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Westerns - that movie genre has been around since moving pictures began! Books have been written that analyse the historical authenticity behind the films. Not only that - but the reasoning behind the choice of a film's accuracy.
Westerns are often seen as based on historical facts. Producers, writers and directors played loosely with facts to benefit production quality. They also felt it better enticed the audience. Some films were based on the era alone. They involved the Old West life, and wild west drama and situations.
A Typical Western Sunset Scene
One analysis of the subject stated "The Western's narrative structure and motifs are seen to derive less from any real world than from the economic and artistic imperatives of Hollywood, each finding its plausibility and terms of reference in the audience's previous experience of the genre."1
Famous Western Actors
Traditional Western Movie Set Building
In the early days of Westerns, real Cowboys were often used in the films. Los Angeles was more a "cow town" than a metropolitan area at that time. The Santa Fe railway ended there. Cowboys were there delivering livestock to cattle cars. From surrounding Valley ranches they'd go into town for recreation.
Movie director Raoul Walsh had been a young cowboy. He learned the trade on a cattle drive in South Texas in his late teens.2 One of his first movie-set jobs was to round up cowboys for work on Westerns. He'd look for them in the rail yards and the saloons around LA. He'd get them to their horses and show them to the San Fernando Valley locations.3
Some actors are best known for their roles in Westerns4:
John Wayne - The ultimate, iconic, American Western cowboy. He lived on a ranch for a time as a youth. His "Duke" nickname came from a dog he had as a teen. His first movie set job was a summer gig as a prop guy. He met Director John Ford, who took a liking to him. Ford began giving him small Western roles. During that time he took the name "John Wayne." Finally Ford cast him in Stagecoach in 1939 - his career skyrocketed from there.
Clint Eastwood - He grew up in California & Washington State. Clint was a poor student and indecisive in a career choice. Finally he decided on acting and secured small parts in B movies in the mid 1950s. He snagged a decisive role in 1959, playing Rowdy Yates in the TV Western, Rawhide. He got into the movies in the early 60s, with parts in spaghetti Westerns. He finally broke into U.S. versions in the late 60s. He's had some blockbusters and awards. He's also gotten into directing.
Gary Cooper - His father was an English immigrant who bought a ranch in Montana. Gary first got into acting while in school. But growing up, he regularly worked around his Dad's ranch. He's best known for his role as Will Kane in the 1952 Western High Noon.
Sam Elliott - He started acting on the stage. In 1969 he broke into Westerns with a part as a card-player in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. From there, he received more roles, including as Virgil Earp in the movie, Tombstone in 1993.
Tom Mix - He was born in Pennsylvania in 1880. Moving West, he later actually became a sheriff and marshall in Dewey OK in 1904. Two years after that he began appearing in Wild West Shows. A connection there got him a job as an equine handler for Selig Pictures. Then he began acting for them. He also started writing and directing. In 1917 he switched to Fox Films. He was probably the greatest cowboy star of the silent era. He became a good friend to Wyatt Earp. In 1940, at 60 years old, he died in a car accident in Florence AZ.
War Hero Audie Murphy
Audie Murphy - A WWII hero from Texas, James Cagney mentored him in Hollywood after the war. He struggled, as he wasn't a natural talent. His Texas accent got him into Westerns. He was successful as a rancher and song-writer. His end came sadly and early, short of his 47th birthday, in a plane crash.
Robert Duvall - Getting his start on the stage, he was successful in switching to films. In 1989 the TV mini-series Lonesome Dove began to attach his name to Westerns. His prior works were quite varied. Since then he's been in some memorable works such as Open Range.
James Arness - He appeared in school plays, but had no career dreams. After being injured during WWII, he thought of going into radio. He did - but Hollywood attracted him. He went West and studied acting. He got some parts, but mainly became a surfer "beach bum" at San Onofre. One of his roles attracted fan mail. That got his attention and he became more serious. He got more parts. The turning point came in 1955 when he was recommended for Matt Dillon in TV's Gunsmoke. It was an iconic, long-running series. It led to film roles later on.
Terry Ike Clanton - A fourth generation cousin of Ike Clanton. This descendant cousin was the person you could call the instigator of the O.K. Corral Gunfight. Terry himself produced audio-books on the subject in 1993. They were Wyatt Earp Murdered My Cousin & OK Corral Gunfight Symposium. He's also a Cowboy Poet and a Fast-Draw with a gun. He's known as an actor. Among others, he played Bob Weaver in the 2015 film Hardin.5 He claims to have searched for and found Ike Clanton's remains in Northern Arizona. He requested a reburial in Tombstone's Boothill for him - but was refused.6 There's other evidence about Ike Clanton's Gravesite.
