Woody Strode and the Western: Reflections on History and Myth

Difficulties exist in any discussion of African American actors in westerns prior to the 1960s.  Given the general stereotyping of black actors as servants or entertainers in secondary roles during the Golden Age, most film histories criticize the industry for its institutionalized racism and leave it at that. While this widely held interpretation of Hollywood’s treatment of minorities is standard and not to be dismissed, this view—like all generalizations—leaves out the interesting exceptions to the rule, particularly in regard to genre films. However, unless a scholar or writer is lucky enough to have seen these exceptions or to have uncovered specific references to them, any notable or positive depictions of black characters in genre films are lost to history.

I have seen some interesting snippets of black performers dressed in archetypal cowboy garb in Golden Age musical westerns, giving black audiences a western image to identify with that is not an embarrassing stereotype. Dorothy Dandridge sang a sexy version of “Cow Cow Boogie” in a musical short (called a soundie) that used the familiar conventions of the western, while Ella Fitzgerald sang her famous “A Tisket, A Tasket” with a couple of cowboys accompanying her on guitar and harmonica in the Abbott and Costello comedy Ride ‘em Cowboy. I came across these discoveries accidentally and without context. Such exceptions remain unheralded by scholars in film history books, making it difficult to draw conclusions about the western genre, black actors, and black audiences.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xovmaG9S0sQ&feature=PlayList&p=2B00A2C60B3577D4&playnext=1&index=64]

Westerns with all-black casts were produced outside of the Hollywood industry during the 1920s and 1930s, including a series of musical westerns starring Herb Jeffries. Jeffries played a virtuous cowboy hero in a white hat who sang contemporary, western-flavored pop songs in The Bronze Buckaroo, Harlem on the Prairie, and a handful of other singing-cowboy movies. Character actor and comedian Spencer Williams, Jr., wrote or directed westerns with African American cowboys, gunslingers, and homesteaders, beginning in 1928 with the silent film Tenderfeet. Williams liked to write secondary comedic roles for himself in these films, as in Harlem Rides the Range in which he appears opposite Jeffries. Part of the race-film industry, the movies of Jeffries and Williams were produced by companies owned or managed by African Americans and distributed to theaters in urban markets or segregated theaters across the South.

HERB JEFFRIES GETS THE DROP ON THE BAD GUYS IN 'THE BRONZE BUCKAROO.'

All this provides an important context for appreciating Woody Strode as a bona fide cowboy star of the Hollywood western. Considering the existence of race movies, he was not the first black actor to portray a western hero on the silver screen, and, he was not the first African American to appear in Hollywood westerns as something other than a servant. But, he was likely the first to play the archetypal cowboy figure in major-studio westerns. That gave him a unique, respected presence as a black actor on the Hollywood screen; it also gave him a broad exposure to mainstream audiences that Jeffries and Williams did not have, at least not as western actors. (Jeffries did gain popularity as a big-band singer, while Williams became a television star as part of the controversial Amos & Andy series.)

Strode’s association with the western began with John Ford. According to the IMDB, his first screen appearance occurred in 1939 when he was an uncredited extra in a saloon scene in Stagecoach. As many times as I have watched the film, I don’t recall seeing Strode, but if it is true, his career spans the classic, transition, and revisionist stages of the western. Twenty years later, Ford cast Strode as the title character in Sergeant Rutledge, the story of a black trooper in the legendary 9th Cavalry, whose members were known as the buffalo soldiers. Sgt. Rutledge is arrested for raping and murdering a white woman, and the truth of the events unfolds in flashback during his trial. Sergeant Rutledge will be discussed in depth later in the week by one of my fellow TCM bloggers, but I mention it here because a great deal of Strode’s identification as a western figure derives from his portrayal of this character. Revered by his fellow soldiers and heroic in nature and deed, the character of Sgt. Braxton Rutledge is the epitome of the classic western hero. In one particular shot, Ford gives Strode and his character the John Wayne treatment: He frames him in a low angle on the top of rugged rock formation, making him seem larger than life.  The shot, combined with Strode’s amazing physique, tall stature, and dignified presence, telegraphs to the viewer that Rutledge could not have done the crimes he is charged with.  Outside the context of the narrative, that shot of the “hero on the mountain top” was not one typically associated with black characters in Hollywood movies. As Sgt. Rutledge, Strode was playing a black character who was the stellar opposite of the shuffling stereotype associated with Hollywood films in the previous decade. While Sidney Poitier is generally credited with breaking that stereotype in a series of important high-profile, award-winning dramas during the 1950s and early 1960s, Strode, with his commanding physique and dignified persona, did his share in genre films during that same time period.

