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Our Flag Means Death’s creator says these 5 Westerns are key to his big gay pirate show

The connection isn’t as surprising as you might think

Vico Ortiz and Samson Kayo standing and looking into each other’s eyes in a courtyard Photo: Aaron Epstein/HBO Max

When Polygon most recently spoke to showrunner David Jenkins about his big gay pirate show Our Flag Means Death, it was in part to talk about where season 2 of the series seems to be headed. While season 1 was about the hapless crew of the pirate ship Revenge finding their feet as pirates and finding unexpected emotional connections they often don’t know how to navigate, season 2 brings in a new sense of outside pressure against the central characters in the form of a military assault on piracy.

“I think there’s a story of this way of life coming to an end,” Jenkins told Polygon. “There are strong forces that are going to crack down on everything, and will the family survive? Is the thing they’ve built strong enough to survive?”

Much as Our Flag Means Death’s central story about “gentleman pirate” Stede Bonnet and notorious killer Edward “Blackbeard” Teach is drawn from real history, Jenkins explains that season 2’s outside threats are also part of history, from the end of the era known as the Golden Age of Piracy. But there’s another connection there that may surprise viewers: Jenkins says this season has a lot in common with the classic Western story arc.

“Every Western that’s good is that story,” Jenkins says. “‘This way of life we made is coming to an end. It can’t last. It’s a blip in time. We created this thing because we need it to exist. We’re outlaws, and we need a culture that suits us, but it’s running out of time.’”

Jenkins cited five different Westerns that follow that theme, from classic movies to a neo-Western crime thriller. All five are favorites of his that he sees as having themes in common with Our Flag Means Death’s second season, as it considers the noose tightening around its characters’ necks. Here’s what they’re about, and where to stream them.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Paul Newman and Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid Image: 20th Century Fox Film Corporation/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

Where to watch: Max

George Roy Hill’s classic revisionist Western has a lot more in common with Our Flag Means Death than just the theme of change and the end of an era. It’s also a bromance about outlaws who connect to each other more than they connect to anyone else, and like Our Flag, it’s inspired by real historical figures, but takes a very loose approach to portraying them on film.

Paul Newman and Robert Redford co-star as a pair of Old West outlaws, old friends who create trouble for themselves when they pursue their own entertainments too long and their gang starts to question their leadership. (A colorful crew that chafes under their leaders’ limits is another thing the movie has in common with Our Flag.) Eventually, the gang pushes the authorities (and the limits of their own skills) too far with a double train robbery that leads them to about where the historical Blackbeard and Stede ended up, in one of the all-time classic tragic Western endings. Hopefully Our Flag’s version of Stede and Blackbeard will get a happier ending than their historical counterparts or their Western counterparts. —Tasha Robinson


Kevin Costner wearing a black suit and black cowboy hat and facing the camera on Yellowstone Image: Paramount

Where to watch: Peacock

Taylor Sheridan’s neo-Western television show has been such a massive hit for Paramount that it has spawned a franchise of spinoffs and a host of imitators. The show follows a family that owns the largest ranch in Montana — easy here to see the parallels Jenkins draws to a fading way of life — and the conflicts they are drawn into with other families, business interests, and the neighboring Broken Rock Indian Reservation. —Pete Volk


A group of cowboys on horses cross a river in Silverado Image: Columbia Pictures/Everett Collection

Where to watch: VOD

Lawrence Kasdan’s 1985 Western follows a misfit band of cowboys who team up to take down a corrupt sheriff and a greedy rancher who prey on the troubled townsfolk of Silverado. Other than delivering Kevin Costner an early breakout role as a flirtatious, wise-cracking gunslinger, Silverado epitomizes the heyday of vigilante heroism and the waning of the Wild West, with the group splitting up soon after rescuing the town and going their separate ways to build a new life. —Toussaint Egan


Clint Eastwood has muck on his face and looks distressed in Unforgiven, with the horizon and a large green field behind him. Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

Where to watch: AMC Plus

Clint Eastwood’s late-period Western subverts many of the tropes of the genre that helped establish its director as a star, and it’s a perfect fit for the “end of an era” connection Jenkins draws to Our Flag Means Death. In Unforgiven, Eastwood plays a former outlaw turned farmer who returns to his old way of life for one last job. A terrific meditation on what it means to be a hero as well as the place of Westerns within our popular culture, it earned a Best Picture and Best Director win for Eastwood as well as nominations for Best Actor, Best Screenplay, and three other Oscar nominations. —PV


Professional bank robbers Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) and Chris Shiherlis (Val Kilmer) touts guns in a heated standoff with police. Image: Warner Bros.

Where to watch: Netflix

You may not consider it a Western, but Michael Mann’s symphonic heist drama is one of the greatest crime dramas ever produced, starring Robert De Niro and Al Pacino as Neil McCauley and Vincent Hanna, two men on opposite sides of the law who sacrifice love and life in their respective single-minded pursuits. The film’s blistering climax certainly signifies the end of an era, as Neil McCauley’s infamous career is ironically undone by his inability to choose between his outlaw code of ethics and what matters most in his heart. —TE