Monday, March 30, 2020
I thought you might like to see this picture of Jeff with his old sidekick Matt Dillon in Monument Valley. I unearthed it while tidying my study and it brought back happy memories.
(My traveling companion bought the cardboard cut-out and lugged it round half the United States in the back of the station wagon.)
Saturday, March 28, 2020
The thrill of the weekly serial
It is difficult for us now to comprehend the sheer excitement that the weekly movie serial or chapter play evoked in its (largely juvenile) audiences. Even oldies of my generation (born 1948) came just too late to relish that format. We were early fans of the TV Western. My own introduction to our noble genre was The Lone Ranger on the (very) small screen at home. But in the 1940s a TV in the house was still quite a rarity, and kids got their Western fixes (and also sci-fi, superhero, spy and jungle genres) either from the radio or from going to the movies, especially to a Saturday matinée.
Great reading, doubtless.
Girls, of course, were not allowed to like Westerns.
Although most serials were produced on very low budgets, and even the unsophisticated viewers of the 1940s would probably have scoffed at the wobbly scenery and the rockets on string, some were made at significant expense. Universal’s Flash Gordon serial for example, was reportedly budgeted at a million dollars, and while Republic’s Adventures of Red Ryder was hardly that, it was still no ultra-cheapie Z-movie. Far from it.
On his website, Jerry Blake (external link) says, “Adventures of Red Ryder ranks as Republic’s best Western serial, and also as one of the studio’s best chapterplays regardless of genre. It’s full of the continual but varied action scenes and memorable chapter endings typical of Republic’s Golden Age efforts, and is further enhanced by vivid characterizations and a script that manages to give added interest to standard B-western plot devices by incorporating them into a narrative far more compelling than the serial norm.”
A young William Witney (he was only 25 when he directed Red Ryder)
We know quite a lot about the production of Red Ryder because one of the serial’s directors, William Witney, wrote an entertaining memoir (which I shall be reviewing at some stage) under the title In a Door, Into a Fight, Out of a Door, Into a Chase: Moviemaking Remembered by the Guy at the Door, McFarland & Company, 1996, republished in paperback in 2005, and a very good read.
I say Witney was one of the directors because duties were shared with his great friend John English. They directed on alternate days, liaising in a bar every evening to ensure continuity (among other things).
Jack English (he was 37 at the Red Ryder stage)
In a New York Times interview with Rick Lyman, Quentin Tarantino singled out Witney as one of his favorite directors and a "lost master". Certainly Witney knew what he was doing, as did English. As far as Westerns go, Witney started as an extra on an oater in 1933 and first directed (with English again) on a Zorro serial in 1937, graduating to Crash Corrigan second features and Republic’s version of The Lone Ranger in 1938. Later he would be a regular helmsman of Roy Rogers oaters (and wrote another book about Trigger). He was still going strong in the mid-60s when he directed three Audie Murphy Westerns. English, who was exactly that (he was born in Cumberland, England in 1903, though he grew up in Canada), was also still directing in the mid-60s, mostly Western TV shows, but he started as an editor on Kermit Maynard flicks in the 1930s, graduating to directing Kermit in The Red Blood of Courage in 1935, the first of a long series of Maynard oaters. Witney and English were reliable and experienced hands who knew exactly how to make a Western rattle along at the gallop. They made seventeen serials together!
The Stephen Slesinger/Fred Harman comic comes to the big screen
Five writers contributed to the screenplays of the ‘chapters’, adapting Stephen Slesinger and Fred Harman’s original NEA newspaper feature: Franklin Adreon was also a director and producer, notably of Mysterious Doctor Satan; Ronald Davidson was a writer and producer, known for Captain America; Norman S Hall wrote Adventures of Captain Marvel (and the 1933 John Wayne Foreign Legion yarn The Three Musketeers); Barney A Sarecky had been a producer of the Tom Mix serial The Miracle Rider; and Sol Shor wrote the likes of The Crimson Ghost, Radar Patrol vs. Spy King and King of the Rocket Men. These men were no unschooled amateurs. They knew exactly how to script a serial.
The Red Ryder comic strip was one of the most artistic portrayals of the early days of the Old West that any of us had ever seen. It was drawn by a man who obviously knew horses and what a western cowboy should look like. Fred Harman must have patterned his hero after himself – he had red hair. The writers had been on the script since before Christmas  and had come up with an acceptable story. Our start date was set for the end of March 1940.
The serial was notable for its action (which English and Witney specialized in) and for its top team of stuntmen. Dave Sharpe doubled for Red in the fights, with Bill and Joe Yrigoyen standing in for some of the horseback stunts. Ken Terrell, Ted Mapes, Jimmy Fawcett, and Duke Green also contributed to the stuntwork – Fawcett and Green being especially good as highly gymnastic heavies in the Chapter 10 saloon fight sequence. It’s probably Joe Yrigoyen jumping over Beale’s Cut, Tom Mix-style, in Chapters 8 and 10. There’s a very long list of stuntmen in the IMDb credits. Several of them also appear in bit-parts as bar-fly, deputy, ranch hand, and so on. Dave Sharpe reprises the classic Yak Canutt stunt of leaping to the stagecoach horses, passing underneath the fast-moving coach and then climbing back up on the boot. Impressive stuff.
