"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Thursday, September 20, 2018

The Man Who Came Back (Gudegast Braeden Productions, 2008)


Vengeance is mine, saith the hero




 
 
The revenge drama is a staple of the Western movie. You show a really bad bad-guy in the first reel and establish his wickedness (and the bona fides of the good guy) so that the villain will deserve the come-uppance that will undoubtedly be meted out to him in the last reel. The excuse for allowing this personal act of revenge rather than involving the authorities is that there was limited official law ‘n’ order on the Western frontier, so it’s alright. A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do and all that. Countless Western movies used this plot and yet another arrived in 2008.

I’m not sure if The Man Who Came Back was a theatrical release, a TV movie or a straight-to-video affair. It does rather have the look of a TV movie, though I watched it on DVD, and, as we have remarked recently, like many modern Westerns it does look a bit like a re-enactment in an historical Western town, with actors wearing costumes. Still, it isn’t too bad.

 
Just quite bad.

The villain of the piece is Billy Duke (James Patrick Stuart, below, Col E Porter Alexander in Gettysburg), who, in post-Reconstruction 1880s Louisiana, when, we are told, Southern aristocrats were taking back power, behaves like an unreconstructed vicious slave owner. He discovers some Nigras, as he calls them, leaving the plantation and he whips one and shoots the mule of another. I’m surprised he didn’t beat a child as well because that was a standard way of establishing bad-guy credentials in the opening scenes, but shooting an innocent mule will do.

Bad guy
 
The good news is that George Kennedy is his dad, the plantation owner and local judge. Born 1925, Mr. Kennedy was well into his eighties and we Westernistas have fond memories of him, usually as the bad guy, from countless oaters of yore. The veteran of guest appearances in pretty well every Western TV show you care to name, for me he was Chris in the 1969 Guns of the Magnificent Seven - still to be reviewed, I notice - the bad guy McKay in The Good Guys and the Bad Guys the same year, and splendid as the villain Fraser in Cahill, US Marshal in ’73. The Westerns he was in weren’t always top-drawer but he was reliably good in them. In The Man Who Came Back he reminds me slightly of Bruce Dern in Django Unchained, four years later, an old-timer Western movie actor with bad-guy cred who plays a loathsome patriarch plantation owner.

George still had it
 
Daddy Duke seems to despair of his ne’er-do-well son (with good reason) but stands by him out of family and class loyalty. Together they will pervert the course of justice and be responsible for or complicit in lynching, murder, rape, false imprisonment and any number of other crimes which, to the Western watcher, deserve retribution, probably from a Colt.

The man who will deliver this rough justice? Well, I’ve rather delayed talking about him. You might expect some well-known Western good guy but in fact we get Eric Braeden, né Gudegast, a German-American actor known for daytime soap operas on TV (he won a ‘Daytime Emmy’ but I’m not sure if that’s a good thing) who was also, I am informed, John Jacob Astor in Titanic (I say I am informed of that because I am the only person on this planet who has never seen Titanic). Mr. Braeden is solid and steady, though is unlikely to set the prairie on fire. Just occasionally he looks vaguely Stalloney. He was the German officer adviser in 100 Rifles (like Mapache's in The Wild Bunch) and appeared in various Western TV shows here and there.

Not the most charismatic lead, I fear
 
He plays the decent overseer of the Dukes who is fired for being too nice to the workforce. He doesn’t like the way that the cotton-pickers are paid in “funny money” (scrip) which they can only spend at the Dukes’ store and Duke Jr. has tripled the prices there (“It’s just good business.”) The workers go on strike. The film, at the end, makes specific reference to the Thibodaux Massacre of 1887, one of the most violent labor disputes in US history, when white paramilitaries in Louisiana slaughtered up to 300 striking African-American sugar-cane workers.  But the movie is not about the massacre, which is only obliquely referred to, and the mention does seem a bit gratuitous.

Paxton’s angelic spouse is Angelique (Carol Alt) and they have an equally perfect young son (Brady Hender) but the wife and child end up in a way that reminds me of the grisly fate of the family in The Tall T. Now Paxton has even more justification for revenge. He escapes from the brutal prison - where the warden (Peter Jason) tells him that “Prisoners are not men; they are livestock” - and, as the movie’s title suggests, he returns to exact his vengeance.

