Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Man From Colorado (1948)

This late 1940s western is suspicious evidence of commies at work in Hollywood. After serving as soldiers in the cavalry, Civil War veterans in this story find their gold prospecting claims lost to a big mining corporation. The owner is a hard-nosed capitalist, protected by the law, who agrees to let them work for him—but at slave wages. Several of the men angrily turn outlaw.

Caught in the middle are two men, both former Army officers, one a colonel (Glenn Ford) and the other a captain (William Holden). Ford has agreed to serve his hometown as a federal judge, and he appoints Holden as federal marshal. In another western, justice would eventually prevail and the rights of working men who had served their country would be honored.

But there’s a problem. Ford’s mental health has been compromised by his war years. In the opening scene, we see him ignore a white flag of surrender and order the bombardment of 100 Confederate soldiers. From the demented look on his face, we know he’s gone off the deep end.

Glenn Ford, Plunder of the Sun (1953)
Plot. Long friends, Ford and Holden each have their eye on the fetching Ellen Drew at war’s end. Gallant and agreeable, Holden gracefully steps aside when she decides to marry Ford. But a rift slowly develops between the two men as Ford becomes gradually more unhinged.

When the miners bring their grievances to court, Ford acting as judge, upholds the letter of the law, which favors the mining corporation. Matters escalate as two men once under Ford’s command take a gold shipment in a holdup, and one of them is captured and hanged.

A gang then forms around the surviving robber, Jericho (played by James Millican, the lawman and hero of last week’s Rimfire). They stage another armed robbery directly from the mining company’s vault, which results in the death of a company guard. The company owner, Big Ed Carter (Ray Collins), is unsatisfied by Ford’s failure to protect his interests.

Determined to see men hang, Ford strings up Jericho’s young brother, then attempts to execute several other miners, who are rescued by the gang even as the nooses are around their necks. Convinced that Ford is now off his rocker, Holden tries to contain him. But Ford sees Holden’s efforts as the betrayal of a man who secretly wants to take away his wife. He throws Holden in jail.

Edgar Buchanan, McClintock! (1963)
By now Drew has found her husband’s diary, into which he’s been pouring his tormented thoughts. With the help of the town doctor (Edgar Buchanan), they spring Holden from jail, and in their flight from town Holden takes a slug in the shoulder from the enraged Ford.

All converge on a mining camp, which Ford’s men set on fire. Ford, Holden, Jericho, and Drew meet in the street as flames rage around them. When it’s all over, Ford and Jericho have been dispatched by a collapsing building, and in a brief final scene, Holden is off to Washington to get justice for the miners, while Drew is part of the crowd of well-wishers.

Ray Collins, Citizen Kane (1941)
Themes. This is an entertaining and well-acted film, with several exciting action sequences. The post-war theme of combat soldiers returning to uncertain civilian lives is prominent, and the portrayal of big business indifferent to their welfare is another. “They’re veterans,” Carter complains, “so they can get away with anything.”

In defense of the men, Holden argues that they did not get a fair break. He blames Carter for making outlaws of them by his own greed and lack of concern for the working class. You can feel the attention of the HUAC harking westward at the sound of movie dialogue of this caliber. And it’s probably not a surprise that screenwriter Ben Maddow came to be one of the Hollywood blacklisted in the 1950s.

Another dimension of the story, unusual for a 1940s western, is the treatment of combat-related psychological disorders. Ford’s character seems to have lost all regard for human life. His condition is not what we’d recognize today as PTSD. He seems simply to have gone over to the dark side, and we’re led to believe that the war has made of him a cold-blooded murderer. Whether that’s rooted in any understanding of the psychological impact of actual combat is hard to say.

Simi Valley today (CC) King of Hearts
Wrapping up. While set entirely in Colorado, the film was shot in southern California, on ranches in Simi Valley and Chatsworth. It lacks the raw beauty of the Rockies as a backdrop, but the warm Technicolor does a lot to compensate for that. It’s a little odd seeing the usually amiable Glenn Ford in a villain’s role, but he musters a steely look in some scenes that is pretty convincing.

The Man From Colorado is currently available at amazon and netflix. Tuesday’s Overlooked Movies is the much-appreciated enterprise of Todd Mason over at Sweet Freedom.

Source: imdb.com

Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Emma Ghent Curtis, The Fate of a Fool (1888)

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Saturday music: Ray Charles

This one was playing on Radio Ron for a while today.

Western writer inspiration, no. 26

Here is this week's omnibus of #westernwriter inspirations posted each day at twitter [click to enlarge]. If you are on twitter, you can follow me @rdscheer.

