Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Horse Soldiers, 1959

John Ford gave western fans a version of the Civil War in this film starring John Wayne and William Holden. At two hours, it’s an entertaining film without being over-ambitious. And without exactly doing justice to the subject, it manages to tell its story in a way that does not discredit either the Union or the Confederacy.

You realize watching it that there have been few movies about the Civil War since Gone with the Wind (1939). While the U.S. Army fighting Indians was for a long time standard fare on the screen, seeing those same soldiers shooting at other white Americans is something else again.

Ford chose wisely when he picked the novel The Horse Soldiers by Harold Sinclair (1907-1966). The book was based on Grierson’s Raid in 1863, during which 17,000 Union troops traveled from Tennessee across Mississippi to Union-held Baton Rouge doing damage to Confederate infrastructure.

Plot. There are three engagements in the film, one as a trainful of armed men attempts to defend the town of Newton’s Station. A charge down the main street into withering gunfire leaves many casualties. A makeshift hospital is organized to tend to the wounded, with the help of a local doctor. Meanwhile, the Union soldiers’ destruction of the town’s rail line is sobering in its thoroughness.

Willian Holden and Constance Towers
Following that, the boys of a military academy attempt a courageous though foolhardy attack on the Union troops. It’s a relief when the soldiers react in disbelief and then make a quick retreat before any lives are lost. Finally, at the end of the film, an outnumbered contingent of Confederate soldiers attempts gamely to prevent the Union troops from crossing a bridge.

Most of the conflict in the film, however, is between the colonel (John Wayne) and an Army surgeon (William Holden). They are at cross-purposes from the first scene in which they meet. Wayne was a civil engineer for the railroad before the war; Holden was a graduate of West Point. Just about everything separates them, from class to temperament.

Amplifying the conflict is Constance Towers as a Southern belle, who happens to overhear Wayne’s plans to strike across enemy territory to Baton Rouge. To keep her from telling anyone what she knows, Wayne is forced to take her and her maid along. Her presence is a constant source of irritation to him.

Before all is said and done, she begins to have a change of heart about him. She seems sorry to see him go as she and Holden stay behind with the wounded, to be overtaken by the Confederate troops who are on their trail. Glad to be finally rid of her, Wayne makes a courteous but not unhurried exit. There’s no kissing.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Tom Lea, The Wonderful Country (1952)

A blog reader in Texas recommended this novel a while ago, and I’m glad they did because it’s a fine one. Tom Lea (1907-2001) was a Texan, who is remembered as a muralist, illustrator, and painter, and was also a gifted novelist. One of a handful of his books, The Wonderful Country is set c. 1880 in the borderlands of West Texas and Mexico.

Plot. Its central character is a young American, Martin Brady, who has been living since boyhood in Mexico. We learn little about his past, but his work involves him with a powerful family in Chihuahua. They are being supplied with arms by a German merchant in an anglo settlement (an unnamed El Paso) across the Rio Grande.

Brady is stranded on the American side when his horse falls on him and breaks his leg. There, as he recuperates on crutches, he comes to know the town’s few prominent citizens, including the commanding officer of the Army outpost and the head of the local contingent of Texas Rangers, who offers him a job.

Before he can take the job, he kills a man who has beaten up one of his new friends, a Jewish immigrant. And Brady flees to his old life in Mexico, transporting contraband while a civil war is being waged for control of the province. Meanwhile, everyone lives in terror of the Apaches, who are on a rampage.

The plot is complex with many characters. Uncertain of his safety, Brady becomes attached to another Spanish land-grant family, whose patrón is Santiago Santos. He is a wonderfully drawn father-figure of a character for the fatherless Brady. An Apache attack leads them to an encounter with the 10th Cavalry “buffalo soldiers,” whose commanding officer has been mortally wounded in their pursuit of the Apaches.

Brady reluctantly leaves Santos to help the American soldiers find their way back to the U.S. There he is called once more back to Mexico, this time with the Rangers, to prevent a shipment of ammunition from reaching an army of fighting Apaches. The final chapter is reserved for a fatal encounter with yet another adversary.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Saturday music: Mark Chestnutt

Mark Chestnutt has a bunch of good ones. This one always cracks me up.

Coming up: Tom Lea, The Wonderful Country (1952)

National Day of the Cowboy

When a colleague offered to make me one of his famous-person portraits as a retirement gift, he was already prepared for me to pick Randolph Scott as a subject. The two of us had spoken often of Scott’s cowboy roles. I remember the day he encouraged me to see Seven Men From Now (1956), a Budd Boetticher western that continues to be one of my favorites.