The warden surveys his livestock
 
Billy Zane is Ezra, the New Yorker (first seen holding a carpetbag in case we didn’t guess he was a carpetbagger) who endears himself to Daddy Duke by saying that “Since justice is blind, the only color I recognize is green.” He becomes Duke’s tame lawman. Zane was memorable for me as the crazed colonel in the Van Peebles clan’s rather iffy Posse in 1993, which I also must get round to reveiwing, and he was too the crooked cattle-baron/town boss in the recently reviewed Hannah’s Law in 2012, another movie which had a revenge theme. Actually, though, he is wasted in the part of weak henchman.

Zane is rather gray
 
One of the best actors was Armand Assante as the peculiarly nasty Amos. Mr. Assante played Mike Hammer, Belizaire the Cajun and teamed up with Antonio Banderas in The Mambo Kings. Westernwise, he only did this and a TV movie in 1994 in which he was a blind gunfighter. Pity. He was rather good.

Armand Assante with lead Braeden at the wrap party
 
There’s a repulsive preacher (Al Hayter) who seems to have crawled out from under some rock. He commits perjury and his wife is equally mendacious. Billy has become mayor and is orchestrating “a return to our treasured traditions” (racism, death, destruction, etc.)

One by one those who were responsible for Paxton's imprisonment and the deaths of his family are eliminated (the preacher is appropriately crucified). As Paxton replies when the saloon madam asks if he’s going to pay for that drink, “Everybody pays.” (There’s a bizarre and totally out-of-place love scene between Paxton and the madam which can only have been inserted for a few R-rated shots of breast.)
 
At a certain moment Paxton asks the undertaker to make more coffins. He seems to think he’s Clint Eastwood.
 
Naturally it all leads to a Paxton/Billy showdown, as we knew it would. There’s good news: the lowdown skunk Billy has a derringer (we guessed he might). Actually he shoots our hero in the gut with it and you know, a derringer may be a sneaky little popgun but it can sure do damage at point-blank range. So we get a Shaney ending as the wounded if not dying goodie rides off into the sunset.
 
The Texas locations don’t suggest Louisiana but never mind. Much of the dialogue is clunky, crudely obvious or anachronistic. “Slavery’s over! We can leave if we want!” enthuse the black workers (who are, honestly, little more than extras). At one point Ezra says, “Whatever.”

Extras
 
The movie was co-written by Glen Pitre, who also directed it, his only Western – and it shows a bit. His fellow writer, who directed/wrote three other Westerns, was Chuck Walker.

One is left thinking, “Next!”

 

 

Monday, September 17, 2018

I Will Fight No More for Ever (ABC TV, 1975)


The Indian chief is the good guy




 
 
Hinmatóowyalahtq̓it, better known as Chief Joseph (1840 – 1904), leader of the Wal-lam-wat-kain (Wallowa) band of Nez Perce, is regarded by many as one of the greatest of all the Native American chiefs who resisted white American confiscation of their lands, ranking with the likes of Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and Geronimo as a hero of his people.
 
Hinmatóowyalahtq̓it, aka Chief Joseph

He has appeared occasionally in Western stories and movies, and even on Broadway, in the stage play Indians. He figures in Will Henry's novel of the Nez Perce War, From Where the Sun Now Stands (1959), a book which won the 1960 Western Writers of America Spur Award for Best Novel of the West. But probably the best-known screen portrayal of Chief Joseph and the so-called Nez Perce War was the TV movie screened by ABC in 1975 which also takes as its title some of Joseph’s words of surrender, I Will Fight No More for Ever.

The picture came when the influence of Dee Brown’s 1970 book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee was very strong and the American Indian advocacy group AIM was in full voice. Films started to show white American expansionism from the Indians’ point of view, and big-screen pictures like Little Big Man or Soldier Blue (both 1970) were not shy about depicting the slaughter of innocents by half-crazed Army officers. A necessary corrective, you may well say, though they blatantly overdid it.

Of course, they were still ‘white’ movies and though they showed the often appalling injustice of the treatment by settlers and the Army of the occupiers of the land the whites wanted, there was always a tinge of the patronizing about them – and the luridly sensational. Still, I Will Fight No More was a worthy effort and it even managed to portray the Army officers sympathetically, while still being four-square on the side of the Nez Perce.

General Oliver Otis Howard (1830 – 1909) was a career Army man who had distinguished himself on the Union side in the Civil War, losing his right arm. Known often as ‘Bible Howard’ or ‘The Christian General’ because he tried to base his policy decisions on his deep religious piety, he was given charge of the Freedmen's Bureau in mid-1865, doing his best to ameliorate the conditions of liberated slaves in the South. He negotiated a treaty with the Apache Cochise in 1872. In 1874 he took command of the Department of the Columbia, and his campaigns against the Nez Perce in Oregon, Idaho and Montana made him one of the best-known (though also most criticized) soldiers of the Indian wars.

