Wednesday, June 30, 2010

No Name on the Bullet (1959)

One of the returning soldiers from WWII was the much-decorated Audie Murphy. His wartime experience “to hell and back” contributed to a Hollywood career that included over 30 westerns. In this one, he puts on a black hat to play a gunman, with mixed results.

Right off, I’ll say that I like Audie Murphy. He is so improbably short and boyish-looking for a western hero. You root for him, even when he’s cast as a bad guy in this film.

The set-up is simple. Audie’s reputation as a hired gunman precedes him to a western town, where his presence makes most everybody nervous. His M.O. is to accept a contract on a man and then provoke him into drawing first. Killing him then is always self-defense. We get a similar situation in Shane where Jack Palance fatally provokes a homesteader into pulling his revolver.

The film is a cross between a bounty-hunter story and a who-dun-it. There’s more than one man in town feeling guilty about something, and we have to wait until the end to find out which one Audie’s been paid to bump off. It’s a telling detail that there’s no particular honor in killing any of the potential candidates. This must have been a tough script to make work.

No Name on the Bullet is a Cinemascope, color picture, but after the opening scene in which Audie rides across a handsome western landscape (like the opening of Shane), most of the film takes place in town and indoors. There seems not to have been much budget for dressing the sets either. The interiors are brightly lighted, as if the film was intended for TV, and most seem almost empty of furnishings.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Yellow Sky (1948)

This post-war western is set somewhere in the Southwest in post-Civil-War 1867. Gregory Peck leads a gang of six bank robbers who escape across a vast salt flat and fetch up in a ghost town. Like Prospero and Miranda, a prospector and his granddaughter are the only inhabitants. They’ve successfully extracted a fortune in gold, and the gun-toting granddaughter (Anne Baxter) is all for the gang’s immediate departure.

You can forget any memory of Peck as kindly Atticus Finch. He is fully believable as a tough-as-nails gang leader, who isn’t leaving town without the gold or the girl. For both, he has to contend with two fellow gang members, played by a snarly Richard Widmark and tall, dark, and long-legged John Russell (TV’s “Lawman”). Harry Morgan (TV’s Col. Potter on “M.A.S.H.”) plays another member of the gang. Well-written, well directed, well cast, the gang is a well-drawn collection of individuals, each with his own personality and intentions.

While the men are also well outfitted for their various roles as desperate men of the period, Anne Baxter looks like she stepped straight off the cover of a pulp novel. She’s wearing a man’s shirt for a top, and a very snug pair of Levi’s. She’s as tough as any man in the bunch, keeps a shotgun handy, and goes by the name of “Mike.”

Anyone analyzing gender roles in the film would have a heyday with this. One objective of the story is to “feminize” her character. The presence of the men competing for her attention is supposed to awaken her sexuality, long-starved by her life in the desert. By the end of the film, she’s wearing a bonnet and there’s the distinct possibility of a wedding. (I won’t give away which of the six men she picks.)

Monday, June 28, 2010

Book: A Policeman’s Lot

This tightly plotted and cleverly conceived crime fiction novel is set in the Welsh town of Pontypridd in 1904. Our central character is police inspector Frank Parade, who on a normal day has his hands more than full.

We find him having to enforce new closing hours with resentful public house landlords. He may be roused in the middle of the night to deal with a dead woman who’s either fallen or been pushed under a train. Understaffed, he is assisted by an unseasoned and accident-prone constable. Meanwhile, the local newspaper delights in running unwelcome reports of police incompetence.

Parade’s job gets even more complicated when Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show comes to town. There is Bill Cody, larger than life, and not all that cooperative, especially as one of his employees turns up with his throat slit. And thus begins a murder investigation that generates a slag heap of difficulties for Inspector Parade and produces a string of corpses.

Parade works manfully against the odds, and in Gary Dobbs’ skillful hands, the odds keep getting longer. He’s nearly killed trying to apprehend a burglar, and his job gets turned over to his nemesis, a self-promoting fellow officer. Then a journey into London has him visiting the scenes and considering the circumstances of a series of unsolved murders sixteen years before. Excitement builds in the closing chapters as Parade closes in on the murderer, though not without a chase on horseback.

Dobbs has done his research and packs a lot into his novel. We become immersed in a time and place on the cusp of the twentieth century. Old methods of law enforcement are challenged by the introduction of new technologies. Economic changes create new problems and pressures.

We get shifting points of view among characters, and we often know more than Parade does. But we hardly know enough, and tension builds as he attempts to put together a confusing handful of clues. The pieces when they begin to fall into place are fascinating because of what we learn about social conditions of Victorian London.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Cowboy lingo, A-Z

Ramon Adams (1889-1976) was an enthusiastic chronicler of cowboy life and produced a shelf of books on the subject. Thank all the lucky stars that he had an ear for spoken language. His collections of cowboy talk are a treasure trove of western expressions that would have gotten away if he hadn’t collected them.

