My first crush was on Little Joe Cartwright. I went to bed at night dreaming scenes of living on the Ponderosa with that dreamy studmuffin, and I resented every actress who played a romantic interest opposite Michael Landon. I guess I age myself drastically (as if my children hadn’t already done that) when I admit to watching The Lone Ranger in black and white on our Zenith portable every Saturday afternoon, and to admiring the length of fringe that dangled from Tonto’s deerskin tunic. I owned one much like it in the 60s.
And yes, even then, Clint Eastwood charismatically held a young audience in awe with his role as Rowdy Yates on the series Rawhide. Yee haw! Head ’em up, move ’em out! Wagonmaster, Ward Bond wasn’t exactly a typical leading man, but Wagon Train held America’s attention weekly. It must have been Robert Fuller.
The Big Valley — I have a son named Jared by the way — Bat Masterson, The Texas Rangers, Maverick, Sugarfoot, The Rebel, The Grey Ghost, Have Gun Will Travel, Paladin, The Virginian, and let us not forget John Wayne and all the western movies of our early years, shaped our young minds. I mean, who could forget Fess Parker in a pair of buckskins?
The American West is a much-romanticized part of our history, our heritage. We all know that life in Dodge City was dirty, that hundreds of men, women and children died along the trails on their way west, that bathroom facilities were nonexistent and hygiene at a disgusting low, but we’ve chosen to remember and glorify the courage and the pioneer spirit of those men and women who forged our nation and ‘civilized’ the West. I dare say none of us read romance for a reality check. The condition of our society and the situations that surround us in everyday life may be why escaping into the pages of a book is so appealing.
Our western hero exemplifies strength, loyalty, capability and security. The rancher/farmer’s sweat and blood are imbedded in his land-as deeply as the riverbeds and the roots of the ancient trees. The land may have been his father’s before him, or he could have broken his back to earn it. In any case he will die to keep it. Solidarity. And any man who would pour this much passion into his land, will love his woman even more ardently.
The western hero can hold his own when it comes to raising the children he’s fathered, too. He loves animals and children and protects and nurtures them. He will fight renegades and weather and anything in his way to lay claim to his child. The cowboy/rancher can be a blend of the alpha-beta male, a loner and a man not in need of the things a woman can ‘do’ for him. He can make it on his own because he can cook over a campfire and fix anything that breaks, but he appreciates a woman’s differences and skills, and eventually accepts the nurturing she needs to give. He needs the love and gentleness, and the ‘taming’ she represents.
To nearly all women I’ve spoken with on the subject of westerns and cowboys, physical appearance plays a major part in the attraction. The reality was that dungarees or Levis were not exactly slim cut or sexy. Dungarees were stiff and probably dirty, and few real cowboys fit the image of the Marlboro man, but our fantasy cowboy has a lean backside in a pair of tight-fitting jeans, long legs, and that ever-present Stetson pulled low over his eyes. Ever notice how a pair of chaps invariably draws the eyes to the uncovered sections of denim?
Our man wears his Colt strapped to his thigh, the holster rides his lean hips, and his spurs jangle. This dangerous guy exudes sex appeal.
Our western hero is a hard body due to demanding work on the range, riding and roping, chasing outlaws, stopping the runaway stage, and sleeping on the ground. He’s untamed, a little wild, and a lot sexy. He doesn’t need a gym membership or a Stairmaster. These men work from sun up to sun down, except when they’re sweeping the heroine off her feet, and are not prone to laze away afternoons in front of the television. For me, Kevin Costner was much more appealing in his duster in Wyatt Earp than on the golf course in Tip Cup. And Sam Elliott without his hat and holster is just a trifle disappointing.
The western heroine is his equal. She is not a helpless simpering female, but a woman with a goal of her own. The simpler times allow us the imagery of less physical perfection and less emphasis on glamour. Who wouldn’t rather be the height of appeal without having to wax, pluck, mousse and workout? The reality of period clothing and lack of modern convenience is something few of us would actually care to experience, but our heroines don’t miss air conditioning or showers or microwaves. Like her male counterpart, the western heroine beats the odds and overcomes adversities by sheer determination. These are the strong, capable, courageous women we’d all like to be.
The western villain can be the land, the weather, or the nastiest, smelliest dirtball who ever got his just reward. Here’s where the line between right and wrong has changed. Our television screens weren’t the only things that were black and white in the early days. The concept of good and evil didn’t bear the current shades of gray.
In the old westerns, the lines between right and wrong were clearly delineated. If you stole a horse, you hung. The villain accepted his punishment because he knew he’d done wrong. The bad guys always got it in the end. Justice was swift. The good guy came out on top. And just like identifying the hero by his white hat, you could tell the bad guy by his disreputable looks and black clothing. Wouldn’t that be nice today? There was a code of ethics among villains, too. Recent westerns have portrayed situations more realistically. Native Americans weren’t the bad guys. Heroes grew more three dimensional, too.
But all things evolve. I mean I didn’t stay in love with Little Joe. I transferred the crush to Adam, probably because I was growing older. Now I haven’t watched those Bonanza reruns in many years. I think I’m afraid Lorne Greene will start looking good.