Film, television, and video gaming are currently experiencing a solid resurgence of the Western genre. Between HBO’s Westworld, Rockstar Game’s Red Dead Redemption II, and a seemingly endless stream of new Hollywood films, a present-day generation is experiencing a tradition in entertainment that goes back as far as 1903 (with The Great Train Robbery, respectively). Now, speaking on tradition, the modern Western wouldn’t have a complete 19th century aesthetic without one traditional piece of wardrobe: The pocket watch. These watches of the Western world were a common companion for pioneering settlers in the old United States. They were also a great way to track the coming and goings of railway and stagecoach shipments (with occasionally unsavory intentions). As well, wall clocks and train station clocks played their own roles in the American West. Thus, the Wild West on-screen tends to feature these timepieces in both subtle and overt ways. Although there are numerous examples of timekeeping in Westerns, ahead there will be a few that demonstrate the practicality, presence, and fashionability of timepieces in the Old West—both in fiction and IRL (assuming that this isn’t all a simulation).
High Noon (1952)
Starring Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly, this “real time” movie uses literal ticking clocks to move its story forward. As it goes, Cooper’s character—a town marshal—learns that an old rival and his gang are due to arrive on a 12 o’ clock train. Constantly being urged by his new bride (Kelly) and the townsfolk not to face the outlaw, the Marshal anticipates his showdown with his eyes constantly checking the time. With plenty of closeups of “Regulator” style clocks—swinging pendulums adding tension to the scenes—High Noon places its audience right in the middle of the action. With the events of the film happening without any flashbacks or cuts forward, this time telling tension makes the story more compelling, especially considering that the Marshal struggles to recruit deputies to aid him in his fight. Will the Marshal survive? Time truly reveals the answer—in beautifully excruciating minute-by-minute plays.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
With a title that takes a bit of time to say, this star studded “Assassination” flick features old Western timepieces more subtly. Screen time aside, the promotional poster for the film features Brad Pitt sporting a pocket watch fob on his waistcoat. Wearing a pocket watch with a fob, in this fashion, was a pretty prominent style in the old West. Much like Anthony Hopkins in Westworld, Brad Pitt’s Jesse James carries this time piece quite handsomely. The watch itself plays a bit role in the film—as well. During one of the film’s most intricately constructed scenes, Jesse James’ gang is preparing themselves for a night-time train robbery. As stunning visuals persist, there’s a moment when the ticking of Jesse’s pocket watch plays it’s role. The ticking, mixed with a solemn dirge (being sung by Jeremy Renner), builds the tension of the scene. As it plays out, each man gathers his weapons; covers his face; and waits for the on-coming train to stop on the blocked tracks. “Tick. Tick. Tick.”
Red Dead Redemption II (2018)
Being no strangers to the Western genre, Rockstar Games packs a lot of history into its most recent period piece. In fact—in terms of film history—there’s a nearly shot-for-shot remake of the “Jesse James” film’s famed train sequence (to name one). Like Jesse James’ gang, Red Dead’s Van Der Linde gang has to rely on timekeeping to plan robberies in-game. On top of this, the in-game looting system features period appropriate pocket watches. As it goes, gamers playing as Arthur Morgan (the game’s protagonist) can choose to interact with fallen enemies—to remove their valuables. Pocket watches of varying style and value are featured through this aspect of the game. Rockstar smartly drops these watches to a varying degree, depending on the rarity of the metals used to craft them. As it were, just like the real-world 19th century, the silver pocket watches are the most common in the game. This nuance reflects the popularity of Waltham pocket watches in the mid-to-late 19th century—which featured silver in their designs and replaced many Swiss watches as a preference for everyday folks.
Furthermore, any time the game is paused in RDR2, the player’s pocket watch will display the in-game time. Since there are time sensitive missions and side quests in-game, periodically checking the time can help lead to unlocking special Western easter eggs from other franchises.
Now, not all cowpokes and outlaw-ish ruffians were time toting timekeepers. Many rambling rustics were without a proper timepiece—marking down the hours by solar observation and practiced intuition. However, having a timepiece was not an uncommon practice in the Wild West. As it were, timepieces were a great way to ensure timely reunions with other folks—a faithful endeavor considering the wide open spaces and treacherous wilderness of the Wild West. Whether a person was planning a trip, running a train, or running down a train, the U.S. Western expansion came with plenty of horological measurement. So, the next time you see a Western on the big—or at-home—screen, keep an eye out for the featured timepieces. They might be playing their own special role, before the credits roll over a favorite character riding off into the sunset.
Times Ticking has been in operation for more than 30 years, since 1982. We have performed watch repair for customers both locally and internationally. If it Ticks! We KNOW it! Our team of watch repair technicians have a combined experience in watchmaking of over 120 years.