primarily reference celluloid cowboys and scholarly works on the subject.17 For in a
sense, it was television and Hollywood cinema that transformed the cowboy into the
“romantic figure of mythical proportions” (Carlson 2000, 18).
Moreover, rather than representing a single historical or fictional figure, the
mythic cowboy reflects a cultural composite (Frantz and Choate rev. ed. 1968, 70-71). In
the Western film genre, the cowboy is textually evinced through larger-than-life
characters depicted by actors such as Gary Cooper in High Noon (1952), Alan Ladd in
Shane (1953), and John Wayne in Stagecoach (1939). The classic cowboy hero – that is,
as he existed before World War II – resorted to violence only when he was provoked or
when some evil threatened a weaker person who could mount no adequate defense
(Savage 1979, 33). Hollywood’s first cowboys, whom arose from the 1920s to the 1950s,
were strong and silent – rarely given to rhetorical violence (Savage 1979, 33). For
example, in High Noon, Cooper’s cowboy stands alone and does relatively little killing
before leaving town – as does Ladd’s heroic protagonist in Shane.
Nonetheless, there is a distinction in the type of cowboy one may envision. Some
such as Smith envision the cowboy as a hero of the frontiers – an honorable and
dependable knight-in-leather-chaps. Others like Slotkin see him as an ill-mannered,
chauvinistic and pushy fellow – a hubristic individual willing to use violence to get what
he wants.18 A changing worldview in the 1960s gave rise to Slotkin’s new sort of
17 This emphasis is justified by the centrality of film in modern culture and by the pervasive influence of movies on the language of both literature and politics (See Roger C. Schank’s Dynamic Memory. Cambridge UP. 1983. 2-3, 26, 40-41).
18 Susan Faludi believed that American identity has always contained competing models. Even the original frontiersman, the cowboy’s immediate ancestor, had two faces. Faludi noted, “He was either Daniel Boone or Davy Crockett – that is, either the man who rode into the wilderness to build and nurture a society, or the man who ventured out only to collect and count the pelts” (Faludi 2003, 9).