|Was the Wild West as wild as it is cracked up to be? How would the legendary gun slingers fare on a Saturday night out in Swindon? And why was Jane a Calamity?|
Outside the snow was deep and crisp and even. Inside Rowdy Yates was about to be hanged. Without warning I was hit by a cramp and within minutes was on my way to the Maternity Unit for the birth of my daughter. Half a decade later I was sitting in the bar of a Hotel in Salzburg, sipping at a fortifying vodka after a hectic journey from London. Someone blocked out my light. Rowdy Yates! Well, Clint Eastwood actually. He gave me his well practised lop-sided grin. “You must be Heidi?” he quoth. I choked on my vodka and nodded. He sat down next to me and said something earth moving like “How yer doin’”. And I confessed to doing all right. There was a bit of a hiatus in the conversation which he seemed quite contend to maintain but I felt I needed to say something. “What happened when they were going to hang you in Rawhide?” was all I could think of for the moment. I winced at the banality of the question as soon as the words were past my teeth. Clint looked at me as if I was barmy and swilled back his drink. “Dunno dove,.” he said but I had obviously lost contact. He mumbled something about going to the Bambi Ball in Munich that evening but I mumbled something back about having to get my costume ready for an early morning shoot and he lost interest. What an idiot! Me – not Clint.
I’ve seen him a few times since Where Eagles Dare wrapped, mostly in the exotic places he seems to haunt. Las Vegas where I was heading up a PR jaunt, in Italy for some awards ceremony or other, Cannes for the festival and once at Manila Airport when I was leaving after finishing a film and he was arriving for some reason. But that was long ago. Then I went to see the premiere of MYSTIC RIVER and I found myself in spitting distance of him again. It was a long time since we last met and I wasn’t sure he would recognise me. He was hemmed in by minders so I gave a yodel and yelled, ‘Clint!”’. He looked up, smiled and said “Ingrid”. I was so grateful I could have kissed him. Well, actually, I did.. I would have looked a right idiot, after drawing attention to myself. if he had walked on. Instead he gave me a big hug and before long we were into the ‘do you remember?’ thing. He had another appearance at the NFT and his minders were anxious to get him on the move. “come and have dinner.” he said as he was hustled away. I wasn’t missing an opportunity like that so I joined the hangers on. Dinner was a bit crowded but we did get a few words together. All of them seemed to be lamenting the passing years. Then he was gone and I went home.
Clint Eastwood, to me, is the quintessential Western Hero. Westerns have always been a passion with me since my father took me to see Hopalong Cassidy (Bill Boyd) when I was about thirteen. I was in heaven when I was cast with John Mills and Ralph Meeker in the Western series Dundee and the Culhane and got to film in some of those Ghost Towns dating from the turn of the last century. What I find so romantic is that the Western is a world within a world. The real world was all mock modesty and surface politeness. Corseted Victorian maidens ready to faint at the drop of a aspirate and upright, dedicated men who frequented child brothels. The gunslingers, carpet baggers and gamblers of film and TV, seem to show what it was all about. In reality they were as far from the truth as the more respectable layers of society. But in real life the first thing to be mangled is the truth.
So the Wild West was born. Not back in the pioneering days of the 18th century but in the industrial revolutionary 19th century. That’s where our images and perception of the Frontier and the Frontier Man comes from. Like the Horror film genre the Western was swiftly embraced by the film industry even before they had sorted out the vexing issue of who owned the sprocket holes in film. In the literary world it was Zane Grey, from Zanesville Ohio, would you believe, who wrote the stirring Riders of the Purple Sage in 1904, who opened up the West as a prime source of gritty and melodramatic stories. Soon the basic premise for a Western was concreted into place. The baddy wore a black stetson and was shot down in the denouement by the goody in the white stetson. In between a pretty and lovelorn girl had to be rescued from the leering baddy, a whore with a heart of gold had to be shot and the good guy wounded. Lots of horses had to charge around a barren landscape out of which huge rocks jutted and the bad guy always drew first.
