What we write now are westerns in a new suit of clothes.
September 14, 2014
I GREW UP IN AN ERA when the Western was king, and we all flocked to the movies to watch the marvelous adventures of Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, Whip Wilson, Lash LaRue, Sunset Carson, Alan Rocky Lane, Wild Bill Elliott, The Lone Ranger, and Johnny Mack Brown.
Tickets for a Saturday morning at the movie house was nine cents, so for a quarter, we would get an old Western, a cartoon, a serial, a new Western, a box of popcorn for a dime, a coke for a nickel, and still have a penny left in our pockets. And we rode home on bicycles, which felt a lot like imaginary horses.
During summers, I would visit my grandfather, Caleb Pirtle I, who lived in a one-room dugout near Clovis, New Mexico. He wasn’t an environmentalist. He was just getting out of the wind. Wind didn’t blow down where he slept at night. He was an irascible old maverick, but he had the complete collection of Zane Gray’s novels, and I spent my days down in his underground home, knocking off one book at a time.
That’s what they were.
I was hooked for life.
The first great book I ever read was Shane.
I read it so many times the cover fell off. I scotch taped it back together and read Shane again.
Westerns were metaphors of life in a simple time on earth. There were good guys and bad guys. The good guys wore white hats. The bad guys wore black.
Somebody was in trouble.
The black hats ruled the day.
The man with the white hat rode into town.
And all hell broke lose.
Even when the anti-heroes like Clint Eastwood were given a harder edge and a black hat, it didn’t really matter.
Somebody was in trouble.
The bad guys ruled the day, regardless of the color of their hats.
The good guy – this time wearing the black hat – rode into town.
And all hell broke loose.
I often lament the demise of the Western. But, in reality, the Western has never left us. It’s just hidden away beneath the camouflage of other genres.
Take a look at mysteries and thrillers. The detective, the spy, the secret agent, the private eye is simply playing the role of the cowboy. He drives sports cars instead of fast horses.
Take a look at science fiction. The hero is simply a cowboy who climbs into rocket ships instead of on horses and rides outer space instead the lone prairie.
In mysteries, thrillers, and science fiction, somebody is in trouble.
The bad guys – gangsters, mobsters, murderers, bullies, assassins, spies, and the evil overlords of some intergalactic universe – rule the day.
The detective, private eye, secret agent, or rocket ship jockey ride into town or onto some planet.
And all hell breaks loose.
The Western hasn’t left us. It’s merely wearing a new suit of clothes.
In fact, when producers sat down with television studios in New York and Holly wood to pitch their idea for Star Trek, which became a cult classic, they explained it this way.
The producer leaned on the table, stared eye to eye with the TV executive, and said: “It’s Wagon Train in Space.”
Television bought it.
Please click the book cover image to read more about Caleb Pirtle III and his novels.