Posted by Susan Doll on January 28, 2013
Recently, I showed Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery to my film history class. Porter was known to base his flickers and one-reelers on the newspaper headlines of the day. As I explained that Porter likely got the idea for the film from the exploits of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the oft-quoted line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance drifted through my mind: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” But, during the heyday of the Wild West, fact was completely lost in the interweaving of history and myth.
The Great Train Robbery was released in 1903. By that time, the Wild Bunch had disbanded and Butch and Sundance were lost in the wilds of Argentina. But, the gang’s 1899 robbery of a Union Pacific train was already legendary. Newspapers carried wood engravings based on photos of the railroad cars destroyed by dynamite, while papers circulated the first-person accounts of mail clerk Robert Lawson, who was inside one of the cars. In 1900, members of the gang robbed another Union Pacific train in Wyoming, blasting the safes with dynamite. At the end of 1901, gang member Kid Curry was arrested, though he escaped in 1903—all of which played out in the pages of the newspapers. The dynamite, hapless mail clerk, and train uncoupling depicted in The Great Train Robbery were inspired by the Wild Bunch’s exploits, which in turn were perpetuated through the film.
The Great Train Robbery is not the only instance in which the real lives of Wild West legends paralleled their cinematic incarnations. Indeed, many outlaws and lawmen took an active part in interpreting their life stories on film. As odd as it might seem for 19th century outlaws, who robbed and killed in their heyday, to be actively involved in turning their exploits into 20th century pop culture, there was a precedent. “Dime novels” was a term applied to a variety of mass-produced pulp publications that sensationalized tales of western violence, daring-do, or misadventure. These inexpensive publications, which included true dime novels, story papers, five- and ten-cent weekly libraries, and pulp magazines, romanticized the Wild West, where settlers were lured by the intoxication of complete freedom but shocked at the realities of lawlessness and social chaos. Lawmen and gunfighters did little to set the dime novels straight because the reputations they gained from the sensationalized tales not only instilled fear and dread but also made them celebrities.
When the frontier closed and the Wild West began to rapidly disappear, those ex-gunfighters still alive took to the stage to earn a living by exploiting their notorious pasts. Buffalo Bill Cody appeared with Texas Jack Omohundro in the melodrama The Scouts of the Prairie as early as 1872. He toured in the play during the winter and worked as a scout at Fort McPherson in the winters. On July 4, 1882, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show debuted in North Platte, Nebraska, marking Cody’s venture into show business on a permanent basis. During the 1890s, more and more gunfighters appeared in vaudeville, re-telling their escapades on stage for awestruck audiences. Long after their brothers were dead, Frank James and Cole Younger toured in their own Wild West show, relating their stories as members of the James Younger Gang. When Frank bowed out, Cole continued on the lecture circuit until the mid-1910s pontificating on “What Life Has Taught Me,” which according to the poster was “instructive to every man, woman and child.” Bob Ford, who shot Jesse James in the living room of his home in St. Joseph, Missouri, enjoyed his stint with P.T. Barnum’s sideshow, recounting—and embellishing—how he killed an unarmed James.
Between dime novels, Wild West shows, and vaudeville, gunslingers from both sides of the law became skilled merchandisers of their pasts. Movies were just another avenue for romanticizing or reframing misdeeds. Most know that Wyatt Earp lived out his final days in Los Angeles, serving as an adviser on the films of movie cowboy Tom Mix, who was in awe of the real-life lawman. Their relationship was mythologized in the movie Sunset, Blake Edwards’s ode to Old Hollywood. Earp was not the only 19th-century legend trying to make a living in a 20th century world. Charlie Siringo, an ex-Pinkerton agent and cowboy on the Chisholm Trail, moved to Los Angeles around 1913, befriending William S. Hart and Will Rogers. Emmett Dalton made history in 1882 when he and his brothers hit two banks at the same time in Coffeyville, Kansas. But, the price was high: Brothers Bob and Grat were shot dead, and Emmett was riddled with buckshot. After he recovered, he was imprisoned until 1907. Upon release, Dalton dabbled in real estate and construction before becoming a technical consultant for Hollywood. He returned to Coffeyville in 1918 to serve as adviser on Beyond the Law, a movie version of the daring double bank robbery that proved to be his gang’s downfall. An ardent anti-crime crusader, Dalton lived in Los Angeles near the home of Wyatt Earp till his death in 1937.
My favorite stories are those about gunslingers who made their own movies to exploit their images as Wild West icons. Lawman Bill Tilghman embraced the life of a Wild West adventurer from the time he left home at 16 to the day he died as sheriff of Cromwell, Oklahoma in 1924. His biggest claim to fame was the single-handed capture of Bill Doolin at Eureka Springs, Arkansas, in 1896. Tilghman worked as a deputy U.S. Marshal out of Perry, Oklahoma, alongside deputies Heck Thomas and Chris Madsen. Dubbed the Three Guardsmen, the trio worked the Indian Territory, which was the last free territory in the West and the perfect place for outlaws and gunfighters to hide out. Only federal deputies could pursue them into the Territory.
