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The Western: Americaís Story, Part One

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Additional funding is provided by the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, the Bernard and Irene Schwartz Foundation, and the Smith Richardson Foundation.

(opening animation)

Ben Wattenberg: Hello, Iím Ben Wattenberg. The Great Train Robbery, considered by many to be the first Western film, premiered a century ago in 1903. In the Twentieth Century, the western evolved into a complex myth full of classic American characters, cowboys and cowgirls, frontiersmen and gunslingers and desperados. Did Hollywoodís silver dreams reflect fact or legend? What do westerns tell us about America? To find out, Think Tank is joined by: Scott Simmon, co-director of film studies at the University of California at Davis and author of the Invention of The Western Film: A Cultural History of the Genreís First Half Century; R. Philip Loy, professor of political science at Taylor University and the author of Westerns in American Culture1930 to 1955, and Holly George-Warren, author of Cowboy: How Hollywood Invented the Wild West. The topic before the house: The Western, Americaís Story, Part One. This week on 'Think Tank.'

(music and animation)

Ben Wattenberg: In 1903, Edwin S. Porterís silent film The Great Train Robbery stormed onto the silver screen. It changed the way people thought about movies. For the next hundred years generations of imitators made the western a staple of the American cinema. By the time of The Great Train Robbery the rural American West was swapping traveling gunmen for traveling salesmen. Small towns and farms transformed the frontier of the open prairie into Middle America. Real cowboys became actors, outlaws became directors. Filmmakers returned for inspiration again and again to the stories from the frontier, the conquest of Indian land, the California Gold Rush, the expansion of the transcontinental railroad and all the other tales of rugged individualists settling a wild land. Bad guys in black hats. Good guys in white hats. Even singing cowboys. In contrast to the glamour on screen, the life of the real cowboy was a gritty and primitive existence. Westerns are the tales Americans tell themselves about the bravery, the triumph, the good, and the evil all wrapped up in the American character. And as many Americans changed the way they thought about themselves and their history, the western film evolved. Maíam, partners, welcome to Think Tank and our show about the American Western film. Holly George-Warren, let me begin with you. Can you set the timeframe about which the westerns were filmed?

Holly George-Warren: Basically it was really a pretty brief time period, which makes it hard to believe when you think about all those Westerns weíve seen over the years. The big period of the cattle drive, which created the cowboy was really from just right after the Civil War and lasted about ten years. Once the railroads started expanding to where the trailheads had been, there wasnít really that much of a need anymore for the trail drives. So that period really ended pretty much in the 1880s.

Ben Wattenberg: But there are films that are set later than 1880, arenít there?

Phil Loy: Yes. There are films that are set later than Eighteen Eighty and there are some scholars that would argue that the West really began west of the Alleghenies and that Davie Crockett, Daniel Boone, the movement to the Mississippi are Westerns as well.

Scott Simmon: Every state can claim its time as the frontier so that there are Westerns set in Massachusetts and certainly you know Last of the Mohicanís being set in New York.

Ben Wattenberg: Well you know Iím glad you mentioned that because I have a note to myself right here, is this whole idea of the West everyone in America starting with the pilgrims was settling the western frontier. The historian Frederick Jackson Turner, who grew up on a frontier town and then later wrote the epic work The Closing of the American Frontier--that frontier town was in Wisconsin. So everybody, or their almost immediate ancestors, except for the new immigrants, really had a part in this western frontier opening.

Scott Simmon: The very earliest Westerns tended to be set in the East because they were filmed in the East. Westerns from about 1908 onward were filmed mainly in New Jersey, in New York and Connecticut.

Ben Wattenberg: Is that where The Great Train Robbery was filmed?

Holly George-Warren: Yes. New Jersey. And it was Easternerís ideas built upon the pulp novels, the dime novels, and the Wild West shows that at this time were still in existence traveling around America. They gave the idea of what cowboys looked like, what the bad guy looked like with the black hat, the mustachioed character who fires the gun into the camera scaring the movie theatergoers. Actually the 101 Wild West Show was responsible for one of the very first big movie companies. Buffalo Billís were so popular, all these other ones sprang up all over the country. So they had huge outfits of Indians and cavalry and all the props and the cowboys and everything that movies companies needed so they joined forces...