Railroad Park, Wilcox AZ
Rex Allen - Born in Wilcox Arizona, this native son was known as a Singing Cowboy. His career began that way: in vaudeville, on the radio and in rodeo. Republic Pictures signed him. Rex became known as the "Arizona Cowboy." In 1958 he starred in the television western Frontier Doctor. He also did a lot of Disney program narrations.7 He died in Tucson in a crazy accident. Nearing 79 years of age, his nursing assistant backed a car over him in his driveway! He was cremated, and his ashes scattered in Railroad Park in Wilcox.8
William S. Hart - Born in Upstate NY, he studied acting and began his career touring on stage. He developed an interest in the old West. By 1914 he got into films, authentic Westerns. Later on he met Wyatt Earp. They became pretty good friends. He was a pall bearer at Earp's funeral.9
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These old, vintage films were made quite some time ago. Still these Wild West Films are popular with many people. They reflected the times of the era of production. The mores and beliefs of the time. They weren't historically accurate, but took their themes from history.
The "Silent Era" of motion pictures is said to be the years 1894 to 1929. A few inventors played a role in the early development of motion photography. Thomas Edison was one of them. Two brothers from France produced the true first motion picture film. They were Louis and Auguste Lumière.10
The most fruitful time of the Silent Picture Era was about 1910 to 1929. This was when the films had the highest quality. They used good visually artistic angles, and had the best developed plots.10 Here are some of the best Western movie productions of that time:11
Leader of Outlaw Band in Great Train Robbery
The year 1903 brought the very first of the Wild West Movies. It was a silent film called The Great Train Robbery. It was an instant success with the public! Edwin S. Porter directed. The star was Broncho Billy Anderson who took three different roles. Its plot took only 12 minutes long to completion!
The Heart of Texas Ryan was Tom Mix's original silent movie. This 1917 film ran for 50 minutes. It featured cowboys and love rivalry. The same movie was reissued in 1923 as Single Shot Parker.
The Covered Wagon was a Paramount Pictures release directed by James Cruze. It ran a little over one and a half hours. It was based on a novel about families going from Kansas to Oregon. Released in 1923, it was a grand production for its time with a budget of $782,000. It became one of the top grossing silent films in the U.S.
The Iron Horse was John Ford's first Western, released in 1924. Filmed in Northern Nevada, it told the story of the transcontinental railroad. It had a tremendous cast. It reflected history: immigrants who worked the railroad, Native American conflicts, the U.S. Cavalry.
The Tumbleweeds 1925 silent film subject was the Oklahoma land rush. William S. Hart was intent that the film be made - to show the authentic Wild West! He starred in it, invested in it, and kept artistic control. Hart didn't make any money on it, and had to fight the studios on logistics. Then in 1938 he did a re-release in which he spoke an introduction. It was much more appreciated this time!
Classic "Talkies" - 1930 to 1965
In August 1926 Warner Brothers released the first "talking" film - Don Juan. The next year The Jazz Singer was released. With that one, a whole new era began! It's considered by The American Film Institute in the ranks of "The Best American Films of All Times." Watch a clip:
The entire script wasn't voiced. Records played to coordinate with the films. The process was called Vitaphone - see an explanation - Read More>
In 1926 Fox Films purchased the newest invention. This process embedded sound in the film itself. It was named Movietone. In 1927, the romantic drama Sunrise, incorporated this technique for the first time.
A couple made early films in and around Arizona, incorporating the Movietone technique. Their intent was to document the Western environment and experience.12
In the middle of 1929, the last totally silent Western film was released - The Winged Horseman. No copies of this film are in existence, as far as anyone knows. Here's a trivia piece about this film:
Winged Horseman Trivia
A stunt woman's death happened during production. While filming, her parachute failed to open. Leta Belle Wichart dropped 3000 feet as her husband watched.
Movietone was now the only way to go. Theaters had to adjust for this new technique. They had to add sound systems or suffer business failure.
At first the studios didn't have it easy using this sound technique. Microphones picked up extraneous sounds, including filming camera noises. Studios used all kinds of creative, but uncomfortable techniques to overcome these situations. Finally new inventions eliminated the problems.
