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

Sunday, January 30, 2011

True Grit by Charles Portis (Simon & Schuster, 1968)

I call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man!


The novel True Grit by Charles McColl Portis (above), born December 28, 1933 in El Dorado, Arkansas, came out in 1968 and was very rapidly made into a film by Paramount. Not surprisingly, for it is an outstanding book, one of the best Western novels ever written.

I have just re-read it because the Coen brothers have said that they made their recent film True Grit from the novel rather than as a remake of the 1969 movie True Grit, and I wanted to prepare for seeing the new film, which is not yet out here in France, where I live. It will be showing at the Berlin Film Festival in February and then later on general release.

I was also curious to remind myself how close the screenplay of the 1969 film had been to the original novel, and I picked it up again too for the sheer pleasure of re-reading a marvelously enjoyable book after all these years.
Marguerite Roberts (1905 – 1989) adapted the novel in 1969 with consummate skill. (She also wrote, for Paramount, the script of Portis's first book, Norwood, the following year and the film brought together Glenn Campbell and Kim Darby once more - though without John Wayne). It is really quite remarkable how close the 1969 film True Grit is to the book, and how skillfully Ms. Roberts took Mattie’s thoughts (for the book is told in the first person) and translated them into dialogue.

The plot, as you know, is a fairly straightforward Western chase/revenge one, set in Arkansas around 1878. It’s not that remarkable. What makes the book is firstly the sheer power of the characters, especially the two principals Mattie Ross and Reuben 'Rooster' Cogburn, and secondly the color and brio of the language.

Unlike the '69 film, the book is narrated by an elderly one-armed spinster, owner of a bank and pillar of the local Presbyterian church. She recounts her adventure as a thirteen-year-old girl. Her character shines through in every line. The conversation recounted is shot through with that Victorian blend of formality and common usage with just sings with authenticity. It is also often extremely funny in a dry way. Most of the great lines are taken directly into the screenplay of the ’69 film and we laugh at and love them. They have a Mark Twain or Bret Harte twang.

Mattie is doubtless a tight-fisted, mean old lady but what she demonstrates she has (in spades) is spirit. She has, in fact, true grit, as much as Rooster does. One line invented for the film, and well invented, is when Mattie, prevented from using the ferry, plunges into the freezing river on her pony to swim across and Rooster remarks to LaBoeuf, “By God, she reminds me of me!”

Rooster is of course a great literary creation, a Dickensian figure of quite enormous stature. I have heard it said that John Wayne was awarded his only Oscar for this film as a recognition of a great career rather than for a remarkable performance in this particular film. What nonsense. In one of his best ever performances, Wayne (who yes, should have won an Academy Award ages before) was outstanding as Rooster and brought that wonderful character fully to life. In the book Rooster is in his early 40s and Wayne of course was over 60 but that's fine: Wayne stamps the part with his own persona. It is a great comic performance.

The sergeant of Texas Rangers LaBoeuf (pronounced, Mattie tells us, “la beef”) is a slightly grayer character in the book and, it must be said, a weak link in the film. 1960s Westerns seemed almost under an obligation to have a pop singer in the cast. As actors, they usually made good singers. At least Campbell was from Arkansas. But other players are strongly delineated and memorable: the outlaw Lucky Ned Pepper and his gang (even the bit parts are strong), Lawyer Daggett (what a stroke of genius to cast diminutive John Fiedler in 1969), and best of all Colonel Stonehill, the miserable stock trader whom Mattie bests at his own game. Even characters who do not appear but are only mentioned, such as Marshal Columbus Potter, seem to us alive and real. In later life, Mattie meets Cole Younger and Frank James. She captures them brilliantly in five lines.

The '69 film is so close to the book that there is little to criticize. Only the ending of the film departs significantly from the novel and, in the film, is certainly too sugary and out of character. The change of the fate of LaBoeuf is not easy to explain; what was gained by that in the film? I much prefer the ending of the book as far as Rooster is concerned and very much hope the Coen brothers have treated that as Portis did.

It’s not often that you get a five-star Western, one you adore, and find that the book it was based on is also a great novel. It happens (Little Big Man, Shane, Lonesome Dove, others) but it’s rare. In the case of True Grit, the book and film are equals, at least judging by the 1969 movie. You have here a must-read and a must-see. And the great thing about them both is that you can re-read and re-see them and get almost as much entertainment out of them as you did the first time round.

You haven't read it? Get on to amazon at once!


