True West Historical Society

Official Site of True West Magazine, Since 1953

July 22, 2014

   Working on a big hat piece for the next issue (October) and want to cover some hat issues I have. Here's where I'm going. Need your feedback and input.

Under The Hondo Brim

   The right hat can make all the difference in a Western. If you don't believe me, check out Robert Duvall's pheasant-taking-over-his-head job he wore in Joe Kidd, vs. the hat he wore in Lonesome Dove. Case closed.

   Hats are very strong indicators for a character's being and once a strong character has been established, it's tough to change the uniform, especially the hat. For example, John Wayne stuck with his "Stagecoach" hat for numerous movies, from The Shepherd of The Valley thru the so-called cavalry trilogy and on up to Rio Bravo and beyond.

   Hats can peg a man but they most certainly define anyone attempting to portray a cowboy.

   Here's Cowboy Hat Rule #1: the hero cannot change hat styles in the middle of a film. Val Kilmer as Billy the Kid got caught in this trap when the movie makers attempted to duplicate the only-known-photograph hat. So Val as Billy wore this hat in several scenes, but then when they cut to later riding scenes he was back wearing the wider brim sombrero. This is not impossible in the real world (most cowboys have different hats for different occasions) but it just looks wrong in a movie. We want to see the hero with the same hat. Now, there are exceptions

   Another example is John Wayne wearing a big, wide straw during one of the early scenes in The Alamo, then at the end he reverts to the coonskin cap. It's ultimately jarring, or, at least unsettling. We want our iconoclastic cowboys to stick with one style hat throughout.

   Sometimes actors get romanced by a hatmaker who foists a ridiculous hat style on the actor, who then demands to wear the innapropriate hat in the movie. This happened to John Ford when Pedro Armendariz showed up with not only a new hat, but chaps, vest and gear, all designed by a friend in Mexico. Ford put his foot down and told him he was portraying an outlaw who probably stole his clothes and couldn't afford such fancy duds. Pedro threatened to quit but Ford prevailed. Some directors aren't so lucky. Check out Ellen Barkin in Wild Bill, playing across from Jeff Bridges as Hickok. She was allegedly enamored of Doris Day in Calamity Jane (1950s) and showed up with a similar hat. She looked so goofy it ruined her performance. At least it did for me, but then I'm a serious hat guy.

   Hat Rule #2: a hat brim can be too large for the actor. Robert Mitchum's sombrero in "The Wonderful Country" is a great hat but it's precariously close to a beach bum hat and as accurate as it may be, Mitchum looks less than studly wearing it.

Hat Rule #3: a hat brim can be too small. It's hard to play a big dog with a little brim. Just ask Paul Newman in "The Life & Times of Roy Bean." Face it, he looks a little goofy.

Hat Rule #4: The hat that endures in movies is the hat that tells us who the character is before he opens his mouth.

"If that was my hat I'd sh** in it and bury it."

—Bad hat behavior

Views: 268

Comment by Ed Wager on July 22, 2014 at 5:28pm

Hell, Robert Duvall only ever wore two hats of value.

The Cavalry he wore in "Apocalypse Now", which is my favorite

or the "Gus", which is really popular now.

As for changing hats in the middle of a film ...

"Dance With the One That Brought You"

- Said to be an old Texican expression

Comment by DieselDaze on July 22, 2014 at 7:38pm

For a hat style that may be well known, but not necessarily liked (by me) due to not fitting the character would be:

Russell Crowe's "Ben Wade" in 3:10 To Yuma (2007). 

However, I really liked the hat worn by Viggo Mortensen's character  Evrett Hitch in Appaloosa (2008).

It's only my opinion (of course), but both are cases where the hat makes or breaks the character.

Comment by anthony martin on July 22, 2014 at 7:57pm


  Sounds like everyone has had hats on the brain today.Afriend that I make 19th century duds for brought over a silverbelly blank for me to shape for him.I dug out a big pile of 19th century catalogues to fing something to go with an 1870's suit I've just finished for him.He started rattling off 1950's and 60's movie hats that he liked and tried to get me to cross over to the Hollywood dark side.Now there have been some great movie hats but some of his choices were aesthetically unfortunate!I still hope to exercise a moderating influence.

Comment by Edward M Sullens on July 23, 2014 at 9:03am

C'mon Anthony!!

I realize the "real" hats worn during the ole west were the Plainsman, the Bowler, misshapened Top Hats and the like, but think back to the hat Henry Fonda wore in Once Upon A Time In The West, or the one worn by Gary Cooper in High Noon and the hat worn by John Carradine in Stagecoach. You gotta admit, these were some really sharp hats. And don't tell me, that when you see a replica of "Hoppy's" hat, it don't make you wish that it had've been created in the 1880's.

Comment by Murray A. Gewirtz on July 23, 2014 at 9:03am

BBB, I expect that your October article will be profusely pictorially illustrated with the examples you mention.

Comment by Ed Wager on July 23, 2014 at 2:36pm

Willie as Barbarosa

Hat Rule #3 may apply, Hat Rule #4 definitely does.

The sombrero may be brimmed to big, but the it certainly does ...

"tells us who the character is before he opens his mouth."

“I believe in looseness.”

― Willie Nelson

Comment by Col. Jeffrey Tasker on July 23, 2014 at 7:00pm

Looking forward to the hat article! Have worn one since I was a kid. Like a saying in Texas... "All Hat.... No Cattle..." Usually spoken about a "BS'er"

Comment by Jim Holden on July 24, 2014 at 11:36am

A little known movie, had some pretty good hats - for me - The Culpepper Cattle Company.

Comment by David Nelson on August 7, 2014 at 8:46pm

I apologize in advance. The "Countess from Hong Kong" is not, remotely, "True West." But the hat belongs here, among its fellow not-completely thought-out costumers. It was THE hat I thought you were writing when I saw the subject.
And I do apologize for it, specifically, too.

I wonder if, like Russell Crowe, he's even aware what's on his head?



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