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

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Man behind the Gun (Warner Bros, 1953)

Randy saves the day (again)

The Man Behind the Gun is one of the most entertaining Randolph Scott Westerns. No one would pretend that it is a great example of the genre, and of course 1953 was the year of mighty pictures like Paramount’s Shane, MGM’s The Naked Spur and Warners’ own Hondo. But there is a crackle of humor throughout the movie and Randy seemed to be enjoying himself hugely. There are even bawdy jokes that must have sneaked somehow under the censors’ radar. And it’s in bright Technicolor and packed with action. It’s a whole lot of fun.
It’s a California Western, almost a sub-genre. It’s odd to see the ocean in a Western, somehow. It is set in pre-Civil War LA, with the usual California plot of traitorous politicians wanting to secede to make a slave state, though the date doesn’t stop the writers having a bit in which Randy on the stage admires the “new-fangled six-shooter” of one of the passengers, who has somehow acquired an 1873 Peacemaker. Actually, this early scene is a straight steal from Virginia City, with Scott doing the Errol Flynn bit of surreptitiously unloading the pistol and the great Anthony Caruso taking Bogart’s role of bandit holding up the stage. Pity it was a Colt and not a derringer, as in Bogie’s case, but never mind.

Randy is pretending to be a disgraced Army man, posing as a bookish schoolmaster who is no good with guns. Of course we all know he is no such thing. Like Gary Cooper in Springfield Rifle the year before, he is actually undercover, and he is aiming to defuse that heinous secesh plot.
Our hero
He has two sidekicks in the shape of whip-wielding Monk (Dick Wesson) and burly Olaf (Alan Hale Jr.) Wesson, who was the comic relief in Calamity Jane the same year, only did three Westerns (the other was the Guy Madison outing The Charge at Feather River, also in ‘53) but he had a comic gift and is amusing in this one. At one point he has to dress up as a settler’s wife on a Trojan-horse wagon full of hidden soldiers and so there is plenty of scope for broad 1950s cross-dressing humor. He even toys with using a couple of oranges as breasts, but I don’t know how that got past the Hays Office in the early 50s. As for Alan Hale, the son of Errol Flynn’s buddy Alan Hale Sr., he had a long career well before Gilligan’s Island, and did huge numbers of big- and small-screen Westerns from 1947 to 1975. He was always enjoyable to watch. He plays a strongman who manages to lift a huge rock to win $500 (though the onlookers do not know that Dick and Randy are in the cellar below, levering the boulder up).
Hale and Wesson do their schtick
The villains are Morris Ankrum and Roy Roberts, so that’s good. Like most besuited politicians in Westerns, they are corrupt, scheming, ruthless and evil. Plus ça change... The excellent Douglas Fowley is there too, as the crooked saloon keeper. I always like Douglas.

There are two dames for Randy to hover between, as was conventional, a prim blonde one, the real schoolteacher, Lora, and a racier and sultrier saloon gal (actually she’s the co-owner of the joint), Chona. Lora is played by beautiful Patrice Wymore, who had starred with Errol Flynn (that man again) in Rocky Mountain in 1950, becoming Mrs. Flynn later the same year. She had been in The Big Trees with Kirk Douglas in '52 but did no other big-screen Westerns (though quite a few TV ones) before retiring to care for her ailing husband. The fiery Lina Chomay, who had been a singer in Xavier Cugat’s band, is saloon singer Chona. She is also, it turns out, leader of the gunrunners, storing rifles and powder in her saloon cellar (Randy discovers the guns there while helping Olaf lift the rock), and she is a crack shot too. In an enjoyable reversal she tells her men to run for safety while she holds off Randy effectively with her (1870s) six-shooter. It was the last picture of Ms. Chomay’s too-short career. She retired from film making after marrying the wealthy grandson of railroad magnate Jay Gould. “I know I looked like hot stuff in my movies,” she said years later, “and I was hot stuff!” I am forced to concur.
Phil is engaged to Patrice but fancies Lina, while Randy eyes up Lina but may go for Patrice: it's all pretty tense, my dears
Phil Carey is there, as an Army captain whom we first suspect to be in cahoots with the bad guys but who turns out to be a moderately good egg. He and Randy are rivals for the attentions of both dames. Carey was busy out West that year, what with Gun Fury, Calamity Jane and The Nebraskan.