Southern Pacific depot, Oakland, California, 1867. Artist: William Keith (1838-1911)
Mount Bonnell, Texas, 1889
Steamer at Aberdeen, Washington, 1888
Navajo, Arizona. Photo by John Karl Hillers, c1879
First jail, Broken Bow, Nebraska, 1886
Signal Butte, near Big Spring, Texas, 1889
General store, Grand Forks, North Dakota, 1880

Picture credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up:
Glenn Ford, William Holden, The Man From Colorado (1949)

Friday, February 24, 2012

Photo-finish Friday: out and about

Here's another in the series "The Wall Murals of LA County." This one can be found on Hill Street near 4th, not far from the office towers on Bunker Hill.

Coming up: Glenn Ford, William Holden, The Man From Colorado (1949)

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Dagoberto Gilb, The Magic of Blood

Gilb is one of a kind. I don't remember reading stories like these before. They capture the lives and inner worlds of men who make a living as construction workers, day laborers, auto mechanics, and factory workers both on the job and during stretches of unemployment.

Most are struggling to provide food and shelter for a young family; some are still single. For the most part they are Mexican-Americans living in El Paso and Los Angeles. Modest men, they take pride in themselves and their work, they drink beer, and they have women on their minds.

As a journeyman carpenter, Gilb is familiar with the work of putting up buildings, the dynamics among men on a worksite, and the way they think about themselves, their lives, and what they do for a living. Most stories are told in the first person in a stream of conscious style like someone leaning against a bar talking, with a beer in hand.

Dagoberto Gilb (CC) Larry D. Moore
A teenager working in a laundry becomes involved with a young woman on the job while overdosing on a song by Vic Damone in "Vic Damone's Music." A tile layer becomes obsessed with another man's runaway wife in "Getting a Job in Dell City." Two city workers have too many beers and drive a new truck off the road in "The Truck." A man gives a ride to his estranged father in the middle of the night in "Something Foolish."

A tyrannical construction foreman is intimidated by a laid-off worker in "Churchgoers." A filling station mechanic labors grimly into the night to fix a car in "Al, in Phoenix." Two musicians spend the night with a couple girls they pick up on the road to Austin in "I Danced With the Prettiest Girl." And my favorite story, "Nancy Flores," is about a school boy's first romance brought to an end by another boy's crude joke, while years later his job brings him together with another of her old flames.

There are 26 stories in this collection, and every one of them is a revealing glimpse into the life of an individual, with his pride and shame, desires and disappointments, fears and small triumphs. First published in 1994, it belongs on any shelf of literature of the American Southwest.

The Magic of Blood is currently available at amazon and AbeBooks. Friday's Forgotten Books is the bright idea of Patti Abbot over at pattinase.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: John Syales, A Moment in the Sun

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Rimfire (1949)

This B-western gets a B+ for its sheer ambition. Not satisfied with being an energetic spin on every western cliché, it borrows some from a couple other genres, too. Besides hold-ups, barroom brawls, and a hanging, there’s music, comedy, a sultry saloon girl, and a ghost, all for the price of a single admission.

In 1949, it’s exactly what would have shown second in a double feature at the Island Theatre in Grand Island, Nebraska, where I grew up—and probably on the Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday bill, as the program changed there twice a week. And only a walking encyclopedia of movie and TV trivia would recognize the names of the Hollywood veterans responsible for this one.

Plot. Our hero, played by James Millican, stops a stage robbery in the first scene, and while the robbers make off with a box of gold bullion, he saves the passengers from further insult. They include a tall, sleek gambler (Reed Hadley), who goes by the name of the Abilene Kid, and a pretty blonde girl named Polly (Mary Beth Hughes), daughter of the sheriff in nearby Stringtown, New Mexico.

For his efforts, Millican is taken on as a deputy sheriff in Stringtown, and we learn that the saloon owner’s goons have robbed the stagecoach. A dispute over a card game ignites the afore-mentioned barroom brawl, after which the Abilene Kid is arrested for cheating with a marked deck.

Smith & Wesson, Model 1, .22 rimfire revolver
It’s apparently a hanging offense in Stringtown, and the Kid is tried and found guilty by a show of hands. Justice is swift and he is hanged the next morning, proclaiming his innocence. Soon after, a mysterious series of deaths occurs, the killer leaving behind a playing card starting with the deuce of spades and working his way up through the suit. Suspicion points to the dead gambler.

By the time we get to the face cards, the newspaper has already been printing scare headlines about a “ghost killer.” People have begun to leave town, but to no avail. The sheriff and his new deputy puzzle over the clues, while the saloon girl and Polly, the sheriff’s daughter, take an interest in the deputy.

