My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys – or what I learned from western movies.

Yes, I admit, my heroes have always been cowboys. My love of cowboys came from old western movies. Here were men who were larger than life, who stood up for what they believed in, who’s word was their bond, who were willing to do what had to be done. And when they fell in love, it was deep and forever — even if they fought it at first.

Nothing surprised me more when I started to write, that I chose set my stories in the American frontier. Now, it wasn’t a surprise that I chose to write historicals –after all, I have a BA and MA and a second BA in History and taught US History and Western Civilization at the college level. However, I liked teaching Western Civ more than US History and my MA had specialization in Tudor and Stuart England, and the second BA in European Studies. But when it came time to write it was the frontier and the cowboy who caught my imagination. Big surprise.

Guess Fredrick Jackson Turner was right. Turner, a historian, presented his ‘frontier thesis’ in 1893 at the American Historical Association, stating that it was the westward expansion that formed the American character, making us as Ben Franklin said a new race that was rougher, simpler, more enterprising, less refined.
I think now it was the frontier aspect that drew me, as on the edge of civilization, it took a man and a woman working together to make a home. This was the basis for my first novel, Kentucky Green, when the frontier was ‘the land beyond the mountains’, the Kentucky and Ohio territory in 1794. My hero, although he’s not a cowboy, has all those cowboy characteristics.

But for most people Turner’s westward expansion brings to mind the cowboy. Which leads me right back to my old western movies.

When I was teaching, I used to have the student watch Stagecoach (1939) and discuss how the character portrayed the values of the time. If you haven’t seen the movie (shame on you!) a group of disparate individual undertake a dangerous stagecoach trip through Indian Territory. Our hero, the Ringo Kid (John Wayne, where director John Ford gave Wayne’s character the greatest screen introduction ever) is out to get the man who killed his father and brother. There is the ‘good woman’, a military wife on the way to join her husband, and the ‘bad woman’, the dancehall girl run out of town. The Confederate and the Union veteran. And of course, our hero helps save the day when the Indian attack. Here are our cowboy values of putting the good of the group before personal advantage, care and protection for those who need it. Courage in the fact of danger (the Indian attack).

Ringo also show determination to get revenge on the man who killed his family. This is often part of the ‘man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do’ philosophy of the frontier. The average man, our hero, is forced to act as the law as either the law is absent (part of the definition of frontier) or unable or unwilling to do the job that needs to be done to protect society. And, of course, after the final shoot out, our hero and his girl ride off to start a new life together. The ‘new start’ part of the frontier standing for redemption

Stagecoach is #9 on the American Film Institute’s Top Ten Westerns.

I also used to show part of Red River (1948) to my classes also. This movie is #5 on the American Film Institute’s Top Ten Westerns. In the first part (a prologue actually), our hero, Tom Dunstan (John Wayne) leaves the wagon train heading to California and the girl he’s fallen in love with to go to Texas to start his ranch, saying he’ll send for her. She fails to convince him to let her go with him, and says she’ll come.

I liked to use this to point out to my classes, who were used to instant communication, how you have to understand the times the people lived in to understand the history of what they said and did. I used to ask the men in my class, how are you going to send for her? A letter? Who would carry the letter? How would you address it? Would you go yourself? How would you find her? Then I’d ask the women in my class – how long do you wait for this guy to send for you? A year? Two years? Forever?

Perhaps part of the pull of the western is the lack of technology that sometimes seems to overwhelm and swamp the personal and individual in today’s society. People seemed more important than things in the west. Relationship were personal. Today we can spend more time with our computer that with our family.

The main part of Red River deals with the dangerous cattle drive north many years later. Here again we see the cowboy hero in several guises. Dunston (Wayne), who willing to do what no man has done, the cattle drive to try and save not only his ranch but all the surrounding ranches. Dunston willing to step up and take responsibility. He’s helped by his surrogate son, Matthew Garth (Montgomery Clift) and a cast of great secondary characters. As the cattle drive is beset with disasters, Dunston becomes more autocratic and driven to the point that Matthew rebels and takes over the herd. Matthew standing up to and against the man he loves like a father, necessary to do what right in his mind. Matt says ‘know he (Dunstan) was wrong. Sure hope I’m right.’ The story is not only one of man against nature (taming the frontier), but of Matthew (Clift) and his conflict with Dunstan (Wayne) each man doing what he thinks is right as the central theme of the film.