The picture was directed by Felix Feist (rather a good name, that) who had done The Big Trees and who would later also direct The Californians on TV, so he was a bit of a California-Western specialist.
It's a Feisty picture
It was written by John Twist, Warners B-Western regular, who had also worked on The Big Trees, as well as on Dallas and Fort Worth (another Scott picture), from a story by Robert Buckner, who did Flynn Westerns Santa Fe Trail, Dodge City and Virginia City. It’s all historical hooey, of course, but they put together an action-packed plot with explosions, horse chases, skullduggery galore and gunfights aplenty. Actually, some of the horse chase footage was lifted from San Antonio, the flat, dusty Texas scenery looking out of place among the lush Californian greenery. I think Jack Nicholson must have seen this movie because there’s a sub-plot of cutting off the water for nefarious ends. It’s a kind of Chinatown ante diem. There’s a stunt I didn’t like in which a horse is ridden off a bridge into a river. The horse is shown walking out of the river afterwards, to reassure us, but that bit is clumsily edited in and I reckon it was another horse.

The Californian locations were nicely shot by good old Bert Glennon, a John Ford (and Errol Flynn) regular. Music is by David Buttolph and suitably rambunctious. The whole thing is full of energy.

One interesting thing: Joaquin Murietta features in it. Murietta, or Murieta or Murietta, as you prefer, played here as a dashing young smiling bandit by Robert Cabal, Hey Soos in Rawhide, was known as the Robin Hood of El Dorado, and he was a Mexican patriot hero/villainous bandit (you choose) who was the model for Zorro. Walter Noble Burns wrote a sensational biography of him in 1932 and Warner Baxter played him in the 1936 MGM film directed by William A Wellman. He was apparently found and killed, and then beheaded, by some California Rangers in 1853, though conspiracy theories abound and many believe the amputated noggin was not that of the colorful brigand.
A dime-novel idea of Murietta
Cabal as Murietta
The title, rather similar to Columbia's The Stranger Wore a Gun of the same year, was to have been City of Angels, which I rather like, but Warners preferred Man with the Gun. However, that had been snaffled by RKO for Bob Mitchum - it would come out in '55 - so the studio contented itself with Man Behind the Gun. OK, whatever. At least Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan were able to grab the title nearly half a century later.

In any case this is a must-see for Randy fans, and in fact all Westernistas worth their salt will want to have a go.

Randy's credentials


Monday, November 27, 2017

Godless (Netflix, 2017)

Very fine

Godless is a seven-part series released on Netflix five days ago (it’s taken me that time to see it, ponder and write).

The first thing to say is that it is extremely good, and if you are a Westernista in any way at all and have access to Netflix, you ought to see it.

It’s a ‘proper’ Western, set in Colorado and New Mexico in the 1880s, and it opens with an aged US marshal with a small posse riding in on the aftermath of a truly terrible massacre in Creede. A small child hanged from a telegraph pole brings the old lawman to his knees. We will at length discover the author of this foul deed, outlaw chief, the graybeard Frank Griffin, superbly played by Jeff Daniels. The marshal, grizzled and mustached in a Sam Elliott kind of way, is also brilliantly played by Sam Waterston. In fact all the acting is fine and I fear I may run out of laudatory adjectives by the end of this review.
Marshal Cook
We don’t get to know this right away, of course because in that modern (or is it post-modern, I never really know) way of motion pictures these days the facts are dealt out parsimoniously, bit by bit. That’s half the fun, I suppose, piecing the crumbs of info together to form, well, I’m not quite sure what assembled crumbs would form so I think I’ll abandon this metaphor.

