Sunday, September 6, 2009

Keepin' It Real!

As a new writer, I have already came across a number of situations where my hero has found himself in a life threatening fix but with a mixture of ingenuity and guts has lived to tell the tale. I then have to stop myself and ask “Would this have really happened? Is the reader really going to believe this?”

The other night I was watching a favourite TV show of mine called Mythbusters, which if you haven’t seen it, is all about taking ‘urban myths’ and either proving them or debunking them using semi-scientific experiments. They often take examples of Hollywood stunts and test to see if they could have actually worked in reality and a lot of these stunts are from Westerns. For example…

Can you shoot the hat off a cowboys head? We’ve seen it a hundred times in movies but turns out you can’t! A handgun bullet travelling at a few hundred miles an hour will just go straight through hat material with almost no resistance leaving the hat unmoved. You can shoot a hat off with a shotgun but you tend to take off the top of the guys head as well which sort of defeats the purpose!

How many times have you seen a baddie get shot and fly off his feet through a window or door with the force of the blast? Won’t happen. No matter the calibre of gun, according to the Mythbuster guys, the body will just drop vertically – which of course seems kind of boring on the big screen so they’ve got to spice it up!

A few weeks ago there was a lively discussion on the Black Horse Western Writers Forum about whether you could ignite a barrel of gunpowder by shooting it. Again, big explosions are great TV but the consensus of opinion from people who know a lot about this stuff says it just won’t happen!

How many times did we see in the old movies our hero getting busted from jail by his compadre. They tied a lasso round the bars, tied the other end around the pommel of a horse and then pulled the bars out. The hero climbs through the square gap and is away before you can say, “Hi Ho Silver.” ‘Couldn’t have happened’ say the Mythbusters team. They constructed a replica frontier jail using the same materials and construction methods. A modern JCB couldn’t pull the bars out never mind one horsepower.

Not to be outdone, they decided to use a stick of dynamite! They’ve done that in the movies hundreds of time, haven’t they? This time it was a success! It blew the bars out sure enough but using pressure sensors on a dummy inside the jail they proved that nobody could’ve withstood the pressure from the explosion in such a confined area and even if they had, nobody could’ve got out the window because it was so small.

And so here lies the dilemma! Readers are looking for adventure. Writers have to keep coming up with fresh ideas and angles on old scenarios. It’s a fine balance between fact and farce and it takes a lot of skill to keep a story historically accurate and entertaining too but it’s a balancing act Black Horse Western writers are particularly good at!

I’d love to hear of any other Western Myths debunked!


  1. Hey Lee. That was me who asked the question about igniting a barrel of gunpowder with a bullet. Kirby Jonas said he was going to try it. Ever hear if he did?

  2. Dave - I think that it couldn't be done.
    A news correspondant George Plimsoll was an extra in a John Wayne movie. He had a cord tied to him that was pulled to make him fly through the air when John Wayne shot him. As John Wayne told George later - a man gets shot he falls down. Movies are big on spectacle.
    However, a man gets shot in the arm he won't be picking up his gun and start shooting. Not unless he uses the other hand. Another interesting thing is that a bullet to any part of the body can kill. It's the shock that does that - so a feller might stagger about a bit before he falls over.
    Bullets might pack a punch - but hand out flying lessons they don't.

  3. Hi Dave

    I'm not sure if the experiment was ever done but I think the general concensus of opinion was that it was highly unlikely. I'll go back to the forum and ask if there was a definitive answer. Failing that, I might send it in to Mythbusters and see if they wanna try it!

  4. Hi Jack

    Thanks for the comment. Seems to me that the amount of time a man can get shot and then still go on to shoot, fight, run and still get the girl is getting longer and longer in movies.

    Still, I guess that's what they call suspending disbelief

  5. In westerns, as in any other type of film, we want our spectacle. Without bodies flying, hats shot off heads, great jail escapes, westerns wouldn't be nearly as much fun.
    Compare it to science fiction films. Without sound in space, without flaming exploding space ships, they would not be nearly as interesting. We expect to see these things and so writers try to make them a bit more ingenious each time out.