Print the Legend

“Sometimes history is so difficult to comprehend that we require fiction to make it understandable.” So it goes with the Old West. Several Western films, with no basis in historical fact, may actually capture the spirit of the frontier more effectively than do those movies made about actual people and events.
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“Sometimes history is so difficult to comprehend that we require fiction to make it understandable.” So it goes with the Old West. Several Western films, with no basis in historical fact, may actually capture the spirit of the frontier more effectively than do those movies made about actual people and events.
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THE LAWMAN: Gary Cooper as Will Kane in High Noon (1952)

When the just-married town marshal of Hadleyville learns that three gunmen are waiting down at the train station for a fourth to arrive, at which point they will kill him, he initially tries to run away. But Kane’s indomitable spirit of individualism forces him to return to town, even when the supposed community falls apart at its moral seams; everyone from the town parson to the local mayor spurns his cry for help. Eventually, Kane drops his head down on his desk and weeps in fear of what may likely occur. He is, after all, not a fast-gun, simply a decent man who took the job to try his best to maintain law and order in his little corner of the world. Eventually Will Kane regains his fortitude and marches out to meet his destiny. A far cry from Earp, Masterson, and Garrett, all of whom were exceptions to the rule, here is the typical small-town lawman incarnate—the kind of ordinary American, who does his part. In an era of violence, there were hundreds of anonymous sheriffs like him in prairie towns. Without their dutiful dog-soldier style of work, the West would never have been tamed.

THE OUTLAW: Henry Fonda as Frank in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

Early in Sergio Leone’s sprawling, operatic spaghetti Western, the leader of an outlaw gang, decked out in dusters, concludes the massacre of a frontier family by firing a bullet right between the eyes of a little boy, the last surviving member and witness to what happened. The shocker of this brutal act (itself considered extreme at the time of the film’s release) was that the villain was none other than Henry Fonda. Here was the man who had played such historical greats as Wyatt Earp and Abraham Lincoln. Then again, Fonda had also portrayed Frank James, elder brother of Jesse, in a pair of films. Here Fonda is an amoral assassin (similar to Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, without the righteous vengeance), the crystallization of a type of wandering sadist who broke the frontier’s long stretches of silence with sudden bursts of brutal violence. Whereas Will Kane is liberated by responsibility, Fonda’s Frank is totally lost by the lack of it.

Douglas Brode’s 40th book, DREAM WEST: POLITICS AND RELIGION IN COWBOY MOVIES, will be published in October by the University of Texas Press, Austin.

For more outlaws and lawmen—both fact and fiction—check out Legends: Outlaws and Lawmen, an American Cowboy Collector's Edition. Purchase your copy at HorseBooksEtc.com.