Lesson 21 (William S.Hart and the early ‘Western’ film)

How did William Hart’s childhood prepare him for his acting role in Western films?


William S. hart was, perhaps, the greatest of all Western stars, fro unlike Gary Cooper and John Wayne he appeared in nothing but Westerns. From 1914 to 1924 he was supreme and unchallenged. It was Hart who created the basic formula of the Western film, and devised the protagonist he played in every film he made, the good-had man, the accidental-noble outlaw, or the honest-but-framed cowboy, or the sheriff made suspect by vicious gossip; in short, the individual in conflict with himself and his frontier environment.

Unlike most of his contemporaries in Hollywood, Hart actually knew something of the old West. He had lived in it as a child when it was already disappearing, and his hero was firmly rooted in his memories and experiences, and in both the history and the mythology of the vanished frontier. And although no period or place in American history has been more absurdly romanticized, myth and reality did join hands in at least one arena, the conflict between the individual and encroaching civilization.

Men accustomed to struggling for survival against the elements and Indians were bewildered by politicians, bankers and businessmen, and unhorsed by fences, laws and alien taboos. Hart’s good-bad man was always an outsider, always one of the disinherited, and if he found it necessary to shoot a sheriff or rob a bank along the way, his early audiences found it easy to understand and forgive, especially when it was Hart who, in the end, overcame the attacking Indians.

Audiences in the second decade of the twentieth century found it pleasant to escape to a time when life, though hard, was relatively simple. We still do; living in a world in which undeclared aggression, war, hypocrisy, chicanery, anarchy and impending immolation are part of our daily lives, we all want a code to live by.


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