Sunday, October 31, 2010

THE COWBOY - HERO OF THE AMERICAN WEST

By: Ashley Kath-Bilsky

Without question, there is a certain mystique to the American West -- one that has captured the imagination of men and women for generations. The imagery, language, and culture of the American West has influenced literature, paintings, sculptures, architecture, music, clothing, furniture, jewelry, toys, comic books, old radio shows, as well as television and motion pictures.

There is an instant visualization conjured just thinking about the American West. Images may be rooted in childhood, family history, personal experience, or from reading books about western romance or adventure. Just hearing words like pioneer, frontier, Indian, outlaw, gunslinger, stagecoach, saloon, covered wagon, cattle drive, or box canyon can cause one to picture the American West in a heartbeat.

Yet, no word can quite capture the American West as cowboy. More than a word or job description, cowboys have become the personification of a time and place that has mesmerized people all over the world from the 19th century to the present. For many, cowboy means the American West.

Perhaps no other medium has brought cowboys and the American West into our lives as successfully or vividly as television and motion pictures. It all began in 1903 with a 12-minute long silent film called The Great Train Robbery (now preserved and protected in the United States National Film Registry). Suddenly, what had only been imagined in the mind's eye took shape and form on film. Audiences immediately became enthralled. With the advent of sound, western films continued to gain popularity and resonate with audiences. Original screenplays, as well as a great many best-selling novels, were adapted to the screen. Matinee screen idols such as Tyrone Power, Errol Flynn, Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda, Randolph Scott, and James Stewart starred in westerns, which not only increased their fan base but helped make the 'western' a film genre all its own. But cowboy stars came from other walks of life as well. An unknown bit part player named Marion Morrison took a job in a film called The Big Trail to help pay college tuition. Realizing the young man had a great screen presence, his name was changed to John Wayne. In a career that spanned five decades, John Wayne became the most popular western movie star in the world.

With television came westerns, a favorite for the entire family. Films previously only available for viewing at a theatre were now televised into your living room. Popular movie cowboys became stars of their own television show. In 1959, there were 26 western shows on television.


In the 1960s, half-hour programs extended to hour long shows, many of which were now filmed in color. In the decades that followed, innovative westerns offered everything from contemporary set crime dramas like McCloud and the wholesome family drama of Little House of the Prairie to award-winning mini-series formats such as Lonesome Dove and cable shows like Deadwood.

The cowboy has become an icon, the physical embodiment of the American West and (more often than not) the hero who ultimately saved the day before riding off into the sunset. He might be driving a herd of cattle, leading a wagon train of settlers to a new frontier, or the strong patriarch of a ranching family. Perhaps he was a loving single father with a mysterious past and knack for using a rifle at lightning speed. He could be wearing a white hat and badge, risking his life on dusty streets to keep a town safe. Or, he might be more complex and tormented. One of my personal favorite film cowboys was Ethan Edwards, a Civil War veteran searching for a niece captured by Comanche Indians. Driven by hatred and prejudice for his enemy, Ethan's arduous quest to save his niece becomes a determined, fatalistic mission to put an end to the misery and humiliation she has suffered once and for all. If you haven't seen John Ford's 1956 classic motion picture, The Searchers starring John Wayne and Jeffrey Hunter -- do so immediately.


Ultimately, I think it is the complexities of the cowboy character that has made him remain a constant favorite with audiences. He isn't perfect and maybe that is what we find so endearing. He may be reluctant, have a dark past that taught him some pretty tough life lessons or caused him to follow a trail that ended badly. But at his core, his heart, his mind and his soul -- he is a good man who will save the day, even if he dies trying. It is the inherent goodness in his spirit, along with the human flaws, strengths and weaknesses, that brands the cowboy in our heart and mind as a hero of the American West.

For many of us, there remains a soft spot in our heart or a sentimental smile on our lips remembering a favorite western film or televsion show. A writer's fond affection for the cowboy hero of their youth may often influence the appearance or qualities of a hero they create. A reader may visualize a certain actor when reading about a hero in a book. I know I do, usually with recurring favorites like Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Tom Selleck, or Lee Majors. And so, I think it's time we all take a moment to reflect and remember the cowboys who first captured our attention on television and film. For many of us, they will never grow old or die, and continue to inspire future generations. I've made a short video tribute to the actors who brought many cowboy heroes to life on film. I hope you like it. And if you have a favorite western film or cowboy hero, please share the memory with us.