Saturday, January 29, 2011

High Noon in Lincoln: violence on the Western frontier by Robert M Utley (University of New Mexico Press, 1987)

The Lincoln County War and Billy the Kid: the truth behind the fiction


The book

Robert M. Utley’s book High Noon in Lincoln: violence on the Western frontier (University of New Mexico Press, 1987) is an outstanding account of the so-called Lincoln County War. Authoritative, scholarly, balanced, it is probably the source for those interested in the shenanigans down there in late 1870s southern New Mexico.

What’s interesting about it?

The first and perhaps most interesting thing that comes out of reading it is how unattractive and unsympathetic all the participants were. There are no ‘heroes’ in the Lincoln County War. LG Murphy and his partners Dolan and Riley of ‘The House’ were ruthless exercisers of a stranglehold monopoly, but John Tunstall and ‘Mac’ McSween were no fighters for freedom wanting to liberate Lincoln from tyranny: they just wanted to replace The House’s tyranny with their own.

McSween’s wife Sue (left) comes across as perhaps the most attractive of the lot: she was courageous, feisty and strong, a very modern woman in a hard place at a hard time. Yet even she was murderous, unscrupulous and full of hatred.

So we have no one to love, no clear ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’.

That’s not what the films show

This represents a problem, of course, for dime novelists and Hollywood. It’s so much easier if you can have noble characters against wicked ones. Especially if the noble ones win.

Most fictional accounts have tended to side with the Tunstall-McSween clan and cast the Murphyites as the villains. As young Billy Bonney rode with Tunstall, he could be shown as a ‘social bandit’, fighting for right and avenging wrong, standing up for the downtrodden against the overmighty. And the mythic ‘Billy the Kid’ of legend could grow into the great folk hero he was to become.

In reality, Bonney and his like (on both sides) were low assassins. And of the other characters in the play, Colonel Dudley (right) of Fort Stanton was a drunkard and man of of limited intellect. New Mexico’s Governor Axtell was a politician of dubious probity. His successor Lew Wallace was dilatory and gave priority to writing his famous novel Ben Hur. Local law officers like Sheriff Brady were partial and biased and Lincoln’s Judge Bristol timid and easily cowed. There is, honestly, no one with whom we would wish to identify.

Pecos rancher John Chisum was perhaps less odious than some of the others but he deliberately removed himself and took no direct part in the war, despite what the films show. The Seven Rivers stockmen like Hugh Beckwith who opposed him were nasty, violent rustlers and their cronies, like the Olinger brothers, brutal bullies.

Out-and-out bandits and outlaws who participated in the events, such as Jesse Evans, John Kinney and the appalling John Selman, were simply a criminal element cashing in on the conflict to serve their own ends of larceny and murder. They were low stock thieves. They would have held up banks and stage coaches had there been any. As it was, they stole whatever they could and did not scruple to kill people for plunder. Selman (the ‘lawman’ who eventually shot and killed John Wesley Hardin in El Paso) added arson, rape and torture to the crimes.

It’s not a pretty cast list, is it?

Tunstall in fact and fiction

The Englishman John Tunstall (far left) is usually, in films, shown as the high-minded, philanthropic one and Lawrence Murphy his evil rival. In fact Tunstall seems to have been an unpleasant person, racist (as of course so many were then), superior and unlikeable. Curiously, he is often shown (see, for example, The Left-Handed Gun) as an older man yet he was only 25 when he died, and even more curiously portrayed as a Scot. He is also shown as a Bible-reading pacifist who never carried a gun. In reality, these qualities should be attributed to his partner Alexander McSween (left). McSween disliked violence and only rarely used a firearm. Tunstall was agnostically-minded and went about heeled, being very ready to use a weapon when needed, while McSween had been, it was said anyway, a Presbyterian preacher. It was Tunstall’s determination to exploit the local population in the way that the declining Murphy had done which caused all the violence in the first place.

Utley shows us that the flames thus lit by Tunstall and his more or less reluctant partner McSween (the latter urged on by his steely wife) were vigorously fanned by three winds:

Fanning the flames

One was drink. Everyone seemed to use alcohol on the frontier, in very liberal quantities. Cheap whiskey made them reckless, aggressive and incompetent. Murphy, Dolan and Riley, especially, were often the worse for wear and Murphy eventually died of drink. The man upon whom one would normally have relied to maintain order, US Army commander at the nearby Fort Stanton Colonel Nathan Dudley, was a well-known alcoholic whose judgement was often seriously impaired. Bonney was one of the abstemious few; he didn't touch alcohol.

The second reason the flames flared was that firearms were so ubiquitous. Every man had a revolver and a rifle and was more or less expert in its use. The Colt’s revolver thrust into the belt and Winchester repeating rifle in a saddle scabbard were especially popular and most men had both. As is well known, alcohol and firearms do not mix awfully well.