FORD DEPICTS STRODE AS THE ICONIC HERO ON THE MOUNTAIN TOP.

Later, Strode costarred in secondary roles or small parts in the Ford films Two Rode Together, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and 7 Women. (The latter is a historical drama about women missionaries in China during the 1930s; Strode plays a Mongolian warrior.) During the 1960s, Strode costarred in westerns by other directors, including The Professionals, alongside Robert Ryan and Lee Marvin, as well as in television series such as Rawhide and Daniel Boone. At the end of the decade, Strode’s performance in the famous opening sequence of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, alongside Jack Elam, more than solidified his identity as a western figure—it made him an icon of the genre.

Westerns are rarely seen on the big screen today, and young viewers and readers might not understand why Strode’s identification with the genre is so important. Westerns remain an important part of American popular culture, and while the genre itself is dormant, its character types, themes, and iconography have been appropriated by other genres. The western is America’s creation myth, and the western hero is a mythic projection of American strengths and values.  As a culture, we identify with the themes of freedom and self determination in stories about the Wild West, represented by the wide open, fenceless spaces. We admire the rugged individualism and fearlessness of the western protagonist. Before there were western movies, the conventions and character types were mythologized in Wild West shows, plays, and dime novels. Real-life western figures like Bob Ford, Frank James, and Cole Younger toured the vaudeville circuits at the turn of the century with their acts consisting entirely of spoken monologues that turned their notorious pasts into legends.  As a matter of fact, the entire history of the Old West was turned into the legend or myth of the Wild West as a way for America to codify its values, ideals, and ideology.

I COULD HAVE SHOWN BILL PICKETT ON HIS HORSE, BUT THIS IS A RARE PHOTO OF HIS BULLDOGGING TECHNIQUE, WHICH INVOLVED SUBDUING THE BULL BY BITING IT ON THE LIP.

The difference between Hollywood movies and earlier incarnations of the western in pop culture is who was eliminated from the myth. In dime novels, newspaper articles, Wild West shows, and popular books of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, African American gunfighters, marshals, trailblazers, and hellraisers were mythologized alongside their white counterparts. That would not be the case with classic Hollywood westerns during the Golden Age and after. In the real Old West, about one out of every three cowboys was of African American or Mexican descent, and former slaves who went west after the Civil War had a better chance of earning a decent living than those who stayed on the other side of the Mississippi River. Black cowboys became adept at herding cattle, training horses, and enduring the long trail drives with thousands of head of cattle. Famous cowboys like bronco-buster Isom Dart and bulldogger Bill Pickett became highly respected among ranch hands and herdsmen. Pickett, who is credited with inventing bulldogging, became a rodeo star with the 101 Wild West Show in the early 1900s, alongside Tom Mix and Will Rogers. The combination rodeo and Wild West show gave them an opportunity to expand their reputations into legends. Mix and Rogers went on to achieve movie stardom in Hollywood; Pickett appeared in a couple of silent westerns for Norman Studios of Jacksonville, Florida, which specialized in race movies. After their deaths, Mix and Rogers were further immortalized in biographies, memorials, plays, and popular songs; Pickett was largely forgotten until he was voted into the Cowboy Hall of Fame in 1971.

