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

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Oregon Trail

Down that Oregon Trail


An open range ahead
A blanket for a bed
A friendly fire while lonely coyotes wail
That's life on the Oregon Trail

Wagon train windin' cross the prairie
Rollin' onward through the storm and gale
Towards the land of dreams trudge the old ox teams
Down the Oregon Trail

Through the night the Lord is in the saddle
Riding herd beneath the moon so pale
Watching o'er each stray till the break of day
Down the Oregon Trail

There'll be cattle on each ranch in Oregon
There'll be valleys filled with golden grain
There'll be apples on each branch in Oregon
For there'll be plenty sun and rain
Hurry up old pioneer, keep movin'
Your gallant little band must never fail
'Cross the great divide, side by side we'll ride
Down the Oregon Trail

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Outlaw Josey Wales (Warner Bros, 1976)

Mikhail Bakunin would have enjoyed it


Clint Eastwood himself regards The Outlaw Josey Wales with particular affection and seems to suggest that after Unforgiven it was his best Western. Personally, I would put Pale Rider in that position and the tale of a man who joins Bloody Bill Anderson’s guerrilla band to get murderous revenge has a slightly unsympathetic tinge to it - to say the least. The book, Gone To Texas by Forrest Carter, is certainly pro-Confederate in a big way and in fact quite lurid. It’s also rather rambling as a story. But there’s no denying that The Outlaw Josey Wales is a first class movie, an important part of the Eastwood canon and a leading example of the Western genre.

Clint refuses to surrender at the end of the Civil War and watches his comrades treacherously massacred by the Union army (this part is not in the book). He sets out for the Nations with a mortally wounded Sam Bottoms, picks up an abused Indian girl (Geraldine Kearns) and meets up with the splendid elderly Chief Dan George (Old Lodge Skins from 1970’s Little Big Man). The irony is that the harder Josey Wales tries to go it alone, the more ‘family’ he collects around him: a feisty grandmother from Kansas and her simple-minded daughter join the party, then a plump saloon gal, a faded Mexican hidalgo and a gambler, not to mention a mangy redbone hound.

The acting is extremely good. Every character is just right. After Eastwood, honors have to go to 76-year old Dan George. Some of the smaller parts, such as Woodrow Parfey as the carpet bagger, John Russell as Anderson or Royal Dano as Tenspot the gambler, are also outstanding.

The Oscar-nominated music (Jerry Fielding) is especially fine and the photography magnificent (that man Surtees again). Much of it was filmed in the fall and with long shadows. Utah and Arizona shine.
In the end most of the post-war misfits settle in an idyllic log cabin. 1976: maybe there is peace for those dislocated by the Vietnam War after all.

Eastwood said, “I’d been brought up by the Italian approach to the Western which is much more high opera than some of ours and there was no real attempt to make it truly realistic.” It’s true that Wales slaughters opponents to a degree that makes him invincible and that damages the suspense. However, he does ride off into the sunset dripping blood, Shane-like, so maybe he wasn’t invincible after all.

Eastwood was of course a great admirer of the movie Shane. Pale Rider is almost a remake, certainly a homage.

We can certainly say that a decade after the Sergio Leone pictures, Clint Eastwood had become a leading actor and director of Western movies. There is no doubt that this was his best Western to date.

Josey Wales is in some ways, also, an anarchist Western: one of the principal themes is the corruption and inefficacity of government and the fight against formal regulation by an individual and a small community. The chief tells of government betrayal of the Indians. Government forces slaughter Josey’s family and treacherously cut down his army comrades. The community founded by the outcasts in Texas is self-governing (actually, it’s governed by Josey) and self-defending. Mikhail Bakunin died exactly a hundred years too early: he would have enjoyed The Outlaw Josey Wales.
Mikhail died exactly 100 years too soon. He would have enjoyed it.


Thursday, November 11, 2010

Yellowstone Kelly (Warner Bros, 1959)

A love quadrilateral - or even pentagon

Teen idol Edd Byrnes, Kookie the parking lot attendant from 77 Sunset Strip, never really became the new James Dean that he wanted to be and he battled with drugs and alcohol and bit parts in low-budget films. But he does a good job as Clint Walker’s sidekick in Yellowstone Kelly even if you expect him to get his comb out at any moment.

