The right hat can make all the difference in a Western. Just think back to Robert Duvall’s pheasant-taking-over-his-head job he wore in 1972’s Joe Kidd versus the hat he wore in the 1989 Lonesome Dove miniseries. Case closed.
What follows are a few hat rules every cowboy hero should follow, as well as examples of great hats and where you can get one of these yourself.
Cowboy Hat Rule #1: The hero cannot change hat styles in the middle of a film. Val Kilmer’s Billy the Kid got caught in this trap after Gore Vidal’s crew attempted to duplicate the only-known-photograph hat. So Kilmer’s Kid wore this hat in several scenes, but in later riding scenes, he was back wearing the wider brim sombrero. This scenario is not impossible in the real world, as most cowboys wear different hats for different occasions, but it looks wrong in a movie. We want to see the hero stick with the same hat throughout the production.
John Wayne made this mistake as Davy Crockett. He wears a wide straw during an early scene in 1960’s The Alamo, then at the end, he’s wearing a coonskin cap. However, the Duke did adhere to the same hat rule for most of his career. Wayne stuck with his Stagecoach hat for numerous movies, from The Shepherd of the Hills through John Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy and on up to Rio Bravo and beyond.
Sometimes an actor gets romanced by a hatmaker who foists a ridiculous hat style on the actor, who then demands to wear the inappropriate hat in the movie. This happened to Director John Ford when Pedro Armendáriz showed up to star in 1948’s 3 Godfathers with, not only a new hat, but also chaps, vest and gear, all designed by a friend in Mexico. Ford put his foot down and told the actor that he was portraying an outlaw who probably stole his clothes and couldn’t afford such fancy duds. Armendáriz threatened to quit, but Ford prevailed.
Some directors aren’t so lucky. In Walter Hill’s 1995 Western, Wild Bill, Ellen Barkin as Calamity Jane, playing across from Jeff Bridges as Wild Bill Hickok, was so enamored of Doris Day in 1953’s Calamity Jane, that she showed up with a similar hat. She looked so goofy that the hat ruined her performance. At least it did for me, but then I’m a serious hat guy.
Cowboy Hat Rule #2: A hat brim can be too large for the actor. Robert Mitchum’s sombrero in 1959’s The Wonderful Country is a great hat, but it is precariously close to a beach bum hat. As accurate as it may be, Mitchum looks less than studly wearing it.
Cowboy Hat Rule #3: A hat brim can be too small. It’s hard to play a big dog with a little brim. Face it, Paul Newman in 1972’s The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean looks a little goofy.
Cowboy Hat Rule #4: The hat that endures in movies is the hat that tells us who the character is before he opens his mouth. When you see Clint Eastwood in 1976’s The Outlaw Josey Wales, you know exactly who he is.
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In 1999, Bob Boze Bell and partners bought True West magazine (published since 1953) and moved the editorial offices to Cave Creek, Arizona. Bell has published and illustrated books on Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, as well as Classic Gunfights, an Old West gunfight book series. His latest books are The 66 Kid and True West Moments.