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

Thursday, August 29, 2019

The Lawbringers by Brian Garfield


Single-minded lawman pursues charismatic outlaw


I have been an admirer of the work of the late Brian Garfield (1939 to 2018), pictured left, for a long time. In particular, his fine book Western Films: A Complete Guide (Da Capo Press, New York, 1982) has been a vade mecum ever since it came out – and still is. But his many Western novels are also very good indeed, and thanks to the comment left by reader ‘Anonymous’ on my post about Burt Mossman and Augustine Chacon the other day (click the link for that and the comment) I just read on Kindle Garfield’s 1962 story The Lawbringers, which has Mossman and Chacon as its central characters. It tells in fictional form the story of cattleman and Arizona Ranger Burton C Mossman's single-minded pursuit and tracking down of the charismatic Mexican-Indian outlaw. Wonderful, isn’t it, how these days you can learn about a book, buy it and read it all on the same day and all in the comfort of your home. (I'm beginning to sound like a TV ad).

Garfield writes very well, as you probably know, and we are not talking about pulp fiction here. An experienced writer with a Masters in English, he exercised a literary control in his novels and created characters of complexity. His books are also well researched, though he is always clear that they are works of fiction, not fact, and he takes full advantage of the novelist’s right (or even duty) to put thoughts in his characters’ heads and ascribe motives. His very first novel was a Western (published when he was just eighteen) and he went on to write dozens more. He was a sometime president of the Western Writers of America. His 1971 book Gun Down was made into the Fox movie The Last Hard Men in 1976. He had been a ranch hand and was an expert on guns, and he was an Arizonan. So he was supremely well equipped to write about the leading outlaw and lawman of the latter days of the ‘Wild West’. He cites a biography of Mossman (I didn’t know there was one), Cap Mossman: Last of the Great Cowmen by Frazier Hunt (Hastings House, New York, 1951), which I see is available on amazon.com.

Excellent novel

The story of The Lawbringers is limited in time to the period when Burt Mossman was captain of the new Arizona Rangers established by Territorial Governor Nathan O Murphy in 1901. It is concerned with Mossman’s almost monomaniacal quest to hunt down and bring in for trial the Mexican bandit. Several of the lead characters are real people, Mossman and Chacon, of course, but also Murphy, Judge Starr Williams and President of the Territorial Senate ES Ives, and these are sensitively drawn, though, as I have said, largely imagined. Other characters, such as the key actor in the first part of the book, Santee Smith, and Mossman’s lover (though she never gets really close to him) Ellen Drury, who presides over a roulette wheel in Bisbee, are entirely fictional. Santee, in particular, is enormously sympathetic.

Mossman as young cowpoke

Mossman as Captain of Arizona Rangers

Mossman in later life (he lived until 1956)

Several of the known exploits of Mossman – or at least what is believed to have been largely true – are described in the novel, such as his demolition of an outlaw lair by placing dynamite at each corner of their log cabin, then picking off the renegades as they fled, with rifles. Also the summary execution by hanging of one of Chacon’s lieutenants. It’s grisly stuff but it was Mossman’s uncompromising way.

Augustin Chacon, 'El Pelado'

Of course ne’er-do-wells Burt Alvord and Billie Stiles, deputies turned robbers, figure largely too. They were the men who turned coat and sold Chacon out for the reward and the assurance of a more lenient sentence.

Yuma mugshot of Burt Alvord

Garfield gives Chacon the name Augustin, without the usual final –e, which is probably more authentic, come to think about it.

As in Gun Down/The Last Hard Men, there is a strong whiff of ‘end of the West’ about this tale. As Garfield says in his Afterword, it was the early twentieth century, a time of “conflict between genuine intelligent individualism and modern collectivism … the time of the gun was passing, the time of order arriving.”

Highly recommended.

 

 

Monday, August 26, 2019

Drums in the Deep South (RKO, 1951)


No drums in the not very deep South




 
 
Rather like A Thunder of Drums, Drums Along the River or War Drums, there are remarkably few drums in this one. In fact there are none, but who’s counting? It was one of those mid-budget RKO pictures, more of a war film, really, rather than a proper Western, and it starred James Craig. Craig has been described as a poor man’s Clark Gable. Gable himself was already pretty bad in the saddle and Stetson, so that wasn’t exactly great praise. Craig appeared in 28 big-screen Westerns (depending on your definition of the genre), from small parts in low-budget Paramount oaters in 1937 to roles in some of those ‘geezer Westerns’ produced by AC Lyles in the early-to-mid 1960s. The first time he topped the billing in a Western came in 1942, in MGM’s Northwest Rangers, and his last lead role was in Universal’s Four Fast Guns in 1960. In between, Fort Vengeance in 1953 was about his best big-screen oater but it was only relative. He did not really shine in our noble genre.
 