Clint is Luther Sage Kelly (1849 – 1928), chief of scouts for General Miles, expedition guide in Alaska, captain of volunteers in the Philippines, trapper, hunter and explorer along the Yellowstone River and general all-round action man. He wrote his memoirs, published in 1926. Clint Walker was well-suited to the role and was ideal as the strong, silent loner in this nice Gordon Douglas-directed Western.

Written by Burt Kennedy from a novel by Heck Allen (under the name Peter Bowen) and nicely shot by Carl Guthrie in Technicolor, the movie has real quality. It was first slated for John Ford and John Wayne and that would have been dandy but they opted to make The Horse Soldiers instead and so Warners drafted in less-than-stellar Gordon Douglas (who did some good Westerns such as Rio Conchos and Fort Dobbs, the latter also with Cheyenne Bodie from TV, Clint Walker). With actors John Russell as Gall, the Sioux chief; Ray Danton as his rival Sayapi; and Rhodes Reason as the incompetent, almost Custerish cavalry major, it seemed, in fact, as if the whole Warners stock TV company were on the set.

Curiously, for a Yellowstone film, it was all shot in Arizona and it shows, especially the parts around Sedona. But they are very attractive locations and usually manage to suggest Montana OK.

It’s a love quadrilateral, or even pentagon, as the two Sioux are rivals for the lerve of an Arapaho maid, pretty blue-eyed Andra Martin (Mrs. Ty Hardin in a bottled suntan), then Clint saves her life and she comes to his cabin where Edd Byrnes falls for her, and finally Clint too. One by one, though, as you may imagine (so I’m not giving anything vital away here) the rivals are eliminated so that you-know-who can live H.E.A. with the fair Wahleeah.
Claude Akins does a good job as a tough sergeant who saves the troop from the doltish major, and Private Warren Oates is in it just long enough to be recognized before he is knocked over by an Indian bullet.

The writing is good (well, it would be) and Clint handles the lines very well. He always brought a certain authority and dignity to this kind of role. It’s a pity he didn’t do more A-Westerns; he could have been almost a Gregory Peck.
They keep on telling us that a severe Montana winter is coming early and watch out but it remains resolutely hot and sunny. That’s what you get for filming in Arizona in summer, I guess.
Anyway, a good little Western, definitely worth a DVD purchase and a second look.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

We deal in lead, friend


The link between tough detective stories and Western novels is too strong to be a coincidence. And as Spenser always says, coincidences don’t get us very far, so let’s discount them.
Think of Elmore Leonard. One of the best crime writers ever also wrote some of the finest Western novels, several of which have been turned into great Western movies. The Tall T, 3:10 to Yuma, Hombre, Valdez is Coming, and Last Stand at Saber River are excellent stories and fine films.

On Leonard’s website (external link) Christopher Walton tries to answer the question Why are his books so attractive to Hollywood filmmakers?

And I mentioned Spenser in the first para. I’m reading Robert B Parker’s novels about that first-nameless Boston private eye, Spenser, with an s like the English poet. You get drawn into them. There are forty odd and they read like a roman fleuve. Spenser is a tough, literate, sensitive, witty and violent investigator and after twenty or so stories have been read you get to know Susan Silverman, Pearl the Wonder Dog, Hawk, Vinnie Morris and the others so well that they are practically family.
Parker, of course, wrote four outstanding Western novels, starring the wise-cracking pardners Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch. Appaloosa (2008), from the book of the same name, made an excellent Western movie and we must only hope that Ed Harris & Co will see fit to make Resolution, Brimstone and Blue-Eyed Devil. Tragically, Robert Parker died suddenly in January this year and we shall not be reading more of Virgil and Everett, or indeed Spenser - at least from his hand. Another external link,
http://us.penguingroup.com/static/pages/aboutus/pressrelease/robert_b_parker.html, will tell you more about his life and work.
I recently read Potshot, in which Spenser rounds up some fellow-thugs from previous encounters and rides down to Arizona to rid a small town of a gang of biker trash that have been terrorising it. Ring any bells? Of course it does. Is it a coincidence that with himself Spenser’s magnificent tough guys number seven? Coincidences are possible but they don’t get us very far, so let’s discount them. And as a clincher that Parker knew exactly what he was doing, one of the band tells the Preacher (who could have been played by Eli Wallach), “We deal in lead, friend.”
So if you want crossover, read Potshot. The tough private eye novel meets the famous Western. Read any of them, in fact. You won’t regret it.
Certainly Parker would have agreed with Elmore Leonard’s rules of writing: “My most important rule,” he says, “is: If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Telegraph Trail (Warner Bros, 1933)

Straight down the (telegraph) line.