Unencumbered by anything but unadulterated regard for the opposite sex, the deputy calmly resists the steamy advances of the saloon girl but gets tongue-tied around the pretty Polly. Before the town’s population is reduced to zero, he discovers the stolen gold, solves the mystery, and gets over his girl troubles.

Fuzzy Knight, from The Adventures of Gallant Bess (1952)
Added value. Comic actor Fuzzy Knight plays several scenes of buffoonery with Chris-Pin Martin as a stereotype Mexican. Fuzzy takes a turn at the piano in the saloon and belts out a rendition of “Bad Old Stagger Lee.” When there’s news that Ulysses S. Grant, a Republican, has been elected president, he looks into the camera and says, “I never knew there was anything except Democrats.”

Camera work and editing deserve mention. The opening sequence grabs you with a stagecoach at full gallop being pursued by four men on horses with guns. The title RIMFIRE appears on the screen, and the letters are blown to bits, each by a single gunshot.

Much in the style of early television, when TV screens were small and tight close-ups became common, the film lets us get a good look at faces. At the hanging, which has drawn a crowd, the scene cuts from one close-up to another, capturing reaction shots. Then the camera slowly pans across them while the Abilene Kid makes his final speech.

Minor characters have moments that fix them clearly in the imagination. The newspaper editor has a prickly disposition, muttering "Law and order" in a scornful tone after the trial. The judge himself is a gruff man obviously impatient with the ignorance of the town's residents.

Altogether, director B. Reeves Eason has whipped together an action-packed 63 minutes of western excitement. The film has been released on DVD as a double feature of “western film noir” with Little Big Horn (1951) starring Lloyd Bridges. Tuesday’s Overlooked Movies is the much-appreciated effort of Todd Mason over at Sweet Freedom.

Coming up: Dagoberto Gilb, The Magic of Blood

Monday, February 20, 2012

Chuck Tyrell, Big Enough

Review and interview
Western writer Charles Whipple, writing as Chuck Tyrell, has a new collection of stories—mostly fiction, some nonfiction. They are an entertaining mix of genres, ranging from traditional and historical westerns to noir and memoir, plus excerpts from two novels. The title story is about a horse and the young rider patiently gentling it, until strangers arrive who happen to be a step or two ahead of the law.

If you’ve read much about the Old West and Charles’ home state Arizona, you quickly sense the historical grounding of his stories, and you know you're in good hands. Compared to the writing of those who know the West only from other western novels and the movies, he gives you two or three more layers of detail. You might call it “high definition.”

His men may be good with a gun, but they prove their mettle in other ways, too. In “Man of Iron,” the narrator discovers that he has shot an Apache woman with a newborn child. Never mind that she’s tried to kill him herself. He makes a superhuman effort to return her to her tribe.

A Japanese man schooled in centuries-old martial arts has come West to avenge the death of his father in “Kataki.” He finds his way into the fiercely defended stronghold of a desperado in Mexico and doesn’t need a gun at all.

Meanwhile, Tyrell has a special way with lawmen. They step off the page with well-defined features and temperament. In “The Kid and the Commodore,” the historic lawman Commodore Perry Owens offers an absorbing portrayal of the man who played a key role in the Pleasant Valley range war during the 1880s in Arizona.

Tyrell’s Marshal Havelock, notably in the collection’s excerpt from the novel Vulture Gold, is a clear-thinking man of action. He gets the job done, even with the help of those who question his authority because of his mixed race. Just watch how he calmly manages a posse while in pursuit of two robbers of gold bullion.

I’ve asked Charles if he would consent to an interview about Big Enough here at BITS, and he’s happily agreed to answer a few questions. Here he is:

Charles, the stories in Big Enough are each different in tone, subject matter, and the way they are told. What would you say is the storyteller’s thread that runs through all of them?
If there is a thread, it's me. Born and raised in Arizona high country on the flanks of the White Mountains only 19 miles from the real Fort Apache (which looks nothing like the Fort Apache in John Ford's movie). I grew up on stories of the "pioneers." There was even a shootout in my home town of Show Low when I was in the third grade. I didn't see it, of course, but that's how close the "Old West" was.

Which of the stories’ narrators do you feel as closest to yourself?
None are really me. Call me mystic if you like, but it seems the characters take on a life and intent of their own as the story goes on. Often they'll get into scrapes or say things that completely surprise me. A friend and beta reader of mine and I have a friendly banter going on. "Wonder what (name of protag) will tell you today?" At the end of the day's writing, I give the reader a paragraph or two of what the character has told me.

