Cowboy Heroes

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When I was little the arm of one of our living room chairs was as perfect a horse as a boy could want. From that perch I could ride the range with Hoppy and Roy and, less often, with Gene. I’d strap my trusty six-shooter to my side, ready to fight for good. I didn’t have far to fall and I had a good view of the TV.

On Saturdays I’d join my friends at the movie theater. We’d watch the good guys as they won out over the bad guys. The TV shows that I loved were based on those cowboy movies that had been favorites of Americans for a couple of generations by then.

For decades, starting with “The Great Train Robbery” in 1903, cowboy movies were the most popular movies there were. By 1910, and for almost fifty years after, more than a fifth of all the movies made in the US were cowboy movies. But then those magical movies began do disappear.

In 1973 Don and Harold Reid of the country group The Statler Brothers took a look around and noticed that the cowboy movies being made then weren’t like the ones they’d learned to love growing up. They told us about how they felt in their hit song, “Whatever Happened to Randolph Scott.”

Here are some of the words. You can imagine for yourself the Statlers incredible harmony.

“Whatever happened to Randolph Scott, riding the trail alone?
Whatever happened to Gene and Tex and Roy and Rex, the Durango Kid?”

Don Reid says that his group is “What happened to you yesterday and who you are today.” Like all people, we Americans define ourselves, our beliefs, and our values by the stories we tell. And for several generations the stories we told were cowboy stories in all the forms available.

There were short stories. E. Z. C. Judson, who wrote under the pen name of Ned Buntline, wrote dozens of them and helped transform William Cody into Buffalo Bill. Zane Gray and Louis L’Amour and others wrote novels. There were radio shows and later TV shows. They had a lot in common besides being set in the Western United States during the last half of the nineteenth century.

Good and evil were clearly defined. You knew who the bad guys were because they were the ones wearing the black hats. The good guys wore white hats. They always won.

“Whatever Happened to Randolph Scott goes on: “Whatever happened to all of these has happened to the best of me.” Those stories didn’t just entertain us, they taught us some values and they helped bring out our best.

We learned to stand up for what was right. We learned to be polite. Those were very good things and Harold and Don Reid wondered why there weren’t movies teaching kids that anymore. The cowboy movies that were being made weren’t the same.

The folks who made movies looked around and decided that cowboy movies should be different. They thought cowboy movies were hokey and while those movies might have been long on moral lessons they were dreadfully short on historical accuracy and realism.

The cowboys we saw on our screens were all clean shaven and wearing clean clothes. Real cowboys did a job that got you really dirty. They didn’t bathe or shave much.

All the cowboys we saw were White guys. In real life probably twenty to twenty-five percent of all cowboys were African-American.

The cowboys we saw tended to have fights with the bad guys where a single punch or a single shot was all it took for good to triumph over evil. In the real world we would find that evil was often very strong and that conquering evil was not easy at all.

Those cowboy heroes were great at casting out evil but not so good at other things. In fact even the most picture-perfect movie and TV heroes of the forties and fifties would probably strike almost any psychologist as seriously dysfunctional.

Think about it. Those cowboy heroes didn’t have any relationships with anyone except their horse and their sidekick. Most of them didn’t seem to have a place to live. And none of them ever seemed to plan for the future.

In the 1960s producers and directors started making a different kind of cowboy movie. The movie plots became more sophisticated, realistic, and violent.

Where Hopalong Cassidy wouldn’t draw first and never killed anyone, director Sam Peckinpah gave us violence and blood spray in slow motion. Where the good guys were always the heroes before, not the bad guys were sometimes the focus of the movie like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Where things used to be simple now we saw conflicted heroes reflecting sadly on their lives like the main character in The Unforgiven.

Songs about cowboys changed, too. In 1978 Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings wrote a song that paralleled what was going on in the movies. It was called “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys.” Their cowboys are a bit different from the ones the Statler Brothers pined for.

“Them that don’t know him won’t like him and them that do
Sometimes won’t know how to take him.
He ain’t wrong, he’s just different but his pride won’t let him,
Do things to make you think he’s right.”

And

“They’ll never stay home and they’re always alone,
Even with someone they love.”

Newer movies kept the dysfunctional part of the cowboy, but let him be dirty, unshaven, and maybe a little dishonest. The problem for the folks who made cowboy movies turned out to be that folks didn’t seem to like the new kind of cowboy much.

By 2002, for the first time since the Great Train Robbery, not one new cowboy movie made it to movie theaters. That same year there was not a single cowboy series on network television in prime time.

The movie makers changed the very things about the cowboy movies that made us love them. We don’t need cowboy movies to show us that the world is choking on complex issues. A glance at the news will tell us that.

And we don’t need cowboy movies to show us that people are flawed. We know that. Most of us prove our flawed humanity daily, usually well before lunch.

We crave a simple, straightforward conflict between good and evil. As fighter Sonny Liston said about cowboy movies, “There’s got to be good guys and there’s got to be bad guys.”

We crave stories where the simple good triumphs. We know life doesn’t come out that way most of the time. We’d just like some of our stories to.

We crave heroes. We don’t crave them because they’re better than we are. We crave them because they give us an idea of how good we can be.

I think it’s time for me to break out the video of an old cowboy movie and indulge myself. I want to watch a simple hero who triumphs over evil without anyone getting killed. There’ll be time enough for reality tomorrow.

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