I was watching an old Western the other day, and I got to thinking about how so much of what we think we know about the history of the American West was actually shaped by Hollywood. Of course, they were probably just following the pattern set years earlier by dime-novels, but Hollywood took the myths from those books and used them as a starting point to create an entire industry of movies filled with inaccuracies.
A good example is the classic gunfight in almost every Western movie. You know the kind I mean. The hero has to face down a bad guy, usually after a slow walk down a dusty street, and shoot him down like the dog he is — but only after the bad guy starts to go for his gun first. That makes it self-defense, right?
It usually didn't happen that way in the real world. Historians now pretty much agree that although there were occasional gunfights, they were usually brief, wild exchanges that were most often won by the luckiest shooter. Then after the dust settled, folks would try to figure out whether anyone should be put in jail. Often that would depend on which side had the most friends in high places, not who was right or wrong.
There are rare instances of filmmakers getting a little closer to reality, such as in Kevin Costner's Open Range. In that movie, the good guys and bad guys are engaged in a tense jawin' match, and Costner (a good guy) sets off the fireworks by abruptly walking up to one of the baddest of the bad guys, drawing his shootin' iron, and plugging the guy right between the eyes.
Costner bypasses another movie cliché near the end of the extended gunfight. Most of the bad guys have been gunned down by then, but one of them grabs his ladyfriend as a hostage. You expect a long, drawn-out talking scene, possibly ending with her biting the guy's hand so that Costner can shoot him. Nope, he doesn't say a word. He simply shoots over the lady's shoulder and blows the guy away.