The story, we eventually learn, concerns Roy Goode (yes, well played, by Jack O’Connell), an adopted son of Griffin who has deserted the band, taking ill-gotten loot with him, upon whom the man who considers himself his father swears to wreak vengeance of a particularly painful and terminal kind. The young man fetches up, wounded in the throat, on a ranch whose rather trigger-happy owner, Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery: yup, a well-handled role) proceeds to wound him again, for not speaking. But at least she then has the decency to heal him, with the aid of her Paiute mother-in-law, played by the actor who might take the cake as the best of the whole cast, Tantoo Cardinal, whom you may well remember from Dances With Wolves (and who is also in another Netflix show we shall be reviewing in the not-too-distant future, Frontier). Ms. Cardinal has little to say, and most of that with subtitles, but she is all the more powerful for it. It’s a magnificent performance. I also liked Alice’s son, well more than half Paiute himself, Truckee, an uncertain teenager who gradually comes to see Goode as a father figure. The alternating bolshiness and tentativeness is very well done, though I suppose as a teenage boy he was pretty well qualified for that…

There are many other characters, of course, but the nub of the plot is that, and how the characters will face the inevitable showdown as Griffin and his murderous thugs descend on the town of La Belle to wreak their bloody revenge.
Quite a way from Downton Abbey
La Belle is a mining town but all the men have perished in a pit accident (there is a curious idyllic scene of marital and urban bliss as the miners go off to work wreathed in smiles and bathing in the love of their families, never to return). The result is a very female community, and a very female, not to say feminist Western. There are also lesbian affairs that teeter on the brink of, but probably do not fall over into salaciousness. Chief among the townswomen is a veritable Western Amazon, Mary Agnes (Merritt Wever), the butch sister of the sheriff. She effectively takes over as town boss while her brother is away hunting the outlaws. She comes across as a hostile and unpleasant person with a deep sadness underneath but I guess in a community like that it’s not surprising. Once again, the part is very well handled by the actor.
The women run the place
This sheriff, her brother Bill McNue (Scoot McNairy) is losing his sight, not an ideal situation for a man to be in who depends on his firearm, though rather implausibly all is made well when he purchases some spectacles from a casual encounter with a passer-by for 25 cents and these eyeglasses miraculously cure both long- and short-sightedness, throwing everything into crystal-clear focus, even when one the lenses, Piggy-like, is cracked. Once the US marshal is out of the picture, and he is, this humble town lawman will bear the responsibility of bringing the evil Griffin and his band to justice. Luckily he will be helped by his sis, Roy Goode and Alice, and sundry other allies.

While the sheriff is away, a mining company, eying up the possibilities, puts in its own men as the law and to my delight they are led by Butler, or at least that is how I think of him. Butler (Kim Coates) is the especially bad badman in Open Range, you will doubtless recall, and he does something similar here. He is called Logan here but I’m sure it’s Butler. Probably he changed his name when he moved on to the Open Range town. He’s splendid. Of course, corporate greed and ruthlessness is a standard element of the Western, almost a cliché, but it’s well done here. Naturally, when Griffin and his band descend on La Belle, ‘Sheriff’ Logan is long gone – purportedly going for more men but in reality going back to larceny.
This image goes back a long way in Westerns
As the title suggests, the film has a secular, almost anti-clerical tinge to it. Outlaw chief Griffin is supposedly a preacher (though if ever formally ordained as such is unlikely) and his purple shirt gives him an episcopal appearance but he is as far from a peace-loving Christian as you could possibly get. In one scene he rides his horse into the church, while singing Nearer My God to Thee and then sermonizes the congregation. He makes clear that he himself is the nearest thing to God in this country, and he warns the congregation solemnly: anyone who protects Roy Goode will suffer as Jesus did.
Creepy preacher
The church is being built by the women, in pants or with their skirts hitched up, and on the one hand this is a nod to the Western trope of the women being the civilizing element of these communities, being churchgoers and schoolma’ams and favoring temperance and so on, while the men are out gunslinging, cattle droving or ridin’ the range. But on the other hand the church remains an unfinished skeleton and seems an empty hope. A pastor is promised but he has apparently strayed off the straight and narrow on the way there and they must shift for themselves. When finally he does arrive, too late, at the funerals of those fallen in the bloodbath, he spouts platitudes. Certainly Mary Agnes gives him short shrift, though you can see some of the more elderly and/or gullible women nodding hopefully at the clergyman’s triteness.