Dave Sharpe, stuntman.
Luckily, he was quite short too and could double Don Barry quite convincingly.
They repeat the Tom Mix jump over Beale's Cut
Witney tells of how Dave Sharpe was to act as Red Ryder having a fight with a heavy on top of a stagecoach. He then had to fall off the hurtling coach. “No stuntman likes to do a fall on flat ground. If there is a hill to roll down after they hit the ground, they can give you a more spectacular fall. … I was kidding him when I said, ‘Dave, that big sandy hill looks like a big feather bed. You should be able to do a flip or two in the air before you tumble down the hill.’ Dave didn’t laugh. He studied the hill, took a couple of puffs of his cigar, and said, ‘Will you settle for one?’” The stunt looks great in the serial.
The big question was who would play Red Ryder?
“We were looking for a lean, craggy-faced western type about six foot six.” They found a kid to play Little Beaver. His name was Tommy Cook, 9, in his first role. They thought a very tall hero with a very short sidekick would be good. But they didn’t get a choice. Republic studio boss Herb Yates cast Don Barry. Yates thought Barry would be the next Cagney, short and feisty. Witney wrote, “As far as we [Witney and English] were concerned, Don stunk.” He added, “He was too short to play the role and his brain matched his size. The only thing that he had that was big was his ego. When the picture finished we decided not to have out usual party. The picture hadn’t been pleasant. Jack [John English] and I went across the street to have a drink. [Jack said] ‘God help the next poor directors who have to work with him.’”
Don wasn't quite what they had in mind
Still, they had to make the best of it (though contracts for future Red Ryder actors contained a clause stipulating that they must be over six foot). Actually, though I know Barry was famously full of himself and not at all a team member, I don’t think he’s too bad as Red. He’s energetic and agile, and gives it his all. I also like the way he gives the odd smile to Little Beaver or generally lightens the tone here and there.
Don and Tommy did the job
William C Cline in his account of the serial genre In the Nick of Time, said of Barry, “With a jaunty carriage and high-pitched husky voice that clipped out his lines in an unmistakably authoritative tone, the swaggering young hero brought to mind as much as anything else a confident, self-assured gamecock.”
Barry would of course be billed as Don ‘Red’ Barry for the rest of his career, rather to his chagrin.
Witney and English moved on to another Slesinger/Harman hero, King of the Royal Mounted.
The thrills begin
In the opening titles the comic ‘comes alive’ and we see Red Ryder galloping along on Thunder. Chapter 1 (they were called chapters, not episodes) was Murder on the Santa Fe Trail. It’s 1870. We meet crooked saloon owner (was there any other kind?) Ace Hanlon, played by the great Noah Beery Sr., who had specialized in Western villains since the silent days. He manages to steal most of the scenes he is in with facial expressions, his large cheroot, and so on. Ace Hanlon’s place has a helpful sign above it reading ACE HANLON’S PLACE.
And we meet Calvin Drake, a pencil-mustached banker in a suit whom we identify in about 0.1 nanoseconds as a baddy too, and of course Drake and Ace are, yes, in cahoots. As with many of these serials they have a secret passage linking their two offices so that they can plot villainies together. Drake was played by Harry Worth, who had been a successful actor in British silent movies in the 1920s, come to the US in 1929 and started to take character parts in Westerns beginning with Hopalong Cassidy epics in the early 30s and continuing right up until a small part in Warlock in 1959. Ace is the dumb-ox kind of villain while Drake is the scheming Machiavelli type. But of course they are equally crooked.
Banker and saloon owner, crooks both
Ace has a splendid henchman named One Eye who has, well, one eye. The other is covered by a patch. He looks excellently bad. This was Bob Kortman, who began his career acting in William S Hart pictures in 1915 and went on to support such actors as Gary Cooper, Buck Jones, Tim McCoy, Hoot Gibson and Johnny Mack Brown. He was Magua in the Harry Carey version of The Last of the Mohicans. And Ace has loads of other henches too, with names like Slim and Pete and so on. They will do his dirty work for him. They really are a bad lot.
The excellent Western villain Bob Kortman...
...as One Eye Chapin, henchman
Great news, pards. A leading henchman (until killed in Chapter 2), the sullen but crafty Shark, is our old pal Ray Teal! I’ve been a lifelong Teal fan (and am planning a Teal-o-rama soon) and was delighted to see a young Ray (already stocky and already with that mustache). Actually, pretty well all the bad guys have mustaches. He had been ‘Henchman Pete’ in Zorro in ’37 but this was only his fourth Western in a career that would count 375 appearances in the genre, big screen and small, and last until The Hanged Man in 1974. And he has a nice big speaking part, and carries out much villainy, including kidnap and grand theft stagecoach.
