The Western and the West


Essay by
Kenneth Spell


August 2011


If you grew up in the late 1950s and early 1960s and had a television, you watched Westerns. There was no escape. You couldn't turn the dial fast enough to miss a cowboy, frontier lawman, or ranch owner. There was Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theater, or Ward Bond in Wagon Train, Death Valley Days sponsored by 20 Mule Team Borax with Ronald Reagan introducing the stories, or Richard Boone as Paladin on Have Gun, Will Travel. Most of Paladin's adventures were written by Gene Roddenberry, who went on to space, the Final Frontier, years later. Rawhide had Clint Eastwood as Rowdy Yates, and John Wayne introduced the first episode of Gunsmoke, with James Arness.

In Vicksburg, Mississippi, we had three channels on our set, WJTV, WLBT, and KNOE in Monroe, Louisiana. If there was bad weather you might get a clearer picture from the Louisiana station.

What was on? Usually a Western. What else was there? There were shows about people who has less money than your folks. Jackie Gleason's Ralph Kramden drove a bus. William Bendix in The Life of Riley was a factory worker "building bombers". There were shows about Fathers who knew best, and Fathers who worked somewhere or other but seldom clarified the details. I suspect, looking back, that Ward Cleaver might have been a Mafia hit man. "June ... never ask me about business ..."

There was a show about somebody who had a whole lot more money than any of us had, who sent Mr. Michael J. Anthony out on the peculiar errand of giving a million dollars, tax free, to some poor deserving soul. I suspect it was an elaborate effort at evading the IRS during the Eisenhower years.

The best sellers were about Organization Men, the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, whose individual personality was being lost in a Lonely Crowd. In school and as filler on television, they showed instructional films on proper behavior and being a normal well-adjusted personality. These had titles like "a date with your family", about making dinner with Mom and Dad a smoothly run social gathering around the table. These short films explained how avoiding losing self-control and being properly dressed and groomed made you a more successful and normal person.

While I was given Wally and the Beaver as role models, and instructed on how to fit in and work within the lines, our heroes on TV were slugging it out in a bar, facing outlaws in the street, or associating with a bordello madam. (Miss Kitty, I know you weren't running a girls' finishing school at the Long Branch Saloon.)

In real life you worked in the same place all week. In Westerns, the Wagon Train was always on the way somewhere. Somebody was passing through Dodge City. The Lone Ranger came to the rescue and rode off while somebody said "Who was that masked man?" ("I'm Batman." Sorry. Wrong mask.)

This was a life without the boring stuff. It had little to do with the West, was casual about historical accuracy. An actual cowboy was hired help, riding a long way to get cattle from one point to another, in hot drought or pouring rain. A ranch hand had as set a routine as any office clerk.

Most Western towns were not filled with gunfights, and only a lunatic ever stood in the middle of a dusty street patiently waiting for high noon to strike. Bill Hickok did once face a challenger at 75 feet in the public street after an argument in a saloon, but he was drunk at the time. According to Wyatt Earp,

The most important lesson I learned was the winner of gunplay usually was the one who took his time. The second was that, if I hoped to live on the frontier, I would shun flashy trick-shooting as I would poison. I did not know a really proficient gunfighter who had anything but contempt for the gun-fanner, or the man who literally shot from the hip.

Bandits did not ride into town, whooping and hollering, terrifying nervous peaceful citizens. This was after the Civil War, the bloodiest conflict in our history, and most men had seen too much of it to be rattled by a band of outlaws. In Northfield, Minnesota, the James Gang and the Younger Brothers got together to raid the town and hit the bank. Unfortunately for them, Northfield was founded by veterans of a Union infantry regiment. The moment the outlaws made a move, there were rifles pointing out of every window, wiping out half the gang. Jesse and Frank got away, their bank robbery gaining Jesse only $26.70 in 1872 money. Not what you would call a lucrative business venture. Cole Younger lived, served as a model prisoner and said jail had been a place of education, though he would not recommend it to others.

As for the women on the frontier, a plain woman finds her looks greatly improved in a settlement of unattached men who haven't seen many females lately. "In those days miners would flock in crowds to catch a glimpse of that rare and blessed spectacle, a woman!" Mark Twain reports, in Roughing It. He also tells of standing in line to take his turn to peek through a crack in one cabin to see "a genuine live Woman!" and saw her, tossing flapjacks in a frying pan. "She was a hundred and sixty five and hadn't a tooth in her head."

In the real West there was drug addiction to opium and laudanum. Fitz Hugh Ludlow, a journalist Twain respected enough to show his work to before publishing, tried hallucinogens and later worked for humane treatment for addiction. Some war veterans with what we would call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, found it hard to fit back into society, roamed the frontier, living off the land, not employed. They were called the Weary Willies. There was even a Bonanza episode in 1970 about them. A lunatic in San Francisco declared he was Emperor of the United States, paid for his dinners in currency of his own design and got away with it. In 1872 he proposed a bridge across San Francisco Bay. Norton the First, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico. He also sent a telegram ordering General Grant to use the Army to round up and arrest Congress.

Anaheim was settled by immigrant German farmers in the 1850s. Their first building was not a city hall but an opera house. Guess they could not live without hearing Wagner.

Oscar Wilde won a drinking contest with miners a hundred feet underground, held his liquor while the frontier workers passed out. Teddy Roosevelt punched a bully out in a saloon; the man drew his gun, fired twice in a reflex but hit only the ceiling.

All these things are what Jack Crabbe in Little Big Man would call "True Historical Facts", except the part about the 165 year old woman. Subtract a century and add two teeth.

The West is History. The Western is Mythology. "No sir, this is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend", is the classic quote from Liberty Valance.

High Noon was not a documentary. It was a myth about standing alone when nobody else will take our place or back us up. That is why a screenwriter facing a blacklist and a President confronting the Soviets can both admire the same story.

The Western is a myth, because it is about what could have been, or ought to be. What happens matters less than what we want and yearn for, whether it is a frontier existing only in the mind or in ideals that no man ever manages to live up to. The ideal is there because we need it, a comforting horizon we momentarily forget is beyond our reach. The frontier is not found on maps but in dreams and longings, a place to get away from boredom, open ground not claimed by authority, chances not limited by too many traditions. It is our escape from the weight of the past, where we can go and start again.


© 2011 Kenneth Spell

R. W. Franson's review of
Print the Legend
The Life and Times of John Ford
by Scott Eyman

works about Moving Pictures —
movies, films, television

W. H. Stoddard's review of
The Mark of Zorro
by Johnston McCulley


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