Geoff Pevere: The Hart of the Western

It is one of the more arresting facts of movie history that the first superstar of the flickering western horizon was 49 years old by the time he made his first movie. How cool is that?

His name was William S. Hart, known as Bill to his friends and countless fans, and he might have come late to film but he came ready. By the time he was convinced by his pioneering producer friend Thomas H. Ince to star in a series of old west short subjects (although the west, to be perfectly accurate, wasn’t all that old at the time), Hart blazed into the fray with a righteous fury: he was not only making features within a couple of years, he was producing, directing and starring in them as well. Most of them were hits, many of them were really very good, and a few were truly great.

There’s much to be said for Hart’s skill at busting open the cowboy movie conventions that were already adhering like saddle-sores in even those early days, and it’s impossible not to take of note of these things without also considering the middle-aged star’s own trajectory prior to making it big in the movies. He was an eastern-born Shakespearean actor who spent some time in the west (when it still was the west) herding cattle and such between jobs. He always claimed Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson as personal acquaintances, and the veracity of that claim — which one has no reason to doubt apart from the sheer tidal wave of bullshit that flowed eastward in the early twentieth century – probably matters less than the fact that the west of Hart’s movies had a lived in quality that nobody else’s did: clouds of dirt wafted from cowboys who punched each other out in sawdust-floored saloons, fist and guns made people bleed, and horses actually got so tired you had to get off them and walk now and then.

Then there was the man himself, looking every minute his age and being all the more convincing and charismatic for it. It might have been actorly vanity that compelled Hart to make himself available for so many close-ups, but the effect was something quite strikingly to the contrary: here was a face that was lined, worn and long like a horse, and it came equipped with something the western could make room for like no other popular movie genre until the film noir slunk into being a generation later. Hart’s face had a past written all over it.

His trademark character was known as ‘the good badman’, and that usually meant he played a guy who’d done some terrible things in his life but now – thanks almost always to the intervention of a good woman – had a chance to turn matters around. Hart’s west was a place where redemption was possible, but only because it was also a place where people did the kinds of things to each other that made redemption necessary. There was a lot of heavy past out there, and that’s one reason why the man’s age, and the fact that he looked every bit of it, only made him that much more electrifying. He looked like he’d lived some.

Hart’s stardom lasted for only a decade or so. He retired in the mid-1920s after making the extraordinary Tumbleweeds, a movie about the great land rush the closed the frontier for good and brought the age of the wild west to an end. In this sense, it probably qualifies as one of the very first end-of-the-west westerns, a subspecies of the genre that would re-emerge with a kind of twilight fury in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Again, Hart was way ahead of things.

It was partly out of age that he withdrew (60 when he made Tumbleweeds, and still evidently doing his own riding and rough-house stunts), and party out of frustration that he couldn’t see his final movie released nearly as widely as he hoped he would. And then there were all those other cowboys, the ones like Tom Mix, Hoot Gibson and Tim McCoy, who were much more flamboyant in their crowd-pleasing cowboy phoniness, and who effectively sealed Hart’s commercial doom by reinforcing the notion that cowboy movies were for kids, and that notion would remain anchored in place until John Ford (another guy who claimed personal acquaintance to Wyatt Earp) would age the western up a bit with Stagecoach in 1939.

So Hart found himself an old man in a kid’s game, and his struggle to keep the west authentic was losing ground to yippie-ay-o sensation. He saddled up and hit the trail.

But the legacy is amazing. In those early westerns made by Hart, one can not only see the still-recent past of the wild west vividly reflected palpably present, one can see where the direction the genre would ultimately drift for the next seven decades: toward more realism and depth, interested less in re-creating myths than breaking them down, and deploying the conventions as a remarkably sound and versatile vessel for the exploration of just what America is and how it became so.

These are all compelling reasons for remembering William S. Hart (who died in 1946 at the age of 81) as the most visionary man in the movie saddle of his day. But there is also this, and it cannot be underestimated if you ask me: Hart understood the genre as a place where men might not only grow old but change as they got old, and in this he may have paved the way for one of the western’s single most enduring and remarkable characteristics: it’s a form of popular culture that lets a man be his age and sees nothing wrong in it. Only in the west is youth regarded with such skepticism and suspicion. Young people shot too quickly and thought too little. They did the kind of bad things they’d regret and try to make amends for when, and if, they got older.

Geoff Pevere‘s column appears every Friday

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Geoff Pevere has been writing, broadcasting and teaching about movies, media and popular culture for over thirty years. He can’t help himself. His column appears every Friday.


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