Ben Wattenberg: What were some of the names of the movies that came out of the 101?

Scott Simmon: Thomas Ince, who was a producer and director, hired the 101 Ranch and also hired a band of Sioux Indians from South Dakota, so his early Westerns, which were filmed in California, were very authentic, because all the Native American characters were played by genuine Native Americans. I mean unlike in the Hollywood years. So The Invaders is a well known three-reeler from 1912 that involved the 101.

Phil Loy: War on the Plains.

Scott Simmon: War on the Plains, yes. Of course, most of these early films donít survive.

Phil Loy: And they were one- and two-reelers.

Ben Wattenberg: I saw recently the full-cut--the Library of Congress has it, itís in public domain now--of The Great Train Robbery. And I can see where people who had never seen a moving picture before would be absolutely flabbergasted at seeing this, but compared to what people must have been seeing on the legitimate stage, it couldnít hold a candle to it. I mean you know you already had Shakespeare and a few other folks who were writing for the legitimate stage.

Phil Loy: But it appealed to the immigrant classes, the urban immigrant classes, who were not individuals who went to the legitimate theater. And so, when the one- and two-reelers began to be shown in the nickelodeons, they were initially aimed at the urban immigrant class of folks.

Ben Wattenberg: What was the message to these urban immigrants? What were these movies saying?

Holly George-Warren: I think a lot of the messages were the good guys will rise to the top. If you work hard, youíll make it in this country because it doesnít matter what class youíre from in the old country. If you speak with an accent--of course, these movies were silent so we didnít hear the accents--you could be someone. You could be the next Tom Mix. In fact, a lot of European immigrants came over with dreams of being in these movies and a lot of them ended up working in the films as, you know, cameramen. Some of the famous rodeo tailors that did the costumes wanted to be cowboys, but they were tailors so they started making all the fancy outfits.

Ben Wattenberg: And youíve got on one now with those fantastic boots.

Holly George-Warren: Yes.

Ben Wattenberg: And we better get a shot, a close up, of those boots.

Holly George-Warren: Well thank you. Gene Autry was a big inspiration to me.

Ben: Oh, Gene Autry was? Is that right. I see. So in the silent era, these movies being seen in the urban centers are really laying out a roadmap to the American dream. How many Westerns were made all together? Thousands?

Scott Simmon: Well Westerns tended to be quite inexpensive. I mean the 'B' Westerns in the 1930s were very cheap. I mean many of John Wayneís 'B' Westerns cost about fifteen thousand dollars.

Ben Wattenberg: Now what does a 'B' Western mean?

Phil Loy: The term 'B' Western came into use in the 1930s. It was designed to fill the lower half of a double feature. Made on a shoestring and would last usually fifty-eight to sixty minutes.

Ben Wattenberg: So in other words, there was a feature film and a second film. And then I remember as a real little kid going to the movies, youíd see the feature film, youíd see the-- now that I realize what it is--the 'B' Western, and then youíd see about ten shorts.

(movie clips: The Oklahoma Kid, 1939)

Scott Simmon: I mean, one of the things that happened when the Depression came in is that theater owners really felt they had to give audiences a full three-hour show. So youíd have the A feature and the B feature and newsreels.

Phil Loy: The Western really goes up and down. When William S. Hart went to Hollywood, Ince didnít want him to make Westerns because the Western market was saturated and nobody was making them anymore. Hart demonstrated their popularity. In the 1930s, early 1930s, the 'B' Western began to die out because gangster movies were much more exciting. And then along comes the singing cowboy and Hop-A-Long Cassidy and rejuvenates the genre.

Ben Wattenberg: Youíve mentioned two very well-known cowboys so far. Tom Mix and William S. Hart. They were in, what, both the silent and the sound era? They made the transition, is that right?

Phil Loy: Hart did not. Hart was just silent.