First published in 1936 as Cowboy Lingo, his dictionary was expanded in 1944 under the title Western Words. In 1968 it was expanded again to include terms from several other walks of life, from stagecoach drivers, to miners, loggers, and gamblers. It’s from this edition, called The Cowboy Dictionary that I offer the following examples:

all horns and rattles – Said of someone displaying a fit of temper. A man in this mood, as one cowboy said, “maybe don’t say nothin’, but it ain’t safe to ask questions.”

beast with a bellyful of bedsprings – A good bucking horse.

comb his hair – To hit someone over the head with the barrel of a pistol. After a person had his “hair parted” in this manner, he was, in the language of one cowman, apt to “sleep as gentle as a dead calf.”

don’t know sic ’em – A cowboy’s expression for “ignorant.”

Elk River – A gambler’s term for three tens in a poker hand.

fryin’ size – A cowboy’s term for a youth; also a man of short stature.

gravy run – In rodeo, a lucky draw, an animal that makes it easy to win, such as a bronc that bucks well every time or a consistent steer that is easy to catch and throw.

heart-and-hand woman – A wife obtained through a matrimonial agency. The name originated from the old magazine “The Heart and Hand,” published by a matrimonial bureau. The cowboy’s simple soul believed all the descriptions. Hell, wasn’t it printed!

Idaho brain storm – A cowboy’s name for a tornado. A whirling sandstorm.

John B. – A cowboy’s hat, named for its maker, John B. Stetson.

killpecker guard – In many sections of the country, the period of cattle herding from sundown until 8:00 pm.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

100 years of westerns, part 3

Our youtube crash course on Hollywood westerns concludes with the following:

The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976). In this post-Vietnam film, the mood is very different. Hollywood introduced the new rating system in 1968, and the level of violence in this film shows how “adult” came to mean something different from what it did a decade before.

For some this film is a watershed in the portrayal of character in westerns. Clint Eastwood’s performance shows how heroes as well as villains get portrayed with a far more gritty and cynical realism.

In this clip, at the start of the film, we’re in Missouri, at the end of the Civil War in 1865, and the U.S. (Union) Army is collecting firearms from surrendered rebels. Villainy, betrayal, and revenge are quickly introduced as the new moral order. Eastwood then emerges as the loner. When duly constituted authority is itself brutal and corrupt, a single man can be true only to himself and his own code of ethics. 

Lonesome Dove (1989). This made-for-TV series is an adaptation of the Larry McMurtry novel, which won the Pulitzer for fiction in 1986. It combines the western buddy film (cf. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) with a kind of road movie without roads or cars. Like Red River, the action of the film is the trailing of a herd of cattle from Texas to the north, and there is much about the perils and hardships along the way.

The “buddies” of the film, two former Texas Rangers, are played by Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones. The journey takes them over the course of a summer to Montana. There are multiple themes and plotlines and many characters. There are also vicious villains in the story, but they do not prevail, and the heroes operate within a moral universe whose contradictions engage rather than threaten to repel us.

The film has been commended for the authenticity of its content. Of interest is the strength of the women’s roles, Diane Lane in particular as the prostitute who accompanies the men on their journey. The treatment of sexuality and male-female relationships is unusual for a western of the time. Also, of all these films, Lonesome Dove features an African-American actor in a central role.

In this clip, the herd is overtaken by a storm, and we watch the following morning’s aftermath as the cowboys pull the chuck wagon up a muddy incline. Meanwhile, Robert Duvall’s character, Gus, pays a visit to the prostitute Laurie, who is traveling in the company of a gambler, Jake.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

100 years of westerns, part 2

Our youtube crash course on Hollywood westerns continues.

Red River (1948). This film by director Howard Hawks concerns the winning of the West from another angle – the trailing of cattle herds across Texas and Indian Territory to the rail heads in the north. Unlike most westerns, this film has little to do with outlaws and bringing law and order to the frontier.

The story is complicated when the cowboys mutiny mid-way on the trail. But the conflict is even more so with the elements, “savage” Indians, stampedes, and the uncertainty of whether there will be a train to meet them when they arrive.

John Wayne stars, and his character is one of his tough ones. In this clip we see him outlining the terms of employment for the men who want to go with him. There’s also a scene of gambling, often seen in westerns – and in the West itself, where there were few other forms of entertainment. Look for Walter Brennan as one of the cooks and Montgomery Clift as Matt, second in command on the trail.

