, 1992) Aug. 16, 8:30 In my opinion, the best Western ever made, in which Clint Eastwood plays a tired old rancher who can barely pull himself back into the saddle to solve a debacle that began when a young whore made fun of a cowboy’s teensy penis. Also the last movie to win the Best Picture Oscar that deserved it. Gene Hackman plays a non-native villain, as concepts of villainy and heroism are ground into the dust once and for all.

The Plainsman (Cecil B. De Mille, 1936) Aug. 18, 8:30 A black-and-white epic with legions of Indians clashing with some of the Old West’s most colourful icons, including a full-cast rendition of Custer’s last stand.

The Searchers (John Ford, 1956) Aug. 28, 8:30 John Wayne hunts down a band of Comanche that has kidnapped his virgin nieces. One of the most violent, terrible Western epics ever as pretty much everyone is debased. Wayne (and Ford) finally come face-to-face with the same redskins that have been on the losing .side since the 1930s. A complex, stomachturning epic that does more to lay out the cowboys vs. Indians thing. Not for children.

For information on cinematheque screenings, go to www.cinematheque.qc.ca or call (514) 842-9768.