Ben Wattenberg: Hart was just silent.

Holly George-Warren: And Mix didnít really prosper as well in the sound as he did in the silent era. He continued, but he really didnít do very well.

Ben Wattenberg: So why didnít these people make a good transition? Didnít have a good voice? Didnít have, I mean, they obviously had enough stage presence to make it in the silent movies.

Phil Loy: Well, in Mixí case he was just getting old.

Ben Wattenberg: I see.

Phil Loy: When sound came in, he was getting too old. He did a lot of his stunts. Heíd broke any number of bones and...

Ben Wattenberg: He did his own stunts?

Phil Loy: He did a lot of his own stunts.

Ben Wattenberg: When does a stuntman come in? Pretty early?

Phil Loy: Oh, pretty early, yes.

Holly Geroge-Warren: Pretty early, yes.

Ben Wattenberg: And some of them were absolutely amazing. I mean you look at some of these things...

Holly George-Warren: And stuntwomen, too, by the way. A lot of times standing in for the men were actually cowgirls, real cowgirls.

Ben Wattenberg: Now and was there any special reason they would use a woman for that?

Holly George-Warren: Well a lot of times the actors were quite small. I mean not in the case of, say, John Wayne and later Clint Eastwood, but some of the earlier ones were pretty small guys. And, you know, not that much size difference between them and the women. And a lot of these women were amazing riders. And as fearless as the men. In fact, in the early days of rodeo, they competed against the men and often won.

Scott Simmon: And William S. Hart, to answer your question, along with Tom Mix, was also quite almost elderly by the time he got into movies. Heíd been a Shakespearean actor and was almost fifty by the time he got into movies. In the sort of emblematic William S. Hart moment that I love, from a 1916 film of his called Hellís Hinges was when heís an outlaw and heís introduced to the Bible, which he often is introduced to in his films. And heís reading this Bible with a bottle of liquor in one hand and a cigarette in the other...

Phil Loy: Hartís films didnít reflect the West as much as they reflected the era in which they were produced. And so to watch Hartís particularly pre-World War One Westerns, you see the romanticism and the moralism and the religious fundamentalism that shaped American culture in the second decade of the Twentieth Century.

Ben Wattenberg: Give me an example of that.

Phil Loy: Oh, the film we were just talking about, Hellís Hinges. He plays this notorious outlaw Blaze Tracy and a preacher and his sister go to Hellís Hinges to start a church. And the saloon crowd is going to run them out. The saloon is the epitome of all evil. And Blaze Tracy as the evil gunman is supposed to chase this preacher and his sister out of Hellís Hinge, but he sees this sister and the inter-line talks about all that was evil looks for the first time on a thing of beauty. And heís immediately converted by the beauty of this preacherís sister. And she converts him religiously and he winds up burning the saloon down.

(movie clip, Hellís Hinges, 1916)

Ben Wattenberg: SUddenly there is an explosion in the movie industry and itís called talking pictures. And what happens?

Phil Loy: Well the Western dies out. Because they are not filmed on soundstages; theyíre filmed outdoors in what was then the undeveloped California landscape. Theyíre filmed in the sagebrush. Theyíre filmed in the hills. And you canít get the microphones out there. So the assumption was that you canít film a sound Western.

Scott Simmon: Yes, there certainly was the assumption that the Western was going to die out. It didnít really die out for long. I mean The Virginian is a 1929 early set Western.

Ben Wattenberg: Well now The Virginian is based on the book by Owen Wister, which came out what? In the late 1800s or something?

Scott Simmon: Uum, 1902, I think.

Holly George Warren 1902.

Ben Wattenberg Which was sort of the arch typical book of the Western strong silent character. What year does John Ford produce Stagecoach? Does anybody know?

Phil Loy: Thirty-nine.

Holly George-Warren: Thirty-nine.

Ben Wattenberg: Thirty-nine. Now, as I understand it that was produced as a 'B' Western, but of course John Ford was a great director and it transcended that. Is that sort of the book on that film?

