I was sitting in the Triple B breezeway last night, enjoying a glass of Cabernet when I spied this view out the front gate. I would call this a "Mesquite Tree Sunset." By the way, the sun is setting on the opposite mountains, to the left of this and Continental Mountain, is in the east. A reflective sunset in more ways than one.
A Mesquite Tree Sunset
A Fool's Errand
So, back to work. This morning I wanted to make a solid case for our search for the most authentic Westerns and I asked Professor Paul Andrew Hutton to write up 100 words on the accuracy of "The Alamo" (2004). Instead, he wrote this.
Western History Vs. Western Film
The Western, be it a novel or a film, always carries with it the burden of history. For much of our nation’s existence the West was the story of America. Frederick Jackson Turner, our greatest historian, wrote that the American character—and thus American exceptionalism—came from the settlement of the frontier from Jamestown to Wounded Knee. It is that history that provides the setting for every Western film: be it a historical epic like The Iron Horse, The Plainsman, They Died with Their Boots On, Broken Arrow, The Alamo, or Tombstone; a morality play such as Stagecoach, Shane, The Ox-Bow Incident, High Noon, Ride the High Country, or True Grit; or even a whimsical farce such as Destry, The Outlaws is Coming, Alias Jesse James, Sergeants Three, Blazing Saddles, or countless Gene Autry and Roy Rogers singing cowboy pictures. All are set in a seemingly mythical land and yet are grounded in a particular time and place—the American frontier.
To seek points of accuracy in the Western film is at best a delightful parlor game, and if taken too seriously it is a fool’s errand, for every movie is essentially a three act play. Once the first word of dialogue is written it is a work of fiction. Thus every Western film, just like every Western novel, is fiction, not history, entertainment not fact. Many so-called Western documentaries, with invented dialogue, are also fiction masquerading as history. Westerns often go to great pains to be historically accurate in detail but then go off the rails in terms of story. I call this The Plainsman syndrome after one of my favorite films. In Cecil B. DeMille’s epic the wallpaper and a ceramic statue in General Custer’s office are correct (copied from a famous photo of Custer and his wife Libbie that is in the DeMille research collection at BYU), but almost everything else in the film is wildly inaccurate. DeMille even had to fight with the studio to be allowed to kill Gary Cooper’s Hickok at the end of the movie—the studio heads wanted a happy ending. In Young Guns the pistol used by Billy the Kid is accurate, and he then uses it to kill Jack Palance’s villainous Murphy at the film’s climax. This is a delightful if small accurate gun detail, a good piece of story development with the evil villains death, but some really bad history. In Tombstone an elaborate dance of death is played out between Ringo and Holliday so that the dead outlaw can be properly laid out under a tree with an accurate head wound (a detail grasped by only a handful of viewers). The only problem is that Holliday did not kill Ringo. In the 2004 Alamo from Disney great stock is put in historical accuracy, and yet the set designer changed the scale of the set so that the famed chapel façade could be seen from most camera angles and the costume designer placed almost all the defenders in top hats and frock coats to distance the film from John Wayne’s buckskin-clad defenders in the 1960 The Alamo. It was as if every defender was a lawyer or businessman, not the farmers and frontiersmen that they actually were. Crockett is stripped of his signature coonskin cap as well. To make matters worse the Crockett character is repeatedly called David not Davy and it is even pointed out in dialogue that he prefers to be called David. In reality the famed backwoods politician was called Davy by contemporaries even though he signed his name David. In The Revenant Hugh Glass hunts down and kills the man who deserted him after the bear attack—once again a good story that satisfies the audience but totally inaccurate history. More often than not when a film claims in opening credits to be true to history it often goes wildly astray—two classic examples are Hour of the Gun and Little Big Man.
My favorite historical Westerns tend to be those that get at the heart of why we remain so fascinated with the West and why that story still resonates today. John Ford was the undisputed master of this. Thus my favorite Custer film is Fort Apache, in which the names and locale are changed but which perfectly explains the necessity of a false western legend to our national identity, and my favorite Wyatt Wyatt Earp film remains My Darling Clementine, in which almost every historical detail is wrong and yet the mythic power of the Tombstone saga is perfectly captured. These films go to the heart of James Warner Bellah’s oft-quoted line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance—“This is the West sir, when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
I love historical Westerns—both films and novels. My first interest in history came about as a result of Disney’s Davy Crockett, and my fascination with the Apache Wars can be attributed to Elliott Arnold’s novel Blood Brother and the film based on it (Broken Arrow). My love of the Custer story, however, came from the famed Cassilly Adams saloon print that hung in the bar my parents frequented in San Angelo, Texas. I studied that painting for hours while they drank and when I finally saw They Died with Their Boots On I was confident that the painting and film were “correct in every detail” (a wonderful line about a history painting from John Ford’s Fort Apache). In the nineteenth century epic historical paintings toured the country, and along with Wild West shows and stage plays presented a version of frontier history for mass consumption. The conventions of these paintings and shows were later adopted by filmmakers. The cinematic image of Custer’s Last Stand comes directly from paintings (and in DeMille’s The Plainsman is essentially a living tableau of Alfred Waud’s famous Custer illustration). The visual imagery from nineteenth century canvas flowed easily into twentieth century celluloid. Be it a painting, a stage play, a novel or a film it was always a constructed version of history with often scant resemblance to fact. The goal is entertainment, not education. As a famous producer once quipped: if you want to send a message call Western Union!
The great legacy of these historical paintings, plays, novels and films about western history is that they have inspired generations of Americans—including this writer—to further explore the frontier story and to delve much deeper into our nation’s history. They are the starting point of many a lifetime of adventure in history.
—Paul Andrew Hutton
"Be careful what you ask for."
—Old Vaquero Saying
Based on a true story means once upon a time.ReplyDelete
On the other hand, former True West editor John Joerschke said, "If you want to write the truth, write a novel." So there is that. Dan