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Documentary reveals secret past of legendary artist

Alias Will James is the first in a trilogy of films on cowboys and ranchers that will be showcased.

An iconic author and artist of the American West who helped preserve the cowboy way of life for future generations feared his career would be ruined if he ever revealed his true identity.

The paradoxical story of a self-proclaimed orphan from Montana who was actually a French-speaking cowboy named Ernest Dufault from Quebec is the focus of Alias Will James, which is a National Film Board of Canada documentary released in 1988.

“Today, there might not be any authentic cowboys, their eyes shining with the dream of the great outdoors, if it weren’t for Will James’s books,” said the 83-minute documentary. It is being shown online for free this month as part of Perspectives from the Prairies, which is a year-long series of NFB films celebrating the 100th anniversary of The Western Producer.

Alias Will James is the first in a trilogy of films on cowboys and ranchers that will be showcased from December to February, said NFB collection curator Camilo Martin-Florez.

“I also think it’s a great film to watch during the holidays. It is also the first feature-length film included in our collaboration (with The Western Producer), as well as the first bilingual film.”

James (1892-1942) is remembered by the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Wyoming as one of the most influential western artists and writers of his generation. He helped create “one of the greatest stories America has ever produced — the story of the American West and its cowboy-hero in the final days of the open frontier,” said an article by the centre.

Besides artworks that included more than 1,500 drawings and about 45 oil paintings, James wrote and illustrated 23 books such as Smoky the Cowhorse. Several of his novels became Hollywood movies, starring actors such as Gregory Peck.

James was honoured in 1927 with the Newbery Medal, which is one of the most prestigious awards for children’s literature in the United States. He was posthumously inducted into the Hall of Great Westerners of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma, joining such iconic figures as American frontiersman Kit Carson and U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower.

However, James is little known today by English-speaking Canadians, although his profile is higher among people from Quebec, said Martin-Florez.

“I think it’s important that people get to know him. He’s basically a legend, so I think more work should be done on him, and on his writings and on his persona.”

Alias Will James was directed by Jacques Godbout, who was honoured with the Order of Canada for his work as a filmmaker, novelist, essayist and poet. He is described by the NFB as one of the most important Quebec artists and intellectuals to ever work at the board.

As someone who recently celebrated his 90th birthday, Godbout said in an interview “most kids of my generation had been brought up with cowboy films since our youth. My father was a man who always dreamt of going West. He never went, but he always mentioned it.”

What amazed Godbout when he filmed Alias Will James in the 1980s was that he could still find young Quebecois still pursuing the dream of being a cowboy, much as James had decades earlier. The documentary includes interviews with people who earned a living doing things such competing in rodeos.

“I thought that the myths were still alive, and what made me think twice anyway was that many of these cowboys, some not kids, were also artists in their own way, either painters or sculptors or singers,” said Godbout. “It’s like if the myth of the West went with artistry, and I found that very interesting in itself.”

A prominent example was the late Canadian folk-rock and country singer Ian Tyson, known for songs such as Four Strong Winds. As the son of an insurance salesperson from British Columbia, Tyson’s childhood birthday and Christmas presents included books by James on cowboys and the West.

“And those books, I guess Will James is the reason for what I became in my life, the reason I became a cowboy and the reason I became an artist,” Tyson said in the documentary at his ranch near Longview, Alta. “So, I guess Will James, in a strange way, is responsible for my whole life.”

Although James was born as Ernest Dufault in Saint-Nazaire d’Acton, Que., he claimed to have been born in a covered wagon in Montana. He accounted for his French accent as the result of being adopted at a young age by a French-speaking trapper and prospector after his California-born mother died of influenza and his Texas-born father was gored by a steer.

The truth was his father was a Quebec merchant who lived in places such as Montreal. Dufault travelled alone by train in 1907 when he was 15 years old to Western Canada, where he learned how to be a cowboy near Val Marie, Sask. Such francophone communities played a role in the settlement of the Canadian Prairies.

Believing he had killed a man, Dufault fled to the United States, eventually assuming the name William Roderick James. He was arrested for stealing cattle in Nevada, where he was jailed and later released following an application for parole that included a sketch he titled The Turning Point.

His first published drawing appeared in a magazine in 1920, sparking his career as an author, illustrator and artist. He never mentioned he was actually from Quebec because he feared he would lose his reputation and livelihood, said Godbout.

Such examples of self-reinvention were not uncommon in the era before the First World War. Cowboys were known to assume new identities on opposite sides of the Canada-U.S. border to escape punishment for crimes such as cattle rustling.

They included American train and bank robber Harry Longabaugh, alias the Sundance Kid, who briefly operated a saloon in Calgary after working as a cowboy in southern Alberta. Such people were part of the larger history of the settling of Western Canada by immigrants seeking a fresh start as farmers and ranchers in a new country.

However, Godbout sees Will James as a natural outgrowth of the artistic temperament of Ernest Dufault.

“I suppose that creators often believe that they live in another world … If you’re not happy with yourself, you can always create someone else.”

Visit to watch Alias Will James.

This column is part of a year-long collaboration between The Western Producer and the National Film Board of Canada celebrating the newspaper’s 100th anniversary. is Saskatchewan's home page. Bookmark us at this link.