Cowboys & Outlaws
One of the better recent documentary series to play on The History Channel is this six episode overview of the Wild West, focusing on the myths and legends surrounding the larger-than-life cowboy heroes and gun-toting outlaws. Needless to say, myth and legend is often miles removed from the facts - which is a shame, since the facts, on their own strength, clearly offer a fascinating story that did not require grand embellishment.
Each episode relies very heavily on dramatic re-enactments. For the most part, these efforts are beautifully shot on location with actors who clearly look as if they stepped straight out of a tintype. (The sole exception is the reinvention of Billy the Kid as a Tiger Beat-worthy hottie who dances a bold flamenco with a lovely Mexican señorita.) Talking head commentary, which often becomes a bore in these documentaries, is mercifully kept at a bare minimum. George Wunderlich, the gregarious XL-sized executive director of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, turns up in various episodes to offer colorful demonstration that range from shooting off late 19th century rifles or locking someone in old-fashioned manacles. This man is a lot of fun on camera and he truly deserves his own show.
The episodes go into great depth to explain the social and economic conditions that brought about the events and personalities that shaped the Wild West. A hazy legal system helped encourage vigilantism, but it also encouraged a surprisingly liberal environment that enabled African Americans to get cowboy jobs alongside white riders. Communications was often haphazard and news traveled erratically between distant counties. Many outlaws were able to run amok simply because there were no photographs that could be used for identification purposes - the celebrated "Wanted" posters of the Western movies were actually rare in real life and never printed photographic images.
But what is genuinely fascinating in each episode is realizing that absolutely nothing in the cowboys' lives were ever wasted. The series shows how the designs of clothing, weapons, saddles and even a cattle drive chuck wagon were practical and economical at every imaginable level. The genuine problems of the era - poor diet, primitive medical care, inadequate salaries - are also addressed, though they are often spun in a manner to suggest that these considerations weren't really all that bad. (At one point, the viewer is informed that the cowboy had it better than the average European, since in Europe only the nobility had the chance to ride horses!)
Cowboys & Outlaws is a diverting and entertaining history lesson. The only flaw, perhaps, is that it is too short. Indeed, six episodes is much too short - hopefully, more episodes will be rustled up for the very near future.