OO Howard by Mathew Brady

He is played in this movie by the excellent James Whitmore, a first-class Western actor who had started in the genre as one of the Reb soldiers who escaped with Joel McCrea in The Outriders in 1950, and was, for me, memorably good as the crusty sergeant in the Guy Madison picture The Command in 1954 and as one of the sympathetic trio of trappers in The Last Frontier in ’55. I Will Fight No More was his last Western, more’s the pity.

Whitmore as Howard

His aide-de-camp is Captain Wood, played by second-billed Sam Elliott. Elliott today is a kind of symbol of the grizzled cowboy (as viewers of The Ranch will know) but he came to Westerns just too late to be a big-screen star in the genre. He had been Missouri Townsman (uncredited) in The Way West in 1967 and Card Player #2 in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in ‘69. His first leading role in a Western was in the minor Molly and Lawless John in 1972, and this was his first big Western part after that. In 1979 he would appear in NBC’s The Sacketts and come to dominate the TV-movie Western but by the time of I Will Fight No More he had some rep as a Westerner. His Capt. Wood is the classic Man Who Knows Indians, sympathizing with the Nez Perce and speaking their language. He tells Howard that the government should “Treat the Indians like human beings [he probably meant as human beings] and recognize their rights.”

Sam is the Man Who Knows Indians

Playing Chief Joseph is Ned Romero, only third-billed in the cast but at least shown on the DVD cover. Romero was a regular on Western TV shows (he did six episodes of Shane) and he was the Indian Wild Bear in the TV-movie remake of Winchester ’73, which we reviewed recently. He also had small parts in Hang ‘em High and Tell Them Willie Boy is Here. He’s good as Joseph, showing the dignity, intelligence and tactical savvy of the chief.

Romero is Joseph

In 1877 President Grant, abrogating earlier treaties which guaranteed the Nez Perce their land for ever, gave the people only thirty days to move out completely to a distant reservation in Idaho. It was brutal and peremptory. Joseph expressed his "[disbelief that] the Great Spirit Chief gave one kind of men the right to tell another kind of men what they must do." Howard reacted angrily, interpreting the statement as a challenge to his authority. Howard told Joseph he would consider Nez Perce presence in the Wallowa Valley beyond the 30-day mark an act of war. Though angry and near despair, Joseph at a council advocated going to the reservation.

In the movie Howard is shown as ordering this removal unwillingly, obeying orders reluctantly, and, in a rather cheesy moment, he gives Joseph a toy buffalo his wife has made for the child that Joseph’s wife Toma (Linda Redfearn) is soon to bear. But certainly the Nez Perce could see little sign of reluctance, and anyway, the result was the same for them.

In reality, Too-hul-hul-sote or Toohoolhoolzote, named as spokesman for the different Nez Perce bands, argued cogently for more time but Howard replied, "I do not want to hear you say anything more like that. I am telling you! Thirty days you have to get on the reservation." Toohoolhoolzote does not appear in the film and instead we get Wahlitits (John Kauffman) who is the firebrand arguing for war against the statesmanlike chief for peace, in a well-known Hollywood trope.

In the end, in this movie version of history, conflict is provoked by stupid white settlers who disobey orders and fire upon the Nez Perce as they approach under a flag of truce. Joseph now has no choice but to fight, and he plans a long march to join Sitting Bull in Canada. Howard pursues and an epic chase ensues, with Joseph outwitting the Army at every turn. The soldiers shoot women and children and use a howitzer against the Indians: they are clearly the bad guys here.

Interestingly, we get three (uncredited) journalists who interview an angry Howard and follow the long pursuit, reporting it for the Eastern papers, and they tell the general that as time has gone on, Joseph has become a hero to the reading public. Coming so soon after (according to the yellow press’s version) “Sitting Bull slaughtered Custer”, that was remarkable, but it does indeed appear that people were increasingly on the side of the Indians. Joseph became known as “the Red Napoleon”.

More recently it has been said that Joseph was not technically a war chief and probably did not command the retreat at all. Francis Haines, in a 1954 article, Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce Warrior, argued that the battlefield successes of the Nez Perce during the war were due to the individual prowess of the Nez Perce men and not that of the fabled military genius of Chief Joseph. Haines supported his argument by citing the splendidly-named frontiersman Lucullus Virgil McWhorter (1860 - 1944), who concluded “that Chief Joseph was not a military man at all, that on the battlefield he was without either skill or experience". Maybe that was so. I’m not enough of a military historian to say, or any kind of historian come to that.