A lot of western fans will pick John Wayne as their consummate cowboy actor, but Scott has been a personal favorite of mine for a long time. He kept his chiseled good looks to the end of his career, not to mention his lean, six-foot-two bearing, always walking and riding with an easy, square-shouldered grace. The craggy face as he aged suggested a lifetime spent in the sun and wind. It was a western face.

I’ll give Wayne his grin and his warmth when the role called for them, but Scott could also be coolly stern and reserved in a way that could bring a chill to a scene. The rage behind his steady gaze in Seven Men From Now gives a depth to his character that you might only see in Clint Eastwood, for whom it has been a trademark.

Scott didn’t just play himself in his westerns. He was equally good in different kinds of roles. In Buchanan Rides Alone (1958) he’s the man who gets by with a smile and a wry comment when he’s outnumbered by a town full of miserable crooks. You believe him in roles like this that call for his character to stand up for himself, alone and with no one else to depend on but often with people depending on him, as in another Boetticher film, The Tall T (1957).

In The Man Behind the Gun (1953), he’s a man of more than one identity, pretending to be an easy-going tenderfoot while he’s really on a mission to stop a vicious plot to arm secessionists. In Riding Shotgun (1954), he is a fugitive from a lynch mob, wrongly believed to have held up a stagecoach. And before his retirement from the screen, he left fans with a memorable performance as an aging ex-lawman in Sam Peckinpah’s classic Ride the High Country (1962).

So that’s my cowboy western hero for National Day of the Cowboy. Fortunate for me, he made a whole bunch of westerns, and I look forward to seeing them all, and then seeing them all again.

Image credit: Artist, Bill Feuer

Coming up: Tom Lea, The Wonderful Country (1952)

Friday, July 27, 2012

Photo-finish Friday: animal planet

I snapped this on a September morning last year, waiting for an appointment in the shade of an outdoor food court. Reaching down to move my chair, my hand fell on this little creature, and after the initial surprise I set it on the table where it kept me company like this for a long time. Amazing member of the Animal Planet. I'm glad they don't come any larger.

Photo-finish Friday is the bright idea of Leah Utas over at The Goat's Lunch Pail. This photo is going to be my last for a while, but as I venture again into the big, busy world I just retired from, there will certainly be more.

Coming up: Tom Lea, The Wonderful Country (1952)

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Frederick Thickstun Clark, In the Valley of Havilah (1890)

This dark portrayal of an itinerant family in California begins as broad and farcical satire, gathers to it the elements of romance, and then swerves at the end into tragedy. The Havilah of the title is a mining camp in the southern Sierras of Kern County and the vast mountainous region around it, through which flow the Kern River and its tributaries.

Only a handful of characters appears in the novel. There are the Pugsleys, father, mother, and two daughters. Each is portrayed in the most unflattering light. Pugsley is a lazy drunkard and his wife is a complaining invalid of no precise ailment or disability. The elder daughter, Maria, dominates the family with open belligerence. The younger daughter, Maud Eliza, stupidly snorts and chortles at every opportunity.

Plot. Traveling by covered wagon, they become mired in the mud, and they are rescued by a cheerful young gold miner, Billy Bling, who takes them into Havilah. Generous to a fault, he puts them up in a small cabin he owns there. In the short time it takes to know them, he falls head over heels in love with Maria.

Only one other character plays a role in the story. He is Billy’s friend Hulse, an older man who is something of a recluse, known suspiciously in the camp as a book reader and atheist. There’s a rumor that he murdered someone back East. He is a silent but fiercely powerful presence. Not used to being intimidated by anyone, Maria is shaken when she lays eyes on him.

Kern River, Albert Bierstadt, 1871
Billy, it turns out, owns a mine that is making him rich. He gladly brings the Pugsleys food and improvements for the cabin. Pugsley presses Maria to marry the young man. A wealthy son-in-law would mean never having to do another day’s work, though Pugsley seems to have done few of them, as it is.

But Maria’s self-confidence has been undermined by Hulse. Shamed by her unladylike behavior, she commits herself to becoming a better woman. Learning that Hulse is a book reader, she even weighs the relative benefits of learning how to read.

To Billy, she is perfection, and he wants her for a wife. But he grows increasingly distressed as she insists that he can only be her friend. When he learns her secret, that she is hopelessly in love with Hulse, despite the man’s evident lack of interest in her, Billy surrenders her to him—anything to make her happy.

But when Hulse does not leap at the chance to wed Maria, in fact disdains her, Billy feels the young woman has been insulted. And to protect her honor, he can see no alternative but to challenge the man to a duel. Following that turn of the worm, everything ends badly.

Prospector, 1853
Character. You keep expecting Hulse to emerge as a man of character in the novel. Educated and somewhat refined, he knows that people consider him more than a little insane. And he’s not so sure they’re wrong. Where he comes from and how he came to be so far from home in the gold fields of California remain a mystery to the end of the novel.

