- From the time of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show to the present, the relationship between dramatic presentations and the facts of the historical West has been problematic. Westerns in cinema have been around for far longer than the historical post–Civil War “western” period, which roughly lasted from 1865 to 1890. Questions naturally arise as to how much of what is perceived as authentic history really comes from conventions established by cinema Westerns through the decades. Wyatt Earp, for example, lived out his last years in Hollywood, dying in 1929, and he regularly served as a consultant on Western films. But the facts of the Earp legend, as well as details about characters such as Doc Holliday, the Earp brothers, Tombstone, Dodge City, and the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, are murky because nearly all that we assume we know comes from the one source—Wyatt Earp—who had a reputation to build and spin a tale when it suited him.But other questions of authenticity arise as well. The relationship of the Western to history is perhaps more important in defining what a Western is than even geography. We are always aware as we watch a Western that we are witnessing events that ostensibly transpired in the Western moment. The degree to which a film is historically authentic regarding geography, costume, politics, weaponry, and other matters often becomes, for some, a major factor in evaluating the quality of a film. Directors such as William S. Hart, John Ford, and Kevin Costner, in their respective periods, tended to emphasize authenticity. B Westerns and spaghetti Westerns, on the other hand, rarely respected authenticity.Authenticity, however, should not be confused with realism. A Western film such as Hondo (1953) might be relatively authentic yet not be realistic. Authenticity is often a superficial replication of known history and may bear little relation to the realism of human nature.
Historical Dictionary of Westerns in Cinema. Paul Varner. 2012.
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