Imagine There’s No Cowboy

by LeAnne Howe


Indians on horseback have been stampeding across the television screen all afternoon. It’s the mid-1960s, so maybe I’m watching Arizona, Stagecoach, or Duel in the Sun; they all contain scenes of Indians and stampeding horses. Suddenly Minerva K. Teichert’s Stampede in the Canyon streaks across the screen. With its blowing dust and pounding hooves on the canyon floor, the painting is as powerful as any film. But at this time in my life it’s impossible for me to have seen Teichert’s work. I’ve never even been to an art museum. So here I’m imagining that my future has narrated its way into my past, creating a memory mashup of classic Hollywood westerns and paintings of stampeding horses. Human memory works this way. During recall, the brain replays a pattern generated in response to a particular event, but replays are not quite the same as the original event. My memories of watching Indians and stampeding horses may not be exactly correct, but they are earnest.

I recall it’s summertime in Oklahoma, hot and dry, a scorcher. I’m twelve years old and stretched out on a grass-colored divan in our living room watching tiny water drops from our evaporative window fan (swamp cooler) hit the linoleum floor. I’ve had scarlet fever, followed by rheumatic fever, and it’s left me with a heart murmur. I’m supposed to rest, but the sights and sounds of horses galloping across the TV, and in my visions, make me want to jump up and run outside. But I can’t. I’m a sickly Indian kid with nothing much to do but watch television seven days a week. The original couch potato, I’m a red-skinned one at that, viewing afternoon movies, scrutinizing the Friday late show, and watching Saturday morning re-runs, all Hollywood westerns. Indians are branded as the bad guys in classic Hollywood westerns. What I learn from these movies is that we Indians must die so that the settlers may live. A deplorable message when you think about it. Surely there must have been a publicity memo sent out to all American Indian nations explaining why Indian characters in movies must die.

Dear Indians, Natives, First Nations, Indigenous

For the next hundred years, or more, the storyline in our moving pictures will be that your tribe is in the way of progress. We will, of course, hire big named stars, generally blondes, that will try to marry your women, or remove you from your lands, but in the end your people will be killed. Tragedy sells.

Good luck,


In the mid-sixties, during my year-and-a-half confinement on the couch, my brother would often park in front of the TV on Friday nights and keep me company. What follows is more or less an accurate account of our dialogue after seeing the weekly western on Oklahoma City’s channel five.

“Stupid,” I say as the end credits roll.

My brother shrugs. “Whaddaya expect; it’s Stagecoach and John Wayne.”

Some might call this rhetorical style, stoic. I prefer concise.

Same time the next week. Another western. Indians shot to pieces.


“Whaddaya expect; it’s Arizona and Jean Arthur,” says my brother.

The following week.


“Whaddaya expect; it’s Duel in the Sun and Gregory Peck.”

(By now you know what I said.)

“Whaddaya expect; it’s Broken Arrow and Jimmy Stewart.”

“Whaddaya expect; it’s Broken Lance and Spencer Tracy.”

“Crimony.” (Developing verbal skills.)

“Whaddaya expect; it’s The Unforgiven and Audrey Hepburn.”

“$%*@$#*@!” (Taking the Lord’s name in vain.)

“Crap,” says my brother.

Then one Friday night, channel five had a salute to silent films, and I think we watched the 1917 Wild and Woolly, with Douglas Fairbanks. Okay, it could have been one of Fairbanks’s other silents, such as The Mark of Zorro, but in my memory mashup it’s Wild and Woolly, the story of a young rich white male pining for the happy days of yesteryear in which Indians must, …well, you know.

Jeff Hillington (Fairbanks) has a great imagination. He believes he must go west to become a real man. Many early silent films have similar themes: wealthy white folks, either from England, New York, or Boston, go west, rid the land of pesky savages, and make the homelands safe for empire building. Wild and Woolly does not disappoint.

Back to my brother and me and the Friday night feature. The movie has just ended.