His indifference to Maria and his tolerance of Billy reflect an intensity of self-absorption that can’t be fathomed. Welcoming death in a duel with a friend seems the choice of a man who has lost his way a long time ago.

Billy is sweet natured and decent, an innocent, but his character is unseasoned. We don’t dislike him, but he’s painfully immature and inexperienced in the world. He knows only his heart, which beats for no one but Maria. It’s a black and white world where decency can easily be turned to mindless murder.

Women. Maria is the only character in the novel who aspires to possession of character traits that might be considered admirable. In the opening chapters, she is no more than a spoiled child used to getting her way. Grown into a young woman, she’s physically strong enough to dominate her father and can kick him around when she’s furious enough.

She is described as thoroughly “republican” in her sentiments, believing herself the equal of all others, and superior to anyone who thinks otherwise. Unaware that kind-heartedness and love of justice are qualities of character, she has only one standard of excellence—personal independence. This she regards as a manly virtue, and she expects to be admired for it.

Encountering Hulse begins to change all that. He makes her begin to see herself from what she imagines are his critical eyes. When attempting to intimidate him has no effect, she is shamed by a sudden knowledge of her shortcomings.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Old West glossary, no. 38

Montana cowboys, c1910
Here’s another set of terms and some forgotten people, gleaned 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, and The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

These are from Herman Whitaker’s The Settler, about a homegrown tycoon on the plains of Manitoba. Once again, I struck out on a few. If anyone has a definition for “fool killer,” “lumberman’s cake,” “gillypot,” or “put a head on,” leave a comment below.

ahint = behind. “Been riding ahint of you this half-hour, but you never looked back.” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

back-setting = turning broken sod back to its original place with additional fresh soil to cover it. “I was back-setting the thirty acres down by the lake when I heard a shot an’ a yell.” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

Black knot
black knot = a fungal disease of certain varieties of fruit trees. “I’m scairt as the black knot has got inter that orchard o’ yourn, sir.” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

bluestone = copper sulphate, used in solution to treat varieties of wheat and oats. “He intended a visit to the barn, where his man was dipping seed wheat in bluestone solution to kill the smut.” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

by the ears = in close contest with an unrelenting opponent. “For the settlement would be by the ears, she said, just as long as she stayed in it.” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

cant hook = an iron hook at the end of a long handle used for rolling logs. “Ole, that big Swede, is chain lightning on a cant-hook.” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

choke-bored = the manufacture of a shotgun barrel with a constriction towards the muzzle end to reduce the area of concentration of pellets, perfected by 19th-century English gunsmith, W.W Greener. “It was choke-bored, Mrs. Ravell. At eighty-yards it would put every shot inside of a three-foot circle.” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

cookee = a cook’s assistant. “His greenish face aglow with insolence, he was holding an empty platter out to the nearest cookee.” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

crammer = a lie. “‘Poor child!’ Mrs. Leslie patted her shoulder. ‘But why did you tell her such crammers?’” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

diamond = the intersection of two railways. “He has put two of our heaviest engines into the ditch and ten men into hospital. Not bad, but—he didn’t lay the diamond.” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

Lord Dundreary
Dundreary = a character of the 1858 British play Our American Cousin; the personification of a good-natured, brainless aristocrat. “An elderly man, his clear eyes, honest face, framed in white side-whiskers of the Dundreary style, all stamped him as belonging to the old-fashioned school of finance.” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

Greener = a rifle or shotgun developed and manufactured in England by the W.W. Greener family, starting in 1829. “She brought him the famous double-barrelled Greener which, having disarranged the lock action in trying to clean it, Danvers had left with the trustee for repairs.” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

haps = events; fortunes (good or bad). “They smoked and revamped the day’s haps, its dips, jams, duckings.” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

Henry Irving
Irving, Henry = an English stage actor and theatrical manager (1838-1905); the first actor to be awarded a knighthood. “He’s great, Mrs. Carter; puts it all over Henry Irving.” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

key log = the log which, if removed, would free up a whole logjam. “She reproduced every detail for her pale audience of one—Carter astride of the key-log; his men, bating their breath with the ‘huh’ of his stroke; Bender’s distress; the cynical grin of Michigan Red.” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

levies = men enlisted for some purpose. “Bender and the woodmen beat back the monopoly’s levies while the trackmen laid the ‘diamond.’” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

Letter A, London alphabet
London alphabet = a book with a page for each letter of the alphabet, printed in red and illustrated with drawings of London landmarks. “Even the remittance-men, who had been wont to spell amusement in the red letters of the London alphabet, were there.” Herman Whitaker, The Settler. See all 26 letters.

mizzle = make a sudden departure. “You’d better mizzle—go home, you know.” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Escape From Fort Bravo, 1953

There’s a great story, spectacular photography, and some real suspense in this Fifties western filmed in Death Valley, California. The year is 1863 and the Fort Bravo of the title is an Army stockade in the Arizona desert. It’s being used as a prison camp for captured Confederate soldiers.