My late pa would have loved The Telegraph Trail. It’s fifty-four black & white minutes of straight-down-the-(telegraph) line action. There’s a brave Army scout as hero, a comic corporal for light relief, “red devils” galore, a vile renegade white man helping the Indians to try to prevent “American civilization struggling slowly westward” and, of course, a fair maid to be wooed ‘n’ won. What more could you want? Oh yes, the US Cavalry arrives at the last moment.
Great stuff.
After his starring role in The Big Trail in 1930, John Wayne entered his slightly less than Churchillian wilderness years of a decade of programmers for Monogram and other small studios, producing vast numbers of one-hour very-low-budget Westerns, some of them quite good. It wasn’t until 1939 that he was “discovered” (again) and catapulted to fame as Ringo in Stagecoach. By then he was an enormously experienced cowboy.

But in 1932 Wayne landed a contract to do six second-feature Westerns for Warner Brothers. Warners had bought First National and had the rights to Ken Maynard pictures. Wayne looked enough like Maynard, and Wayne's horse Duke looked enough like Maynard's mount Tarzan, to enable Warners to use old footage of the Maynard movies. The result was Ride Him Cowboy, The Big Stampede, Haunted Gold, The Telegraph Trail, Somewhere in Sonora and The Man from Monterey.

In The Telegraph Trail Wayne was still in his twenties and very handsome, but he was also still reciting lines he had learned, rather than acting.

It’s the standard Western Union plot (though of course it predates Western Union by 8 years) as the construction of the coast-to-coast telegraph symbolizes the westward march of America’s manifest destiny. The (tribeless) Indians, who all whoop and do primitive war dances and can’t even read, for heaven’s sake, urged on by a skulking white man treacherous to his own race, try to destroy the wires. Wayne leads a work party to complete the task (although he is rather too busy fightin’ and romancin’ to actually do any work).
Frank McHugh is his comic sidekick, aided by Otis Harlan as the store keeper. They have a lot of jokey repartee and do a lot of drinking, always considered funny then. The villain is Albert J Smith, who was a classic he-man of the silent era and was the baddy in any number of oaters. Marceline Day looks very 1920s as the blonde storekeeper’s daughter who falls for the dashing scout. Second billing on the cast list went to Wayne’s horse, called Duke. It’s one of those annoying ‘intelligent’ horses which, when told to stand guard and be watchful, nods its head in assent, that kind of thing. Doubtless you've seen enough Roy Rogers movies to know the type. The best part of the casting, apart from Wayne, was not Duke but Yakima Canutt as the Indian chief High Wolf. He of course only has Ug-type lines but gets to ride around a lot and order attacks.

It had a big cast and was no ultra-low-budget pulp horse opera. There’s a lot of action and it zips along. Yes, the writing is one-dimensional but it was 1933. Some of the staging is hilariously 1D also, as if in a small theater, with characters seen side-on as they tell each other the plot in what is very obviously a three-walled room in the studio. There is speeded-up film when the Indians charge and tire tracks are seen from the camera truck that precedes them. Never mind. Who cares? It’s all energetic fun.

Wayne has a great pair of matched pearl-handled .45s worn handle-forward on his belt.
Turner bought it. Not sure that it’s out on DVD but it might be. Worth a watch!


