Films: The complete guide to the real Wild West

It's high noon in the Wild West. From Utah to Wyoming, the prairies of America are a wide open space just waiting to be explored. And all it takes to get there is a fistful of dollars and a hatful of frontier spirit. Here are some ideas to spur you on
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The Independent Travel

When and where did the genre begin? Westerns began, unsurprisingly, in America when James Fenimore Cooper wrote The Prairie (in 1827). But the genre didn't really register with the public until 1902 when Owen Wister wrote the critically acclaimed The Virginian. Since then, a whole bunch of hacks have spent their days resourcefully racking up dime-store cowboy adventures - Zane Gray, Louis L'Amour and Robert J Bandisi probably being the most prolific.

When and where did the genre begin? Westerns began, unsurprisingly, in America when James Fenimore Cooper wrote The Prairie (in 1827). But the genre didn't really register with the public until 1902 when Owen Wister wrote the critically acclaimed The Virginian. Since then, a whole bunch of hacks have spent their days resourcefully racking up dime-store cowboy adventures - Zane Gray, Louis L'Amour and Robert J Bandisi probably being the most prolific.

As far as films go, early cinematographer Thomas Edison produced two peepshow Westerns in 1898, Cripple Creek Bar Room and Poker at Dawson City. Great titles, but at a minute long, not too hot on plot development.

That all changed in 1903 with the release of The Great Train Robbery, which featured a train hold-up, a posse pursuit and a climactic shoot out. The Western as we know it was born. What exactly is the 'Wild West'? The term is more historic than geographic, and is most often used to describe the period of American expansion between 1850 and 1900, when settlers were trudging west along the Santa Fe and Oregon Trails. Cattle empires were springing up from the prairies, and thriving new towns were rising from the plains quicker than a buffalo stampede.

Getting geographical, it would probably have to include these states: Utah, Montana, Idaho, Oregon, California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Nebraska, Kansas, Okla-homa, South Dakota, North Dakota, Wyoming.

Cinematically, it also refers to any film that has the following ingredients: lassos, Colt 45s, hanging trees, stagecoaches, tumbling tumbleweed, Stetsons, and - of course - outlaws and lawmen. Days when men were men, and Native Americans were the enemy. Were all Westerns shot in the West? If you mean west of the Mississippi river, then no. Some early silent films strayed no further than New Jersey or even New York for their backdrops. And when it came to making Spaghetti Westerns, the European film-makers didn't even bother to cross the Atlantic. They shot most of their stuff in Spain, usually near the Mediterranean town of Almeria. This bears more than a passing resemblance to the American Southwest, and with the addition of a few Spanish extras - arriba, you're in Mexico!

Germany set most of its Westerns (yes, they did make some) in the mountains around Split in the former Yugoslavia. And while Doctor Who had to make do with Ealing Television Studios for The Gunfighters (1966), at least the Carry On team got as far as Chobham Common. So what exactly is a spaghetti Western? In the dark days of the 1960s, the traditional Hollywood Western was struggling to survive. Post-war cynicism, and dwindling cinema audiences and the all-too noticeable ageing of once perky cowboy stars were all sounding the death-knell of this once popular art-form. Suddenly along came the Italian director Sergio Leone, the ex- Rawhide actor Clint Eastwood plus a lot of leftover film stock; and A Fistful of Dollars (1964) singlehandedly kick-started a genre. Expansively directed and edited, Leone's violent version of the West rejuvenated the whole tired format into a self-consciously stylised version of grand opera.

Leone struck gold a second time when he made For A Few Dollars More (1965). In it, Eastwood teamed up with Hollywood bit player Lee Van Cleef (who was previously seen in High Noon) to form a memorable double act. The same trick was repeated the following year in the overlong The Good, The Bad And the Ugly (1966), arguably the most famous Western ever made.

