The popular use of the term the "American West" by early historians was a natural segue for what became the "western" film genre identified by film historians. Classic "westerns" in the 1930s and 1940s featured recognizable plots in which tension and ambiguity are expressed by white settlers as they came into contact with the wilderness and "Indians" who were portrayed as uncivilized and violent. John Ford (1894–1973), the master European American filmmaker who began making movies during the silent era, produced many western films; his most famous silent western, The Iron Horse (1924), featured eight hundred Pawnee, Sioux, and Cheyenne Indians along with twenty-eight hundred horses, thirteen hundred buffalo, and ten thousand Texas steers. The film was a mythic version of the completion of the trans-continental railroad in 1869. Ford almost single-handedly rewrote American Western history by codifying conventions of the western genre, including those related to the representations of Indians in such films as Stagecoach (1939), Drums Along the Mohawk (1939), My Darling Clementine (1946), Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), Rio Grande (1950), The Searchers (1956), and Cheyenne Autumn (1964), his farewell to the western film tradition he helped found.
Of the Ford films, The Searchers openly promoted a white European American perspective, invoking a deep-seated anti-Indian sentiment buried in the character of Ethan Edwards, portrayed by actor John Wayne. The story concerns the murder of white families and children and the theft of a surviving female child by Comanche "Indian" raiders. While professing to understand the Indians, Ethan demonstrates a racist thirst for revenge, as when he points and shoots at the eyes of an already dead Comanche warrior so that, according to "Indian" belief, he cannot enter heaven. This is in marked contrast to the next scene, showing a proper Christian burial for a white man. The film offers numerous negative biases regarding the "Indian," whereby viewers begin to think that Indians deserve to be punished or exterminated to make way for white settlement. This is most obvious in the story line's focus on the search for the stolen child, Debbie, who is now a young adult (Natalie Wood). Ethan's open hatred for Indians plays into his derision for Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) who was taken in by Debbie's family and has Cherokee blood. Martin's compassion for Indians is brought to a standstill during their search when Martin is given a fat Indian wife who is used as comic relief. The Indian woman expects to sleep with Martin but instead he kicks her, causing her to roll down a hill, making her the butt of the joke. Ethan and Martin continue their quest by locating Debbie, who is found living in an Indian camp with an Indian chief, Scar (Henry Brandon). The unacceptability of this scenario is such that Ethan would rather see her dead than allow her to stay with her Indian captors. It is true that Ethan changes his mind about killing Debbie at the last moment, but this "rescue" is an ironic happy ending that at once provides narrative closure and invites questioning about Ford's use of racist stereotypes to promote sympathy for white settlement in the West.
Ford's films are often cited for his cinematic use of the Southwest's desert topography, which he made famous by framing his characters within the naturally sculptured land formations called Monument Valley. Ford's use of that landscape also established the West as an empty wilderness just prior to being colonized by white settlement. Similarly, Ford's Cheyenne Autumn endorses Manifest Destiny in that the wilderness must be "tamed" by the imprisonment of Cheyenne Indians by the US military. Although numerous film critics have suggested that Cheyenne Autumn was Ford's apology to Indians for his earlier negative portrayal of them, this view is not warranted. In the film, defeated Indians fight with one another, captured by the army and held captive until their fate is decided by a US official in Washington, D.C. Also, white actors portrayed key roles as Cheyenne chiefs in the film and a Mexican woman who gave birth to Cheyenne sons was played by the Mexican actress Delores Del Rio.
The popularity of the major studios' western films peaked during World War II; the commercial availability of television in the late 1940s led to a reduction in the number of big-budget westerns filmed on location. Actual Native Americans appearing in Hollywood westerns as warring "Indians" became victims of exploitation by white filmmakers, who transported them from their reservations to work in Hollywood, paying them with alcohol and tobacco to appear in battle scenes. The history of Indian movie extras being financially exploited and mistreated by white filmmakers was consistent with the mass exploitation of Native Americans during the "settling" of the West. Since the inception of Hollywood cinema, not one Native American has sustained a career as a film director, including James Young Deer (d. 1946), a Winnebago (a tribe also referred to as Ho Chunk) who directed Yaqui Girl (1910), and Edwin Carewe (1883–1940), a Chickasaw, who directed the first version of Ramona (1928).