Saturday, November 18, 2017

Keeping It Real: The Real West vs. The Reel West

November 18, 2017
   Still wrestling with a major conundrum: Is there such a thing as a historically accurate Western, and, does it really matter?

   Personally, I think we all want authenticity in our lives. We seek it out. We hate fakery and we want the real deal.

Is a cowboy in Brooklyn the Real Deal?

   In the past month we have built a pretty strong case that there are certainly scenes, or specific moments, in Westerns, that are quite accurate and we love these moments, although we can't all agree on the same moments. One film, however, stands out heads and shoulders above almost everything else:

Buckaroos Advance: attention to detail
is appreciated in "Tombstone."

   Meanwhile, there is a palpable disdain for the "reel" West among history types. Since we bought True West in 1999 I have constantly heard the sarcastic refrain, "Why don't you rename the magazine Reel West?" I've always found it a little amusing, since it's been my experience that whenever a group of scholars, or history buffs, go out drinking, the subject almost always turns to movies. As Paul Hutton put it in his masterful take (actually more of a take down on my premise!), most of us came to the real West from the reel West.

"The Alamo" On Track (1960): getting the shot at what cost?

   Hutton and I love to disagree on what constitutes authenticity in Westerns. He mocks the effort to get the correct pistol in Billy the Kid's hands in "Young Guns" only then to have him shoot Murphy (Jack Palance) which, Hutton claims is bad history (we agree on that part). But, as we each make our cases, it's clear to me that one person's mockery is another's Holy Grail. And long may that Holy Mockery Wave.

Film Director King Vidor surveys his custom-built
kingdom of Lincoln for "Billy the Kid."

   So, is it an exercise in futility? Perhaps, but it's fun to argue about this stuff. And if it's not any fun, why even do it? The way I look at it, we're keeping it real.

   And, by the way, the cowboy up top is Pedro "Joe" Esquivel, billed as a champion vaquero, who was photographed in Brooklyn, New York at a Buffalo Bill show. Pedro may have been authentic, but the setting is not. And so it goes.

"Most of the fiction in this world comes from people who are repeating true stories."
—Old Vaquero Saying


  1. Anonymous12:43 PM

    Yes, you are correct---movies/TV did spark my inter4est in History. As a kid I loved Disney's Davy Crockett, Johnny Shiloh. The Swamp Fox show. The Lone Ranger was great.
    Authenticity in the REEL WEST? In retrospect maybe it's a good thing film has not captured an authentic West yet. One way to view it: I feel an authentic War film has never been made. My Dad never talked about his Army service in WW2, I have never touched upon my Vietnam Army experience with anyone but my wife. Reason being it was depressing and I could not wait to get back to The States when I was overseas. No such thing as an accurate War film in my opinion. If there was one, I'd avoid it like the plague. The Nam films I have seen were light hearted in comparison to reality. I'd hate to think future people debated "Whats more realistic, Platoon or Apocalypse Now?"

  2. Never in my wildest imagination have I ever thought Westerns were anything but America's version of fairy tales. I wouldn't have it any other way.


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