|Posted by BigBlackHatMan on June 16, 2012 at 1:45 AM|
SYCW Presents: History and Hollywood Part 1
Recently, Dark Jak made a suggestion that I should do something on popular historical figures in Westerns, and I liked the idea. The problem was how to approach this issue. I thought I would start with those figures who have had a lot of movies. In particular, the easiest way to start will be to use three of the most known figures of the Western genre: Wyatt Earp, Jesse James, and Billy the Kid. Well, there is a lot to cover here, so let’s get started.
One of the obvious figures to start with would be Wyatt Earp as few figures have been used more often in Westerns. He has been the lead character in many films, but has also served as a supporting character on many occasions in such films as Winchester ’73 and Cheyenne Autumn. (Honestly, it may be the only good thing in Cheyenne Autumn.) If you do a quick IMDB search on the character name, it gives fifty-six results. This is not all the movies he or a facsimile of him have appeared in as I know they did not list instances where both William S. Hart and Tom Mix portrayed the man in the early days of film. The point is that unless you have lived under a rock or somehow ignored every piece of Western mythos, you know the name.
Why is this? The easiest answer is that Earp lived to tell his own story. He co-authored a book called Frontier Marshall, also the name of a 1939 film starring Randolph Scott, which glorified the exploits of Earp and made him out to be a great hero. The truth of the book has been largely refuted over time. The book is not necessarily a pack of lies, but it tells the story in a way to glorify Earp and was clearly told from a memory that was very shaky. Earp also benefitted from having his brothers Virgil and James still alive to agree with the story. Many who could refute the story did not due to being dead or wanting to profit in the same way Earp was. Earp, who lived in California, managed to befriend several of the early Western actors and figures such as the aforementioned Hart and Mix along with legendary director John Ford. Of course, people want to help their friends. All these men made movies to further enhance the legend of Earp.
As far as the actual films go, they range from poorly done to the best of the genre. On the end of movies that I would not recommend, I would go with the murder mystery Sunset that starred Bruce Willis as Tom Mix and James Garner as Wyatt Earp. The movie takes place in 1929 and makes little to no sense. If you want to see Garner do a decent Earp, I would recommend Hour of the Gun from 1967. It is not a great film, but better than Sunset.
There is quite a bit of quality to work with in the practical subset genre of Wyatt Earp. My Darling Clementine, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and Wyatt Earp are all quality films, but the one that is the most fun and interesting is Tombstone. None of the films hit historical accuracy exactly; Wyatt Earp is probably the closest. Tombstone tells the most engaging story of all of them and has some of the best portrayals with Kurt Russell, Sam Elliot, Val Kilmer, and Bill Paxton on top of their games. Wyatt Earp may not have been the glorified figure we think of today thanks to his media image. However, with all the great films, it is impossible to get passed this image now.
The second figure who has had several treatments over the years to consider is Jesse James. The legendary Civil War veteran who became a marauder along with his brother Frank and fellow veteran Cole Younger has been immortalized in almost every medium possible, but particularly in film. Once again, a quick IMDB search results in an incredible eighty results with their undoubtedly being more. It is an impressive list. James is certainly as well-known as Earp except being the anti-hero as a career criminal rather than a lawman.
The reasons for his reputation are certainly not because he was alive to tell his story as James was famously killed by Robert Ford in his own home. Instead, it was his relatives that carried on his name. Jesse’s brother Frank survived a prison sentence to start running a Wild West circus, commission books, and use the name to make more money they he and his brother ever did robbing trains and banks. Jesse’s eldest son, Jesse James, Jr, also capitalized on the family name by playing his infamous father in a couple of silent films in the early 1920s. One more thing to point out is that while the James-Younger gang had their run they constantly placed articles in papers defending their robberies and glorifying their actions. They always understood the power of positive press.
