COWBOY RELIGION


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The new treaty modernizes an outmoded relation with a friendly and hospitable country. Politics and movies, it would seem, are at least in America absolutely inseparable. In an age of few heroes, he was the genuine article. It is significant to bear in mind and shocking for some to learn that the phrase "the code of the West" did not yet exist during the nineteenth century, the period in which cowboy stories, movies included, are mostly set.

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It may have been coined in by one Mildred Sledge, a screenwriter who in two brief years turned out seven silent Westerns, the final among them titled The Code of the West director unknown. His novel The Code of the West would not be published until In the process of rescuing the American equivalent of a damsel in distress, the hero proved himself an American Hercules, Southwestern El Cid, or Sir Lancelot of the last frontier. Howard, then again in by J. Romantic notions of earlier, grander times and people extend deep in time to heroes on the order of Perseus or perhaps Theseus, these even earlier Greek conceptions of the strong, silent hero who arrives to conquer a monstrous Minotaur and save the people of Mycenae, particularly some lovely virgin, from a fate worse than death.

There is not a whit of evidence that such people ever existed, in ancient Greece, in medieval England, or on our own wild frontier. If a coalition of Greeks did follow a king named Agamemnon to Ilium, they did so as pirates eager to sack the city, not noble gentlemen hoping to restore honor to Helen, the supposedly abducted wife of Menelaus who more likely ran off with Paris by choice.

Lake, a writer claiming to be an objective biographer while swallowing tall tales without any hesitation and relating them verbatim, in the process giving a semblance of history to nostalgic gossip. In time his book Frontier Marshal led to endless films and TV shows.


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Owing to this reimaging of flawed if fascinating persons, entertainment from Hollywood was believed when seen, despite being only movies; the consummate craftsmanship of the best films, particularly those of Ford, added to the impact with My Darling Clementine in More recent forays into the Western tend to be of a revisionist nature, films like the remake of to Yuma James Mangold, denying the very code of the West embodied in the original Delmer Daves, All the same, the attitudes of tea partiers and others appear to be based on one absolute idea: that the charming fabrications of the twentieth century in which artists and entertainers of varied creative gifts rewrote the American experience from the nineteenth century in romanticized terms ought to be the source of our daily political and religious lifestyles in the twenty-first.

More often than not, such a desire is based on the heretofore unchallenged belief that those bygone Western texts, in print or on celluloid, offered what we would today call a red-state vision, traditionalist and conservative. On closer examination, nothing could be further from the truth. Truth or dare! Watch any classic Western about the O. Corral gunfight, from the first, Law and Order Edward L. Cahn, , through what might be considered the last, Hour of the Gun John Sturges, In such cases the O.

Corral incident is presented in the simplest of terms, a real-life allegory posited in black and white. But these are literary or cinematic truths. And as such, they are subjective: interpretations by artists, entertainers, or the journeyman storytellers who occupy some middle ground between the two. Importantly, there is a more objective truth, what we might call the historical one. This did not appear in theatrical movies until the genre we call the Western had seemingly run its course. At last, such rare "oaters," as they were once nicknamed, as Tombstone George Pan Cosmatos, and Wyatt Earp Lawrence Kasdan, projected a more modern, in some regards postmodern, sensibility onto that nineteenth-century stage.

These films—the former a solid box-office success, the latter something of a disaster—came closer to recapturing rather than reinventing the past. Way back when, in the West that "was" as compared to the Dream West of old movies, any and all pressing social issues were as complex as they are today, defying codification as moral absolutes. The mundane build-up to the O.

Corral incident had to do with control of the economics in a still emergent community. Control would be decided, as always in America, through a political process. In reality, the situation came down to this: an area newly redistricted, owing to political maneuverings, as Cochise County proved ripe in silver, as such providing financial rewards for whichever faction won the election for sheriff, who traditionally served as the collector of taxes.

The bloody gun battle between the Earps and Clantons, so central to Hollywood Westerns, was actually an unexpected offshoot of this considerably larger power play. According to researchers, it also appears in retrospect as an avoidable incident rather than, as movies and TV have it, a fated consequence. Nor did it come down to, as in Gunfight at the O.

The primary conflict took place between Earp and John Behan, a man ignored in the former and marginalized as a fictional figure Cotton Wilson, enacted by Frank Faylen in the latter. In his position as sitting sheriff, Behan collected the taxes. Here was the key to quick wealth. Lake, frontier marshal was a low-paying, less than lofty position consisting mainly of arresting drunken cowboys and other routine chores.

Every bit as ambitious as Behan, likely driven more by his earnest desire to finally succeed in a capitalist system than by any God-given inspiration to make the West safe for incoming pioneers, Earp intensely wanted to become the sheriff. With that defeat at the polls his dreams turned to dust, a circumstance most early filmed "biographies" fail to mention, much less portray. Yet those movies were basically mythic, set on a Hollywood, not historical, frontier.

As to reality, now or then, win the election and rake in profits; lose and you are back to collecting miniscule fines for jailing bums. This is not the vision of the Old West we discover in pre films or the paperbacks, comic books, and dime novels or the elaborate stage performances that preceded them.

Even when the incidents were accurately portrayed this in itself rare , the key motivations of the men who were presented to readers and audiences were idealized fabrications.


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These visions disappeared following the social, political, and cultural revolution of the late s. A new type of Western emerged that debunked previous legends.

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Others, including the anti-Earp Doc Frank Perry, , were embarrassing misfires. What they and many others projected was a nouveau attitude toward the past. Initially, this was taken as far more honest, if only because they offered an alternative or revisionist view. In truth, negativism is not necessarily any truer to life than positive visions.

Today, revisionist films seem less realistic than cynical and as simplistic as pres Westerns. Still, in the age of political assassinations, the disastrous war in Vietnam, and the Watergate scandal, it is not difficult to understand why a large number of Americans agreed with a statement offered by director Dennis Hopper. Their modern motorcycles took the place of old-fashioned mounts. Wyatt was accompanied by a Billy the Kid pal Hopper's character. During the presidential election he supported Reagan over Carter.

In part, Hopper's support for Reagan can be explained as a pendulum swing away from what appeared to many as the failed progressivism of the Carter years. Also, there was the sense that Republican Reagan, much like the Democrat Jack Kennedy of some twenty years earlier, radiated movie-star charisma.

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The Reagan campaign relied heavily on what came to be called cowboy politics. The most famous image of Reagan from that time is a shot of him standing proudly in front of the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas. The role went instead to newcomer Fess Parker. Eventually he is unmasked as a fraud, an Easterner dedicated to keeping the myth of the Old West alive.

How convenient for Ronald Reagan, then, that when it comes to choosing the traditional heroes for a uniquely American popular culture, the public has never been mildly intrigued by those remarkable people who won the Revolution or created the Constitution. This period constituted the true birth of the nation. In its place, we instead worship or, conversely, disparage what became a preferred origin myth—the taming of the West.

Willie Nelson put it better than anyone: "My heroes have always been cowboys. The Hollywood cowboy hero, atop some magnificent horse in comparison to a lowly working man who roamed the range on a wasted nag became the great American icon. No matter; legends possess a truth of their own. The Western remains an American myth, enshrined by some as the ongoing essence of the country, attacked by others as an outdated, politically incorrect sensibility. If Nelson allows us any insight, though, the West offers a rich, complex vision that cuts across temporal political barriers.

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