Al Sieber on the page and on the screen
Back in February 2014 I wrote the first part of a post, covering the factual, historical Al Sieber (click the link if you want to read that), and promised the second part, on how he has been represented in fiction, “soon”. Well, here we are in summer 2015 so that’s quite soon. In a way.
Part of the fault is amazon’s. For months and months they failed to send me a DVD of Geronimo: An American Legend I had ordered and I needed it. I had seen the movie when it came out but didn’t remember enough about it. In the end they never did send it. Finally I managed to buy a copy elsewhere and so here we are. Ready.
Considering his historical importance and Hollywood potential, Al Sieber has appeared comparatively rarely in fiction. Very early on, in 1890 in fact, and while Al was still alive, he was a character in a novel by Charles King, an Army lieutenant in Arizona at the time, Sunset Pass, or, Running the Gauntlet Through Apache Land. King’s Sieber was a
slim-built, broad-shouldered, powerful fellow, with a keen, intelligent face, and eyes that were kindly to all his friends, but kindled at the sight of a foe. A broad brimmed, battered slouch hat was pulled well down over his brows; his flannel short and canvas trousers showed hard usage; his pistol belt hung loose and low upon his hips and on each side a revolver swung.
In 1936 Western writer Paul Wellman’s first novel, Broncho Apache, the story of Massai, was published. It featured Al Sieber largely and gave us a tough, crusty Al which does seem to ring true. The book was turned into a film by United Artists in 1954, Apache, directed by Robert Aldrich and starring Burt Lancaster as Massai and John McIntire as Al (more on this movie below).
More recently, we get a good picture of Al from Will Henry’s 1975 novel I, Tom Horn, not to be confused with Tom Horn’s 1904 autobiography, Life of Tom Horn: Government Scout and Interpreter; Henry’s novel is in fact a lengthened, fictionalized version of the autobiography. In it, Sieber is Horn’s mentor, and Horn becomes known as ‘Sieber’s Boy’. Horn learned tracking and Indian fighting from the older German and much else besides. Horn evidently had a greater gift for languages than Sieber, quickly picking up Mexican Spanish and Apache which he spoke with ease and fluency. Henry has Horn talk of Al’s “thick German tongue” and throughout the Arizona part of the book Sieber talks in a salty way, with much use of earthy epithets.
On page 80 Horn refers to his boss as ‘Aloysius Sieber’ but perhaps this is a joke. He was, of course, Albert. Henry’s Horn says that the Apache called Sieber ‘El Hombre Hierro’, the Iron Man. Others called him ‘Old Man Who Is Always Mad’ and others still called him Seebie. Arizonans called him “that g.d German son of a bitch”.
Horn first meets Sieber in 1874 when the latter is naked, passed out in a whorehouse. Henry’s Sieber is already crippled by the Apache Kid at that time (this happened in fact in 1887). Al limps throughout the book and his foot leaves him sometimes hors de combat. Sieber did in fact receive a severe war wound but there is no evidence that before the Apache Kid affair Al was lame, though he did limp a little. Maybe it makes better novelistic drama.
Similarly, Al always rides “Sieber’s famous iron-gray mule”, which he calls Jenny. “Never a horse”, he says. “Mule man.” In reality, while General Crook loved mules and used them wherever he could, Sieber was more of a horseman, or so anyway says Dan Thrapp in his biography of Al.
In Henry’s earlier novel, The Apache Kid, he has Sieber over six feet. In this book that is corrected. “Sieber was under six feet and I was over,” says Tom. In any case, a real and realistic picture of Al Sieber comes through the novel.
As far as movies go, Al Sieber appeared five times on the big or smaller screen.
In 1953, Al Sieber was supposedly represented on screen by Charlton Heston in Arrowhead. Charles Marquis Warren directed the picture and wrote the screenplay, adapting WR Burnett’s novel Adobe Walls. On-screen text announces:
The character of Ed Bannon was drawn in part from the actual Chief of Scouts of the United States Army of the Southwest – Al SIEBER. Born – 1855; killed – 1907.
“In part” but I don’t know which part. This Bannon bears no resemblance whatever to Sieber either in the facts of his life or the kind of man he was. Heston’s Bannon is a racist murderer and a sadistic and bitter man, and Al Sieber was none of these things.
We are also told that the movie was shot in the “actual locale” of the events it describes, Fort Clark. Fort Clark is in Bracketville, Texas, and as far as I know Al Sieber never went there (and Thrapp in his biography does not even mention it).
Charlton Heston: rotten
They can’t even get Sieber’s dates right. He was not born in Germany in 1855. And saying “killed” implies that he perished at the hands of the Apaches, and of course he did not but died in an accident long after he had retired as chief of scouts.
No, it really won’t do. It’s an insult to associate Sieber’s name with the Heston character in this unpleasant film.
The following year, we had a much better Al Sieber in the shape of John McIntire, in Apache (United Artists, 1954), adapted for the screen by James R Webb of Cheyenne Autumn fame from, as metioned above, Paul Wellman’s first novel Broncho Apache (1936).
