The Wild, Wild West

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Wyatt Earp and his brothers, shielded by police badges, provoked a fight, shot first, and killed men who, according to three eyewitnesses, were holding up their hands.

Bat Masterson is saved from any similar charge chiefly because he was such a poor shot.

Billy the Kid shot and killed from ambush, not once, but several times. Indeed, only the first of his authenticated killings seems to have come about in a man-to-man fight, and even on that occasion his opponent was unarmed.

What heroes, to be exalted by the Republic!

As outlaws, they were first adored because, it was argued, they robbed only the railroad monopolist and the banker, the men most heartily hated west of the Mississippi. As law officers, they were first adored because, it was argued, they enforced the peace in perilous circumstances, against overwhelming odds. Both propositions are cockeyed. Outlaw or law officer, it made little difference, they were one brutal brotherhood. The so-called law officers more often caused than quelled crime. Hendry Brown, an outlaw in New Mexico, could ride to Kansas and pin on a sheriff’s star; Jim Younger, an outlaw in Missouri, could ride to Texas and pin on a deputy sheriff’s star; even Billy the Kid rode for a time as a member of a bailiff’s posse and, had his side won the Lincoln County War, might well have come down to us in folklore as a force for law and order. The whole boodle of them careened through lives of unredeemed violence and vulgarity, to fetch up—where else? In the Valhalla of the comics, the movies, and television.

But surely the producers of the popular entertainments do not pretend that they are purveying history? Surely they concede that their Wild West peep shows, especially on television, are at most so much embroidery basted onto the national folklore? Yet these entrepreneurs persist in using names of real people and real places. They cite dates of real occurrences—usually, to be sure, absurdly wrong. They lard their diversions with such sly phrases as “based on actual events” or “a colorful look at our American heritage.” Speaking of Wyatt Earp, they describe him as “one of the real-life heroes of yesterday … one of the greatest marshals in the annals of history … this famous straight-shootin’, fastridin’, fair-playin’, clean-livin’ lawman. …” They transform vicious, alcoholic gun fighters like Johnny Ringo and Clay Allison into sheriffs, symbols of justice and peace. They portray Jesse James as an innocent youth unfairly forced into a career of crime, and Belle Starr as a winsome, dewy-eyed ingénue who looks for all the world like Miss Cream Puff of 1960.

And even granting the assumption that the purveyors of this sludge are concerned not with history but with legend, what a shameful and ghastly legend it is ! to be despised, if not on the sufficient grounds of its ugly violence, then on the grounds of its even uglier vulgarity.

The moral, of course, is that crime, when commercially exploited, does pay, and the more sadistic the better. The Wild West—portrayed by irresponsible men who care not a hang for the truth of history so long as they can count their audiences in the scores of millions—has become a permanent industry and has created for the world an enduring image of America.

Over it there hangs the stink of evil.