Monday, September 1, 2014

The Invaders (1912)

Francis Ford, 1919
Here is another Thomas Ince production (see the recent BITS review of his 1919 film with William S. Hart, Wagon Tracks). A short, 40-minute western, The Invaders tells a familiar story of U.S. Cavalry vs. Indians on the frontier.

The film is notable for its direction by Francis Ford, elder brother of John Ford. While active behind the camera during the silent era, with 177 directing credits, Francis worked chiefly as a film actor in Hollywood. IMDb lists a phenomenal total of nearly 500 on-screen appearances in mostly uncredited roles during 1909 – 1953.

Plot. The story concerns the breaking of a treaty with the Sioux, who are promised that settlers will be prevented from entering their lands. Trouble quickly ensues as a party of surveyors arrives to take topographical measurements for a transcontinental railway.

In a parallel plot thread, we learn that the Sioux chief’s daughter, Sky Star (Ann Little), is being courted by a member of the tribe, who attempts to trade for her with a gift of horses. Her father is happy with the deal, but she is not. Before long, one of the surveyors, who spies her in his scope, takes an amorous interest in her.

Sunday, August 31, 2014


Dawn sky
Eleven days out from the last round of chemo, I feel something like my old self again. Despite another desert heat wave (107° yesterday), I took the dog for a 20-minute walk around the neighborhood, sticking to the shade wherever it could be found. Later, my wife gave me a splendid haircut (see below), and I did something else I haven’t done in a much longer time. I wrote a poem, which had been percolating through the night in my head as I half slept.

This resulted from the influence of finding and listening to the poems of Robert Bly on YouTube. It was spring of 1984 when I spent a weekend in the Poconos at a workshop with him, as he talked of Grimms’ fairy tales and the ideas that were going into his book Iron John (1990). As an advocate of what came to be called the men’s movement, filling what then seemed to be a waiting space next to the women’s movement, Bly was attempting to fathom gender issues as a poet, not an academician.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Glossary of frontier fiction: addenda
(drop one’s watermelon – minié ball)

Below is a list of mostly forgotten terms, people, and the occasional song, drawn from a reading of frontier fiction, 1880–1915. Each week a new list, progressing through the alphabet, “from A to Izzard.” (The following are additions, turned up since these weekly postings began a year ago.)

drop one’s watermelon = to make a serious mistake. “That’s where Coyote makes the mistake of his c’reer; that’s where he drops his watermelon!” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville Nights.

Edward Eggleston
Eggleston, Edward = American author and historian (1837-1902), best known for novels set in Indiana. “This serial (which involved my sister and myself in many a spat as to who should read it first) was The Hoosier Schoolmaster, by Edward Eggleston, and a perfectly successful attempt to interest western readers in a story of the middle border.” Hamlin Garland, A Son of the Middle Border.

fan = to drive away or scatter like chaff. “There was a kind of a Death March into the dining-room from which Mrs. Terriberry had unceremoniously ‘fanned’ the regular boarders.” Caroline Lockhart, The Lady Doc.

fice-dog = a Feist dog, used for hunting, believed to be a cross between Native American dogs and dogs brought by the colonists. “While grub’s cookin’ and Crawfish an’ me’s pow-wowin’, a little old dog Crawfish has—one of them no-account fice-dogs—comes up an’ makes a small uprisin’ to one side.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

Friday, August 29, 2014

James Lee Burke, Heartwood

Totally deconstruct F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby; swap around the characters; add drugs and some Native American magical realism; make the narrator a former Texas Ranger; set the story in the hill country west of San Antonio, and you will have something close to this crime novel from the fertile mind of James Lee Burke.

It even ends with a dead body in a swimming pool and a melancholy closing image much like Fitzgerald’s—not “boats against the current,” but a boy and girl in a customized car speeding into the night, unaware of any rough road that lies ahead:

Esmeralda twisted sideways in the oxblood leather seat and grinned at him, pumping her arms to the beat from the stereo speakers, she and Ronnie disappearing down the highway, into the American mythos of gangbangers and youthful lovers and cars that pulsed with music, between hills that had been green and covered with sunlight only an hour ago.

The Tom and Daisy Buchanan of Burke’s story are Earl and Peggy Jean Dietrich, who live in comfortable wealth outside a West Texas town called Deaf Smith, where the novel’s narrator, Billy Bob Holland, works as a lawyer, typically defending clients in the clutches of brutal law enforcement and a dubious legal system. As Burke’s Nick Carraway, he is the one nursing a long smoldering love for an unattainable boyhood sweetheart, Peggy Jean, who left her blue-collar upbringing to marry into money.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Richard Wheeler, Flint’s Honor

This is the third in Richard Wheeler’s series about frontier newspaper editor, Sam Flint. We catch him this time arriving in a silver mining settlement in Colorado. He’s been drawn there by a cruel editorial in the town newspaper, The Silver City Democrat, which smugly reported the suicide of a prostitute as a victory for the town’s morally righteous and a blow at the corruptive influence of vice.

