They began as visuals. Whether there was anything of practical or of historical value to the images, they looked good on the screen. But when a circle of wagons fending off an Indian attack makes its twentieth screen appearance, it might dawn on the viewer that this particular image can be safely retired.
Following are just a few of the frequent Western ideas begging to be put out of their misery.
1. Target practice - Invariably, bottles or cans are shot from a rail fence or a rock. Nothing else was ever used.
2. Lantern in a haystack - Throw the lantern, filled with coal oil. It starts a fire.
3. The sidekick - Not quite as talented, and certainly less intelligent, than the good guy. The sidekick rarely originated any ideas of his own. Also had fewer teeth than the hero.
4. The town drunk - a disgraceful, if not disgraced character. He enabled the bad guy to show his bad side, the good guy to display his empathy for the downtrodden.
5. Hanging - Presumably, the gallows were demolished following the town's last hanging, because a new one always had to be constructed. This allowed the condemned man to contemplate his fate with all those hammers and saws working right outside his jail cell.
6. The lynch mob - The lawman faced down an entire bloodthirsty crowd, to emphasize what a man of integrity and toughness he was.
7. The land baron - Was there ever a feel-good, or even friendly land baron? If you owned half the territory, you had to be ruthless. The land baron generally fathered trigger-happy or shiftless sons.
8. The water trough - Obviously horses needed a drink. But it was a handy prop for dunking a guy's head underwater to sober him up or humiliate him during a fight. Or just a great way to cool off when you've come in out of the desert.
9. Shooting a gun from your opponent's hand - Is this even possible, except by sheer luck? It was a daily occurrence in Westerns. And man, did that give you a sore hand. Get a gun shot from your hand, you had to grab the wrist and give it a good rubbing.
10. The saloon brawl - It's pandemonium. Tables crash, chairs and bottles break over heads, upstairs railings give way.
11. Throwing a guy through the saloon's swing doors or window - Sometimes part of a brawl. Sometimes just a couple of guys having a difference of opinion.
12. Cowboys riding into town to raise hell - They've been on the trail for weeks. So they go a little wild on payday. Let's cut them some slack.
13. The town coward - A variation of the town drunk. You can't count on him for anything. Frequently, the entire town was made up of cowards. The lawman was on his own here.
14. The Indian burial ground - The tribe will send out every available warrior if you happen to stray through. So before setting out, get a good map, and stay the heck out.
15. The poker game - The best and worst of the characters were brought out in this popular pastime. More fist fights and gun play erupted over cards than debates over water rights, certainly. Frequently a tinhorn gambler occupied one chair at the table.
16. Shooting a guy in the back - This was the single most dastardly act anyone could pull, even if the victim was a scoundrel.
17. The cattle drive - More cliches than you could throw a horseshoe at. The stampede, for one. Anything could set the herd off. Head those cattle off, for crying out loud. Get them under control, even in the middle of a lightning storm.
18. The chuck wagon cook - Always a charming, if cantankerous character. He had an endearing name as well: Cookie, Wishbone, you get the idea. And get your finger out of the sugar barrel, dad burn it. That's for cooking.
19. Burial on the plains – The grave was marked by a pile of rocks. Didn’t anyone think to bring along a shovel?
20. Bringing in a dead man – That figure slung sideways on the saddle is either dead, or a rider with extremely low self-esteem.
21. Breaking a horse - The horse bucks a few times around the corral, maybe even throws you in the dirt. But when the bronc stops bucking, he is perfectly trained and forever tame. Congratulations. You've broken a horse in less than a minute.
22. The wanted poster - If you didn't have a hammer, you nailed the paper with the butt of a pistol. And, having recognized the wanted man, you can rip it right down to hold in your hands.
23. Shot from a horse - The guy's foot gets caught in the stirrup, and he's dragged across the plains or down the street. Strictly a visual detail, and like the saloon brawl, payday for a stunt man.
24. The posse - Strength in numbers, though it's doubtful a posse was ever composed exclusively of cowards.
25. The army scout - A variation of the chuck wagon cook and stagecoach driver. He could be loveable, or the most knowledgeable and best damn source of information on a cavalry patrol. As a plot device, the scout is loaded with backstory. Knows the territory and everything that's happened there.