Thirdly, we have the strange ‘code’ that post-Civil War Texans developed and brought with them down the cattle trails and along the Pecos, infecting the West as a whole. This code of behavior required that any slight, real or imagined, must not go unpunished. Official law enforcement being so scanty, inefficient and untrustworthy, it was a man’s right and indeed his duty to avenge wrongs and ‘set things right’. It required courage (although slightly less courage was needed when a slighted individual was fueled on booze and had a Winchester rifle in his hand) but it was what ‘a man had to do’. This is the seamy underside of the noble 'a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do' philosophy of the West and the Western.

Put all these three together with the economic causes as men thirsted for money and power (both of which were highly prized then as now), add in notably deficient police forces and law courts, and you have a recipe for a range war.


Despite the fact that Tunstall and McSween’s men were called 'the Regulators', they were no vigilantes. Vigilantes usually come out when law and order has broken down and they represent themselves as extra-judicial forces. In Lincoln County both sides claimed to be lawmen and rode to serve legally-issued warrants (as would also be the case in the Tombstone conflict between the Earp and Behan factions). They were only using the law, of course, for their own ends but each side had its own tame lawmen and court officers and wore badges of one kind or another.

Classic conflict?

Other famous range wars were the origin of Hollywood’s love for sheepmen against cattlemen conflicts, as in Pleasant Valley, Arizona or those big ranchers against nesters, as in Colfax County. The Lincoln County War had little of that (except perhaps Beckwith and the Seven Rivers stockmen fighting John Chisum; but Chisum had sold out and was on his way to leaving). The Lincoln County War wasn’t like this.

The nearest comparison to Lincoln is the Johnson County War in Wyoming, so laughably badly depicted in Heaven’s Gate. In both, Englishmen were involved as protagonists; in both there was really no self-evident ‘good’ and ‘bad’ side; both sucked in criminals; both caused Presidential intervention and a state of insurrection to be declared and both nearly caused the imposition of martial law.

All these conflicts and others, including Lincoln, merged with family and clan feuds, in the post-War Texas style, and all were complicated by corrupt politics and mismanagement.

Fact and fiction

So the next time we watch a movie in which Billy the Kid (who, as just one of the many gunmen on one side, in reality played a reasonably important but certainly not crucial or leading role in the conflict) rides into town and shoots down Sheriff Brady in a face-to-face fight, or the next time we see pious, unarmed and unresisting Tunstall shot down by vicious gunmen, or McSween and his family Gatling-gunned to death as they lurch from his burning store, let’s just remember that none of this really happened.

But of course we don’t watch Westerns to find out what really happened. Documentaries can do that, or Mr. Utley’s admirable book (which you definitely should read). We watch the movies for fun.


Monday, January 24, 2011

Rio Bravo (Warner Bros, 1959).

And she better like it….

You might think that once he'd done The Searchers, it would be all downhill for John Wayne. But it wasn't. He had twenty years of Westerns to go yet and while many of them were commercial rather than critical successes, some were very good and two were outstanding, on a par with anything he ever did. I refer, of course, to True Grit (1969) and The Shootist (1976).

But today, the big box-office blast, Rio Bravo.

Three years on from The Searchers, this was a totally different Western. Wayne had entered his later years as a fixture of the Hollywood Wild West. Rio Bravo has little Fordian artistry about it. Though directed by Howard Hawks (below, talking with Wayne, Martin and Nelson) and co-starring Walter Brennan, it was no Red River either. It was a classic, commercial Western of straightforward design, and it had them waiting in lines all round the block to get in.
The Mexicans call the Rio Grande the Rio Bravo and the John Wayne picture Rio Grande was called Rio Bravo in many countries. This is not that. Hawks directed Wayne with the same story in El Dorado in 1966 and yet again as Rio Lobo in 1970. Is that all clear? I wouldn't want you to get confused.
Southern Texas (filmed in Arizona). Sheriff John T Chance has Claude Akins locked up in jail and has to keep him a week and fight off a whole gang till the US marshal gets there. He has only “a drunk and a cripple” (Dean Martin and Brennan) to help him, that is until Ricky Nelson arrives. This was the late 50s and early 60s when no Western was complete without a pop singer. Nelson looks about 12 (he was 18) and has the tightest trousers ever seen on film. He can’t sing worth a damn compared to Dean Martin but they make a decent duo with My rifle, pony and me (the tune had been used in Red River), with Walter Brennan’s harmonica obligato. Luckily Wayne (“Singin' Sandy”, remember?) declined to join in.