And, of course, there is a romance between Matt and the girl he meets, falls in love with, but must leave to complete the cattle drive. This romance between Matt and Tess (Joanne Dru) is what help lead to the final reconciliation between the men. This is a great movie with a young and beautiful Montgomery Clift and John Wayne allowed to act before all the directors wanted him to do was be John Wayne.

The Forties and Fifties were a great time for western movies, really too many to mention. But you might recall a few with Jimmy Stewart such as Winchester ’73, or The Far Country.

Randolph Scott working with directory Bud Boetticher made several good western such as The Tall T, and don’t miss Seven Men From Now if only for the final gun fight between Scott and Lee Marin as the ‘good’ bad guy.

For lots of good cowboy heroes, there is always what’s know as director John Ford’s Cavalry trilogy, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and Rio Grande.
These three, along with Stagecoach were shot in Monument Valley and the scenery is as much a character as the actors. Especially the storm She Wore a Yellow Ribbon which blew up as they were filming, and Ford kept right on filming. No special effect, just the real thing.

I think part of the allure of the cowboy is the wide open spaces and scenery that surrounds him. It was the remember clean, clear and bright mountain scenery around Durango, Colorado that made me set Colorado Silver, Colorado Gold there. My cowboy hero is an undercover officer for Wells Fargo who, of course, is determined, brave and does the best he can. And, of course, as all western heroines, the woman he falls in love with is strong, capable and makes him realize he’s a better man than he thinks he is.

Modern westerns in the old tradition are starting to turn up on television, such as Broken Trail (2007) with Robert Duvall as the older mentor and Thomas Haden Church as his nephew. And the traditional cowboy values are showcased in Open Range (2003) with Kevin Costner teaming with Robert Duvall, as two itinerate cowboy who end up taking on a corrupt sheriff and town boss – doing what needs to be done to make the community safer and revenge their friend. Also a nice little romance between Charlie (Kevin Costner) and Sue (Annette Bening).

Even the contemporary cowboy has those values. My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys (1991) where an estranged son and father re-connect as he finds love with an old flame.

How much better would things be today, if those cowboy values – honest, true to their word, willing to sacrifice to help those who can’t help themselves, putting the good of the community before their personal needs when necessary.

Yep, my heroes have always been cowboys. I watch the old movies any chance I get, and keep a lookout to see if they are out in DVD to replace the VHS tapes I have. My current favorite is Tall In The Saddle. Did I miss mentioning one of your favorite westerns? I know I missed some of mine. Do you watch the old movies, or do you have a favorite ‘modern’ western?

Terry Irene Blain

Escape to the past with a romantic adventure



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49 thoughts on “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys – or what I learned from western movies.”

  1. Hello Terry,

    Thank you for the wonderful information. I’m going to be going and looking up the top ten western movies. I might even try and collect them for my hubby. Your book, “Kentucky Green”, sounds like a book I need to check out. I’m a transplant to this beautiful state of Kentucky. Love reading stories about this state. Have a great day.

  2. Hi Terry,

    Thanks for joining us at P&P today. Ah, westerns. I love them. You hit a lot of my favorite movies: Stagecoach, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. I’d add The Cowboys and Rio Bravo to the list. There are just too many to mention.

    I think I’ll go see what’s on TCM today. 😀

  3. Roberta,
    Hope you like Kentucky Green. I had ancestors that lived there and like to think my hero and heroine were people who lived just down the road from some of my great, great (how ever many greats) grandparents. Kentucky is certainly a beatiful state.

  4. Tracy,
    Glad we have some of the same favorites. Rio Bravo is also one of my favorites – better than the ‘remake’ of Rio Lobo. Perhaps I’ll join you and see if there are any good westens on today.

