History of the World According to the Movies: Part 44 – The American West: Cowboys, Gunslingers, and the Rest

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Here we have the 1960 film called The Magnificent Seven which is actually a remake of a film I posted earlier called The Seven Samurai. However, this is a rough idea how you’d expect most guys to dress in westerns though I’ll say that contrary to attire, Yul Brynner isn’t the bad guy in this. Yet, you can see how common it is for guys to dress as cowboys in these movies and how often they carry weapons. Still, this doesn’t mean that men dressed like this in real life. Nevertheless, Kurosawa was pleased with this film since the guys making it asked for his blessing.

No western characters are more iconic than the gunslinger and the cowboy. However, in Westerns it’s sometimes hard to tell which is which except perhaps in dress but Hollywood usually doesn’t care one way or the other. Heck, in the Hollywood West, almost everyone wears cowboy hats or looks like a cowboy anyway. In Hollywood, the Wild West is a violent place where robberies and shootings are common place. Saloons were places where even the smallest indiscretion could blow up in an all out gunfight and were regular hangouts for perky little prostitutes. Businessmen were ruthless and the Pinkertons were mercenary thugs. Cowboys roamed the range care free of troubles in civilization and sang songs to their doagies at the campfire. Also, in movie westerns, livestock and horses never took a dump where they weren’t supposed to and the dirt streets were always clean and dusty. Everyone wore clean cut clothes and whenever a bad guy would be terrorizing the town, there was always a lone champion to thwart the bad guys or kill them all. And everyone was white. But was it really like that? The answer is not really but you know how Hollywood tends to white wash and make shit up. Still, here are some movie western inaccuracies I will list accordingly.

Geography:

Oklahoma City was around in 1881. (It was founded in 1889.)

Dodge City was a territorial town in 1881. (It’s in Kansas which had been a state since 1861.)

Deadwood was a boom town right after the American Civil War. (It was established as one 11 years after.)

Cowboys:

All cowboys were white and native born Americans as well as straight. (Actually while there were white native born cowboys, they were all native born or even white. In fact, there were significant numbers of cowboys who were black, Mexican, and Native American. Some were even from other countries. Oh, not to mention, though cowboy culture is known to be deeply homophobic {in the same way football is}, there were plenty of cowboys who were gay like in Brokeback Mountain and were drawn to the frontier because of their sexual orientation. There were also cowboys in places outside the United States such as in Canada, Mexico, Australia, and South America as well as other countries. And most of our cowboy culture came from the Spanish equestrian tradition which they got from the Muslims.)

In the West, the term cowboy wasn’t a job description. (Actually there were cowboys who do what cowboys were said to have done which was to supervise a cattle train to Nebraska on the cattle’s journey to the Chicago slaughterhouses.)

Cowboys worked alone. (I’m sorry but the archetype of the lone cowboy just doesn’t exist because they usually traveled in groups of drovers. Also, you can’t have one cowboy on a cattle drive without cooperation of other cowboys and horses.)

Only men were cowboys. (Most of them were men. Yet, women did disguise themselves and worked as cowhands. Women who lived on ranches also worked as hard as their husbands as well as learned to rope, brand, ride as well as cook and entertain.)

Cowboys were skilled marksmen. (Typical cowboys used lariats to show the cattle who’s boss not a gun. Guns were used on rustlers, hostile Indians or farmers. Still, they didn’t carry guns a lot because they were heavy.)

Cowboys were large people. (Most of the time, they were smaller than according to legend and wouldn’t be big hunks like John Wayne because their horses would complain. Most of your actors who played cowboys wouldn’t be one in real life. Large people were too heavy to ride mustangs.)

Cowboys would ride their favorite horses all day. (They’d ride a string of horses depending on what task was at hand. Mild horses were used at night while quick horses were used for cattle and tending.)

Cowboys were always fighting Indians. (Battles between cowboys and Indians were rare. Actually, he’d more likely be working with Indians than fighting them since many of them were Indians as well. Not to mention, most Indians would let cowboys cross their lands for a fee.)

Cowboys were old fighting men and experienced wranglers. (Many of them were teenagers and young men in their early twenties who learned while on the job. Most of them weren’t married and usually quit by the time they did or by their early 30s.)

A cowboy’s life was easy. (They had a 24/7 job and earned about $25 a month. Also, they didn’t discover the west but maintained it.)

Cowboys had fine clean clothes. (They usually dressed in hand-me-downs and other scrap pieces of clothing. Also, they probably wouldn’t have the best hygiene. Still, most of them wore clothes for function, not effect.)

Cowboys were able to build their own cattle fortunes while working with generous ranch owners who may give some of his cattle and give them a different brand. (From the Carter Museum: “Cowboys actually were not working for generous ranch owners. Instead, they probably worked for a corporation or absentee owner who was back East or in Europe. Additionally, cowhands were supervised by a ranch foreman. Most owners did not allow a cowboy to carry a different brand for themselves. One foreman hung two of his companions for “mavericking” (taking the owner’s unbranded cattle).” )

Cowboys rescued maidens from bandits in their spare time. (These guys were working 10-18 hour days and their jobs were difficult, dirty, and required great physical strength. They probably more likely spent their time singing songs at the campfire, boozing and whoring at saloons, sleeping, or eating baked beans. Actually the farting scene in Blazing Saddles is a more accurate picture of what cowboys might be doing in their spare time than in a lot of westerns.)