Lucullus Virgil McWhorter

A voiceover narration gives a faux-documentary sheen to the movie. We get the famous incident in Yellowstone National Park when tourists are held hostage but Joseph lets them go after telling them his plans, knowing that what he says will get back to the authorities.

Later we get Col. Nelson A Miles (also an uncredited actor) appearing in his famous bearskin coat, driving the Nez Perce down from the North and preventing their getting to Canada.

Bearcoat Miles

The remaining Nez Perce are surrounded, Chief Joseph tells his followers, “It is finished” and he makes his famous speech of surrender to Howard (in reality he surrendered to Miles):

I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed; Looking Glass is dead, Too-hul-hul-sote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say yes or no. He who led on the young men is dead. It is cold, and we have no blankets; the little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are—perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children, to see how many I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.

The film ends there. The popular legend of the noble surrender was deflated, however, when the original pencil draft of the report was revealed to show the handwriting of the later poet and lawyer Lieutenant Charles Erskine Scott Wood, who claimed to have taken down the great chief's words on the spot. In the margin it read, "Here insert Joseph's reply to the demand for surrender".

Though Howard and Miles apparently argued for clemency and leniency, General Sherman overruled them and ordered Joseph and 400 followers to be taken on unheated rail cars to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where they were held in a prisoner-of-war campsite for eight months. Toward the end of the following summer, the surviving Nez Perce were taken by rail to a reservation in the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma); they lived there for seven years. Many of them died of epidemic diseases.

Joseph and his family, 1880

Joseph lived on, in his last years speaking eloquently against the injustice of United States policy toward his people. In 1897, he visited Washington, DC to plead his case. He rode with Buffalo Bill Cody in a parade honoring former President Grant in New York City, but he was more a topic of conversation for his traditional headdress than for his mission. Everywhere he went, it was to make a plea for what remained of his people to be returned to their home in the Wallowa Valley, but it never happened, though he was allowed to go to Idaho. He died in September 1904, still in exile from his homeland.

 
An 1889 photograph of Joseph speaking to ethnologist Alice Cunningham Fletcher and her interpreter James Stuart


 

Friday, September 14, 2018

Hannah’s Law (Sony/Hallmark, 2012)


The Bounty Huntress





 
 
 
“Each generation remakes the Western in its own image.” (J Arnold – I just made it up). Lucky that they still make Westerns at all, of course. But it is true that 1950s Western movies were more reflective of the mores of that decade than they were of those of the 1870s and 80s. Mid-twentieth century values and proprieties were the standard. So too now. Recent Westerns give more prominence to African-American characters, usually making them the goodies, and women play a far more leading role. They wear pants and ride astride, they talk tough and use guns. There was a time when women in Westerns were virginal schoolma’ams, sturdy farmer’s wives or racy saloon gals. That was the only choice. Not these days. Now they are gunslingers or bounty hunters, or bent on revenge. Think of Sharon Stone in The Quick and the Dead, or those Bandidas, or Rosamund Pike in Hostiles or Natalie Portman in Jane Got a Gun, or many other 1990s and 2000s female leads. There were always women with guns before but they were amusing or odd or deliberate role-reversals, chirpy Calamity Jane-type figures-of-fun or gunbelted Vienna in Johnny Guitar or cattle baronesses like Jessica Drummond in Forty Guns or Stanwyck again as Martha Wilkison in The Violent Men. Now they want to be more macho than the men. O tempora, o mores, one might be tempted to remark, if one were fond of classical clichés.
 
The prototype

Not so long ago, if an evil outlaw after the Civil War killed a farming family, stole its horses and burned the house down, the surviving son would have grown up and hunted the villains down one by one. Now it’s just the same story but in this Canadian picture of 2012 it’s a young girl who grows up and does that. Hannah (Canadian Sara Canning) becomes a bounty hunter and, out of Dodge City, captures badmen and brings them in – alive. Her greatest friend is an African-American stage driver called Stagecoach Mary (unCanadian Kimberly Elise) who also wears man’s attire and is pretty damn handy with a sawn-off.

