Since we've been so engaged by American politics - between the November election and the January inauguration - I recently decided to explore US history and culture through a well-established medium: the cowboy Western. So I watched 15 classic Western films, one after another.
I'd never been a follower of the Western - regarding it as boys' entertainment - but it is recognised as an original genre which illuminates the American story.
Some compare it to Greek drama, Japanese epics, or even opera, with its own set pieces, scenes and arias.
And if we seek to understand why it's so hard to remove guns from the US even today, look to the Western.
The gun is central to the action, the plot and the characters. A great classic like Shane (with Alan Ladd) starts with a young boy playing with a rifle. The Spaghetti Westerns, with Clint Eastwood, are awash with guns blazing in every direction.
Every renowned Western hero, as played by John Wayne, Randolph Scott, Kirk Douglas, Gary Cooper, Yul Brynner, is fast on the draw and, predictably, a crack shot.
Yet there are ambivalences. There is also the hero who can handle a gun, but is reluctant to do so. He is keen to explain that there is a rule of law and we should abide by it.
This hero is often played by James Stewart, adorably in Destry Rides Again (with Marlene Dietrich as a fabulous bad girl, who comes good in the end) and again in The Man from Laramie.
In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance - which became my favourite - Jimmy Stewart is a greenhorn, a "tenderfoot", who is taught to shoot by John Wayne. When Stewart says he advocates the rule of law, he is told by Wayne, "You'll have to defend it with a gun." In The Big Country, the equally pacifically inclined Gregory Peck is reluctant to resort to firearms: but the story is still resolved by a shoot-out.
In possibly the most legendary of all, High Noon, Grace Kelly - what a beauty she was - plays a Quaker who is religiously committed to non-violence. But in the end (spoiler alert) she takes the gun to save her man.
The tenderfoot is told, as Peck is, "Here in the West, a man is expected to defend himself." Turning the other cheek is seen as weakness. The bad hats must be defeated.
And what great bad hats there were: Lee Marvin, Lee Van Cleef, Jack Palance. You know they'll probably meet their doom, but you kind of admire their tough imperviousness.
They are often enigmatic loners, as is, sometimes, the hero, always moving on. "I gotta be goin'," says Alan Ladd, after he has defeated the villains. "A man has to be what he is."
Conflict is often about land and cattle. Humble homesteaders might be trying to make a life, and a town with "churches and a school", not just guns, whiskey and gambling, but they will be harassed by the cattle barons fighting to retain the open range. I've heard it suggested that Donald Trump is in the mould of the domineering old cattle barons.
Indians may be feared, but as a presence rather than a direct foe. The "pueblo" Indians are peaceful, but the Apaches are "hunters".
In Comanche Station, Randolph Scott rescues a white woman kidnapped by the Indian tribe to whom he had lost his wife. Yet in Laramie, the old cattle baron remarks of the Apache: "I respect them. They were there first."
Mexicans are often portrayed as benign. In Buchanan Rides Alone, with Randolph Scott, the Mexicans are the good guys. The Mexican border is seldom far away (and Spanish - or words derived from Spanish - is commonly used: adios, amigo, vamoose).
The American Civil War lingers as a background, too. In the affecting Rio Grande, with Wayne and Maureen O'Hara, the defeated Confederate soldiers are prisoners of war. "Yankee" isn't always a compliment from a fellow American.
A Western movie theme which has endured to this day is hostility towards Washington, DC and "the folks out East".
Politicians are sometimes seen as corrupt, or slippery. The sheriff may be in the pay of the local bigwig, or politicians. Religion is a simple form of Bible Christianity. There is no bad language: "dang" is the replacement euphemism for "damn".
Women are rarely in central roles, but as co-players they're often feisty and able to stand their ground. They are also cast as healers, or as advocates for peace. Hero or baddie addresses a woman as "Ma'am" and removes his hat.
There's a terrible lot of killing, but death is conveniently instant and painless.
Yet the old West has its own rough moral code: a man has to do his "dooty" and, sometimes, he'll die altruistically.
In The Last Sunset, Kirk Douglas chooses a self-sacrificing exit.
At the end of my movie marathon, I was fascinated by the Western: the stunning landscapes, the thrilling horsemanship, the stories which have such universal reach.
So, for New Year's Eve, I've ordered myself a special treat: Barbara Stanwyck and Ronald Reagan in Cattle Queen of Montana. Presidential politics indeed.