Were you aware when you chose the title for the collection that Will James also used it for a novel about a horse?
Country store near Show Low, Arizona, 1974
You know, I didn't. And Will James wrote the first book I remember reading, which was Smokey. The real Big Enough may have been named for James's book. He was a small two-color black-and-white paint that my uncle owned. That name fit the little black filly in the story (she had another name at first) so she got the name. The working title of the story was “Kid McCullough.”

Early western writers, 100 years ago, rarely specified the make and caliber of firearms used by characters. How do you account for the focus on that in today’s westerns?
I think today's writers are trying to be more realistic, and I think the reader of westerns tends to look for more specific details of that kind that perhaps the readers did a century ago. Another reason might be because we are farther away in time. 

A hundred years ago, the reader might have been much more familiar with firearms than we are, or the opposite, perhaps there was not a fetish, if you will, about firearms. Still, being specific about firearms today is the mark of an author who does his homework. More than a few, I'd imagine, have been out to the firing range to shoot black powered firearms just to see what it's like.

To what extent do you think of the Arizona Old West as having a particular character and identity all its own? 

Dunno. Arizona didn't have rangers until 1904. It was not settled as quickly, perhaps, as other "western" states. The famed Hashknife Outfit didn't come in until the 1880s. Commodore Owens's gunfight with Andy Cooper and the Blevins Gang happened in 1887. OK Corral, if I'm not mistaken, was 1881. That's a long time after the rowdy days of cattle drives from Texas to Kansas.
Way after the California Gold Rush, Alder Gulch, Deadwood, and so on. Arizona for years was the "baby state" so I reckon westerns set in Arizona may be of a later day and age. Also, as with the Hashknife Outfit, many of the elements that caused "trouble" in Arizona came from states to the east either with a price on their heads or with the desire to get out of civilization's way.
Oak, White Mountains, Arizona, 1873
In your story “Man of Iron” a man’s superhuman effort to save the life of an Indian woman raises the topic of frontier race relations in a compelling way. Would a man like this have been one in a hundred, or even one in a thousand?
You know, I can't answer that question. He found the woman and the story developed from that. This often happens with me. An opening situation will present itself and the characters do their own thing from that point on. Masai (Massai) is historical, as is the stage station, but whether a white man would do that for an Indian "squaw," I have no idea.

Actually, the "man of iron" name came from Commodore Perry Owens, given to him by the Navahos, because they couldn't believe they missed him all the time, so he had to have an iron body that bullets ricocheted from. The name of the hero's horse, Pocoueno, is also one of the crowbaits that we had in my youth. He was a big brown horse with black mane and tail. Probably sixteen and a half hands high.

“The Kid and the Commodore” is based on lawman Commodore Perry Owens. How much of that story is a matter of record and how much is your invention? 

It's as close to what happened as I could make it. All the dialogue came from written sources. I have a file two inches thick, not counting books, on Commodore Perry Owens. My story is much closer to what actually happened than Clair Huffaker's is. Take the opening scene. I know the bluff where Commodore sat his horse. I know the color of the Little Colorado. I've seen the willows. I know what you can see of the Painted Desert. And I knew Owens came with the warrant from Taylor in his pocket.

Camp Apache, Arizona, 1871
“Line Rider” takes some unexpected turns. Without giving them away, can you say how that story came into being? 
I've never been a line rider, but I imagine it was a very lonely existence. My story kind of takes some of the loneliness out of the job, maybe.

You have introduced a Japanese character into one story, “Kataki”—and quite plausibly. Have you done this before and would you like to do more of it? 

In The Snake Den, which won the 2011 Global eBook Award in western fiction, the protagonist, a boy of 14, turns to an Oriental inmate (yes there were "chinamen" in Yuma prison), his cellmate, actually, for help. This Oriental was in actuality from the Ryukyu Kingdom (Okinawa), which is where karate was developed. Later, the Japanese appropriated the martial art and changed its name, but in this story, the Okinawa teaches Shawn Brodie the basics of karate, which has much to do with his ultimate pardon. [The Snake Den is currently available for kindle at amazon. -Ed.]
When the call went out from Western Fictioneers for stories, I didn't want something ordinary. I remembered Red Sun, with Toshiro Mifune and Charles Bronson (Alain Delon was in it too), and thought I could make something a bit more realistic. There actually was a delegation from the Shogun to Washington in 1860, but it came nowhere near El Paso. Such is fiction.

