MR.AUTHENTICITY
True West|January 2022
TRUE WEST’S FIREARMS EDITOR PHIL SPANGENBERGER HAS SPENT DECADES GUN COACHING MANY OF HOLLYWOOD’S TOP ACTORS, WHILE ADDING AUTHENTICITY TO FILMS, WHEREVER HE COULD. HERE ARE HIS RECOLLECTIONS OF A COLORFUL CAREER IN MOVIES AND TV.
PHIL SPANGENBERGER
Many fans of Westerns, especially the True West maniacs, are guilty of picking them apart for the anachronisms all too often found in such films. I recall having a conversation about the 1969 flick Little Big Man, with a friend who raved on about it, and I answered that although I enjoyed the film, there were several period errors in it. By the time I’d picked it apart, he commented, “Gee, I thought I liked it until I talked to you!”

For the past 40-plus years, I’ve had the opportunity to put in my two cents on a number of movies, television shows and live theater, striving to give Westerns a more authentic look. For my humble efforts, I’ve been honored with Hollywood’s “Cowboy Oscar,” the prestigious Golden Boot Award for achievements in film and live Western entertainment. I’ve also earned the nickname one of “Hollywood’s Hired Guns,” and have been told that the gunleather my Red River company supplied to various prop houses was largely responsible for starting the trend of seeing more authentic holsters and belts on the screen. While serving as a technical or historical advisor/consultant, I’ve learned that one can only advise as to what is correct—not dictate! Producers and directors have the final word, and they are often quick to remind the expert that the production is a dramatic story, not a documentary. Nonetheless, I have done my best to add to the realism of every production.

Hollywood Calls

Although I’d produced and performed in live Wild West shows in the U.S. and abroad, and worked on small independent films for years, my career with Hollywood movies and TV started around 1979, when a call came in from my friends at Stembridge Gun Rentals, then located on the Paramount movie lot. My relationship with them had begun years before, when I obtained firearms from them for use in the Wild West shows I performed in around the globe.

When I was the black powder editor at Guns & Ammo Magazine (G&A), Syd Stembridge called and asked if I could help prop man Bud Shelton select some authentic firearms for Charlton Heston’s then-latest movie The Mountain Men (1980). Bud had purchased several commercially produced, so-called “Hawken” muzzle loading rifles, but they were too modern looking with their polyurethane coated stocks, short blued barrels and brass furniture. Unfortunately, Shelton said he’d already purchased them and had to use them. When I suggested that I knew an artisan who could give them a proper 1830s look, he agreed to have them “uglified.” The guns were sent to my longtime pal Frank Costanza, who within about ten days, transformed these modern-looking smokepoles into what looked like well-used, cut-down, tackdecorated with rawhide repairs, frontierera Plains rifles—the real deals!

Everyone was so pleased with how authentic these guns now looked, that I was asked to train Heston in the use of muzzleloaders. Jumping at the chance to meet and work with one of my favorite actors, this black powder enthusiast was soon found on a reserved firing line at Angeles Shooting Range, in northeast L.A., showing the man who portrayed Moses, El Cid, Andrew Jackson and so many other historical icons, how to manage my Green River Rifle Works Hawken and a caplock pistol. As an added bonus, Director Richard Lang invited me to be a mountain man extra in the movie’s rendezvous sequence, and eventually, I wound up traveling to the Jackson Hole, Wyoming, location for about 10 days to do some additional coaching and background work with a passel of muzzle-loading amigo extras. My involvement became a lead story in G&A, and a featured spot on ABC-TV’s The American Sportsman. Incidentally, much credit for the overall authentic look and feel of that fur-trade era movie goes to friend and renowned Western artist, Jerry Crandall, and his wife, Judy, who were technical consultants and were present during filming.

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