Gunsmoke (1955). There were westerns on radio from the 1940s into the 1950s, and this is one that successfully made the transition to TV. An “adult” western, its strength was in its characterizations and dramatic situations. “Gunsmoke” began as a 30-minute per episode series on TV and eventually expanded to an hour. In later years, it was also broadcast in color. “Gunsmoke” ran on TV for 20 years, to 1975.

In this clip from the first season, Marshal Dillon (James Arness) confronts a gunslinger in a saloon, played by Charles Bronson. Dennis Weaver is Chester. The simplicity, economy, and emotional impact of these short radio and TV plays make them little gems of storytelling. Dillon, with his easy and thoughtful manner, is deadly with a gun and the model of western heroism.

Seven Men From Now (1956). The writer-director team of Burt Kennedy and Budd Boetticher produced a number of films in the 1950s with cowboy star Randolph Scott. This one is arguably the best.

The Motion Picture production code kept movie content to what we’d consider a G or PG rating today, and violence and villainy were pretty much soft pedaled. Sex was there, but it would have to be so oblique as to go well over the heads of those younger in the audience.

The western has always made room for a degree of violence, but this one pushes villainy and sex to a new limit. Watch in this clip as the villain, played by Lee Marvin, charges the atmosphere in a crowded covered wagon during a rain storm.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

100 years of westerns, part 1

If you limit yourself to movie clips that are available on youtube and pick no more than one or two from a decade, I figured you could come up with a quick-and-dirty survey of Hollywood western history. So I set out to do just that, starting with The Great Train Robbery, and this is what I got.

The Great Train Robbery (1903). This earliest known western was filmed by Edwin S. Porter for Thomas Edison’s movie company. Though it’s meant to take place on the frontier, it was shot in New Jersey, mostly using location photography – wooded hills and an actual train courtesy of the Lackawana Railroad.

The film runs for 10-12 minutes, depending on how much of the original was preserved in the print you’re watching. An early experiment in the use of film for storytelling, it’s fairly sophisticated for its time. Some scenes in this excellent version on youtube have a touch of hand-tinting, and an orchestral soundtrack has been provided.

The theme of the film is one treated over and over by the western genre as it evolved. There are outlaws (these are pretty vicious), and there are enforcers of the law who go after them. There’s a chase, and the gunplay provides much of the excitement. For audiences, the biggest thrill was the last scene, where one of the outlaws aims a gun at the camera and fires (see above).

Tumbleweeds (1925). Here we see the biggest cowboy star of the 1920s silents, William S. Hart. These are the first scenes of a film about the opening of Oklahoma to homesteaders. Until 1889 this had been strictly Indian territory, with cattlemen grazing cattle on unclaimed grasslands. Referred to as the “Cherokee Strip” in the film, it gave access for Indian hunting parties to the open ranges to the west.

Hart preferred to downplay myths about the West in his films and liked historical accuracy. So we get footage of cattle herds and ranch animals. His cowboys look pretty authentic, including the fact that they seem to like to sing on the job. The lyrics on the screen were an invitation to the audience to sing along (a feature of film-going I can remember as a boy in the 1940s).

True to his name, Hart’s character has a soft heart. In this clip, he rescues two young wolves whose parents have been poisoned. But he has little sympathy for the homesteaders waiting to lay claim to the open prairie. He has a goofy, bearded sidekick as a foil, who is not immune to Cupid’s bow, though Bill himself seems an unlikely candidate for romance. Note Hart’s handsome Stetson hat and his angora chaps.

The Lucky Texan (1934). The 1930s were the era of the B-western. This clip is from one of many made by the young John Wayne. The emphasis is on the action – fistfights and chases. The stunts in these films could be spectacular. Notice the run-and-jump rear mounting of the horses. Wayne had a double do most of his stunts, a rodeo champion, Yakima Canutt.

My Darling Clementine (1946). By the 1940s, westerns had “grown up” and were dealing with more adult themes. Characters are drawn with more depth, and there’s time for other interests and situations. There are also bigger budgets, reflected here in the location photography in Monument Valley, Utah.

Director John Ford tells the story of Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) and his brothers in Tombstone, where they have an eventual confrontation with the Clanton gang at the OK Corral.  In this clip, we see the new marshal escorting the lady friend of another man, Doc Holliday, to the dedication of a church, which turns out to be a dance.

Dances are often featured in western films (there’s one already in The Great Train Robbery). Like the church bell ringing in this scene, they are evidence of civilization arriving to temper the lawlessness of the frontier. Ford, in fact, used the western to provide Americans with a mythic vision of the “winning of the West.”