Holly George-Warren: Well, he had a hard time getting financing for the film because the 'Bs' really were the main westerns being made at that point. And the big studios didnít want to finance the Westerns anymore. And he was so interested in the story that he turned into the film that he went for it and, of course, it made the Western comeback huger than ever.

Scott Simmon: Itís a low budget 'A' Western.

Holly George-Warren: Yes.

Scott Simmon: That is, John Wayne had been you know in forty B westerns before Stagecoach and John Ford sort of saved him after you know being relegated to these low budget films by putting him in Stagecoach.

(movie clips: Stagecoach, 1939)

Ben Wattenberg: Were they showing in these movies a real West, albeit stylized? Or were they just creating out of whole cloth a legend?

Scott Simmon: I think the real West is hard to locate. I think of an incident from back in 1849, ten years before the Civil War, when Kit Carson was searching for a white woman whoíd been abducted by the Apaches. He came across their camp. And he found an abandoned book, which turned out to be a novel about the scouting exploits of Kit Carson, called Kit Carson, King of the Gold Hunters, published in 1849. And the thing thatís interesting was that the fictional Kit Carson was much more heroic than the true Kit Carson. The real Kit Carson couldnít find this woman. She was found dead. And he always in his autobiography worried that she must have been given hope in her captivity by reading this Western, in which, as it says, 'I would meet a great hero killing Indians by the hundred.' And I think the reason that itís difficult to say the relationship of the real West to the fictional West is fictions get thrown into the West so early that the idea about the West is mixed in with the West.

Ben Wattenberg: Well now, you mentioned in passing killing Indians by the hundreds. In the early movies, including the beginning of the sound movies, how were minorities--Mexicans, Indians, women, all the special groups these days--how were they treated?

Scott Simmon: A typical inter-title, which also is Kit Carson incidentally, in this 1925 Western called The Vanishing American, Kit Carson is made to say, 'The Indians are my friends, but I must send them to their deaths.' And that is kind of an attitude that the Western hero tends to have in the films that theyíre friends of the Indians but ultimately the Indians are the vanishing Americans and will die off.

Phil Loy: I think the silents, more often than not, tended to treat Indians as savage raiders who just raid for the sheer joy of killing and scalping. By the time you get to the Thirties and Forties, the Indian is treated as victim. There is always some evil white man behind them selling them whiskey or trying to get them to do something in order to get land. And then in the Fifties we return again to the notion that the Indian is being victimized by white settlers. And so the image of Indians varies again from era to era depending, I think, on what the white community wanted to believe at any particular moment in American history.

Ben Wattenberg: So these movies are, as you say, reflecting current beliefs about the very essence of American life and history and ideals?

Phil Loy: And our understanding of that changes over time.

Ben Wattenberg: In the 1930s, you start getting Blacks in Westerns. Herb Jeffrey in the Bronze Buckaroo. Later on Jim Brown is in a Western. After the Civil War there was a substantial Black population that headed west. And that what at first they were pretty well ignored by the Westerns and then they said...

Phil Loy: They were completely ignored by the Westerns. Herb Jeffrey made four and only four, and they were primarily shown in what was known in those days as the race theaters for the race market...

Holly George-Warren: Yes for Black audiences.

Scott Simmon: Blacks in mainstream films, as opposed to what was known as race films, were pretty rare.

Ben Wattenberg: Now Mexicans were regarded how in these movies?

Holly George-Warren: Well in the earlier movies those were also stereotypes. You know either they were either the kind of slovenly drinking types, kind of lazy, or else they were the...

Ben Wattenberg: Or the siesta guy with the sombrero.

Holly George-Warren: Or else they were the kind of loose women or the desperado, you know, with the big sombrero and the six shooters and the...

Scott Simmon: Thereís an early film called A Temporary Truce, where thereís a character called Mexican Jim, the good-for-nothing, whoís kicked out of the saloon. And then thereís an Indian uprising and hence the title Temporary Truce comes in because the Anglos decided that, in fact, now they do need the Mexicans, and theyíll have a truce in order to fight the Indians. So thereís a kind of a racial hierarchy going on in some of those Westerns.