Ray kidnaps the heroine
It’s the old (very old) plot about the villains wanting the whole valley, using raids and barn-burning to force poor ranchers to sell because they know that the railroad is coming through there, and once they own the land they can demand any price they want from the Western Pacific.
Red Ryder’s dad, a local cattleman, tries to organize resistance to this marauding. Good news: Ryder Sr. is played by William Farnum, Dustin’s brother, veteran Western actor of the very early days (he had led the first version of The Spoilers in 1914 and would do key Westerns such as The Last of the Duanes and The Lone Star Ranger (both 1919) and would appear in the 1923, 1930 and 1942 remakes of The Spoilers. Sadly, though, Bill Farnum’s appearance in the serial was limited to Chapter 1 because the bad guys do him in, causing Red to want revenge, natch.
Farnum was Ryder Sr (briefly)
Actually, the walk-down to the saloon, where Red will brace the three murderers (Joe De La Cruz and Charles Thomas as well as Ray) is rather well done, and would have been worthy of a more ‘serious’ Western. The thugs gulp in close-up before the gunplay.
The bad guys look worried
It’s RIP for two of them but Shark is arrested. Unfortunately, the local law is in yet more cahoots with the bad guys and the plan is that Shark shall not remain incarcerated long. Little Beaver overhears the plotting. He will do this overhearing pretty well every episode – I mean chapter – and thus prove very useful to his pal Red. I think overhearing was his raison d’être. He rides quite well (he had apparently never ridden before this; Witney taught him) but his horse, Papoose (as followers of the comic and radio would have known) is never named in this serial.
Beaver overhears (again)
By the way, the crooked Sheriff Dade is a young-looking Carleton Young. You remember Carleton. He was the one who delivered the famous line in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, "This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” He was in loads of Westerns, big screen and small, and you can spot him in other John Ford pictures, in How the West Was Won, The True Story of Jesse James, Last of the Comanches, San Antone, oh, loads.
Ace fakes an escape with the crooked sheriff (Carleton)
Shark grabs the fair Beth (Vivian Austin) and hijacks the stage to abduct her (a pretty lowdown trick, you will agree) and, informed by Beaver, Red gives chase, allowing the chapter to end with a real cliffhanger. Cliffhangers were, as you know, an integral part of these serials. This one is almost literally a cliffhanger. The stage teeters on the edge of the abyss, with Red and Beth inside (and Shark too, actually). Will they all fall to their doom? NEXT WEEK…
In fact Beth as the leading lady hardly gets a look in, and in most chapters doesn’t appear at all. She was a perfunctory presence. Certainly there is no lovey-dovey between her and Red. Most of the small boys in the audience probably thought that was a good thing.
No romance. Luckily.
Chapter 2, Horsemen of Death (they have pretty racy titles, these chapters) starts with a recap, and what with the opening titles and credits and the closing ones, the screen time of the actual story is pretty limited, so they have to cram the action in. There has to be a horse chase every time, that’s de rigueur, and a fist fight (at least one) and of course they have to explain how the hero got out of the cliffhanger jam at the end of last week’s.
Each chapter had its lobby card
We go to the Circle R, the Duchess’s ranch. This Duchess (Red’s aunt, as you know) is played by fourth-billed Maude Allen, who had been in a 1930s Whispering Smith epic or two. She is suitably formidable. I said formidable, not fat.
On the ranch is also Red’s sidekick Cherokee, played by none other than the great Hal Taliaferro. Born in Wyoming, raised on a ranch in Montana, Hal was a real cowboy who got work as a wrangler for Universal Pictures, then entered films as an extra in 1915. By the 1920s he was starring in silent Westerns under the name Wally Wales (he took over the horse Silver King from Fred Thomson). His career declined when talkies came in, and in the mid-1930s, he changed to a new stage name, Hal Taliaferro, and worked in supporting roles for the rest of his career, primarily in Westerns. He has been called “one of the greatest stunt men in the game”. His last oater was 1952. He retired to his family's property in Montana and devoted himself to landscape painting. As Cherokee he wears buckskins and says things like “Well, I’ll be dad-burned.”
Cherokee (left) and Red talk to the crooked sheriff
Hal used to be a big Western star
There he is in Red River, on the right
“Who is your boss? Who killed my dad?” Shark is just about ready to spill the beans to save his own skin. “I'll tell you. It was –“ Bang! Yup, Shark is silenced for ever (bye, Ray, thanks). Red chases the assassin (naturally) but falls from his horse and the posse is thundering down on him as he lies there. He’ll be run over! Oh no!
