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Last Updated: Friday, 7 July 2006, 10:28 GMT 11:28 UK
Cowboy junkies
TVs show a Clint Eastwood film

By Megan Lane
BBC News Magazine

Cowboy films lured John Prescott to the billionaire Dome owner's American ranch, he says. What is the Wild West's enduring appeal?

It was a time when men were men, doing simple manly tasks that relied on strength, cunning and being at one with nature. A time when life was lived beyond the settled frontier. The Western has provided that icon of manhood, the cowboy.

Little wonder that those most alpha of males like to associate themselves with the Wild West, building on fantasies shaped early in life by Clint Eastwood, John Wayne and the author Zane Grey. After a period of decline, the Western is enjoying a resurgence thanks to revisionist takes on cowboy life such as Brokeback Mountain, Unforgiven and Deadwood.

Wanna be a cowboy?
Given the chance of a ranch mini-break, John Prescott jumped at the chance. Asked on BBC Radio 4's Today programme why he accepted the invitation from Philip Anschutz, the billionaire businessman who owns the Dome, he said it was a great opportunity to see a "cattley [sic] ranch" and to meet those working the land.

"[Mr Anschutz] knew I was in America and he said: 'would you like to come and see a cattle ranch?', which I was very much interested in... I'm curious about it, I saw the cowboy films over my young years, didn't you?" he said.

Lone star

The deputy prime minister is not the only city slicker to hanker after a chance to get back to basics among salt-of-the-earth types.

Bush on the phone to Blair at his ranch
A working holiday at Crawford ranch
Another ranch-owner who understands the appeal of such down-home hospitality is George W Bush, who as a naturalised Texan is hardwired to own a ranch, drive a pick-up and wear a Stetson.

When foreign dignitaries and world leaders come a-calling, more often than not an invitation to his ranch outside Crawford is in the offing. Tony Blair has paid a visit, as have the Russian president Vladimir Putin and Japan's Junichiro Koizumi, among others.

Just as Mr Prescott said he hoped to gain valuable insights into "Doha, the negotiations, sugar beet industries, agriculture subsidies" by speaking with farmers, so the US President told Crawford residents after his 2001 inauguration that: "I want to stay in touch with real Americans."

The Western connection to the White House dates from the days of Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt. In 1883, he spent a fortnight in Little Missouri in Dakota, where he bagged a bison and bought a stake in the Maltese Cross, the first of his two cattle ranches. He advocated the "strenuous life" - among his favourite pursuits was horseback riding.

Cowboys at a rodeo
Back to basics
More recent presidential ranch retreats include Ronald Reagan's Rancho del Cielo - Ranch from the Sky - in California, and Lyndon Baines Johnson's Pedernales in Texas. Among Hollywood's elite, too, acquiring a ranch signals the arrival in the upper echelons of stardom.

For what better way to get back to nature - and prove your "man of the people" credentials - than to play at being a rancher... something that is increasingly the preserve of the extremely wealthy.



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