Phil Loy: But one should never forget that Hispanics are the only racial minority with actual screen heroes--Zorro and, of course, the Cisco Kid that appeared first on film and then Duncan Reynaldo earned a lot of money as the Cisco Kid in early television. Theyíre both Hispanic cowboy heroes. And you canít really find a Black hero like that nor maybe, with exception of Gail Davis in the early 'Annie Oakley' television shows, a cowgirl hero like that. But there are those two Hispanic characters.

Scott Simmon: And fairly early you get a character like Katy Juradoís character in High Noon, which is you know both an interesting woman character and a Mexican character thatís pretty tough and heroic in í52.

Ben Wattenberg: So you get into the silent era and people say, hey, the Westernís dead, we canít handle the technology of it. And suddenly before you get your breath, there are the singing cowboys.

Phil Loy: I think it was very halting at first. Columbia with Buck Jones and Tim McCroy was really the only one doing much with 'B' Westerns other than just minimal, independent shooting these things for five, six, seven, eight, nine thousand dollars. But then in 1935, Harry Sherman at Paramount does the William Boyd Hop-a-Long Cassidy and Republic starts Gene Autry, singing cowboys, and by that time the microphones and the camera cars, the technology had really emerged.

Holly George-Warren: And also the movie theaters, too.

Phil Loy: Pardon?

Holly George-Warren: And also more movie theaters were equipped to show sound movies. Because, in the beginning, a lot of the theaters where the Westerns were very popular were in the very rural areas, in the tiny towns, so those were some of the last places to get the new sound systems that were needed for the sound pictures

Ben Wattenberg: At that time they start dressing themselves up as what we would call dudes. But itís a somewhat outlandish garb for people who are moving cattle. I mean, when you think about it-as I have been these last few days in preparing for this show--I mean, the cowboy, if you had to give him a census categorization, it would be meat transportation. I mean that-right? Thatís what he was doing. I mean he was moving meat from the ranch to the railhead. That was the most efficient way of doing it. And then when the railhead went to where he was, he was gone.

Holly George-Warren: So originally the garb really served a purpose. The chaps were protective to the legs. The cowboy boots made it easier for the feet to stay in the stirrups. But what happened was, it was kind of the same thing with the dime novels; Kit Carson reading about his exploits in the dime novels and then trying to live up to these exploits. The same thing started happening with the look of the cowboy because Tom Mix started wearing the big ten-gallon hat. And heís the one that really started wearing the more fancy clothes. The cowboys really started dressing that way, the real working ranch hand cowboys, because, hey, theyíre looking at the movies and theyíre seeing these people up on stage in these fancy outfits. Theyíre like, well if I donít wear that, then people arenít going to think Iím a cowboy, so Iíd better dress that way.

Phil Loy: Your point is well made. There is something really kind of foolish about seeing Gene Autry herding a group of cattle in his flowered shirt singing 'Get Along Little Dogie.' But youíve got to remember, the emphasis is not on plot. The emphasis on entertainment. The emphasis is on performance. And thatís what the singing cowboys delivered.

(movie clips: Gene Autry & The Mounties, 1951; Last of the Pony Riders, 1953; Riders of the Whistling Pines, 1949)

Ben Wattenberg: Weíre about at a midpoint. So weíre going to move now from the late Thirties into the World War Two and after movies, and talk about movies that are great dramatic presentations. I mean much more so than anything that preceded them. So, for the moment, thank you Holly George Warren, Scott Simmon, and Phil Loy. And thank you. Please send us your comments via e-mail. And remember to join us in a future episode for 'The Western, Part Two.' For Think Tank, Iím Ben Wattenberg.


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Funding for this program is provided by:

At Pfizer weíre spending nearly five billion dollars looking for the cures of the future. We have twelve thousand scientists and health experts who firmly believe the only thing incurable is our passion. Pfizer. Life is our lifeís work.

Additional funding is provided by the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, the Bernard and Irene Schwartz Foundation, and the Smith Richardson Foundation.

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The Western, Part One

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