26 comments:

Marin Thomas said...

Great Blog Ashley--you are so right about the word "Cowboy" saying it all when it comes to thinking about the West. Cowboy heroes are a favorite among readers of Harlequin American Romances and I'm glad because I love writing cowboy heroes.

Ashley Kath-Bilsky said...

Thanks, Marin! They do make unforgettable heroes. :)

Caroline Clemmons said...

Ashley, your writing shines in your post! I love western movies. Did you realize "The Searchers" was based on Cynthia Ann Parker?

Caroline Clemmons said...

P.S. I may have to save that video forever!

Vonnie Davis said...

I grew up on cowboys. Those old TV shows were great. I, too, enjoy reading romances where the hero is a cowboy.

Paisley Kirkpatrick said...

WOW, you certainly brought back great memories for me. I can remember our treat was getting to watch Roy Rogers on Saturday morning - OH SO handsome. You are so right, there is nothing more ruggedly handsome than a cowboy. Saturday night we religiously watched Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke. But the memory that brings the widest smile was the horseback ride at the Bonanza filming site. We rode to the top of the mountain loverlooking Lake Tahoe and ate a chuckwagon breakfast, watched a gun fight and spent time with cowboys. The only thing better would have been if Little Joe had been with us. :)

Anna Kathryn Lanier said...

Great post, Ashley. What wonderful tidbits. I have seen "The Searchers", my husband loves it. I'm not as crazy about it as he is, but it is a great epic show. Another great Western is "Little Big Man" with Dustin Hoffman. Wonderful movie about cowboys and indians.

Jane Leopold Quinn said...

Hi Ashley, oooh, cowboys. I've loved them since I was a little girl. I could name a whole bunch of memorable TV shows that I loved and still remember the heroes. Ahh, Nick Barkley anyone? My hubby and I bicker back and forth about Bonanza (his favorite) and Big Valley (mine).

But seriously, the story of the growth of the American West is amazing.

Jane

Jennifer August said...

Enjoyed the blog, Ashley! I think you depicted America's love affair with cowboys very well. I remember growing up to reruns of Big Valley and the Rifleman. I thought Chuck Connors was da bomb! They are an interesting dichotomy of gentleman and ruffian. Who can resist that?!

Geri Foster said...

Ashley,
Great Blog. I love the old west and all the handsome cowboys that come with it.
Geri

Marie Higgins said...

Ashley, great blog! I'm writing an American West romance right now. I love this era. Cowboys are too sexy! And the video had some of my favs.

~Marie~

Ashley Kath-Bilsky said...

Thanks, ladies! Paisley, your visit to Bonanza sounds amazing! Jane, I have to say that one of my favorite westerns was The Big Valley. My older sister loved Nick Barkley (also James West from Wild Wild West), but Heath was always my favorite among the Barkley clan. Jennifer, glad you liked The Rifelman; it was one of my husband's favorite shows and he 'insisted' I put him in the video among the cowboy heroes. LOL

Jannine said...

Ashley, I loved your blog, and the video brought back so many memories. I grew up near Hollywood, went to school with movie stars' kids and even lived around the block from Michael Landon and played with his kids. Those were the days.

Thanks for putting Errol Flynn in your video. He died when I was a little girl, but I've been a huge fan of his for most of my adult life. One of my favorites is San Antonio.

Thanks for the memories, Ashley.

Diana Cosby said...

Loved your blog on Cowboys. They're an incredible breed all their own, warriors of the west. After living in Texas a couple of years now, what they lived through, the elements they faced, incredible. It's no wonder they're an easy choice to call hero. :)

Ashley Kath-Bilsky said...

Jannine, you grew up near Michael Landon? Little Joe? Pa Ingalls? I'm so jealous. Ok, I have to admit something. One of the things that first attracted me to my husband was that he reminded me of Michael Landon. :D

Celia Yeary said...