Chapter 3 is Trail’s End. Don’t worry, Red wasn’t run over. Cherokee saved him. We learn more about the shenanigans of the slimy banker Drake. He really is a skunk. He pretends to want to help the poor ranchers, all the while organizing attacks on them so that they will sell up cheap in despair. He agrees to put up money for a fund to help them and then arranges for the cash to be stolen in a stage robbery. Red and Cherokee thwart this wicked scheme. Drake and Ace don’t quite say, “Curses, foiled again!” but nearly, and they certainly look pretty cross. That is until they manage to steal that money after all.
Anyway, there are more chases and a mine, and One Eye tries to crush Red with an ore truck (in a scene lifted from The Lone Ranger). There’s no doubt about it. This time there’s no way out for Red. He’s a goner…
The inevitable merchandising
Chapter 4, Water Rustlers, concerns the heinous plan Drake and Ace cook up to stop the Duchess getting her cattle to market. You see, she has mortgaged the Circle R to the bank, to give money to the ranchers. But if her cattle have no water, they will die and the loan can’t be repaid. That will mean Drake will get the ranch, and be able to sell the right-of-way to the railroad. So Ace orders his henchmen to poison the waterholes. Little Beaver overhears them, though, obviously, and tells Red. Also, he undoes the girths of the bad guys' nags and ties their saddles to a tree, so that when they try to gallop off, we get a comic fall. It works every time. This week’s cliffhanger is pretty spectacular, when the thugs burn down the water tower, and Red is lying beneath it as it falls! It’s curtains, surely!
Chapter 5, Avalanche, is another gripper. Red’s escape from last week’s danger is rather lame, though. He just gets up and runs away. Oh well. There’s a good bit when Little Beaver tries to get an apple out of the barrel, falls in, then overhears (as per usual) the bad guys hatching their nefarious schemes. The bad guys find him, though, and hold him hostage in a barn. Luckily, Red comes to the rescue. Red now wants to drive the cattle through Sundown Pass, to land with good water, but the villains have barrels of powder, marked Powder, with which they plan to bring the rocks crashing down on the poor moo-cows (and the drovers). Re-enter Beth. She is galloping along just as the gunpowder is about to go boom. Will Red be able to save her in time? Your guess is as good as mine.
Chapter 6 bears the sinister title Hangman’s Noose. Red does a deal with local rancher Ed Madison (Ed Brady) to use his water, but Drake has a loan out to Madison who is behind with the payments. Uh-oh. The banker demands immediate repayment in full or – yup, foreclosure. The good guys need money, and fast. Luckily, there is a stagecoach race that day, with the prize of exactly the amount Madison owes. Red will enter. But Ace arranges skullduggery, obviously, and Red is captured and imprisoned in a cabin. Cherokee has to take the reins. He is good, but no match for the underhand tactics of Ace’s men. Little Beaver saves the day again. He throws .45 cartridges down the chimney of the cabin into the stove, allowing Red to escape and gallop to the stage race. Cherokee has been lassoed off the box but Red (or his stunt double anyway) leaps aboard, takes the reins and looks like winning. But then a bad guy ropes him and drags him away from the reins!
Don’t worry, he got out of that one. Chapter 7, Framed, shows us. He won the race, and got the money. Curses, think Drake and Ace, foiled yet again. But now Ed Madison is murdered and woe, Red gets blamed (by the crooked sheriff, of course). Cherokee helps him escape. He doesn’t run, though. We see him disguised as an Indian in town, trying to find the real killer (one of Ace’s thugs, of course). Well, he finds the rat and holds him, and there’s a good bit where he whittles a little wooden man and threads a string noose about the doll’s neck, and all the while the thug (Ernest Sarracino) gulps. Finally he snaps. He scrawls a confession on the table top and signs it. Great. Red makes to leave the cabin. But the nasty sheriff has arrived with a posse. Bang! The figure in the doorway slumps, shot.
Chapter 8, Blazing Walls, a good one, shows us that it was not Red who went through that door but the evil Grimes, who got no more than he deserved. I won’t go into all the ins and outs (amazing how many there are in fifteen minutes) but as you may imagine there are chases and fisticuffs galore. It ends with Red and Cherokee in jail, and the place is on fire. Red is very brave and manages to save Cherokee but just then a burning beam descends from the ceiling with a crash. Will they survive? Actually, the fire got out of hand and destroyed nearly all Republic’s jail set, which probably didn’t please Herb Yates, but it does make the scene more realistic!
It really did burn
Chapter 9, Records of Doom, describes how Drake says he has sold the loans on to an Eastern land company, S&S, and it’s out of his hands now. They will foreclose unless the loans are repaid in full by 6 pm today. Actually, he and Ace have set up this company. Red and the Duchess managed to get those cattle to market and the cash is coming in on the stage. Red and Cherokee gallop out to meet the stage and bring the money in faster. One Eye sets out to stop them. But despite the disgraceful misbehavior of One Eye, they get the money in at one minute to six. Phew! Now, who owns this durn S&S company? Details will be in the County Record Office. If Red can just get hold of those records… Another cliffhanger ensues.
