'Hollywood Myths, Cracked': 4 Things Movies Get Wrong About The Old West
Western movies have been the bedrock of Hollywood’s mainstream success, and the film industry has come a long way since cowboys were only good for robbing trains, and John Wayne sported an eyepatch like a desert pirate. Today we have some (much-needed) updated Westerns, with many neo-Western films providing some exciting and different takes on those gunslinging cowboys from the days of the Old West.
But as we all know by now, Hollywood will mostly — and by mostly, we mean always — choose entertainment and embellishment over accuracy and realism. And that’s all fine and good, but what, then, do the movies get wrong about people who lived on horseback in the sun while their faces boiled off and their butts smelled like filly? Well, for starters …
About Those Gunslingers
Did you know that the term “gunslinger” originated in a movie script? Yep, no one in the Wild West called themselves or others slingers of guns, and the term first popped up in the 1920 movie Drag Harlan about, surprise, a cowboy vigilante. The word “gunfighter” was used since at least the 1870s, but most gunmen of the Old West were more commonly called “shootists” or “pistoleros” … which is Spanish for “gunmen.”
The movies will have us believe that every second man in the Old West moonlighted as a gunslinger, either robbing some local bank or strutting along in search of a foe aching for a bullet fight. Truth is that the image we have of gunslingers comes from pulp fiction novels of the 1900s and, not much later, the pulp fiction movie scripts. Not only were gunslingers not even called that, but they also didn’t wear those hip-holster thigh rigs for a faster draw— those only came into existence during the ‘50s when the quick-draw became an actual sport — and many didn’t even use pistols as their primary weapon. Most gunmen preferred rifles and coach guns. Billy the Kid, for example, liked a revolver but favored a Winchester rifle because it was way more accurate than a pistol. This, however, is not the Kid's Winchester rifle:
But we guess Hollywood couldn’t figure out how to tie a rifle to an actor’s leg for a quick draw. In reality, all those one-on-one gunfighting duels we’ve seen in so many movies are based on two accounts: One between Wild Bill Hickok and Davis Tutt, and the other involving Jim Courtright and Luke Short. Two documented cases, and so many movie scenes. On top of that, the idea that gunfights were long, drawn-out affairs is simply laughable, but we get it. In storytelling, it builds suspense and creates tension. We would say, though, that if you’re going to do it, at least do it a little something like this:
And speaking of all these guns, it turns out …
The Old West Had Gun Control
If you look at Western movies, you’d think everyone was totally gung-ho about guns. That was simply not the case because wherever there are guns, there are problems, and Tombstone's Marshall Virgil Earp (along with his brothers Wyatt and Morgan) soon realized that their Old West town needed some gun control. The Marshall made it law that anyone visiting the town of Tombstone had to disarm themselves on arrival, with many of the surrounding towns following suit. In fact, according to Adam Winkler who is a professor and specialist in American constitutional law, says that the Western town of Tombstone had more restrictive gun-carrying laws during the 1880s than today. The movie Tombstone touches on this, but all anyone probably remembers are those giant mustaches.
In Kansas, Dodge City formed a government in 1878, and the very first law they passed was one that prohibited the carrying of guns and other weapons in town. Says Winkler: “Gun control laws were adopted pretty quickly in these places. Most were adopted by municipal governments exercising self-control and self-determination.” Southern states were the first to implement these laws, and they were seen as compatible with the Second Amendment. People could own guns, they just couldn’t come waltzing into a frontier town, swinging their rifles and revolvers like they owned the place and people. Guns stayed at home or were checked in at a law enforcement office — kind of like a coat check works.
Of course, there were folks left livid over the fact that they couldn’t go into town and shoot their guns at the sky no more. The facts, however, showed that the towns with gun-carrying laws and restrictions had less violence to worry about. Go figure.
There Were So Much More Facial Hair Going Around
Cattle drives were harsh, yo. There weren’t any rest stops where a guy or gal could take a bath or a shower, which means no shaving of facial hair either. It was just much easier to grow full beards and 'staches, and hope you could afford a trim the next time you stumbled into some fancy town.
Not to mention that the razors back then were the kind that could bleed a man out. Nicknamed the “cut throat,” you had to have some skills using those straight razors, which is why barbers became a thing.
Keeping those razors sharp was an entire saga on its own, and don’t even get us started on the soap. Made of bay rum and vanilla extract, shaving lotion would cake on the skin in the windy outdoors, and the stuff needed to be kept moist at all times while attempting a shave; otherwise, it would flake off under the razor blade. It was just too much of a hassle for a cowboy on the move, and most simply ended up not bothering with it at all.
Hollywood Still Has A Long Way To Go In Fixing Its Whitewashing
Spanish colonists brought ranching culture to the West during the 16th century, and they were the original ranch owners. Cowboy culture was largely influenced by Hispanic and Latino citizens, with one in three cowboys being of Mexican origin by the 1800s. Those cowboy hats and spurs and lassos were all of Latine origin.
We don’t often get to see that kind of historical ownership in the stories on screen, let alone how white Americans first learned about cowboy culture in the early 19th century during the westward expansion. Back then, cowboys did the hard jobs that the slaves did for white folks — meaning it was, in fact, the people of color who shaped the Old West. And yet, it took us way too long to finally see the colorful people of the American Frontier represented in our Westerns. In 1951, famous frontiersman James Beckwourth — who was a multiracial slave freed by his white owner (and father) — was portrayed in the movie Tomahawk by a white actor. In 2021, a whopping 70 years later, we finally got to see a black actor (RJ Cyler) play a version of him in a (fantastic) movie.
We could carry on and name a list of white actors who portrayed prominent cowboys of color throughout Hollywood history, but we bet you probably already know many of them. And while it seems that Hollywood is slowly turning a corner on all the whitewashing of Westerns, more could be done, and less should be praised. It doesn’t really help saying Django Unchained is a revisionist Western when it uses the white savior plot. It doesn’t inspire when every second historical Western is about Jesse James. Google “21st century Westerns” and count the white characters in the movies that pop up. Actually, no — rather count the people of color instead. It’ll save you a lot of time.