The ninja stuff is as close as I could come. There are videos of swordsmen cutting bullets in two on YouTube. It can be done. Dress and manners and so on are as close to what I think might have happened as possible. Both Kensington St. George and Johnny Havelock have appeared in my fiction before. The young Japanese man Kay (actually it would be spelled Kei in romanized Japanese, but as the storyteller is not Japanese I spelled it as he would have heard it) is new. 

Arizona mountains, Ansel Adams, 1941
Actually, I'm writing a fantasy saga set in an alternative of ancient Japan, alternative in that all the mythical creatures are real. The first novella of the series, The Fall of Awa, is available online. Very Japanese, but the word "Japan" never occurs.

You live in Japan. Is there a Japanese audience for your stories, and how well do they translate?
The hardest thing I ever did was translate The Prodigal into Japanese. Then my wife, who writes advertising copy in Japanese, went after it with a blue pencil and wow, makes it difficult to try another translation. [The Prodigal is currently available for kindle and the nook. -Ed.]

That said, I belong to a group called Western Union. We meet four times a year and exchange tall tales. They're fans of things western, but the biggest fiction items are movies. There is not a big market for western fiction here. Wyatt Earp has a following and there's one nonfiction writer who has made a living out of Earp books. I've not gotten into them.

The cover of Big Enough is appealing and effecitve. Can you tell us a bit about the creative decisions that went into it?

Well, I went to iStockPhoto and hunted for pictures with Girl and Horse. As I remember, I went through several searches before I found this one. To me, it portrays the love Kimberly had for Big Enough and the affection the horse had for her. The cover itself was done by Laura Shinn, who's been better than good for many who publish with Western Trail Blazer. 

Actually, if you go to the Web and search for what you want in the photo--for instance, I recently did a search for "crying abused women," as the subject of the book is rape, recovery, and redemption. I input that to Google and told it to find me images. If you find the right one, it will take you back to where you can buy it. Probably more than you ever wanted to know about covers.

Anything I haven't asked you'd like to comment on?

I personally feel that setting is vital to westerns. I'm judging short stories at the moment for Western Fictioneers Peacemaker awards. A few really know the country. I can tell. Readers can tell, I think. 

Thanks for the chat.

Thanks, Charles. Readers can currently find Big Enough for kindle at amazon.
Follow Chuck Tyrell on Twitter @chucktyrell

Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Rimfire (1949)

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Western writer inspiration, no. 25

Here's the weekly omnibus of #westernwriter inspirations from twitter [click to enlarge]. Follow me there @rdscheer.

Hetch Hetchy, side canyon, Yosemite, 1907. Artist: William Keith (1838-1911)
Fort Bliss, El Paso, Texas, 1885
Walla Walla Valley, Washington, 1887
Tempe, Arizona, c1870
Yosemite Valley, California 1875. Artist: William Keith (1838-1911)
Canyon de Chelly, Arizona, 1873
The Custer Leader, Broken Bow, Nebraska, 1887

Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Chuck Tyrell, Big Enough

Friday, February 17, 2012

Photo-finish Friday: out and about

In recent years, the campus where I teach has become (in my opinion) over-run with bicyclists. They have turned many of the walkways into speedways and the entrances to buildings into parking lots. The university is attempting to reduce the congestion and the opportunity for accident and injury with a campaign encouraging "courtesy." But no matter how the traffic control signs are worded, they seem to have no effect. Better to simply put up ones that say "Pedestrians - Proceed at Your Own Risk."

Coming up: Chuck Tyrell, Big Enough

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Gwendolen Overton, The Heritage of Unrest (1901)

This darkly brooding novel is a plague-on-all-your-houses account of the Indian Wars in Arizona, 1878-1885. There are three characters at the center of a complex plot: Felipa, a young, mixed-race woman with a Mescalero mother and cavalryman father; Landor, an officer in the U.S. Army; and Cairness, an Army scout, born of English convicts in Australia. Around them swirl a bloody swath of frontier history as Geronimo and his Apache followers go on the warpath.

Plot. While the novel is packed with incidents and situations that involve the Army’s attempts to subdue the Apaches, it is mainly interested in the characters themselves. Conflict serves to continually put them to the test and thus reveal their strengths and weaknesses. We follow them, watching time and circumstance take their toll.

In a nutshell, Captain Landor agrees to take as his ward the girl Felipa, as a favor to a fellow soldier who’s been a friend since boyhood. Years later, she joins him at the post where he currently serves in the Gila River basin of Arizona. Pretty and intelligent, she wins the admiration of the bachelor soldiers, who do not know that she is half Indian.