Hannah's pal

Hannah doesn’t really have time for dalliance but she does rather like the handsome young deputy, Wyatt Earp (Canadian Greyston Holt), and she also, in a more cynical way, consorts with Doc Holliday (compatriot Ryan Kennedy). It’s 1878 now. There’s no sign of any other Earps, and there’s a fat and anonymous city marshal, with Wyatt as his only deputy. So Hannah’s Law adds to the already very long list of screen Wyatts and screen Docs, with equal insouciance as regards the historical facts. Actually, I thought Kennedy as Holliday rather good, and the scene where he deliberately loses to an uncouth card player was well handled.

Young Wyatt

Dodge City is remarkably unrealistic, though no more so, I suppose, than countless B-Western Dodges of yore. It’s pretty, however, with Calgary trees under spacious Alberta skies.

Kennedy is Doc

The arch bad guy, McMurphy (John Pyper-Ferguson, an Australian who had a small part in Unforgiven, also filmed in Calgary) is cruel and pitiless and ruthless, so obviously deserves the rough justice that is undoubtedly coming his way. He learns that Hannah is gunning for him and his gang, though he doesn’t yet know why (that will be vouchsafed unto him in the final showdown). He hires another bounty hunter, this one with more of a propensity for ignoring the ...or alive part on the wanted posters, Zechariah Stitch (Brendan Fletcher, yet another Canadian) to smoke out Hannah, which he does quite efficiently.

The bad guy

Just as the bad guys are improbably bad, so too our heroine is too much a goodie. She gives her bounties to the Dodge home for orphans and is superhumanly competent at decimating the outlaws. But then why shouldn’t she? She’s no more omnipotent and good at slaughtering than, say, Clint in Pale Rider. The last-reel scene where the bandits ride into Dodge and there is Hannah standing alone at the far end of Main Street with her carbine in her hand is as emblematic of the old male Western as any image you’ll see.

Glam gunslinger

They got a couple of ‘names’ in the cast. Billy Zane is the crooked cattle-baron/town boss Lockwood and Danny Glover is Isom Dart, the man who raised orphan Hannah and taught her how to bounty hunt. You may remember Mr. Zane as one of Biff Tannen’s thugs in Back to the Future I & II, maybe, or as John Justice Wheeler in Twin Peaks but I think of him more as the crazed Col. Graham in the rather dire Van Peebles clan’s Posse and in The Man Who Came Back (2008), a picture in some ways similar to Hannah’s Law, at least in the one-person vigilante revenge theme. As for Mr. Glover, he needs no introduction but Western lovers will definitely be reminded of Mal in Silverado and especially of Deets. In Hannah’s Law he goes for the Glover I’m too old for this approach, though, sadly, doesn’t actually say it.

Billy

Danny

Hannah comes out with the famous line, “I have to do this alone,” declining all help, though we viewers are 99% certain that Stagecoach Mary (who seems to have a repeater shotgun), Wyatt, Doc and Isom Dart will all be around to back her up when push inevitably comes to shove, and we are not disappointed.

Some of the other dialogue (by John Fasano, who wrote The Legend of Butch and Sundance for TV, and indeed this one smacks a little of Wyatt and Doc, the early years) is anachronistic, such as when Hannah asks, “What part of ‘alive’ don’t you understand?” But once again (see first para) these movies are more reflective of today than 1878.

The look of the picture isn’t too convincing either. As reader Mike Richards perceptively said in a comment on another recent Wyatt picture, Wyatt Earp’s Revenge, it’s like watching a re-enactment in an historical Western town. The characters are all obviously wearing costumes.

The goodies: Wyatt, Mary, Hannah, Doc, Isom

The film was directed by Rachel Talalay, her only Western. She staged the shoot-out well, I thought.

Talalay

Villain Murphy does finally try to get Hannah with a typically sneaky boot derringer, so that sent the picture up in my estimation, but sadly we were not allowed to see it. There’s a plot-twist at the end which sets up a possible sequel.

I didn’t mind it. It’s not bad. Zane and Glover were good and so was the actor playing Doc. It’s standard fare, but then what’s wrong with that?

 

 

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Zane Grey



Writers of the Purple Prose

 
In this blog we have looked at the lives and careers of famous Westerners, be they on-screen fictional characters or the real McCoy. But we mustn’t forget the writers, because they contributed to the Western – indeed they were in several cases the originators of the genre. They go right back to Fenimore Cooper, of course, though I won’t be writing a review of his literary output because I find it incredibly long and even more boring. Franz Schubert asked for Cooper to be read to him on his deathbed. It probably finished him off. I agree with Mark Twain that Cooper was guilty of verbose writing, poor plotting, glaring inconsistencies, overused clichés, cardboard characterizations, and a host of similar "offenses". We’ve already discussed Owen Wister, one of the great pioneers of the Western novel, and the other day I was droning on about Max Brand. I’ve also waxed if not lyrical then at least enthusiastic about other wielders of the Western pen, such as Larry McMurtry, Luke Short, Elmore Leonard, Ernest Haycox and others (click the links if you are interested in this blog's thoughts on them). Today, though, it’s the turn of Zane Grey.