Let's see which popular blockbusters used sound to captivate audiences who loved the Wild West!
Travel by Stagecoach
In Old Arizona - Opened in the holiday season of 1929. Released by American Studios, it was mostly filmed on location in the Southwest. Its plot is based on an O. Henry's short story: Cisco Kid. It was a commercial success - audiences loved the on-site action and the sound!
Stagecoach - John Ford's 1939 film that gave John Wayne his big movie break. It follows the journey of 9 people as they travel on a stagecoach through the Wild West. They have an encounter with Geronimo and his warriors.
The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is Told!
My Darling Clementine - John Ford's version of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Released in 1946. Stars Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp and Walter Brennan as Old Man Clanton.
The Ox-Bow Incident - Based on a 1940 novel, this 1943 film is a true classic. It's preserved in the U.S. National Film Registry. Starring Henry Fonda, Harry Morgan and Anthony Quinn. There are moral issues involved. A posse hanging possibly innocents -rushing to justice, etc.
Red River - From 1948, it stars John Wayne and Montgomery Clift. Based on a serial Western from the Saturday Evening Post called Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail. Many other known actors included Walter Brennan, Harry Carey, John Ireland and Harry Carey Jr. It traces the drama during a cattle drive on the Chisholm Trail from Texas to Kansas.
Winchester '73 - James Stewart stars in this 1950 movie. It details the search for a stolen rifle, starting in Dodge City, Kansas.
High Noon - Gary Cooper, Lloyd Bridges and Grace Kelly are featured in this 1952 production. It's a bit different than the standard Western, with some humorous quips. But it has a somewhat standard plot of the villain seeking revenge on the hero.
Shane - Out in 1953. With Alan Ladd, Jean Arthur, Van Heflin and Jack Palance. Based on Schaefer's 1949 novel. An unknown cowboy comes to range-land where homesteaders and cattlemen are at odds. A homesteader's son takes to this cowboy. The story follows all the interactions.
The Searchers - A 1956 John Wayne feature. A rancher versus Indians, who've kidnapped the star's relatives. It details his long search for them, as he battles his war traumas.
The Unforgiven - John Huston directed this 1960 film that was ahead of its time. With an all-star cast of Burt Lancaster, Audrey Hepburn, Audie Murphy, Charles Bickford and Lillian Gish. The subject is racism. Particularly in regards to Native Americans during the settlement of the Old West.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence - An all-star cast directed by John Ford, out in 1962. With John Wayne and James Stewart as the main characters. The film is told in flashbacks. Other names are Lee Marvin, Andy Devine, Vera Miles and John Carradine.
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Check 'em out!
"Modern" Western Favorites - 1966 Onward
Unforgiven - A 1992 Clint Eastwood blockbuster. He's a retired lawman, now a farmer, who decides to take up the law again. It won an Academy Award for Best Picture. Now in the National Film Registry, it has an anti-violence leaning.
Tombstone - 1993 review of the Earps in Tombstone during the time of lead-in to the O.K. Corral Gunfight. The Movie Tombstone is loosely based on fact. It's a very entertaining overview of that time, especially due to Val Kilmer's portrayal of Doc Holliday. Kurt Russell plays Wyatt Earp. Also starring Sam Elliott, Bill Paxton, Powers Boothe, Michael Biehn, and Dana Delany. Robert Mitchum does the narration.
The Last Outlaw - A 1993 HBO movie. Two Confederate civil war veterans join forces to rob banks. But they turn on each other when they disagree over how a robbery gone wrong was handled.
Wyatt Earp - Released in 1994 as a biographical film, rather - it is based on fact. It tells the story of Wyatt from his time as a youth until his senior years with Josie. It doesn't focus so much on his time in Tombstone AZ, but that's just one of his life stories. Kevin Costner is Wyatt.
Return to Tombstone - An independent 1994 film. Hugh O'Brien reprised his TV series's Wyatt Earp. It incorporates some footage from the TV show, which they colorized for this movie. They filmed some scenes in the Town of Tombstone AZ
Outlaw Justice - This CBS 1998 made for TV movie features some country music stars. Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson are the main characters. They play gunfighters in their senior years. They must gather up their former cowboy gang to seek vengeance. Other names involved are Waylon Jennings and Travis Tritt. It was reissued in 1999 as The Long Kill.
Wild Wild West - 1999 steampunk influenced story. It details two gunslingers hired to protect the president from an evil inventor. It's based on a 1965 to 1969 television program. The movie stars Will Smith and Kevin Kline.