Smarm and charm

RKO made the picture in its ‘Supercinecolor’ process. However, the movie has ‘descended’ into the public domain and many people now see it in very poor prints which are copies of copies. I caught it on a British TV channel (which I get by satellite here in France) and the picture and sound quality were only barely watchable. Still, I battled on.

Rather silly poster

It tries for a Gone With the Wind vibe, with a Southern belle and dashing thin-mustached gentleman in the Civil War, but of course it had nothing of the budget of that picture, or indeed the Fleming/Cukor control or Gable/Leigh cast. Not that I like Gone With the Wind. In fact it was just an expensive filming of a cheap romance. But still, it was hugely successful, both at the box-office and at the Oscars, and other studios tried to cash in on the success if they could. It’s not surprising that Drums in the Deep South would try for the Gone With the Wind impression because director William Cameron Menzies had been production director on the 1939 picture.

Director Menzies

Having said that the budget was, er, limited, it is only fair to add that director Menzies was very skillful in ‘maximizing’ the resources he had. The picture looks big and various artifices are used, such as painted backdrops and intercut stock war footage, to impress without laying out big bucks. Menzies had been a successful and Oscar-winning art director for United Artists and Fox in the 1920s and 30s, though he was less successful as director. He was helped on Drums by his assistant director, the 2nd Unit man, the famous ‘Breezy’ Eason.

Breezy

The screenplay was by Philip Yordan and Sidney Harmon. Yordan, you will know, wrote Detective Story and Dillinger but in our genre penned Broken Lance, The Man from Laramie, Johnny Guitar, Day of the Outlaw and The Bravados, among other Westerns, and so he’s one of the leading lights as far as bashing out Westerns on the typewriter is concerned. Harmon wasn’t such a Western expert; he produced Day of the Outlaw but has no other Western credits.

Writer Yordan

The picture starred Barbara Payton alongside Craig. Payton was a tragic figure, a “peroxide blonde sexpot” as the IMDb bio calls her, who had a sensational private life which caused her film career to plummet. She descended into a life of brawls, bad checks, public drunkenness and prostitution, and she died of heart and liver failure aged 39. As far as Westerns go her highlight was probably playing opposite Gregory Peck in Only the Valiant the same year as Drums in the Deep South.

La Payton at her sultriest

It was also the second Western (if Western it be) of young Guy Madison (after the picture Massacre River he had done with Rory Calhoun). But curiously, for most of the film he is absent. He appears in the first reel, just long enough to hear that Fort Sumter has been fired upon before he hurries off back to Boston to enlist in the Union Army, and he re-appears in the last reel to lead the attack on the heroic Confederates, but he is unseen for the majority of the picture, the parts in between.

Guy romances Barbara in the studio still, but not in the movie

Fourth-billed was good old Barton MacLane as a crusty and tough Confederate sergeant, and we also glimpse (unless we blink) James Griffith, Myron Healey and Denver Pyle as Union soldiers.

The Confederates are basically the good guys in this one, and several of the Union soldiers seen are loutish types, coarse intruders in the mansion of the elegant Southern lady. Nothing as crude as slavery is mentioned, though the family is very rich because of its cotton plantation. We only see one very loyal and deferential ‘colored’ servant (uncredited actor). Even Northern Major Guy Madison becomes quite ruthless in the last reel.

Doing their Rhett 'n' Scarlett act

There are all sorts of historical absurdities in the story but as I have often said before, we don’t watch Western movies for factual accuracy. You want history? Read a history book. It ends 'tragically’, with the heroic demise of key protagonists, followed by onscreen text platitudes about how the fire of war forged new unity in the American people and bla bla.

It’s not bad, though it would certainly be better in a decent print.

 

 

Friday, August 23, 2019

Augustine Chacon, Burt Mossman and Burt Alvord in fact and fiction


Outlaws and lawmen in the last days of the Old West


Augustine Chacon

In the final days of the ‘Wild West’, in turn-of-the-century Arizona, Augustine Chacon was one of the last charismatic outlaws. As with all proper Western bad guys, he had a ‘Robin Hood’ reputation (like most of them, quite undeserved), myths and legends grew around him and he was protected by large swathes of the civilian population – just as bank robbers such as Pretty Boy Floyd were to be right into the 1930s. No one knows exactly how many people Chacon killed but it was certainly a lot, probably around thirty, and he ended on the gallows in 1902.
 
