By Matt Cutugno
Indio, CA, USA
I loved Westerns when I was a kid. I owned a coonskin cap, a pair of cowboy boots, a hat with a badge on it, and a good supply of plastic pistols, knives, and rifles; plenty of bullets too. I think I even had spurs in the bottom of my toy box.
So many Westerns were on television back then, it was the Golden Age of the genre. The fan favorite of many was Gunsmoke with famed Marshal Dillon, but there was also my Dad's preference, Have Gun Will Travel. ("Paladin, Paladin, where do you roam?" went the theme song.) Richard Boone played the lead. He reminded me of my father. Maybe Dad saw the resemblance too and that's why he liked the show.
My own favorite was Wanted: Dead or Alive. Steve McQueen played a tough bounty hunter with a good heart. He had a horse named Ringo and he used a distinctive sawed-off carbine that fit in a holster strapped to his side, a toy version of which I immediately bought. I avidly followed Davey Crockett, a miniseries by Disney, and The Lone Ranger with its dramatic theme music. I watched The Rifleman, with Chuck Connor, Yancy Deringer, about a riverboat gambler, and Johnny Yuma (The Rebel). A few years later, it was Bonanza, with Ben Cartwright and his sons. I liked Branded, the story of a falsely-accused former Union officer. The aforementioned Chuck Connor played the disgraced soldier out to clear his good name.
In short, I watched them all. Westerns made a powerful impression on my young mind. Portrayed on the screen was testimony on the history of our nation, the winning of the West. Even when the portrayal was simplistic or biased against Indians, the message of the Morality Play was clear: Good will sooner or later triumph over Evil. Not a bad lesson for any society to teach children.
So sheriffs and their deputies confronted outlaws and their gangs. Ranchers clashed with farmers, Indians, and each other. There were vast herds of buffalo and snaking lines of covered wagon trains, railroads clanking and stagecoaches rumbling through the sagebrush. For sure there were fisticuffs, barroom brawls, and shootouts. There might well be romance for good measure.
Even for a kid it was hard to miss the point that all the shows had a commonality. Whether the action was marshal versus gunslinger or natives versus soldiers in blue, whether it took place in a bustling saloon or on the open prairie, the episodes were simple tales of right and wrong. It was a black and white world portrayed on the black and white screen, it made sense, and was fun to watch. Here was the ordered world of yesteryear. Those early impressions of Good versus Evil, and how things can work out, love can triumph, and justice can be served were so strong and appealing that they stuck with me, helping to form my core beliefs.
After those early years of Westerns came alternative views. The anti-hero and revisionist storylines emerged. There were now terribly flawed heroes, misunderstood villains, and corrupt, despicable lawmen. While I do believe it's fair enough to drag any icon into the light, I came to miss the Morality Play with its lessons in ethics and its happy ending.
Some twelve years ago, I decided to write my own Western. I'm not a genre writer, so the task was daunting. Slowly and surely, over time, I sought to find the voice of my story. I enjoyed researching the historical times (the tale takes place three years after the Civil War). There were missteps aplenty as I wrote, and at one point I nearly abandoned the work.
Fortunately for me, it was a labor of love. I kept at it, and love won out. My Western, The Godless Men, aspires to invoke the spirit of those old shows I loved, and I hope I've added something new of my own.