Picture credit: The Great Train Robbery);

Next time: Red River to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Monday, June 21, 2010

Cowboy Memoirs

For Laurie Powers over at Laurie’s Wild West, who likes memoirs.
From early days, there's been an interest in the life of the real American cowboy, and the personal stories of the men who lived and worked as cowboys have often found their way into print.

This list of 24 cowboy memoirs covers a range that extends from Texas to British Columbia and from the late 19th century up to the present. The variety of experiences working cattle at different times and in different places is remarkable, and while there is some repetition in these books, from first to last they are full of surprises and absorbing (often humorous) yarns.

Old West

E. C. Abbott, We Pointed Them North: Recollections of a Cowpuncher
Classic as-told-to memoir of "Teddy Blue" Abbott about his early years cowboying in Nebraska and Montana in the 1870s-80s. Includes warm tributes to the Cheyenne and to the women of the cow towns, including Calamity Jane.

Reuben B. Mullins, Pulling Leather: Being the Early Recollections of a Cowboy on the Wyoming Range, 1884-1889
Informative and entertaining cowboy memoir of punching cows and becoming a top hand during the peak of the open rangeland cattle industry in 1880s Wyoming.

Charles A. Siringo, A Texas Cowboy: or, Fifteen Years on the Hurricane Deck of a Spanish Pony
Born in 1855 on the Gulf Coast of Texas, Siringo had worked as a cowboy for 15 years when he wrote this memoir "to make money" at the age of 28. Siringo also includes his experience as a range detective.

Charley Hester, The True Life Wild West Memoir of a Bush-Popping Cow Waddy
Memoir of a cowboy on the Chisholm Trail and, according to my notes, inspiration for Errol Flynn's character in the 1939 film Dodge City.
Ed Lemmon, Boss Cowman: The Recollections of Ed Lemmon, 1857-1946
His work taking him across parts of South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, and Nebraska, Ed Lemmon managed the largest fenced pasture in the world (865,000 acres), bossed the single biggest roundup in history, and handled more cattle (more than a million head) than any other man.

Con Price, Memories of Old Montana
This enjoyable memoir, published in 1945, dates back to the early days of cowboys in Montana. Con Price was a contemporary and friend of cowboy artist Charles Russell, and his account of life on the range in the 1880s is full of wonderful details and an admiration for those who knew themselves as cowpunchers.

Nellie Snyder Yost, Pinnacle Jake
This as-told-to memoir takes readers back to the 1890s, when Nebraska-born A. B. Snyder cowboyed for the 101 ranch, a huge agribusiness with thousands of cattle on the open ranges of Wyoming and Montana.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Book: Cattle, Horses & Men, part 5

Here’s the last installment from John (Jack) Culley’s reminiscences of ranching on the frontier of northeast New Mexico in the 1890s.

Billy Parsons, cowboy. Billy, who worked at one time for Culley, was one of the first generation of cowboys after the Civil War. In 1875, he was about 20 years old, the son of a lawyer, and living in Kansas City. He’d studied to be a telegraph operator, but suffered from ill health. At the suggestion of a Texas cattleman he took a job as a cowhand in hopes that work in the outdoors would improve his condition. And so began his life-long occupation in the saddle.

Billy thus saw the start of the great cattle boom that eventually filled the open ranges of the West with an estimated 21 million cattle before it ended in the blizzards of 1889. Reading Culley, you learn that summer and fall months during that time required a massive work force. Men from nearly all walks of life and from many different countries found employment as cowboys. Not all, he notes, were suited to the work.

A fraction of these cowboys worked year round. Billy followed herds for various employers over vast areas of a half dozen different states, wherever there was open grassland. Sometimes he might work as an “outside man,” traveling with other wagons to retrieve stock that had wandered off from the home range.

In winter he might travel with a “floating outfit” to brand calves that had missed the fall roundup and to help rescue cattle bogged down in mud during spring thaw. He once had the memorable experience of delivering a herd of cattle to lawman Pat Garrett.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Book: Cattle, Horses & Men, part 4

The story of a gunman. Culley observes that there were four kinds of gunmen and gunfighters: (1) the lawman who killed in the line of duty, (2) the psychopath, ready to kill another man over an imagined slight, (3) the man dangerous only when drunk, and (4) the “artist” who killed with humor and for show.

As an example of this last type, he devotes a chapter to Clay Allison, credited with taking the lives of as many as 21 men. Tall and substantial, not handsome, remarkable for his “mass of black hair,” he rode a jet-black horse and walked with a limp.

The limp, according to Culley, resulted from an injury in a knife fight that more than illustrates the “showmanship” of his fatal encounters with other men. Allison and his rival agreed to dig a grave and then fight each other to the death while standing in it. The victor, Allison with his wounded leg, then shoveled in his dead opponent.

