Rhinestone Cowboys, Part 1: All Down but Nine

Image: Robert James Russell.

“God created all men. Sam Colt made them equal.”


Matthew Quigley / Tom Selleck
Quigley Down Under (1990) / 119 minutes run time

Image: Original 5x7 watercolor and ink by Robert James Russell.

What is the truth?

I grew up hearing countless stories about my great (x6) uncle, Lincoln Ellsworth, a famed Antarctic explorer. There’s land named after him in Antarctica. One of his ships was called the Wyatt Earp, and as a kid born and raised in Michigan — flat, I called it then, inconsequential land I could not see the beauty of — I began to research what this name meant, who it was. I knew Westerns, sure, the movies I generally skipped over, the black-and-white ones, when I flipped through TV channels on weekend nights. But this, the naming of his vessel, was enough for me to give the man, the history, the genre, a second chance. Soon, the world opened up to me: I would watch these old films and TV shows, dream of worn-timber forts and monolithic mountains and cactuses and hikes in the desert and Western shoot-outs.

I dug into the cowboy mythos, became fascinated with the history, the lore. I remember seeing Tom Selleck as Matthew Quigley when I was finally of an age when movies were making an impression on me, about 11 or 12. I knew him, of course, being a Michigander myself, as well as from TV, but also, and perhaps even more so, because my mother and aunt had ravenous crushes on him, found ways to shoehorn his name into every conversation at every family gathering.

(I’d later road-trip to Tombstone during a college spring break with my then-partner. We knew the relationship was doomed; it had been over for some time, but here we were, sequestered together for the three-hour-each-way trip. The town did not live up to my expectations, sadly. I left only with a souvenir pocketknife that I lost years later while living in Los Angeles. I don’t miss it at all.)

The uniqueness of Quigley Down Under stuck with me: an American in Australia. And yet, the places and themes in the film looked so familiar: The plight of the Native Peoples. A terribly greedy man who wants to gobble up land and enslave its inhabitants and rule with an iron fist. A worn-out hero reluctant to join the fight.

What I’d learn, later in life, about the cruel notion of Manifest Destiny, was at play here. The hero of this story, set a world away, is still an American, a mythological figure, a crack shot. He’s the only person who can tame the wilds, can will any woman to love him. It’s a dangerous story, and while the Western has “grown up” time and time again — according to the standards set by book and film critics — this cliché remains in so many: the white savior story, the colonizers’ vision. All else is bunkum.

Talking about the West, to some degree, is a conversation about space, vast and wide-open space, land taken and renamed, the precariousness of the “right” to space even if you have the means (guns), and those already there do not. It’s a perfect representation of American History: a cowboy, the mythological figurehead of the West — always white — brandished on products in every grocery store still today, is more well-known than our actual history, this image. And that’s what Quigley represents, still: Manifest Destiny that’s escaped the confines of the continental United States.

How many people know the origin of the name “cowboy,” almost a direct translation from the Spanish word for “person who managed cattle on horseback,” vaquero — vaca meaning cow? Or that, post-Civil War, hundreds of thousands of cattle roamed Texas unbranded, and all a returning soldier had to do was go out and gather up as many of them as he liked, thus ushering in the modern age of ranching in the West?

And yet, ask anyone of any age to describe a cowboy and he can, quickly. But what we don’t talk about are the massacres of Native Peoples in the name of progress and fear; we don’t talk about the sheer number of people of color in the West (it’s generally agreed upon by historians now that one in four cowboys was black, the number of Mexican cowboys even larger); we don’t understand the many broken treaties, the taking of land, the attempt and failure of reaping the West’s resources, the failed city-states, the disastrous laws and monstrously heinous xenophobic thoughts and actions, the many dead paving the way for the Modern West, oh goodness, so many dead. No, we think of sharpshooting, rootin’-tootin’, mustachioed men hiding treasures in coyote holes, saving towns from slightly-less-bad men, brown-glass bottles of rotgut whiskey, black and white “ten-gallon” hats, Native American sidekicks, women relegated to supporting roles at best. No, we don’t know anything about those at all.

I still remember seeing Quigley Down Under for the first time, the confusion that set in after: Can a Western be set in different countries? Is this genre, and the mythos surrounding it, uniquely American? Or does the sour machismo, the shoot-outs, the toxic male bravado transcend geographical boundaries?

This was one of the first Western movies that blew my mind wide open, started me down a path on which I’ve been ever since — trying to answer these questions, desperately searching to explain an obsession with a genre, a defining and dangerous and important genre:

What even is a cowboy?

How do we tear apart the thing that seems so ubiquitous and protected and yet so wildly unknown?

What is the truth of the American West?

ROBERT JAMES RUSSELL is the author of the novellas Mesilla (Dock Street Press) and Sea of Trees (Winter Goose Publishing), and the chapbook Don’t Ask Me to Spell It Out (WhiskeyPaper Press). He is a founding editor of Midwestern Gothic and CHEAP POP. You can find him online and on Twitter.

Bibliography

Cameron, Ian, and Douglas Pye. The Book of Westerns. Continuum, 1996.

Katz, William Loren. The Black West: a Documentary and Pictorial History of the African American Role in the Westward Expansion of the U.S. Touchstone, 1996.

Slotkin, Richard. Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth- Century America. University of Oklahoma Press, 2008.

Smith, Henry Nash. Virgin Land. Harvard University Press, 1971.