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Category Archives: Cowboys

In South America there is a local variant on the cowboy theme, namely the gaucho- the cowboy of the pampas. The image of the gaucho is central to Argentine national identity. He is seen as a tough upholder of traditional values, facing adversity in an inhospitable environment.
The seminal work of the gaucho genre is Martín Fierro ,an epic poem by the Argentine writer José Hernández. Originally published in two parts, El Gaucho Martín Fierro (1872) and La Vuelta de Martín Fierro (1879)it is a protest against the Europeanizing and modernizing tendencies of president Domingo Faustino Sarmiento and the urbanization of society . The poem also acknowledges the role of the gauchos in the development of Argentina and it’s independence from Spain.
Written in rural language evocative of earlier folk ballads,Martín Fierro holds a position of unparalleled esteem in Argentina’s heritage and has been much analyzed by later writers including Jorge Luis Borges, who made reference to gaucho culture in a number of his stories.

The gaucho resided outside the region’s growing urban centers and farming settlements. He developed a strong sense of identity and code of conduct, traveling when and where he wanted. He willingly shared his food and lodgings with fellow travelers. When not working, he spent his time drinking maté or alcohol, card playing, and fighting.

The gaucho was the ideal soldier during the wars of independence and the civil wars that followed. This skilled rider could survive off the land, knew the terrain intimately, and was a brave warrior.
The gaucho has come to mean many things to Latin America. He is the romantic image of the past, representing freedom from colonial control and from the urban encumbrances that have come to define the Latin American experience. He could live off of the land with no need for civilization, only his horse, knife and lasso. Not unlike the American cowboy, the gaucho has become idealized and the stuff of myth. No one did so much to create that myth than José Hernandez with his poem Martin Fierro , one of the finest and best-known pieces of Latin American literature.

Scott Van Jacob- University of Notre Dame.

Sanjuro- Samurai proto-cowboy.

Cowboys can crop up anywhere, not just in The Old West.
During the 1950’s and 60’s Western Movies began to draw on other sources. Japanese director Akira Kurosawa was particularly influential. Toshirō Mifune frequently appeared as a solitary, nameless hero upholding traditional values of justice against morally dissolute foes.

Sukhov- Red Army Cowboy.

Discussing his Soviet cult classic The White Sun of the Desert director Vladimir Motyl acknowledged the influence of Stagecoach and High Noon . He described the film as being a “cocktail” of Russian folktale and a Western. Visually, with it’s stark landscapes , the film resembles the work of Sergio Leone.

This used to be a hell of a good country. I can’t understand what’s gone wrong with it…

In Easy Rider Wyatt (as in Earp -Peter Fonda) and Billy (as in The Kid– Dennis Hopper) ride through familiar Western landscapes on their motorcycles.

In the colonial era when DR Congo was known as Zaire , Kinhasa as Leopoldville, a surprising youth culture emerged. There was racial segregation in the city, and most of the Africans were denied a decent education or any opportunity of improving their lot. In the late 1950’s cinemas became very popular in the African quarter. Youths were inspired by Westerns, Buffalo Bill in particular because of his similarity to hunter heroes of Congolese tradition, and Charlton Heston especially for his portrayal of Bill in Pony Express.
The Bills, as they came to be known, were gangs of youths who adopted Western style dress and gave their patches names with a Western flavour, such as Santa Fe or Texas.
The photographs are by Jean Depara(1928-1997), an Angolan who cronichled many aspects of life in Zaire.

Westerns, of course, were not only made in the USA. So, what comes next, a feature on Spaghetti Westerns? Later perhaps, but here is a strange Soviet/ Cuban collaboration from 1972.
Всадник без головы (The Headless Horseman)was based on a novel by the Irish-American adventure writer”Captain”Thomas Mayne Reid (1818 – 1883). The novel was an adaptation of a South Texas folk tale.

The movie was filmed in Cuba- local actors (dubbed from Spanish) playing the Hispanic carachters and the black slaves. The Caucasians and Native Americans are played by Soviet actors. Leading man (and Soviet heartthrob) Oleg Borisovich Vidov was born in Moscow in 1943. In 1985, he defected to the U.S. You’d have to go a long way to find a more handsome cowboy.