  5. Hi Terry, You’ve already named my #1 favorite. It’s “Broken Trail.” Great story! Here’s my list of western favorites in no particular order:

    Tombstone, Unforgiven, Rio Bravo, Sons of Katie Elder, The Outsider, The Shootist and from television, Paradise aka The Guns of Paradise.

    I’ve got a few guilty pleasures, movies that aren’t great that I still enjoy. My youngest son teases me about “Pure Country” with George Strait. It comes on CMT every other day. I like “Electric Horseman,” too. That’s an oldie with Jane Fonda and Robert Redford.

    Thanks for visiting P&P! Your books look terrific!

  6. I must admit I love the West also, but for a different reason. I like the landscape, the mountains of Nevada and Arizona at sunset are like being on another planet to an Easterner like me. My grandmother was always fascinated with Indians i nthe 60s, and of course, my sons were Boy Scouts and my hubby their scoutmaster so the love of cowboy\Indian\Western history and life are still a big part of our lives today. Having been to the Suthwest twice, I left my heart there, and my father. He in many ways was like a cowboy, a self-made man who overcame many things to be who he was and support his family until the day he died in Arizona.

  7. Not only do I like the old Western movies, I liked all of the tv programs about the West, especially Gunsmoke. My mother went to school with Ken Curtis who played Festus in Gunsmoke. He always managed to look her up and visit when he was in the Phoenix area.
    One of my favorites was McClintock with John Wayne and all of the spaghetti westerns with Clint Eastwood. I also liked the ones Sam Elliott and Tom Selleck were in.
    And of course, any that features Robert Duvall.
    Where have all the Western movies gone? I think there would be a big audience out there to view them.

  8. Hi, Terry,
    I have to admit that I’m pretty new to enjoying the virtues of cowboys–I didn’t watch many westerns growing up and only recently discovered the appeal of reading westerns. Cowboys certainly are heroic! I’m enjoying the recommendations–I’ll have to get watching 😉

  9. My hero as always been a cowboy and especially John Wayne, I don’t think there is a movie of his I have not seen, especially his westerns. I know have a lot of his movies on DVD and I can watch them over and over. One of my favs is Chism. Here he is playing a man who has come and staked his claim over a large part of the New Mexico territory and the newcomer who want the rest but is doing so by erring on the wrong side of the law. It is a great movie.

    And of course I love McKlintock, and you mentioned many more of my favs, Rio Bravo, She wore a Yellow Ribbon, Fort Apache and Rio Grande just to name a few. One of his real early one’s besides Red River and Stage Coach was Angel and the Badman. Another Wayne classic.
    I just love westerns.

  10. Hi, Terry. Great blog. I used to watch the old Westerns all the time and love John Wayne in them. I too am discovering a love for writing Westerns. For about 20 years, I had stories in my head, none of them were Westerns, but now, that’s what I’m writing. Yep, there’s just something sexy about those strong, hardworking cowboys.

  11. Victoria,
    Yes, Tombstone is really good, one where the ‘bad guy’ Johnny Ringo is soooo good. Of, course, I’ll watch anything with Sam Elliot.

  12. Sandy,
    like I said, anything with Sam Elliot and Tom Sellick. I really like Quigly Down Under – found that very beatiful – perhaps because I had the change to visit Australia.

    And our two boys were Scouts, I was a den leader and my husband was both the Cub Master and the Scout Master, so we did a lot of camping, too.

  13. I love old westerns. Liberty Valance is a favorite as is McClintock and Big Jake with his well-named companion, Dog. (John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara are a favorite duo although I cry when Dog get shot.) And I watch Paint Your Wagon every so often just to hear Clint Eastwood sing (not great, but passable. Lee Marvin? A landslide is easier on the ears, but he tried.)

    I don’t write westerns, but the cowboy ethic is certainly part of my characters. Gotta love a man who stands for what’s right, protects the weak and helpless, and holds honor dear.

    Thanks for a great blog. I feel a John Wayne movie night coming on.