They are pards
Chapter 10, One Second to Live, a slight exaggeration, to be honest, describes Red escaping from certain death by dynamite, getting the drop on One Eye and Ace in a cave, Drake coming to join them but being warned just in time, so Red does not see who the Mr. Big is, and another dramatic chase. It’s all coming to a climax now.
Chapter 11, The Devil’s Marksman, is a deeply tragic one, for we must say goodbye to good old Cherokee, gunned down by the evil One Eye. Red says his goodbyes to the corpse of his old pard and sets off to exact revenge. One Eye and Ace shall smart for this! There’s a good quick-draw showdown, and you may guess who outdraws whom. Red has used Cherokee’s gun, and now cuts a last notch on its handle before smashing the pistol to pieces. But, and it’s a big but, the real villain, banker Drake, is finally unmasked! You do wonder why it took Red twelve weeks to catch on when we decided that about 20 seconds into Chapter 1. Oh well.
Chapter 12, the last one, Frontier Justice, tells how Ace and Drake get their come-uppance (for they inevitably do) and how their criminal schemes will be thwarted and how all will end well as ends well. Which it does. But not before a dramatic fight on a rope bridge and everyone thinking Red is dead. Red dead? No way.
The kids probably all went home happy and would be back the following Saturday to see Flash Gordon conquer the universe or something. Most satisfactory.
William Nobles was DP and he made the most of some attractive locations such as Iverson’s Ranch, Republic’s most common Western filming location, the area around Lake Sherwood, Beale’s Cut and Kernville (for the rope suspension bridge).
The Duchess mortgages the Circle R
The DVD is quite good, the quality of the image being not at all bad for a 1940s serial eighty years on. The sound too. The music is actually quite interesting. Red’s tune is Oh, Susanna, and while for much of the show generic music from other serials is used to signal ‘danger’, ‘villainy’, ‘the chase’ and so on, when Red appears there are quite classy orchestral variations on the theme of Oh, Susanna, by whom exactly is not clear: three are credited with the music, Cy Feuer, William Lava and the great Paul Sawtell. I think Cy did the Oh, Susanna bits. Perhaps the idea was to associate the music with Red Ryder in the same way that Rossini’s William Tell Overture did for the Lone Ranger.
The producer was Hiram S Brown Jr. He also produced several other Republic serials, Fu Manchu, Captain Marvel, Jungle Girl, and so on. Here’s a photo of Brown flanked by directors Witney (left) and English (right):
Director, producer, director
Witney, Brown, English
Monday, March 23, 2020
007 and BB home on the range
People have not been kind to Shalako. It got pretty bad reviews at the time and has been denigrated since. Your own Jeff, however, is not one of the detractors.
Or at least not much. I’m not saying it’s a great Western, far from it. Few such pictures shot in Spain in the late 60s were high quality, and many were downright trashy. Furthermore, many if not most of the Shalako cast were hardly professional ‘Western’ actors. Most weren’t even American.
Still, though, the picture has its merits.
One thing I don’t hold against it is the fact that it’s a ‘British Western’. It is true that some of the production companies were based in the UK, and much of the cast was definitely British. But so what?
A German film studies person, Marcus Stiglegger, (external link to his blog) says:
Although Great Britain is the homeland of many pilgrims emigrating to North America in the beginning, there has never been a primary British interest in the ultimate and mythical American genre: the western. The frontier myth – so eminently important for North American identity politics – is not a suitable key metaphor within British cinema.
This seems to me quite wrong. The British ‘Western’ was made countless times, in the shape of all those films about the North Western frontier and fights against Afghans or Zulus or followers of the Mahdi, in wild, far-away places, which featured brave heroes fighting natives and the wild terrain (with a sub-text, like the American Western, of a mission to ‘civilize’). It was an entirely suitable metaphor.
A Western by any other name
What’s more, the British have always had an abiding interest in the true Western, stories set in the late nineteenth century American West. Who made the first ever color Western? Why, the Brits. It was Fate, in 1911, and the British, like the French and Germans made many early silent-movie Westerns. And interest in the Western has continued ever since.
Of course what a British Western actually is can be debated. Is it one financed by British companies, or set in the UK, or with British cast and/or crew, or written by a Brit? For example, The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw, an entertaining picture, had a few scenes shot in England. The British had passed an astute if protectionist law that forbade foreign film companies to export the profits of any movies made in their country. As a result, Fox had money tied up in the UK that it could only use making another film there and so in some (financially unlearned) execs’ eyes, Fractured Jaw would be essentially free. It starred a well-known British actor of the time, Kenneth More. Is it therefore British? It was a Fox picture, directed by Raoul Walsh, and second-, third- and fourth-billing went to Jayne Mansfield, Henry Hull and Bruce Cabot. Hard to call Fractured Jaw a British Western. But even if it is…
I can think of some darn good Westerns that could be defined as British (or not).