Another time, he was to have a duel on horseback with a man named Cooper – but only after they’d had dinner together at a local hotel. As they started into the soup course, guns were drawn and Cooper fell face forward into his soup bowl, a bullet in his head. Allison then finished his meal before announcing to the crowd assembled outside that the duel would not take place.

Once, in 1875, he met up in Cimarron with a desperado Pancho Griego, and the two men went to a bar for a drink. After Allison left the bar, Griego’s body was found with a gunshot in his temple. There had been no witnesses to the killing. At a dance, he and his brother John got drunk and disorderly and when the sheriff and a deputy were called to the scene, the deputy shot and wounded John. Whereupon Allison returned fire, killing the deputy with a single shot of his 45.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Book: Cattle, Horses & Men, part 3

Bandits. Culley devotes three lengthy chapters to the bandits who robbed trains, stole, and took refuge in the wild country of northeast New Mexico in the 1890s. One of them, Sam Ketchum, cowboys for a while at the Bell and then teams up with another man, possibly his brother Tom, for a series of robberies. Eventually they kill a storekeeper and a Mexican, who were on their trail and unfortunately caught up with them. 

Three train robbers, including Sam Ketchum have a shootout in a canyon near Cimarron, killing a sheriff and a deputy, then escaping though outnumbered 10 to 3. Sam Ketchum was eventually captured and died shortly after of blood poisoning from bullet wounds.

A second bandit, William McGinnis, was captured and tried for murder. Although found guilty by the jury, he was saved from hanging apparently because his “gallant appearance and refined manner” won their sympathy. He was released from prison only a few years later. Culley wonders who the man really was, his given name, his origins, and how he became a bandit.

The third man, believed to be Tom Capehart, broke out of prison with Butch Cassidy. And Culley relates what he knows about Cassidy’s sojourn in South America. Some say he was killed there, he notes, but there are conflicting reports.

Culley then turns to an account of Sam’s brother, Tom “Black Jack” Ketchum. Alone after the breakup of his gang, he tries first to raise some money by gambling, and when he loses $1000 at that, he attempts to rob a train.

There is a suspensefully described description of his solo effort, which fails. He gets his arm full of buckshot and is eventually captured and arrested. After his trial, in which he is convicted of armed robbery of a train, he is sentenced to death by hanging.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Book: Cattle, Horses & Men, part 2

Guns and violence. Culley’s arrival at the Bell Ranch in 1894 was ominously marked by three violent deaths. The previous range manager, “Baldy” Hughes had been shot dead in his room at the ranch by an apparently disgruntled cowboy before collecting his pay and leaving. When Culley, his wife and child took up residence there, the blood had not yet been cleaned up.

Another cowboy had just died accidentally when his gun fired while he was on a bucking horse, and a fence rider was found at his camp hacked to death with axes by unknown assailants. The job of men at fence rider camps included surveillance for cattle thieves, who may well have taken exception to a job too well done.

In connection with this, Culley provides a character sketch of a bartender Jack Pressley, who was hired to live near the fence to keep an eye on a cattle rustler, Lester Hall, who lived just on the outside. Without drawing a gun, Pressley was apparently able to put a stop to Hall’s beef stealing. Culley notes that many an unsung man like Pressley helped preserve order in the West simply by standing firm and refusing to back down.

Culley observes that fistfights were rare in those days. Differences if they went as far as physical violence were settled with guns. He talks of how as a 140-lb. man he was obliged to use verbal persuasion to turn away a threatened assault. All this may account for why it was illegal in New Mexico after 1885 to carry a firearm on a roundup. A cowboy who owned one had to keep it in his bedroll.

Diplomacy. An advocate of diplomacy over gunplay, he tells an amusing story of an Easterner in a bar who confronts a drunk and noisome cowboy and gives him five minutes to leave. When the cowboy promptly departs, the Easterner was asked what he’d have done if the cowboy had refused to go, and his was reply was to “extend the time.”

Monday, June 14, 2010

Book: Cattle, Horses & Men, part 1

I like memoirs of life in the Old West because they are often treasures of social history so hard to come by any other way. You can learn so much about everyday life – not just what people did but their attitudes, values and assumptions. Memoirs have the added perspective of single individuals who lived their lives immersed in that world.

In my opinion, they’re a gold mine for writers concerned with historical accuracy (a subject that’s been discussed at length recently on the blackhorsewestern list at yahoo). The sad truth is that these books are often out of print and you have to go to rare and used booksellers or libraries with deep or specialized collections to find them.

That’s why I’m sharing in the next installments some of what I learned reading John H. (Jack) Culley’s book Cattle, Horses and Men. This book about the 1890s in northeast New Mexico was originally published in 1940. Culley was range manager at a huge spread called the Bell Ranch. This big cattle operation was (and still is) located midway between Tucumcari and Las Vegas, New Mexico.

