Expert Opinion: 'Cowboys & Aliens' vs. Wild West Expert

on August 09, 2011 by Mark Lee Gardner


as told to Boxoffice:

I grew up in a little Midwestern town in Missouri of 500 people and the nearest movie theater was 14 miles away. Every new movie, my parents took us three kids. I vividly remember seeing Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the Clint Eastwood westerns, True Grit. Any of the '60s westerns, we were there. And PattonI can't forget that. One of the classic westerns that had a huge impact on me was The Searchers, directed by John Ford. I think I was in junior high when I saw that on television and I was so blown away.

Apparently, Steven Spielberg screened The Searchers for Jon Favreau before he started making the film. You can definitely see its influence. In The Searchers, John Wayne is playing an anti-Wayne. In Cowboys & Aliens, Harrison Ford is the anti-Ford. He's not as likeable as he usually is. I love the solitary moments when they're just riding. You can really see the influence of The Searchers in those scenes, when they're in the rain when it's all quiet.

We'd take these family vacations out to the west and we'd visit historic houses, forts, battlefields. I remember as a kid being on the Little Big Horn battlefield and how astounding that wasall these men had died there. That got me interested in American Historyall these stories that are fascinating and usually true. The true ones are the best. The fascination led to a passion to discover more about those great stories. Little Big Horn led to learning about George Armstrong Custer, and the Sioux, and the Cheyenne, and what brought them together to the point where I majored in History and Journalism in college and then got a masters in American Studies. I worked three summers at Bent's Old Fort in Colorado, which was a fur-trading post. It was a living history site, so you dressed up as the people who inhabited that fort in the 1840s. One summer, I was a soldiera U.S. Dragoon. Another, I was a clerk in the trade room. A totally different summer I was at Harper's Ferry, a National Park in West Virginia oriented towards the Civil War era. Now, I get to write about some of those famous characters that I couldn't get enough of when I was a kid.

One of the things I thought was a little odd about the film is I think the people would have been a lot more terrified than they were to see an alien. They had nothing in their background to prepare them for that kind of experience and I don't know why they weren't all screaming bloody murder and running away. There's nothing in their cultural makeup that would have prepared them for such a foreign thing. No movies, no novels about that kind of attackto them, it would have been like God striking down from the sky. They should have thought the world was coming to an end. But instead, there's a brief bit of panic and then they start organizing their defense. There's no way to know this for sure because an alien attack in the Wild West never happened, but I thought their composure was a little unrealistic.

It's not like Cowboys & Aliens is the only movie to get things wrong. Usually, every western gets things wrong. Look at the town. According to the story, this was a recent boom mining town. Why does the town look 100 years old? It looks like an antique when it couldn't be but a couple years old. Why is it so dilapidated? Even inside places like the saloon and details like the washbasin, they look really old. If this is 1875, they should be pretty new. So many westerns do thatit's like if we think 1875 is a long time ago, they think they have to make it look old. We expect to see this vintage, antique-y patina on things because when we go to historic sites, that's the way they look now. Maybe filmmakers think if everything looked new, it would be too jarring?

I also thought it was interesting that this was set in the New Mexico territory where most of the towns in the 1870s had a lot of adobe structures. There's no source of lumber that's close and lumber is expensive. But I don't think I saw any adobe in that town. It was all framed buildings. We picture the Wild West as a main street and a bunch of wood buildings and that's what movies give us.

Something else that always gets me is hokey "Wanted!" posters. Did you notice the wanted poster they showed had this big picture of Daniel Craig? When I was a kid, one of my favorite theme parks was this place Silver Dollar City in Missouri. It's based on a mining town in the Ozarks. They had a little print shot and you could buy a wanted poster for 25 cents and put your name on it. And it looked just like the one in the movie. No western poster looked like thatthe most egregious error is that in 1875, they did not have the technology to print photographs on a wanted poster. Unless they got the technology from the aliens. Wanted posters didn't have photos in the 19th centuryin fact, that doesn't really come in until the 20th century. There's a famous poster for Frank and Jesse James and there's no image on there whatsoever. Just big letters. Every movie makes that mistake. In the 19th century, a lot of times photographs of bad guys weren't available. Now, every time someone gets arrested, we take their picture. Some of these outlaws were able to elude the law because there weren't photos of them. I know why the film had to do that. They've gotta have Keith Carradine somehow recognizing who Daniel Craig is and the audience, understandably, buys into it because they don't know different. But it drives me nuts.

