Lies My TV Taught Me

“The Wild West didn’t have much in the way of forensics; when you saw the bullet hole you’d say, ‘That’s prob’ly what kilt ‘im’.”P.K. Vandcast

My recent trip to Texas got me chasing a pig trail looking for a “Western” rabbit hole.

I am from a generation that learned Wild West history on the “Silver Screen”, both the large one and the smaller one. Many of the producers of Wild West movies and TV programing learned theirs from “dime novels”, the forerunner of comic books, written about Wild West heroes and outlaws alike, and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show which opened to European audiences in 1887. Much that was learned was not actual history.

I admit I also learned Wild West history through authors like Max Brand and Zane Grey. Later I would add Louis Lamour and Elmore Leonard to my list of western authors read. Since…James Lee Burke’s Holland family series has made the list.

Unfortunately, most of that history, while founded on ‘glimpses’ of the real West, is based upon romanticized lies…romanticized because the truth can be quite boring.

William F. Cody, Buffalo Bill, had firsthand knowledge of the West, he was a rider for the Pony Express, an American soldier, bison hunter, and army scout. He even won a Medal of Honor in 1872. It was revoked in 1917 due to a change in military regulations. The medal was won for gallantry, but Army Scouts were “civilian” scouts. It, along with four others, was restored in the 1980s.

Poster from PBS’s American Experience

More to my point, Cody was a showman and knew what was needed to sell tickets. He sold a lot of tickets. His show would run for thirty years, mostly to sold out crowds, even though Cody had to have help mounting his horse during his later years. The show would tour Europe eight times.

The show featured gun fights, bank robberies, cattle drives, battles with Native Americans and a Wild West version of “Ben Hur’s” chariot race, with chuck wagons. Like any good Wild West show, the good guys always won…usually shooting down a “dark hat” with a six gun.

As many as one thousand actors participated in the three or four hour show and included the likes of Ned Buntline, Annie Oakley, Calamity Jane, Wild Bill Hickok, and Black rodeo star, Bill Pickett. Unlike the early movies, real Plains Indians and other Native Americans were employed, along with many women and Mexican cowboys. Sitting Bull, Geronimo, Chief Joseph, and Red Cloud, all toured with the show. Cody was in some ways an equal opportunity employer.

Rodeo star Bill Pickett-Trend Magazine

His show, along with the print media of the time would go on to influence the motion picture industry during its infancy and to a certain extent still does. The romantic Old West is still portrayed today and is just as inaccurate. Lies build upon lies. This is true of the smaller screen, TV, too.

The first motion picture ever made although that is disputed, was “The Great Train Robbery, a1903 American silent Western film made by Edwin S. Porter for the Edison Manufacturing Company. During the radio days, pre-TV, Saturday Matinees featured westerns. In 1949 the first western debuted on TV, The Hopalong Cassidy Show. By 1959 there were thirty western TV shows and another fourteen aired the following year.

Frame from the Great Train Robbery

Most of those shows featured the steely eyed hero rather than working cowboys, Rawhide and a few others excepted. “Good Guys with a Gun”, square jawed, squinting eyes and a bedrock sense of what is right and wrong…and a way to enforce the right…the six gun. Matt Dillon facing the gunslinger at High Noon. Every Friday night, on TV, the bad guy drew first, and Matt still sent him to his just desserts.

Actual gunfights in the Old West were exceedingly rare, few and far between despite what we would like to believe. Fewer gunfights took place in the middle of the street at high noon. In the cow town of Dodge City, there was only one. There were shootings at the famous Long Branch Saloon but there were no “rules”. Men didn’t face off in the street at twenty paces and the quickest draw didn’t always win.

The famous Gunfight at the OK Corral didn’t take place at the OK Corral, but in a vacant lot behind it. According to all accounts, it lasted about thirty seconds, a gunfight between the bad guys and the not quite so bad guys. Good and bad were not always clearcut in the Old West.

Gunfights were violent affairs where not one, but several gunshots were usually fired. Six shooters were wildly inaccurate. Often onlookers were hit. And unlike in the movies, easy shots were often missed. Often the two shooters just continued firing until they had completely emptied their pistols and called it a day. If no one was hit, drinks might follow with a lot of backslapping. “Belly up to the bar, boys.”