Another outlaw that the Three Guardsmen pursued was Al Jennings, a former prosecuting attorney who turned bad after two of his brothers were shot in a dispute with a rival attorney. The Jennings Gang robbed trains, general stores, banks, and post offices, with little monetary success. In 1897, Jennings was wounded by a posse and captured a short time later in McIntosh, County, Oklahoma. He was sentenced to life in prison, but his brother John, also an attorney, was able to get his sentence reduced to five years. He was freed on technicalities in 1902 and married a woman named Maude, who was the love of his life, around 1906.
In 1908, Bill Tilghman either formed or was hired by the Oklahoma Natural Mutoscene Co. to make western movies. Though other western one-reelers were released during this time, Porter’s The Great Train Robbery was likely the most well-known. It was so popular that Siegfried Lubin made a scene-by-scene copy also called The Great Train Robbery (aka The Train Robbery). And, Porter’s original played continually somewhere in the U.S. for a decade. Tilghman must have seen The Great Train Robbery and been inspired to produce his own version of a Wild West hold-up. After all, who better to make a western than someone who had actually been a major part of the Old West? Well, in truth, any director who had a proclivity for the medium would have been better, because back then, as now, authenticity is not a criterion for making a good film, or even a watchable one.
Available for viewing on Youtube, Tilghman’s The Great Bank Robbery of 1908 (aka The Bank Robbery) is an incoherent mess. Three versions of the film are available on Youtube, but interested viewers should opt for the original, which runs around 19 or 20 minutes. An alternate version inadvertently includes a scene from another Tilghman film, probably The Wolf Hunt, and its addition makes a clumsy narrative all the more confusing. Also, skip the good-natured but inaccurate narration added decades after the film was uncovered.
The Great Bank Robbery predates D.W. Griffith, so it is unfair to expect a competent use of filmmaking techniques, but if The Great Train Robbery was Tilghman’s model, he understood little of the strengths of Porter as a storyteller and filmmaker. Shot entirely in long takes in extreme long shots, The Great Bank Robbery uses a locked-down camera in a fixed position far from the principle action. Action scenes are long in duration and depict multiple characters performing a variety of actions. Not only is it difficult to tell one character from another at that distance but it is hard to understand what they are doing and how it folds into the storyline. After the robbery, Tilghman pans to catch the gang members as they ride away from the bank. In a jerky, lurching movement, he pans too far, passing 180 degrees, which confuses the sense of space. A second pan attempts to follow the posse, but it moves so fast it qualifies as a swish pan, leaving the viewer seasick and confused. One of the robbers was supposed to have been killed during the hold-up, because a body is slumped across a horse for much of the film. When crossing a creek, the gang dumps the body in the water for reasons left unexplained. The posse then retrieves the body in a scene that is difficult to follow because too many characters are engaged in too many actions.
Though The Great Bank Robbery is a poorly executed film even by 1908 standards, I was still delighted to see it, and I recommend it to those who love the history—or, rather, myth-story—of the Old West. Shot in Cache, Oklahoma, the story was a recreation of the Al Jennings’s bank robbery that Tilghman and Heck Thomas had helped foil, and the two lawmen played posse members. Another member of the movie posse was legendary Comanche leader Quanah Parker, who did not participate in the real-life pursuit of Jennings. The real-life Parker, who led a long campaign against the U.S. military, was the last Comanche leader to surrender to reservation life. Once he did, he adapted to life among the whites and became a respected, prosperous spokesman and leader for his people. Parker owned the stage that is used in the beginning of the film. The best part of The Great Bank Robbery is that Al Jennings played himself re-enacting one of his ill-fated robberies.
Tilghman went on to make at least two more films, though he preferred a career in law enforcement. The Wolf Hunt (1908) revolved around western figure Jack Abernathy, who was widely known for his skill in catching live coyotes and/or wolves barehanded! Theodore Roosevelt had seen Abernathy in action and requested someone capture it on film to show the non-believers in Washington. Later, Tilghman called upon his old compadres, including Doolin-gang member Arkansas Jack, to make The Passing of the Oklahoma Outlaw (1915), perhaps as an elegy to a way life he realized was long gone.
Al Jennings, who had reformed after his stint in prison, took a shine to movie-making and moved to Los Angeles, working as a consultant, screenwriter, and character actor. In 1918, he formed the Al Jennings Production Co., writing or producing a number of silent and talkie westerns, including Hands Up! (1917), The Lady of the Dugout (1918), The Ridin’ Rascal (1926), and Loco Luck (1927). Of all the 19th- century gunslingers-turned-moviemakers, Jennings lived the longest. He may have been a reformed outlaw, but he was also a firecracker who still experienced occasional run-ins with the law. Police were sometimes called to investigate reports of gunfire at his home: Once, he accidentally shot a neighbor in the elbow while cleaning his Colt six-shooter. Al Jennings died in November 1961 at the age of 98. Having survived Wild West outlawry, a stint in prison, and the Hollywood film industry, Jennings died of a broken heart a month after his beloved wife Maude passed away.
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