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Western Folk Heroes - the Real and the Reel


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Hollywood has always loved portraying western folk heroes on screen, rarely paying much heed to historical accuracy. Here are some images of actors in their roles as western heroes/villains, followed by an image of the real person. I will limit this to films made prior to the '60s. Make your own assessment as to how accurate the historical resemblance may be:




Tyrone Power as Jesse James, and the real James



Henry Fonda and Randolph Scott as Wyatt Earp




Burt Lancaster as Wyatt Earp, and the real Earp




Victor Mature and Cesar Romero as Doc Holliday




Kirk Douglas as Doc Holliday, and the real Holliday




Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur as

Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane, and the real Hickok




The real Martha Jane Canary




Gene Tierney as Belle Starr, and the real Starr




Errol Flynn as George A. Custer, and the real Custer

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Interesting pics, Tom.


What a contrast. I guess we can't expect the real people to resemble the stars playing them - or should I say, I guess we don't necessarily want the stars playing the real people to look like them.

This of course applies not only to Western legends and the actors who play them, but to all people who really existed who are portrayed in film.

Same with all those biopics from the 30s and 40s you see of gangsters, musicians, politicians - the original always looks somewhat less prepossessing than the actor playing them.


I'm surprised if you're doing a comparison of actual "Old West" legends and the actors who played them, that you left out Billy the Kid.

Of course he's been portrayed many times in movies, but whoever has played him is always vaguely handsome ( or sometimes really handsome, as with Paul Newman in *The Left-Handed Gun*.)



But the real Billy the Kid was not only not attractive by anyone's standards, he looks downright dim-witted, like the "village idiot" ( I know that term is politically incorrect, but it comes to mind when you see his picture.)

I'm going to try and post a pic of the real Billy the Kid, and you'll see what I mean.



PS: the most jaw-droppingly different contrast was between Gene Tierney, a woman of exceptional beauty, who played "Belle Star", and the original, who appears to have been a woman of exceptional homeliness. Old Belle, at least in that photo, had a face that could stop a clock !


Edited by: misswonderly on Aug 26, 2012 11:14 AM

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Belle Starr stop a clock? Hell, I'm surprised the CAMERA LENS didn't crack. And Billy the Kid DID look sort of dim witted. I've seen that one old photo several times.



and with the exception of the look of the moustache, Douglas comes closer to looking like the legendary "Doc" than many others who've played him in film.



Here's a twist to this thread...look at the old photos of the actual villians, and try to pick out who today looks more like them for a movie version.






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Thanks for the Billy the Kid pix, MissW. I was going to post one today myself but you beat me to it. I think it's safe to say that neither Paul Newman nor Robert Taylor (nor Jack Beutel in The Outlaw) bore too much of a resemblance to the real William Bonney (and even that wasn't his real name; he was born William Henry McCarty).


I don't believe there ever has been a movie made about either Ulysses S. Grant or Robert E. Lee. Imagine Edward G. Robinson as Grant (though try not to think of him astride a horse). As for Lee, has anyone a suggestion of a star from the studio system days?



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Tom, are you familiar with the 1993 film, *Gettysburg* ? It's very good, ( "in my opinion"), and certainly worth viewing for anyone interested in the American Civil War.

Anyway, it's got a fine cast, and none other than Martin Sheen plays Robert E. Lee. I'm a fan of Marty Sheen ( hope his son hasn't tainted the whole family name ) and I think he does a fantastic job portraying the famous Confederate General.

Here's a link about it ( by the way, I much prefer Wikipaedia's articles onmovies to Imdb, or whatever that other one is.)



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You can't judge people's character, or smarts, going solely on looks, Miss W...

You should know that...


Billy was actually fairly smart and a well-behaved student who liked to read:



He was apparently a victim of bullies because of it...


And I don't think too many people look great going by 19th century ferrotype photos...

Especially frontier types who lived in pretty rough conditions at best...

And Billy was a teenager at the time of the photo. Maybe 18 or 19...


Anyway, myth about Billy the Kid probably grew because most people lived hard, tough and boring lives on the frontier, and Billy gave them something to talk about that wasn't totally boring.

So the legend grew... Typical stuff...


This is the only authentic photo of Billy (scholars agree it is authentic, anyway), taken about 1879-1880:







AMC always likes to air John Wayne movies and in the 1970 flick "Chisum," Billy the Kid is played by actor Geoffrey Deuel:





An article about all the actors who portrayed him and all the films featuring Billy the Kid is here:




Edited by: RMeingast on Aug 26, 2012 12:21 PM

Had to make Billy image smaller.

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Thanks for the info, MissW. No, I didn't know that Martin Sheen had played Robert L. Lee. My knowledge about post '60s films is limited, to say the least.


Sheen hardly looks like Lee, but then, compared to the casting of Gene Tierney as Belle Starr, I'd say that Sheen is the spitting image of the General. The real Belle Starr looked a little more like Traveller, Lee's horse. (I know, nasty, err, to the horse, that is).



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I was just thinking of Martin Sheen's performance in Gettysburg too, with Tom's remarks.. you beat me to the punch.


It is a very small role in How the West Was Won, but I always thought Harry Morgan's Gen Grant was quite good, encapsulating the character in a few lines and in dialog.

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Robert Duval was a much better portrayal of The Great Robert E Lee than Martin Sheen in Gods and Generals. Any one who has ever studied him knows he would not show the emotion as Sheen did.



Gettysburg is based on the book by Michael Shaara The Killer Angels

and he takes his information from General Longstreet.


General Longstreet's performance at Gettysburg was a disgace and

the movie does not give you a true portrayal of General Lee's intent.


Had The Great Stonewall Jackson been there or had AP Hill

with his 3rd Corps lead the charge on the 3rd day, we might not

have this discussion


Robert Duval claims a blood link to the Great Robert E Lee.


Jake in the Heartland

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Thanks for the information, Jake. Yet another of the more recent films (if you can call a 2003 film "more recent") that I have yet to see.


Are these the first screen actors to play Lee and Grant, Howard Gaye and Donald Crisp in Griffith's The Birth of a Nation:



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I have seen character actors whose names I've never learned portray Grant in movies that bore better resemblances than many of the bigger names that did him in films. With good make up, and the fact that both men wore beards, you can do a lot to make an uncanny likeness.






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