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Silver Screen Heroes

A sea captain retires to what he thinks will be a quiet life on the frontier and a happy marriage, only to find himself in the middle of a range war in this Western classic.

Why choose between Gene Autry and Roy Rogers? And why select just one of the 200 or so movies in which Roy and Gene were the screen's preeminent singing cowboys, playing idealized versions of themselves more than fictional creations. Their innate goodness, emanating more from their own strength of character than the interchangeable scripts they spun into B-movie cowboy poetry, made them heroes to more than one generation of little buckaroos.

Heroes wore white hats representing the light of truth and purity, while the bad guys wore black hats symbolic of darkness and evil. Blurring black and white into a sea of gray can easily confuse children at an age when they are still trying to sort out right from wrong. The movies can play an important part in their upbringing. You can learn a great deal from silver screen heroes, like Gary Cooper. These men were role models they taught you how to treat a lady. Where Are The Heroes by Rex Allen Jr.

John Wayne (1907-1979), the definitive western hero, was the ultimate hero of American film. Whether he played stalwart cowboys, war heroes, or courageous adventurers, Wayne was the defining symbol of the American character. His Westerns--especially those directed by John Ford--forged his screen persona, and Wayne's onscreen appeal, while at times controversial, has never diminished.

The Ringo Kid set the template for every John Wayne performance in a western. Handy with a shotgun, polite with the ladies, and more at ease on the frontier than in civilized society, the character was a game changer for the actor, Stagecoach director John Ford, and the western genre. To this day, anywhere in the world, John Wayne remains the idealized personification of the American cowboy of the Old West. Nothing that has happened since - from the darker Sergio Leone westerns to the potty-mouthed Deadwood - has been able to shake that perception. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) illustrated how Western legends become part of the era's history, Tom Doniphon kills a ruthless, near psychotic gunfighter from the shadows and remains there while another man unwittingly takes credit for his valor. For Doniphon the legends take care of themselves - protecting a friend is all that matters. That and saying "pilgrim" a lot, which made John Wayne impressions easier for generations to come.

Ford used many of the same actors repeatedly in his films, far more so than many directors. John Wayne, Ben Johnson, Chill Wills, Ward Bond, Grant Withers, Harry Carey, Jr., Ken Curtis, Victor McLaglen, Francis Ford, Hank Worden, John Qualen, Arthur Shields, John Carradine, and Carleton Young were among this group, informally known as "The John Ford Stock Company."

A chance encounter with Howard Hughes led Randolph Scott (1898-1987), the rugged cowboy, to a film career in 1929, but real fame didn't arrive until after World War II, at which time Scott was established as one of America's favorite Western heroes. He bid farewell to the genre--and to movies altogether--with his remarkable performance in Sam Peckinpah's 1962 classic, Ride the High Country.

While Gregory Peck (1916-2003) was the pure embodiment of moral integrity in such films as To Kill a Mockingbird, his roles in Westerns were often more complex. From brute force to quiet dignity, Peck's Westerns show the actor's true emotional range and a physicality that his contemporary roles rarely revealed. Peck appeared in Westerns such as Duel in the Sun (1946), Yellow Sky (1948) and The Gunfighter (1950).

What's not to like about Joel McCrae (1905-1990)? Equally charming in thrillers and comedies (particularly for director Preston Sturges), McCrae brought his unique appeal to Westerns as well, playing stalwart heroes and, in Ride the High Country, giving one of the finest performances of his distinguished career. Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) is an aging ex-lawman whose innate integrity emanates not just from a literate script but from the welcome casting of 56-year old Joel McCrea who, in his fourth decade of westerns, knew what audiences expected from him. McCrea was originally offered Randolph Scott's role as the duplicitous Gil Westrum but turned it down, saying, "I'm not going to destroy my image for one picture." Judd is not the first or last older character on the list, which suggests that you're not a real cowboy until you've been around the trail a few times and learned some lessons the hard way.

Mur & Me

Our cowboy

I've just always been a cowboy, as you can tell. The picture above is with Major Browns son. By the tree, oustside the trailer, the back reads Our Cowboy. I'm 3 years old here in Tucson, AZ where Dad was stationed during Korea.

