Why are Old West figures portrayed in such black-and-white terms—either they’re all good or all bad?

W.W. Reed
Chandler, Arizona

Hollywood has given us a sterilized and romanticized image of the real West because audiences want their history to be uncomplicated, to be easy to take in and to take sides.

We all do it, including me. I’d rather see Sam Elliott take on the bad guys than some foul-smelling scoundrel with rotten teeth. A movie has only an hour and a half to present a crisis and being it to a successful conclusion. Life’s not like that; it’s shades of gray, with lots of complicated people who do both good and bad things.

In the Lincoln County War (and the Tombstone troubles and more), people were often motivated by greed, power, corruption and other negative factors. And unlike many movies, the good guys didn’t always come out on top.

Marshall Trimble is Arizona’s official historian and vice president of the Wild West History Association. His latest book is Arizona Outlaws and Lawmen; The History Press, 2015. If you have a question, e-mail him at marshall.trimble@scottsdalecc.edu

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