Flint discovers that real estate is at a premium in town, and he has to settle for rental space in the very apartment where the prostitute took her life, harassed by the sheriff and his thug deputies, and unable to pay the heavy taxes levied by the town on those deemed undesirable.

Plot. Setting up shop as a rival newspaper, The Sentinel, Flint learns that his competitor, Digby Westminster, has the town sewed up, with a monopoly on the news and the advertising revenue. He manages a virtual cartel of local merchants, permitting them to avoid competitive pricing of their goods and services. Local law enforcement is also all too friendly with Westminster, and judge and prosecutor use their influence to keep Flint uninformed of any shady mishandling of public trust.

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Luck of Roaring Camp (1917)

Bret Harte
Based on a story by Bret Harte, this short silent film tells of prospectors in a California mining settlement, who adopt the infant son of a woman who has died in childbirth. They take the boy’s arrival as a turn in their luck, which has not been good, and they welcome him with a shower of gifts.

Three years later, according to the film, a vengeful “half-breed” attempts to kidnap the boy but is stopped by a gambler, Oakhurst (Ivan Christy). Seeing the gambler being held at gunpoint, one of the miners shoots the villainous abductor. 

Rescuing the boy, they find him playing with gold nuggets he has discovered on the ground around him—the camp’s luck now unexpectedly improved. (Harte ends the story more melodramatically with a flood that takes the boy’s life—the camp’s luck turned instead for the worst.)

What to look for. The clip of the film below includes the gift-giving scene, as the prospectors comically drop items in a hat, including spurs and a pint of whiskey. The following scene is shot in snow-covered woods along a stream where the men are placer mining. 

Director Floyd France makes the most visually of the location, contrasting the vertical lines of the trees with the diagonal flow of the stream and his actors’ movements over and across downhill slopes.  A product of Thomas Edison’s film production company, the movie is striking for its use of snow, a notable difference from the sunbaked and dusty images coming from studios in California.

With quick cross-cutting, the story follows several threads of action: (1) Oakhurst’s walk through the woods, turning suspensefully at times when he seems to hear something, (2) the miners working in the stream, (2) the boy being stalked by the kidnapper. With intercutting from several different angles, the editing produces a good deal of tense excitement.

Wrapping up. The Luck of Roaring Camp had been produced once before by the Thomas Edison film company in 1910, directed by Edwin S. Porter, who is best remembered for his early film, The Great Train Robbery (1903), often considered the first western. For more Overlooked movies and TV, click over to Todd Mason’s blog, Sweet Freedom.

Further reading/listening:
Bret Harte, “The Luck of Roaring Camp”

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: TBD

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Time and survival

Another day begins
I have been missing anniversaries on these cancer blog posts. So I’ll start by noting that this week it will be 7 months since I was diagnosed with the tumor that has taken up residence in my brain.

What I notice instead of months is the passing of the days. Each morning I wake to another one I think of myself as a cancer survivor, though you don’t survive GBM cancer anymore than you survive life. To the extent that I can put those two on equal terms, I guess I can call myself a survivor. We all get just one day at a time anyway.

Actually it’s too early to tell about today just yet. I can’t seriously complain about the quality of living, just that after a 5-day round of chemo I can look forward to several days of heavy-duty fatigue. So for most of the past two days I have run out of energy by about 7 a.m. and spend the rest of the day lying in bed, sleeping for hours at a time and reading a novel during periods of waking in between, maybe with ear beds tuned in to Tibetan bowls on YouTube. (Yesterday this followed a trip to the local animal hospital where our dog Zoe had oral surgery.)

Wall mural, Desert Hot Springs Animal Hospital
Also pretty much absent is any desire to eat. This part is hard to explain, but while I remember the taste of food, I need only remind myself that what registers now is something as bland and off-putting as library paste or wet cardboard and I lose interest in snacks or meals. 

The exceptions, sometimes, are fruit (grapes mostly), crackers, tomatoes, and salad dressing, which you could probably create a weight-loss program around as effective and trendy as the Paleo diet. It’s just weird enough. After the steroids I’ve been prescribed made my weight shoot up 20 pounds, I’m off about 4–5 again. Who knows, I may be able to squeeze into a pair of jeans again some day.