Ward Bond was there to help (Hawks seems to have taken over the whole Ford stock company) but he soon gets shot. Angie Dickinson, as lady gambler who falls for Wayne, shows off her sensational figure, quite often.
Wayne is his usual leathery self, spinning his Winchester to cock it. I love his short jacket and calf-length pants and that hat has to be one of the best ever (Wayne had worn it since Stagecoach).
It’s a fun film, full of color and corn, and none the worse for that. It has a splendid final shoot out.

It’s juvenile, predictable and full of clichés but it’s a real Western with zip and pzazz and you have to love it. High Noon it ain’t but hey, who cares.

Actually, it was made, ten years after High Noon, as a kind of riposte. Wayne and Hawks had both disliked the Gary Cooper picture, in which the marshal had thrown his star in the dirt. It was unAmerican, they thought. Law 'n' order has got to be respected. In this version, the sheriff obstinately retains his badge and wins out over the bad guys against all the odds, with the help of some townspeople, but essentially by his own bravado. Of course High Noon was one of the greatest examples of the Western genre, perhaps even the greatest, whereas Rio Bravo is just a fun way to fill a movie theater.
Quentin Tarantino said that if he started getting interested in a girl he would show her Rio Bravo. And she better like it…


Thursday, January 20, 2011

Rio Grande (Republic, 1950)

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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Fort Apache (RKO, 1948)

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Thanks, Jeff.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Stagecoach (UA, 1939)

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Saturday, January 15, 2011

Randy Rides Alone (Lone Star/Monogram, 1934)

Well-constructed, professional and also fun


From time to time, like today, we'll come back to our John Wayne theme. After all, Wayne was the towering presence of the American Western movie for close to half a century.

We have already seen how he got his big break with Raoul Walsh (who gave him his screen name) when he starred in The Big Trail in 1930. 

But that movie was not the springboard to megastardom that Wayne must have hoped. All through the 1930s he played in black & white second-feature movies for minor studios and did not emerge once more into the real limelight until John Ford needed a Ringo Kid for Claire Trevor to fall in love with in Stagecoach in 1939. After that, even then he returned to minor movies in the War years but his name was made and he never looked back. Between 1948 and 1956 he was to star in four of the greatest Westerns ever made, three of them directed by Ford.

But the 1930s Westerns are not to be discounted. Yes, they are corny and old-fashioned by modern standards but some of them are well-constructed, professional and also fun.

Between 1933 and 1935 the Lone Star production company issued sixteen Westerns released by Monogram. They were lively and well-made, if formulaic matinee fodder. The series of 50-minute pictures continued at the gallop with Randy Rides Alone in 1934, directed by Harry L Fraser and with the usual suspects: Archie did the photography, Yakima the stunts and Gabby played a lead role..

There’s a great Archie Stout opening shot looking up at Wayne on his white horse Duke as Wayne gazes down from the rocks at a wooden model of a saloon. The model allowed the shoestring-budget studio to show us a hacienda-style building and later blow it up.

This artistic first view of our hero (he is Randy Bowers and works undercover for the Adams Express Company so he always rides alone) is slightly spoiled by speeded-up film as he rides down to the model. They often did that to get through unnecessary parts quickly or to suggest haste. It always looked silly.

When Randy enters the saloon, he finds a pianola churning out a merry tune but everyone inside dead as mutton. As he wonders what on earth has happened, two sinister eyes shine in the eye-holes cut into a portrait. Someone is watching! Then a dumb sheriff arrives (Earl Dwire the Great, right, who looks excellent with a proper handlebar mustache and tweed suit) and without a shred of evidence he arrests Randy for the crime. Anyone could see that with a costume like that and a white horse as well, our hero must be innocent. But Sheriff Dwire throws him in jail.

It’s all due to the evil machinations of a clean-shaven Gabby Hayes, this time playing a man who cannot speak (Gabby?), known as Matt the Mute. Matt the Mute is really in disguise for he is none other than Marvin Black the badman and he can speak plenty, and boy, is he mean. Gabby’s chief henchman is Yakima Canutt. They have an excellent lair behind a waterfall. Probably they copied it from Chapter V of Riders of the Purple Sage. Johnny Guitar later copied it again. 

The plot then gets intricate (and actually quite clever). It’s wonderful really how well-constructed these 30s Westerns were (this one, like many of them, was written by Lindsley Parsons). They had to establish the characters (forget character development - no time for that - but they did establish them) and tell an often quite complicated story all in under an hour. This movie, like all of the series, rattles along at a cracking pace.

