I was reading a book this week that I’ve read many times before. It’s called Starring John Wayne as Genghis Khan: Hollywood’s All-Time Worst Casting Blunders, by Damien Bona. It’s subjective; of course it’s subjective. How not? And I think he’s a little too fond of his sarcastic tone, sometimes exaggerating for the sake of getting in a slam at someone. That’s novelty film criticism for you, I guess. But one chapter is a trio of men whom he considers miscast in Westerns. And his argument in all three cases includes, “Can you really picture these guys in the West? They seem to be from somewhere else!”
Well, yes; that’s how a migration works, you see. You can argue that James Cagney doesn’t work in the particular Western they’ve put him in, but it’s a little odd to suggest that there’s no place in the West for people with New York accents. There were people all over the Old West with New York accents. Two of the guys at the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral were from New York! One was from Iowa! (The Earps moved around a lot, so one was born in Iowa, one in Kentucky, one in Illinois.) The gunfight was in 1881; while it was possible for people living then to be born west of the Mississippi as Americans, it was relatively uncommon yet.
Okay, I’ve admitted before that I have a hard time wrapping my head around time when it comes to the Old West. The Great San Francisco Earthquake is more recent than Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, and I have to remind myself of that a lot. Someone born the year Texas became a state was old enough to be President at the time of that gunfight. I get that. But you know, let’s go back to before Texas statehood. Wikipedia helpfully provides us with a list of Alamo defenders, including their birthplaces. And lets you sort by it.
It’s true that the two of the places where the most Alamo defenders were born are Texas and Tennessee. Would it surprise you to know that two others high on that list are England and Ireland? That almost as many were born in Germany as Mexico? Because of course that’s another aspect we don’t talk about; many settlers of the Old West were born on other continents. (It should be noted that we don’t know where a lot of those defenders were born, so all this “the most” is leaving those out.) It isn’t just the three guys from Massachusetts; it’s the guy from Denmark.
Any of our most famous Western stories can be analyzed this way. Al Swearengen was from Iowa. The founders of Deadwood, Charlie and Steve Utter, were from New York. Custer’s adjutant at Little Bighorn was from Ontario. Custer himself was from Ohio. And while Iowa and Ohio were seen as the West in their time, goodness knows, we don’t think of them that way anymore. John Lithgow is from Ohio, and we don’t think of him as a Westerner.
Oh, and let’s not forget the Chinese, which an awful lot of Westerns are inclined to do. Now, it’s also kind of true that a lot of the history of the West is “let’s ignore the Chinese if we can.” (And if we can’t, maybe we can just make them illegal in some way?) But there’s only one Asian, credited or uncredited, listed as being in the recent Magnificent Seven remake. Not even a Chinese laundry, these days, because Chinese laundries are presumably seen as demeaning. But they did exist. Hell, Disney movies used to sometimes show you the occasional Chinese miner, even. And when I’m lamenting for the racial sensitivity of ’60s Disney movies, we’ve got problems.
Also, it’s a joke on The Simpsons when Totally Not Dustin Hoffman tells Lisa that there were Jewish cowboys, but you know what? There were Jewish cowboys. And black ones. And Hispanic ones. The West wasn’t just white, you know? And all those immigrants—El Dorado, one of my favourite Westerns, has “the Swede,” and of course the Ericsons in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance are Scandinavian, but the West was full of immigrants and Westerns are not.
Oh, hey, and what about women? Sure, Calamity Jane, be it the realistic Robin Weigert or the not-so-realistic Doris Day. And it’s true that there were a lot of times and places where there weren’t a heck of a lot of women in the West. In fact, one of my favourite geography games is looking at maps and guessing what places were named by young single men. But a lot of those towns were formed into real communities by the coming of women—be it dance hall girls, mail-order brides, school marms, or Harvey Girls. Or just plain migrant families. Imagine Shane without Jean Arthur.
Basically, we want our Westerns full of John Wayne (born in Iowa) and Clint Eastwood (born in San Francisco) and Sam Elliott (born in Sacramento), to the point that we forget what the real West looked like. There’s a place in our Westerns for Woody Strode (LA), Jackie Chan (Hong Kong), and, yes, Dustin Hoffman (also LA). And maybe even Salma Hayek (Veracruz), Allison Janney (Ohio), and Alicia Vikander (Sweden). People talk a lot about the Death of the Western; maybe it wouldn’t die if we told more than one kind of story.
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