Plot. William Holden is captain of the fort's troop and second in command. We first see him riding in with an escaped prisoner, who is on foot and at the end of a rope. Holden is a cold man and carries out his duties with a machine-like authority. Besides enduring the contempt of the prisoners, he has Mescalero Indians to worry about. They burn supply wagons and torture the drivers before leaving them to die under the desert sun.

Holden’s reserve begins to melt when Eleanor Parker arrives at the fort to attend the wedding of the Colonel’s daughter. Little does he know that she’s there to help a Confederate captain (John Forsythe) make an escape. Parker does some heavy flirting with Holden, who in a matter of days begins putting the pressure on her to marry him. But when she disappears with Forsythe and two other prisoners, Holden discovers he’s been fooled.

Eleanor Parker, John Forsythe
The escaped prisoners don’t get far. Holden and a lieutenant catch up with them, and all head back to the fort. But before long, they are surrounded by more Mescaleros than you can count. Pinned down in a shallow depression, they withstand wave after wave of attacks by the Indians.

The prisoners are given arms, and fight side by side with Holden. But they can dodge arrows only for so long, as one by one the casualties accumulate. Eventually, the cavalry shows up to rescue them, and Forsythe’s character dies, leaving Holden and Parker to patch up.

Four stars. Cinematographer Robert Surtees gets credit for the fine look of this widescreen film shot in Ansco Color. The location photography is pretty breathtaking. The exterior scenes shot on the sound stage, however, are not much of a match. A fistfight in what looks like an amusement park water feature rings particularly false.

Director John Sturges, in an impressive Hollywood career, would go on to make some western classics, including Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957) and The Magnificent Seven (1960). His work here is thoroughly professional, especially in the action sequences.

William Demerast, John Forsythe, and William Campbell
Holden and Parker are good together, especially in the earlier scenes as the chemistry begins to work between them. The script, however, is too often soapy and clichéd. You begin to hear the lines coming before someone speaks them.

In supporting roles are William Campbell and William Demarest as Confederate soldiers who escape with Forsythe. Campbell had a long career, mostly in TV, with a one-season series Cannonball (1958-59) in which he played a long-haul truck driver. Demerast was Uncle Charley in 215 episodes of the TV series My Three Sons (1965-1972). John Forsythe would go on to star in several TV series much better suited to his suavely polished persona, including Bachelor Father (1957-1962), Charlie’s Angels (1976-1981), and Dynasty (1981-1989).

Escape From Fort Bravo is currently available at netflix and amazon. For more of Tuesday’s Overlooked Movies, head on over to Todd Mason’s blog.

Coming up: Old West glossary, no. 38

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Early western novels: a top 10 list

Illustration for Wolfville (1897), Frederic Remington
A blog reader last week asked me if I’d mention the “top five” early westerns I’ve read so far for BITS. After some thought, I found ten easier to name than just five. After some more thought, I realized that naming a “top ten” would sound like I was recommending them. Which I’m not—not without a caveat or two.

The problem with them is that popular fiction from the period (1880-1915) is an unembarrassed reflection of the popular culture then current. It reflects values and makes assumptions that have been challenged and found questionable with the years. Reading these novels, for instance, you find casual racism and long-outdated notions about gender and social classes.

So when I pick what have been the most interesting western novels from these years, it’s not because they are twenty-first century friendly. They put a lot of hurdles in the way of a modern reader.

For one thing, they were self-consciously respectful of the tender sensitivities of female readers. Delicate subjects and frank language were simply avoided. While Charles Darwin was commonly understood, this was a time still untouched by Freud. Also, in the absence of a Hemingway, writing styles tended toward the ornate. Authors were likely to draw on their classical educations and the Bible for analogies and figurative references—meaningless to most modern readers.

So when you read any of these, think of them as time capsules from 100 years ago. They reveal a lot of where we have been as a culture, and how certain fixed ideas have been embedded in it. The list is in chronological order, and the links are to reviews here at BITS.

King was a military man, and his novels take you inside the social world of officers and their spouses on the frontier. This novel is a study of a man whose career and love life are affected by an ambitious and unprincipled fellow officer.

This collection of interrelated stories about a Wyoming cowboy shows Wister developing ideas that would appear again in The Virginian (1902).

This is another collection of interrelated stories set in a fictional desert cow town in southern Arizona. Humorous and satirical, it portrays an ensemble of characters in often comic situations.