  14. Hi Terry,
    I’m a huge Jimmy Stewart fan for old westerns. And of course, you can’t forget Sam Elliot or John Wayne. No favorite, I just love the classics. Thanks for blogging on this fun topic. Have a wonderful Memorial Day weekend, and my sincere thanks to you and all who serve!

    Romance Edged With Danger

  15. Joye,
    how nice about Ken Curtis, he had a great singing voice. Did you kmow he married John Ford’s daughter?

    If anyone is interested in some of the back ground, I’d recommend In The Company of Heroes by Harry Carry, Jr. who wrote about making all those westerns with John Ford, John Wayne, Ward Bond, Ben Johnson, etc. The group know as the John Ford stock company.

  16. Kathleen,

    Don’t want to say our family likes westerns, but the first gift our younger son got from a girlfriend was a copy of The Angel and The Badman. Good movie.

  17. Welcome Terry

    I love to watch westerns and also love to read the historical westerns. My father was alway into westerns so maybe that’s where I get it. I loved the movie Open Range and Broken Trail. I tend to rent the westerns when they come out. I would love to read your book Kentucky Green because I live in KY and love to read anything about this state. Thanks for sharing with us today.

  18. What a wonderful post today. It warms my heart. I watched all the Westerns when I was growing up since they were extremely popular at that time and most of the shows were Westerns then. I loved them all, particularly The Rifleman, Have Gun, Will Travel and The Virginian. My favorite movie would have to be Tombstone. I thought it was excellent. Cowboys have a sense of principles and values which make me feel protected and safe. Now that I live in the Southwest I can understand and appreciate cowboys even more.

  19. Hi Terry,

    A big welcome to P&P. We’re so happy to have you with us and we hope you’ll come again soon.

    I love TV and movie westerns. There’s something about the old west that draws me like nothing else. Vicki named one of my all time favorites- The Outsider. Tim Daly is such a hunk! And it’s a great story too. Broken Trail, Open Range, and 3:10 to Yuma are other favorites. So is John Wayne’s The Cowboys and the one he did with Katherine Hepburn. Can’t think of the title right now. My favorites list is really long. Doesn’t pay to get me started.

  20. Hi Terry,I like the old Western movies. Your books COLORADO SILVER, COLORADO GOLD and KENTUCKY GREEN both sound wonderful.Have a great weekend.

  21. I love Western movies and books; give me a cowboy any day. John Wayne if a favorite and on TV I faithfully watched Bonanza, Gunsmoke. Sam Elliot, need I say anymore, lol.

  22. Ahhh cowboys!!! 😀 I have to admit I read more westerns than I watch them as movies… But there are some really great movies out there… I noticed a couple that I have never seen… I guess I should find copies and watch them!

  23. Cowboys! Yes, John Wayne was wonderful, along with all the other stars of that era, when it came to portraying cowboys. My grandfather was also a “true” cowboy, riding the range to round up his cattle in the old days.

  24. Thanks for this wonderful post today about my favorite subject. Cowboys. Cowboys represent everything that is important in life which is truth, goodness, sacrifice and hard won values. When I watched Westerns they always depicted these large than life characters as examples of what I would look for in a man. Living out in the open spaces and where the horizon stretches out forever I can understand how it felt to belong to a special place and admire the work that went into keeping it.

  25. I am enchanted with this post today and with these captivating novels that you have written. Cowboys have a special place in my heart. They are real men and that encompasses everything that they do. Their hard work, strength, courage and determination to work in the wild and rugged West. I am in love with the terrain, the wild and the vastness where we are humbled by the landscape.The unspoiled natural beauty. I can picture Lorne Green, Roy Rogers, Glenn Ford. These men are the heroes for me.

  26. Pat,
    you can always tell who’s the bad guy when they kill the dog. The one that gets me is in Hondo, where the bad guy kills the dog, not for anything the animal has done but to hurt te people.

  27. Diane,
    ah! those TV westerns – Cheyenne, Maverick, Sugarfoot, Have Gun, Will Travel, Bonanza, Bronco Lane, The Lawman (big crush on Pete Brown) and of course, Rawhide.