McIntire captured the wiry, strong, earthy character of Al. Bearded and with no limp or accent, McIntire still manages an excellent Al, probably the best so far. He expresses a sort of regret when Massai is finally tamed (it is a rather a cop-out ending) that rings true: what does an old Indian-fighting scout do now?
John McIntire: excellent
I watched this movie again last night just to concentrate on Al Sieber. It’s a mixed bag of a film. Robert Aldrich Westerns always were. After earning his spurs as second unit or assistant director on a 1943 rom-com Western with John Wayne and Jean Arthur, A Lady Takes a Chance, the 1949 filming of Steinbeck’s Red Pony and 1951 B-Western New Mexico, Aldrich’s first oater as director was the overblown farrago Vera Cruz (again with Lancaster), and then the flawed Apache. Later he was capable of junk such as the dreadful 4 for Texas or The Frisco Kid, one of the worst ‘comedy’ Westerns ever made, but equally he made the really excellent The Ride Back and Ulzana’s Raid (yet again with Lancaster, this time much more believable as a Sieber-like scout). So it was a very uneven record.
However, despite Apache’s weaknesses, John McIntire’s Al Sieber is very good.
In 1955, Sieber was played by Kenneth MacDonald in Apache Kid, an episode of the TV series Stories of the Century. You can watch it on YouTube here. MacDonald, veteran of no fewer than 121 B and TV Westerns, starting in 1935 and going right on to 1968, did also look a little like the real Al; it was a good casting choice visually. And we are told Sieber (pronounced Cyber for some odd reason) could “track a cat across a pitch-black cave”, which was more or less true. But the character was a travesty. He wears buckskins (Al rarely did, except for posing in them for an occasional photograph) and there is no sign in the TV show of Al being wounded or the Apache Kid breaking out of San Carlos.
Kenneth McDonald: those Stories of the Century shows really were pretty bad
The Apache Kid is described by Matt Clark in the initial voiceover as “a stomping werewolf with a bloodlust, the most terrifying hunter of human beings of all the Apache-infested territory of Arizona.” He was, of course, nothing of the kind. Naturally, in the show the Indians are the bad guys. You can always tell when the dialogue says that they “infested” the territory. Rats infest. If I were an Apache, I’d be pretty disgusted at being told that I “infest” my own land, but then I guess I’d have been furious at many screen Westerns of those days.
Sieber believes the Apache Kid (Kenneth Alton, with lantern jaw and scar on his face, made worse by an evil sneer) to be his best and most loyal scout but in the very first scene Kid shoots down an innocent unarmed young Indian boy and then goes on to rape two Mexican women, killing one, and he commits countless other bloody crimes. He even deliberately knocks over a plaster Virgin when capturing a girl, so he must be really bad.
From defending Kid, once convinced by Matt and Jonesy that the Apache really is an evil killer, Sieber can think of nothing other than gunning the fellow down like a dog. “And I brought him up like my own son…” They pursue Kid into Mexico in spring 1894 and catch him. The captured girl wounds Kid in his cave hideout, Matt prevents Sieber shooting the Indian as he tries to escape up a rock face, then the Kid conveniently falls to his death. In the closing seconds of the episode Sieber and Clark concoct a cover-up story that Kid died of TB, to excuse their illegal incursion into Mexico. This is all complete baloney. Al did not catch Kid, nor did he even appear to have born a grudge against him. There is no evidence anyway that it was Kid who crippled Al. Kid might in fact have died of TB.
So there were three Als in consecutive years in the early 1950s.
Then there was a long pause and the next celluloid (or VHS anyway) Al appeared in 1979 in Mr. Horn. This biopic of the early life of Tom Horn had Al impersonated by Richard Widmark. Sadly, it’s not available on DVD or download and I have only seen a clip on YouTube (in which Widmark overacts).
Richard Widmark is Sieber in Mr. Horn
Widmark looks quite good as Al and in the clip is hobbling about on crutches, so must be set after 1887. David Carradine is the eponymous Tom Horn, and the director Jack Starrett is General Crook, but there is no sign of Geronimo.
If you know of a source for this movie, do please let me know. I’d like to see it.
Finally, in 1993, it was Robert Duvall’s turn to be Al Sieber in Geronimo: An American Legend. Despite the fact that the script has Al go with Gatewood and Davis to persuade Geronimo finally to surrender (he didn’t) it’s probably the best screen Al Sieber. This is down to Robert Duvall who was ideally cast as the crusty old scout and Indian fighter.
Robert Duvall: probably the best Al of all
It’s a pity that John Milius’s screenplay has him shot to death in a Mexican cantina in a blazing gunfight with some Texan bounty hunters (“Texans, lowest form of white man,” says Al). I’m not quite sure what was gained dramatically. Maybe it was to explain away the fact that Al wasn’t present at the actual surrender of Geronimo.
Duvall doesn’t limp and doesn’t try a German accent but that doesn’t really matter. He and John McIntire are my favorite Al Siebers and can share the honors between them.
Well, farewell, Al. I enjoyed your career, factual and fictional.