Myths of the Wild West as Period and Genre

The processes of myth-creation rely on a crossover between reality and imagination. A collective psychological space  exists in which history and myth merge and become indistinguishable from one another.  In the heyday of the television western, for instance, how many young children were aware there was any difference in status between historical characters such as Daniel Boone and fictional ones like Hopalong Cassidy? This feature reflects on the evolution and mass manufacture of myth, using the classical example of the Old West.

Photo courtesy of Randy Nyhof, RandyNyhofPhotos

Death and superstition

August 2, 1876, Nuttall and Mann’s No. 10 Saloon in Deadwood, South Dakota, 4:15 pm. A game of poker is in progress. Young, cross-eyed gunslinger, Jack McCall, skulks up to the table, behind one of the players. He draws his pistol, places the barrel inches from the back of the man’s skull and pulls the trigger. The dead man’s fingers stay clutched at the cards, frozen. McCall waves his weapon at the assembly, swears and makes to flee. Click, click, nothing. All the rest of his slugs are duds.

When it all quiets down, as they say out west, it occurs to somebody to check the cards. Or maybe it’s the first thing they do. Two pair. Black eights and aces. Not a bad hand, must have been feeling purrty confident this time, after losing all day. Lucky as hell. Never ever sat with his back to the door, a sound strategy. Only this once, when they invited him to replace a player who had to leave for some reason. Aces and eights. You got it. Wild Bill Hickok’s murder.

WIld Bill HIckok. Source Wikimedia commons

Wild Bill Hickok. Source Wikimedia commons

The details fade. But that image of black aces and eights, the “dead man’s hand,” endures. The final image imprinted on Wild Bill’s brain, linking his life with his immortality. The catchy assonance, the concise visual image of the playing cards, the momentous context and compelling role of chance: powerful elements that motivate the phrase and the supernatural, mythical idea it expresses.

Myth collides with reality

Kit Carson was called on to take a detachment and retrieve a white woman — Ann White, in fact — whom Apache Indians had kidnapped. Carson himself discovered the corpse, with an arrow through the heart. One of his soldiers found a dime novel that the woman had kept in her possession, Charles E. Averill’s Kit Carson, the Prince of the Gold Hunters (1849), in which the fictionalized hero himself, Kit Carson, rescues a girl kidnapped by Indians.

For the rest of his life, Carson is haunted by the idea that the woman clung onto the fiction throughout her ordeal as a source of hope, which he failed to fulfill in real life. Wyatt Earp symbolizes the classic Western lawman, “goody” versus “baddy” and the notion of “the law of the gun,” though his historical career was far more checkered. The gunfight at the OK Corral spawns an archetypal perception of a perceived global American “peace keeping” role that reaches its satirical fruition in Trey Parker’s Team America: World Police (2004).

Earp’s part in the manufacture of the Western myth is momentous. His transformation into a dime novel hero, alongside Carson, Buffalo Bill Cody, Hickok, and others, set off a process of idealization that continued into the cinema. But Earp’s contribution to the screen Western is outstanding, since he consulted for Hollywood during his later years and influenced the first Western star, Tom Mix, with whom he became close friends. John Wayne himself met Earp while working as a prop boy, eventually drawing on the famous lawman’s traits, in developing his own definitive western characters.

Global schema for the Western genre

“Buffalo Bill” Cody began producing Wild West theatres in the early 1870s and toured Europe with them eight times from 1887 to 1906. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows accelerated the transmutation of history into myth and eventually the global appeal of the western mythology. Over three hundred performances in London, including a private one for Queen Victoria on her Golden Jubilee.

Wild West show poster, 1899. Source Wikipedia Commons

Wild West show poster, 1899. Source Wikipedia Commons

Famous historical figures from the West such as Chief Sitting Bull, Apache warrior Geronimo, and Calamity Jane, frontiers-woman, army scout and purported spouse of Wild Bill Hickok, participated. Anything up to twelve hundred performers, plus horses, buffalo and cattle. Romantic dramatizations of historical events such as the Battle of the Little Bighorn, cattle roundups, pony express, wagon train and stagecoach attacks provided national and international schema, in which the West could take root both as myth and genre.

To Television: the medium is the message

Turn on the TV, shut out the light, Roy Rogers is riding tonight.

Elton John & Bernie Taupin

Annie Oakley

Annie Oakley

Annie Oakley took her peerless shooting skills into the Wild West show in 1885. She wasn’t actually a Western personage at all, historically speaking, admirable woman as she was, just showbiz. Annie shows up as heroine in the TV series Annie Oakley in 1954-7, starring Gail Davis. Ring a bell, baby-boomers? Pigtail braids, white hat, fringed cowgirl outfit? Lived in Diablo, Arizona? Horse Target? Brother Tag? Tag’s horse, Pixie?

Annie (Gail Davis) and Trigger

Annie (Gail Davis) and Target

Acquiring heroine status in Buffalo Bill’s show, Oakley spawns a television avatar. And thus the process works in reverse: the TV heroine is granted a proxy historical grounding. Why did the Annie Oakley TV series use her name, but to try to ground the fiction — albeit in dust?

Without Annie Oakley’s name, the character would be an utterly empty signifier, meaning nothing to anyone. It’s not far from the Adventures of Kit Carson TV series, with Kit and his Mexican sidekick El Toro, played by Don Diamond, who would graduate to Crazy Cat in F Troop. Nothing historical about these stories except for the main character himself. A lot of comic business between Kit and El Toro, along with the usual plot points, building to a correct moral outcome.

Fadeout on the Western as period, genre and ethos

Westerns are dying out, along with the Western hero. It’s hard to see Antoine Fuqua’s Magnificent Seven (2016) as a patch on John Sturges’ 1960 version, a transformation of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai that enriched our perceptions of the Western itself. Let’s propose that two timelines are in play. First the historical, the second the screen one, which catches up and interferes with the first. At the very beginning, the only thing for show business to draw on is the myth fundamentally rooted in history.

Thus the initial films are ones that draw on Buffalo Bill’s show: Annie Oakley, Buffalo Bill, Sioux Ghost Dance. The films tend to blur relationships between history and showbiz that are already quite well blurred. When the West hits television, a long time later, in the fifties, we have programs such as Kit Carson, Daniel Boone and Davie Crockett. Established, card-carrying frontiersmen. They are historically integral with the creation of the United States as we know it, a single great country that stretches “from sea to shining sea.”

Without the West, the United States might have been more like Belgium, an interesting place bordering a single ocean, home to several cultures, and sharing a continent with a number of other states struggling to develop a democracy. But the acquisition of the West made America into a transcontinental power. It became a country straddling two oceans, and filling with immigrants from Asia and Latin America as well as Europe.

Scott Simon, NPR

The grand narrative is embedded in Carson’s life. But how does one reconcile the war of extermination waged on the Navajo with the amiable TV hero? We move through the Wyatt Earps, Bat Mastersons and Johnny Ringos. Through the Rawhides and Bonanzas, whose classic Western television protagonists never existed except in the imagination. Latter-day Western films try to put a bit of the historical feel back, as in Walter Hill’s Wild Bill (1995) — put the long hair and dirt back in  while subtracting from historical “truth” at the same time, in the interest of a contemporary cinematic Western romanticism.

Ultimately, the historical timeline is exhausted, to be followed by viable fictional potentials. The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah, 1969) spews havoc: no black hats and white hats any more. The audience identifies with either or both in a hectic, ungrounded consciousness, a “phantasmagoria of senseless brutality” with all the ethical values of the Vietnam War.

Categories: Articles, Features

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