By Rich Engstrom
Westerns: they are part of our history, they are part of our DNA. The West, as we know it, starts with the Mountain Men going west of the Mississippi and coming back to tell tales of a land that goes on forever. Much of the land seemed too tough for the plow, but it seemed just right for raising cattle. It was the life of the cowboy that entered our imaginations.
As the Old West faded into memory in the later part of the 1800s, writers such as Ned Buntline brought back the memories by glorifying the exploits of such real life Westerners such as Buffalo Bill, Wild Bill Hickok, and other real life Western outlaws and lawmen. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show traveled not only in the US but traveled throughout the world, and Buffalo Bill became the most recognized face in the world.
About this time movies came out, but really didn’t take off until
the movie The Great Train Robbery. It was only 12 minutes long, but it told a story- something that the other movies at that time didn’t do.
Westerns after that followed the same pattern- a plot that included a train or bank robbery, a chase, a saloon setting, and a real story ending with a shootout. It was hoped that the audiences would be able to follow the story even though it contained 14 different scenes. As the director/writer, Edwin S. Porter watched to see if a Western with a story would go over. But at the end of the movie he could hear “Get them!” and, “Shoot them!” Then the lights went on and the movie goers started shouting– yelling, asking for more. They wanted to see it again. It was a huge success. The Western movie had arrived.
Not only were the Western movies a big hit but the leading men became national heroes. During the silent era names like Broncho Billy Anderson, William W. Hart, and Hoot Gibson brought young would-be-cowboys to the theaters in droves. Young boys would do whatever they could to raise enough money for a ticket and a box of popcorn at the local movie house. But the biggest silent Western star was Tom Mix- a real life cowboy. He was a skilled horseman, an expert shot, and had won some riding and roping contests. Tom was a friend of politicians and was a real movie star. He even helped John Wayne get his first job in Hollywood.
During the early talking years the cowboy stars were Buck Jones, Bob Steel, and Ken Maynard.
It wasn’t just young boys who went to see their favorite cowboys on the big screen. My Norwegian born grandfather would drop grandma off at the grocery store on Friday nights and head to the local cinema to watch the weekly Western. When he retired he would always have a paperback Western nearby, his favorite being Zane Grey.
In 1939 came a number of Westerns that would change to a more adult media: Destry Rides Again with Jimmy Stewart and Marlene Dietrich, and Jesse James with Henry Fonda and Tyrone Power - two of the biggest Hollywood stars at the time.
Then came Stagecoach starring John Wayne- an adult story with plenty of action. Typical of Westerns, it had the good guy getting the girl at the end of the movie after a big shootout.
Along came the singing cowboys- they even tried to make Wayne a singing cowboy. But the biggest Western singing cowboy was Gene Autry followed by Roy Rogers. As Western movies became less in numbers the two stars moved to television. An older movie star by the name of William Boyd became Hopalong Cassidy.
Youngsters couldn’t get enough of their Western heroes and, with the help of TV advertising, out came notebooks, lunch boxes, and jackknives carrying the name of their favorite Western cowboy.
It started in the middle of the ‘50s that Westerns filled the TV networks. (There are too many to name here.) Older movie stars entered the small screen- Henry Fonda, Barbara Stanwyck, Walter Brennan, Hugh O’Brian, and Ward Bond. The TV Western made instant stars from new young actors such as: Roger Moore, James Gardner, Michael Landon, and James Arness. Gunsmoke was on the small screen for twenty years and Bonanza drew large audiences. The Westerns were on every channel and some evenings Westerns were played all night.
Whether on the small screen or the big screen with a Dolby Sound System, Westerns are not as popular as they once were. But every now and then a good Western shows up and is seen by millions. In the early ‘60s The Magnificent Seven made stars out of James Coburn, Charles Bronson, and Steve McQueen and has been called one of the great Westerns of any time. Coming out in the late ‘60s, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid put two of Hollywood’s biggest stars (Paul Newman and Robert Redford) together and it became one of the best pictures of the year.
Hollywood found out that if you have a good script and well-known stars, a Western can still draw large crowds. Clint Eastwood directed The Unforgiven. The movie won an Oscar for Best Picture and Eastwood was nominated for the Oscar as best actor. Morgan Freeman, Gene Hackman, and Richard Harris also starred.
But Americans are not the only ones who love Westerns.
In Wild West magazine, December 2016, Tamas Makra from Hungary writes that, “Since I was a kid I have been fascinated by the Old West.” Having a chance to visit Western states after teaching in Chicago for a year, he went back to Hungary with the Old West on his mind.
His home town high school had a new language classroom. Tamas got permission to set up one room as an Old West room, or “The Saloon.” The room was decorated with pictures of the Old West– sheriffs, outlaws and the American Indians. The students could learn English in an American environment- a Western environment.
And among Americans who enjoyed Westerns was Dwight Eisenhower, who at 0700 on June 6, 1944, (D-Day) was found smoking a cigarette and reading a Western novel.
Although there aren’t Westerns on TV as they were in the ‘50s and ‘60s, Westerns on the tube can still be popular. Again, with a good script that has a lot of action, add popular movie stars and you can still draw in a big audience. Take Lonesome Dove, originally written by the popular Western writer Larry McMurtry. The movie, in 1989-90, was the most watched miniseries of all time, watched in 26 million homes. It was up for 18 Emmy Awards and won seven. Lonesome Dove also won two Golden Globes. The movie pulled in the talents of Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, Danny Glover, Diane Lane, and Anjelica Huston.
The United States has a dramatic, exciting history and Westerns are a big part of that history.