Like many British boys in the late 50s, young Tony Robinson spent his evenings entranced by The Man from Laramie, Bonanza and Gun Smoke, and his school holidays acting them out.
“I always had my belt with my two guns in, and my cowboy hat on which I would tilt forward,” he recalls. “And I used to squint my eyes in that cowboy way against the sun. It might actually have been the London fog but to me it was the sun.”
“Westerns were so exciting and so heroic and so unlike the world that I lived in. They were real in a kind of mythological way. They weren’t real like going to see the girl next door but one was real, or going down the shops. But they seemed to have a kind of reality about them.”
So when Robinson was asked to make a documentary series about the real Wild West, he couldn’t resist comparing the places where it all happened with his black and white images of them from the 1950s.
Below, he tells Radio Times what he discovered…
Where exactly is the Wild West?
The Europeans landed in the east and they pushed further and further west all the time, driving the Indians from where they lived. Until eventually there was an area of the Great Plains that stretches down from the mountains of Montana, North and South Dakota, Wyoming, down to Arizona and Texas. They couldn’t go any further because the West had been occupied by people who were coming by boat.
Custer’s Last Stand by Edgar Samuel Paxson, oil on canvas, 1899
So there was this huge expanse, which we call the Prairie or the Great Plains, which was where the American Indians were. We call them the Plains Indians, which is a bit of a joke; they were the Plains Indians because that’s where they were pushed.
And the famous frontier?
The frontier changed because the Europeans kept doing deals with the Indians where they would say: “We will farm up until this line, the land after it is yours and that is the frontier”. But then they would discover that land that belonged to the Indians was good for grazing or that there was coal or gold, and they would unilaterally break the treaty.
They would move in. The Indians would try and defend themselves. The white settlers would use that as an excuse to send government troops in and the frontier would be forcibly moved. It’s a horrendous story. The European settlers conducted genocide on a huge scale against the Indians.
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Where should people look for the real Wild West head nowadays?
Cody Wyoming is the place to go – where the Buffalo Bill Center is. I’d always thought that it would be a glitzy, rather trivial museum, but it’s not. It’s as beautifully and dramatically curated as London’s best museums.
Does much remain?
Mark Twain that the cowboys were America’s first authentic culture. An awful lot of Americans, particularly those in the West, have a great deal of respect for the narratives of the Wild West and the cowboys. It was a really, really tough job. You would ride the range with those cattle for six months at a time, never having a bed. No one around for hundreds of miles. You’d be on your own looking for cattle for days at a time. That Clint Eastwood notion of a very tough, very taciturn man who sleeps with his gun is really quite authentic.
And so where they can, the Americans have saved the evidence of them. The shacks were made out of wood but maybe 80 to 100 of them have been collected together in a museum in Wyoming. So for instance, I was in the shack where the Hole in the Wall gang including the Sundance Kid hid themselves. It’s been moved but it’s absolutely authentic.
A life-size representation of a female Plains Indian on horseback at Buffalo Bill Center, Wyoming
Where did you feel closest to the Wild West?
More than anything else it’s the landscape. The best way to see it is to ride through it, which I was able to do in Arizona. I was going to say you get it at nature’s pace, but actually it wasn’t until the Europeans came that the Indians got the horses – which is something I never knew.
The other way to do it is to rent a Harley-Davidson, like Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider.
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Is it still cowboy country?
Oh yes, there are still a heck of a lot of ranches down there. There are still a lot of cowboys around. And as I said to one of them, they look remarkably like the cowboys from 19th century.
And the answer was: yeah, because the clothes that the cowboys wear were specifically designed for the job they do. You needed that broad-brimmed hat to protect yourself from the sun, you needed the high boots to protect yourself against the snakes, you wanted the lasso because that was the quickest and most efficient way of rounding up the cattle, and those massive saddles with knobs on were designed to withstand the torque and strain of roping cattle.
The Sacred Black Hills in South Dakota are wonderful and the Badlands are extraordinary. The green grass stops, the land plunges down a couple of hundred feet and below you is the bleakest imaginable terrain that looks like a black desert drawn by a kid.
Badlands, South Dakota
Can you still watch the films knowing that it was genocide?
Yes, it was a very brief flowering of a very particular kind of culture in America. I am deeply saddened by what happened to the American Indians. I respect their resilience enormously and that they’re still fighting for their rights.
As a story, the whole thing is wonderful.
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Tony Robinson’s Wild West begins on Sunday 8th December on the Discovery Channel at 8pm