Think of the Wild West, and images of popular folk heroes and outlaws like Billy the Kid, Jesse James and Wyatt Earp will no doubt spring to mind, bringing with them rip-roaring tales of bank-robbing bandits and loyal lawmen. A great many of these stories have been appropriated by Hollywood to bring the Western genre to the silver screen. There have been everything from moody character pieces such as Brad Pitt-starrer The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford to bawdy musicals like Calamity Jane. But just how many creative liberties have been taken in Hollywood’s quest for a great Old West saga? Let’s have a look.
This list profiles ten famous Wild West figures who were alive and active during the mid- to late-19th century and who have been wildly misrepresented by filmmakers throughout the past 70 years.
10. Wyatt Earp – Wyatt Earp (1994)
Wyatt Earp is up there with the most famous figures of the Old West, complete with a celebrated story of just revenge against those who shot his brothers, slaying one and maiming the other. This “righteous vigilante” tale has been told in various movies, including Lawrence Kasdan’s partially-biographical 1994 effort, Wyatt Earp, which sees Kevin Costner portraying a “stolid” version of the eponymous character. Sadly, much of the popular legend is, at best, a fabrication. The myth around Earp owes principally to a biography by Stuart Lake from 1931 titled Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal, which paints the lawman as some kind of superstar. The book has been widely slammed as “more fiction than fact.” Moreover, according to biographer Andrew Isenberg, the real, disreputable Earp became a policeman as “it was an easy source of cash,” was involved in a massive sports-fixing scandal, and in his youth was known to steal horses and visit prostitutes.
9. Billy the Kid – Young Guns II (1990)
Directed by Geoff Murphy and released in 1990, Young Guns II speculates that Billy the Kid (portrayed by Emilio Estevez) wasn’t murdered by his erstwhile friend Pat Garrett (William Petersen) but instead lived until at least 1950 as “Brushy Bill” Roberts (also Estevez). Both of these notions are false. It seems that the Kid – real name William Henry McCarty, Jr. – and Garrett did know each other at one point, but no historical evidence shows them to have been great buddies. And Brushy Bill? Well, as writer C. F. Eckhardt has put it, “If ‘Brushy Bill’ was the Kid, he did a helluva lot of gunslingin’ in his diapers.” What’s more, it appears that most of the other Wild West historians – and indeed some of Roberts’ family – concur with this skepticism. Billy the Kid is thought to have in reality croaked thanks to a gunshot wound on or around June 14, 1881. Pat Garrett pulled the trigger.
8. Johnny Ringo – Tombstone (1993)
Johnny Ringo is a great name for a gunslinger, so it’s perhaps fitting that John Peters Ringo shot a man dead at the age of 25 and went on to become a notorious outlaw. He would also end up being portrayed by Michael Biehn as a sophisticated sociopath in 1993 George P. Cosmatos movie Tombstone, which is set around the famous events that took place in Tombstone, Arizona in and around 1881. The film depicts a violent but educated Ringo caught up in a rivalry with fellow legend Doc Holliday (played by Val Kilmer), who later kills him in a shootout. In fact, Ringo came from a disadvantaged background, was in all likelihood an alcoholic, and died in debatable circumstances in Turkey Creek Canyon in 1882. A contemporaneous coroner noted that his death may well have been suicide, although others did think it was murder. Either way, it definitely wasn’t down to a duel with Val Kilmer.
7. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
The production team behind Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid at least had the honesty to state, at the beginning of the movie, “Most of what follows is true.” The 1969 hit was directed by George Roy Hill and stars screen icon Paul Newman as Robert Leroy Parker – or Butch Cassidy – and the equally legendary Robert Redford as Harry Alonzo Longabaugh, a.k.a. the Sundance Kid. The plot sees the famous train robbers hunted so relentlessly by a “superposse” that they are forced to leap heroically from a towering cliff into rough waters and turn tail to South America – where they’re cornered and showered with bullets by Bolivian troops. In reality, though, the pragmatic pair comfortably kept ahead of their pursuers and spent a number of years running a ranch in Argentina before their eventual demise.
6. Jesse James – American Outlaws (2001)
Colin Farrell was cast as the legendary Jesse James in 2001 box office flop American Outlaws, which relates a somewhat fictitious version of James’ criminal career. Directed by Les Mayfield, the sanitized tale sees James as a soft and downright likable thief who has earned respect by being a nice-as-pie bank robber – and who’s only really looking for revenge on the bad guys who killed his momma, in any case. Unfortunately, history tells it differently. James was, in fact, a headline-seeking murderer who never truly got over fighting on the losing side of the Civil War. The outlaw and his cohorts are thought to have stolen around $200,000, and he personally took the lives of over a dozen individuals – at least one of them in cold blood. American Outlaws also boasts a Hollywood happy ending for James, which is odd considering the fact that he was shot dead by one of his own bunch at the age of 34.