The DVD of this movie goes by the title The Boss. It has also been known as Black Bounty Hunter.
Two African American bounty hunters ride into a small town on the tail of a fugitive. On discovering that there is no sheriff, Boss Nigger assumes the role after outsmarting the cowardly white mayor .
Vincent Canby of The New York Times wrote: Fred Williamson gives an immensely self-assured parody of the Man With No Name played by Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone’s films…
Fred Williamson (aka The Hammer) is a former American footballer who rose to fame in blaxploitation movies in the mid 1970’s (he also featured in the original Inglorious Bastards). He wrote the screenplay for Boss Nigger.
Director Jack Arnold, who made his name directing such sci-fi classics as It Came from Outer Space, Tarantula, Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Incredible Shrinking Man, was white.

Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon is regarded as a classic of the western genre. However, the director Howard Hawks was so appalled by its negativity that he made a ‘response’ movie- 1959’s Rio Bravo. Whereas the sheriff in High Noon is abandoned by the townspeople, John Wayne has a willing entourage of unlikely supporters.

It is the characters of his three main allies which give the movie its enduring appeal.

The delightful Walter Brennan plays Stumpy- a grumpy elderly deputy .

Legendary crooner Dean Martin (who’s overriding ambition was to be a success as a screen western hero) plays Dude- the town drunk who redeems himself heroically.

Teen idol Ricky Nelson puts in an appearance as Colorado Ryan , a young gunslinger. Hawks was dubious about using him on account of his youth, but his pull at the box office was such that his inclusion alone would guarantee the movie’s success.

The second in our series was an actual real life cowboy, Mr Clarence Hailey Long, Jr (1910-1978). C.H. Long tasted fame in 1949, when LIFE magazine published a series of Leonard McCombe photographs on ranching in the American West.
The series inspired the folks at Philip Morris & Co., who were looking for a new image for their Marlboro cigarettes, originally intrioduced in 1924 as a womens’ brand. The masculine image of the ruggedly handsome cowboy was seen as being the ideal way to appeal to male smokers.
In 1955 Mr. Long was offered a $20,000 annual contract to advertise beer. He gained the admiration of his friends in the Baptist Church by declining the deal.

It is worth noting that Mr Long, like most cowboys, smoked hand rolled cigarettes.

The Western genre evolved in the mid-nineteenth century via the emerging penny dreadfuls and later dime novels. Such books were mass produced at a low cost, and drew their inspiration from events that were current on the western frontier of the USA, a wild and romantic contrast to the industrialised noth east where the vast majority of Americans lived.
By 1900, the new medium of pulp magazines also helped to increase the readership.
Popularity grew with the publication of classics such as Owen Wister’s The Virginian (1902) and Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage (1912). When the popularity of pulp magazines exploded in the 1920s, western fiction was a staple.
Contemporary with these developments was the growth of the movie industry and the resultant emergence of global media. Western stories provided popular material for movies from the earliest days of the cinema industry. Indeed 1903’s The Great Train Robbery was the first narrative movie .By the 1950’s 30 percent of all Hollywood films involved a Western scenario , and in the USA Between 1952 and 1970 no less than 11 Western TV series were on the air in any single year.
The cowboy was the ultimate hero-a modern knight errant-the white male hero in arms, he faced adversity alone in a harsh world- the symbols were easy to read and the moral battles that lay at the heart of the stories were clearly laid out- there was seldom any ambiguity.
The figure of the cowboy became stylistically idealised to fit in with contemporary fashions and the rough clothing of a nineteenth century cattle herder gave way to narrow jeans, short jacket, flamboyant neckscarf and neat,rakish stetson above a well tended quiff.

Dealing with the most virile aspects of the masculine image, it was inevitable that the American cowboy should appear as a sex symbol as well as being an idealised and resolute father figure conferring on his followers the approved way to think, work, and fight.
The cowboy remains a potent symobol, artist Richard Prince , for example, identifies the cowboy as being a role model and a sex symbol who embodies adventure, spirit and freedom.

So here begins an occasional series in which we will bring you : Cowboys.

Our first Cowboy is Justus D. Barnes (1862-1946) in his uncredited role as Bandit Who Fires at Camera in Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903).