Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Evolution of the Cowboy Narrative

Guest Post by Philip J. Reed, Writing on behalf of Stetson.

Arguably no figure is more iconic in American culture than the cowboy. With his unmistakable cowboy hat, boots, stirrups and trusty steed, the cowboy rides in from the wilderness at a moment of conflict and intervenes against the forces of corruption and greed. The typical cowboy is a self-reliant, often aloof figure, treating others with dignity and respect but maintaining his independence at all costs. Though those staples of the archetype have been around for more than a century, the cowboy has changed greatly through decades' worth of depictions in literature and film.

Cattle herders of one sort or another have existed for as long as humans have kept livestock, but the heyday of the Western cowboy period lasted about 15 years, from just after the Civil War into the 1880s. Cowboys, many of them veterans of the Civil War, likely herded between three and four million cattle from southern Texas to ranches in Kansas, Nebraska and Wyoming during this period. The time of the historical cowboys was relatively short, yet their image has lived on in popular culture ever since.

Starting in the late 1800s, the cowboy appeared as a recurring figure in short stories and pulp dime novels throughout the United States. The first true Western novel was Owen Wister's The Virginian, whose eponymous hero was a cowboy living on a ranch in Wyoming. Though the Old West was not yet terribly old at that time, cowboys were already becoming romanticized in
American popular culture. The success of Wister's novel paved the way for even more popular works by later Western writers.

The emergence of the cowboy in popular culture came at the same time as the emergence of film as a popular medium. Very early shots even featured the original Western icon, Buffalo Bill, and members of his Wild West show. Perhaps the first seminal Western film was The Great Train Robbery. Directed by Edwin S. Porter, this 1903 silent film was one of the first examples of true narrative storytelling on screen, and its closing shot of actor Justus D. Barnes firing point-blank at the audience remains one of the most iconic images in film history. Thanks in large part to the power of the cowboy image, The Great Train Robbery succeeded in involving the audience in the story to an unprecedented degree.

The 1920s saw popular culture take center stage in everyday life, and the cowboy was front and center on stage and in literature. Thousands of silent Western films were produced in the early and middle portion of the decade; however, when movies added sound in the late 1920s, Hollywood producers more or less abandoned the genre. Smaller studios kept the cowboy alive in film until the late 1930s, when a series of big-budget Westerns sparked renewed interest in the genre. Most notably, John Ford's Stagecoach hit theaters in 1939 to rave reviews and established John Wayne as one of the biggest stars in Hollywood history. Wayne's portrayal of rugged, independent characters that treated others with the utmost respect and required the same from everyone they met solidified the image of the cowboy in popular culture.

Meanwhile, the 20th century saw the cowboy take center stage in the world of popular literature. Perhaps the first great Western author was Zane Grey, who published dozens of cowboy novels in the early 1900s and became one of the world's first millionaire authors. Grey's influence on the cowboy archetype has been felt for decades after his death, with more than 100 films produced based on his writings. Following in Grey's footsteps was Louis L'Amour, who wrote dozens of novels and short stories over a career that spanned more than four decades. L'Amour's cowboys were often impossibly strong, larger-than life figures; though often a reluctant hero, once forced to act this cowboy was unstoppable in the pursuit of his goals.

As with any archetypal figure, the cowboy has inspired his share of parodies. Perhaps the most iconic such film is Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles, which pokes fun at the racism obscured in Hollywood depictions of the cowboy by installing a black sheriff in an all-white town. Blazing Saddles also features numerous anachronisms; perhaps in reference to the cowboy image's itself being an adaptation of the medieval idea of chivalry.

More recent films have challenged the long-standing image of the rugged, independent good-guy cowboy. Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven focuses on the darker side of the Wild West, dealing with intense violence and the less than pure nature of its protagonist's motives. Conversely, Russell Crowe's portrayal of Ben Wade in the 2007 remake of 3:10 to Yuma shows a more sympathetic side to the cowboy's antagonist, the Western outlaw. The controversial 2005 film Brokeback Mountain uses the cowboy image to present the complex relationship between two men in the American West, an acknowledgment of changing societal attitudes towards romance.

Outside the realm of popular culture, the cowboy has come to be associated with the United States as a whole, for good or ill. Former President George W. Bush was often called a 'cowboy diplomat' because of his independent-minded and sometimes reckless approach to foreign policy. Throughout the past century, the cowboy has become synonymous with a spirit of adventure, independence and respect, one that is deeply ingrained in American culture.

1 comment:

  1. Good overview of the archetype, Matt. The cowboy has been parodied in popular fiction and movies from almost the beginning. Have a look at Buster Keaton's GO WEST if you haven't already.