Michael Winterbottom directed the very fine The Claim in 2000, a remake in Western key of The Mayor of Casterbridge. Roger Deakins, from Torquay, England, is one of the finest cinematographers around today, as his work on The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and the Coen brothers’ True Grit will attest. Alan Sharp (1935 - 2013) was a superb writer and The Hired Hand (1971) and Ulzana’s Raid (1972) are as good as anything an American wrote. His stuff reminds me of Elmore Leonard’s; it’s that good. As for British actors in Westerns, think of Stewart Granger or Ray Milland, or more recently Christian Bale in the latest 3:10 to Yuma. It was astonishing that the young lad who played the posh colonial public schoolboy in Empire of the Sun could make a convincing Civil War veteran Arizona farmer with grit. But he did.
Of course the British Western has not been immune from the turkey. The Singer Not The Song, directed by Roy Ward Baker in 1961, starring august John Mills and a leather-clad, rather camp Dirk Bogarde, really wasn’t very good, and Catlow in 1971 with Yul Brynner was a sort of British spaghetti - not a happy combination. Some movies have been downright awful. Liverpool-born comedian Arthur Askey starred in the perfectly dreadful Ramsbottom Rides Again (1956). There was even a ‘Carry On’ Western: Carry On Cowboy (1966), like Ramsbottom excruciatingly, toe-curlingly bad. I also have little time for the British team of director Michael Winner and writer Gerald Wilson who were frankly hopeless and, even worse, disrespectful to the genre. They were responsible for Lawman (1971) and Chato’s Land (1972), both very poor, despite the first having fine (American) Western stars in the shape of Robert Ryan and Burt Lancaster. Winner & Wilson just didn't get it, at all, and should have stuck to commercial Death Wish-type pulp. So no, ‘British’ Westerns weren’t all good. But whose were?
We probably could have done without that one
It is grossly unfair to suggest, as Paul Simpson in The Rough Guide to Westerns has, that Britain’s contribution to the Western has been on a par with that of Switzerland’s to naval warfare.
There's a double-decker bus leavin' town at noon, Herr Stiglegger. Be on it.
But back to Shalako.
The picture was a big production. It starred three famous British stars of the time: Sean Connery, taking a break between being James Bond in You Only Live Twice and Diamonds are Forever; Honor Blackman, Cathy Gale of 43 Avengers episodes who had also been Pussy Galore to Connery’s Bond in Goldfinger; and classic posh Brit Jack Hawkins (1910 – 1973), star of countless films where an English gentleman was required. Even Bosky Fulton the baddy was one of Her Majesty's subjects, from Northern Ireland, Stephen Boyd, and the butler was played by popular and famous English comic Eric Sykes. The film's producer, Euan Lloyd, was English and went on to make Catlow and A Man Called Noon in ’73. Like Shalako, both were based on Louis L’Amour novels.
Shalako (1962) was in fact one of Louis L'Amour's best books.
Seven of Louis L’Amour’s Western novels were set in New Mexico. He wrote tightly-constructed little Western tales which, I think, got better and better. They had an authentic ring to them as well. No wonder many were made into movies. Hondo, The Tall Stranger, Crossfire Trail, The Sacketts, Catlow, Guns of the Timberland, Apache Territory, The Burning Hills, among several others, were turned into Western movies, sometimes low-budget oaters or TV shows but sometimes big studio productions with top stars.
The story of Shalako concerns a hunting party of rich Europeans that has come out to New Mexico in 1882, just when Chato and his Apaches are on the rampage. This is distinctly realistic because by the 80s many such parties were out in the West touring and hunting and wanting to see the ‘authentic’ Wild West, even if they did it with servants and linen tablecloths loaded with silver and crystal. This party is led by severe Prussian Baron General von Hallstadt and his fiancée, Irina, Lady Carnarvon, a British aristo. They are accompanied by a US Senator’s daughter, a diplomat and his wife and a French soldier. They have, however, hired disreputable, low-life guides and crew.
Shalako Carlin is riding alone up from Sonora on rarely-used trails. He is one of those proper Western heroes who rides alone. He seems more than half Apache himself because he knows their ways and their language and their survival skills. He is tough and brave, and he is the famous ‘man who knows Indians’.
But L’Amour drops little hints here and there that Shalako isn’t just a rude Westerner. He has read the great military texts and his conversation, spare as it is, contains the occasional classical allusion. There’s more to Shalako than meets the eye…
We are told that he takes his name from the Zuni rain god because whenever he appeared among them, it bucketed and those Indians laughingly gave him the soubriquet.
Well, of course the Apaches attack and of course Shalako saves the dumb Europeans, though by no means all survive. And Shalako has a final clifftop duel with the feared warrior Tats-ah-das-ay-go or Quick Killer, the deadliest of all the Apaches. One of them wins.
And guess what, Shalako and the noble Irina hit it off.