Culley, like other cattlemen of the period, was a Brit, from a wealthy family in northern England and well educated. He’d studied at Oxford, and his background shows in his writing. He has a leisurely, polished style that enjoys irony and understatement. He can tell a good story. I would love to have heard him tell a few in his own voice.

The Bell ranch. Culley outlines the history of the Bell from its beginnings as a Mexican land grant to Pablo Montoya in 1824. Until 1868 it occupied the hunting grounds of plains Indian tribes, including the fierce Comanche. Forts were built in 1851 and 1864, the latter on the grant itself. But because of the Indians, Montoya may not have ever lived there, and Charles Goodnight’s trail from Texas to Colorado stayed well to the west of it until 1875.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Warlock (1959)

To start with the title, a warlock is a male witch, and that already says a lot about the tone and subtext of this film. While brightly lighted, both indoors and out, there are more than enough dirty deeds and moral ambiguity to make this a western noir.

It’s a two-hour, big budget production with a large cast, and multiple plot strands. The plot, in fact, is too complex for a simple synopsis here. Characters switch alliances. They shift from one place on the moral spectrum to another. Action slows for exposition and the clarifying of motives.

Somehow it all holds together, even largely succeeds, surely because of capable direction from Edward Dmytryk. Mostly forgotten after its release in 1959, its reputation has grown over the decades as critics and western fans have rediscovered it.

Parallels to recent history. Dmytryk (a naturalized citizen of Ukrainian immigrant parents) had his troubles with the HUAC. After completing a real film noir, Crossfire (1947), he did time before naming names and resuming his career in Hollywood. All of which may help account for his handling of the material in this film.

The hero, played by Richard Widmark, is a former outlaw turned deputy sheriff, with a newfound respect for the law. He has troubles on both sides: (a) his ruthless former gang members and (b) a paid gunman, played by Henry Fonda, hired to clean up the town his own way. Steering a middle course between them, Widmark’s deputy is tentative but determined to represent duly constituted authority, even if it costs him his life.

He’s a decent man troubled by his past. In an extended scene that adds not a lot to the plot, he relates an incident in which the members of his gang disguised themselves as Apaches and killed 37 Mexicans trying to retrieve stolen cattle.

For me, it’s all a nice parallel of the situation in which Dymytryk found himself a decade before. Haunted by his former associations on the political left and up against a powerful, quasi-legal adversary on the right.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Top 10 Honorable Mention Westerns

OK, IGN has picked their top 25 western movies of all time, and what it proves is that even gamers can get things wrong. Without challenging some of their choices, let me add my own list of honorable mentions:

1. 3:10 to Yuma – The original film with Glen Ford and Van Heflin, based on Elmore Leonard’s story. The cat and mouse game that their two characters play in a hotel room, pitting honorable man against  likable and cleverly duplicitous outlaw is the Western code of ethics pared to its essence. I love this film. It’s simple, clean, and utterly believable. It doesn’t need the remake’s spectacular stagecoach robbery at the beginning and the bloodbath at the end to make it any better.

2. Seven Men From Now – The best film of the under-sung writer-director team of Burt Kennedy and Budd Boetticher with super-smooth and handsome Randolph Scott as hero and wonderful Lee Marvin as villain. The most powerful scene takes place inside a covered wagon in a rainstorm as Marvin charges the atmosphere with sexual innuendo while two men and a married woman listen with growing discomfort.

3. The Hired Hand – Peter Fonda’s fine three-character film with such a simple premise you can write it on a postage stamp, and it carries a tsunami of emotional power. I already discussed this film a while ago.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Book: The Killing Trail

First a caveat. I’ve written several hundred reviews over at amazon, but I’ve never written a review of a six-gun western before. So have that shaker of salt ready.

Author Chuck Tyrell knows how to tell a good story. His twenty-year-old main character, Nat Dylan, is on a mission to revenge the killing of his three older brothers. But the man he’s after, Jared Carter, turns out not to be the vicious villain he expected. Instead, that honor goes to a crook named Jackson who has more nefarious schemes in the works than you can count.

Young Dylan has to learn that his eye-for-an-eye code of the West isn’t going to keep him from doing something he’s going to regret. He wants to be an honorable man who kills only in self-defense. I’m no murderer, he insists. But he’s prevented from evening the score with Carter, who refuses to cooperate by being the stereotypical bad guy.

For one thing, he’s committed to thwarting the corrupt shenanigans of the real villain, Jackson. Eventually, Dylan finds a way to resolve the moral conflict he’s found himself in, thanks in part to the lessons of a pretty schoolteacher who once taught him about the Knights of the Roundtable.

