American mythology was forged in the early part of the 20th century, in the overlapping years between the final days of the Wild West and the beginnings of Hollywood. Some of the west’s most fabled characters realised that the overlap could be fruitful: the famous lawman and Nietzsche-lookalike Wyatt Earp was a deft handler of his own public relations, while Buffalo Bill’s stage show, which the bison-hunting showman took to London and Paris in the 1880s, was an object lesson in how to dramatise the life of a cowboy, and an inspiration for early film-makers, whose uncomplicated take on subjects such as the Great Train Robbery found mass appeal. It is both a boon and a curse for American civilisation to be the only one mythologised in modern popular culture. In a fledgling nation, this art form immediately resonated with a public anxious to establish an ethical code. The frontier: beautiful metaphor, scary place. America needed its heroes to be better, and badder, than the baddest guys in town. It needed expert gunslingers to persuade people that their future prosperity should not depend on guns. In that respect, the cowboy was a self-destructive hero, which doubly ennobled him.

more from Peter Aspden at the FT here.