Augustine Chacon, about 1900

There has not been (as far as I  know) a full biography of Chacon but several writers have dealt with him, notably Michael R Wilson in Legal Executions in the Western Territories, 1847-1911 (2005) and Jan Cleere in Outlaw Tales of Arizona: True Stories of Arizona's Most Nefarious Crooks, Culprits, and Cutthroats (2006).

Chacon on the scaffold
 
 

Burt Mossman

Burton C Mossman was the cattleman and lawman who became Captain of the new Arizona Rangers and was chiefly responsible for capturing Chacon. Once again I know of no biography, but he has been discussed in various publications, such as Bill O’Neal’s Encyclopedia of Western Gunfighters (1991).

Burton C Mossman (1867 to 1956)

Rather surprisingly perhaps, because you wouldn’t say that these gentlemen were exactly the most famous of all Western outlaws/lawmen, these characters figured in two 1950s/60s TV shows, Studio City TV’s Stories of the Century, S2E5, Augustine Chacon, first aired January 30, 1955, and the syndicated show with Gene Autry as executive producer Death Valley Days, S12E2, Measure of a Man, screened on October 1, 1963.

Let’s look at these two shows and see how true to life they were. If you want to watch them, by the way, both are up on YouTube and Stories of the Century is available on the Westernmania channel of Amazon Prime, which is where I watched it.

Death Valley Days

The Death Valley Days episode stars Rory Calhoun, about whom I have been waffling a lot recently, for example writing about his series The Texan. He plays Mossman, and the 25-minute show (in color; it was a S12 one), after the usual intro by ‘The Old Ranger’ (Stanley Andrews), opens with Burton Mossman (Calhoun) wearing a lawman’s star talking to Governor Nathan Oakes Murphy (Chick Chandler) and outlining a plan to capture Chacon.

The real Governor Murphy

He will go alone (gasp!) to recruit a fellow named Burt Alvord, a train robber, who knew Chacon well, to persuade the man to turn stoolpigeon in return for a lenient sentence and the reward for Chacon, which is promised in a letter Mossman will carry from Judge Barnes (Robert P Lieb). Curious that Mossman and Alvord should have the same name, Burt. In fact Alvord’s first name was Albert, so if anything he ought to have been Bert Alvord.


Mossman pays a man named Turner (Joseph V Perry) for a tip on Alvord’s wife Ruth (Constance Dane) and she tells him where to find her husband. So he easily tracks down Alvord (Bing Russell). In reality it seems that on April 22, 1902, after traveling for several days by wagon and on horseback, Mossman discovered Alvord's hideout, a small hut located some distance away from San Jose de Pima. The captain approached the cabin unarmed and by chance he found Alvord standing alone outside while the rest of his gang were playing cards inside. Mossman introduced himself and though Alvord was immediately alarmed about the presence of a police officer at his hideout, he agreed to feed Mossman and listen to what he had to say. The two men agreed to cooperate and that a certain Billy Stiles would act as their messenger, for it would take a while for Alvord to find Chacon and convince him to cross the Arizona border.

The real Mossman had been born in 1867 and his family moved to Missouri, then to New Mexico. As a teenager he became a cowboy for the Aztec Land & Cattle Company, more commonly known as the Hashknife Outfit, and at the age of twenty was appointed ranch foreman. In his twenties, aside from ranching, Mossman and a partner operated a stagecoach line and in 1898, aged 31, he was elected sheriff of Navajo County. He was one of four partners who built a brick opera house in Winslow, but later sold his share. Some say he joined Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders in Cuba in 1898 but this is disputed.

He was involved in various ‘situations’. In 1896 he fought a pistol duel with a Mexican captain (the captain missed but Mossman shot him in the shoulder). In 1898, while sheriff, he knocked a rustler off his horse with a Winchester rifle, though the man’s accomplices shot back and one bullet grazed Mossman’s nose. Later the same year, when he was in a hotel in Springer, NM, a bullet was fired from the saloon below up into his room, then another, and he angrily returned fire with his rifle, the bar being vacated immediately and nobody harmed, though a bullet put a hole through the brim of a man's hat and a second one smashed a glass out of another man's hand. In 1901 an outlaw bushwhacked him from some bushes, he returned fire approximately in that direction and later found that a lucky shot had hit the man in the head, killing him. And later still he found six train robbers in an adobe house, which he proceeded to destroy with dynamite, knocking the bandits down with rifle fire when they made a run for it to avoid the explosions. So he was no stranger to firearms and dangerous situations.