NAT LOVE, AKA DEADWOOD DICK

Off the ranch and beyond the trail, a handful African Americans found their way into the dime novels for dangerous deeds and daring adventures that were exaggerations of their lives and careers. Handsome Nat Love, who came West at age 15, had been working the big cattle drives for seven years  when he ended up in Deadwood, South Dakota, a gold-mining boom town. In 1876, he entered the centennial Independence Day celebrations in Deadwood, winning the competitive shooting contest. From that moment on, according to Love, folks called him “Deadwood Dick.” Though primarily a cowhand, Love was likely the inspiration for a series of dime novels called Deadwood Dick, about an adventurous shootist. The series was instrumental in establishing the heroic outlaw as a staple of western lore. While Nat Love and his outlaw doppelganger Deadwood Dick contributed to the image of the Wild West, Deputy Marshal Bass Reeves helped to tame the lawless Oklahoma Territory. An ex-save-turned- Union-soldier in Indian Territory during the Civil War, Reeves trained himself to be an excellent marksman, studied several Indian languages, and learned how to navigate the wilderness. In 1875, he was appointed deputy U.S. marshal by Judge Isaac Parker and assigned to track down outlaws who escaped to the Indian Territory, because few lawmen were considered tough enough to pursue them there. Reeves was one of several black marshals appointed by Parker, but he was likely the most successful, enjoying a 30-year-career until 1907, when statehood for Oklahoma rendered deputy U.S. marshals obsolete.  At that time, he joined the Muskogee city police force. As with white historical figures of the Old West, the stories of black westerners such as Love and Reeves were expanded by dime novels, the newspapers, and other means into the myth that is the Wild West.

Long before the Civil War, James P. Beckwourth, the son of a slave and a plantation owner, traveled West to the Louisiana Territory, where he became a trailblazer. In 1824 (when he changed his name from Beckwith to Beckwourth), he joined William H. Ashley’s third trapping expedition to the Rocky Mountains. The expedition introduced him to the life of a mountain man—the subzero winters in the mountains, the threat of Indian attacks, the dangers from bears, cougars, and snakes, and the torturous heat of the deserts and plains. But, Beckwourth took to the life, eventually marrying at least two Native American women and settling among the Crows for several years. In a testament to the way Hollywood “white-washed” the western myth, when  Beckwourth was referenced in a 1951 movie about Jim Bridger called Tomahawk, the character was re-named Sol Beckwith and played by Jack Oakie, with no reference made to his lineage as the son of a slave.

WOODY STRODE AROUND THE TIME OF 'POSSE'

Thus, Woody Strode, as the archetypal western figure in Hollywood movies, is the only cinematic link to the heritage of African Americans in the Old West and to their place in the myth of the Wild West.  In 1993, Strode appeared in Posse, a western that tried to rework the western myth to include the contribution of African Americans. Directed by and starring handsome Mario Van Peebles, Posse featured a cast of black actors who rode horses, fired six-shooters, gambled in fancy saloons, chased women in brothels, and faced down the white villains who tried to control and disrupt the harmony of Freemanville, a settlement of ex-slaves looking for a new life. Strode, who Van Peebles identified in interviews as the only black actor who “did not shuffle” in the bad old days of Hollywood, appears as “the Storyteller,” who relates the story of the black outlaws who saved Freemanville. Posse, which would be Woody Strode’s penultimate film, opens with the still-imposing actor sitting in a chair, fingering a Colt Peacemaker. It is a suitable mythic image to mark the end of the trail for a black pioneer of a different sort.

22 Responses Woody Strode and the Western: Reflections on History and Myth
Posted By debbe : August 2, 2010 3:40 pm

as usual suzidoll, a smart blog making your readers smarter. thank you!

Posted By debbe : August 2, 2010 3:40 pm

as usual suzidoll, a smart blog making your readers smarter. thank you!

Posted By Patricia Nolan-Hall : August 3, 2010 1:31 pm

Very interesting history. Thank you.

Posted By Patricia Nolan-Hall : August 3, 2010 1:31 pm

Very interesting history. Thank you.

Posted By Alonzo : August 3, 2010 3:00 pm

Cow Cow Boogie was written for Ella Fitzgerald to sing in that Abbott & Costello film by jazz great and film composer Benny Carter, but it was cut from the film. Ella Mae Morse (another African-American) had a hit with the song. Hence, the soundie.

