The Portrayal of the American Cowboy in Movies

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  2. March 3, 2013 4:53 pm

The Portrayal of the American Cowboy in Movies

The Western Cowboy — America’s gift to the film world

The Western movie is undoubtedly America’s greatest gift to the world of film. Since “The Great Train Robbery” in 1903, westerns have held audiences spellbound.
The famous director, D.W. Griffith, began cranking out westerns in 1910, staring “America’s Sweetheart,” Mary Pickford.

Conflict and action rode high in the first feature-length western, “Arizona,” in 1913. This one set a record for length – six reels! The next year, Cecil B. DeMille launched his legendary career with “The Squaw Man,” in 1914. The conflict between whites and Native Americans – however historically ridiculous – provided a basis for dozens of westerns.

Real-life western figures also showed up in those early westerns. Wyatt Earp rode tall in “The Half-Breed,” 1919, and Buffalo Bill Cody starred in “The Adventures of Buffalo Bill,” 1917.

But the first really big star of western films was a former Shakespearean actor, William S. Hart. With his pinto “Fritz,” he was a major western hero from 1910 until his last film was released in 1925.

Westerns were growing up by the end of the 1930s, with John Ford’s “Stagecoach.” It had the required action, but it offered something new in the western genre – an emphasis on character. John Wayne stepped up from his previous B-films to win audience’s hearts as “The Ringo Kid.” Ringo was the forerunner of countless western heroes. They adhered to their own code, lived by what they considered honor, and brought justice to people and places that had none.

In this, the western hero can be clearly seen as a reflection of the knightly hero of the King Arthur stories, or even of the Japanese ronin tales. The solitary hero who stands against evil and wins because of his courage, wisdom and dedication to justice became the hallmark of the western.

John Wayne was the model of such characters. But he was followed by a host of worthy role models, in parts played by Henry Fonda, Gary Cooper, Gregory Peck, Randolph Scott, Richard Boone, Van Heflin, Glen Ford and Yul Brynner.

The western cowboy and his drama have been going strong for over 100 years now – it seems likely they are here to stay.


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