Apache woman, Edward S. Curtis, c1905
Landor eventually marries her, out of a sense of duty, though neither is in love with the other. The scout Cairness falls hard for her, however, and she discovers that she has similar feelings for him. But out of loyalty to Landor, she chooses not to leave her husband. Aware of his wife’s attachment to Cairness, Landor offers to release her from her vows and grows steadily resentful when she refuses to leave him.

Cairness grows desolate and lonely, far from kin and homeland. In a nasty subplot, he attempts to learn why a family of English settlers was abandoned by their Irish and Texan employees when a band of Apaches laid siege to their ranch and caused the family’s violent deaths. He eventually uncovers the details of treachery, learning that a villainous Tucson newspaperman has seized ownership of the ranch.

In an incident you’d expect in a novel less committed to gritty realism, Landor is killed while trying to protect the life of Cairness in an Indian attack. Felipa and Cairness are at last married and have a couple years of bliss before the novel comes to its bitter end.

Anti-romance. Although love and adventure do figure into the story, this is no romance. It is a book full of ideas about race, wickedness, and savagery. The word “noir” comes to mind, though this is more than simply a bleak and sordid view of human affairs. Overton is also determined to do some myth bashing.

The novel is full of villains. Among the whites in Arizona are unscrupulous men and women, whose greed knows no bounds. In league with Indian agents, they steal government supplies, make trouble, and frustrate efforts of the military, whom they fault for being overpaid and under-worked. Meanwhile, the government in Washington makes ill-advised and self-serving policy decisions that make matters even worse.

Geronimo, 1887
The Indians, starved, stolen from, and lied to, eventually run out of patience and inflict some misery of their own. Innocent settlers are killed, after scenes of stomach-churning torture, when the victims don’t take their own lives first.

The military itself is not above reproach. A junior officer may bring up phony charges against a superior in order to harass and embarrass him with a fruitless court-martial. Or he may be on the take, fixing bids to award a beef contract to a local rancher.

Character. The early western in the hands of most writers often concerns the qualities of character that go into the making of an admirable man or woman. Overton seems to see little to admire in anyone.

Landor is a career Army man who can find a way to do anything, no matter how distasteful, as long as it’s his duty to do so. Thus he finds in himself the ability to marry and remain a dutiful husband to a woman he does not love and eventually comes to loathe.

His wife’s view of him in the end is close to the mark. Duty is well and good, she observes, but it’s not enough. Without enthusiasm or love for his work, what a man does with his life has no lasting worth.

General Crook, Century Magazine, 1891
General Crook is portrayed as an honorable man, making every effort to undo the damage done by federal officials and interfering civilians. He is a down-to-earth leader of men, typically out of uniform when ceremony does not call for it, treating men of all ranks as equals. He wins the respect of the Apaches because he is the one white man they know who keeps his word to them. Still he disappoints the reader at the end by an act of undeserved racial intolerance.

Cairness sees himself as an outcast. Never mind his dubious parentage—as an Englishman, he is regarded on the frontier with contempt. Marrying Felipa, he is further shunned by other whites as a squaw man. He is brave and dependable in carrying out his duties and respects Felipa’s wishes to remain faithful to her husband. Yet Overton lets it be known that his honorable behavior is only a veneer easily stripped away. Beneath it is the savage Briton, no different from the Apache at his worst.

That leaves Felipa as somehow worthy of our admiration, but Overton seems fixated on her unfortunate genetic background. Half Indian, she is even closer to savage than Cairness. There is a cold-hearted indifference to suffering that emerges at points as she is witness to acts of animal cruelty.

Officers, guests, Ft. Thomas, Arizona, 1886
Though she has lived with whites from the age of four, she seems to have inherited squaw-like traits: her dead honesty, her dog-like loyalty to her husband, her affection for other people’s children. Landor cringes when she takes an interest in archery. And there is the expectation that the bloom of her youth will soon pass, and as her Indian features take prominence, her beauty quickly fade.

Wrapping up. According to a short bio in the novella The Golden Chain (1903), Overton (1874-1958) grew up on Army posts in Arizona and New Mexico. After an education in Switzerland and France, she settled with her family in Los Angeles, where she married and had a career as a writer.

The Heritage of Unrest is currently available at Internet Archive, as well as for kindle and the nook. Friday’s Forgotten Books is the bright idea of Patti Abbott over at pattinase.

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Chuck Tyrell, Big Enough

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Night Passage (1957)

This is one of those movies that make you want to read the novel it was based on. Western writer Norman A. Fox wrote Night Passage in 1956 and it was made into a movie the following year. Shot in a widescreen process called Technirama, its location photography in the mountains of Colorado and central California is impressive. Chiefly a railroad western, it makes dramatic use of the Durango & Silverton narrow gauge railway.