“Whaddaya expect,” I say. “It’s Douglas Fairbanks.”

“Wait …what did you say? Douglas, what’s-his-name, is, or was, a terrible actor,” says my brother. “Don’t expect me to watch another silent movie for as long as I live. I’d rather have little needles stuck in my eyes!” Some siblings play a sport, or a favorite board game that brings them together as a family. For us, watching westerns was a shared experience that brought us closer together, like weathering a storm in a small raft at sea. Most westerns have a similar message: Indians must die or go quietly into the abyss. It’s because of these films that my brother and I learned to be cranky social critics. Watching this silent movie broke the comfortable, if not superficial, banter we shared Friday nights, and my brother has kept his word. As far as I know, he never watched another silent film. He’s also grown to dislike pseudo-westerns, films like Avatar disguised as fantasy. Salon film critic Stephanie Zacharek called Avatar “Dances with Aliens.”

Yet, over the years our film rhetoric continues to improve.

“Geographically implausible,” he says.

“Visually stunning.”

“How big a threat do you think North Korea represents?”

“To the U.S.?” I ask.

“No, to the film.”

(We laugh more today than when we were kids.)

Wild and Woolly isn’t a bad film, but like so many of these movies, Manifest Destiny is its central theme. The dominant settler society must occupy, fracture, and make the world safe from Indianness and/or savagery. As Chickasaw scholar Jodi Byrd says, “Indianness can be felt and intuited as a presence, and yet apprehending it as a process is difficult, if not impossible, precisely because Indianness has served as the field through which structures have always already been produced.” In other words, Indians have already moved past the frame of reference but are haunting the present.

Wild and Woolly, directed by John Emerson, also stars Eileen Percy, Water Bytell, and Sam De Grasse. It has a wish fulfillment storyline. Jeff Hillington (Douglas Fairbanks) fantasizes about cowboys and Indians and the rugged Wild West. The film was adapted for the screen by Anita Loos, author of the best-selling novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and  shot on location at Fort Lee, New Jersey. In 2002, it was designated culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant by the U.S. Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. Jeff Hillington is heir to a railroad fortune, but he’d rather be firing six-shooters and breaking broncos. At age thirty-four, Douglas Fairbanks seems a tad old to be playing a role more suited for a twelve-year-old, but he plays young Hillington without a hint of irony. When Jeff decides to travel to Bitter Creek, Arizona, in search of the Wild West, his wealthy New York railroad-mogul father arranges it so the town will look like it did in 1880, slightly uncivilized. As Byrd reminds us, “the structures” for civilization have already been put into place when Hillington arrives in Bitter Creek. (Residents shoot blanks in their rifles and six-shooters instead of real bullets.) It’s a western and farcical, and early twentieth-century audiences loved it.

One noteworthy scene, and the reason for the film’s historical and cultural value, begins with Hillington sitting in front of a tipi eating a plate of beans. He’s dressed in cowboy clothes, complete with hat and silky bandanna, as a tinny organ plays underneath the action. (Why a cowboy casually eats a plate of beans in front of a tipi is unclear.) Then Hillington, a literate cowboy, picks up a dime novel and begins reading. The camera goes in for a close-up of the page. The intertitle reads:

Chapter: VIII:

Pell mell, the Yaquis dashed past the scout’s place of concealment yelling like fiends. He waited until the last hoof had passed, then he spurred out and darted for the crest of the gully’s bed. Over his shoulder he could see a swarm of redskins racing across the range. So intent was every Indian on the chase that not a head was turned in the scout’s  direction. The thunderous roll of hoofs, echoing and re-echoing through the narrow gully drowned the noise made by the scout’s faithful broncho.

Admittedly, I’m tripped up by words like “fiends” and “swarms of redskins” that today make me think of the NFL football team in Washington, D.C., but that’s a whole other story. There’s something else being implied. Hillington has snuck up on the Yaquis and eaten their breakfast beans, kind of like Goldilocks eating the bear’s porridge while they’re away. That’s cool, as one story can lead us to another story, at least in our memory mashup.