Chato, or Chatto, I’m sure you know, was a real person. He was a Chiricahua Apache warrior, a protégé of Cochise, who carried out several raids on settlers in Arizona in the 1870s. He surrendered in 1872 and was confined to the San Carlos reservation where he became an Army scout.
Chato, or Chatto, I’m sure you know, was a real person. He was a Chiricahua Apache warrior, a protégé of Cochise, who carried out several raids on settlers in Arizona in the 1870s. He surrendered in 1872 and was confined to the San Carlos reservation where he became an Army scout.
Woody as Chato, and the real one
But in 1882 he broke out and with others settled in Mexico. However, General George Crook attacked his rancho in June 1883 and Chato surrendered, with Geronimo, to Crook. He then served under Crook as a scout, including the subsequent expedition into the Sierra Madre after his erstwhile ally Geronimo in 1886.
In 1894 Chato and his family moved to Fort Sill, in Oklahoma, and in 1913 they opted to go out to the Mescalero Reservation in New Mexico. In 1934 Chato died in an auto accident when his Model T went off the road.
Like Shalako and Tats-ah-das-ay-go on that clifftop, the novel does occasionally just teeter on the brink of pulp.
Lean as a famine wolf but wide and thick in the shoulder, the man called Shalako was a brooding man, a wary man, a man who trusted to no fate, no predicted destiny, nor to any luck. He trusted to nothing but his weapons, his horse, and the caution with which he rode.
Well, maybe not pulp exactly but slightly melodramatic stuff.
I’m not sure modern feminist readers would like it too much either. In 1962 feminism doesn’t seem to have yet had much of an impact on certain Western writers.
- You love your horse.
- Horse is like a woman. Keep a strong hand on the bridle and pet ‘em a mite and they’ll stand up to most anything. Just let them get the bit in their teeth and they’ll make themselves miserable and a man too.
There’s the occasional historical reference, such as Shalako’s to the Fetterman fight of December 21, 1866, to illustrate the dangers of underestimating Indian foe.
A false note is struck towards the end when Shalako’s shirt is torn with knife cuts in the fight and is then in rags, to be torn off, just like all those sub-Indiana Jones or Tarzan serials of the 40s and 50s. An interesting example of movie imagery feeding back into novels.
But these are cavils. All in all, Shalako is a fun read and a good 165-page paperback with which to pass an enjoyable afternoon (in self-isolation).
And in 1968 it became a movie.
An interesting and amusing fact: James Griffith worked on the screenplay. We all remember Mr. Griffith as the rather cadaverous bad guy in many a Western but like another Western badman we were talking about recently, Leo Gordon, Griffith also wrote Western screenplays.
James was even John Wesley Hardin once
His last Western
Sean Connery was a huge star at the time. Shalako was his only foray into the Western genre but he made a good stab at it. He rides well (when not being stunt-doubled). His laconic, slightly Bondish tough-guy approach suits and he does a good job with L’Amour’s hero. Quite surprisingly perhaps, he 'had it' where Western lead roles were concerned. Pity he didn’t do more. He doesn’t essay an American accent, just talks Bondishly. There was a rumor that Henry Fonda was going to play Shalako. I suppose he was too busy that year with Firecreek and Once Upon a Time in the West. It might have been interesting. But Connery does it well, I must say. And I’m not sure the audiences would have thrilled quite so much to Hank making love to BB.
Very big stars
Co-star Brigitte Bardot looks, now, dated to the point of ridicule. Her 60s eye make-up (applied with a trowel, I reckon) and bouffant blonde hairdo are hilarious. But there’s no denying the fact that she was gorgeous and of course she too was a megastar at the time. In fact Connery and Bardot were probably the sexpots of the late sixties. She did actually do Westerns, after a fashion. This one came between Viva Maria! and Frenchie King. In Shalako BB gets a topless scene, of course, though only seen tastefully from the back.
Perhaps there was more magic off-camera than on
She is one of the more sympathetic of a pretty repellent party of rich people out to hunt wild beasts in New Mexico. In fact the movie opens with wild beasts, seen with their faces in spaghetti-ish ultra-close-up, and these animals (they are human) mercilessly surround and taunt a splendid mountain lion until one of the morons, it’s BB in fact, kills it with a rifle shot, and the others all applaud.
The posh party is led by Baron Frederick Von Hallstatt, played by Peter van Eyck, an anti-Nazi who fled to the US but who got typecast in Nazi officer roles. Westernwise, though, you may also remember him from The Rawhide Years.
Van Eyck is the Prussian baron
Sir Charles and Lady Daggett are the British members of the group. He was Jack Hawkins, a top name of the British stage and screen. After surgery for throat cancer in 1966 Hawkins’s roles were dubbed by Charles Gray, who had a very Hawkins-like voice. Ms. Blackman played his rather disreputable wife, who eventually leaves Sir Charles for the scoundrel Bosky Fulton.