Plot. The plot involves a pair of brothers. The older one is out of work and making a living as an itinerant musician, and the other runs with a gang of train robbers. James Stewart plays the musician, with accordion in tow, and Audie Murphy is the amiable “Utica Kid,” who has gone over to the dark side.

Quite a number of secondary characters add to the complexity of the plot. Dan Duryea gets third billing as the loud-mouthed leader of the gang. There’s a café waitress (Diane Foster) in love with Murphy, and a former girlfriend of Stewart, who is now the wife of the railroad owner. Brandon DeWilde is a young teenager who has fallen in with the gang. Jack Elam is one of the more sinister gang members.

Inyo National Forest, California (CC) jcookfisher
The curious title (more appropriate for a noir film) seems to refer to a long nighttime scene in which all of the above characters converge in a ghost town saloon. The gang has taken the railroad owner’s wife hostage, the café waitress wants Murphy to leave the gang and marry her, Stewart wants him to end his life of crime and go straight. Meanwhile, DeWilde is carrying a $10,000 payroll in a shoebox.

Plausibility. The scenery is spectacular and the action sequences are fine. What doesn’t work very well is the attempt to make Stewart’s role plausible with him in it. He’s supposed to have been unemployed for five years because he once helped his brother escape capture. Problem is, Stewart’s character is too good-natured to be convincing as a dishonest man. He also looks and acts too well fed and unconcerned to be so down on his luck.

Durango-Silverton narrow gauge railway, Colorado
Murphy’s character, for what has become of him, is also implausibly sunny. He’s been untouched by keeping company with desperadoes. Robbing trains is all fun and games to him. He seems to think his reputation as a fast gun makes up for a life of living in his older brother’s shadow. The costumers dress him in black, but he has no shadow of his own.

Dan Duryea, as the gang leader, is supposed to be scornful and has been told to shout all his lines. Rather than making of him a fearsome tyrant, this just makes him look loud and stupid. A waste of talent. Brandon DeWilde, who seems to have got little helpful direction, is still playing Joey from Shane.

The colorful photography, the dancing and farcical brawling at the end-of-track camp in the opening sequence, plus Stewart’s songs, make the film look like a movie musical. The robbery of a moving train and the final shootout at an abandoned mining camp are exciting. But the “night passage” drama leans toward “noir” and then slips into melodrama and sentimentality.

Writers. As I said, I’d like to read the novel. I’m guessing that author Fox does a better job of integrating these elements to tell the story. Fox, by the way, was a Montana resident and one of the founders of the Western Writers of America. According to Tuska and Piekarski, he wrote thirty or more westerns over a 20-year career, plus a couple of hundred short stories for the pulps.

Screenwriter Borden Chase had a long career as a Hollywood writer, with scripts for Red River (1948), Winchester ’73 (1950), and Bend of the River (1952). Tuesday's Overlooked Films is the untiring enterprise of Todd Mason over at Sweet Freedom.

Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Gwendolen Overton The Heritage of Unrest (1901)

Monday, February 13, 2012

Old West glossary, no. 26

Montana cowboys, c1910
Here’s another set of terms garnered from early western novels. Definitions were discovered in various online dictionaries, as well as searches in Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, Dictionary of the American West, The New Encyclopedia of the American West, The Cowboy Dictionary, The Cowboy Encyclopedia, The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology, The Oxford Dictionary of Idioms, and The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

These are from William Lacey Amy’s  The Blue Wolf, about mysterious goings-on in the Cypress Hills of western Canada, and Gwendolen Overton’s The Heritage of Unrest about the cavalry and the Apaches. Once again I struck out a few times. If anybody knows the meaning of  “wind city,” “The Last Carouse,” or “koon-tan,” leave a comment.

cheese = stop, leave off. “Cheese that cussing, do you hear?” Gwendolen Overton, The Heritage of Unrest.

Dougherty = a horse- or mule-drawn passenger wagon having doors on the side, transverse seats, and canvas sides that can be rolled down. “He had worked himself to such an implicit faith in the worst that he decided that the wide figure, heavily blue-veiled, and linen-dustered, on the back seat of the Dougherty was she.” Gwendolen Overton, The Heritage of Unrest.

