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.
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).
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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