At a modest height of 5 feet, 5 inches, Alan Ladd (1913-1964) didn't have the stature of more typical Western heroes, but his two-fisted toughness in Shane earned him a place in the genre's hall of fame. His declining career ended with an overdose of sedatives and alcohol, which many Hollywood insiders considered a suicide. The best gunfighters would rather not draw their guns unless absolutely necessary. Shane was the personification of the reluctant man of action - soft-spoken and polite, but challenge his patience at your peril. Alan Ladd was short but packed a lot of implied threat in his compact frame. He was idolized by women and children, but he had no business lingering among the virtuous. Shane was a coiled spring that could only be restrained for so long.

Ben Johnson (1918-1996), the real McCoy, was one of the greatest character actors of Hollywood's golden age, and in his own way he helped define the Western as much as John Wayne and other high-profile stars. Respected throughout his career, he finally won an Oscar for his unforgettable role as Sam the Lion in The Last Picture Show.

Henry Fonda (1905-1982) owed much of his success to portraying heroes in classic Westerns, but it was Fonda who insisted on playing one of the most cold-blooded villains in the history of the genre, in Sergio Leone's masterpiece, Once upon a Time in the West. Playing good guys or bad, Fonda was always unforgettable.

Actor, director, producer, jazz pianist, politician - Clint Eastwood (b. 1930) has worn many hats but none more comfortably than the cowboy hats he sported in the Westerns that brought him superstar status. Now in a late stage of his stellar career, Eastwood shows no signs of slowing down. Will his masterpiece, Unforgiven, remain his farewell to the genre that made him a legend?

Gary Cooper (1901-1961) was more than a Hollywood screen legend. The perfect embodiment of the "strong, silent type," he brought a unique quality of dignity and decency to the screen - particularly in Westerns, where his own code of honor was well matched with those of the characters he played.

Tom Selleck (b. 1945), was born for a career in westerns. Unfortunately, he was also born too late to have one. But he's embraced the opportunities that have come his way, both on the big screen (in Quigley Down Under) and in a series of well-reviewed and highly rated made-for-TV movies that aired on the TNT network.

In Last Stand at Saber River (1997), Selleck plays a Civil War veteran who is harassed by a pair of Union officers played by brothers David and Keith Carradine. Based on a Louis L'Amour novel, Crossfire Trail (2001) was directed by Simon Wincer (Lonesome Dove) and features another memorable supporting cast with Wilford Brimley, Virginia Madsen, and Mark Harmon. Monte Walsh (2003), also directed by Wincer, is a remake of the 1970 classic that stands on its own merits.

Glenn Ford (1916-2006) was a skilled actor equally at home in comedy and drama, this darkly handsome actor (who matured into a rugged, rumpled-looking leading man) brought brooding intensity and, occasionally, an aloofness to his characterizations, making him capable of limning cold-hearted villains as well as engaging heroes. Outwardly a most ordinary, unprepossessing personality, Ford possessed that intangible "something" that connected with audiences. In 1958, Ford was voted the number one male box-office attraction. Through sagacious career choices, Ford was able to extend his popularity long after the studio system that "created" him had collapsed.

Jason McCullough just wanted to go to Australia; he wound up sheriff in a town where the jail doesn't have any bars. Support Your Local Sheriff celebrates the lighter side of the West, and there's no better ringmaster for this type of adventure than James Garner, already a veteran at the wiseass cowboy routine from his years playing Bret Maverick. Self-assured even when improvising his way out of an ambush, McCullough is a reminder that a quick wit will get you out of more trouble than a fast draw.

On the day he marries a pacifist Quaker (Grace Kelly) and hangs up his star, Marshal Will Kane must face an outlaw he put away years ago who's back on the noon train to exact his revenge. Abandoned by the people in the town he vowed to protect, Kane confronts the outlaw and his gang in a fight he does not expect to win, simply because it is the right thing to do. Kane's fear and resentment grow more palpable as the real-time story unfolds. Gary Cooper unforgettably registers the marshal's lonely resolution and resignation to his own fate, aided by a bleeding ulcer and injured hip that left the actor in severe pain throughout the shoot.

Tom Horn was a real cowboy who, at different times in his life, was a Pinkerton detective and an outlaw, a frontier scout and a horseman with Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders. To do Horn justice, Steve McQueen was granted access to the western library at writer Louis L'Amour's home, where he researched the man and the period in which he lived. "Louis and I would be working in his office while Steve was sitting over on the sofa studying and making notes," recalled L'Amour's wife, Kathy. "That went on for weeks." Tom Horn was a troubled production - four directors including McQueen came and went - but the result was an authentic and atmospheric portrayal of what can happen to a cowboy when the rules of the Old West no longer apply.