Firearms:

There were no gun free zones in the West. (Many towns west of the Mississippi had laws against carry weapons. Most gunfighters would usually keep their weapons out of sight. Of course, most people did have guns in the West and were ready to use them.)

Gunfights were routine events. (They were very rare as well as few and far between. When they did happen several shots were usually fired and onlookers were often hit. Not to mention, no one actually knew who won the fight until several minutes after the gunshots since it took a while for the smoke to clear.)

The gunman who was fast on the trigger usually one. (It was usually the guy with the cool head and more accurate shot. Being a fast shot was rather risky and most people known for that wouldn’t get in gun fights at all. Also, it wasn’t uncommon for a gunman to shoot his opponent at the most opportune point whether if he got on a drop of his enemy, if he was unarmed, or even if it meant shooting him in the back.)

Shots fired in Westerns that do not hit a character always ricochet loudly.

A shoot out scene can last for over five to ten minutes before anyone fires a shot and that time usually consists of mostly staring at each other intently.

Shootouts and brawls could happen anywhere at any time but they usually occurred in saloons.

Saloons usually kept undocumented workers on tap to clean after the place was shot to tethers.

Gunfights in the Old West lasted for 5 to 10 minutes. (The Gunfight at the OK Corral lasted for 30 seconds.)

Pistol belts were permanently positioned with the holster on the right side. (From Imdb: “Actual gun belts of the period slipped through a loop on the back of the holster, which allowed the holster to be positioned anywhere along the belt’s length.”)

Gunfighters always got drawn into a showdown. (He’d usually wait until they odds were in his favor and then draw.)

Most shootings took place between professional gunfighters. (They were usually among cowhands, businessmen, farmers, drifters, outlaws, lawmen, or guys under the influence of alcohol and were certainly not professional gunmen. Oh, and most gunfights weren’t about noble stuff like defending a woman’s honor or their reputations. It was mostly pertaining to stuff like outlaws confronted by lawmen, range wars, or family or political feuds. If a gunfighter was challenged over reputation, then it was usually by a young gun wanting to make a name for himself.)

Gunfighters usually challenged each other in the streets. (If they tried, the law would be there to prevent them from doing so.)

Heroines:

Calamity Jane:

Calamity Jane was an attractive woman who wore a dress. (She was butch and often dressed in men’s clothing that she was often mistaken for a man. Looked more like k.d. lang than Doris Day or Jane Russell. Unlike lang, she was straight as far as I know. Still, much of Calamity Jane’s story may have been embellished.)

Calamity Jane was present at Wild Bill Hickock’s assassination. (She was being held by the military authorities at the time. Also, she was said to arrive in Deadwood with Wild Bill and Charlie Utter around 1876, other than meeting Hickock himself there.)

Annie Oakley:

Annie Oakley gave up her shooting career to marry Frank Butler. (Actually marrying Frank Butler made her career as a sharpshooter for he was the one who discovered her and lost to her in a shooting contest. He was also very supportive of her career as well as gave up his career to be her manager. She wasn’t as much of a feminist as she is portrayed to be and did needlework in her spare time. Also, it was acceptable for women to use guns in the West.)

Annie Oakley shot the cigarette out of the mouth of Kaiser Wilhelm. (She shot it from his hand. It would’ve been too dangerous to shoot it out of his mouth.)

Annie Oakley was blond. (She was brunette. Nor was she brash either.)

Belle Starr:

Belle Starr was very attractive. (Photos show her as a frumpy matron. Still, she died at 40 and was just plain vicious. Yet, she’s played by Gene Tierney and Jane Russell.)

Sam Starr was Belle Starr’s first husband. (He was her second and he wasn’t a Confederate captain either. He was probably the love of her life though.)

Belle Starr was a woman crusading against Yankee and political injustice. (She was just a crook with a long history of marrying crooks who got themselves shot. Also, she may have been killed by her own son.)

Western Life:

The Union Pacific Railroad used wood burning locomotives. (They used coal burning locomotives. The Central Pacific Railroad used wood burning locomotives.)

Western bad guys always wore black hats.

Martha Earp was a young woman in the 1860s. (She died at 10 in 1856.)

There were no African Americans in the old west. (Actually, this is pure bullshit. Of course, there were African Americans in the old west and lots of them at that like thousands, many of them ex-slaves. There were black cowboys, soldiers, farmers, Buffalo soldiers, ranch hands, railroad workers, and what not. And it was home to people like Tomahawk Beckworth, Nat Love, Cherokee Bill, John Henry, Lucy Parsons, Stagecoach Mary Fields as well as others {Bet you didn’t hear of them, me neither with the exception of John Henry}. As inaccurate as Django Unchained and Blazing Saddles are, at least both films get the concept that there were African Americans in the west that are probably the most unrepresented demographic in western movies. Also, I’d like to include classic movies like The Oxbow Incident and Duel in the Sun. Not to mention, about 5,000 to 15,000 cowboys were said to be black.)

