General Traits | The Cowboy | Other Roles

General Traits

The Western may be the perfect vehicle for silent narrative film, since it values action over language. The Western hero is the possessor of physical strength, stamina, and an innate sense of the right thing to do; he rejects eloquence, refinement, and superior intelligence as standards of measure. In the early twentieth century, he holds special appeal for audiences because he functions as the antithesis of Eastern, industrialized culture. In an era of assembly-line and factory labor, especially for the working-class citizens who made up a majority of early audiences, the Western hero returned a sense of purpose to labor, and added to labor's appeal through a new setting and a sense of excitement. Jane Tompkins notes that male audience members "enjoy themselves so much not because they are out on a pleasure trip but because they are meeting a embodies everything that [they] are trying to get away from: triviality, secondariness, meaningless activity...the hunger Westerns satisfy is a hunger not for adventure but for meaning." (1)

The Western hero is serious not only in his labor, but also in his outlook. According to Jane Tompkins the Western hero is marked by a sense of pragmatism, stoicism, and an acceptance of death. Tompkins attributes this to a rejection of Christianity: "exchanging the cross for the gun is a theme played out countless times." (2) Tompkins makes this a gender-specific phenomenon by arguing that the rejection of Christianity has everything to do with a rejection of feminine genteel culture to which evangelism and Christian reform belonged at the end of the nineteenth century. However, there is plenty of evidence that Christianity and reform could be embraced in the Westerns; 1916's Hell's Hinges is a great example. Hell's Hinges is a western town dominated by saloon and gambling house owner Silk Miller. The trouble begins when the devoted Reverend Henley and his sister Faith arrive with the intention of settling in town. Blaze Tracey, the outlaw of Hell's Hinges, becomes captivated by Faith and goes straight. While he is out of town trying to acquire an organ for the church, Silk Miller sets about destroying the Reverend; she lures him to the saloon under the pretense of a religious service for the dance hall girls and gets him roaring drunk. When Blaze returns to Hell's Hinges and sees what has been done, he kills Silk and accidentally sets the town on fire. He and Faith escape together to seek a new future. If the moral message is not clear enough in the action onscreen, the intertitles make it glaringly obvious; the saloon is described as "a gunfighting, man-killing den of iniquity" and the first meeting between Blaze and Faith is "one that is evil, looking for the first time upon that which is good." (3) In an earlier film, 1908's Broncho Billy and the Baby another outlaw is reformed by reading the Bible. The pragmatism and stoicism Tompkins notes in the Western hero seem to have less to do with a rejection of Christianity than with a reflection of an unforgiving landscape; they are the values rhetorically inherent in Western topography, as Tompkins herself admits in a later section of her text.

Although the cowboy was present in silent Westerns as early as 1904, most of the early films featured Indians and trappers as heroes. The trapper or lone frontiersman was modelled on the writing of Cooper. William Everson believes that the beginning of the cowboy's ascendancy in the Western genre can be traced to the beginning of Zane Grey's career in 1913, although the cowboy certainly figures in earlier writing as well. (4) For whatever reason, the cowboy became the main figure early in the history of Western film and remains its most enduring feature.

The Cowboy

G.M. Anderson as Broncho Billy

Edison's Brush Between Cowboys and Indians, filmed in 1904, is the earliest cowboy silent Western. G.M. "Broncho Billy" Anderson, who appeared in several different roles in Porter's The Great Train Robbery (1903) is generally credited with developing the cowboy persona in silent film, particularly with creating the "good badman" type of character. The earliest manifestation of this is in his 1908 film Broncho Billy and the Baby. Broncho Billy, the outlaw, discovers and injured child and returns it to its parents; the parents introduce him to the Bible, and Broncho Billy is reformed. However, since the earliest Western heroes were modelled on Cooper, Broncho Billy can't stay to enjoy society in his reformed state, but must return to the wilderness and his solitary existence. In numerous one reel dramas from 1910 to 1916, Broncho Billy set the standards for Western cowboys: shy with the ladies, good with a gun, fearless in the face of evil, and daring on a horse. He also began the practice of colorful names for Western heroes, and was followed by cowboys named Tex, Hoot, Sunset, Crash, Whip, and Red. (5)