It’s all very well done, and full marks to writer/director Scott Frank and producer Steven Soderbergh. Mr. Frank apparently worked on the screenplays of Minority Report and The Wolverine, not pictures I have seen (they aren’t Westerns) though they are said to be good. Though Godless is his only Western, he clearly understands the genre.
Scott Frank
Slowness of plot development and pacing is almost a virtue in this picture. Only outfits like Netflix, HBO and the like can do that now. Whereas in the old days big-screen features gave us scope and grandeur while small TV screens churned out low-budget studio-set Westerns, now the tables are turned and it’s TV that provides us with the large-scale, even epic pictures, and many of us have big flat-screen TVs to watch them on.

The showdown, with its long build-up, is pretty classic and there’s a Magnificent Seven vibe as the place prepares for the coming onslaught.
Griffin rides in
Visually, the picture is outstanding. Steven Meizler was the cinematographer. He had also worked on Minority Report, I read, though again this is his only Western. But he captures the magic of the New Mexico locations. It is true, of course, that the American Southwest is the most beautiful part of the world and New Mexico is the most beautiful part of the Southwest (I just need to check out a couple of other places in Asia and Europe but I’m pretty sure I’m right), and with that wonderful pink light even I can take good photographs there but Mr. Meizler’s photography is particularly and noticeably fine.

This show merits its Jeff Arnold four-revolver rating and I recommend it to your attention, e-pards.



Friday, November 24, 2017

The Lonesome Trail (Lippert, 1955)

Pretty 'B' but worth it for Edgar and Douglas

Though really only a minor mid-50s black & white B-Western from Lippert with an unspectacular cast, The Lonesome Trail does have a couple of points in its favor. The title, for one thing. I mean, how Western can you get? I have discoursed elsewhere, here in fact, on the notion of lone and lonesome as a trait in Westerns. In this one a several-time repeated idea is the difference between lone and lonely.  

And then my pal Edgar Buchanan figures in it, fourth-billed as wheelchair-bound rancher Dan Wells, who has buckled under pressure from the crooked town boss Hal Brecker (Earle Lyon) to get off his place and let Brecker marry his daughter Pat (Margia Dean). Always reliable and noticeably good even in low-budget second features, Buchanan here manages subtly to convey shame at what he has done, and then true Western grit when he finally decides to do something about it. It’s once again a fine performance.
Edgar, a quality performance as ever
Top-billed was Wayne Morris, in a curiously small part as Dandy, the saloon barman. Tall, blond Morris was a successful juvenile actor whose career had, however, declined after World War II. He spent much of the 50s in low-budget Westerns. He would be fine in Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory in ’57 and that might have revived his career but a massive heart attack did for him at the age of 45. Westernwise, he was best known for his 1953-54 movie series that began with the Allied Artists’ Star of Texas (1953) with Paul Fix and Frank Ferguson, and ended with Two Guns and a Badge with Morris Ankrum and Robert J Wilke (1954).
The hero of the story, though, is Johnny Rush, a soldier arrived back from the Apache wars only to find his ranch house burnt out and the land taken over by the slimy Brecker. Rush is played by John Agar. Now, with the best will in the world (and anyone will tell you I have that, hem hem) you couldn’t describe Agar as a charismatic Western lead. He started well, grabbing the limelight by marrying Shirley Temple, getting a contact from David O Selznick and being cast in quite a key part by John Ford in the great Fort Apache in 1948 (though Ford, who took a dislike to him and bullied him unmercifully on the set, only billed him twentieth in the cast, behind Hank Worden as ‘Southern recruit’). And Agar returned in the color sequel She Wore a Yellow Ribbon in ’49. But he was only so-so as a deputy in Along the Great Divide with Kirk Douglas in 1951, descended to a Republic B-Western with Rod Cameron in ’52, Woman of the North Country, and by ’55 he had slid further, to Lippert. He did revive a bit, leading a Western in ’56, Star in the Dust, but he was pretty unspectacular in that, totally overshadowed by Richard Boone as the villain, and in the late 50s and 60s he was taking ‘guest star’ parts in Western TV shows. He’s OK as the hero in The Lonesome Trail, I guess, though he doesn’t really manage the lonesome part at all.
Agar is the hero Johnny
Margia Dean is Buchanan’s daughter Pat, promised to bad-guy Brecker but really in love with Johnny, of course. I don’t want to be ungallant but she does come across as a bit spinsterish, though I’m probably not allowed to say that these days. Dean did quite a few Westerns, being female lead in a couple, but honestly, she was a bit in the Agar class. I’m sure they were made for each other.

