28 01 2008

When you hear the word “cowboy”, what does it make you think of?

In Western films, so I am told, cowboys are often honorable heroes.  The image I normally associate with the word “cowboy” is very much that kind of cowboy – Stetson hat, revolver, cowboy boots, lariat, bandana, drinking whiskey, shooting to kill.  As you can probably tell, I have never met a real cowboy, so my perception of them is rather muddled and self-contradictory, as is my perception of sherriffs and outlaws and all the rest of ’em.

I do, however, have some idea what a historical cowboy was like, half-recalled from GCSE history lessons.  They were men who would ride with cattle and drive them across the West, often with little regard to rules such as jaywalking (which meant trespass, not crossing the street at a non-desinated crossing), much to the anger of landowners.  Part of their job was to protect their cattle from the Native Americans, who would sometimes take cows.  It was a tough life, and they were tough people.  I doubt very much whether they could have lived by a complex code of honour and revenge.

“Cowboy” also has connotations of carelessness, as found in phrases like, say, Three Little Cowboy Builders.  So yeah, not so capable.  So what is a cowboy?

I’ve never seen an actual Western.  The closest I’ve seen were probably “Gunmen of the Apocalypse”, an episode of Red Dwarf VI, which was a comedy (although well worth watching), and the spoof Western Blazing Saddles.  So, all in all, researching and watching Westerns is going to be very much a learning experience for me.




6 responses

29 01 2008

Bobby, you interest me greatly with this question. What, indeed, is a cowboy? I’m sure you’ve looked into the history of it all. I’m from San Francisco (Barbary Coast, swindlin’; debauchery; gold rush; 49ers) although I much prefer the later history (Summer of Love, Hippies & Peace, Haight/Ashbury). Now I live spittin’ distance (well, actually a couple hours drive) from Tombstone, Arizona, “the town too tough to die”.
People all over the world romanticize the cowboy mythos, and I can’t for the life of me figure out why. When I see a western, I find it dirty, smelly, raw, and uncouth, although there were plenty of intelligent, scholarly types there, too. As you say, it was a tough, complicated and busy life.
Great trio of films you’ve reported, although, for an accurate portrayal of western life, they’re not quite spot on. I love “Red Dwarf” with a passion reserved for few things, and I do remember that episode! “Star Trek” did a western, too (yet another “gunfight at the OK corall” the most popular western story there is).
For a good film about that (OK Corall, etc.) try “My Darling Clementine”. Holds up really well. I also like “Silverado” and even “Back to the Future III”, another silly but creative comedy, that has some nice authentic touches of western life. Here’s some links to those:

29 01 2008

Thanks, Muse. I will definitely keep an eye out for those!

I’ve never really understood what’s so special about that particular period in history that people made so many films about it, so I’m very much looking forward to watching some proper Westerns and finding out. 🙂

30 01 2008

Interesting topic, Bobby. When I think of a cowboy I think of an adventurer, a loner, a gunslinger. The first character I’d think of is Han Solo; he’d be the ultimate cowboy for me, with some of Clint Eastwood’s roles. And you’re right, that’s totally at odds with history. It’s a romanticised legend, but it’s what most people think of.

I think one reason for that is because there are very few realistic Westerns; they’re often adventure films and it doesn’t allow people to get a real sense of what life was like back then. Western films and war films used to be quite similar; neither was meant to be that realistic at first, either because of their escapism or their patriotism. But the difference is that war films evolved, as we’ve seen with films from Apocalypse Now to Saving Private Ryan. People expected that to happen with Westerns too but they lost interest in them. The problem is if you make a Western more realistic, it’s hard to make the characters likeable or romantic; they’re tough and hard and nobody wants to watch characters for 3 hours that they’re not interested in.

Some of the more recent films have done it quite well, like the remake of 3:10 to Yuma. But it’s simpler to use the archetype, and the cowboy is such an iconic figure; in some ways it’s just how we want to think of cowboys. Plus it’s fun. 😉

My favourite Western is probably The Magnificent Seven. It’s got so much going on in it, and I also like Stagecoach and How the West Was Won. I’ll have to go back and watch them again now… just need some popcorn. 🙂

30 01 2008

It sounds like you perceive cowboys the same way I do. I’d never noticed that Han Solo was a cowboy, but now you mention it, I suppose he is, really. So maybe being a “cowboy” is more an attitude than an actual profession?

So, the appeal of the Western is that it’s a romanticised legend? I guess that’s like a lot of the films set in Mediaeval times. I’m really looking forward to seeing some Westerns now. 🙂 I feel like I’ve been missing out on all the fun! I must have been culturally deprived, or something! 😦

9 02 2008

Thought you might enjoy this Cowboy article from a local paper near where I live:

10 02 2008

Thank you very much Muse, I was very interested to read that! 🙂

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