By David E. Petzal and Phil Bourjaily
By a curious twist of fate, the Old West died out at just the time the motion picture was born, and the latter immediately glommed onto the former, transforming grubby reality into glamorous myth. Hollywood has produced more Old West b.s. than all the longhorns that ever lived.
Probably the first realistic Western character seen on the screen was in Shane (1953). Jack Palance portrayed a gunfighter named Jack Wilson, and he was very close to the real thing because he shot farmers for a living and enjoyed it.
Gary Cooper as Marshall Will Caine was good in High Noon (1951) because he was plainly terrified throughout the picture. But I’ve only seen three westerns in a lifetime of watching them that were real from start to finish.
First is The Culpeper Cattle Company (1972). This was a B movie with a no-star cast, and it portrayed cowboy life as it really was: dirty, dangerous, and something to get the hell away from as soon as a better opportunity came along. “Cowboyin’s somethin’ to do when you can’t do nothin’ else,” says the cattle-drive cook.
Second is Ulzana’s Raid (also 1972), a low-budget A movie with Burt Lancaster. It’s the story of a cavalry patrol chasing an escaped Apache chief (Ulzana) who murders men, women, and children for sport. It’s brutal, highly intelligent, and politically incorrect by today’s standards.
Third is Unforgiven (1992), directed by and starring Clint Eastwood. It was nominated for nine Oscars and won four of the major ones. Its central figure is William Munny, a reformed-alcoholic gunfighter who, having failed as a farmer, goes back to killing for money. There are no heroes in this one, just varying degrees of evil.
So the next time you strap on your chaps and your sixgun, remember: There were damned few good guys, and you wouldn’t want to live within 10 miles of them anyway.