Don Bullis analyzes Hollywood depictions of the West
FARMINGTON — Don Bullis loves watching old western movies and television shows, but the noted New Mexico historian and author is the first to admit he often has his viewing experience marred by something he sees on screen that would escape the attention of most people.
Take the 1940 film "Kit Carson," for instance. The film dramatizes Carson's 1840s trek to California with famed explorer John Fremont, and Carson, portrayed by Jon Hall, sports one of the Stetson hats that were then, and remain, a staple of Hollywood westerns. The problem, as Bullis likes to point out, is that Stetson hats weren't created until the 1860s.
"The average viewer doesn't notice that, and that's fine, but it's kind of annoying to me," Bullis said by phone last week from his Rio Rancho home where he was preparing for his presentation on "Myths, Legends and Lies About Western Movies" on Wednesday, Aug. 12 at the Farmington Civic Center.
Bullis also hates it when he sees a figure in a western movie wielding a weapon that hadn't even been invented at the time the action is supposed to have taken place. That inattention to detail won't necessarily ruin an entire film, he said, but it bugs him all the same — a reaction that would seem to come naturally for a guy who has spent most of his life examining material with a critical eye — first as a newspaper editor, historian and author, and later as a sheriff's deputy.
"Western movies are really interesting — for their entertainment value, obviously," Bullis said. "But they're important because they created an image of the West that is unlike what has been created for any other place."
Bullis said the enduring popularity of film and TV westerns is perhaps a symptom of the notion that the American character is based on the frontier ethic — an idea espoused by historian Frederick J. Turner in 1893 in his landmark essay "The Significance of the Frontier in American History." Western movies and films continue to resonate with American viewers, even in an age of rapidly changing technology, because many of them evoke the spirit of the pioneers and combine that with larger-than-life figures who feature many of the physical characteristics of knights from the medieval period — they ride horses, they wear big boots and hats that resemble armor, and they are, of course, heavily armed.
"It just kind of caught on," Bullis said of the Western genre. "The American people just seemed to grasp that as a romantic image."
But those kinds of idealized images often feature strong departures from the truth. Bullis said western movies and TV shows frequently created a false image of what the West was really like.
He cited the popular TV series "The Rifleman" as an example. The program aired from 1958 to 1963 and featured the exploits of a widowed rancher and Civil War veteran (Chuck Connors) and his son (Johnny Crawford). They resided in the town of North Fork, a small community in the New Mexico Territory that, oddly enough, as Bullis pointed out, did not have a single Hispanic resident.
Such oversights were typical of Hollywood productions of that era, he said.
"There were probably as many black and Hispanic cowboys as white cowboys," he said. "Leaving that dimension out of what the real West was is a real disservice. Multiculturalism was a big part of the West since the beginning."
Even worse has been the typical portrayal of Native Americans in westerns over the decades, Bullis said.
"They're either portrayed in extremes or not at all," he said.
That doesn't stop Bullis from enjoying the genre. From a purely entertainment standpoint, he said, he characterizes "The Magnificent Seven," a 1960 film directed by John Sturges, as one of the best westerns ever, thanks mostly to a formidable cast that includes Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson. The same goes for the CBS miniseries "Lonesome Dove" starring Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall.
But Bullis favors director John Peckinpah's 1969 classic "The Wild Bunch" starring William Holden and Ernest Borgnine for a different reason — the realistic depiction of violence in the film separates it from just about every other western that had been made up to that time, he said.
"It demonstrated that it hurts to get shot," Bullis said.
As obvious as that seems in retrospect, Hollywood sanitized its violence for decades, he said.
"Gene Autry shot at a lot of people, but you never saw any blood," Bullis said.
Bullis likely saw plenty of violence when he became a Sandoval County sheriff's deputy in his 40s, a career path he would continue until he retired in the early 2000s. While the relationship between media and law enforcement has traditionally been one that features a fair amount of tension, Bullis said he never experienced any conflict between his two roles, continuing to write a regular newspaper column, as well as various other pieces for assorted publications, throughout his career as a lawman.
Bullis also found time to write numerous books, mostly nonfiction, but also a couple of novels — 2002's "Bloodville" and 2006's "Bull's Eye." His latest work, "New Mexico: An Historical Encyclopedia" is due for release later this summer. The volume features approximately 850 entries dealing with subjects of historical interest in the state going back to the arrival of the Spaniards. As another demonstration of his commitment to getting things right, Bullis said the book has been reviewed for accuracy and appropriateness by a committee of four people who hold doctoral degrees in history.
He described the encyclopedia as a companion piece to his book "New Mexico Historical Biographies," which was last updated in 2011.
"It's the kind of book that's never complete," Bullis said, noting that he has at least 150 new entries for the volume, which already features 1,500.
Bullis said he's looking forward to his trip here, which will serve as a preview of sorts for the Historical Society of New Mexico's annual conference at the Farmington Civic Center April 14 through 16, 2016. Bullis serves as the conference chair. Visit hsnm.org/conference-2 for information about that event.
He encouraged local residents to make plans to attend the conference.
"The history of New Mexico is more fascinating, I think, than that of any other state," he said.