Life of a Cowboy (1906)
For this Independence Day post, I’m reviewing a quintessentially American film – one which its director, Edwin S. Porter, believed was “the first filmed Western” (evidently “The Great Train Robbery” didn’t count). It makes use of familiar tropes of Western stage plays and Wild West shows to present its story.
It begins in a saloon, the “Big Horn” (named for a steer skull prominently hanging over the bar). An old Indian comes into the saloon, wobbling a bit, and is turned away by the white bartender. Now, an identifiable bad guy with a black hat comes in and orders a drink, taking it over to the Indian, but an Indian squaw runs up and knocks the glass away before he can take a drink. A generic white good guy in a white hat runs in and stops the bad guy from hurting her, then enforces his departure with his six-gun. He leaves, and some rather odd folks come in. One, identifiable by his Sherlock Holmes-style deerstalker cap and portly girth, evidently represents an English tourist. There is also a skinnier man and a woman with him. Five cowboys on horseback soon enter and entertain themselves by shooting off guns and making the tourist “dance” ala “The Great Train Robbery.” They ride up to the bar and take some drinks, occasionally firing off a gun for good measure.
The next scene takes place on a dirt-covered street outside the hotel. A stagecoach drives up and disgorges the Englishman and his companions. The skinny Englishman is dragged out of the coach by some cowboys and playfully flogged with a saddle. The good guy from the first scene embraces the woman, pushing the bad guy aside when he shows an interest. Then we cut to a scene on a local ranch, where the local cowboys are showing off their lassoing skills to the newcomers. The portly Englishman gets too close, and is dragged around the yard before the main entertainment begins: a woman rides past the lasso artist and he ropes first her, and then her horse as they pass by. We now cut back to the dirt road and watch as the stage coach departs, and the bad guy jumps on a horse and follows, cutting to a side road at top speed.
The bad guy is soon seen to have rounded up some Indian allies, and they chase the stage, eventually overtaking it and wounding the driver. The woman is put on a horse by the bad guy and Englishmen are forced to walk. The stage driver is able to get to the good guy, who rounds up a posse to go after them. There is another chase and several Indians are shot as the good guy and his team liberate the prisoners. At last, evidently free from peril, the good guy and his girl sit by some trees, but the bad guy sneaks up on them, followed by a lone figure. Just as he is about to shoot the good guy in the back, the figure shoots him from behind and we see that it is the Indian girl from the first scene. The good guy thanks her and kisses his girl.
At 17 minutes, this is a fairly long movie for 1906, and it’s not easy to follow the action. I made use of a synopsis, provided to exhibitors by Edison, to make sense of it, and in the theater an exhibitor would most likely have narrated the action for the audience. That synopsis refers to the bad guy as “a Mexican greaser,” but since there is no racial coding that would be obvious to a modern audience, I avoided that term. I did go ahead and refer to the Native Americans in the movie as “Indians,” because their costumes will be recognized by anyone today. They represent several stereotypes, but at least there is some complexity among them: the old man is a drunk, the young squaw is a tragic hero, and most of the younger men are generic thugs. They do a lot of the better stunts, and my guess is that they worked on Wild West shows in real life, where falling off horses and shooting off guns for an audience paid well. The lassoing sequence also comes straight from the Wild West shows (including the comedy of the “rube” getting dragged around), while the reference to the “Big Horn” saloon is from the stage version of “The Squaw Man,” later to be filmed by Cecil B. DeMille, among others.
The movie, like many from this period, relies heavily and fast moving action and chases, along with bits of slapstick comic relief, to keep the audience engaged. It doesn’t come across as being as exciting or innovative as “The Great Train Robbery,” but Porter is correct in that it more clearly evokes the atmosphere of the Old West, as understood by film audiences then and now. Porter had gotten proficient at shooting a standard chase sequence at this time, and the use of camera pans allows us to follow the action, but the sequential editing limits the suspense of these scenes, and makes for a less exciting experience than later Westerns would provide.
Director: Edwin S. Porter
Camera: Edwin S. Porter and/or Wallace McCutcheon
Run Time: 17 Min, 21 secs
I have not found this movie available for free on the Internet. If you do, please comment.