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How Hollywood Lied About the Wild West

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

The movie industry fed audiences with a constant diet of cattle rustlers, gunfights, stagecoach bandits, saloon brawls, prostitutes with hearts of gold, and incorruptible sheriffs trying to maintain order in a lawless society. At best, Hollywood's portrayal of the Wild West was a distortion, but the genre often crossed over into complete falsehood.

Westerns were all about clean-cut white guys fighting evil.

Westerns were all about clean-cut white guys fighting evil.

The History of the Western Movie

The Western movies were simple morality plays; good versus evil, and good always triumphed. And, guns—lots and lots of guns.

The Great Train Robbery of 1903 created the template. A gang of villains stops a train and robs it. The desperadoes set off into the mountains followed by a posse of men eager to see justice prevail. The good guys catch the bad guys and a shootout follows in the which the bandits are killed and the stolen goods recovered.

The plot and the tropes for The Great Train Robbery and almost all the Westerns that followed were taken from Western-themed books that were popular in the 19th century.

The genre caught on with audiences and studios churned out hundreds of low-budget films and serials set in dusty towns, ranches, and telegenic Western landscapes.

The Golden Age was the 1950s, but then consumer tastes changed. The baby boomers came of age and the old-style Westerns didn't fit into the “swinging sixties.” As the form disappeared, we began to learn how Western movies had misled us.

Popular pulp fiction magazines were the jumping off point for the early Westerns.

Popular pulp fiction magazines were the jumping off point for the early Westerns.

The Cowboy's Life

According to The Village Voice, a quarter of all cowboys were African-American, but you would never know that from watching Western movies. Black cowboys were almost entirely written out of the scripts.

A black lawman by the name of Bass Reeves is thought to have the model for the creation of the Lone Ranger character. But, the Hollywood moguls decided that audiences would not accept the notion of a black face in the role of the masked avenger; they were probably right.

So, the white cowboy rode the range wearing his broad-brimmed Stetson hat. No he didn't, he most likely wore a derby, also known as a bowler. The other options likely to show up were woolen caps, Civil War kepis, or no hat at all.

We also know from movies that beans were a central part of the cowboy's diet.

Live by the Gun; Die by the Gun

We get the impression there was a lot of gunplay in the Old West; firearms being discharged with deadly accuracy from the back of a galloping horse or quick-draw shoot-outs in the street. And, we learned that the average movie six-shooter could easily fire a dozen rounds without reloading.

We all know that the Winchester Repeating Rifle “won the West.” Oh, we don't? There is a strong lobby that the accolade should go to the Colt Single-Action Army Revolver, nicknamed, without irony, the Peacemaker. For some gun enthusiasts, the debate is emotional.

The west “was a far more civilized, more peaceful and safer place than American society today.”

Historian W. Eugen Hollon

Whichever firearm claims the trophy, handlers had to be careful where they went with their weapons. As law professor Adam Winkler notes “Frontier towns—places like Tombstone, Deadwood, and Dodge—actually had the most restrictive gun control laws in the nation.” More restrictive than is the case today.

In most towns, visitors were required to leave their guns with the sheriff and collect a token that could be exchanged for the weapon when leaving.

Out in the wilderness in was a different story. There were plenty of critters with claws, teeth, and venom that might see a settler as lunch on the hoof. Also, there were renegades with robbery in their minds. To counter these threats, it was wise to carry a “Peacemaker” or some other deterrent.

The Threat of Native Americans

According to Indians.org, “the old westerns typically portrayed the Native American as a savage beast seeking the 'white man' to kill and destroy.”

The truth is that Native Americans rarely attacked newcomers; they were far more likely to be killed than to be killers.

The 1939 movie Stagecoach portrayed Indians as the villainous counterpart to the virtuous cowboy. The Apache braves under the leadership of Geronimo are on the warpath and, of course, they attack the stagecoach. In the nick of time, the U.S. Cavalry arrives to put the Indians to flight and save the stagecoach passengers.

