Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Is There Such A Thing As A Historically Accurate Western?

September 7, 2016
    One of the curses of caring about historical accuracy in Westerns is it invariably ruins watching them—especially for anyone who has to watch one with me. I'm the guy who stands up in the multiplex and yells at the screen, "They didn't have saddles like that in 1876!" And, "That vest is so historically wrong!"

Robert Duvall in "Lonesome Dove"

   I don't want to frighten you, but I'm not alone. One of my friends, who I won't throw under the bus, but I will say his name rhymes with Rusty York, thinks we should go back and digitally recut all the old Westerns from the 1930s, 40s, 50s and 60s and, utilizing modern CG (computer graphics), put in the historically correct hats on everybody in all the films. The mere idea of doing this proves Dave Barry's astute observation that "there is a fine line between a hobby and mental illness."

Is There Such A Thing As A Historically Accurate Western?
   Of course not. Every movie is a recreation of events that no one can agree on (and that's just the eyewitnesses). But this impossibility just isn't our curse. I once met a lawyer who cannot watch Perry Mason. "You could never do cross [examination] that way. Totally unbelievable." The other liability is no matter how great, or award-winning the movie becomes, there is going to be an expert, or a person who lived through the actual historical event being portrayed, who hates the film. I personally loved the realism of D-Day in "Saving Private Ryan." but I have a hunch if you asked a D-Day vet what he thought about "Saving Private Ryan," he would say, "The cuffs on the pants are wrong."

   As they say, the devil is in the nitpicking.

"Tapaderos? We don't need no stinking matching tapaderos!"

   Imagine if someone in a Western outfitted a group of bandidos and one of the saddles only had one tapadero? I have a hunch it would never be tolerated by the director, wardrobe or the wranglers, and yet, there it is, plain as day in an authentic photograph from the Old West. I can even envision an entire side plot about The Bandido With Only One Tapadero.

   But, I digress.

   This is an insane task, to begin with and let it be noted there has never been a 100% historically accurate Western for the same reason there has never been a 100% historically accurate history book. Based on the rules of this planet, it's impossible

   But, that said, in some cases, there are moments in a few Westerns that defy gravity, they are so accurate. Take for example, the scene in Lonesome Dove where Augustus McCrae (Robert Duvall) is bucked off his horse. Turns out this is one of those happy accidents (not for Duvall, but for us) where Duvall was on a rank cow horse in a remote location when the half-broke cayuse bucked and knocked the beloved actor on his butt. That the editors and ultimately the producers left this in the final cut is remarkable—and remarkably accurate—and one of the reasons I seriously considered the series for my top ten list. More on that later.

Captain Call (Tommy Lee Jones) on "The Hell Bitch" in Lonesome Dove, the town

   And while we're on Lonesome Dove, another exceptionally accurate aspect of that series is the fact that Tommy Lee Jones brought his personal polo ponies to ride in the production. Unlike most Westerns where the actors ride big quarter-horses, the cowboys of the post Civil War period mostly rode small cow ponies, just like the one Tommy is astride, in the above photo. I also really liked how he rode in to almost every scene at full blast and dismounted on the run. That was so dead on. High marks for that element of the beloved show.

  Tomorrow, we will discuss at length the "history" of a very famous Western scene that involves Clint Eastwood, flies and a suicide. Oh, and a late train.

"I think that what we do in our society, the best of us as storytellers, present an alternative to the story the bosses are telling.”
—David Milch, reflecting on the George Hearst character in "Deadwood"


  1. A.D. Hopkins4:40 PM

    I share your taste for authenticity. There's authenticity in events and authenticity in equipment. Some of the early Eastwood spaghetti Westerns had pretty improbable plots, yet were beloved by real Western buffs because they made unprecedented attempts to get the clothes, weapons, and accoutrements correct. An improbable plot at least COULD HAVE happened, but nobody could have carried a '73 Colt revolver in the Civil War, which I am pretty sure I saw in an old movie scene depicting the James Boys in their salad days as Civil War guerillas.

  2. Anonymous5:22 PM

    I think that the correction is right on, it should be more like the real thing.

  3. Westerns are my favorite movie genre. I probably watch at least two Westerns a week, and that is not counting "Bonanza" and "Gunsmoke" episodes. What I notice most is when the rifles and pistols are not right. John Wayne movies are among the worst. The Duke usually had the same Colt Model P, whether the movie was set before or after the Civil War. It in only in recent years that westerners in movies have '73's and '66's, and not '92's and '94's. But I also love it when you are watching a Western and not only are the guns right, but there is something interesting, like a Starr or a S&W No. 3. Mostly i just try not to get too excited about the historical inaccuracies and just suspend disbelief

  4. Anonymous5:48 PM

    I have read a lot of books on tombstone an seen both movies. Well there not true. Wyatt was not the sheriff Virgil was. when Wyatt went to right his book Josie was right there to make sure that it came out him a hero not the truth. Most of the others during that time wrote books an made them self the hero. every time I read a book on some one from Tombstone I just knew they were the one to save the day lol So western on tv an movies are just entertainment an that is all.

  5. Time for a historically correct story about John W.Hardin.

  6. Thanks for that. Being insane some of those things drive me crazy.

  7. For that matter, how accurate was the raw language in Deadwood? Or do we even know?

  8. I totally get it. I usually can't sit and watch a prison movie for very long without opening my trap and ruining it for someone else. Same with Westerns- Hard to not pick at them over details that should and could have been correct, like gun handling. Nothing like a Colt 1873 Single Action Army revolver with a cylinder that holds 19 rounds to tick off people who know guns.

    The only point I give the movies a pass on is railroads. So few steam locomotives and wood rolling stock from the period survive in operating condition that I give the studios points whenever they seek out the real thing and use them in their productions, even if they are off by a decade or two. On this, there's no substitute for the real thing, how and wherever they have to go to get it.

  9. Phew....!
    I thought it was just me!
    Great subject Bob!

  10. great movie well acted very entertaining ...

  11. I wouldn't be against going back to the old US Cavalry movies and digitally erasing all the yellow bandanas and suspenders in the ranks. :-) I do have to admit, the newer westerns seem to at least be trying to get the look right.

  12. Anonymous7:56 AM

    Thank you! I love westerns, but I do tend to point out inaccuracies to anyone who may be watching with me. I can't help myself.

  13. In total agreement with "They didn't have that at that time" rant. I tend to watch the props. It is amazing, in the western movie world, the proliferation across the western timeline and regions of the same types and caliber repeating rifles and handguns, which remarkably all seem to shoot metal-casing cartridges!

  14. Hey, I like the post but it is hard to tell (as someone not really used to being around horses, history, or the place where they intersect) what parts of the last couple paragraphs are sarcasm and what parts are true.

    1. Well, those paragraphs are as true as I can make them and prone to sarcasm. Sorry, can't help it.


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