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Gunslingers, by American Heroes Channel, and American Experience: America’s Wild West, by PBS Home Video, $39.99

Last summer American Heroes Channel (previously the Military Channel) unveiled the six-part original series Gunslingers. Each episode is an action-packed hour-long docudrama that forgoes such typical documentary techniques as an omniscient narrator and historical stills to instead paint history through a series of dramatic re-enactments. These in-depth dramas are the show’s centerpiece, and each promises a whimsical dose of Hollywood flair. Thus Gunslingers takes its facts seriously and delivers entertainment with its confidently off-kilter presentation, one loaded with tongue-and-cheek visual motifs, including the heavy use of slow-motion bullets.

The premiere episode revolves around Wyatt Earp, while the subsequent five episodes tell the tales of Billy the Kid, Jesse James, Wild Bill Hickok, John Wesley Hardin and Tom Horn—stories told many times before on the big and small screens. So when the show depicts Morgan Earp’s final game of pool or Wild Bill’s final round of poker, Western film aficionados will likely recall the scenes from the film Tombstone or the HBO series Deadwood, respectively. More than anything else, though, those comparisons should speak volumes for the excellent production quality of Gunslingers’ re-enactments, which remain fresh and gratifying even to those who’ve seen them onscreen before.

The producers weave these scenes into a complete character profile using interviews with historians, writers and other experts as well as first-person narration by that episode’s protagonist. For instance, through his portrayal of Wyatt Earp actor J.R. Ferguson provides the sole narration in the premiere episode. While the concept of a limited narrator is interesting, the writing and execution here can at times be cliché-riddled and poorly performed. That gripe aside, Gunslingers is lots of fun—history with a splash of Quentin Tarantino and Sam Peckinpah. Even some of the episode titles are as inviting as a high noon shootout (watching one that is)—“John Wesley Hardin: The Dark Heart of Texas,” “Wild Bill Hickok: Marksman…and Marked Man” and “Tom Horn: Grim Reaper of the Rockies.”

Those of you seeking a more traditional documentary approach need look no further than PBS’ American Experience, which has released the three-disc, eight-film America’s Wild West, a compilation of the usual suspects—Jesse, Wyatt, Custer and the Kid, Butch and Sundance, Annie Oakley, Kit Carson and Buffalo Bill. Each entry pulls from an ocean of historical facts, analysis and conjecture, breaking it all down into a dramatic and concise hour-long film.

While the visuals and production quality of its re-enactments can be described as limited, especially when compared to something like Gunslingers, American Experience is hardly reliant on these scenes, thanks to an impressive library of historical documents, newspaper clippings and photographs that would make Ken Burns drool. The narration and tone can at times toe the line of over-romanticizing, but the show never seems to sacrifice information for the sake of theatrics. From Billy the Kid’s Lincoln Country Jail breakout, to Butch and Sundance’s cat-and-mouse game with the Pinkertons, the folks over at PBS understand that the true stories themselves provide their own theater (quite literally, in fact, in terms of the showbiz careers of Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley).

PBS’ America’s Wild West and AHC’s Gunslingers each present history in a manner that should satisfy any Wild West buff, even if the ways they go about it are quite different.

—Louis Lalire