Skip to main content

C.M. Russell and The American West

The documentary 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 who affected generations.

MontanaPBSC.M. Russell & The American West: I Got The Cream

At age 16 Charles M. Russell leaves his home in St. Louis to make his way as a cowboy in Montana. He meets mountain men, wranglers, and settles into a job as a nighthawk with the horses. His talents with drawing, sculpting and stories make him a popular companion at the campfire. A tough winter inspires a drawing that will make CMR famous.

Charles M. Russell is an unjustly overshadowed American artist. Contemporaries like Remington and Winslow Homer are more celebrated. This film is a significant effort in finally giving Russell his just due, and placing him, and his very personal and unique version of Western Art, accurately in the canon of great American artists.

Beyond that, Russell is a significant historical figure, essentially giving us a substantial look at what the 19th century, end of the open range frontier was like. His particular vantage point, knowledge and influence are also extended in to the 20th century and the beginning of the era of "Hollywood Westerns." Russell not only painted and sculpted what he saw and knew, but his illustrated letters to everyone from Douglas Fairbanks and Will Rodgers are truly expedition way to examine our western heritage.

The documentary 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 who affected generations. His body of work was panoramic and surprisingly modern in his sensitivity to subject matter, from reverence for the land to his depictions of American Indians. Russell's story is a fascinating one and has never been fully explored in narrative film or documentary, until now.


The following institutions are partners in the production:

  • Montana Historical Society
  • C.M. Russell Museum
  • Amon Carter Museum of American Art
  • Gilcrease Museum
  • Denver Art Museum / Petrie Institute of Western American Art
  • Charles M. Russell Center for the Study of Art of the American West (University of Oklahoma)
  • Buffalo Bill Center of the West
  • Sid Richardson Museum
  • National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum
  • Autry National Center
  • Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center
  • National Museum of Wildlife Art
  • New Mexico History Museum
  • Special thanks to the William S. Hart Museum for access to the Hart collection of Russell and Remington artwork and the Museum

2018 C.M. Russell Heritage Award

Bronze Heritage Award

MontanaPBS received the 2018 C.M. Russell Heritage Award from the C.M. Russell Museum at the 2018 Heritage Award Dinner.


We would like to express our sincere thanks to these supporters who have made generous contributions to the making of the film:

  • David Orser and Ossie Abrams
  • Joseph Sample
  • Tom Petrie
  • Trevor Rees-Jones
  • Julie Cliffton
  • The Montana Film Office
  • David Leuschen
  • The Greater Montana Foundation
  • AGL Foundation
  • Nancy Thompson Flikkema
  • Quinn’s Hot Springs Resort
  • Jackson Hot Springs Resort
  • The Checota Foundation
  • Davidson Family Foundation
  • Don and Marilyn Murdock
  • Richard Gruber
  • Mary Grande

Actors Lend Their Voices to Tell Charlie's Story

Kathy Baker will voice lines from Nancy Russell’s memoirs, JK Simmons will narrate, Bill Pullman will voice Charlie Russell’s illustrated letters, assorted writings and published stories and Dylan Baker will voice the writings and recollections of C.M. Russell’s protégé Joe De Yong.


Film Production Team

Gus Chambers (Co-Producer/Director) and Paul Zalis (Co-Producer/Writer).

As a team, Chambers and Zalis have produced two major documentaries for MontanaPBS: For This and Future Generations (2002), about the 1972 Montana Constitutional Convention. (Emmy Award for Best Historical Documentary 2003), and Glacier Park's Night of the Grizzlies (2010), a documentary on the 1967 bear-mauling deaths in Glacier National Park. The 90-minute program scored the highest ratings to date of any MontanaPBS documentary and was distributed to PBS stations nationally where its ratings commonly exceeded the PBS prime-time average.

Western Art and History Scholars

The following individuals will provide scholarship and expertise for the documentary:

  • Brian Dippie, Principal Film Consultant (Charles M Russell: World Painter – Amon Carter Museum 1993)
  • John Taliaferro, Film Consultant (Charles M. Russell: The Life and Legend of America's Cowboy Artist – University of Oklahoma Press 2003)
  • Rick Stewart, former director fo the Amon Carter Museum
  • Peter Hassrick, former director of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West and the Georgia O'Keefe museums, and the Petrie Institute at the Denver Art Museum.
  • Joan Carpenter Troccoli, past curator, Gilcrease Museum and Denver Art Museum
  • Byron Price, former director of the Cowboy Hall of Fame and the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, and current director of the University of Oklahoma Press and the Charles M. Russell Center of the Study of Western American Art at the University of Oklahoma
  • Robert B. Pickering, Director of Curatorial Affairs & Public programs, Gilcrease Museum
  • Mindy Besaw, former curator, Whitney Western Art Museum, Buffalo Bill Center of the West
  • Thomas Smith, Director, Petrie Institute of Western American Art in the Denver Art Museum
  • Jennifer Bottomly-O'Looney, Senior Curator, and Kirby Lambert, Program Manager, Montana Historical Society (Montana's Charlie Russell – MHS 2014)
  • Dan Flores, A.B. Hammond chair in Western history at the University of Montana
  • Paul Hutton, History Professor, University of New Mexico, former E.D. of Western Writers of America
  • Don Reeves, McCasland Chair of Cowboy Culture, National Cowboy Museum
  • Max Evans, author and screenwriter
  • Kathryn Red Corn, Director Osage Tribal Museum
  • Larry Len Peterson, author
  • Russell Experts including Van Kirke Nelson, Gerald Peters, Thomas Minckler, Tom Nygard and Bob Morgan