5. Calamity Jane – Calamity Jane (1953)
Even overlooking the fact that the Old West wasn’t anything remotely like a Hollywood musical featuring an Oscar-winning tune, there’s still a whopper of a historical inaccuracy to enjoy in David Butler’s 1953 movie, Calamity Jane. The film revolves around Doris Day’s Jane and her love affair with Howard Keel’s “Wild Bill” Hickok – which has little basis in fact. The real-life Martha Jane Canary is these days well known to have been a spinner of spurious yarns, boasting that she did service under George Custer in Wyoming and Arizona and that she married Hickok and mothered his child. These claims have never been authenticated by contemporaneous or newer sources, and today Jane is thought to have been an alcoholic who actually took jobs as a cook, a working girl and a nurse.
4. “Doc” Holliday – My Darling Clementine (1946)
My Darling Clementine has been described as “arguably the finest achievement in a rich and magnificent genre” and is listed on the National Film Registry. It’s a bit of a shame, then, that the 1946 classic from renowned Western director John Ford makes such a minimal attempt to show the truth behind the myths. Victor Mature’s John Henry “Doc” Holliday is just one of the characters to suffer in this regard, but it’s his misrepresentation that’s our focus. “Doc” is portrayed as a surgeon who dies during the shootout at the O.K. Corral; yet in fact Holliday was a dentist with a DDS from Pennsylvania Dental School who had a nice sideline in gambling and gunfighting. He did take part in the legendary gun battle, even killed a man or two, but he wasn’t mortally wounded by a bullet, as the movie would have it; instead, the slug is said to have merely ricocheted off him. Holliday actually died of tuberculosis six years later.
3. George Custer – Little Big Man (1970)
It’s fair to say that George Armstrong Custer is a slightly controversial figure in American history. After he was slaughtered with many of his troops at the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876, Custer was depicted in books as a valiant young star, yet he later came to be viewed more as an intensely vain villain. His portrayal in Arthur Penn’s 1970 satirical western, Little Big Man, certainly falls into the latter camp, with Richard Mulligan playing Custer as a merciless, bigheaded man intent on murdering Native Americans. The reality, though, is far more paradoxical. Custer’s early career is fascinating, as he fought in the Civil War and reached the rank of brigadier general at just 23 years of age. In the early 1870s, writings of his were published in magazine The Galaxy that even expressed compassion towards “Indians.” Nevertheless, he would still go on to lead a contentious military attack and die in battlefield folly.
2. “Wild Bill” Hickok – Wild Bill (1995)
The role of James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok was filled by Jeff Bridges in 1995 movie Wild Bill, directed by Walter Hill. The film’s narrative would have us believe that Hickok had an on-off relationship with Calamity Jane (played by Ellen Barkin) and was murdered by Jack McCall (David Arquette) – for being enamored with McCall’s mother. All this is actually nonsense. Hickok was married to Agnes Lake Thatcher at the time depicted in the film and was gambling in Deadwood, South Dakota with the aim of generating a nest egg for himself and his new wife. As suggested, the real Calamity Jane contended that she was married to Hickok, but this has never been substantiated. As for Hickok’s death, McCall put a bullet in his back while Wild Bill was playing a game of cards, and although the killer’s incentives remain not entirely clear, there’s certainly no mention of his momma.
1. “Doc” Scurlock – Young Guns (1988)
Historical accuracy is not one of the strong points of 1988 actioner Young Guns, directed by Christopher Cain. Take the character of Josiah Gordon “Doc” Scurlock, for example, who in this case was played by 24’s Kiefer Sutherland. The movie is set during the Lincoln County War of 1877 and 1878. Focused primarily on Billy the Kid (Emilio Estevez), the narrative sees Scurlock meet and befriend a Chinese sex slave whom he later goes on to marry. This plot point is bizarre, considering the fact that by 1876 the real Scurlock was already betrothed to one Maria Antonia Miguela Herrera – and the couple would go on to have ten kids together. Worse still, in the film’s 1990 sequel, Young Guns II, Scurlock is shot and killed; yet in actuality he merely moved to Texas, dying of an apparent heart attack at the ripe old age of 80.
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