Open Range - This 2003 financial and critical success was directed by Kevin Costner. He also has a leading role. Robert Duval takes the lead as a range cattle boss. He's hired to bring a herd from Montana to market. He meets with problems from a violent land baron.
3:10 to Yuma - Released in 2007, it's a remake of the 1957 movie and Leonard short story of the same name. It stars Russell Crowe and Christian Bale. A struggling rancher volunteers for a well-paying job. He's to ensure a convicted desperado is put on the train bound for Yuma Prison.
True Grit - A remake of the John Wayne 1969 classic. This 2010 movie stars stars Jeff Bridges as the Marshal who's hired by an adolescent girl. It follows their interactions, adventures and misadventures.
Hell on Wheels - Although not a movie, this was a series seen on the AMC network from 2011 to 2016. It deserves a mention for the history it covers. A wonderful, exciting overview of the cross-country build of the American railroad system. It covered many aspects of the American West. Subjects include the aftermath of the Civil War, the ire of Native Americans, problems and treatment of freed slaves, Irish immigrants in the West, and the Asian influx.
Jane Got a Gun - Natalie Portman stars as a woman needing to take charge in this 2015 movie. She finds herself as the target of a cowboy gang. She needs to ask her ex-fiancé's help to protect herself. It's a sticky situation, since she has married someone else.
Independent Western Films
Vermijo - Directed and produced by Paul Vernon, written by Ben Bridges. The title names a fictional Southern AZ border town in which the story takes place. It's the 1870s when the Lockhart brothers arrive. Where they there to help the town-folk? Hmmm - Read More>
Wild West Films are a genre that continues to live on in one way or another. People still love to watch the vintage movies. People even watch bad, old B-level films, with folks comparing - figuring out which is the worst!
Studios and independents continue to make Westerns. People love them - the modern ones, the classics, the campy versions!
Think of Tombstone Arizona - that's where we live. A place where we see history in action every day. How many films have been made that base their plot on that notorious Gunfight at the O.K. Corral?
Or if not that, then at least on the town of Tombstone itself! Here are a few...
Can you think of more? I'll get it started, mentioning those above, and those I've named here. But what do you think? Let's get thinking of movies that are set in Tombstone AZ. Or those that involve that famous shootout - The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
What Tombstone Westerns or OK Corral Gunfight Westerns Can You Name?
Do you have a question? Do you have a comment? Type it into the box below. We'll respond soon!
1 Buscombe, E. (1988). The BFI companion to the Western. New York: Simon and Schusterpublishing/atheneum.
2 Moss, M.A. (2011). Raoul Walsh: The true adventures of Hollywood's legendary director. Lexington KY: The University Press of Kentucky.
3 Jameson, F. (1983). "Postmodernism and Consumer Society" in The anti-aesthetic: Essays on postmodern culture, p. 117 Port Townsend, WA: Bay Press.
4 Tanselartun (2015, September 22). "The Greatest Western Movie Stars of All Time" in IMDb. Retrieved December 6, 2017 from http://www.imdb.com/list/ls056161415/
5 IMDb (nd). "Terry Ike Clanton - Biography." Retrieved December 6, 2017 from http://www.imdb.com/name/nm2816141/bio?ref_=nm_ov_bio_sm
6 Bonner, L. (2003, January 1). "Everybody Hates Me" in True West. Retrieved December 6, 2017 from https://truewestmagazine.com/everybody-hates-me/
7 IMDb (nd) "Rex Allen - Biography." Retrieved December 7, 2017 from http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0020942/bio?ref_=nm_ov_bio_sm
8 LaFleur, M. (1999, December 18). "Allen's death a tragic accident, police say." Retrieved May 10, 2015 from tucsoncitizen.com
9 IMDb (nd) "William S. Hart - Biography." Retrieved December 7, 2017 from http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0366586/bio?ref_=nm_ov_bio_sm
10 Lewis, J. (2008). American film: A history. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 978-0-393-97922-0.
11 Gardner, Dr. J. (2017, September 7). "Best Silent Westerns." Retrieved December 7, 2017 from http://www.imdb.com/list/ls053914484/
12 University of Arizona Libraries (nd). Celluloid Pueblo: Western Ways Films and the Invention of the Postwar Southwest, from https://vimeo.com/uazlibraries. Retrieved December 9, 2017 from vimeo.com/201175788