Film critic Jesse Wente, an Ojibwe, calls Stagecoach “the most damaging movie for Native People in history.” There were to be many more dramas that clung to the stereotype of “redskins” in elaborate feathered headdresses and war paint, and brandishing tomahawks, bent on murdering white immigrants.

However, by the 1970s, Native Americans started to receive a more accurate portrayal in movies. Little Big Man (1970) and Dances with Wolves (1990) showed Native American culture in a far more nuanced and positive way.

Does Accuracy Matter?

The argument can made that movies are fiction—made up stories— they don't have to be historically accurate. If you want authenticity watch a Public Broadcasting Service documentary.

However, the negative portrayal of Indigenous People, the failure to acknowledge the contribution of African Americans, and the glorification of the gun culture have all left behind a negative legacy.

Bonus Factoids

  • Mostly, actors playing cowboys appear clean-shaved and well groomed. The reality was that their personal hygiene was abysmal. Cowboys would often go weeks between baths and must have carried a vicious odour around with them.
  • The gunfight at the OK Corral actually took place beside the photographic studio of C.S. Fly. This inconvenient fact has not stopped Tombstone's OK Coral from being a major tourist attraction.

Sources

  • “Giddy Out: Will New York’s Federation of Black Cowboys Be Sent Packing?” Abby Ronner, Village Voice, April 20, 2016.
  • “Cowboys in the Wild West Didn't Wear Cowboy Hats they Seemed to Actually Prefer Derby Hats.” Ripley's Believe it of not, August 2, 2018.
  • “Did the Wild West Have More Gun Control Than We Do Today?” Adam Winkler, HuffPost, September 9, 2011.
  • “American Indian Movies and Video.” Indians.org, undated.
  • “The Evolution of Native American Representation in Westerns.” Shane Cubis, Special Broadcasting Service, October 24, 2017.
  • “Myths about the Wild West that Westerns Got Absolutely Wrong.” Ian Harvey, The Vintage News, January 11, 2018.

© 2021 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Denise McGill from Fresno CA on June 04, 2021:

What fascinating information. I didn't realize that about the Lone Ranger but did know that there were a good number of Black cowboys. Thanks for sharing.

Blessings,

Denise

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on June 04, 2021:

And now I'm having to do the whole thing over again this time in writing about the appalling treatment of Indians in the residential school system.

The aim was to destroy First Nations culture and in the process thousands of lives were lost, mostly children.

My people have a hell of a lot to answer for.

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on June 04, 2021:

Excellent article, Rupert. American Indians have been misrepresented for hundreds of years. I love the closing line in the "How Hollywood Stereotyped Native Americans": "A nation who doesn't know its history, has no future." Something to think about, isn't it?

As part Cherokee, "Little Big Man" and "Dances With Wolves" spoke to me. It would be wonderful if someday all peoples could be treated with respect. Each has valuable history, mores, and customs that should be shared and honored.

Cheryl E Preston from Roanoke on June 03, 2021:

This is excellent and very informative. Thank you.

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on June 03, 2021:

Thank you for shedding some true light on this part of false history, Rupert. Cowboys and gunfights have been glorified for a century. Those evil Indians attacking a homestead and killing all inhabitants too.

Oh, how the film industry and books of fiction have affected our perception of the past.

Misbah Sheikh from The World of Poets on June 03, 2021:

What an interesting read, Rupert. I enjoyed reading your hub. Native Americans seldom attacked newcomers; they were far more likely to be murdered than to murder. I appreciate you for presenting the facts and truths.

We discovered that the average movie six-shooter could easily fire a dozen bullets without reloading, which is hilarious but yes, we have learned this. The truth about cowboys was that they had terrible personal hygiene. True, I mean really how can they take a bath— Ha Ha

Thanks for sharing

Many Blessings to you

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