Like Cooper and Wister, Grey was not a Westerner. Pearl Zane Gray (1872 – 1939) was born in Zanesville, Ohio, a city founded by his great-grandfather Ebenezer Zane. Soon after his birth his father, a dentist, changed the name to Grey. As a boy, Pearl (he adopted the second name Zane later) loved baseball and fishing, and was an avid reader of James Fenimore Cooper and dime novels. He wrote his first story, Jim of the Cave, when he was fifteen. His father disapproved, tore it to shreds and beat him. Not the greatest start to a literary career. But he did get some writing published as a young man – not Western stories but articles on fishing in Field and Stream.

The boy extracted teeth as his father’s assistant until the state regulators intervened. Zane went to the University of Pennsylvania to study dentistry on a baseball scholarship but was only an average student at best. He started writing poetry. He was shy and teetotal.

He was a good pitcher and hitter

After graduating, Grey established his own dental practice in New York City under the name of Dr. Zane Grey in 1896. In 1905, he married Lina Roth, better known as "Dolly". He was often unfaithful to Dolly and it must have been hard for her as he suffered all his life from depression, anger and mood swings. He wrote: “A hyena lying in ambush—that is my black spell! I conquered one mood only to fall prey to the next...I wandered about like a lost soul or a man who was conscious of imminent death."

Grey’s first published work was Betty Zane (1903), an historical novel about his ancestors. He could get no publisher interested and he had it privately printed. This was followed by Spirit of the Border (1906) and The Last Trail (1909), which were also, in the clumsy modern jargon, self-published. All three were financial flops. His style was often florid and his grammar inadequate, and Dolly did much proofreading and correcting.

In 1907, the campaigner to preserve the bison, Charles ‘Buffalo’ Jones, introduced Grey to the Southwest. Grey was entranced and he modeled several of his characters after Jones, including the central figure in The Last of the Plainsmen (1908). But Richard Etulain, the great expert on Western writing, tells us:

After reading the manuscript, Ripley Hitchcock of Harper and Brothers plunged in his editorial dagger. “I don’t see anything in this to convince me you can write either narrative or fiction,” Hitchcock told Grey. The comment, coming from a close friend of Buffalo Jones, was almost a death knell to Grey’s writing career.

Buffalo Jones

Grey read Wister’s 1902 Western novel The Virginian and studied its style and structure in detail. He called his own works ‘romances’ and tried to model them not only on Wister but on Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson, two of his favorite authors. From Scott he probably got a penchant for length, and a sentimental treatment of history.

He started traveling in the West, taking photographs and making detailed notes. "Surely, of all the gifts that have come to me from contact with the West, this one of sheer love of wildness, beauty, color, grandeur, has been the greatest, the most significant for my work.” And he added, in a comment that foreshadowed his most famous book, “That wild, lonely, purple land of sage and rock took possession of me.”

Unfortunately, his novels abound with such wordy descriptions of landscape, often delivered as the views of his heroes. He made copious notes on his travels and inserted them verbatim into his books, to the detriment of the narrative.

Nevertheless, he did stress action and plot, and this aspect eventually made his stories popular. He certainly had a storytelling power. He had learned the tricks of the romance-novelist’s trade, ensuring that his chapters abounded with cliff-hangers, mystery, conflict and climactic action.

Harpers finally accepted a Western novel from Grey, The Heritage of the Desert, in 1910, and it sold well. This was followed by a trio of books aimed at children, two of which, The Young Forester and The Young Lion Hunter, were vaguely Western (another was a baseball story). But of course it was in 1912 that Grey’s name was made.

Riders of the Purple Sage was published in that year. It was a huge best-seller.


You probably know the story. In fact, though, there are two parallel stories (though unlike parallel lines, they occasionally intersect): everyone thinks of Riders, because of the movie versions, as the tale of the mysterious gun-man in black, Lassiter, who comes into the life of beautiful cattle rancher Jane Withersteen, champions her cause and steals her heart. But in fact a greater part of the book is devoted to the other story – how Jane’s rider (or cowboy) Bern Venters shoots the famous ‘masked rider’, sidekick of rustler Oldring, and discovers he has shot a girl. He nurses her back to health in a hidden cañon, falls in love with her and they eventually live happily ever after.

