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.
Other images may be rooted in childhood, family history, personal experience, or from reading books about western romance or adventure.
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.
Apart from early western books, which reached a more limited audience (especially worldwide), 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 available for viewing only at a theatre were now televised into your living room. Popular movie cowboys became stars of their own television show. In 1959 alone, there were 26 western shows on television. [Pictured: Roy Rogers and his trusty steed, Trigger.]
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. I am sure most of you know the name of this classic film. 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.
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.
It should be noted that not all western films are serious dramas; neither are they historical period films. Although known for some mighty serious western roles, one of my favorite Clint Eastwood westerns is Bronco Billy (1980). IMDb tagline: "An idealistic, modern-day cowboy struggles to keep his Wild West show afloat in the face of hard luck and waning interest."
IMDb Tagline: "Sonny Steele used to be a rodeo star, but his next appearance is to be on a Las Vegas stage, wearing a suit covered in lights, advertising a breakfast cereal. When he finds out they are going to drug the horse in case its too frisky, he rides off into the desert."
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 television 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, Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford, Sam Elliot, Tom Selleck, or Lee Majors. (Confession: I loved The Big Valley and all the Barkley brothers, but Heath was my favorite.)
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. Several years ago, I made a short video tribute to the actors who brought many cowboy heroes to life on film. I hope you like it. Note: The song "Cowboys and Clowns" sung by Ronny Milsap is from the film Bronco Billy that I mentioned above. Oh, and if you have a favorite western film or cowboy hero, please share the memory with us.
Happy Trails! ~ AKB