"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The birth of the Western

The start of it all

 It is often said that the Edison company’s The Great Train Robbery of 1903, directed by Edwin S Porter, was the first Western. It wasn’t the first Western, or even the first Western film. But it is the most famous very early Western movie, partly because it still exists and can be bought on DVD. And it contained some sophisticated techniques, such as inter-cutting and the traveling matte shot as a train passes the window of the station office. The scene where a cowboy fires his revolver into the camera is said to have caused faintings all over the USA. Its story of a train hold-up was to become a staple and it set the pattern for a host of Westerns which followed. In fact it is really rather good. But of course it sprang from a whole long tradition of Western stories and images.

Even while the West was still wild the myth was active. Pulp novelists told lurid tales of frontier life. Beadle & Adams Beadle’s Dime Novels series, for example, started as early as 1860. The dime novels were the TV of their day, immensely popular and containing something for every family member. Western and frontier stories dominated them (in the 1870s and 80s crime and detective stories became popular but Western tales still led). Wikipedia will tell you more (external link).

Exploiters like New Yorker EZC Judson (1813 – 1886) appreciated the commercial value of the “Wild West”. Judson is better known by his nom de plume Ned Buntline. A rabble-rouser and drunkard, Buntline traveled the country lecturing on temperance and it was on this tour that he met Buffalo Bill. Buntline’s dime novel series ‘Buffalo Bill Cody - King of the Border Men’ was a huge success. In 1872 he also wrote a play, ‘Scouts of the Prairie’, which opened in Chicago starring Cody and Texas Jack Omohundro. Slammed by the critics, the show was a huge commercial success and played to full houses all over the States.

Frank James and the Fords also played themselves in theatrical melodramas.
Some people, like the biographer WW Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek) in Unforgiven, became expert in the lore. Biographers or hangers-on fascinated by the charisma of gunmen appear in several films. Think of Bob Dylan in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid or Hurd Hatfield in The Left-Handed Gun.
Already, and while the West was still wild, what Richard White calls “the imagined West” was merging fact into myth.
Wild West shows became popular and re-enacted stage hold-ups or massacres by Indians or gave displays of sharpshooting. These traveling shows, much in the tradition of the circus, with their animals and stunt riders, glamorized the West especially for Eastern (and even European) audiences. The ‘props’ of Western life – the costumes and guns and horses – became half the point, and they grew more decorated and flamboyant. Pawnee Bill, Dr. WF Carver, Buckskin Joe and others made money and their name with these exhibitions.

But by far the most famous was ‘Buffalo Bill’s Wild West’, launched in 1883. It toured all over the US and was also hugely popular in Europe. Such elements of the show as Custer’s Last Stand or the Attack on the Deadwood Stage passed directly into the consciousness of spectators as the “true” West. Some of the very Indians who would later die at Wounded Knee were on display for the thrill of the cheering crowd. The Western movie of the 20th century absorbed these iconic images and reworked them for the silver screen.

In fact Buffalo Bill star Annie Oakley made a movie and there were two films of Cody’s Wild West show, in 1894 and ‘98.

The folk music of the nineteenth century contributed to the myth as did, of course, early literary sources such as James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking series (The Last of the Mohicans appeared in 1826), Francis Parkman’s The Oregon Trail in 1849 and Mark Twain’s great Roughing It in 1872.

This imagined West was reinforced pictorially by painters and photographers like William Henry Jackson (1843 – 1942). Jackson worked as a publicist for the railroads but he was also a photographer on his own account who wanted to sell his work and his pictures reflected what people wanted the West to be as much as what it really was. A favorite theme of his was the transformation of desert wilderness into a civilized Eden for Americans. You can browse some Jackson photographs here (external link).

Painters too created an idealized West. The most famous was undoubtedly Frederic Remington (1861 – 1909). An unattractively racist bigot, he nevertheless is admired today for the quality of his work. “Jews, Injuns, Chinamen, Italians, Huns – the rubbish of the Earth I hate – I’ve got some Winchesters and when the massacring begins, I can get my share of ‘em, and what’s more I will.” Friendly fellow. But just look at his paintings: luminous, elegiac, magical. Just put Frederic Remington into Google images and you’ll see what I mean. Or try this (also an external link).  Better yet, visit any of the excellent art galleries scattered about the US. My favorite is the art wing of the museum in the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, Cody, Wyoming.  There you’ll see not only works by Remington but also by other great Western artists.
In Great Falls MT you can visit the house and gallery of CM Russell, another of the artists who painted what he saw yet imagined the West and reinforced our idea and ideal of it.

As soon as motion pictures came along, Western stories were a natural subject for the producers and directors. The popularity of the frontier myth and interest in the reality were well-established and the action and derring-do by now established as essential ingredients of the “real” West were obvious candidates for cinematic treatment. A one-minute film, Cripple Creek Bar Room Scene, appeared in 1898, as well as Bucking Broncho, and a similar Poker at Dawson City the year after.
Suddenly the Wild West was real, right there on the screen.



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