Herb Jeffries went from singing with Earl Hines westerns to singing with Duke Ellington. Not a bad career trajectory. I believe he recorded a western swing album in the 90s, or even the 00s.

Posted By Alonzo : August 3, 2010 3:00 pm

Cow Cow Boogie was written for Ella Fitzgerald to sing in that Abbott & Costello film by jazz great and film composer Benny Carter, but it was cut from the film. Ella Mae Morse (another African-American) had a hit with the song. Hence, the soundie.

Herb Jeffries went from singing with Earl Hines westerns to singing with Duke Ellington. Not a bad career trajectory. I believe he recorded a western swing album in the 90s, or even the 00s.

Posted By ishmaelite : August 3, 2010 9:21 pm

great brief history. I learned so much thank you.

Posted By ishmaelite : August 3, 2010 9:21 pm

great brief history. I learned so much thank you.

Posted By Lisa Wright : August 5, 2010 12:31 pm

SO interesting! Is Mr. Strode still with us? I had never even considered the history of the African American in the west and now I’m intrigued! Thanks for a great article! ALSO for the pic of Bill Pickett biting the bull’s lip! EWWW!

Posted By Lisa Wright : August 5, 2010 12:31 pm

SO interesting! Is Mr. Strode still with us? I had never even considered the history of the African American in the west and now I’m intrigued! Thanks for a great article! ALSO for the pic of Bill Pickett biting the bull’s lip! EWWW!

Posted By Phil : August 5, 2010 4:17 pm

You’ve done it again, Suzi! Each of your posts is a film history course in itself.

Posted By Phil : August 5, 2010 4:17 pm

You’ve done it again, Suzi! Each of your posts is a film history course in itself.

Posted By Kimberly LIndbergs : August 5, 2010 9:31 pm

Great piece, Suzi! Very informative with lots of terrific insights.

Posted By Kimberly LIndbergs : August 5, 2010 9:31 pm

Great piece, Suzi! Very informative with lots of terrific insights.

Posted By Juana Maria : August 6, 2010 12:05 pm

I love Westerns, especially when the charactor actors shine as bright as Woody Strode did!

Posted By Juana Maria : August 6, 2010 12:05 pm

I love Westerns, especially when the charactor actors shine as bright as Woody Strode did!

Posted By Jeff L. Shannon : August 9, 2010 1:22 pm

To all great stuff on Woody Strode-(9l3-l994)

My own fav. of his roles “Pumpy” in “Liberty Valance”

Don’t know if someone touched on this, his finale was Sharon Stone, *Gene Hackman comic book Western “The Quick and the Dead” (l995)

Suzie, what happened pal???

Posted By Jeff L. Shannon : August 9, 2010 1:22 pm

To all great stuff on Woody Strode-(9l3-l994)

My own fav. of his roles “Pumpy” in “Liberty Valance”

Don’t know if someone touched on this, his finale was Sharon Stone, *Gene Hackman comic book Western “The Quick and the Dead” (l995)

Suzie, what happened pal???

Posted By Jeff L. Shannon : August 9, 2010 1:25 pm

To all great stuff on Woody Strode-(9l3-l994)

My own fav. of his roles “Pumpy” in “Liberty Valance”

Don’t know if someone touched on this, his finale was Sharon Stone, *Gene Hackman comic book Western “The Quick and the Dead” (l995)

Suzie, what happened pal???

Have 2nd e-mail now listed above!

Posted By Jeff L. Shannon : August 9, 2010 1:25 pm

To all great stuff on Woody Strode-(9l3-l994)

My own fav. of his roles “Pumpy” in “Liberty Valance”

Don’t know if someone touched on this, his finale was Sharon Stone, *Gene Hackman comic book Western “The Quick and the Dead” (l995)

Suzie, what happened pal???

Have 2nd e-mail now listed above!

Posted By Juana Maria : December 19, 2010 7:31 pm

By the way,his character in “Liberty Valance” was Pompey.

Posted By Juana Maria : December 19, 2010 7:31 pm

By the way,his character in “Liberty Valance” was Pompey.

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