Today, quite frankly, much of Purple Sage makes pretty difficult reading. More than a century on from publication, we find the style melodramatic (Victoria may have been dead but Victorian melodrama wasn’t), prolix and sentimental to a degree hardly acceptable. It’s what you might call purple sage prose. Grey certainly loved the color purple and the word appears on many of the pages, used to describe the sage, mountains, land, sky and anything else to which might be attributed color. I must say, I have traveled quite extensively around southern Utah and northern Arizona and Nevada and I didn't see much purple. The predominant colors seemed to be gray and orange. Sage is only purple when it blooms anyway. But I guess Riders of the Gray Sage wouldn't have been all that romantic.

Dashes and exclamation points pepper the page as characters breathlessly open their hearts and spill out their emotions. Bess:


I was happy – I shall be very happy. Oh, you’re so good that – that it kills me! If I think, I can’t believe it. I grow sick with wondering why. I’m only a – let me say it – a lost, nameless girl of the rustlers. Oldring’s girl, they called me. That you should save me – be so good and kind – want to make me happy – why, it’s beyond belief.

And so on, almost ad infinitum. It’s overwrought and these days rather indigestible.

When his rough Westerners speak, Grey’s reading of Wister becomes regrettably apparent for they sound hokey and the vernacular is forced:

I jest saw about all of it, Miss Withersteen, an’ I’ll be glad to tell you if you’ll only hev patience with me,” said Judkins earnestly. “You see, I’ve been pecooliarly interested, an’ nat’rully I’m some excited. An’ I talk a lot thet mebbe ain’t necessary, but I can’t help thet.

Worst of all is the baby talk of the child Fay.

"Muvver sended for oo,” cried Fay, as Jane kissed her, “an’ oo never tome".

People descry things rather than see them and inversion is overused (“No unusual circumstance was it for Oldring and some of his men to visit Cottonwoods in the broad light of day.”)

Well, it was 1912 and we mustn’t judge too harshly.


The advantage, stylistically, is that (thanks to Dolly and the Harper editors) the English is correct and clear. Grey could handle, for example, the difference between the verbs lay and lie, or raise and rise, which many modern American writers can’t, and he doesn’t use the preposition like as a replacement for the conjunction as, as many modern writers and speakers do (or like many writers do, to put it in the modern parlance).

Grey is uncompromising in his anti-Mormonism. The Mormons are very clearly the bad guys. Under the hypocritical cover of their religion, they steal, spy, covet, lust, kidnap and kill. Sometimes all on the same day. The Elder Tull and the Bishop Dyer, in particular, are very nasty and, in the best Western tradition, deserve the come-uppance that they will inevitably get under the guns of the good guys.


Movie versions of the book were mealy-mouthed about this and most excised the Mormon element of the story. The 1990s TV version with Ed Harris, for example, carefully avoids even the word Mormon, in the most PC way.

When Zane Grey was growing up, the Mormons, to many people, were anti-American. The Utah War was a relatively recent memory. Theocracy and polygamy were considered unconstitutional, immoral and essentially unAmerican. In addition, Grey had a faintly anti-clerical side and held broadly pantheistic beliefs. Utah Mormons made suitable opponents for decent, brave, simple American Westerners to combat.

Lassiter is described as “a hater and killer of Mormons”. He has devoted his life to avenging the corruption and abduction of his sister Millie by the sect. The Mormons have blinded his horse. The shooting of Dyer, though we only hear about it at one remove, described by Judkins, is a gripping moment when the evil hypocrite (whom Lassiter refers to as "the fat party") gets shot full of holes in his courthouse. “Proselyter,” Lassiter admonishes him as the Bishop clutches the bullet holes in his body in a vain attempt to stanch the blood, “I reckon you’d better call quick on thet God who reveals Hisself to you on earth, because He won’t be visitin’ the place you’re goin’ to!”

However,
the non-Mormons are pure. The ‘Gentiles', as they are called, are all honest, decent upright people and the riders are brave and noble. The child Fay is absolutely angelic. Bess is virginal – and I love the way that she and Bern have separate caves in the hidden valley!


There is no room for wishy-washiness (or subtlety) here. The bad guys are bad all the way through and the good ones close to perfect. Jane is in between, it is true, because she is a Mormon but good. But she progresses to goodness as she gradually leaves Mormonism behind.

