Movies - Part Of The Great American Myth (16 January 1976)
The Tombstone Epitaph is dead. It died in 1975. It is a pity it did not last to 1976. For this is America’s Bicentennial Year and the Epitaph was the local newspaper for Tombstone, Arizona, where part of what has been called the Great American Myth was born.
The Daily Express, reporting the death, said: “The pioneer newspaper that covered the gunfight at the OK Corral – and did not consider the story worthy of the front page – has lost its own showdown with inflation.
“Crippling production costs have finally killed off the 95-year-old Tombstone Epitaph.
“The Epitaph ‘scoop’ on the Legendary Wyatt Earp shooting appeared on page 3 – squeezed between the ads and social notes.
“Earp, Tombstone’s marshal, had been backed by his brothers and the tubercular dentist ‘Doc’ Holliday in the battle with the Clanton gang.
“Three Clantons died in a hail of bullets – and the 1881 bloodbath became the most famous gunfight in the Old West’s history.
“Under the headline ‘Yesterday’s tragedy: three men hurled into eternity in the duration of a moment,’ the Epitaph called it a ‘sad affair’.”
This did the Epitaph less than justice. Fleet Street, with its hordes of staff, is apt to forget there are, or were, many places where the local newspaper was run almost literally by a man and a boy. The gunfight happened on the day before publication date. The front page may well have already been printed. So I reckon the Epitaph did not do too badly to squeeze it in anywhere at all. As to the treatment: with all that lead so recently flying about, wouldn’t you have been careful what you said?
I have long treasured a copy of the Epitaph. Dated Thursday, February 26, 1948, it was given to me by a Woburn man who lived for a time at Water Eaton Mill. He had doubted there was such a paper, had written off to Tombstone and had received this copy in reply.
It has six pages of a size midway between those of the Express and the Mirror, seven columns to a page. Its title is superimposed on a drawing of a stone cairn and directly underneath is the legend “The town too tough to die.” That is almost the end of any reference to history.
Wildness and woolliness are so much in the past that the local cinema reckons the “Lone Hand Texan,” featuring Charles Starrett, will have great box office appeal. A “city clean-up” turns out to be nothing more than a local ordinance directing property owners to make their premises more presentable. But an insurance broker announces that his offices are just across the street from the hospital and the Cattle Grazers Association offers 200 dollars reward for information leading to the conviction of persons stealing members’ cattle.
There are no crimes or court cases, but a great deal of space goes to scores of personal items like “Mr and Mrs X, of . . . are in town visiting their daughter, Mrs Y, while on their way to . . .” All good, homely, local stuff. So much for the Epitaph.
As to the Great American Myth, we have been told we can see this in every Western film that comes on the telly. A man spoke of it on Radio 4 last week. From him and from other sources we have hear that:
The West was not won mainly in that style. Much of it was bought from the French and Texas was annexed after the Mexican War.
Red Indians were not the only scalpers. It was tit for tat. Buffalo Bill himself had Indian scalps hanging from his belt.
Man-to-man confrontations on suddenly-deserted town squares seldom, if ever, occurred. Personal scores were settled mostly by ambush.
The old-style Colt was a notoriously inaccurate weapon. It was fired mainly from the shoulder, not the hip. Earp himself said the survivor was usually the man who took his time, not the man who was quickest on the draw.
Except on the biggest ranches, a cowboy was an underpaid, meanly-clad figure, riding a horse to match and sometimes not seeing another soul for days on end. And it is very doubtful that his jargon was as per the films.
There were no Robin Hoods among the outlaws (as if Robin himself ever existed). Those men were as mean as they come. Jesse James, for instance, shot two prisoners in cold blood and also a ten or twelve-year-old girl.
In all, not a pretty picture on which to base so many exciting movies. So it is said.
But let us go back further – to the Declaration of Independence itself. I once had a copy of this, together with the names of its 50-odd signatories. I have since lost it, but I seem to remember that practically all the names were of English, Scots or Welsh origin. And, of course, the great George Washington himself was born in Northants.
The great flood of migrants from mainland Europe went much later, mainly for economic reasons. So too, did the Irish, spurred on by the effects of the potato blight on their then over-populated country.
What is often forgotten is that thousands of English sailed as well, many of them destitute farm labourers from North Bucks villages who guessed they would be happier working on the land in America than in the workshops and mines of Victorian England.
So, myths or no myths, let us look with a kindly eye on the bicentenary jamboree.