‘Oh, and Roy Rogers is riding tonight, returning to our silver screen. Comic book characters never grow old. Evergreen heroes whose stories are told.’ Elton John
A Cowboy Colossus Taming The Wild West
Elton John and Bernie Taupin were certainly children of the 50s and 60s to write so nostalgically about TV cowboy, Roy Rogers and his beloved horse Trigger. These decades were the golden age of television, when Westerns and Saturday morning matinees ruled supreme.
Even after all this time, and without using Google I might add, I can still rhyme off the names of TV classics that I grew up with, and in many instances burst unapologetically into any of their iconic theme tunes. There was everything from, ‘Laramie’, ‘Wagon Train’, ‘Rawhide’ (and the first appearance of Clint Eastwood as Rowdy Yates) to, ‘Rin Tin Tin’, ‘Have Gun Will Travel’ and ‘Gunsmoke’. It was an era dominated by Westerns and I remember each as fondly as the next.
It would also be remiss of me not to mention, ‘Hopalong Cassidy’, ‘Bronco Lane’, ‘Davy Crockett’ ( who they killed off at the Alamo but the show was so successful they had to bring him back) – ‘Champion the Wonder Horse’ – I can still sing every word of the theme song, ‘Bonanza’, ‘Boots and Saddles’ and ‘The Lone Ranger.’
It was simple in those days. Baddies wore black and goodies wore white. Cowboys and the 7th Cavalry were good. Native Americans were bad and African Americans were literally non existent and certainly never main players.
It was the same on the silver screen when John Wayne was a cowboy colossus taming the Wild West; the baddies and the Indians. ‘Stagecoach’, ‘Rio Bravo’, ‘She Wore a Yellow Ribbon’, ‘True Grit’ and of course as Davy Crockett in the ‘Alamo’ – substitute Mexicans for Native Americans. Wayne changed his stance a little when he gave a different perspective in the film, ‘The Shootist’ – Wayne should have won the Oscar for his performance. He didn’t.
The Bad Guys Sometimes Wear White
A special mention should also go to Gary Cooper and High Noon. A cowboy classic which drew the wrath of the McCarthy era where it was slammed for being Un-American – a woman coming to the rescue of the hero while the rest of the town stood by. It just wouldn’t happen in Wayne’s USA.
But, the times were a changing. TV, cinema and the public were no longer prepared to accept the outdated narrative of Native Americans or deny the key role that African Americans played in the making of the West. They also realised that bad guys sometimes wear white.
– M.R.F. Brown
Classic examples of this were ‘Soldier Blue’ and ‘Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee’; suddenly audiences realised that the West was ‘won’ at the expense of Native Americans. And films such as ‘Glory’, ‘Posse’, ‘Django Unchained’ and the ‘Hateful Eight’ gave an insight into how African Americans left their mark on the West.
In a few short years the Wild West won by Wayne and all those comic book characters was lost. The golden age had gone – it had ridden off into the sunset.
Can The West Be Won Again?
However, it would be remiss of me not to mention that one actor and the genre of Spaghetti Westerns did resurrect cowboy films: The Man With No Name – better known to us as Clint Eastwood – Fistful of Dollars, Few Dollars More, Hang ‘Em High, and The Good the Bad and the Ugly, backed by the brilliant Ennio Morricone soundtracks. As well as, Pale Rider, The Outlaw Josey Wales and High Plains Drifter. The West might not have been won again but it was still in the saddle.
There were others also producing classic Westerns that still managed to attract audiences back to the cinema – Once Upon a Time In The West (the greatest Western Ever Made? Discuss! ) Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kidd, and the simply brilliant Dances With Wolves.
However, these classics were now competing with war films whether set in WW2, Vietnam, Iraq or Iran. My personal favourite was Terrence Malick’s Thin Red Line. Cinema goers had found new heroes or in some cases anti heroes.
So can the West be won again? Is there an appetite for cowboys, native Americans and stunning Western landscapes? I can now confidently say a huge, Yeehaw!
Beth Dutton Makes John Wayne Look Positively Tame
For me, it’s all down to Paramount’s ‘1883’, 1923 and ‘Yellowstone’. The Duttons (with their Scottish roots) and Kevin Costner have helped reignite the love of the old and new West.
They right many wrongs whilst still managing to grab a whole new audience. From the pioneers of 1883 to the still lawless 1923 which highlights issues faced by Native Americans including the tragic issues associated with ‘Indian Schools’ and then Costner and co bringing Montana into our living rooms.
It needs to be said that I am hopelessly in love with Beth Dutton played by Kelly Reilly. At times she makes John Wayne look positively tame! Love you Beth!
I would also mention the brilliant, ‘The English’ set in the mythic mid American landscape following Cornelia Locke an Englishwoman who arrives in the new and wild landscape of the West seeking revenge. Well worth a watch.
Costner, is now announcing details of ‘Horizon’ an upcoming American epic set in pre and post American Civil War depicting the expansion of the American West. Eventually it could end up as four movies. It’s been a long time dream and passion of Costner to go ahead with this mammoth project. I suspect that the success of Yellowstone gave him the added confidence to move forward.
So yes I’m predicting that the West if not totally won (yet) is like Captain Nathan Brittles in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, coming out of retirement. If I’m wrong I might be heading for Yellowstone’s Train Station.
M.R.F. Brown: Film and Entertainment Editor