There’s a great line when Marvin is furious at his incompetent gang; “And you call yourselves bad men!”

In the end our hero is proved innocent (I’m giving nothing away here) and gets the saloon-owner’s daughter (Alberta Vaughn this time).

So Randy rides off into the sunset – but not alone!

(Randy was immediately followed by The Star Packer).


Monday, January 10, 2011

Dead Man (Pandora/12 Gauge/BAC, 1995)

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Sunday, January 9, 2011

One-Eyed Jacks (Paramount, 1961)

It’s all rather turgid, really

And to finish our look at Billy the Kid in fact and fiction, a brief word about One-Eyed Jacks, a rather second-rate Western which is supposed (but often you wouldn't know it) to be based on the story of Billy.

Marlon Brando was not good in Westerns and this one, which he both directed (not very well) and starred in, is a curious mixture of the violent and the soppy. We have whippings and hand-crushing and shooting in the back all against a backdrop of lurid color, tropical lushness and slushy music. It’s not a usual Western setting: Monterey, California, with many beach scenes and much crashing Freudian surf.

It’s a pretty straightforward revenge drama. Karl Malden double-crosses Brando in Mexico and Brando spends five years in a Mexican prison then turns up in Monterey where Malden has become sheriff. Mrs. Malden is Katy Jurado, beautiful and splendid as ever, and her daughter is Louisa (Pina Pellicer). Brando tells Malden that all is forgiven but it isn’t. He cynically seduces Louisa and plans to kill Malden.

There are some very good supporting actors, notably Slim Pickens as the cowardly bully of a deputy with a large beer gut, and Ben Johnson as one of the outlaw band that Brando leads (Johnson brilliantly plays fear in one scene, out-acting Brando by miles). In this picture all the men are base and all the women beautiful and wise.

Malden overacts, as usual, and never convinced as a Westerner; he was better in cops and robbers dramas. Brando is far too mannered and is not at all believable as a real tough gun hand. He is almost foppish. There is too much talk and too much self-conscious posing. At 140 minutes, the movie is overlong (the original cut ran, Heaven’s Gate-style, five hours).

The story is from an adaptation by Rod Sterling of a Charles Neider novelization of Billy the Kid's life, with a later revision among others by Sam Peckinpah. But the relationship with Billy the Kid is tenuous at best.

There is the inevitable shoot-out at the end and love blooms. It’s all rather turgid, really. But it’s worth watching for Katy Jurado.


Young Guns and Young Guns II (Lionsgate/Morgan Creek), 1988 & 1990

Lightweight modern Westerns


Every generation, from the 1930s on, had its Billy the Kid movie. Like many things in the 80s, that decade's version of the Billy tale is glitzy, had a background of loud pop music and is a bit thin on quality.

A late-eighties rock ‘n’ roll brat-pack Western and its sequel, these two movies have Billy the Kid (Emilio Estevez, like Bonney born in NYC and come out West, although Emilio's West was Hollywood, Cal) and some real and some invented characters rushing about New Mexico shooting people to the sound of up-tempo music.

The movies are lively, violent and action-packed. Like all Billy pictures, they are no respecter of history. The central characters are supposed to be young guns and at one point a character says that not one of them is twenty; in fact, of course, all the actors were adults; but they were all in their twenties anyway so that’s not too bad (some film Billies have been positively geriatric). Estevez is quite good, manic and homicidal, and the others try to establish characters without much help from the John Fusco script. In volume 1, Philips is the Mexican knife thrower, Sutherland is the poet and Casey Siemaszko as Charley Bowdre is afraid.
Terence Stamp is Tunstall. They wanted a tough Englishman. Jack Palance is the evil LG Murphy (in this version of the Lincoln County War, as Indeed in most, no doubts about which side are the baddies). Murphy implies that Tunstall’s motives for collecting young men around him are perverse. Stamp (whom I like but who was bad in the four Westerns he did) is shot down early on, as is Charlie Sheen, but Palance doesn’t meet his doom till the final reel. Brian Keith has a good but tiny part as an elderly Buckshot Roberts, killer. Patrick Wayne is Pat Garrett but the screenwriter and director (Christopher Cain in vol 1; Geoff Murphy did the second part) don’t give him anything to do and so the character is not developed at all, which is a pity because he has a Garrett air about him.

There’s some China love interest for Kiefer in the form of Alice Carter as Yen Sun.

Some of Casey’s dialogue was sampled by Warren G in ‘Regulate’.