26. Vultures circling overhead - These birds always suggest imminent death or danger. You never spotted a vulture that merely enjoyed circling in a favorable gust of wind.
27. The gunfighter's lament - Every green kid in the territory comes gunning for you, trying to make a name for himself.
28. The bartender - Insult him at your peril, even if he deserves it, because he keeps a scattergun under the bar.
29. The school marm - Pure-hearted teacher in a one-room schoolhouse. What exactly is a marm? Doubtful that you would find a banker marm.
30. The ethnic minority - Like the town drunk, the bad guys picked on him unmercifully ("Hey Chinaman, how'd you like me to cut off that there pigtail of yours?"). And the good guys defended him ("Let him alone.").
31. Extracting a bullet - When the doctor, or whoever is handy, removes the slug, the projectile is dropped into a porcelain pan. Plink, and the operation is over, though it may be touch and go for the next day or two. Just don't know. He's lost a lot of blood.
32. The train robbery - An elaborate procedure. A gang on horseback rides at breakneck speed along the tracks, swings onto the railroad car, then advances along the rooftops to have the engineer put on the brakes. The train employee is easy to subdue, as he's never armed. Question: why not have a robber merely buy a ticket to sit quietly aboard until the proper moment? Not as exciting, but fewer gang members will be filling out those workmen's comp claims.
33. The tracker - Like shooting a gun from a guy's hand, the abilities of these guys a Jedi knight couldn't get the hang of. A tracker could ascertain, on flat rock, a particular horse, as well as its rider.
34. The showdown - The good guy would allow the bad guy to clear leather before him, and he was still fast enough to gun him down.
35. The historical character as stereotype. Doc Holliday, for example - Regardless of the actor cast, this fellow certainly had a pesky cough. Invariably, Doc's respiratory problems reduced his effectiveness just when he was needed. Let's not even bring up Billy the Kid.
36. Cattlemen versus Sheepmen - Get those woolly critters off the open range, or we'll shoot every dang one of them.
37. Barbed wire - Again, don't mess with the open range. Fence it off, you're asking for trouble.
38. The horse thief - Is there a lower form of life in the west? Stealing a horse was a hanging offense.
39. The dance hall girl - In older movies, with censorship, all she did was dance, sing, and encourage cowboys to drink. Later, about the time cowboys appeared with long hair, she , well, you know…
40. The bounty hunter - Very despised by stand-up citizens. The dead or alive thing bothered most folks. But if you wanted a guy brought in, don't count on the school marm to do the job.
41. The homesteaders - Commonly derided as "sodbusters," the bane of the land baron, they move in once the land has been tamed, not to pull their weight in Indian fights. To grow vegetables.
42. Firing a gun from inside a house. You break a window with the barrel of your pistol. Did these guys think glass grew on trees? It has to be brought in on wagon, in padded crates. Slide the window open, for crying out loud.
43. Drinking etiquette - In a saloon, slug down your shot and slap a coin on the bar. Or just leave the bottle. I'll pour my own.
44. The ghost town - The mine has played out, the railroad passed it by. Now it's deserted streets, boarded up windows, and tumbleweeds piled against doorways. The bleak landscape makes an excellent setting for a gunfight.
45. The piano player - He's in the saloon, of course. His repertoire consists solely of Camptown Races, Buffalo Gals Won't You Come Out Tonight, and Jimmy Crack Corn. In a tense bar standoff, the piano stops on a dime, resuming just as quickly when tempers are again in check.
46. The newspaper editor - Frequently as cantankerous as a chuck wagon cook, his editorials championed either law and order, or The James Gang, if Frank and Jesse were portrayed as misunderstood, but deep down, basically good. Bad guys enjoyed shooting or beating the daylights out of the newspaper editor.
47. Breaking out of jail - If the keys weren't within reach of your cell, a 50-50 proposition, then your buddies roped the bars and pulled out the window for you.
48. The wagon train – The granddaddy of cliches, a soap opera on rolling wheels.
49. The runaway wagon – When a numbskull has lost control of the reins, it’s up to someone to leap aboard, one pair of horses at a time, to bring the lead pair to a halt.
50. The stagecoach – Could horses really run all out from one horizon to the other? Sure, for perhaps five minutes before dropping from exhaustion.
© Michael Zagst