Doukhobors pulling plow, Manitoba, 1899
Douks = Doukhobors; a colony of 19th-century Russian immigrants in western Canada. “I don’t know what they are, so I just call them Douks for want of something better.” William Lacey Amy, The Blue Wolf.

fagging = to tire, weary. “It was his way to pick out the roughest possible path before him, to settle within himself that it was that of duty, and to follow it without fagging or complaint.” Gwendolen Overton, The Heritage of Unrest.

furbelow = flounce, ruffles, trimming on a woman’s garment. “I do not know the price of the latest frills and furbelows in London.” William Lacey Amy, The Blue Wolf.

Woman in riding habit
golondrina = a poisonous weed native to the Southwest; used formerly to treat rattlesnake bite. “The little pinto one had died of a rattlesnake bite, from which no golondrina weed had been able to save it.” Gwendolen Overton, The Heritage of Unrest.

habit = a costume designed to be worn by a woman on horseback; riding-habit. “You’re not going to try to ride Ginger in a habit!” William Lacey Amy, The Blue Wolf.

Hamilcar = a general and statesman of Carthage, father of Hannibal. “It’s devilish exasperating, but it’s old as Hamilcar.” Gwendolen Overton, The Heritage of Unrest.

hop = a dance. “The garrison gave a hop in her honor and Landor’s.” Gwendolen Overton, The Heritage of Unrest.

Lambrequins, 1898
lambrequin = a short ornamental drapery for the top of a window or door or the edge of a shelf. “Mrs. Campbell appliquéd a black velvet imp on a green felt lambrequin, and thought.” Gwendolen Overton, The Heritage of Unrest.

manta = a rough-textured cotton fabric made and used in Spanish America. “Much of the furniture, of ranch manufacture, was chintz covered, the manta of the ceiling was unstained.” Gwendolen Overton, The Heritage of Unrest.

Ojo-blanco = white person. “The fighting stopped to watch the Ojo-blanco playing tag with the little Apache.” Gwendolen Overton, The Heritage of Unrest.

Ouida = pen name of English novelist who wrote historical romances. “‘Handsome fellow,’ went on the quartermaster, ‘and looks like a gentleman. Glories in the Ouida-esque name of Charles Morely Cairness.” Gwendolen Overton, The Heritage of Unrest.

Coffee plantation, Brazil, 1884
Rio = Brazilian coffee, commonly with a strong, rank flavor. “She poured herself a cup of the Rio, strong as lye, with which she saturated her system, to keep off the fever.” Gwendolen Overton, The Heritage of Unrest.

shilling shocker = a novel of crime or violence popular in late Victorian England and costing one shilling. “The Great Powers did not heed them, preferring to take advice from men who did not know an Apache from a Sioux—or either from the creation of the shilling shocker.” Gwendolen Overton, The Heritage of Unrest.

short cut = shredded tobacco. “He drew a sack of short cut from his pocket and filled his brier.” Gwendolen Overton, The Heritage of Unrest.

Officer in slouch hat
slope = depart, move off; leave without paying; escape. “‘You know that is Bill Lawton’s wife?’ he said. Taylor nodded. ‘The one who sloped with the Greaser?’” Gwendolen Overton, The Heritage of Unrest.

slouch hat = a wide-brimmed felt or cloth hat with a chinstrap, commonly worn as part of a military uniform. “He saw her, and without the hesitation of an instant raised his slouch hat and kept on.” Gwendolen Overton, The Heritage of Unrest.

sutler = a civilian merchant who sells provisions to an army in the field, in camp, or in quarters. “He himself was not down with his scouts in the ill-smelling camp across the creek, but had a room at the sutler’s store, a good three-quarters of a mile from the corrals.” Gwendolen Overton, The Heritage of Unrest.

talking wire = Indian term for the telegraph. “The Indians had learned the use of the White-eye’s talking wire very promptly.” Gwendolen Overton, The Heritage of Unrest.

The (London) Times, July 6, 1863
The Thunderer = nickname for The (London) Times. “If The Thunderer should ever send less than thirty-two pages I’m afraid I’d have to read the advertisements in the Medicine Hat Times.” William Lacey Amy, The Blue Wolf.

tizwin = a fermented beverage made by the Apache Indians. “He was badly hurt, with a ball in his shoulder, and he was half drunk with tizwin, as well as being cut in a dozen places.” Gwendolen Overton, The Heritage of Unrest.

touching pitch = to come under a bad influence; from the proverb “He that touches pitch shall be defiled.” “They were taught copy-book morals about touching pitch, I reckon.” Gwendolen Overton, The Heritage of Unrest.

White-eyes = Indian term for white people. “The Indians, being wicked, ungrateful, suspicious characters, doubted the promises of the White-eyes.” Gwendolen Overton, The Heritage of Unrest.

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: James Stewart, Audie Murphy, Night Passage (1957)