There’s the throwing the lawman’s star in the dirt cliché. I liked the old woman with a guitar. There is too much shouting. The gunfight at McSween’s is an exaggerated slaughter like the Northfield massacre in The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid or the bank raid in The Wild Bunch. McSween is killed in slo-mo by a Gatling gun. So no shortage of Peckinpah references.

The 1988 picture was a commercial if not critical success and spawned a sequel in 1990.

Vol 2 reunites Emilio Estevez, Kiefer Sutherland and Lou Diamond Philips. Billy is back. John Fusco wrote this one too and it has a lot in common: lots of action and stunts, those stupid phew-phew noises when people twirl guns or knives, loud music, lots of galloping and shooting.

It starts in 1950 with an old timer claiming to be Billy and telling his story in quivering voiceover like Jack Crabb in Little Big Man. William Petersen has replaced Patrick Wayne as Pat Garrett but is similarly characterless and his motives are not explored or developed. This time Dirty Dave Rudabaugh is with them but he is not the stocky killer of history but Christian Slater, quite good in fact. Someone named Alan Ruck has also joined the band, presumably to replace Charlie Sheen, shot in the first movie. James Coburn is there: not as Garrett but in a cameo as John Chisum. He quotes his “set fire to it” line from Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Lew Wallace is Scott Wilson, a rather less sympathetic Wallace than Jason Robards’s (as far as any character gets the chance to project character, anyway, which is very limited by the one-dimensional direction and script).

Jon Bon Jovi wrote a couple of songs, Blaze of Glory and Billy, Get Your Guns and they are typical rock numbers but Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door they ain’t.

There’s a boy with a stutter who calls Billy 'The Prince of Piss … toleers'. Very drôle. They ride through a store window as in several Jesse James movies. Beaver Smith of Fort Sumner is called Beever Smith. They use the ‘Big Casino’ gimmick. There is anachronistic writing (Garrett is offered money “up front”) but that’s consistent with the quality of the screenplay, which is pretty poor. Kiefer quotes the poem El Dorado like James Caan in El Dorado. The escape from Lincoln and killing of Bell and Ollinger follow Peckinpah (and history) closely enough but the characters aren’t nearly so strong (not that anyone could be a better Bob Ollinger than RG Armstrong).

It’s a true sequel and repeats the formula exactly as before. Like its predecessor it’s quite fun – a racy, noisy, action-packed, bratpack movie, worth a watch but probably not a DVD.

Both films are quite nicely shot by the able Dean Semler in New Mexico and Arizona and are attractive in parts.

These are lightweight modern Westerns but quite fun and they gallop along.


Saturday, January 8, 2011

Lincoln NM

It's real

For those interested in the history as well as the myth of the West, few places repay visiting more than some of the haunts of Billy the Kid in New Mexico, and, in particular, Lincoln.

Now a sleepy village of less than a hundred souls on the dusty 380, its glory days of the 1870s and 80s when it was the county seat, are long gone. Yet it boasts some historical sites in a wonderful state of preservation, three of which are museums.

Above all, it had, when I was there, an atmosphere. Few are the places in the modern US where you can ‘feel’ the old West. Many classic Western sites have been prettied up so that they have lost all their soul or have become tourist traps of blatant commercialism and great banality. That is not the case with Lincoln.

The star exhibit is certainly the courthouse, where Billy was imprisoned awaiting execution and from which he escaped, killing deputies James Bell and Bob Ollinger. I was there in August yet it was almost empty and you could wander around, see the staircase where Bell was shot (including a bullet-hole purportedly left by Billy) and look down on the spot where Ollinger fell. It really is quite magical.

There is a visitor center at the east end of town which exhibits the part Lincoln played in the history of Apaches, Hispanics, Anglo cowboys, Buffalo Soldiers, and tells you a lot about the so-called Lincoln County War.

There’s the Wortley Hotel, once owned by Pat Garrett (where Bob Ollinger took his last supper), and the Tunstall Museum and post office, as well as various other sites, seventeen in all.

They have a festival on the first weekend of every August, Old Lincoln Days, which is fun and on August weekends they have a “folk pageant” called The Last Escape of Billy the Kid which is slightly more folk pageant than accurate history, but that’s OK.

True Western fans traveling the great South-West will not want to miss Lincoln NM. It is anyway in the most beautiful of all American states.

Fact. Certified Jeff Arnold, his mark.

Billy the Kid Trapped (Producers Releasing Corporation, 1942)

This Western ticks a lot of the boxes


Smaller Billy the Kid movies don't have to be junk. They can be short, black & white, second-feature Westerns but still full of energy and fun and above all (unlike The Outlaw) respectful of the genre.