Rio is a brooding Billy the Kid pastiche perfectly suited to Marlon Brando, who turned the 60-day shooting schedule of One-Eyed Jacks into a six-month marathon, as he obsessed over every scene as both star and director. The result was worth it, even if audiences didn't think so at the time. The character's steely-eyed stares, introspective pondering, and sudden bursts of temper were something of a revelation for the western genre, but Brando's off-the-charts charisma made it impossible to look away.

As ludicrous as a bright blue jumpsuit looks on a cowboy hero, The Lone Ranger remains as iconic as Superman, a credit to the sincerity and kid-friendly appeal of Clayton Moore. Through adventures on radio and television and in movies and comic books, the masked rider of the plains was the vigilante you could bring home to mother. And through his partnership with Tonto, he created a new Old West dynamic: the cowboy and the Indian, faithful companion and Kemosabe. The thrilling days of yesteryear have passed us by.

Will Penny is a loner who can't settle down, even when presented with the most comfortable of homes and a caring woman to love. He is a "good, steady hand," who does what's right. A man like that deserves a comfortable retirement, but sometimes a virtuous life doesn't leave much to rely on in its twilight. Lacking the bombast of a typical Charlton Heston hero, Will is just another rugged man in a rugged age who had the guts but never got the glory.

A cultured Southern gentleman, Holliday was not only faster than the cowboys he faced, he was also smarter ("Maybe poker's just not your game, Ike. I know - let's have a spelling contest."). Val Kilmer approached the oft-portrayed O.K. Corral gunman from a fresh perspective. Sly and sullen, eloquent and cruel, Kilmer's portrayal was an Oscar-worthy performance that didn't even earn a nomination.

This is a typical tough-as-rawhide western from Anthony Mann, who pulled something hardcore out of James Stewart that other directors never reached. Will Lockhart is a revenge-obsessed man on a mission: to find the men responsible for selling rifles to the Apaches, which led to the death of his brother at the Dutch Creek Massacre. Complex and ambitious, the film plays like a dress rehearsal for the frontier version of King Learthat Mann often discussed but never made.

For the three New Yorkers in City Slickers who view the West as a theme park attraction, Curly became more than part of the show - he was the real thing, a cowboy sage who dispensed frontier wisdom while terrorizing tenderfoot tourists. At the end of the trail, Curly reflects on the beauty to be found in every day, a lesson much easier to learn while riding a horse through a sun-dappled landscape. Jack Palance, a taciturn man in black as he was 38 years earlier in Shane, now revealed a tender heart beneath that tough-as-cowhide exterior, and earned a much-deserved Academy Award.

It's a cliché of every genre - polar opposites working together - but in Lonesome Dove, there's a freshness to the bickering and comradeship of former Texas Rangers Woodrow and Gus, as they drive cattle from Texas to Montana. Their screen friendship makes the six hours slip away so quickly you'll long for more time in their company. Yes, this is a television miniseries, but in the quality of the story (based on Larry McMurtry's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel), depth of the characters, wonders of the cinematography, and singularity of the performances, Lonesome Dove is as cinematic a western as has ever been made. Robert Duvall (who has claimed Gus as the favorite role of his storied career) and Tommy Lee Jones play their parts as if they had already lived within them for years.

It's more than the hat, the horse, the boots, and the big screen. Our favorite movie heroes have that cowboy charisma. The movies have introduced thousands of cowboys: straight-shooting sheriffs and bloodthirsty bandits, humble family men and brave pioneers, genuine Old West legends and fictional characters that seem as real as the friends we had lunch with yesterday.

David Hofstede. Great Movie Cowboys. Cowboys & Indians. From the January 2011 issue.

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A Movie To Be Adored | Cowboy And Cowgirl Characters | Firearms Of The Westerns | A Period That Helped Define The Basic Concepts Of Right And Wrong | Movie And TV Western Horses | Randolph Scott | The Red Ryder Story | Sam Elliott | The Setting Of Numerous Movies | James Stewart | This Is Where God Put The West | The Movies Have Introduced Thousands Of Cowboys | Yakima Canutt
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