Gun slingers weren’t even called gun slingers. The more authentic terms for the period would have been “gunman”, “pistoleer”, “shootist,” or just “bad man.” The term gunslinger wasn’t used until the 1920 movie, Drag Harlan. The term was adopted by Western writers and movie makers after the fact.

Most experts on the Old West also agree, it was not the “fastest gun” who won. Most gunfights went to the more accurate shot with the coolest head. Those same historians also agree, if you were shot dead it was probably with a rifle or a shotgun…and likely from behind. Like today, long guns, repeaters like the Henry or Winchester, were preferred because of range, accuracy, and rate of fire.

Still, many associate the American West with the “good guy” with a gun, the lone knight in black instead of shining armor ala Paladin in “Have Gun, Will Travel”. A Colt Single-Action tied down against his thigh instead of a sword. Overall, they are both myths, even though with most myths…there are kernels of truth.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Westerns. “High Noon” with Gary Cooper’s Will Kane I consider to be the greatest Western ever put on film…maybe the greatest film period.  Man versus man, man versus elements, man versus himself. A moral dilemma, stay and fight or take his new bride and run. Kane is loyal, brave, and prideful…even when abandoned by his own town.

Will Kane (Gary Cooper) in High Noon ABC News

Will knows that it would be easier if he and his wife merely ran away from killer Frank Miller and his three henchmen, but Kane is emphatic, “They’re making me run,” he says. “I’ve never run from anybody before.” His bride saves the day and Tex Ritter provides a song now playing in my head, “Oh, don’t forsake me oh my darlin’….”

Scenes from High Noon and Oh Don’t Forsake Me Oh My Darlin’ at the end

Westerns shouldn’t be remembered just for their inaccuracies. Hollywood has reflected American culture at its best and its worse, against the backdrop of the politics and social issues of whatever time they are produced. I grew up during the Cold War and cowboys were a bit darker than Roy Rogers or Gene Autrey singing as they rode into the sunset. John Wayne in The Searchers and Alan Ladd in Shane are early examples. Clint Eastwood as the antihero “man with no name” in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns. Westerns were uniquely American even when they moved to Italy.

Westerns have provided a vehicle to discuss thorny issues in American history too. Dancing with Wolves, Brokeback Mountain, Django Unchained, The Harder They Fall all made political or social statements.  

According to director Quentin Tarantino, “One of the things that’s interesting about westerns in particular is there’s no other genre that reflects the decade that they were made and the morals and the feelings of Americans during that decade [more] than westerns. Westerns are always a magnifying glass as far as that’s concerned.”

I wish our culture weren’t tied so tightly to guns and the fictitious “good guy with a gun”. I have to believe the Westerns my generation grew up with contributed to the mindset. You’re not manly enough if you aren’t willing to settle it man to man with your fists or a gun.

Gun culture is so uniquely American that it is estimated that Clint Eastwood killed almost four hundred victims to the cheers of his adoring fans. According to MovieBodyCounts.com that is good for fifth place on their top twenty-five behind Arnold Schwarzenegger. Don’t despair, Clint was tops in western movies, but John Wayne didn’t make the list. John was more selective about who he killed. Having an internet site devoted to body counts should tell us much about the culture we have created.

Clint Eastwood in a “Fistful of Dollars”

In the American West created by the likes of Max Brand, Zane Grey, or Buffalo Bill, the “good guy with the gun” always wins, kisses the girl…or his horse, and rides off into the sunset. I wish this were true in real life. In real life the good guy is usually out gunned and ends up dead.

***

Don Miller writes on various subjects and in both fiction and nonfiction. https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR2uADIyymZJmWtp4LzVSDsEk6HTplFqkJAjPIfc3SKJGMLL0FFdP6ENR5o

Blog image of John Wayne and Natalie Wood in the movie The Searchers.

5 thoughts on “Lies My TV Taught Me

  1. Excellent commentary on America’s Westerns movies and how they may well have shaped our belief in “the good guy with a gun.” As an adolescent growing up in a small and underdeveloped, newly-independent country in America’s backyard, I never once considered the accuracy of these movies. Rather, in my youthful naivete, they were stories that gave me hope that the “good guys,” however outnumbered by the more heartless and powerful, would be victorious in the end. As you’ve so rightly concluded: “In real life the good guy is usually out gunned and ends up dead.”

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