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Cool Things - Western Movie Posters

Wyatt Earp tames the cattletown in Wichita (1955)

These movie posters are testament to Hollywood's fascination with Kansas' legendary western history.

Almost as soon as the first movie studio opened its doors in California, Hollywood began to shape the mythology of the American West. Legendary names, places, and events became the subject of countless films. Hollywood created a romantic version of the West by bending historical facts to the breaking point, but at least the product was entertaining.

Kansas on the Big Screen

Kansas history was a favorite resource for scriptwriters because of its wealth of western iconography. The Santa Fe and Oregon trails passed through the state, cattletowns like Abilene and Dodge City had violent pasts, and pre-Civil War Bleeding Kansas offered plenty of fodder for high drama. Problem was, Kansas' rich history was too complex for a two-hour film. Events had to be condensed and simplified to fit the big screen.

One solution was to focus on the most notorious aspects of Kansas history, recognizable to many moviegoers by name even if they didn't know the whole story. Thus, Confederate guerilla William Quantrill became a Hollywood favorite because the mere mention of his name denoted violence . Stripped of the complicated politics of the Bleeding Kansas era, Quantrill developed into one of Hollywood's best bad guys.

Another way to simplify the American West was to incorporate easily recognizable symbols into films. These symbols acted as a sort of shorthand by which moviegoers could understand basic plotlines at a glance. Audiences, particularly those at 1930s "B" westerns, immediately grasped that the guy wearing the white hat was good and the man in the black hat was evil.

Dark Command (1940) is an imaginative version of Quantrill's raid on Lawrence

Such conventions are evident not only in movies, but on movie posters from the Western's heyday in America. These posters pack a lot of symbolism onto a single sheet of paper. Besides white and black hats, there are horses, guns, and sometimes a bit of cleavage. Confederate uniforms occasionally appear (as on the Dark Command poster at center left), but this iconography is not what one might expect; in many movies the Southern cause is depicted sympathetically.

Guns are, of course, a necessary feature on Western movie posters. Duels in the sun are common in films, although in real history they rarely, if ever, occurred. Shootouts offer resolution to the conflict between good and evil while thrilling viewers with action. Although movie good guys usually deplore violence, they aren't afraid to use their guns to tame the rowdy element. Therefore, guns do not represent gratuitous violence so much as the necessary or controlled use of force for the public good. And on a movie poster they also signaled to potential moviegoers that the film would be filled with exciting action.

Plot Twists

Although Western movie plots are stripped of the complicated political and social issues that motivated real characters in Kansas history, they nevertheless offer intricate plot twists. In The Kansan (1943), the main character is wounded while foiling a bank robbery, then regains consciousness in the hospital to discover he's been elected town marshal. He's shot a second time while cleaning up the town, and when he wakes up in the hospital (again) he discovers he's engaged to be married. (View a Belgian poster for The Kansan).

The bad guy in Gunmen of Abilene (1950) is the town druggist

"B" Westerns in particular have elaborate plots. These films received second billing behind "A" pictures which cost much more money to produce. Besides low budgets, "B" Westerns are marked by cheap sets, little-known actors, and, often, poorly written scripts. They were cranked out rapidly using recycled plots and sometimes even recycled footage from previous films. One leader in the genre was Republic Studios. Founded in the mid-1930s, Republic is known to have generated more of these pictures than any other studio. Several posters shown here advertise Republic films, including Dark Command (1940).

Western star Allan "Rocky" Lane is represented here in the poster for Gunmen of Abilene (1950). He signed with Republic in 1940 and had starring roles in the studio's "B" movies and serials for over a decade. A handsome man with a tough stance, Lane turned out entertaining films with fast chases featuring his horse, "Blackjack" (a star in his own right).

The Kansas Museum of History has a large collection of promotional materials for Western movies with Kansas subjects. These were received through the generosity of donor Cynthia Haines, a film critic and professor with an interest in the genre. The collection encompasses over 200 posters and lobby cards from almost 50 individual film titles.

Learn more about Kansas in the Westerns in the Kansas Heritage article, "Blazing Guns & Rugged Heroes."

Listen to our Blazing Guns & Rugged Heroes exhibit audio tour.

Entry: Cool Things - Western Movie Posters

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: January 2006

Date Modified: November 2012

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.