The West seemed to feed on itself and its fictional personnel bowdlerised the grim reality. Two versions of the move to expand into Indian Territory were exhibited. The Romantic view of the courageous settlers pushing back the Frontiers, only to find their path blocked by the savage Redskin and the other, truthful,version of a migrating community who were still getting $1 a scalp bounty well into the 20th Century. Mostly the line followed by the film industry was that of the gallant emigre. To distract attention from what was really happening in the hinterland and to create a frisson of excitement on the respectable streets of Boston and Baltimore, the story of the gunfighter was told and retold. This was enhanced by the writers and publishers of cheap newspapers. Calamity Jane (Martha Jane Canarry), Judge Roy Bean, Wild Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill (William F Cody) spawned an industry. Although the dime novel, invented by Ned Buntline, brought the more unbelievable deeds undertaken by the heroes of the West to general notice, more staid publications did their bit. In 1867 Harpers Monthly carried a highly entertaining account of some of the excessive deeds of Wild Bill. Dr. Livingstone, the adventurer of the “Doctor Livingstone I presume” saga added to the pot with his Early Travels and Adventures in America. The public couldn’t get enough and soon a conscious effort was made to merchandise the epic tales of derring-do amongst the tumbleweed.
If you are into the quick-draw, casual brutality and lynching which typifies a certain time you have a choice. Memorabilia of the Wild West can be found in its sanitised form, derived from the movie industry, or the unvarnished but embellished cow towns themselves. If you have a choice of Jane Russell in THE OUTLAW, with her Howard Hawk cantilevered bra, or Annie Oakley, ripe in a badly cured skin cowgirl out fit, Jane would win every time. Every boy in the world, at some time, had a plastic replica Colt .45 or a tin Winchester 73 and bang-banged in non-PC pursuit of Injuns. In fact, in the thirties ‘Cowboys and Injuns’ was THE GAME. And a cowboy/girl outfit was on every childs wish list and was de rigueur at the school party. Although the carefully presented toys were and are a great attraction, it is the REAL McCoy that appeals to the avid Horse Opera addict.
There is a lot of memorabilia to choose from although naturally it is mainly States oriented. The opening up of world markets by companies like AMAZON and eBay have made it possible for a universal market to get a taste of the genuine stuff. Wanted posters will brighten up anyones’ wall. The daguerreotype photographs on glass of prominent dead outlaws displayed in their green-wood coffins might not be every bodies ideal wall decoration but can come in handy as a conversation piece when the weather has been done to death. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Pioneer Exhibition attracted every body from the street urchin to Her August Majesty Queen Victoria. Moustachioed men in funny hats staring glumly at the lens isn’t exciting until the names are revealed.
When film collides with fact, you get the winsome Etta Place. A school teacher from Denver who fell in love with the dashing Henry Longbaugh – The Sundance Kid. She rode on the handlebar of his bicycle to the strains of ‘Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head’ in BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969). Talk of the western outlaw and you talk of the dangerous business of train robbery. Talk of train robbery and you are in the realm of ‘Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency’. Which mean well produced posters offering massive rewards. It was said that Calamity Jane had problems with her sexuality. The entrepreneurs who promoted her definitely did. She looks the image of a rootin’, tootin’ son of a gun on the posters.
Like the West itself, the memorabilia is where you tread softly and keep the flap down on your wallet. Hold ups there are a plenty. About fifteen years ago the rope that hanged Jesse James was sold to an enthusiast for $200. A snip you might say. Except that Jesse got his from the gun barrel of his cousin, Bob Ford’, when his back was turned. Prized possession is the Bowie Knife among collectors. Everyone wants to sell you a Bowie Knife. The advertisements seem to suggest that the particular knife they are selling is THE Bowie knife that Jim Bowie had on him at the Battle of the Alamo. Beware this provenance. Wooden Injuns, however are still to be had at a resasonable price. Age is what counts though. Injuns have been made as shop door decorations non-stop over the years. Likewise sculptures of Injuns, Cowboys and General Custer and the gallant 7th. A recent addition to the collectibles is a bust of Tecumseh and his daughter. Tecumseh was an Indian chief and philosipher.who did much to document the decline of the Native Americans.
My prized Wild West book, bought when I was working on the Culhane so it must be genuine, actually has bullet holes in it. I asked the bloke in the book shop who had shot up the cover and he became a little cagey. But he did let slip that he bought it in Cass County, Missouri – and the Dalton family lived quite close……..
MM January 2004