As the genre took off, so Leone acquired many imitators, with the blood-spattered violence influencing, among others, Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969). But by the 1970s, the fad for Western movies had died out, and action-addicted cinemagoers had to look to contemporary urban thrillers such as the Dirty Harry series to get their kicks. But with Eastwood still taking the main role, the difference wasn't so great. What locations were used most? The area preferred by eight out of 10 Western film-makers has to be the Alabama Hills, west of Lone Pine, California. If you follow the dirt track they call the Movie Road today, you'll find yourself in just about the biggest film-set in Christendom. The distinctive red rock formations and eerie smooth boulders (they are said to glow in the moonlight) have formed the backdrop to more than 250 movies and TV shows. The widescreen epic How The West Was Won (1962) was shot here, as were such TV classics as Bonanza, Wagon Train and, um, Death Valley Days. Second favourite would be Old Tucson, Arizona. Calling itself "Hollywood in the Desert", this 50-building replica of an 1860s Wild West town was built from scratch for the William Holden film Arizona (1940) and has since had a very busy history indeed. Bing Crosby's The Bells of St Mary's (1945) started the ball rolling, and it's never really stopped. Every self-respecting cowboy star has raised dust in its Main Street - John Wayne, Glenn Ford and Steve Martin to name but three. Is there a cowboy theme park? They may not feature authentic frontiersmen anymore but you'll still find hundreds of ersatz cowboy theme parks. Start with Gammons Gulch, Pomerene, Arizona (001 520 2122831, www.gammonsgulch.com), advertised as "a living museum where you can explore the buildings and see what it was really like". It even boasts its own mine. If you're in New England, suss out Six Gun City, in Jefferson, New Hampshire (001 603 5864592, www.sixguncity.com), set against the stunning White Mountains. And make sure you don't pass up on Wild West City, Netcong, New Jersey (001 973 3478900, www.wildwestcity.com) which has 22 live action shows a day. You can go panning for gold and play that traditional Wild West game of, er, miniature golf. If a one-off visit isn't enough, you could always apply to work in a park. Carolina Territory will be North Carolina's newest Wild West theme park when it opens in spring 2003, and it's on the look-out for staff. If you fancy a career change, shoot an e-mail (info@carolinaterritory.com) to the management. Are there any organised tours? Tour operators that offer packages to the Western states include TrekAmerica (01295 256777, www.trekamerica.com), which offers a 14-day Westerner trip for £600 per person (not including flights) from San Diego to LA, via such iconic Western sites as Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon. You're offered plenty of hiking, biking and horse-riding, and even an overnight stay in a Navajo Indian hogan (a log hut). Explore Worldwide (01252 760000, www.exploreworldwide.com) offers a 15-day "Indian Lands" trip, taking in Las Vegas, Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon, from £1,135 per person, including flights, accommodation, transport and most meals. In addition, there is a local charge of $240 (£170) per person. Great Rail Journeys (01904 521900, www.greatrail.com) organises 20-day trips from New York to San Francisco, via Chicago, Denver and LA, from £2,090 per person, including flights, rail travel, accommodation and some meals. American Adventures (01892 512700, www.americanadventures.com), runs 10-day "Canyons and Indians" trips from £493 per person including camping accommodation, transport, guides and park entrance fees but not flights. Travelbag Adventures (020 7287 5559, www.travelbag-adventures.com) offers 14-day Canyonlands escorted tours from £999 per person, including flights, guides, accommodation and transport. There is also a £40 food kitty. Thomas Cook Holidays (01733 418100, www.tcholidays.com) organises two-week fly-drive trips to California and Nevada from around £535 per person including flights and car hire only. Quest Travel (020 8546 6000) offers eight-day Indian Country and Canyons trips, from LA, from £345 per person including accommodation and car hire (not flights). What do cowboys eat, and where can I get some? Fortunately, things have moved on from fried beans. Over the Canadian border, you'll find a full Wild West menu at Buzzards Cowboy Cuisine in Calgary, Alberta (001 4032 646959, www.cowboycuisine.com). Take it up on its offer, and trade in your old cowboy boots for a meal, including Chuck Wagon Meatloaf (£4) or Son of a Bitch Stew (£5), washed down with Sarsaparilla (£1) or that old cowboy favourite, cow's milk (£1). For added value, you can listen to taped cowboy poetry in the toilets and admire a broken-down wagon last used by Demi Moore in The Scarlet Letter (1995). So how do I get there? The main gateways from Britain are Phoenix (served by British Airways from Gatwick), Las Vegas (Virgin Atlantic from Heathrow) and Los Angeles (Air New Zealand, American Airlines, BA, United and Virgin). The lowest fares are likely to be on connecting flights with airlines such as Continental (from Gatwick, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow), Delta (Gatwick and Manchester) and Northwest (Gatwick). For the best deals, buy through discount agents rather than direct from airlines. And what do I wear? No self-respecting cowboy would dream of moseying on down Main Street without his chaps. You can pick them up for $170 (£120) at www.recycledcowboy.com, along with "light and tight pants" for $75 (£52). To complete the look, choose yourself a fancy holster at the Texan Cowboy Outfitters (001 800 7917264, www.cowboyoutfitters.com). The Rio Bravo holster, as favoured by John Wayne, is popular at $50 (£35). Where to find out more? William A Gordon's Shot On This Site (Citadel Press, £12.99) is a general guide to American film locations, while Cinema Southwest by John A Murray (Treasure Chest Books, $21.95) concerns itself solely with Westerns. For an overview, try the BFI's Companion to the Western (Andre Deutsch, £16.99). Let's Go: USA (Pan, £14.99) is useful on the ground.

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