The Arizona Rangers

By 1901 banditry had become so widespread in the territory that Governor Murphy decided to reconstitute a Ranger force. One company was authorized, consisting of a captain, a sergeant and not more than twelve privates, though in 1903, the force was increased to twenty-six men. Murphy appointed Burton Mossman the first captain.

The very first Arizona Rangers had been informally organized to police the new gold-boom towns and mining camps in the western half of the New Mexico Territory that arose after the first gold strike in 1858 in Gila City. Confederate Governor John Baylor later established a force of Rangers during the Civil War, based on the Texas Rangers, and then Governor Frederick Tritle authorized a company of Rangers in Tombstone in 1882. But these came and went. The lawmakers were never ready to fund the force properly and in fact in 1909 the Arizona Legislature would repeal the act establishing the Rangers. During the seven years of its operations, 107 men served with the force. The Rangers wore no uniforms; their only means of identification was a silver star, worn inside a jacket and displayed only when an arrest was made.

Back to the TV show. President McKinley is assassinated and Governor Murphy is “asked to resign” by the new prez (Theodore Roosevelt). Murphy tells Mossman that he is “going down with the ship” and must resign too. Mossman chucks his star on the desk but says he is going after Chacon anyway, as a private citizen. He has come too far to stop now.

Styles [sic] carries the message (he’s played by Richard Webb) and Mossman and Alvord set out to meet the bandit. Alvord gets cold feet, and he has a gangrenous wrist, so he backs out. But finally Mossman meets up with Chacon (Michael Pate). Pate was an Australian who came to Hollywood and made a specialty of playing Indians, and the occasional Mexican. The ex-captain gets the drop on the outlaw with his six-gun (as usual, all the clothes and guns are 1870s standard Western issue; no concessions are made to the fact of being in the twentieth century). There’s a fistfight, which Rory wins of course. Mossman takes Chacon back to Solomonville (now Solomon, AZ) where he is duly hanged.

Ranger Captain Rory

The teleplay was written by Sloan Nibley, reasonably close to the facts, or anyway as much as these TV shows ever were. He was a regular writer on Roy Rodgers oaters. The director was Tay Garnett, a successful writer who moved to directing. He helmed a lot of TV Westerns.

Stories of the Century

In Stories of the Century, now, it is naturally railroad detective Matt Clark (Jim Davis) who tracks Chacon down, and Burton Mossman is written out entirely. He never existed. Matt Clark managed, in the 37 episodes of the series, to capture every known Western owlhoot, from before the Civil War well into the 1900s, without looking a day older, a trick I’d like to know how to do. The shows are of course 100% historically accurate, as Matt tells us in his sonorous voiceover, because they are based on “official newspaper files” (whatever they may be). Most of the stories had a light sprinkling of historical verisimilitude but it is decorative at best. Much of the series was hooey.


It doesn’t stop the episodes from being fun. Matt tells us that Chacon (whose name he pronounces CHAYkon, while Rory & Co had used the more chic ShaCON) was “one of the most ruthless killers who ever operated on the Mexican border.” Chacon seems to have a business in smuggling Americans over the border into American Arizona for money, then killing them after taking all the rest of the money they had. Early in the show he abandons two men locked in a box on a wagon which he leaves straddling the railroad line so that the train smashes into it and it’s RIP Americans. When Rangers chase him he shoots them off their horses, at 300 yards with a sixgun at full gallop, which isn’t bad going.

So Matt and his sidekick Margaret Jones (Kristine Miller) are sent to investigate. They find the lock which secured the dead men in their crate and it’s marked AZTEC. No, it’s not the Hashknife Outfit: it’s the name of a mining company down in Mexico, so with permission of the Mex authorities they go south of the border and interview the mine boss. Yup, it was their wagon. They find that Chacon’s gal, Felicia (Laurette Luez), works in cantina there but they just miss her. She has left to join her lover, back in AZ. To Bisbee, then. After further adventures, Matt and Margaret find themselves in a wagon, like those unfortunate two who were rammed by the train, but our two heroes shall suffer no such fate. Some Rangers come up and start shootin’, the wagon driver is killed, Matt and Margaret jump clear in the nick of time, and - oh, poetic justice - Chacon (it’s good old Rodolfo Hoyos Jr.) is hit by a train. He isn’t killed, though (amazingly). He’s well enough to be taken to the gallows (which we see in a shadow on the wall; don’t want to frighten the horses) and Matt regrets only that they didn’t catch him earlier, before he had killed 29 Americans – oh, and 80-odd Mexicans.

