Behind Still in the Saddle

Andrew Patrick Nelson, PhD

When the team at the Briscoe and I were planning Still in the Saddle: A New History of the Hollywood Western, we knew that the experience of seeing dozens of vintage Western movie posters from the 1960s, 70s, and 80s would be powerful. With their beautiful art and witty, sometimes provocative taglines, these posters remind us of what it was like to be a moviegoer at that time—a time when posters and other advertising had to carry a much heavier load when it came to promoting a movie. Movie trailers weren’t available on demand on the Internet then, after all.

Striking as the posters are, we knew that one gallery of the exhibition in particular would need something more. It was going to be the largest gallery, with the most posters. But the subject was so, well, legendary that posters alone wouldn’t cut it.  We needed something three-dimensional.

The gallery in question? “The Duke,” which explores the Westerns made by the great John Wayne in the final years of his storied career. Our solution? Costumes worn by the man himself! The exhibition includes a variety of costumes on loan from our friends at the John Wayne Birthplace & Museum. My favorites of these are a shirt and pants worn by Wayne in The Cowboys (1972), about an aging rancher who leads a group of inexperienced boys on a cattle drive. Standing in front of this costume, you can almost see Wayne wearing it on location in New Mexico or Colorado, his costars at his side, the cameras rolling in front of him. And you certainly get a sense of what a giant of a man he was!

Where movie posters connect us to audiences of the past, costumes connect us with the people who made these movies. That’s what Still in the Saddle is all about: helping visitors imagine, or remember, what it was like to be there.