Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Lawmen of the 19th century did it right

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The 19th century wasn’t all that long ago, but things were clearly different then in the world of law enforcement. Cops were basically crooked by design, and that was pretty much okay with everybody. That’s not so true of Detective Kevin “Corky” Corcoran, the main character in BBC America’s Copper, whose second season debuts on June 23 at 10/9c. Corcoran is charged with keeping the peace in Five Points, one of New York City’s toughest neighborhoods, just after the Civil War—he doesn’t even have Mayor Bloomberg to help him out. In his honor, here’s a look at some other law-enforcement officials from the rough-and-tumble late 1800s.


Seth Bullock, Deadwood (2004-2006)
The acclaimed series Deadwood begins with Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) leaving behind his post as a U.S. Marshal in Montana to open a hardware store in the titular lawless gold-mining camp in South Dakota in the 1870s. Amid the chaos of the burgeoning town, Bullock is drawn back into law enforcement when he is elected sheriff after the murder of Wild Bill Hickok (Keith Carradine). Throughout his rocky tenure, Bullock engages in an extra-marital affair with the widow Alma Garrett (Molly Parker) and forges a rocky, complicated alliance with one of TV’s greatest villains, saloon and brothel owner Al Swearengen (Ian McShane).

Little Bill Daggett, Unforgiven (1992)
By the time modern westerns had a resurgence in the early 1990s, the archetype of the Wyatt Earp-style lawman was so well-worn that it needed shaking up. Enter Clint Eastwood’s masterful Unforgiven, which casts Gene Hackman as Little Bill Daggett, a former gunfighter and sheriff who refuses to allow guns in his town. A young man convinces Clint Eastwood’s long-retired gunfighter to seek the bounty on the men who mutilated a prostitute, and as Eastwood the director deconstructs the western genre that made him a household name, he obliterates every character infected by the revenge plot. Hackman’s sheriff meets his end scraping for his pistol, unable to stem the unrelenting flow of violence.

Brought to you by BBC America’s Copper

Inspector Javert, Les Miserables (1980)
The most famous adaptation of Victor Hugo’s epic novel is the long-revered musical—launched in 1980—which omits Inspector Javert’s origin as the son of a fortune teller and a convict. He enters the law with a hatred for all bohemian life and a strict moralistic code. His pursuit of Jean Valjean spans decades and several different regions of France, eventually reaching Paris during the 1832 Uprising. After infiltrating the students as a soldier, Valjean exposes Javert, who is sentenced to be executed. But when Valjean lets Javert go, he cannot reconcile his strict legal lifestyle with Valjean’s malleable definition of right and wrong. The conundrum troubles him so deeply that he questions his core existence, and after a final soliloquy, throws himself into the Seine.

Kuwabatake Sanjuro, Yojimbo (1961)
Akira Kurosawa’s samurai film didn’t invent the “Man With No Name” conceit, but as the direct inspiration for Sergio Leone’s A Fistful Of Dollars, it’s responsible for the popular character eventually played by Clint Eastwood. Toshiro Mifune’s samurai gives his name as Kuwabatake Sanjuro—a name that means “mulberry field 30-year-old”—while staring at a mulberry field, implying that he’s just invented the moniker. When the ronin wanders into a small town ruined by warring gang factions, he decides to put down roots for a while and take down both sides of the organization for the good of the town. He may not be any kind of official law enforcement—and a side plot actually gets the only actual government official around to leave the town—but Mifune’s ronin is one of the iconic score-settling mystery men in cinema.

Happy Jack Mulraney, Gangs Of New York (2002)
When Martin Scorsese’s Civil War-era New York City epic opens, two rival gangs in the Five Points district of lower Manhattan square off: The Natives, led by Bill “The Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis), and the Dead Rabbits, Irish immigrants led by “Priest” Vallon (Liam Neeson). When The Butcher emerges victorious, he declares the Dead Rabbits outlawed, and Vallon’s son Amsterdam is sent to an orphanage. Years later, the now-grown Amsterdam (Leo DiCaprio) seeks revenge, but finds that many of his father’s old lieutenants are now in Cutting’s employ, including Happy Jack Mulraney (John C. Reilly), a corrupt constable. When Amsterdam revives his father’s gang, Cutting sends Mulraney to investigate in the catacombs, where he becomes the first victim of the New Dead Rabbits.