Do you agree with the statement that modern Westerns find their beginnings with "The Outcasts of Poker Flat"?
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Tim Dirks of AMC FilmSite does credit Bret Harte's stories with influencing modern Western films. Harte is in the list of "the roots" of Western films following folk music, Fenimore Cooper's novels, Parkman's The Oregon Trail, Twain's Roughing It, then comes "Bret Harte's short stories," followed by "dime novels about Western heroes." So, then, since "The Outcasts of Poker Flats" is one of Harte's short stories, the answer is: Yes, "The Outcasts of Poker Flats" was part of the beginning of modern Western films.
When Bret Harte's "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" first appeared in California's journal, Overland Monthly in 1869, it received good reviews, but there were those critics who labeled it immoral for the portrayal of "marginal members of society in a positive light." Other reviews states that Harte's characters were "immoral." It was not until the twentieth century that general acceptance came for the characters of Harte's narrative. So, it can be said that Bret Harte did, indeed, lay the groundwork for modern westerns such as the extremely polular television show, Gunsmoke, that began in 1955 and ran until 1975 in which Kitty, the tough but kind and loving saloon owner, for instance, does good deeds. In the TV show Maverick, the gamblers Bret and Bart Maverick also have redeeming qualities. It was not until such shows as Gunsmoke, especially, came along that marginal characters were acceptable to the public.
The classic western began out of a sense of adventure and a sort of homage for the "hero" that the Wild West brought about. There was a sense of honor among the violence which occured...don't shoot an unarmed man, don't shoot a man in the back, etc. Bret Harte certainly didn't hurt this sense of wonder and awe, and perhaps he contributed to the idea of the class western, but I don't think he can be given credit as the father of the modern western.
Though I love his work, I, too, would be hesitant to give Bret Harte the sole credit for beginning the classic Western genre. He certainly captured the essence of that independent Western spirit we see in all the classic western movies, but that spirit had to exist in real life before it would be captured in either writing or film. If that's the case, it may be that old newspaper accounts and dime novels recounting the lives and exploits of real Western characters is probably the place where it all began.
I do believe that Bret Harte's stories, not only Outcasts of Poker Flats but also The Luck of Roaring Camp, typify the story line that often appears in modern Western stories. I am not so sure, however, that modern westerns can trace their beginnings to these stories. The idea of the west and the rugged individualism that built it, lawless cow towns, open prarie, battles with hostile Indians, etc. are all part of the Western saga. So although Harte has a good handle on how Westerns would play out, I don't think he is the father of the genre.
Well, I am sure that modern Western movies find their origins from lots of different sources, and not exclusively from this story, but there is definitely something in the way that this tale manages to capture some of the essential themes and characteristics to give us a real flavour reminiscent of modern Westerns.
For me, at least, the central character who I associate with modern Westerns is of course John Oakhurst, the professional gambler who is one of the "undesirables" chased out of Poker Flat. What is so interesting about this character is the way that he has so many different traits. He doesn't drink because his profession "required coolness, impassiveness, and presence of mind." However, at the same time the fact that he is expelled from Poker Flat indicates the way that he is a successful gambler who is able to ruin others. Yet, the contradictions in this character are noticed when Tom Simson and Piney Woods join the outcasts, and we are told that although Oakhurst took forty dollars from Simson, he returned it to the youth and told him not to play cards again, thus introducing a much more sympathetic picture of this hardened gambler:
After the game was finished, Mr. Oakhurst drew the youthful speculator behind the door and thus addressed him: "Tommy, you're a good little man, but you can't gamble worth a cent. Don't try it over again." He then handed him his money back, pushed him gently from the room, and so made a devoted slave of Tom Simson.
He is thus capable of inspiring devotion and is clearly a charismatic individual, as is shown by the way he made "a devoted slave" out of Simson.
When the group face being trapped by a snowstorm, it is John Oakhurst who naturally assumes leadership, coming up with a plan to try and save them. However, when help finally does come, too late, unfortunately, John Oakhurst has committed suicide thanks to a "streak of bad luck," demonstrating how this intriguing character, according to the narrator, was at once the "strongest and yet the weakest of the outcasts of Poker Flat." Such a bundle of contradictions finds its natural descendant in the characters of Westerns, who similarly display complex personalities and relationships with abstract concepts such as honour, goodness and pride.
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