Anyone who stops by the GMC from time to time has probably caught on to my fondness for Westerns, something that began in my childhood. I can remember being a fan of several different movie cowboys, and of course later continuing to follow some of them to TV. But the early film and TV stars – Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, the Cisco Kid and others – were very idealized and unrealistic when compared to what really went on in the old West.
I’m certainly no expert, but I’ve read a lot of history written by people who have studied it extensively and a lot of things were different in those days. Just as an example, gunfights were not the pro forma type we’ve come to expect – a faceoff with careful attention paid to who drew first, thus making it “self-defense” – but rather a case of shoot first and shoot straight. And if you could nail someone from behind a tree that was okay too, especially if you could claim that he’d made threats against you. Lawmen – if any were around – were a shifty bunch too, and sometimes worse than the “bad” men.
As the frontier gradually moved West it brought with it a flood of rough characters determined to find a new life, and they were ready and willing to do whatever it took to make it. The frontier was a place with little or no law and order and that suited them just fine. They weren’t boy scouts or anything resembling “civilized” Easterners, but in that time and place they had what it took to survive and even prosper.
Which brings us back to the realism thing. For the last few decades movies have gotten grittier and more violent, and have approached a measure of authenticity. But it was a TV show that took it all the way, when HBO premiered Deadwood in 2004. You could almost feel it with the opening credits.
It was based in a lawless gold-mining camp in Indian territory that began to evolve into a boom town. Deadwood was (and still is) a real place, and the main characters in the show were a part of it’s actual history, as were some better known visitors like Wild Bill Hickock, Calamity Jane and others. Sounds good, right? The only problem was that the people behind the show went all out for authenticity and realism — or at least their interpretation of it.
Deadwood in the 1870’s was a rough, rip-roaring place, bursting at the seams with miners, gamblers, hookers, swindlers, and every kind of scoundrel. These weren’t nice people, and their way of speaking was just as rough. It is a historical fact that the profane terms we’re familiar with were around in those days too, and Deadwood was filled with the kind of ruffians who spoke that way. Which is why we shouldn’t have been surprised to discover that Deadwood the TV show was chock-full of toe-curling profanity.
To be honest, I’ve never been comfortable with a high level of profanity, and seldom use it myself. I know, it’s just words, but it still makes me uncomfortable. However, I can handle it in a movie or TV show when it makes sense, rather than just being used for shock effect. And it makes sense in Deadwood. But here’s something that you might not know, and it’s going to sound like a strange idea at first. I really believe that a lot of the dialogue in the show is almost a form of poetry. Even peppered with profanity, many of the lines are deliciously complex, loaded with convoluted meanings, florid words, and so many twists and turns that you almost need to play them back in your head to fully appreciate them. It’s difficult to describe but if you watch – and listen – for a while you’ll see what I mean.
Deadwood just lasted three seasons, much to the disappointment of dedicated fans, and in the decade since was often rumored to be a candidate for renewal or at least a one-time movie event. We now know the latter has come to pass, and HBO will premiere the film in late May. If you’re interested, below is the trailer for it, but just a word of caution: IT CONTAINS STRONG PROFANITY.