This realistic and suspenseful trail-drive novel is a follow-up to Adams’ better-known Log of a Cowboy (1903). Adams knew the cattle business first-hand, and he is careful to be accurate in all the details.

Set in New Mexico, Hough’s novel captures the mostly easy-going life of a sleepy cow town during the years of the Lincoln County Wars. It’s also a sweet love story.

This is the first of Bower’s Flying U novels, set on a ranch in northern Montana. Bower knew rural Montana life from first-hand experience and offers a woman’s point of view.

This is the best of many railroad novels of the period. Smith is a railroad detective looking for train robbers and apprehending a sabotaging former employee.

Rhodes grew up in New Mexico, where he cowboyed and prospected. This short novel set in El Paso and Juarez involves the efforts of several men to find a kidnapped friend.

The central character in this darkly humorous novel set in Wyoming is a sleazy cattle rustler who is finally brought to rough justice.

This autobiographical novel by an African-American writer offers an entertaining and detailed account of homesteading in South Dakota.

Coming up: Old West glossary, no. 38

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Saturday music: Jo Dee Messina

Just love how this woman can belt out a song.

Coming up: Early western novels, a top 10 list

Friday, July 20, 2012

Photo-finish Friday: under wraps

It's arguably the most photographed larger than life-size piece of statuary in LA, especially if you count the webcam focused on this spot from this website.

Wrapped up now, pedestal and all, while the immediate area is being repaved, the figure under the cover looks like a creature rising from a horror-movie swamp. And for gridiron rivals of this particular institution of higher learning, it is no doubt similarly repellant. Not to mention true art lovers, who are likely to avert their eyes.

Never mind, visitors from around the world practically line up to have their photo taken with it. As you can see below on a recent day.

Photo-finish Friday is the bright idea of Leah Utas over at The Goat's Lunch Pail.

Coming up: William Holden, Escape from Fort Bravo (1953)

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Marguerite Merington, Scarlett of the Mounted (1906)

It’s as if Merington conceived her story as a farce meant for the stage but wrote it as a novel instead. The scenes unfold as comic drama, with a cast of characters and action that is chiefly dialogue. As a book or a play, it works either way and is laugh-out-loud funny.

Plot. The setting is a mining camp in the Klondike called Lost Shoe Creek. The central character is Sgt. Scarlett of the NWMP, whose assignment out here in the gold fields is to track a band of thieves who are headquartered across the border in the U.S. and operating in Canada. His job is also to prevent the sale and consumption of alcohol, both of which are prohibited in the Canadian territories.

The camp is infested with questionable characters. Among them is a blackguard, Blenksoe, and Nick Bully, a ruffian who lives up to his name. During the novel Bully is extradited to the U.S. for shooting a deputy U.S. marshal.

Sgt. Scarlett
Bully has a daughter Gelly of marriageable age, whose sometime boyfriend is Dandy Raish, a scheming claim jumper. Blenksoe and Dandy keep their eye on a prospector Lucky Durant, a man who has made and lost fortunes and, though he is currently broke, can strike it rich again.

A minister, Maclane, works diligently to save souls among the miners, and mostly for local color there’s Gumboot Annie, a brassy saloon owner. An Indian trader named Chilcat Jo whittles miniature totem poles and has his own aspirations to take Gelly for his wife.

Bursting into camp comes Lucky’s daughter Evelyn and an entourage of man-hungry single women she calls her Orphans. Evelyn, an American, has lived all her life wanting for nothing, sent to the best private schools, all paid for by her father. She has come to visit him, whom she expects to find living in luxury.

Not wanting to be found penniless, Lucky ducks town, and everyone covers for him to save embarrassment for both father and daughter. Expecting his luck to turn, Lucky disappears into the surrounding terrain in search of another paying claim.

Romance. Sgt. Scarlett is smitten by Evelyn but events conspire to frustrate romance. She has acquired an assistant who calls himself Travers but is in fact Dandy. When he believes Lucky has made a strike, he plots to kidnap both father and daughter and hold them in exchange for the claim.

In a plot twist too complicated to explain plausibly, he persuades Evelyn to temporarily marry him. As the only authority able to grant a marriage license out here on the far-flung Canadian frontier, Sgt. Scarlett refuses to do the honors.

Within a stone’s throw of the American border, Evelyn and Dandy are about to cross into the U.S. to get married, when Dandy’s girlfriend Gelly shows up. Both she and her father, Nick, object to the couple’s plans, and Chilkat Jo puts a stop to it all by firing a bullet through Dandy.

The passing of a year brings a semblance of civilization to the camp. The Orphans have found husbands, and Evelyn has gone into the real estate business. When her father finally appears, he explains that he’s found the gold mine of his dreams but thanks to a memory malfunction he can’t remember where it is.

