Sometimes ‘realism’ is taken to unreal lengths

With all the talk about guns in the wake of the Orlando massacre, we got to talking on an earlier thread about the role of firearms in American history, which started me (as a child of the ’50s, who felt naked without a toy six-gun on my hip) to start riffing on that peculiarly American art form, the Western, and how it has evolved.

So I thought I’d expand on the subject in a separate post…

I, and others my age, grew up on unrealistic westerns in which every man went around with a gun in a holster, except for wusses such as shopkeepers or bankers. I’m pretty sure that is an exaggeration, and I suspect that people who went obviously armed were probably looked at askance by the townspeople, although it may have seemed marginally less bizarre than it would today on Gervais Street.

Just as gunfights were nothing like the ritualized affairs we know from movies, with two men approaching down the dusty street, pausing with their hands hovering over their holsters, scrupulously waiting for the other guy to go for his gun before drawing.

Gunfights such as the one at the OK Corral were wild, confused affairs more akin to what happened at that video game storethe other day…

Modern westerns, of course, go for realism.


I’m belatedly watching “Deadwood.” I’m not binge-watching because, as one whose ancestors stuck to Civilization — by which I mean the East Coast — I can only take so much profanity, filth, crudeness, naked avarice and utter disregard for common decency at a time. (As much as it would scandalize my 6-year-old self, I have come to suspect as an adult that had I lived back then, I likely would have been a “dude.” Which wasn’t as cool back then as it sounds today.) Thirty seconds with the “Deadwood” character Al Swearengen (based on a real guy) can make you want to write off the human race as beyond redemption. At the very least, it should persuade a discriminating person to give the Wild West a wide berth.

I would not want to live in the same territory as this guy.

I would not want to live in the same territory as this guy.

Anyway, I’m in the first season, and in the last episode the death of Wild Bill Hickok was depicted — VERY realistically, with him being shot in the back without warning while playing poker.

Such realism is preferable, I suppose. And the clean-cut, 1950s-style western was ridiculous (compare above the guy who played Hickok on TV when I was a little kid and it was my favorite show, the version from Deadwood and the real guy).

Although enough of “Deadwood” and you can start to long, at least a little, for the Disneyland version, with the good guys in spotless white hats.

Or at least for characters you give a damn doggone about. So far the only relatively likeable person on this series is Calamity Jane, and you don’t want your kids in the room when she’s talking.

Bottom line, I’m sure something like everything you see on “Deadwood” actually happened at one time or other in the Old West. But not distilled to this extent, not as unrelenting with the soul-wearing nastiness. Just like, unlike on cop shows, real cops can easily go their whole careers without discharging a firearm in the line of duty.

Surely they had to let up and give it a rest sometime — go through a day with a killing, or maybe speak two sentences in a row without an F-bomb, just to give their profanity mills a rest.

Or else it seems that after a couple of days, they’d get exhausted with it all and skeddadle back East. I know I would have.

Quick: Whose catchphrase was, “Hey, Wild Bill! Wait for me!” The answer is below…

11 thoughts on “Sometimes ‘realism’ is taken to unreal lengths

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    Let me quickly add, so as not to lose the respect of my pardners out there in TV land, that had I been a dude, I’d have been a COOL dude, like Bat Masterson or Doc Holliday.

    Let’s just keep that straight…

  2. Burt

    Back in the days when cowboys would turn prospectors and mine the mountains just outside of Dodge City, KS. Or get on their horse and ride from Tombstone to Yuma and be there before nightfall, a distance of 300 – 350 miles.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Mind you, prospectors weren’t clean-cut types like Guy Madison. They were crusty, grizzled, bewhiskered characters like Gabby Hayes. You could always tell them by the strange ways they wore their hats…


  3. Brad Warthen Post author

    While I was typing the last of that, I was listening to the start of that video. Sample dialogue:

    Wild Bill: “Whaddya think you’re doin’, shootin’ up the town like this?”

    Man in black: “We were only havin’ a little fun. Besides, what business is it of yours?”

    Trusty sidekick Jingles: “Plenty of our business! We’re the new marshals.”

    Wild Bill: “So clear out with the rest of your bunch, and the next time this happens, you’re gonna get six months in the calaboose!”

    I need to find time to watch the rest. It should take me back to sitting on the sofa in that duplex we lived in in Shandon in 1957, devouring Sugar Corn Pops (with Wild Bill on the front of the package) out of the box, and even more eagerly eating up a sanitized version of the Old West…

  4. Jean Smolen

    Based on your comments, Deadwood will not be on my viewing list. Thanks to you, I managed to convince my husband to watch Breaking Bad with me. We just finished Season 3 and he’s about to strangle me. No one on the show is likable, except Walt, Jr., even Skyler is becoming corrupt. It’s very watchable (barring the tedious episode in the lab with the fly), but anyone who says it’s the best TV series ever has not watched The Wire.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      “Breaking Bad” is a bad habit. It’s stressful, but I couldn’t stop watching.

      I wouldn’t say it’s the best series ever. (And “The Wire” is right up there.) But it’s better than, say, “Game of Thrones.”

      It’s not as good as “The Sopranos,” or my favorite series ever, “Band of Brothers.”

      Now, brace yourselves for a comment from Bill about what a simple-minded idiot I am with my WWII obsession…

  5. Burl Burlingame

    How about “Hell On Wheels”? This season’s premiere this week was about as nail-biting and horrifying as anything I’ve ever seen. And the most awful hanging scene ever. Great stuff.

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