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Adam’s Apples – Hollywood’s cowboys miss the target

By James Mack Adams

Irish playwright, Oscar Wilde, published a scholarly essay in 1889 in which he questioned whether art imitates life, or does life imitate art. Whichever the case may be, there seems to be times when art and reality butt heads. Cases in point are the old Western movies I watched in my youth, and still do, and still enjoy.

It was most every Saturday that my neighborhood chums and I would spend most of the day in a darkened movie theater watching two feature movies, the next episode of a currently-running serial, and a collection of cartoons, as well as other short subjects.

One of the two feature movies shown on those Saturday afternoons was always a Western, or “cowboy movie” as we called them. The following week the other neighborhood kids and I would strap on our toy six-shooters and play “cowboy.” With the readers’ indulgence, I will brag on myself a little here. I had the reputation of being the fastest gun on 11th Street.

Those old movies were and still are fun to watch, but they often presented a dressed-up and cleaned-up Hollywood impression of what the Western frontier was really like. The real American West of the 1800s was not the white Stetsons, fancy shirts, hand-tooled boots, silver-studded saddles and pearl-handled revolvers favored by a few of my Saturday cowboy matinee idols. Life in the newly-settled western territories could be dirty, rough, dangerous and mean. This was especially true in cow towns such as Dodge and Tombstone. Law and order were slow to arrive on the frontier.

Let’s take a brief look at just a few things about the Old West that Hollywood movie makers got wrong, or with which they at least took some artistic license.

Most every old Western movie had at least one scene where two men settled a dispute by facing each other on a dusty street to see who was the fastest on the draw. That rarely happened. Much of the shooting and killing was done from ambush. The weapon of choice was usually a rifle or shotgun. Can you just picture those two firearms being used in a gun duel in the street? You must admit the luck of the draw is much more dramatic to moviegoers.

The most famous shootout in old West history was the so-called “Gunfight at the OK Corral” in Tombstone, AZ Territory in 1881. The brief but deadly shootout was between the Earps, with the help of Doc Holliday, and a group of law-breaking cowboys. Here again, the movie makers took some liberty with historical fact.  The gunfight did not take place inside the confines of the corral, but in a narrow lot some distance away.

At the time of the OK Corral episode, Tombstone had stricter gun laws than we see in a lot of places today. In accordance with a town ordinance, no one could carry a firearm within the town limits. Guns were to be turned in upon entering the town and retrieved only when leaving. Refusal to abide by this law was one thing that led to the OK Corral confrontation.

The popular notion that all westerners dressed in cowboy attire is not true. Most of them had migrated west with the opening of the new territories and continued to dress pretty much as they did back East, including wearing the popular bowler hat. The real cowboys who worked the ranches and cattle drives did have their own mode of cowboy dress they probably adopted from the original cowboys of the southwest, the Mexican vaqueros. Chaps, bandannas, and broad-brimmed hats were work clothes.

None of the famous Westerners we read about or see portrayed in movies were native to the frontier.  Wyatt Earp was from Iowa, Doc Holliday was a Georgian. Billy the Kid was a New Yorker. Buffalo Bill Cody was also a native of Iowa. The Sundance Kid hailed from Pennsylvania. Wild Bill Hickok grew up in Illinois.

When we see movie scenes of troops of United States Cavalry riding across the prairie, the troopers could historically be all African-American. Some African-American soldiers who served the Union in the Civil War remained in the army and went west to help protect the settlements. The Indians called them buffalo soldiers. There is some disagreement among historians as to the origin of the name. However, it was commonly used to describe African-American soldiers.  The 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments were entirely African-American units.

Some common sayings we hear today come from the old West frontier. When wagon trains of settlers crossing the prairies were attacked, the order would be given to “Circle the wagons.” That tactic provided some defense against flying bullets and arrows. Hence, the term is used today to warn of impending danger. A primary means of public transportation was the stagecoach. When on a run, each stagecoach had a driver and an armed guard who sat on the driver’s right. Therefore, riding in the front passenger seat of a vehicle is “riding shotgun.”

Well, I reckon I’ve said my piece. So, I’m going to saddle up Old Paint and mosey on down the trail. ADIOS!