Turns out, it’s on a spot that Evelyn already owns. When she learns that the truth about her father was kept from her to save her embarrassment, she forgives everyone in camp for their good intentions. Everyone, that is, except Sgt. Scarlett. It takes a final change of heart for her to take him to her bosom.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Indian Fighter, 1955

This western has a lot going for it. Shot in beautiful wooded mountains, and resplendent in Technicolor and CinemaScope, it’s a story about whites and Indians. Kirk Douglas stars, with Walter Matthau and Lon Chaney cast as villains.

Douglas is the Indian fighter of the title, tough and well muscled, and showing it by taking off his shirt for a while. Though he has a reputation as an Indian fighter, he mainly occupies himself with attempts to broker a peace between Indians and whites. Playing the self-assured kind of character he patented, he often delivers lines with a gleeful leer.

Matthau and Chaney are plausible as clumsy and not-so-bright outlaws. Elsa Martinelli is the statuesque daughter of the chief, and Diana Douglas (Kirk’s former wife) is a widow headed for Oregon in a wagon train with a small son. She’d like to persuade Douglas to settle down with her there and plant fruit trees.

For added value, Ben Hecht had a hand in the script, which may account for the few moments of humor. In an exchange between Douglas and Eduard Franz as Chief Red Cloud of the Sioux, Douglas explains that whites have been recently occupied fighting a Civil War.

Red Cloud: We were hoping you’d kill off each other.
Douglas: Didn’t last that long.
Red Cloud: Too bad.

Douglas and Martinelli, romancing
The film is pretty to look at—the Sioux in their feathered headgear are particularly impressive. But as the story involves some steamy relations between Douglas and the chief’s daughter, Onahti, it begins to run aground.

Plot. The main action of the film concerns the safe conveyance of a wagon train of settlers across Sioux territory in Wyoming. The Sioux are willing to be reasonable about the intrusion of whites, as long as they don’t hang around corrupting the natives with whiskey or go digging up the landscape for gold.

This is exactly what Matthau and Chaney are up to, however, and they cause enough trouble on their own to precipitate what turns into a near massacre. The Indians’ first overtures to the whites are a peaceful attempt to do some trading. But the nervous whites panic, and before long they are holed up in the cavalry fort, the chief’s brother has been killed, and the fort is under attack.

Douglas has to bring peace somehow, or the whites will be annihilated. And this is where the whole film gets sticky. Douglas has seduced and forced his attentions on the chief’s daughter, who finds his handsome white self and rough lovemaking irresistible. The couple is particularly drawn to water, and one scene finds them threshing around amorously in a flowing mountain stream.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Old West glossary, no. 37

Here’s another set of terms gleaned from early western stories. 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, and The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

These are from William De Vere’s collection of poems, Jim Marshall's New Pianner, about mining camps and other western topics, and Herman Whitaker’s The Settler, about a homegrown tycoon on the plains of Manitoba. Once again, I struck out on a few. If anyone has a definition for “two-dealer,” “kerbase,” “Jack box,” “tye camp,” “long-geared,” or “crown a roll,” leave a comment below.

ace in the door = in poker, the ace appearing as the first card turned face up. “It was called by Higgins, who dealt once more, / When the Cherokee got ‘an ace in the door.’” William De Vere, Jim Marshall’s New Pianner.

all hunk = satisfactory, fine. “We’d bin up all night in the dance hall, / An’ closed up the shanty all hunk.” William De Vere, Jim Marshall’s New Pianner.

big bug = an important person, dignitary. “He walked into the door of the hall, / An’ saw all the big bugs dressed up for the ball.” William De Vere, Jim Marshall’s New Pianner.

blow one’s stuff = squander money. “He could play two deuces pat at bluff, / Could ‘crack a bottle,’ or ‘blow his stuff.’” William De Vere, Jim Marshall’s New Pianner.

call the turn = to predict accurately. “That either they or I can learn / A sinner how to call the turn.” William De Vere, Jim Marshall’s New Pianner.

check = a counter, token, chip. “He found he had only one red check, when the game closed.” William De Vere, Jim Marshall’s New Pianner.

clawhammer = a tailcoat. “Rolled home in the morning light, / With crumpled tie and torn clawhammer.” William De Vere, Jim Marshall’s New Pianner.

cold deck = a prepared deck of cards. “The Colonel, in shuffling, slipped the deck through / And the Judge cut a cold one instead.” William De Vere, Jim Marshall’s New Pianner.

con = to study, learn by heart, peruse, scan. “Martin Luther, saith the legend, / Seated in his study grim, / Conning some old Biblic story / When Old Nick appeared to him.” William De Vere, Jim Marshall’s New Pianner.

