In nearly every American western movie we have a character who is an ‘old timer’, the grizzled, grey whiskered old man who embodies what this harsh environment can do to a human being. Our old timer may be a drunk, awash with whiskey, or he may be the wise old man, the survivor who has endured and can offer advice to the movie’s protagonist. How true is this representation of the elderly in the Wild West?
Old timers: frontier myth, archetype or cliché? Are the portrayals of old timers in American western movies dignified portrayals or are they ageist? In a land offering few creature comforts, very few women but whores, and men who lacked the teachers, role models and education when it came to diet and health, it is highly likely that these people aged comparatively quickly and in general did not live into great old age. These are generalisations of course and there are records of pioneers who did live to great old age, but the majority of men lived hard and short lives. Even today, unmarried men live statistically shorter lives than their married brothers do; the influence of a nurturing woman is there to be seen.
Movies are visual representations of stories and the archetypal narratives often contain an aged character. Ernest Hemmingway wrote many stories with old men at the centre of the plot. Shakespeare famously has King Lear as the central character in the eponymously titled play. Prospero is another old man, Falstaff is getting on, as is Sir Toby, John of Gaunt in Richard II is an old man, and many others. The Christian Bible, which is far more relevant to the American psyche is chock full of old men, especially the Old Testament. Old means wise in the Bible and living for nine hundred and sixty nine years, as Methuselah did, puts many of the old timers in westerns well into the shade.
There wasn’t any superannuation in the Wild West only gold panning, cattle rustling, cowboying, psychologists and the like; and none of these offered lengthy career prospects, let alone any pension of any sort. Life was lived hard and if a bullet didn’t kill you, disease and or an accident would. Our comfy homes and occupations today are at a far remove from the realities of the frontier towns of yesteryear; which is why we mythologise these characters who may have survived the vicissitudes of a life full of varmints and vermin with just their Colt 44 by their side.