That’s enough of the plot to give you an idea. Tyrell keeps it all interesting by peopling the story with a cast of well-drawn supporting characters. Not least is Carmen, the fiery sole heir of a nearby land grant spread, who takes more than a casual interest in our boy. A kiss on the cheek from her lips keeps him from getting a good night’s sleep.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Wyatt Earp's hat

Some western enthusiasts pay attention to the firearms used in cowboy movies. I’m the guy noticing the hats. I’m not a big hat collector, or even a small one. Four hats isn’t a collection. But for me the hat a man wears can be the most expressive part of his personality, and it’s something western filmmakers often get wrong.

Historical accuracy is typically trumped by Hollywood conventions and contemporary fashion. To take a more recent example, the hat Robert Duvall wears in Lonesome Dove is a high-crowned, broad-brimmed Stetson. The crown has a long, prominent crease in the front and the brim is hand-rolled from use. It doesn't look like a hat that's had a lot of wear. But it sure looks authentic. There’s apparently little evidence, however, that cowboys wore their hats like this in 1876, which is when the story takes place.

The Boss of the Plains Stetson originated in 1865 and became standard apparel among working cowboys. Its wide, flat brim was protection against sun and weather, and the soft high crown helped regulate the air temperature on the wearer’s head. Dents and creases came chiefly from handling. A working man’s hat acquired sweat stains, dust, mud splatters, and no doubt cowshit. He threw it away when it was no longer wearable. After all, at $5 the darn things weren’t cheap.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972)

Myth, reality, and Hollywood are fairly evenly matched in this film about the James-Younger gang’s failed attempt to rob a bank in Northfield, Minnesota, in September 1876. Cliff Robertson as Cole Younger takes center stage from the more often romanticized Jesse James, played here by Robert Duvall. As a corrective to all that romance, Duvall’s Jesse is more than a little whacked out – and cold blooded.

The film correctly shows them all as Confederate guerillas still fighting the Yankees a decade after the Civil War had ended. In the film, their reputation as heroes results from resistance to the land-hungry railroads, robbing trains and sharing the proceeds with the poor. No less a figure than Alan Pinkerton himself is enlisted to bring a stop to them. The film gives him credit for paying off the right Missouri state legislators to prevent a populist effort to grant amnesty for the boys. While speculative and oversimplified, the film shows that writer-director Philip Kaufman had looked at some history books before writing his script.

Cliff Robertson’s pipe-smoking Cole Younger is a congenial outlaw. Intelligent and reflective, he’s fascinated by new technology. A steam tractor on the streets of town stops him in his tracks with wonder – or “wonderment,” his favorite word. However, he does not see the appeal of baseball when he happens upon a game. “Our national sport is shooting,” he says, “and always will be.”

History tells us that the gang rode into Northfield wearing long coats to hide their guns – and looking like cattlemen in this community of Scandinavian immigrants. But the robbery didn’t go as planned because of a time lock on the bank’s vault. A bank employee and a bystander in the street were shot dead, and two of the gang were killed as the citizens fired on them during their escape from town. The gang then split up and only the James brothers got back to Missouri. The Youngers were caught by a posse and sent to prison.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Wild Bill (1995)

History and myth collide in this film like the Titanic and the iceberg, only in this case, neither of them survives the collision. Hollywood, with an eye on the box office, likes to create myths of its own and sometimes succeeds. I’m thinking of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Bonnie and Clyde. More often than not, we’re better off with the myths that history has given us.

The first 20 minutes of this film are terrific. Jeff Bridges makes a great Wild Bill. The long hair, hat and outfit are accurate, as well as his ivory handled pistols and the way he wears them and fires them. Wild Bill’s reputation as a gunman was well earned, though he killed only a small fraction of the men he was reported to have shot. The movie indulges in this exaggeration, which is fine. History gets to share the screen with myth if it’s a good yarn to be told.

Where it all goes wrong is when Wild Bill arrives in gold-rush crazed Deadwood, South Dakota, in 1876. And from this point on, you can quickly lose count of how history and the myths handed down from history beat anything the screenwriter(s) came up with.

We can start with Calamity Jane, who was in fact the hell-raiser she’s portrayed as in the film. Ellen Barkin is a wonderful actress, but she’s much too pretty for the part. Photos taken in later life show that Calamity Jane lost her looks if she ever had them. This might explain why Hickock apparently didn’t take a strong interest in her, if any. This, of course, didn’t prevent her from regarding him as the love of her life and requesting to be buried beside him when she died many years later.