The earliest Westerns were filmed on the East Coast, featured painted backdrops or unrealistic exteriors, and took their ideas of the cowboy from dime novel covers or the Wild West shows. Much of the outrageousness of the early depictions of the cowboy is due to the popularity of Buffalo Bill, whose garb often served as a template for Western wear in early films. Jane Tompkins writes, "Once he came to a fancy dress ball, his first, in New York, wearing white tie and tails and a large Stetson. He knew what people wanted. He let his hair grow long and wore a mustache and beard, because, he said, he wouldn't be believable as a scout otherwise...He invented the ten-gallon hat, which the Stetson company made to his specifications...he most often wears scout's clothes--usually generously fringed buckskin, sometimes a modified cavalryman's outfit--though often he's impeccably turned out in a natty-looking three piece business suit...the photographs show him in a tuxedo, in something called a "Mexican suit" which looks like a cowboy outfit, and once he appears in Indian dress." (6)

Tom Mix

Tom Mix was the film heir of Buffalo Bill-style showmanship. Mix was an actual cowboy hired on location who became a prolific silent Western star and director; his career took off when he joined Fox in 1917. His contemporary, Colonel Tim McCoy, recalled in an interview how Mix transformed his own life into a Wild West show. Often Mix's costumes featured large ten-gallon hats, silver buckles, and an abundance of fringe; McCoy told him once that he was "dressed up like a Christmas tree." Mix's sense of showmanship extended beyond his clothing to his recollection of the past, and included fabulous tales about capturing outlaws and braving the elements. When fellow cowboy actor Art Acort questioned Mix about this, Mix replied, "They're here for entertainment, so I give them a reel out of one of my pictures." (7) William Everson writes that Mix's "publicity machine exaggerated his pre-movie experience into a soldier of fortune scenario that no one man could ever cram into a single lifetime." (8) Mix had no desire to put the "real West" onscreen; his films were filled with stunts, thrills, fancy roping, and picturesque locations. For example, in The Great K & A Train Robbery Mix escapes outlaws in a canyon by descending from the top of a cliff on a rope right onto the back of his waiting horse. Later cowboy actors including Tom Tyler, Yakima Canutt, Bob Custer, and Jack Hoxie imitated Mix's style of cowboy acting.

William S. Hart

If it is ironic that Mix, a real cowboy, would create such an unrealistic picture of cowboy life on the screen, it is equally ironic that it took a New York stage actor to bring the "real" cowboy to film. William S. Hart was a popular stage actor from New York who became a silent Western actor and screenwriter. Hart was disgusted with the artificiality of most early Westerns, and strove to bring a real sense of the West to silent films. His costumes, in contrast to Mix, were more low key, and the plots of his films are generally strong and adult. However, at a time when the film industry was trying to prove its worthiness to the public, most films had to have some sort of programmatic content; thus, even though most of Hart's films began realistically, they ended "by linking the villains with the saloon and the good guys with the church." (9) Hart's films, although more realistic than Mix's, contained the romantic and sentimental conventions of the day: plenty of old-fashioned chivalry and the rough outlaw who is reformed by the love of a good woman, as in 1914's The Bargain. Hart's last Western was Tumbleweeds, filmed in 1926. Although it features one character who functions as a comic sidekick, for the most part it is a poetic, honest, and historically accurate portrayal of the opening up of the Cherokee Strip to homesteading, an event that Hart saw as the last of the Old West. Jack Hold, Neal Hart, Harry Carey, and Buck Jones followed Hart's more realistic portrayal of the cowboy.

Harry Carey

A middle ground in depictions of the cowboy was found by the actors Tim McCoy and Hoot Gibson. McCoy had a background as an Indian agent and Army officer, but tended nevertheless towards Mix's flamboyant style in costumes when on film; Hoot Gibson, an Easterner trained in the theater, was more restrained in costume than earlier portrayals of cowboys by Easterners had been.

