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How The West Was Won

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The Great Train Robbery, directed by Edwin S. Porter in 1903, captured the attention of the moviegoing audience because for the first time it told a story, the tale of how robbers came and tied up the station agent, robbed the train, murdered two railroad employees and a passenger, and were captured or shot by a posse of Westerners, who left a jolly square dance to track them down. It was filmed in the woods of New Jersey. No actors were listed in the credits, but film scholars have discovered that Broncho Billy Anderson (later a famous Western movie cowboy) played three separate parts: one of the robbers, the murdered passenger, and a tenderfoot who wanders into the hoedown and is forced to dance by cowboys who shoot at his feet. As there were no close-up shots of actors’ faces, an actor could play many parts without being recognized. To show an actor’s face without showing his hands and feet was felt to be cheating the audience, who after all had paid good money to see the whole actor.


The first train robbery on record occurred not in the Wild West, but in John Mellancamp’s hometown.

Here is an account of the first train robbery in the West.

D. W. Griffith brought a greater sophistication to the motion picture process. He and his colleagues were inventing the vocabulary of moving picture images in the same way that the Elizabethans invented English as we know it. In The Musketeers of Pig Alley, filmed in New York City in 1912, the shots are elegant, the crowd scenes varied and focused, the acting restrained yet convincing, the gang war tense and thrilling. Lillian Gish stars; Elmer Booth is charming as the boss of the gangsters; young Lionel Barrymore has a bit part. No credits are listed for the actors, once again, for the longer the movie industry could put off crediting the actors the less they would have to be paid.

Specifically, I would like to address the look and mood of the Hollywood Western in comparison and contrast to the Spaghetti Western and the “Wild West” in general.

Let’s begin with the High Noon Showdown

The Year: The Wild West.
The Place: In the middle of an empty, dusty road outside a saloon.
The Time: The instant the clock strikes high noon.

Some guys enter a bar.  A argument ensues.  Basically they take it outside.

You get the picture.


Its familiarity, of course, makes it a favorite plot device in Westerns along with the train robber galloping on a horse and springing onto the train. In said parody, one character is required to say, “This town ain’t big enough for the two of us.” Quite rarely will it occur to them that some urban expansion could solve all their problems.

There was an authenic showdown that involved Will Bill Hickock in Springfield, Missouri. There is also this account: “I was standing near Wild Bill on Main Street, when someone ‘began shooting up the town’ at the eastern end of the street. It was Bill Mulvey, a notorious murderer from Missouri, known as a handy man with a gun… Mulvey appeared on the scene, tearing toward us on his iron grey horse, rifle in hand, full cocked. When Wild Bill saw Mulvey, he walked out to meet him, apparently waving his hand to some fellows behind Mulvey and calling to them: ‘Don’t shoot him in the back; he is drunk’. Mulvey stopped his horse and, wheeling the animal about, drew a bead on his rifle in the direction of the imaginary man he thought Wild Bill was addressing. But before he realized the ruse that had been played upon him, Wild Bill had aimed his six-shooter and fired – just once. Mulvey dropped from his horse – dead, the bullet having penetrated his temple and then passed through his head.”
Eyewitness account of Miguel Otero from his book, My Life on the Frontier, 1864–1882 (1936)

Westerns leave the impression that there was one occurring every week somewhere. In reality, the actual number of authentic showdowns probably never exceeded more than a dozen. If a person was shot, it was during the course of a bank robbery or a shot in the back. Yet even those were rare compared to how they are portrayed on-screen. Train robberies were mostly the robbers deciding ahead of time to rob a train, checking out the scene and entering as paying customers before springing into action as opposed to them leaping off a horse onto the back and working their way over the top.  The Wild West was not nearly as violent as portrayed in cinema.  Most violence that occurred was between the Indian tribes and the federal government.

Then there is the look of the Western. Golden Age Hollywood Westerns portrayed the classic “good guy”: clean shaven, spotless, wearing white; the “bad guy”: menacing look or facial expressions, some dirt on him whether literally or in terms of his character, and wearing black. In reality, good guys never were all good and bad guys never were all bad. The look as portrayed in the Spaghetti Westerns would have been more accurate.

The same goes for the women. Some of them were prostitutes, but not all of them had teeth. Small towns mostly grew up around the mines and railroads and since employment opportunities for women weren’t exactly plentiful, you have to earn a living somehow.

So in a nutshell, the “Wild West” is more hype than reality, people were complicated and people didn’t exactly take showers every single day.


Written by chrisforliberty

December 16, 2012 at 3:55 pm

Posted in Movies, U.S. History