I thought it was interesting that Daniel Craig's cowboy apparently went to the Jason Bourne school of self defense. In the opening scene, he's like a special ops guy with all those moves. Daniel Craig is basically a Clint Eastwood figure: he's stoic and doesn't have a lot of emotion. Usually in a western, they're good brawlers and scrappers, but you don't see these crazy moves. And he never uses those moves again!

And Daniel Craig's gang had 30 people in it. I've never heard of a gang like that. That's hugehow do you feed all those guys? When you ride into town, where do they stay? They'd take up all the rooms in the boarding house. As a comparison, the James-Younger gang, which was Jesse and Frank James, the Younger brothers and a couple other guys, at the height of their noted criminal career there were eight guys in their gang. Thirty guys is a small army. Imagine if today 30 guys drove up on their Harleys into a tiny town. That's going to be very noticeable. 30 guys on horsebackthat many outlaws hanging together just didn't happen. I guess they needed 30 because they killed so many in the fight against the aliens. Even with 30, didn't they still seem to have even more guys at the end even though they were killing cowboys right and left?

You might wonder if Sam Rockwell is a bartender, why does everyone keep calling him "Doc"? Well, in the 19th century, people had multiple occupations. A lot of times, a barber might also be a doctor. They did shaving and surgery-supposedly, that's where the pole with the red and white stripes comes from. Doc Holliday, the famous gunslinger, gambler, drinkerhe had a degree in dentistry. He was a real dentist. So Sam Rockwell very well could have had medical training. It wasn't uncommon. Why was he still so broke? I guess the town was so depopulated, there weren't enough patients. Although the preacher was doing some doctoring himself? In a small town, people take care of themselves. If somebody has a bit of a medical background, he's going to treat everybody whether it's a gunshot would or cholera.

As for Harrison Ford, it wasn't unusual for one man to own a whole town. I don't know if it was common, but we do know from Western history that those types of situations existed and could get very violent. During the Lincoln County war in the New Mexico territory that took place in the late 1870s, there was essentially one business with two to three partners, depending on when, that controlled the economy of Lincoln County, which was the largest county in the United States at that time. One of their allies was the county sheriff. This firm also had powerful connections to officials in Santa Fe. When an upstart firm moved in to compete, it started the Lincoln County war. [Ed note: the war incited Billy the Kid and was dramatized for Young Guns.] Also, the gunfight at the OK Corral was between two factions and each faction had a some of the law fighting on their side.

Harrison Ford talks about waiting to hear from his superiors in the Civil War and losing 300 menand he had the responsibility of being in charge of those men. It wasn't like he was one of them; he was in charge. Obviously, he became calloused because of the fact that his boys were sacrificed to bureaucracy. If we can expect that people will have post traumatic stress disorder today, well they certainly had it in the 19th century after the Civil War. They lost friends, family. There were some horrific, horrific battles where literally tens of thousands of men were killed in a single battle over two or three days. Bodies piled everywhere. And if you saw that, it's going to affect your psyche. The violence of the Civil War definitely carried over into the violence of the Wild West. John Wayne's character in The Searchers was a Civil War vetthat's part of why I see so many similarities between him and Harrison Ford in this movie.

In the 1870s, a lot of the individuals in the west were Civil War veterans, both Confederate and Union. There was this mass migrationthe Transcontinental Railroad was built in 1869. There's land, there's opportunity, so a lot of your westerners are former soldiers. It's not unusual to have someone like Harrison Ford in your town who was a Colonel. Some of these Civil War veterans saw some horrific things and took part in violent battles. Jesse James grew up in probably the most violent theater of the war, the Missouri-Kansas border. He was part of Quantrill's Raiders. It's no surprise that he would become one of the most violent outlaws in our historyor Cole Younger, who also fought with Quantrill. Their battles were extremely bloodyone of their leaders was called Bloody Bill Anderson. If you matured in that environment, it's not hard for you to take a life if you have toor even if you don't have to. In the west, you could have individuals who would seem normal on the outside, but in a stressful situation, they would not hesitate to kill. And it would not bother them to kill because they've done so much killing before.