Real cowboys had an interesting relationship with the silent Westerns. They were employed as extras in many silent Westerns, including William S. Hart's Tumbleweeds but many of them, all to aware of the unemployment and harsh conditions of cowboy life, could not share Hart's uncritical love of the West. Employment for cowboys was often so bad that the cowboys would go straight from the L.A. stockyards into the picture business. Working in films paid five dollars a day, often more than they could earn in a week of cattle drives.(10)

Their life in Hollywood was quite similar in many respects to life on the ranch. The cowboy extras stayed in barracks-style bunkhouses while the principal actors and directors stayed in hotels. The cowboys congregated daily at a specific Hollywood corner called "The Watering Hole" to await calls by the studios for extras. Life in Hollywood imitated the Old West, for often there were brawls, shootings, high-stakes poker games, runs from the law, and escapes from town on stolen horses. Colonel Tim McCoy and Art Acort recall several hard fights in the Vernon Bar, a popular cowboy hangout which was a block and a half long. More than once Tom Mix rode into the bar on horseback and announced his presence by shooting his guns at the ceiling. Silent film actress Colleen Moore even recalls a real shoot-out on the set of a Tom Mix film in Arizona. (11)

The cowboy's screen image, in the beginning a product of popular Eastern myths about the West, came to embody those myths while also blurring the distinction between "film West" and "real West" in the casting practices of the Hollywood studios. This blurring of history and myth occurred in the portrayal of other Western types as well.

Other Roles

Just as they had been in nineteenth century popular fiction, historical figures including Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, and Kit Carson were favorite subjects for the silent Westerns. And like nineteenth century fiction, the relationship to fact was sometimes tenuous. Kit Carson's provided subject matter for three silent Westerns: one chronicled his adventures with John Fremont; another, his marriage to an Indian woman; and a third, his exploits as an Indian agent. The third film, Kit Carson, was filmed in 1928. In the film, Carson works as a government Indian agent trying to make peace between several warring tribes. A villain in the film operates chiefly by trying to seduce every female in the picture, including the Indian chief's daughter. After a hard struggle in hand-to-hand combat with Carson at the end of the film, the villain falls to his death from a high cliff and Carson is able to make peace between the tribes.

Trappers appeared in some of the earliest westerns, including 1903's The Pioneers in which they rescue an orphaned white girl. In early films they are modelled after Cooper's Hawkeye, self-reliant and rarely romantically paired with the leading lady, although in later films this does change. Pioneers receive a largely reverent portrayal, perhaps due in part to the enduring appeal of the early republic's ideal of the yeoman farmer.

Gamblers often functioned in the "good badman" role and lawmen most often represented the incorruptible spirit. 1929's The Amazing Vagabond was one of the films to portray the lives of lumbermen; the film reinforces the theme of the West's regenerative powers as a rich lumber man arranges for his spoiled son to be abducted and taken to a Western lumbercamp, where he falls in love, exposes corruption, and becomes an object of respect.

Love and new life are found in mining camps as well; in 1910's The Angel of Dawson's Claim a miner is united with a woman in the camp when he asks her to help care for a five year old orphan and she sees how attached he is to the child. Back to Yellow Jacket (1922) and Chaplin's 1925 film The Gold Rush illustrate the sometimes dreary conditions of the mining camps and of the frozen north.

Robbery was a favorite subject of the silent Westerns. In an exceptional example of the blurring between "film West" and "real West," in 1908 Al Jennings, a convicted bank robber, filmed The Bank Robbery only a year after he had been pardoned by Theodore Roosevelt. The film was marketed as a historical recreation of Jennings's hold-up. Jennings went on to become a silent Western director. Western life in Jennings's films was unglamorous and hard; his films contained one of the only representations of farm life in sod huts.

The Silent Westerns: Home Page


1   Jane Tompkins, West of Everything, 14-16.

2   Tompkins 35.

3   Anthony Slide and Edward Wagenknecht, Fifty Great American Silent Films, 46.

4   Wiliam K. Everson, American Silent Film, 240.

5   Everson 241.

6   Tompkins 197.

7   Thames Television, Out West, VHS tape.

8   Everson 243.

9   Everson 249.

10  Thames Television.

11  Thames Television.