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  • Trevor Williams

Saddle Sores: Frontier Scout

For those of you new to Saddle Sores, this is a series that critiques Western films for historical accuracy. It's all in good fun with films ranging from beloved classics to obscure pieces of forgotten media.

Today's film is Frontier Scout, a 1938 film about "Wild Bill" Hickok getting caught up in an unfamiliar kind of warfare on the Western Frontier.

The movie starts in 1865 during the closing days of the American Civil War. Daring Union Army civilian scout Wild Bill Hickok (played by Gene Houston) is tasked with delivering an important message. Wild Bill is mostly remembered for his gunfighting and gambling exploits, but the movie does point out his time spent as a spy and scout gathering information for General Ulysses S. Grant. Of course, his cover as a Confederate messenger is blown when he rides out from behind Union lines and the soldiers wave at him. The Confederate outriders are smart enough to notice this suspicious activity, but decide to stick together in one clump when chasing him instead of spreading out and catching him from all sides. This allows for an awkward fight scene where Wild Bill jumps from a tree and catches an outrider in ambush. (By the way, I am becoming increasingly aware that in older Westerns, there is an annoying tendency for the protagonist to ambush a lone enemy and dispatch him without making a single sound despite the obvious scuffle. His victim never so much as calls for help or even speaks or grunts despite wrestling the hero for leverage and being stabbed or beaten by said hero.) Jump forward an unspecified number of years ahead. The Civil War is over and Wild Bill is looking for some new employment. His fellow former scouts point out that there is good money to be made moving cattle in the post-Civil War economy. One of the former scouts has even built his own cattle business in Milton, Kansas, but is suffering problems with his cattle going missing. Wild Bill is brought in to help deal with this mystery.


I will avoid giving more specific information past this point in case you want to see it for yourself, but there are a few specific inaccuracies that can be addressed without ruining the game. At one point, the Bad Guys strategically use barbed wire to close off a gap in a rocky ridge (which, by the way, does not match the geology in south-central Kansas and looks more at home in the American Southwest) in order to force a group of cattle drivers to an ambush site. The cattle rustlers hold position as the drivers approach and their leader claims that he owns that stretch of land, demanding ten dollars a head for the cattle to cross. There is a long historical record of the tensions between cattle drivers and landowners on the Western Frontier; it was not infrequent for either side to employ violence to get their way. Rather than threatening the criminal in disguise, however, the drivers simply concede defeat and move their cattle to the North Pass. One could argue that the drivers were the virtuous type to avoid needless confrontation, but the vast amounts of money involved in driving beef to market make it more likely for pistols to be drawn and harsh words to be exchanged.


Later, it is revealed that the bandits have stolen tens of thousands of head of cattle and are hiding them away to sell all at once. Quite a large herd to keep a secret! Such a vast number of cattle would require constant relocation for grazing and constant access to water, something which would be very difficult for someone trying to keep the stolen herds' existence a secret. Also, the longstanding Western movie tradition of having Hereford cattle stand in for historically accurate longhorns is also present in this film.


On the more positive side, the equipment and costumes used by the actors (minus the hair) are fairly close to appropriate for the time period depicted. The film also dodges the common problem of using modern saddles in a historical piece. As far as overall historical accuracy, Frontier Scout is neither highly accurate nor inaccurate, but somewhere in the middle. We are pleased to say that it is an entertaining film that leaves enough intrigue to keep things interesting and is an easy watch at just under an hour. If you are looking for an older Western that can be fun and aren't overly concerned with historical accuracy, give this one a try. See you next time!

 

Support for the Museum of the Great Plains provided in part by the City of Lawton and the City of Lawton Hotel-Motel Tax Fund.