Margaret and Matt, railroad detectives

In all honesty this show didn’t have the quality of Death Valley Days, and the writing (Milton Raison) was pretty clunky and heavy-handed, not to say lurid. The director was Franklin Adreon, a Republic hack who worked on their Lone Ranger, Zorro and Red Ryder serials.

Burt Alvord

Interestingly, though, another episode of Stories of the Century, S2E1, concerned Alvord, the train robber who turned coat and got Chacon captured. Alvord (born 1867, died some time after 1910) was a reverse example of that well-known Western figure the outlaw turned lawman: he was a deputy sheriff who became a train robber. There’s a book, Spawn Gone Wrong – The Odyssey of Burt Alvord: Lawman, Train Robber, Fugitive., by Donald Chaput (2000).

Yuma mugshot of Burt Alvord

His father was a constable and justice of the peace in several of the places that the family lived. In 1880 they were in Tombstone, and Burt worked in the famous OK Corral there. Sheriff John Slaughter recruited Alvord as a deputy in 1886. Chaput says Alvord was “not noble, temperate, far seeing, or unselfish”. He seems to have been a hard-drinking, violent young man. He was an habituĂ© of saloons and associated with gamblers and suspected outlaws. When Sheriff Slaughter reprimanded him, he quit. He worked as a lawman in several other Arizona towns in the 1890s. He married a certain Lola Ochoa in 1896 but three years later he left her, gave up his deputy job and turned to crime. With Billy Stiles and a man with the colorful soubriquet Three-Fingered Jack Dunlop he embarked on a spree of armed robberies.

In 1900 Three-Fingered Jack was killed and Alvord arrested and taken to Tombstone but Billy Stiles came there, wounded the deputy and enabled Alvord’s escape. It’s all pretty good Wild-West stuff. After he had done that deal with Mossman to capture Augustine Chacon, Alvord decided it was wiser not to surrender after all, a reduced sentence still being a sentence, but instead returned to crime with Stiles. The Arizona Rangers pursued the outlaws across the border into Mexico, trapping them near Naco in February 1904. The outlaws resisted, but they surrendered after they both had been wounded. Alvord would spend two years in Yuma prison. Following his release, he announced he was going by ship to start anew in Central America. He was last seen in 1910 working as a canal employee but as to his eventual fate, nothing is known.

In the Stories of the Century version, it is of course not the Arizona Rangers who catch Alvord but Matt Clark. Matt arrives in Wilcox, AZ (on a rather fancy palomino) to investigate a train robbery - the robbers got away with cases of dynamite - and meets the old sheriff (Howard Wright) whose son is also his deputy, Burt. Burt is played by Chris Drake (it was Bing Russell in Death Valley Days). Billy Stiles (Paul Sorenson) is also a deputy – Burt has talked his reluctant dad into hiring him. Margaret Jones also arrives, following a woman, Molly Brandon (Fran Bennett) from Bisbee, who is freely spending money which was loot from a hold-up, and it was of course Burt who committed that crime. It appears that Alvord got Molly pregnant in Bisbee and then abandoned her. The screenplay is extremely mealy-mouthed about this, and no such word as pregnant is uttered, just a lot of euphemisms and circumlocutions, but we get the gist. Sheriff/Daddy Alvord determines to do his duty as a lawman rather than as a father, and moves to arrest Burt, but in a stable his son shoots the old man in the leg, then lights the fuse on a case of dynamite. That's mean. The wounded sheriff and Matt are both inside the stable, Matt trapped under some heavy sacks of grain, but fortunately plucky Margaret gets them both out before BOOM! That allows Matt to disarm and capture the rascally Alvord and Stiles and we finally see Matt and Margaret, as well as the old sheriff on crutches, in Tombstone where the ne’er-do-wells are sentenced to Yuma. Matt and Margaret walk off, The End.

Well, as I said before, as long as you don’t take this as historical gospel and just enjoy it as a Western TV show, you’ll be OK.

So there we are, Chacon, Mossman, Alvord, three interesting characters of the latter days of the Old West.

So long, e-pards.