Every Western township is immaculately clean despite a person’s sweaty, weary, and dusty appearance. (As TV Tropes and Idioms says, “Horse dung, mud and flies, patched and ragged wooden buildings, straw on the pub floors to absorb spittle and spilled drinks and occasional drunken vomit were the norm rather than exception.”)

Almost every guy dressed as a cowboy in the Old West that sometimes cowboys, ranchers, drifters, gunfighters, outlaws, gamblers, and lawmen were sometimes hard to distinguish.

Everyone in the Old West believed in traditional values and lived their lives in traditional roles. (Despite the fact that Wyoming was one of the first places in the world to give women the right to vote, also the West also gave women some other rights they didn’t have in the east such as joint property ownership. Not to mention, western women actually did tasks that went outside their gender roles both inside and outside the house. Also, not all women in the West were housewives, schoolmarms, showgirls, servants, or prostitutes either. Not to mention, many freed slaves went West to get away from the Southern sharecropping lifestyle as well.)

Everyone in the typical western town had one church and everyone belonged to that congregation or at least all the white people did. (As of today, most towns had multiple churches for multiple denominations. And as for the Catholic ones, some of them were there before any white American settler stepped foot.)

Settlers headed West carrying their belongings in Conestoga wagons. (Filmmakers usually use Conestoga wagons in movies is because they looked better. Settlers actually used prairie schooners.)

It was businessmen who announced of finding gold in the Black Hills of South Dakota, which violated the Treaty of Fort Laramie with a gold rush and provoked a Sioux War. (George Armstrong Custer did this.)

Mountain men far from civilization usually couldn’t speak in any comprehensive form of English even though everyone understood them.

Cowboy hats were common headwear for men in the West.

Saloons had swinging butterfly doors.

Wanted posters displayed pictures of criminals. (Most wanted posters in the 1860s and 1870s were just handbills with a plain verbal description.)

The Pony Express was the primary postal service in the American West. (Only between 1860 and 1861. Oh, and it only went from Saint Louis to Sacramento.)

Homesteaders always built log cabins on the plains. (Due to lack of trees and lumber, most of their houses were made out of sod and dirt. Seriously, they must’ve taken their wood with them.)

Western towns always had glass windows. (Pane glass was very expensive at the time and wouldn’t be mass produced until the 20th century.)

Most Western miners were white and usually mined gold or silver. (Many of them were Chinese or Hispanic and some blacks served as cooks. But, yes, a lot of miners were poor white men. Other metals were zinc, copper, and lead.)

The Old West was an incredibly violent place. (Well, probably more violent than your average suburban neighborhood where your chances of being killed were 41 to 1 each year. However, it’s probably the same rate as people being murdered in inner-city Baltimore or on The Wire. Not very great odds, sure, but that’s nothing compared to how many people are killed in Spaghetti westerns or Sam Peckinpah movies. Still, you were more likely to die in the West from cholera, dysentery, tuberculosis, or in an accident than by violence. Your average Western town only had 1.5 murders a year, which is a disappointing number for many Hollywood directors.)

Prostitutes were always attractive women who always had hearts of gold. (Old West prostitution was just as traumatic, degrading, and exploitative as it is today.)

Frontier prostitutes had a glamorous lifestyle and could move up in the world. (High levels of suicide, rape, addiction, and violence were common among prostitutes. Also, brothels were seen as poverty traps that forced girls into never ending competition with one another for enough scraps to eat with no hope of escape. Most of the time prostitution was a profession for women with no other options and was about as glamorous as a week in the ditch. Though there were madams who got rich off it and rose to positions of power. Yet, this wasn’t the same for most prostitutes even in the West.)

Most of the West was desert and canyons. (There are a lot of forests in the Pacific Northwest as well as in places like Colorado. There are also grass prairies and plains.)

The Old West was a violent place. (It had about the same murder rate as inner city Baltimore today. This means that a big frontier settlement could expect an average of 5 homicides per year.)

Sarsaparilla was a popular western drink. (It was used as a medicine for VD. Remember that when some cowboy orders it.)

Tumbleweed was a plant in the American West. (It’s a European plant that wasn’t recorded in the US until 1877.)

People rode on the same horse all over the frontier during long distances. (Those traveling long distance would usually try to go by train or stage coach and rent a horse in the next town. Of course, westerns aren’t the only films that do this since it’s endemic in a lot of historical films sometimes justified and sometimes not. Still, switching horses during long distance traveling was quite common in history.)

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One response to “History of the World According to the Movies: Part 44 – The American West: Cowboys, Gunslingers, and the Rest

  1. I suspected that the wild west probably didn’t smell too good and the people weren’t as good looking as in the movies. I can imagine what their dental care wasn’t the best either. I don’t want to be a coyboy anymore!

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