Cowboys and Indians: A Hard Look at One of Cinemas’ Oldest Genres
June 2022 Issue
Reel Corner by Donne Paine
Cowboys and Indians:
A Hard Look at One of Cinemas’ Oldest Genres
America can only claim a few art forms as its own. Jazz, for sure. Comic Books, certainly. And, it’s probably safe to add the Western to that list, too.
Westerns are a vital genre, with a habit of reinventing itself every few years, that doubles as a way to talk about American history. While there are certain themes and elements that define the genre, the Western is also proven to be flexible, capable of playing host to many different story lines and a vast variety of characters.
Since the early days of cinema, Native Americans have been associated with Westerns. In John Ford’s 1939 film Stagecoach, they were portrayed as wild warriors connected to the land. Over time, Hollywood has gradually come closer to presenting “Injuns” less as a stereotypical faceless horde, and more as human beings belonging to specific tribes, with complex personalities beyond stoic or bloodthirsty.
As for Cowboys, who didn’t grow up swooning over the classic rough and tumble cowboy—rugged, tanned, daringly handsome, always donning that broad-brimmed hat, strutting into saloons through swinging doors, drinking plenty of whiskey, and getting into fistfights and quick-draw shoot-outs? However, that is enhanced for entertainment. Real cowboys were rugged and tanned, certainly, and there probably were a fair number of fistfights, but day-to-day there was hard work to be done out on the ranges of North America.
During 1866 into the 1890s, the era in which many Westerns are set, there was big money to be made from beef. In the wake of the US Civil War, there was a big demand for meat up North and a big supply of longhorns in the Southwest. Train rails had not extended as far as they were needed yet, so men bridged the gap from ranch to rail—men with big hats, dust-beating bandanas and big-heeled boots—cowboys.
Their lives were often as exciting as those scripted adventures. Their jobs were to drive thousands of recalcitrant cattle across hundreds of miles of rough terrain in conditions ranging from thunderstorms to drought, watching for stampedes, wild animals and even wilder cattle rustlers. It was a seasonal life, with different jobs to be done in winter (catching drifting cows), spring (rounding up the stock) and summer (hitting the trail drive to market).
How did this two-decade golden age of savage frontier individualism end? Barbed wire. However, cowboys did not entirely disappear, of course, even as the work shifted and changed to include more fence-mending and long-range travel. Today, people still perform a version of the work that launched an entire genre of fiction across film, TV, comics, novels, radio shows and games.
Most everyone has their own favorite: Whether it be John Wayne in True Grit, Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns like The Good The Bad and the Ugly, Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant, or current day films like The Power of the Dog, or the popular streaming 1883 and Yellowstone.
Revisit the Wild, Wild West
With The Reel Corner Favorites:
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: Wyoming, early 1900s. Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) and The Sundance Kid (Robert Redford) are leaders of a band of outlaws. After a train robbery goes wrong, they find themselves on the run with a posse hard on their heels. Their solution? Escape to Bolivia.
Little Big Man: Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman), looking back from old age, tells of his life being raised by Native Americans and fighting General Custer.
Last of the Mohicans: Three trappers protect the daughters of a British Colonel
during the French and Indian War. (Daniel Day Lewis)
Dances with Wolves: Lieutenant John Dunbar (Kevin Costner), assigned to a remote western Civil War outpost, befriends wolves and Native Americans, making him an intolerable aberration in the military.
3:10 to Yuma: A small-town rancher agrees to hold a captured outlaw who is awaiting a train to go to court in Yuma. A battle of wills ensues as the outlaw tries to psych out the rancher.
How the West Was Won: A family saga covering several decades of Westward expansion in the 19th century, including the Gold Rush, the Civil War, and the building of railroads.
References: www.imdb.com, www.vulture.com, www.independent.co.uk
Donne Paine, film enthusiast, once lived around the corner from the Orson Welles Theater in Cambridge Massachusetts, where her strong interest in films, especially independent ones, began. Supporter of the arts, especially films, she travels to local and national film festivals, including Sundance, Toronto and Tribeca. There is nothing like seeing a film on the big screen. She encourages film-goers to support Hilton Head local theaters; Coligny Theater, Park Plaza Theater and Northridge. To support her habit of frequent movie going, Donne is a travel medicine nurse consultant. See you at the movies!