The Gun-Toting Hero of ‘The Harder They Fall’ Was a Real Cowboy

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Photo credit: Netflix
Photo credit: Netflix

The Harder They Fall, Netflix's new hyper-stylised shoot-em-up Western, is one of the most fun movies of the year. Directed by Jeymes Samuel, it centres on a pair of outlaws—played by Jonathan Majors and Idris Elba—facing off, the former seeking vengeance for a violent crime committed decades earlier by the latter. As the opening moments of the film reveal, the events of this story may be fictionalised, but all the people we're seeing were real.

That raises much intrigue for an action-packed story that also features intriguing characters played by a stacked cast that includes Zazie Beetz, Delroy Lindo, Regina King, and Lakeith Stanfield, among others. Majors, in the lead role, plays Nat Love, the leader of a group we soon learn is called the Nat Love Gang. And here is where the movie's fictionalised version of events and our real events get murky.

The movie doesn't play coy about the fact that it's historical fiction, set in the American West near the end of the 19th century. It's built on it's fast-paced story and stylish and colourful direction; it shouldn't be surprising that the story is written for the screen. Still, though, Nat Love—even if not completely in line with The Harder They Fall's version of him—was a badass cowboy in the real American West. Here's what we know about him and how he compared to the movie's portrayal.

Photo credit: Netflix
Photo credit: Netflix

Was there really a Nat Love Gang?

The Nat Love Gang—which in the movie is made up of Nat Love (Majors), "Stagecoach" Mary Fields (Zazie Beetz), Jim Beckwourth (R.J. Cyler), Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi) and Cuffee (Danielle Deadwyler)—did not really exist. It seems that it was instead created so to make a balance for The Rufus Buck Gang in the film.

The Rufus Buck Gang, though, did exist. The movie depicted the gang as being led by the cunning and violent Rufus Buck (Idris Elba), but also joined by "Treacherous" Trudy Smith (based on a little-known woman named Gertrude Smith, according to actress Regina King) and Cherokee Bill (whose real name was Crawford Goldsby, played by Lakeith Stanfield).

Photo credit: DAVID LEE/NETFLIX†© 2021
Photo credit: DAVID LEE/NETFLIX†© 2021

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In real life, Rufus Buck was joined not by Treacherous Trudy or Cherokee Bill, but by four other men, named Lewis Davis, Sam Sampson, Maoma July, and Lucky Davis. They were at large for about a year total, committing murder, robbery, and rape during their crime spree. The Buck Gang was eventually captured by a combined force of Lawmen and Indian Police from Creek Light Horse; they were brought them before a judge named Isaac Parker, who sentenced them to death not once, but twice (the first time they attempted, unsuccessfully, to appeal). On July 1, 1896, the entire Rufus Buck gang were hanged.

How did the real Nat Love compare to Nat Love in The Harder They Fall?

The opening text that flashes on screen at the very beginning of The Harder They Fall says "While the events of this story are fictional...These. People. Existed."

And that's a very true statement. The characters in The Harder They Fall all existed, either by name or by an analogous real-world parallel. But the "fictional" part of the story is also true; while Nat Love was absolutely a real cowboy and famous hero of the old west, the story told here of vengeance on Rufus Buck—also a real outlaw!—who killed his family and scarred his face is fictional.

Photo credit: DAVID LEE/NETFLIX
Photo credit: DAVID LEE/NETFLIX

In reality, Love was born in 1854, and grew up on the plantation of a man named Robert Love; after slavery ended, his family remained on the Love plantation, working as sharecroppers to make tobacco and corn. His father, Sampson, died while the family was trying to become financially solvent. In the meantime, Love was getting a reputation as a good horse trainer, and eventually won two separate horses in a raffle, selling both back to their owners. He used this money to leave the plantation and move west at the age of 16.

Love found work as a Cowboy in Kansas and Arizona, becoming an expert marksman and fighting off cattle rustlers. He earned the nickname "Red River Dick" for his expert marksmanship. This came before his most famous nickname, "Deadwood Dick," which he earned after winning a rodeo contest (for a $200 prize) in Deadwood in the Dakota territory (before it was North or South Dakota), winning the rope, throw, tie, bridle, saddle, and bronco riding contests. The name "Deadwood Dick" was claimed by many, and it was a reference to a character created by a dime novelist named Edward L. Wheeler, who never himself traveled west of Pennsylvania. Many believe Love hitched his own wagon to Wheeler's work as a way to sensationalise his own life, but others believe it's just a common instance of hyperbole in standard Old West documentation.

Much of the history of Nat Love comes from his own autobiography, Life and Adventures of Nat Love, which was published in 1907. It's unknown how much of Love's autobiography is factual and how much is his own self-canonisation; a historian named Michael N. Searles has said in his own book, Black Cowboys in the American West, that “few sources corroborate his story.”

Love lived for 14 years after publishing his book, working as a courier and guard for a securities company in Los Angeles. He died in L.A. at the age of 67 in 1921.

Has Nat Love been portrayed in pop culture before?

Prior to being played by Majors as the protagonist of The Harder They Fall, Love had been portrayed twice before in a major fashion. The first was by Ernie Hudson in The Cherokee Kid, a 1996 TV comedy western film. He was also played by the late Michael K. Williams in 2013's They Die By Dawn (which was also directed by Jeymes Samuel).

Photo credit: Film Village
Photo credit: Film Village

Author Joe R. Lansdale has used Love as a character in several works of writing, including the novel Paradise Sky and the novella Black Hat Jack. Love has also been portrayed in a graphic novel by Patricia and Fredrick McKissack called Best Shot in the West, and an Italian publishing house also turned Lansdale's Love stories into a comic series.

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