Also in the party are an alcoholic American senator and his wife (Alexander Knox – the smoothy rancher bad guy in Man in the Saddle - and Valerie French – Mae in Jubal). Apparently Karl Malden was the producer’s first choice but luckily he didn’t take the part (he was an awful actor in Westerns). There are also various hangers-on. The snobbish butler, serving chilled champagne in the desert, is Eric Sykes, very popular at the time in British comic sit-coms. He's quite amusing, actually.
And all those Europeans out in New Mexico were entirely believable. Eurocrats did come out to the West in large numbers on extravagant hunting parties and, like Trollope, Dickens and Wilde, to tour, make money and learn about the culture of the wild frontier.
Bosky Fulton, the ratty leader of the support staff, as it were, was played by Stephen Boyd, third-billed, who had had a small part in The Bravados and would later appear in Hannie Caulder. Among his entourage is the crusty old Buffalo, played by Don ‘Red’ Barry, still going strong, or still going, anyway. He was taking whatever parts he could get, mostly on TV, but managed three big-screen assignments in 1968. I think in Shalako he was going for the same vibe that Ward Bond had in Hondo, a small role but larger than life. And actually Ward’s character had been called Buffalo too. Perhaps L'Amour meant it to be the same person. Sadly, Don didn’t have quite the charisma (or height) as Ward. Still he makes the most of it.
Don is Buffalo. He wears the color of shirt that reminds people he is Red.
Bosky makes a play for Lady Daggett
Julian Matéos is the loyal Mexican Rojas. You may remember him from Return of the Seven.
As for the Apaches, Woody Strode of all people is Chato. Actually he is quite convincing. His dad, the sage statesman to Chato’s firebrand, is played by Rodd Redwing, about whom I was talking the other day. Rodd was also technical advisor on the picture. There’s no Tats-ah-das-ay-go.
The music is by Canadian Robert Farnon and conducted by a Scot, Muir Matheson, a big wheel in the British film-music business. It’s earnest modern-classical stuff, and quite serious, though disfigured every time Shalako appears because it’s one of those sub- (very sub-) Wagnerian scores that give the character his own theme. That would be OK but unfortunately, the tune concerned is mindless drivel, being the title ballad (“Shalako! Shalako! He’s been down in Mexico!”) crooned over the opening titles by a certain Jim Dale, apparently a 50s British pop singer (I’m afraid I don’t have all his albums) who became an actor and part of the ‘Carry On’ stock company.
He does a good job
The cinematographer, Ted Moore, was South African, and he did his best to make Almeria look like New Mexico. The terrain is suitably harsh and pitiless. The Techniscope widescreen helps.
Producer Euan Lloyd announced that Stephen Boyd would reprise his role in this movie in a sequel to be called Bosky. Nothing ever came of it. Probably just as well.
I am told that there is a sort of comic book adaptation of this movie in Italy. It's an episode of Zagor, the famous hero created by Sergio Bonelli (son of Tex’s creator). This graphic novel was published in the US by Epicenter comics under the title Red Sand. “One of the best episodes in the series, and a must-read for Western fans,” gushes the Trivia page on IMDb. I wouldn’t know, I’m afraid.
Film critic Roger Ebert was not complimentary about Shalako. He said that “The plot, once it's introduced, turns out to be pretty unoriginal … All problems are solved at the level of action, and Dmytryk avoids the opportunity to develop his characters more deeply. That would be good if the action was better, but it isn't.” He added, “Strangely enough, the long-awaited meeting between Connery and Miss Bardot is a flop. They look yearningly at each other a lot, and once he puts his arms around her and they fall out of camera range, but otherwise no sparks are struck. Considering the resources they brought to their roles, we might have expected more. The same can be said for the movie.”
Brian Garfield said, “The movie is a hopeless mess and deservedly laid an egg,” adding that it was “a disaster nearly on the scale of Mackenna’s Gold.” Ouch.
Paul Simpson in The Rough Guide to Westerns wrote, “The only fun to be had in this dismal Hombre retread is spotting the canyon-sized holes in the plot.”
So you’re getting the idea.
Renata Adler in The New York Times wasn’t quite so down on it. She wrote that it was “a good, long, old-fashioned, wide-screen Western, with lots of horses, love and Apaches and Sean Connery and Brigitte Bardot.” She added, “Lots of shooting, galloping, terse dialogue—it is the perfect movie to see in a two-theater town on a Saturday night.”
I take the point about the 1967 Paul Newman Western Hombre. There are distinct similarities of plot – ultra-competent half-Indian white man leading crowd of useless and/or nasty characters to safety. I don’t know if Elmore Leonard, who wrote Hombre, had read Shalako, but he might have.
Anyway, forget Stiglegger, Simpson, Garfield, Ebert and The New York Times. What do they know? Let Jeff Arnold’s West be your guide. Shalako, an excellent little book, is not a bad movie either. It has its flaws, yes, but Connery is good, there are even some quite tense moments, and it works.
Even if it is British.