Oh, and you know when the Apaches capture the posse? They wouldn't still be alive. They would have captured the womanif she'd still been alive, she was kinda dead by thenbut the guys would be dead and it'd be over with very quickly. There wouldn't be time for questions or talk about aliens.

So what did Cowboys & Aliens get right about the west? The director would like me to say more than this, I'm sure, but certainly those big open spaces. There were lots of little things it got right: the sidearms and weapons, some of the costumingnot all of itbut some. Let me put it this way: True Grit with John Wayne and Glen Campbell. Glen Campbell is dressed like a 1960s cowboy. It looks like he went to Sheppler's, a western store, and got dressed. And the same with the Duke. He wore what he always wore. But in Cowboys & Aliens, there were 19th century cuts to the vests. The headgear looked really good. Conservative colors in the shirts and pants, and the texture was very 19th century.

It was obvious that attention was paid to firearms. There's one scene where someone pulls out a Smith & Weston Schofield revolver which breaks open at the top. The Schofield revolver has got a hinge and you can quickly break it open and extract your shells and reload the weapon. It was especially favored by outlaw gangs like the James-Younger gang. Compare it to the Colt Peacemaker six-shooter, which is famousit's the gun that people say won the West. There's a famous saying that god created man and Colonel Colt made them equal. But the Peacemaker is loaded in at the rear cylinder with bullets that you put in one at a time. And then the scene where Sam Rockwell is practicing with a Sharps carbine, which is a very accurate long range weapon. It was popular with buffalo hunters.

Of course, they always fire more shots then they could have in the pistol or the rifle. Especially in the fight with the aliens. There's always more shots in the chambers then they would have had. But that's consistent with other westernsthe directors are never too concerned about how many shots were fired. The only gun of that time that could have really worked against the aliens was the Gatling gun. Maybe they should have broken it out, even though it'd be weird. The most powerful gun they had in the film, however, was the Sharps that Sam Rockwell was carrying. It had a 50 caliber slug. The Apache spears seemed to work okayI saw one go through an alien.

By the way, if the aliens had the technology to travel between planets, couldn't they think of something better than steel cables? They should have been more advanced than thatis that all you got, a metal rope? You can travel across space and defy physics. The aliens were almost comical. They ran around like giant gorillas. To me, it was like Cowboys & Aliens & Planet of the Apes. I don't want to come across as an alien expert, because I'm notalthough I've been to the alien museum in Roswellbut they've got those bracelet weapons and he just sets it down next to Daniel Craig? That'd be like if Billy the Kid was your prisoner and you walked in and set your pistol on the table.

I don't want to sound like I didn't enjoy the filmI did. All the actors were really interesting and the interplay between the different charactersI enjoyed it. But every time the movie started getting good, the aliens came in. I kinda wish it had just been a western. I thought it was a better western than it was a sci-fi thing.

I have a buddy who's actually in the movie: Rex Rideouthe plays Charlie the fiddler who keeps getting told to play more cheerful. He always looks like that with the big beard. And that's his birthnameit's really Rex Rideout. We play music together a lot, all of the historic music of the America west, everything from "Little Joe the Wrangler," to "Git Along Little Dogie." I just wish they needed a banjo player.

If I'm not paying attention to the little nitty-gritty details, the set dressing, the costume, it's a great movie. If it pulled me in, I could care less if they've got the right gun for 1875. But if I'm starting to notice those things, there's something wrong because it hasn't grabbed me. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert FordI love that movie. And my next book is on the James-Younger gang. I've done a lot of research. That film should have been made in Missouri, but it was made in Canadayou can see aspen trees. But you know: I didn't care. I got wrapped up in that world and I was hooked. I could care less where it was madeI was there for the ride.


Mark Lee Gardner is a professional historian, author, musician and consultant. His most recent book is To Hell on a Fast Horse: Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett, and the Epic Chase to Justice in the Old West.



Tags: Expert Opinion, Cowboys & Aliens

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