ASHLEY--I'm still on the road--I cannot wait to get home to my own bed and space. But we had a great time up in Michigan with the grandsons--even though we had to scrape ice off our windshield--26 degrees--to start our trek home to Texas-
But I did not want to miss commenting on your wonderful, memorable blog.
I was a child in the 40s and my little sister and I went to the Rose Theater on Saturday (on the South Plains near Lubbock)-- afternoons to watch westerns--Lash Larue (you forgot about him), Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, The Lone Ranger, and others. Mother gave us each a dime and a nickel--the dime for the movie and the nickel for candy or popcorn--we always went for the popcorn.
In those days, you did not go to the movie at the start time, you just went--and we'd watch and finally say--"this is where we came in. Should we go or watch some more?" Mother never knew how long the movies and cartoons were, so we might watch for another hour. Then call her on the box office phone to come get us.
What lovely memories--one of the few times in my life my younger sister and I did not argue!
Thanks for the memories--Celia

Anna Jeffrey said...

I have many favorite old westerns, but one of my top old favorites is "Garden of Evil" with Gary Cooper, Richard Widmark and Susan Hayward. ....In the role Gary Cooper plays in that movie, all of the legendary "cowboy hero" characteristics are on display--the strong, honorable, quiet man who never starts a fight but never fails to finish one. ..... It gets only about a 2-star review when it shows up in the TV guide and I don't know why.

Ashley Kath-Bilsky said...

Anna, ANYTHING with Gary Cooper is wonderful! :) I agree with your analysis of his performance in that film, but High Noon was my favorite I also loved him in The Plainsman, The Cowboy and the Lady, and Unconquered. One of my all-time favorites was Along Came Jones, a western romance comedy (he actually produced), also starring him with Loretta Young. She was so beautiful. I just love the way he kisses her in this movie. Wipes his mouth with his shirt forearm, reaches back, grabs her and pulls her into this embrace and kiss that clearly curled her toes. Ahh, yes -- GARY COOPER, my favorite cowboy and actor!

Ashley Kath-Bilsky said...

Celia -- 26 degress??? Brrrrr. Get back to Texas quick!

Thanks for sharing your wonderful memory. How great to be able to stay at the movies all day if you wanted and just keep watching your favorite cowboys. Sounds like a beautiful, carefree time.

Be safe coming home!

Cheryl Pierson said...

Ashley,
What a great blog and a wonderful video! I envy anyone who can make a video, and that was just awesome! YOU ROCK! Great blog, very introspective and informative. Being born and raised here in Oklahoma has been a great blessing for me--I've grown up with cowboys all around for as long as I can remember, and I was privileged to work at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum for 2 years as well, which I dearly loved. The art of the old west and the artifacts and pictures are just so wonderful--I met a lot of regular cowboys, "wannabe" cowboys, and a few famous cowboys. Most interesting job I ever had in my life. I love John Wayne, and of course, I can never say enough good about Shane--especially the book. Loved Conagher--the book, again, is wonderful and Sam is VERY easy on the eye in the movie version. You have brought back a lot of wonderful memories with your post and your video!Almost forgot to say, I loved Bonanza, and The Rifleman, but my heart truly belonged to LANCER, starring Wayne Maunder and James Stacy. Anyone remember that show? It was only on for 2 seasons, but MY LORD, what a couple of good looking cowboys!
Cheryl

Stephanie Suesan Smith, Ph.D. said...

I guess I am a cowboy fan (the real kind, not the football team). I recognized almost all the scenes in your wonderful tribute. Very nicely done.

Ashley Kath-Bilsky said...

Cheryl, I DO remember Lancer! My older sister was crazy about James Stacy at the time. In fact, when he was terribly injured in a motorcycle accident, she kept making phone calls to UCLA Medical Center several times a day to check on his condition. And they would give it to her!! I don't know if she told them she was family or what. But we lived in New England at the time. Let's just say when the phone bill came in, uh-oh!

Ashley Kath-Bilsky said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ashley Kath-Bilsky said...

Stephanie, Thanks so much for your comment. I'm actually smiling that you believe the time has come to admit in public that you DO like cowboys...the real kind. Glad you enjoyed the video! :)

Cheryl Pierson said...

Ashley! That is hysterical about your sister! I bet your parents went crazy over that phone bill--and so cool that the hospital gave her an update on his status. There were probably literally hundreds of teens and young women calling in to check on his condition. He was one hunk of a guy!
Cheryl

Jeanmarie Hamilton said...

Ashley,
Wonderful video and post about cowboys and movies. I too recognized all of the scenes in your video. :-)
I've always loved horses and cowboys just go right along with them.