In the film, she’s also supposed to have had a previous affair with Hickock. The film has her furious that Bill doesn’t offer to resume that relationship. But history tells us that they had only just met when they arrived in Deadwood. Portraying her solely as a case of unrequited love does the historical Calamity Jane a disservice – she was far more than that – and it makes her less than three-dimensional as a character in the film.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Book: The Last Buckaroo

Poking around on the Internet I discovered that one of my favorite cowboy novels, Mackey Hedge’s The Last Buckaroo, has been given new life with a new paperback edition. It’s not Louis L’amour or Elmer Kelton but a faithful description of the life of a cowboy in the latter half of the twentieth century – and written by a man who cowboyed all his life for a living. At the risk of repeating myself, this is what I wrote about it several years ago when I found a copy at the Los Angeles Public Library (it has been out of print for most of the last ten years):

This is one of the best books I've ever read describing the day-to-day, real-life work of cowboys. There is something of a story to follow in this novel, but once you get past the fairly far-fetched antics at the beginning, you're treated to an informative description of what it's like moving from one ranch job to the next -- each time getting used to a new boss, a new bunch of cowboys and horses, and the conditions of various kinds of ranch operations and cow camps in various seasons of the year. There are a few digressions, as Tap the narrator in his sixties recalls adventures from earlier times. Mostly it's the absorbing accounts of working cowboys who seem completely real, like they could walk right off the page.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Virginian (1946)

I wrote last time about Bill Pullman’s remake of The Virginian for TV in 2000. This is a look back at a previous version with all-around cowboy actor Joel McCrae as the Virginian and Sonny Tufts as his friend Steve. Conceived as a colorful family picture, with elements of light-hearted comedy and a few dark shadowy elements, the film has hardly a hint of historical accuracy. Medicine Bow, in 1880s Wyoming territory, which Wister describes as no better than squalid, appears here with all the generic splendor of your standard back-lot street of western storefronts.

Pullman’s version of Medicine Bow is closer to reality – a haphazard and raw scattering of wooden structures with lots of space between them. There are few signs of life, unlike the bustling frontier towns frequently found in 1940s and 50s Hollywood westerns. The realism stops there, however, as the open areas are grass-covered rather than rutted and dusty or ankle-deep in mud.

Wister created an even more sordid picture in the novel – with the added detail of trash-strewn areas where residents and cowboys tossed away their empty tin cans and other refuse. He also describes a communal wash-up stand outside the town’s eating establishment, where a single towel is provided each day. It is filthy with use long before the day is well started. Men in the flop-house hotel sleep two to a bed – while beds last. The narrator has to make do with sleeping on the counter of a general store, and counts himself lucky.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Virginian (2000)

The Virginian has one of the most long-lived story lines in the history of western film. How it has evolved over the years from its origins in Owen Wister's novel (1902) is a story unto itself. The first "literary" western, based on Wister's own visits to the West in the 1880s, it became a wildly popular bestseller, was quickly made into a successful stage play, and then five movies and a long-running TV series. A few basic elements of the plot have remained more or less intact over the years: the Virginian's courtship of Molly, the independent-minded schoolmarm from back East; the hanging of his best friend; the conflict with his nemesis Trampas; the shoot-out at sundown; and the famous line, "Smile when you call me that."

From the point of view of western history, the novel-long courtship of the schoolmarm is probably the most questionable. Complaining about the lack of accuracy in western fiction, cowman John Culley blamed The Virginian, recalling the following from his years on the open ranges of New Mexico:

I make bold to say that one of the principal causes of the falsity that pervades our western stories is this love business. For the truth is love played a very small part in our range life. Few cowboys married young. Many of us spent months and years far from “white” women of any kind. That is what made the average cowboy shy with the feminine sex, and what kept his respect, even reverence, for them constant (1940, p. 326).

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

Frontier myth likes to show wagon trains full of pioneers heading west across the plains and mountains, but not the ones coming back the other way, and there were plenty who found that the West wasn’t what they expected. Some – who knows how many – weren’t cut out for it in the first place. Dorothy Johnson’s story “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1949) tells of the multiple ironies wrapped up in that simple fact.

In her story, an all around top cowboy, perfectly at home on the range, saves the life of a lawyer newly arrived from the East, who wants to practice law in a land where law is chiefly administered at the point of a gun. Despite his admirable intentions, there is hardly a good thing you can say about the lawyer. Full of self-pity, he lacks nearly every quality you might attribute to an honorable man, let alone a hero.

In attempting to bring the outlaw Liberty Valance to justice, he is drawn into a shootout that the more experienced gunfighter is sure to win. Surprisingly, the reverse happens, and years later the young lawyer rises to prominence as a politician on his reputation as “the man who shot Liberty Valance.” Meanwhile, the cowboy becomes a has-been, having outlived his time. He also loses his girl to the lawyer.