“Lock n’ load” was the political slogan of a presidential candidate I was covering in the ’80’s. He wore a white Stetson and a gold string tie over his flowered cowboy shirt. As a reporter, I was objective and clear-headed. As a lifelong fan of movie cowboy heroes, I was privately incensed. You don’t use cowboys as currency for political favor. Not with me. My heroes have always been cowboys.
“So, who is your favorite cowboy hero?” the candidate asked, clearly trying to curry a reporter’s favor. I leaned back in my chair – just like Henry Fonda’s Wyatt Earp slowly leaned back in his chair outside the saloon in “My Darling Clementine.”
Actually, it was a good question. But I knew the politician was just trying to win me over just like they tried to ingratiate themselves with the townspeople in so many westerns.
The politician stared at me with a smile. One of those smarmy smiles, like he was going to clean me out in a game of 3 card monte at the local saloon with all the boys looking on from the bar, beer foam over their grins. You could hear giggles of anticipation. He arched his eyebrows: “John Wayne, right?”
He was so sure of himself as we locked eyes. I sighed. Eyes locked for long minutes before I slowly responded, “I never hurry a man who wants to die.” The politician’s broad smile became quizzical. “What?”, he asked, “What picture did Duke say that line?”
I held my smile. “George Peppard, ‘Rough Night In Jericho'”, facing off Slim Pickens’ nasty deputy”. A good, underrated western, I observed. With Dean Martin as town boss, cattle baron, and top dog villain. “Dino was so natural in westerns. I wish he had made more of them,” I continued with the pol just looking at me.
“But what about the Duke?” the candidate pushed back, playing with his string tie.
I was pacing myself now, trying not to unload with a torrent of movies, actors, and memorable lines. Cowboy heroes? It was like asking a kid what flavor ice cream as he stared into one of those old drug store soda fountains with myriad flavors.
As a kid, it was John Wayne as the favorite silver screen cowboy. He was “The Duke”. The fella no bullies trifled with and no women sassed. I loved the way Wayne strutted with that particular gait and the way he slow-talked with emphasis always on the first syllable of his words, pausing before he finished his line for emphasis.
However, Duke Wayne wasn’t always available at the neighborhood movie house. That’s where I bonded with the cheaper B-movies which were plentiful. The B-movie trail was full of heroes like Johnny Mack Brown, Tim Holt, Bob Steele, Hoot Gibson and the younger guns like Rory Calhoun, Audie Murphy, Rod Cameron, George Montgomery, John Payne, Joel McCrea and RANDOLPH SCOTT.
Randolph Scott! He looked like he was born in the saddle. He usually rode a palomino, wore two guns, hats with nice brims and kept his dialogue to a minimum.
Scott kissed women but didn’t waste time with mushy romantic dialogue. “I’ll be back” was his way of declaring genuine affection. It’s not for nothing that Mel Brooks has a line dedicated to Randolph Scott in “Blazing Saddles,” his brilliant spoof of westerns. During the late 1940s and 50s, the Universal-International Studio specialized in lean, color westerns that starred many young actors just learning their trade. You could see the early versions of Audie Murphy (forever young), Rock Hudson, Clint Walker, Dennis Weaver, Tony Curtis, David Janssen and James Garner, just to name a few who would become stars.
There were also the gritty character actors like Charles Bronson, Lee Van Cleef, Jock Mahoney, Lee Marvin, Jack Palance, Richard Boone, Richard Jaeckel, L.Q. Jones, Leo V. Gordon, Dub Taylor, Strother Martin, Jack Elam, Jack Lambert, James Best and so many more who would achieve acclaim. Back then, they were the bad guys, the roughnecks and the fellas who menaced the women, the steers and challenged our heroes to duels on Main Street at High Noon.
If Duke Wayne was my favorite silver screen cowboy, he would have competition as I grew up. There was Jimmy Stewart who jumpstarted his lagging career after World War Two with a series of now classic westerns made during the 50’s – usually with director Anthony Mann. I now consider these westerns 101: “Winchester ’73,” “Bend Of The River,” “The Naked Spur,” and “The Man From Laramie.”
Stewart evolved from the idealistic, good natured Jefferson Smith of the 1930s to the troubled, conscience-stricken hero of the 1950s often bent on revenge. Joel McCrea followed the same path. From rom-com leading man of the 30s to no-nonsense westerns, beginning in the late 40s. The teaming of McCrea and Randolph Scott in Sam Peckinpah’s “Ride The High Country” (1962) came out the same year as John Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” Both films began the farewell to silver screen heroes as we knew and loved them.
John Wayne’s Tom Doniphon, the man who really shot Liberty Valance, dies as an unknown pauper, remembered only by his close friends. The “Print the Legend” line excludes Wayne’s character from his rightful accolades as does history so often in our real life study of the old west.
Joel McCrea, in one of the most poignant death scenes in westerns, tells old pal Randolph Scott he doesn’t want others to see him this way. McCrea, on the ground, expires – his old face and eyes shutting in a memorable close up with funeral music taking us through the closing credits. An elegy to westerns and silver screen cowboys we knew them.
To some degree, Clint Eastwood brought back westerns in the 1990s, but we seem to know too much to make them like we used to make them. They are so much grittier. Meaner of spirit and often lacking in any kind of humor.
And now, it’s time to watch “Rustler’s Rhapsody” again. To the westerns we love and have passed into history, cheers!