Saturday, 30 January 2010


Sat upon his horse, head bowed, silhouetted against a sunset of vivid crimson. The wind blows and only a thick fur lined coat and the Stetson, pulled down low over the eyes, protects the man from the elements. He is both strong and tender, brave and caring. He is thoughtful of others and mindful of himself. He's out there now, riding the plains of imagination.

He is the cowboy.

The cowboy - and we're not talking about the root definition of the term but the generic cowboy. In these terms the word cowboy is all encompassing and used to describe anyone, miner, rancher, oulaw, Calvary soldier. In short anyone who strode the landscape of the mythical western.

The popular definition of the cowboy was set out during the early days of cinema - Brush Between Cowboys and Indians, filmed in 1904 by Edison was the first silent western to develop the image that predominates to this day. Whilst it is true that the earlier Great Train Robbery (1903) can in many ways be called a, "Cowboy Movie" this concerns itself chiefly with a group of outlaws and concentrated on a robbery rather than creating a screen persona of characters that would become a template within popular culture.

The fist actor to truly define the screen image of the cowboy was Broncho Billy Anderson who actually played several roles in Porter's 1903 Great Train Robbery. He was credited with creating the good badman image. IN 1908'S Broncho Billy and the Baby he plays an outlaw who discovers an injured child and returns it to its parents. Numerous one reel dramas were made between 1910 and 1916.

If it was Broncho Billy that laid the foundations for the screen cowboy then it was another actor who firmly cemented the image in the public consciousness - Tom Mix was an actual working cowboy who was hired on location as an extra and went on to become a prolific silent western star and director. What was ironic about Mix was that although he was a real life cowboy his screen persona was among the most unrealistic ever to ride the celluloid trails. His costumes were often made up of ten gallon hats, colourful shirts with an abundance of fringes and large silver belt buckles. It was remarked by critics at the time that he was dressed more like a Christmas tree than an ordinary cowboy. William S. Hart in contrast made much more serious westerns but his cowboy shared many traits with Mix and between them they developed a kind of shorthand that could be called the cowboy code.

man is brave and strong
A man is not afraid to go against the law of the land if he considers it right to do so
Freedom is all important
The cowboy is independent, strong and true
A cowboy will not be insulted
Like the wind the cowboy is transient and can enter on a breeze but usually leaves with a storm

Perhaps the greatest embodiment of the screen cowboy is John Wayne. He was around during the early days of sound and starred in countless B-westerns before and after his breakthrough in John Fords's 1939 Stagecoach. In the movie Wayne played the Ringo Kid - a good badman and from his first appearance on screen it is evident we are seeing a star as big as Monument Valley.

Wayne not only stuck to the cowboy code but he set it firmer in the pop culture lexicon. He became such a star they we usually pronounced his name as one word, Johnwayne and the word came to symbolise all that was good and noble about the imaginary West. The man was a tower of strength who never needed to turn to anyone else for help. Those others did often come to his aid he would do what had to be done with or without them.

Wayne's mid period - the 1950's - 1960's was also the Golden age of the western and there were many high profile stars who further added to the mythology of the cowboy but all of them were confirming largely to the blueprint of the screen cowboy as defined in the earliest days of the silent cinema.

Gary Cooper with his slightly haunted looks.
Alan Ladd with his good and wholesome strength.
Henry Fonda was stoic and brutal but at the turn of a hand equally kind.
James Stewart rode the range almost like an avenging spirit.
Randolph Scott with sadness in his eyes and a fast gun on his hip.

It was during the latter half of the Sixties that the revisionists came to the fore - the Peckinpah's, the Eastwood's, the Leone's. The screen cowboy became much more brutal and seemed to care for nothing other than their own self interest. But even these new knights of the range confirmed in some part to conventions that were now an intrinsic part of the genre. In A Fistful of Dollars even Eastwood's mercenary loner puts his life on the line to help out an imprisoned woman. Eastwood's man with no name may have seem revolutionary at the time but at its core he was playing, the good badman. He was walking a path well trodden by the likes of Tom Mix, William Anderson and John Wayne before him.

He's out there now, the cowboy. He's been given a certain reality by the movies, the books and the comics. He's become a historical fact that never truly was.

He's never too far from our collective imagination and can be identified within the DNA of the science fiction hero battling in a futuristic landscape, in the lone cops who keep the celluloid streets clear of killers and thieves and in the little man who stands up against big business and corruption. What was Star Wars if not a western in space? The sand people were the Indians, the Empire the corrupt businessman who wanted to ensnare the land and destroy freedom, our intrepid heroes confirmed to the blueprint of the cowboy. Hell, Han Solo was so much the western good badman that he could have been lifted and plopped into any 1950's western with a seamless join. Watch Indiana Jones and you are viewing a bastard son twice removed of the old Saturday morning cowboy serials.

So even if you've never watched a westerns chances are you have, in a manner of speaking of course.

1 comment:

Nik Morton said...

To quote John Wayne: 'Tomorrow comes to us at midnight very clean. It's perfect when it arrives, and it puts itself in our hands and hopes we've learnt something from yesterday.' Pretty good cowboy wisdom, that.