Saturday, November 6, 2010

Blazing Saddles (Warner Bros, 1974)

You know: morons

I have said that True Grit’s French title of 100 Dollars pour le Shérif is the worst ever translation of a Western film name. Actually, I can think of a worse one: in French movie theaters Blazing Saddles was called Le Shérif est en Prison. I mean, honestly. The IMDb comment, when accessed in France, is hilarious because it automatically translates all film titles into the French ones and therefore recounts how Brooks was taking a shower one morning and the words le shérif est en prison suddenly popped into his head. Doh. Actually, various titles had been considered, such as Tex X (a cowboy reference to Malcolm X) and Black Bart (a TV pilot of this title was made and was quite amusing although it had none of Mel Brooks’s zaniness in it). Blazing Arrows was an alternative title for the Gary Cooper Western Fighting Caravans and maybe subconsciously that was in Mel’s head while in that shower. Anyway, it’s a great title.

I have also said that I find comedy Westerns as a genre faintly sacrilegious but I don’t know why I say this really because I love so many of them. Think of Buster Keaton in Go West and the Marx Brothers in their movie of the same name, or Bob Hope in Alias Jesse James, or, of course, Destry Rides Again, sent up unmercifully and hilariously in Blazing Saddles. They are all wonderful. And a good comedy Western is an affectionate, not mocking, parody.
In fact, Blazing Saddles is not just a great - maybe the greatest - comedy Western. It is also one of the funniest comedies ever made.

Everyone who knows this movie has her or his favorite gag. For very many people the beans scene is it. This episode is surrealistically funny, by the way, in the censored TV version where the farting sounds were deemed offensive so the cowboys move in a silent choreographed ballet. You may prefer “Mongo just pawn in game of life”, the punched horse, Mel as the Sioux chief speaking Yiddish, the homage to Randolph Scott, “Boy, is he strict”, the Howard Johnson ice cream parlor (1 flavor), “Mongo, Santa Maria!” and so on - endlessly and gut-bustingly. The BAFTA-winning team of writers, including Brooks and Richard Pryor (whom Mel wanted to play Bart but who was considered too ‘alternative’ or racy at the time), must have had a whale of a time.

The film could never be made today. The language would never get past the censors. Warners even passed the scene where Lili von Shtupp in the dark comments on Cleavon Little’s, ahem, physical attributes. But they drew the line at the subsequent joke, which had to be cut, about his arm (watch the making-of on the DVD to get that gag). Middle-class white people these days would never permit so many uses of the n-word (except maybe in a Tarantino movie). Warners were amazingly tolerant - or Brooks amazingly persuasive. Many actors said they had difficulty in saying the lines. John Wayne, offered a part, said he thought the script magnificently funny but could never be in it himself. Actually, though, Brooks was right when he said it was a proper use of the word nigger: only ‘good’ (but stupid) people in the film use it. The movie does in fact have a serious message behind the hilarity. It’s a profoundly anti-racist film. “Blazing Saddles was a film that broke ground,” said Mel Brooks. “It also broke wind.”

It’s 1874 in 1974. Very many of the jokes, from the Gucci saddlebags to Basie in the desert playing ‘April in Paris’, depend on this trick, as does the wild ending, of course.

Another reason to love the movie is the fact that it is jam-packed with every Western cliché under the sun, from the drunken ex-gunfighter to “head them off at the pass” yelled by Slim Pickens.

Of the actors, Mel Brooks himself, in about twenty parts, overacts joyously. Academy award-nominated Madeline Kahn is glorious as the Dietrich figure (with more than a hint of Mae West). Harvey Korman is probably the outstanding actor as Hedy Lamarr (HEDLEY!) He is the slimiest ever politician-crook-railroad baron. He should certainly have won best supporting actor, which, in fact, he pitches for in the script. Sense-of-humor-challenged Hedy Lamarr, who obviously didn’t get the joke, sued Warners for using her name. They settled out of court and Mel apologized personally. She should have been flattered. Slim Pickens’s huge talent for comedy was exploited brilliantly. The acting is superb throughout. Even Ben Johnson appears. ‘Claude Ennis Starrett Jr.’ (Jack Starrett) does a funny Gabby Hayes impersonisation.

The opening corny ballad (Oscar-nominated, words by Mel) is sung by Frankie Lane. He did it straight, not understanding that it was a parody, and it is the funnier for that.

The movie poster is a hugely amusing work of art in itself (Never give a saga an even break).

But I think I’ll go for the Gene Wilder line when he tells of his gunfighter past: “I must have killed more people than Cecil B De Mille.”