The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia


November 29, 2013

Movies, TV offer heroic perception of American cowboy

The cowboy still is the most popular legendary hero America has produced.

Evidence of his popularity surrounds us all day long: A grim-faced cowboy gallops through the commercials on TV; he rides herd on reruns of “Rawhide” and “Gunsmoke;” his six-gun hangs low on his hip in modern films such as “Cowboys and Aliens,” and he ambles off into the sunset on his faithful mount, perhaps after winning the heart of the sweetest and daintiest of young women on the frontier.

In fact, the American cowboy’s appeal is sometimes explained as a modern longing for the days when life was simple. The cowboy remains the symbol of our national adolescence: the last image of a carefree life.

Some critics even call westerns the American mythology.

Whatever the reasons, the cowboy’s popularity is undeniable and must be due mainly to the cowboy hero himself. His characteristics are partly inventions and partly misrepresentations or embellishments of actual traits.

As I was perusing one of my ancient college English books the other day, this is what popped up from its pages:

The cowboy of movies and TV is an anachronism, a relic or a remnant of the past. He represents life on the cattle range in the 1870s and early 1880s.

After the Civil War the industrial North offered a market for Texas cattle, which outnumbered people six to one and were of little value.

A steer worth three to five dollars in Texas would bring 10 times as much in New York if a way could be found to get it there. The railroad provided the way.

As a result, many young Americans, many of whom were former soldiers, assumed the duties once performed by Mexican herders.

The northern drives to the railroad and to grazing lands in Montana and Wyoming are the cowboy’s heroic age, though it only lasted for a couple of decades while the railroads were extending tracks throughout the Southwest.

Round-ups, river crossings, stampedes, the chuck wagon, and the wandering cowboy — all commodities of the films and TV programs of the 1950s and early ’60s — date from this period.

At any rate, the end of an era is difficult to pinpoint: Perhaps the cowboy’s way of life began to change with the invention of barbed wire in 1874, the use of which spread rapidly: 80,500,000 pounds had been sold by 1880. The open range was doomed as small farmers closed off the northern trails, and forced the cattlemen to grow hay for winter feed.

 The legendary cowboy was elevated to enviable status which inspired respect and envy but required no work. Cowboy movies in which cattle were not even seen were common during the latter days of the genre. Randolph Scott and Joel McCray, among other popular actors of my childhood, were said to have outlived their audiences.

Of course, the honest cowboy always allowed the villain to fire first. He was chivalrous and devoted to his friends, early traits that set the pattern for future films.

And though the cowboy’s horse was essential in life, it was indispensable in legend. And yet, the beautiful palominos and Arabians in the movies were far different from actual cow ponies.

The dress of an actual cowboy was functional too. Pearl-studded shirts and decorated soft-leather boots wouldn’t have been much use on the prairie. Plus, they would have been extremely expensive.

What is more, the cowboy’s proficiency as a gun-slinger is probably as exaggerated as was his ability as a ballad-singer. He usually wore one forty-five and carried a rifle to protect the herd from wolves, but most riders of the purple sage were only fair marksmen with a handgun, which wasn’t noted for accuracy beyond a minimal distance.

On top of that, high-stakes poker among ordinary cowboys must have been rare indeed. The cowboy’s monthly wage totaled no more than $30 to $35.

And while the American cowboy of the movie and TV screens continues to fight the old fights and ride the old range, he is different from his historic counterpart as hyperbole can make him.

But to his millions of fans this fact is relatively unimportant — he no doubt represents what cowboys should have been like anyway — whether he was or not is a different story.


Top o’ the morning!

— Blankenship is a reporter

 for The Register-Herald.

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