A sequel to Riders of the Purple Sage, which tells of what happened to Jane and Lassiter and their adopted daughter Fay, was published in 1915 with the title The Rainbow Trail, though I've never read it.

The impact of Riders of the Purple Sage on the Western genre was immense. It is impossible to imagine the movie Shane (or its source novel) for example, without reference to Riders. The lone, mysterious gunman (often dressed in black) riding in from nowhere and righting the wrongs in a community became a standard point of reference. Hondo is Lassiter - with Apaches instead of Mormons – and countless other Western heroes, on the page or on the screen, are Lassiter too.

The glorification of Western landscape was another influential feature. You sense that a writer like Louis L’Amour was greatly influenced by Grey (though far more economical in his writing). Western movies too reveled in the settings. We think in particular of John Ford and Monument Valley (also in southern Utah, by the way) but so many Westerns cared passionately about landscape, and the visual, photographic aspect of such movies is often fundamental. Have a look at Escape from Fort Bravo, Pale Rider (shot by Surtees père and fils respectively) or Silverado, just as a few examples of very many, and you will see what I mean.

The importance of the horse, also, is a seminal Riders theme. Jane’s thoroughbreds and the skill of the riders are written about glowingly. The race between Bern on Wrangle pursuing jockey Jerry Carn leaping at full gallop between the blacks Night and Black Star as they hurtle across the sage is one of the genuinely thrilling parts of the book. Actually, these mounts seem to have overdrive, or a fifth gear: I always thought the gait of a horse could be a walk, trot, canter or gallop. But the way Grey describes it, a run comes after a gallop and is even faster. When Jane presents the blacks to Bern and Bess to ride away to happiness on, it is a symbol of her giving up the past and her Mormon-inherited wealth and finding true love with Lassiter.

Particular elements of the story were taken up and used by the future Western. Cattle stampedes, of course, became a staple of the Western movie. Water rights, horse stealing and the discovery of gold all feature largely. In Chapter V the rustlers ride into their hidden lair through a waterfall. Watchers of Johnny Guitar or Randy Rides Alone will recognize that!

Riders of the Purple Sage was made into a movie five times. There was a silent starring William Farnum in 1918 (only six years after publication of the novel) and another, ‘lighter’ silent with Tom Mix in 1925. The first talkie version was in 1931, starring George O’Brien, and ten years later George Montgomery led another. A TV movie starring Ed Harris came out in 1996.

It is interesting that in all cases the headline star played Lassiter. He has emerged clearly as the hero of the tale. Sometimes Bern Venters (who takes up far more pages than Grey’s Lassiter) hardly gets a look in. In the various movies he was billed second, eighth, fifth, ninth and third.

It does make a good movie. Long novels have to be radically slimmed down for the screen but luckily Riders had pages and pages of soppy love and descriptions of nature that could be immediately discarded, and the novel’s action, which is genuinely good, would remain for the film.

I have read Riders of the Purple Sage twice, once years ago and a re-read before writing my 2013 review of it, but I must say I am unlikely to read it again. It’s pretty heavy going, a lot of it.

But I’d watch a movie version again. The Ed Harris one is the best so far.

Purple Sage made Zane Grey the most famous Western novelist of his time. From 1917 to 1925 Grey was never off the list of best-sellers, a feat that has not been equaled, and he became one of the first millionaire novelists. He never improved as a writer but he continued to churn out a couple of Westerns a year. In doing so, as Professor Etulain puts it, “he solidified the mold of what became known as the Western.” And we lovers of the ‘formula Western’ should be grateful to him – even if we don’t read him that much these days!


Many of his stories were made into Western movies, not only Purple Sage. We can go right back to Tom Mix’s The Heart of Texas Ryan in 1917, and another version of The Last Duane is in development right now. Robbers’ Roost, The Vanishing American, Western Union, The Lone Star Ranger, The Light of Western Stars, and many more, the list is a long one. Paramount in particular bought the rights to his books and hired Grey as consultant. The studio produced a series of (heavily adapted) silent Western movies in the 1920s which they remade as talkies in the 30s directed by a young Henry Hathaway and starring Randolph Scott. On TV, the Zane Grey Theatre series had a five-year run of 145 episodes from 1956 to ’61.

An older Zane

Zane Grey died of heart failure on October 23, 1939, at his home in Altadena. The last Western novel published in his lifetime was Knights of the Range but Zane Grey Westerns have continued to be published since. Harper had a stockpile of his manuscripts and continued to publish a new title each year until 1963. Then there were reissues, unabridged versions, and so on. He has sold over 40 million books. He is still widely read.