Published 19/06/2008 | 07:00
No period of time and no tract of territory have been more chronicled in fiction and in history and on film than what is properly called The Old West. Of course it has been romanticised -- but underneath all the myth there was hard drama and poetry.
Life in that new world was strange and hostile and, above all, lonely. The early pioneers mightn't have a neighbour within 50 miles; this was especially hard on the women -- they were alone at home for much of the day.
A story about a young couple who went out West and built their log cabin and got land from The State illustrated this. After a few months John felt that Mary was unhappy. He asked her why -- and she said: "I am lonely because I have no woman to talk with." John was delighted when another young couple, Henry and Martha, settled down a few miles away. The two young couples quickly became close friends. Mary looked very happy.
However, after a few months it seemed to John that Mary was becoming sad again. And so one day he said to her: "Now you should be happy that you have Martha to talk with." She said: "It is great but we have no woman to talk about."
We occasionally meet those pioneers in film: greedy ranchers and railway companies are trying to steal their land. That was why Jessie James and his brother Frank took to robbing trains -- of course it wasn't that way in reality. Nevertheless they were real persons: so were Wild Bill Hicock and Batt Masterson and Pat Garret. They were very real if you happened to be on the wrong side of them.
The young lads of my generation owed a good part of their education to The Old West. Some of the most popular writers cared about language. I am thinking especially about Max Brand: he was a professor of Latin and Greek in a university in the South-West; not only did he teach Classics -- he wrote classically. His novels were very well constructed. Small boys, not to mention big men, like stories that have a beginning and a middle and an end.
And I felt that no Western film was complete unless it contained a scene at a poker table, real poker -- not the kind we see on television. Those scenes were always fraught: the barman might appear to be preoccupied polishing glasses but you can see that he is ready to dive under the counter. The poker element left behind a multitude of stories. I loved the one about the man who loved the game so much that he joined a school in his first night in the salon. Next evening the barman said to him: "The school is bent." "I know" said the newcomer "but it's the only game in town."
It wasn't only the action that enthralled us in those Western films: we loved the sense of the open country. Certain scenes were almost essential -- especially those of horses splashing their way across a shallow river. And when the covered wagons were rolling westwards and all appeared well, you suddenly saw on the horizon a long line of Indians sitting motionless on their horses, there was trouble ahead.
There was another familiar scene: when the besieged garrison appeared about to be overcome, you saw and heard The US Cavalry riding to the rescue.
Perhaps the most familiar scene of all shows us the hero on his first day in town. As he comes through the swing doors, even the poker players look up. There is total silence. The barman puts a bottle of whiskey and a glass in front of the newcomer.
He picks up the drink and tosses it back. One night in our local cinema we saw a hero with a difference. For a start, it was Robert Taylor making his first appearance in a Western. For a finish, he ignored the bottle of whiskey and the glass -- and raised his right hand about six inches above the counter. The barman poured him a mug of beer. There was a collective gasp of surprise from the audience.
I have another memory of how the audience in that same cinema reacted to an unusual happening. You know what happens when the hero and his deadly enemy grapple on the landing of a stairs. Eventually they crash against the railing. It breaks -- and they go crashing down into the bar. On that night long ago the railing didn't break -- a great cheer went up.
Every film involving the gunman with the heart of gold and the head of the bad gang ended as expected. The villain got in the first shot but little good it did him -- he ended up very dead in a dirty street. All films concerning the Indians ended up with the Government as winners.
Alex Olmedo, the great Peruvian tennis player was pure Indian and loved films about The Old West. "But," he said, "I always leave before the last reel -- while my people are still winning."
Incidentally, I once saw a Western that had a most unusual ending. It was, I think called One-Eyed Jacks, it was set on the coast of California. If the hero had ridden off into the sunset, he would have ended up in The Pacific.
In my student days in Cork, a cinema called The Assembly Rooms was possibly unique. It never showed what you might call serious films. It always showed a double feature -- a thriller and a Western. By the 1940s guitars and love stories were creeping in. The thriller began at two o'clock. The Western began about two hours later. I remember an afternoon when a voice out of the darkness said: "It's half-past four -- and there isn't an Indian in sight".
Fogra: My congratulations go to the Hurlers of Dublin on taking a step forward by drawing with Wexford