First of all, I’m not actually a big fan of westerns. And an encounter with a nag named Rusty in the Black Hills of South Dakota soured me on horses for life (don’t ask). But there’s just something about a cowboy …
The Internet, which knows all, tells me that the real cowboy era lasted from roughly 1865 to 1880. Before the Civil War, the west was about exploring and settlement, while after 1880 the railroads, telegraph and the invention of barbed wire put paid to the world of the free ranging fella with the 10-gallon hat.
But I think it can be argued that the ACTUAL era of the cowboy began in 1899, when the first western movie (a whole 45 seconds long) depicted a raucous “Cripple Creek Barroom Scene.” It already had all the elements of the classic western: drinkin’, fightin’ and a saloon-hall gal with a heart of gold. Well … the “lady” behind the bar appears to be played by a large man in a wig; if this was the kind of female companionship real cowboys could expect after a long ride on the dusty trail, it’s not surprising they drank.
In the film, which was shot in that fabled cowboy mecca, West Orange, New Jersey, a brash young cowboy tosses back a shot of red eye (we know that’s what he’s drinking, because it’s scrawled in bold letters on a jug next to the bar). Then, driven mad by drink, he knocks a gentleman’s hat off on his way out. This leads to the inevitable fracas, which is broken up by the demure barmaid, whose burly frame is ideally suited to her other job as bouncer.
It really was such movies that created the mythology of the American West. It’s said that actual legends of the era, such as Wyatt Earp, enjoyed hanging out with the movie cowboys, because THEY were the cool guys. Earp and Buffalo Bill even appeared in a couple of silent pictures.
But back to cowboys, Hollywood-style. Admittedly, the first movie cowboy star, William S Hart, set the bar low for hottie-on-a-horsedom. Honestly, he looks more like twitchy Anthony Perkins than manly John Wayne. Nevertheless, after this faltering start, the entertainment industry quickly got the hang of this sexy-man-in-the-saddle thang. Gary Cooper, anyone? Clark Gable? Everybody’s favorite good guy, Jimmy Stewart?
Unlike real-world 19th century wranglers, whose living conditions did not lend themselves to trivial things like personal hygiene and dental care (Hello, Billy the Kid!), onscreen cowboys evolved into a particular mold, of which any or all of the following elements were characteristic:
- Stetson hat, preferably white
- Low-slung gun belt, equipped with gleaming six-shooters
- Leather vest
- Buckskins, snug-fitting (fringe optional)
Cinematic cowboys have tended to be clean-shaven, well-coiffed and impressively dentated (great teeth). They had names that would get them beaten up if they weren’t so darned tough: Ringo, Kid, Curly, Hoby and even – God bless him – Hopalong.
The 1960s-80s was perhaps the heyday of the hottie cowboy, with TV westerns like “The Virginian” (Trampas!), “Alias Smith & Jones” (Smith! Jones!), “Bonanza” (Little Joe!) and “The Big Valley” (Lee Majors, before he turned bionic!).
By the late 60s in movies, and the 80s on TV, these beloved heroes were beginning to be replaced by a less polished variety of bronco-buster. The trend toward gritty realism produced shows like “Deadwood” and the current “Hell on Wheels,” in which the cowboys look like they’ve been rode hard and put up wet. (I don’t actually know what that means; it’s cowboy talk.)
I feel rather sorry for today’s generation, who will never know the thrill of seeing a young Bobby Sherman (in buckskin, natch) or Bruce Boxleitner saunter into a saloon. I say, let’s start a movement to get well-groomed, supernaturally good-looking actors back in chaps. Channing Tatum? Bradley Cooper? I’m looking at you. Saddle up, boys.