Unlike the aforementioned Earp, there is much more really bad material to work with here. Movies like 1939’s Jesse James, The Kansan, and Missouri Raiders all fail as they over glorify James as a folk hero and do nothing to inspire with the lead performances. The most atrocious of these films has to be the 2001 American Outlaws. Colin Farrell played the lead with Scott Caan as Cole Younger and the movie is unwatchable in every way. It is just bad. The movie fails in terms of acting, storytelling, and tone. The convoluted way in which they justify the actions on Jesse James would make any historian cringe.
Though many of the films on James have tended to the negative, there are two really excellent and very different movies to view on the subject. The first is from 1980 with a large ensemble cast of siblings such as the Carradines, Keachs, and Quaids called The Long Riders. Using real life brothers to play the famous family members actually works very well. This movie relies on action to make its points and tell a story that does a decent job with the history. Given the way the movie was casted, it could have easily been a silly and over-the-top picture, but it was actually handled well.
The second film is the recent The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. The movie plays out like a documentary, and I recently reviewed it at length. The movie has a quiet, tense tone that works with the dangerous personality of James played by Brad Pitt. Of course, the movie is not for everyone due to the patience it takes to watch it, but does a good job of telling James’ story.
The final figure in this opening portion worth talking about is Billy the Kid. William Bonney was a hired gun during the infamous Lincoln County Wars and outlaw who was eventually done in by his former friend Pat Garrett. Billy the Kid ranks the highest on the basic IMDB search with ninety-one entries, but gets a big boost from a serial that gets counted by individual entries that starred Bob Steele and later Buster Crabbe. Billy the Kid has certainly seen his fair share of screen time.
The popularity of Billy the Kid is a little more complicated than the first two figures as he certainly was not alive, he had no family, and many of those who fought in the Lincoln County Wars were dead by the time movies came around. The fact that a war between cattlemen claimed several victims has a lot to with the popularity in this instance. The events also occurred around 1880 when journalism was good enough to cover the events and record them for history. Billy the Kid was the most infamous of the gunmen involved. His initial survival made him a popular figure and one reporters liked to talk about in an attempt to tantalize readers with a youthful killer.
Billy the Kid movies have been ambitious, but have rarely been a clear cut homerun. Though the character had been around for quite a while, The Outlaw, released in 1943, was supposed to be the first big budget powerhouse telling of his story. Doc Holliday is forced in, and it ends up a story of lust for lead actress Jane Russell. The movie badly flounders in its storytelling and acting at times. Something similar can be said for Paul Newman’s 1958 film, The Left Handed Gun. It is not a bad movie. It just is not a great movie. Newman was a little old for the role and the script was average at best. Another good example from the not quite there category would be the 1970 film Chisum. John Wayne stars here and overshadows the Billy the Kid plot line, and it falls into that category of Wayne’s late career as movies seemingly done more for a good pay check than anything. Once again, it is watchable, just not special.
There is a movie that some people reading this may be wondering why it has not come up yet, so here it comes: Young Guns. I really do not like this movie. It is almost all personal bias, but I find this movie to have underdeveloped characters, a bizarre plot that flaunts history, and some subpar acting. That being said, the movie has a fan base, and that is great for them. This just is not the magnum opus the famous Western outlaw has never quite gotten.
There is one movie that had a ton of potential and lives up to some of it without being the best it could have been. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is a solid film from later in the career of director Sam Peckinpah. The movie tells the story of Garrett’s hunt for the Kid after the end of the Lincoln County Wars and explores their relationship. By Peckinpah’s standards, it is a quiet film that tells a story about people more than action. It suffers from two problems. Kris Kristofferson, playing Billy the Kid, was still learning acting at that point in his career, and the studio chopped up Peckinpah’s nearly three hour epic to a two hour film. The director’s cut is the one to watch. So, if you want a good one, this is it, but it is not perfect.
Well, there it is. I hope this look illuminates some of the more popular figures in Western folklore. In the next part, I will be looking at figures who have had a few films about them, for better or worse and those figures who still need the movie to enhance the legend. So, happy trails and watch out for those rough patches.