Concord type coach, c1869
Concord Coach = a stagecoach developed in Concord, New Hampshire, and widely used in the Old West; the coach body rested on bull hide strips instead of steel springs. “The old mining camp reached by the Concord coach or the ‘Freighter’ is fast passing away.” William De Vere, Jim Marshall’s New Pianner.

cutter = a light horse-drawn sleigh. “As the cutter sped swiftly over the first mile, she chatted freely, without thought of danger.” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

deadfall = a rough saloon. “Beware the pine tree’s withered branch, / Beware a ‘deadfall’, called Chalk Ranch.” William De Vere, Jim Marshall’s New Pianner.

fly = smart, sharp, aware. “Once an ole sport, / Of the right sort— / Daniels, by name, / Fly ’n dead game.” William De Vere, Jim Marshall’s New Pianner.

Hell’s half acre = a disreputable area or place, a low-class dancehall or bar. “In fell the roof with a crash, / That sounded as if ‘Hell’s half acre’ / Had tumbled upon us kermash.” William De Vere, Jim Marshall’s New Pianner.

katzenjammer = a hangover. “Woke up next day with a katzenjammer.” William De Vere, Jim Marshall’s New Pianner.

kick = a pocket. “Your overcoat ‘hocked,’ not a cent in your ‘kick,’ / And ‘beautiful snow’ till you can’t see a brick.” William De Vere, Jim Marshall’s New Pianner.

kicking strap = a device worn by a horse to prevent it from lifting its hind-quarters to either kick or buck. “His mate, a rat-tailed mare, equally big, differed only in the insignia of wickedness, wearing a kicking-strap in harness, a log chain in the stable.” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

knock = to make a good impression. “Just one word more, and that’s what knocks, / There’s always stuff in the parson’s box.” William De Vere, Jim Marshall’s New Pianner.

lookout = the person who supervises betting at faro. “While the ‘lookout’ lazily lolled in his chair, / And his cigarette smoke melted into the air.” William De Vere, Jim Marshall’s New Pianner.

macer = swindler, thief, villain. “Gamblers, miners, suckers, marks, / Spieler, macers, bunco sharks.” William De Vere, Jim Marshall’s New Pianner.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Progress report

About six months ago I posted here a progress report on my early-western project. For two years now, I’ve been finding and reading first novels and story collections set in the West and published between 1880-1915. That project grew to be much larger than first expected. The dozen or so writers I started with gradually grew into a much longer list.

Back in December, the list had grown to 75, and I was seeing light at the end of the tunnel, but since then the 75 writers have grown once more to 100. I believe now there are probably many more, but I’ve decided to stop when I get to that 100th one. There is such a thing as overkill.

Over the past six months, I’ve read and written up the following books:

With retirement, I’ve had more time to devote to this project, but it hasn’t exactly gone into overdrive. I carefully read and then write up each book based on several pages of notes. A condensed version of each write-up gets posted at BITS each week. Looking at the TBR list, I don’t expect to be done before the end of the year.

Besides the plot for each one, I try to follow several threads that run through all the novels. I’m interest in the portrayal of character, the role of women, romance, racial attitudes, language and style, the western setting, cowboys, mining, timber, railroads, the military, and regional differences, plus whatever biographical material I can find about the author.

My guiding objective has been to assemble an extensive study of the period’s popular literature that will give a picture of how the West was imagined by turn-of-the-century writers and readers. I see the finished product as an informal guide to the period, not something stuffy and academic.

Context. It’s an interesting period historically. The years follow closely on the heels of the Civil War, the gold rushes, the Indian Wars, and the “closing” of the frontier West. They embrace the Spanish-American War and the Progressivist era of Theodore Roosevelt, and they are fraught with social issues that eventually produced women’s suffrage and Prohibition.

As we look back to that time, Owen Wister and Zane Grey remain prominent for us today. But in reality Wister was regarded as only one among several successful western writers. And Zane Grey did not emerge until the end of the period.

There were scores of other writers who produced a substantial outpouring of fiction set in the West. Many of them are still highly readable and entertaining. Still at the dawn of the coming age of both movies and pulp magazines, they wrote at a time when print was king. People read books, periodicals, and newspapers in great numbers.

Writers then as now wrote to capture the attention and recognition of this public and, if possible, to make a living. I want to capture some of how all that gave shape to what would eventually become “the western.”

Is there an audience out there for all this? Maybe, and it’s probably small. If the data at GoodReads is anything to go by, I seem to be the only person reading these books, let alone taking the time to write about them. But it keeps me occupied, entertained, and feeling useful.

And so it goes.