The scene continues.

“Ah, that’s the life,” says our hero via magic of intertitles. Jeff stands up and walks over to his bedroom wall. Here’s where the movie becomes cooler still. Jeff Hillington spies Frederic Remington’s painting His First Lesson, the very one you’re now reading about. Jeff studies the painting and imagines he is Remington’s cowboy in the painting. Intertextuality abounds.

The camera goes in for a close-up of the painting, and suddenly the scene comes to life as Hillington rides a wild mustang pony around the arena. The scene is staged brilliantly by cinematographer Victor Fleming, who will later direct Gone with the Wind (1939), albeit another film with a problematic message, and the Wizard of Oz (1939). Sidebar: Fleming served as a photographer in World War I and was the officer who photographed President Woodrow Wilson at the Versailles Peace Conference in France, 1919. I suspect working as a wartime photographer helped Fleming become a great early cinematographer. He had to capture the images on the fly, so to speak. The moving pictures of cowboy and horse caught on camera make the scene doubly artful in Wild and Woolly.

Remington’s painting also creates Wild and Woolly, the film; hence we have the story within a story within a story. A real cowboy’s first lesson on a horse becomes a painting, and the painting becomes a moving picture. As a film scholar, I have watched this one many times. When the horse stops bucking, Fairbanks kicks the mustang in its sides and uses his cowboy hat to beat the horse’s neck. The audience can almost hear Fairbanks shouting, “Buck, damn you, buck!” Thank heavens the scene ends quickly. Otherwise it would be an early film example of cruelty to animals. Next comes the fade out, crosscut with a shot of Hillington riding a sawhorse in his bedroom. Jeff shoots his gun into the bedroom wall and his railroad-mogul father suddenly looks up from his breakfast. The intertitle reads: “Tell that Comanche Indian that we are due at the office in ten minutes.”

At this point I want to shout, “Note to wealthy New York railroad-mogul Dad, your son isn’t dressed up like a Comanche; he’s dressed up like a cowboy.” (Apparently I’m not the only one who imagines there’s no cowboy.) The intertitle doesn’t match the visual, but it didn’t bother the filmmakers, or the public. No account of this criticism exists. After all, it’s just a movie, a fantasy.

Fantasies concern literary scholar Dean Rader, and he asks a pointed question in his discussion of Walter Ufer’s painting Fantasies: “What else is he fantasizing about?” The “he” Rader refers to is the man in Ufer’s painting. Ufer has dressed his subject in military regalia and shows a man painting the ghost of a stereotypical Indian while his passive wife sits quietly in the same room. Creepy. My read of Ufer’s painting is strident: Military man paints dead Indian in front of wife, testosterone and dominance abound. Ufer’s painting may be a lament, however, a longing for what has already happened and what is to come: Native populations in decline. By the end of the nineteenth century, settler-colonials had traveled west, seized the land, and killed as many Indian women and children as they could find with the help of the U.S. Cavalry. Now that the Indian wars are over, what’s left for a military man to do? Take up painting, something that former President George W. Bush would do after his presidency ended.

Like Rader, I ask a similar question of Wild and Woolly producer and star Douglas Fairbanks. What else does Jeff Hillington fantasize about as he dreams of going west? Extracting resources? Invading other countries? Maybe Jeff Hillington is cool with that too; he is young, white, and the heir to a railroad fortune. When he goes to Arizona, he will dominate the small town and Indians with the help of his railroad-mogul father and his six-shooter. Finding true love is his reward. Even though the silent film is a farce, the theme can be found percolating in movies today, such as the Batman franchise, or even in the sci-fi thriller Battleship (2012), in which men must fight the “Other” in order to make the world safe for civilization.

Appeared in This Land: Spring Summer 2016. Excerpted from Branding the American West ©2016 by the University of Oklahoma Press