Such a one is Billy the Kid Trapped. It's a lively little Western in which a good Billy the Kid (Buster Crabbe, 'King of the Wild West', with his horse Falcon), aided by his pardners Jeff Walker (Malcolm ‘Bud’ McTaggart) and comic old-timer Fuzzy Jones (Al St. John) find that they have doubles who are committing crimes, no less (why on earth would outlaws commit crimes, the film seems to ask) and getting the decent outlaws a bad name. This is an old wheeze, of course. Clayton Moore and Roy Rogers used it, among many others, when doing their Jesse James pictures.

Boss Stanton (Glenn Strange the Great) is a sort of clean-spoken Al Swearengen ante diem, a crooked town boss who aims to get the gold shipment and take over the whole town. But Deadwood-type dialogue, throat-cutting and, ahem, personal habits? Perish the very thought. This was the 1940s. Even the baddies were clean-living and clean-spoken. The greatest concession they might make to decadence would be to wear a slightly caddish mustache.

It’s all set in northern Arizona for some reason, though shot in California.

Billy and Jeff wear dudish Gene Autry-style costumes while Fuzzy wears an old timer’s uniform.

Billy is right-handed. That's alright. He probably was.

There’s no music in the film, which is quite refreshing, actually, for a change.

The Western ticks a lot of the boxes: there’s a stagecoach hold-up, a brawl in the saloon, horse chases and bank robberies.

The gal is Anne Jeffreys and this was her first film. She's OK but you get the impression that the average audience member would have wondered why you had to have a girl in it at all.

There's no Pat Garrett.

The film was one of a cycle of thirteen made as a serial during 1942 and 1943. The movies included Blazing Frontier, The Renegade, Cattle Stampede, and Western Cyclone (1943). I give you this one as an example. True addicts can seek out the others, Billy the Kid's Smoking Guns, for example, or Sheriff of Sage Valley (in that one Billy even becomes sheriff).

Buster Crabbe has a slight Marlon Brando look about him in this movie but Crabbe was a better actor.

Good stuff!


Thursday, January 6, 2011

Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (MGM, 1973)

Magnificent, moody, monumental

One of the problems about watching this film and deciding if it’s a good Western concerns which version you see. There are several and none of them is definitively the one we can say Sam Peckinpah intended. There is a DVD which gives you both the ‘Turner’ cut and a 2005 edit and that is probably the best way to approach the movie, although both versions are accompanied by an anal-retentive commentary that discusses only the variety of versions and not the finer points or weaknesses of the film; it becomes very annoying. In any case, whichever version you see, you can be sure that you will be watching the best telling yet of the Billy tale. Arthur Penn’s 1958 version with Paul Newman The Left-Handed Gun was an improvement on its predecessors but this one is better still.

Hollywood Billies tend to be unconvincing as murderous adolescents. Bonney/McCarty/Antrim was probably born in November 1859 and certainly died in July 1881. He was thus a teenager when he was shooting people and 21 when he was killed. Kris Kristofferson was 36 when this film was made, Buster Crabbe was 34 when he starred in his versions, Paul Newman and Michael J Pollard 33 when they were in theirs, Robert Taylor and Scott Brady 30, Emilio Estevez 28 and Johnny Mack Brown 26. Franklyn Farnum in 1925 was 47! The youngest was Jack Buetel at 25, but that was in the worst Billy film of all.

So the average age of the actors playing the teenager was 32.2. Never mind.

This Peckinpah film is, however, so good because of:
  • the fine John Coquillon photography with some memorable shots of the Durango locations (including a realistic ‘Lincoln, NM’);

  • the outstanding score by Bob Dylan (if you aren’t moved at Katy Jurado weeping at Slim Pickens’s death scene to the sound of ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’ there is no hope for you);

  • a superlative performance by James Coburn as Pat Garrett – probably the best Garrett ever;

  • some truly magnificent support acting;

  • a brilliant screenplay with some great lines (Rudy Wurlitzer of Two Lane Blacktop fame, though Peckinpah had huge input too);

  • and, if you see the right version (because about a million editors have worked on one version or another), some fine editing.

Richard Jaeckel, Katy Jurado, Jason Robards, Jack Elam, Paul Fix, Chill Wills, Slim Pickens all shine. RG Armstrong’s Ollinger must surely be his greatest ever performance. The cast list is a veritable ‘Who’s Who’ of the Western character actor from LQ Jones to Elisha Cook Jr.