Coming up: Old West glossary, no. 37

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Saturday music: George Strait

Once you know the words to this one, it's real hard not to sing along.

Coming up: Kirk Douglas, The Indian Fighter (1955)

Friday, July 13, 2012

Photo-finish Friday: June gloom

June in LA is a month of gloom. Most days overcast and kind of murky. It can start in May and carry on into July, which is when I shot this on a day-trip into the city earlier this month. Gray sky overhead and the Hollywood Hills in the distance, looking like they're ready to disappear in a fog bank. It's called a marine layer, and it gets monotonous.

But when it gets to 115 degrees out here in the desert, which it has been this past week, you kind of yearn for some of that old "gloom." Doesn't look great, but it's a lot like outdoor air-conditioning. Beats the alternative.

Photo-finish Friday is the bright idea of Leah Utas over at The Goat's Lunch Pail.

Coming up: Saturday music, George Strait

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Herman Whitaker, The Settler (1907)

Title page, 1907 edition
Reading this novel, it’s not a surprise that its author hung out with Jack London. Herman Whitaker shows a feeling for the kind of tough men who labored in the most physically demanding industries of the developing West. While an opponent of the monopolists, trusts, and robber barons who made fortunes at the expense of workingmen, he also saw that it took the hubris of their grand vision to build nations. 

The nation in this case is Canada. The Settler, written while British-born Whitaker was living in California, is based on his experience as a homesteader in Manitoba during the late 1880s. The Canadian Pacific Railroad has lured farmers onto the prairies to turn the sod and plant wheat. Rising freight rates, however, prevent the farmers from making a decent living, and most are mortgaged to the hilt.

Carter, the central character, is a handsome specimen of manhood. He may be a farmer, but he’s also a cut above his neighbors in intelligence and leadership skills. He doesn’t just complain about the railroad. He begins thinking like a railroad tycoon, and the novel traces his emergence as a man whose daring and cunning make him a match for even the mighty Canadian Pacific.

Illustration, 1907 edition
Plot. What the wheat farmers need is a fifty-mile spur connecting them to the main line. The CP, in the person of its general manager known as Brass Bowels (a sonorous euphemism), says no way. It would have an adverse effect on the bottom line. So Carter decides to build his own spur, from the farmers’ wheat lands to Winnipeg.

He gets the financial backing of lenders who see the opportunity to make fifty percent interest on their investment, and he acquires the equipment needed to spend a winter felling timber. Converted to lumber, it goes to laying track, building bridges and trestles. Seeing the advantage of linking to the American markets, he builds on southward to the U.S. as well.

The potential showstopper is the expected refusal of the CP to let Carter’s railroad cross CP tracks. While all of Manitoba watches with bated breath, newspaper editorials hot with speculation, Carter manages a crafty move that checkmates his opponent. Recognizing that he’s up against an equal, with brass balls of his own, the CP manager works out a deal that happily suits both men.

So that’s the main thread of the story, but it’s merely a line to hang from it several subplots with various turns and wrinkles. One concerns the running of a lumber camp through the dead of winter. We learn about the felling of timber and its transportation by horse-drawn skids over snow and ice to a lake, from where it will flow with the spring thaws downstream to the mills.

Of interest are the working conditions and management of the men, all of them proud, rough bruisers with minds of their own. Carter has to win and hold their respect, in a world where the pecking order is normally fixed with fists and other handy weapons. With a Trampas-like villain called Michigan Red determined never to knuckle under to Carter, there is a long war of nerves between the two men.

The perils of work in the northern woods include the fierce winter weather and sub-zero temperatures and a raging forest fire that catches Carter and his men on a burning trestle. Ready after several months of hard work for a raise in pay, the men also go on an ill-fated strike.

Canadian Pacific Railway, Manitoba, 1880s
Romance. The story is a romance as well. But as the narrator points out, unlike love stories that end with the marriage of an unpolished cowboy and a pretty schoolmarm, this one starts where they leave off. A sweet romance in the opening chapters brings Carter and Helen to the altar, but the honeymoon doesn’t last long.

There’s trouble right away with the neighbors. Plain folks don’t cotton to Helen’s Eastern ways, and she turns for friendship to the local colony of remittance men from England and their women.  Seeing how much pleasure she takes in their more refined company, Carter realizes that she is shamed by his unrefined ways. It does not help matters that one of the English wives, Helen’s best friend, has set her own eye on him and makes reckless advances.

Carter and Helen separate, and he throws himself into his work. They do not see each other for most of two years. By this time, the water under the bridge would fill Hudson Bay. Helen has nearly fallen victim to a sly fox of an Englishman, Molyneux, who uses every trick to lure her into his den. We learn long before she does that he has fathered a stillborn child with the daughter of a local farmer.