Monday, February 21, 2005

In Hollywood, outlaws are either gunned down by lawmen, like Gary Cooper’s character in “High Noon,” or are portrayed as anti-heroes, like Robert Redford and Paul Newman’s characters in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” But in the real world, the bad guys are truly wicked, say brothers John and Robert Waters, and the sheriff isn’t always around to stop them. In fact, some of the most notorious outlaws in history were killed or captured by ordinary citizens.

“You see all these movies and stuff about the heroic sheriff who runs the outlaws out of town, but you don’t see a lot about the ordinary citizen defending themselves in their towns,” said Robert Waters. “I wondered what really happened, so I began researching it and found in American history there were numerous accounts of [such] stories. I thought it was important [to tell them] because they had not been told.”

In their new book, “Outgunned: True Stories of Citizens Who Stood Up to Outlaws and Won,” the Waters brothers collected accounts of ordinary people taking down the bad men. Among the stories related in the book:

• Notorious outlaw Henry Starr was captured after a bank robbery in Stroud, Okla., after being shot by 17-year-old Paul Curry, using the sawed-off .30-.30 rifle the Curry family kept for slaughtering hogs.

• “Black Jack” Ketchum, a killer, robber and cattle rustler who once hid out with Butch Cassidy’s gang, was captured after trying to rob a train in New Mexico. Frank Harrington, the conductor on the train, foiled Ketchum’s plan by shooting him with a 10-gauge shotgun.

• After a botched robbery attempt in Midland, Mich., the robbers’ escape was thwarted by a dentist. Dr. Frank Hardy, an avid hunter who kept a .35-caliber rifle in his office above the bank, shot and wounded robber Anthony Chebatoris as he drove away, causing him to wreck the getaway car. Chebatoris’ partner, Jack Gracy, then attempted to escape by hijacking a truck but was shot through the head by Dr. Hardy at a range of nearly 200 yards.

• George Birdwell, a member of the “Pretty Boy” Floyd gang, thought the Farmers & Merchants Bank in the all-black town of Boley, Okla., would be easy pickings. But Birdwell and two partners made the mistake of trying to rob the bank on the opening day of hunting season in 1932, when the town was filled with armed black farmers. Birdwell was fatally shot by the bank’s bookkeeper, and dozens of townsmen opened fire on his accomplices as they tried to escape, killing one and wounding and capturing the other.

Most Americans aren’t aware of these stories, Robert Waters said, because of political correctness: We have been taught that guns are evil and used so often for wrong, he said, we forget that they can also be used for right.

But now there is a growing awareness of the positive value of firearms, he said.

“In the past few years, stories of people defending themselves with firearms have come out over the Internet and talk radio and occasionally in the mainstream media,” he said. “The perspective of Americans has changed and people realize that guns are basically a tool. They can be used for evil and can be used for good.”

This shift was evidenced, he said, in the 2004 presidential election. Democrats, who traditionally support firearm restrictions, “would not touch the anti-gun issue with a 10-foot pole,” he said. “Even [Democratic candidate Sen.] John Kerry pretended to be a hunter in order to get the people who were in favor of guns to vote for him.”

One problem with Americans’ perspective on crime and guns, Mr. Waters said, is that popular culture sometimes celebrates criminals as heroic ” a view that has a long history.

“A deep populist strain has always existed in middle America, an ingrained suspicion of those in authority and those who control vast amounts of wealth,” he and his brother explain in their book.

“Instilled in this mentality is an inclination to root for the underdog. Those who looked on criminals as heroes admired the outlaw as an individualist who followed his own path.”

The sympathetic portrayal of criminals as underdogs is very widespread in contemporary Hollywood, said Ted Baehr, chairman of the Christian Film and Television Commission.

“For many years during the golden age of Hollywood when Mr. Smith went to Washington, you had positive heroes and good guys who wore white hats,” he said, but that changed in the late 1960s, a period that “produced the anti-hero.”

But that doesn’t mean that there are no real heroes in theaters, Mr. Baehr said.

“The good news is that since 1985 there has been an increase in the good guys who wear white hats,” he said.

But, Mr. Baehr warns, the anti-hero will always have some residence in the artistic community. Robert Waters said this is probably because Americans find criminals interesting and different ” a perspective he said that overlooks the heroism of law-abiding citizens.

“Criminals are fascinating, but on the other hand, I find the ordinary citizen to be very fascinating,” Mr. Waters said. “What would draw someone to pick up a gun and defend another citizen and defend their town when the bank is being robbed? Maybe they’re not heroic in the eyes of Hollywood, but I think they are heroes.”

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