The film is melancholy yet unsentimental, elegiac yet not nostalgic, and it is slow and gentle without being plodding. These are not easy tricks to pull off. Scenes such as the wordless one where the raft floats down the river and a shooting match ensues were the mark of a truly great director (and it was amazing that the studio didn’t cut it out).

Garrett, Billy, even the Governor are all on one side really; the faceless corporate tycoons of ‘modern times’ are on the other. Garrett tries to change with the times but fails. Billy doesn’t even try. Garrett’s inability to forge relations with women (the scene with his wife was cut out of some versions but it was essential) contrasts with Billy’s instinctive success, and the same is true of all the relationships.

The body count mounts and mounts (even after several viewings it’s not always clear why people are shot) and the film is violent. But it was a Peckinpah movie after all; what did you expect? This and The Wild Bunch were Peckinpah’s greatest achievements. Pat Garrett was his last Western (unless you count Alfredo Garcia). It’s a magnificent, moody, monumental piece.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Left-Handed Gun (Warner Bros, 1958)

Psychology 101


Billy the Kid. The first thing to say is that there has been no attempt (yet) to render a truly historically accurate William Bonney/Henry McCarty/Antrim on film. All the movies made have interpreted the legend in a way that suits them. Several have Billy surviving Fort Sumner, for example.

But that's OK. As I've said before, we don't watch Westerns for fact and we don't expect them to be historical documentaries. In any case, the hard, verifiable facts about Billy the Kid's life are few and far between. 'Interpretation' is essential. Billy the Kid movies are for fun, mostly; very occasionally they are art.

Arthur Penn’s first film, a critical and box office failure in the US but beloved by the European auteuristes, tells the Billy the Kid tale with Paul Newman as Billy and John Dehner as a very good Pat Garrett.

In fact the film was a bit different and did not observe the Warner Brothers conventions of the 1950s. There were noirish touches and artistic moments. There was even a hint of slow-motion when Ollinger (Denver Pyle) is shot. Penn immediately received a memo from Warners: no slo mo!

Billy and his two compadres (James Congdon and James Best, both good) are shown as adolescents. They swing from gloom to elation and make immature sexual jokes. It was the late 1950s and rebellious teenagers were ‘in’ - in fact James Dean had been slated to play Billy. Newman, Congdon and Best were in their early thirties so were stretching it a bit as teenagers, to say the least, but managed it pretty well. The trouble is, Newman was in full ‘method’ mode and overdoes it on several occasions, notably when Mr. Tunstall (Colin Keith-Johnston) is killed. Still, he does a decent job elsewhere.

Dehner (right), an excellent actor, is strong as Garrett, the friend who finally turns against Billy and pins on the badge. He does not shoot Billy down at Fort Sumner. There is a showdown at ‘Madero’ when Pat thinks Billy has a gun and Billy in effect commits suicide. He has lost his friends, he can’t read, he has offended Saval (Martin Garralaga) and been driven from his last and only home. It’s a pretty dark death. Warner Brothers tacked on a syrupy ending showing Pat’s wife taking him home.

It was made in black & white on a pretty low budget on Warners’ back lot and at Jack Warner’s ranch. This gives it a second-feature feel. Penn had been working with live TV and was used to techniques with several cameras. This movie started out as a live TV project written by Gore Vidal. Warners took away the editing from Penn and handed it to Folmar Blangsted. Penn was disgusted and returned to Broadway.

There’s a fair bit of Psychology 101 flying about and the symbolism is pretty crude, especially when Billy seduces Lita Milan and fireworks flare. If we are not quite sure of the meaning, Billy kicks the burnt out fireworks sadly afterwards. Lita Milan went on to marry the Venezuelan dictator Trujillo so maybe she was disappointed too.

Newman, 33, as Billy

Penn knew there was no historical accuracy about it. He was more interested in the drama and the myth. Fair enough. There is a yellow-journal ‘biographer’ (Hurd Hatfield) who gave birth to the Bob Dylan figure in the later Sam Peckinpah version Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid and must surely also have been the inspiration for WW Beauchamp in Unforgiven. This highlights the lack of real truth in the myth.

Newman had to practice for hours to draw left-handed. As Billy probably wasn’t left-handed at all (the famous tintype was reversed) it wasn’t that essential but I guess ‘The Right-Handed Gun’ wouldn’t have been much of a title. The Europeans doubtless loved the three boys shooting the reflection of the moon in the water as they practice killing the bad man Moon and the single boot standing in the street when Ollinger is shot. The movie eventually won a prize for best first film, from Belgium. Wow.

It’s a flawed picture and certainly not the greatest of Billy tellings but it definitely has its points. An essential part of the canon in any case.