  28. LuAnn,

    too cool about your grandfather. I have a photo of my paternal grandfather on horseback in front of a windmill in Kansas in the early 1900’s where he rode fence for some big rancher.

  29. Hi Terry, I remember when we got our first TV set we watched The Lone Ranger. I think my favorite movie cowboy is John Wayne.

  30. Terry, great post! Very informative. Makes me want to run out and join Netflicks pronto and rent all these wonderful movies. Some I have seen but it’s been awhile…



  31. Oh Terry, what a great post! Sam Elliott will always do it for me. I just watched the Shadow Riders for about the bazillionth time.

    Sugarfoot was so cool. I named my guinea pig after that show because she had a white foot. And my dad did business with Will Hutchins who sent me an autographed picture actually address “Hi Tanya.” I’m sure I still ahve it somewhere.

    Thank you for stopping by the Junction today.

  32. Hi. . . Welcome to the fillies. The western channel is my favorite channel, and I love all the old westerns. One, though, is always overlooked, and it’s one of my favorites, “The Big Country.” I dearly loved Gregory Peck as the easterner confronting an entirely different culture and Charlton Heston as the (too) loyal foreman.

  33. Hey Terry, I love the old westerns. The rest of the family cringes when there’s nothing else on and I pick an old western. But invariably, half way through when I look around the room, they’re all there, game boys set aside, and they’re watching the movie. 🙂

  34. Hi Terry an Welcome,
    I love westerns,love to watch movies an read the novels,my favorite western actor who also happens to be sexxxxxy would be Tom Selleck,the older he gets the better he looks,thanks

  35. I’m surprised no one has mentioned The Serchers, which is usually regarded as one of the great westerns. This is another film where John Wayne does some great acting. All the great secondary characters. And lots of subtext that you can pick up on the second or third viewing.

    Also, I managed to omit Silverado when talking about the more modern movies. That a great movie, too.

    I sometimes wonder if Sam Elliot and Tom Sellick might have been cowboys in a previous life.

  36. Hello Terry –
    Thanks for sharing an interesting blog today! I like your comments on the west frontier… makes me think of Startrek!! Your classes sound interesting using those movies as discussion focuses! My DH and I just starting watching Lonesome Dove on DVD! I really liked Open Range but I think Tom Selleck or Sam Elliott would be my favorites cowboys!

  37. Martha,
    did you know Ray Bradbury sold Star Trek to the netwoarks as ‘Wagontrain in Space’?

    You got itin one! Cowboys rule, even Han Solo is a cowboy.

  38. Hi, Terry,

    My heroes have truly ALWAYS been cowboys! The first paperbacks I ever read were passed to me
    by my Dad. They were mostly Louis L’Amours and Zane Greys. When we got our first television set in the mid-fifties for my high school graduation, among the westerns: Roy Rogers, Gunsmoke, Wagon Train, Maverick, & Have Gun, Will Travel! And in films, John Wayne rules!!!

    Pat Cochran

  39. Great post! Nice little lesson in American western film. I’m going to print it out and use it for an outline when planning my film series at our library. I tried to do a classic series last year, but we didn’t have a license. This year we do and I’ll run the series in July. Westerns are always a good choice. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to go to the movies as a kid so I missed all the “classics”. Have seen some of them on TV, but still haven’t seen many of them. It isn’t a movie, but INTO THE WEST was a very well done mini-series. It covered western expansion in a very realistic way and from a variety of viewpoints.
    Lived in Colorado Springs for 3 years. Durango and Mesa Verde were trips we made frequently. Durango is a wonderful town.
    Look forward to reading this series.

  40. Patricia,
    sounds like a great film program. Let me know if you need any more suggestions as I just couldn’t talk about all the western films I’ve seen. And there is a lot of history in Stagecoach and a lot of it reflects the time in which it was made (as all movies to to some extent).

    Be sure to consult Harry Carey Jr. book which talks about making many of the films. Good luck with your film series.

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