The best actor apart from Edgar is good old Douglas Fowley, splendid as Crazy Charley, the old-timer friend of Johnny. Fowley was in fact only in his early forties but he quite often did old-timer parts, and very well too. He teaches Johnny (whose mother was Apache) to use a bow and arrow. A Brecker henchman has shot him in the right shoulder, you see, and he can’t go in for quick-draw anymore, but curiously he can draw a bow.
As old-timer in another picture
Brecker, who obviously has a mustache and wears a suit, required uniform for villains who want to take over the whole valley, is played by Earle Lyon, who with director Richard Bartlett produced the picture. He appeared as an actor in half a dozen oaters. He reminds me very much of George Orwell. But I don’t think it was deliberate. Bartlett did mostly TV work but he did direct half a dozen big-screen B-Westerns, a couple with Jock Mahoney.
George Orwell                      Earle Lyon
The screenplay was by Ian MacDonald, another producer, who plays (unconvincingly) the part of the Apache chief who helps out Charley and Johnny, so he was quite busy on the picture one way and another.

The inevitable showdown is mildly interesting as the hero takes on the gunmen with his bow and arrow.

Well, it’s never going to set the prairie alight but it’s a perfectly watchable B, if you’re not too demanding, and you will enjoy Buchanan and Fowley.




Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Cave of Outlaws (Universal, 1951)

Edgar Buchanan with a derringer!

Macdonald Carey was never the most charismatic of Western actors, and in fact he rarely topped the bill in one. About his best was as Bus Crow, a Tom Horny figure, in John Ireland’s Hannah Lee: An American Primitive, and I also quite liked him as bad guy Lorn Reming in Paramount’s Texas Rangers remake, Streets of Laredo. In general, though, he was no shining star of the Western firmament. But to be fair, he isn’t bad in Cave of Outlaws as the good badman.

The movie is far from a major A-picture Western. It was directed by good old William Castle, famous for his gimmicky low-budget horror flicks, who did a few B-Westerns in his spare time. This was his second and he was to reach the dizzy heights of a couple of George Montgomery oaters, not to mention Jesse James vs. the Daltons and The Law vs. Billy the Kid in 1954 (mighty epics yet to be reviewed).
Castle, with signature cigar
But Cave does have its plus points. Edgar Buchanan, for one, as a wily old Wells, Fargo detective after the missing gold. And Victor Jory, for another, as the bad guy in a suit, obviously. Hugh O’Brian is a henchman, too. Best of all, in the very last reel Edgar saves the day by using a derringer he has secreted in his derby. Now, I love Edgar Buchanan and I love derringers. Both in the same Western is a treat indeed. So I couldn't give it less than three revolvers.
Edgar whips derringer from derby and does for Victor
It was actually Lee Marvin’s very first Western, uncredited as ‘train conductor stabbed in back’. He only lasts twenty seconds into the first reel but we all have to start somewhere. Lee had to wait for The Duel at Silver Creek the year after to actually get a credited role (a tiny part but he was still noticeably good). But Lee’s contribution to Cave of Outlaws was less than minimal, I fear, and this paragraph is only of historical interest to dyed-in-the-wool Westernistas. Oh, you too?
Lee drives the train, whistling cheerily, but then...
And the eponymous spelaean lair of the gang was filmed in the Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico so there’s a low-rent National Geographic vibe to it. The picture was actually in color, quite an extravagance for Universal in ’51. In fact Universal didn’t stint (too much) on location shooting and used some talented cinematographers, in this case Irving Glassberg, whose best Western work was probably Bend of the River the following year.

Arizona Territory, 1880. Bandits hold up a train and get away with the US Mail pouches stuffed with gold. They are followed into their secret hideout by a posse led by Hugh Sanders. There they find a young boy, Pete Carver (Russ Tamblyn, 16, in his first Western, three years before Seven Brides for Seven Brothers). The sheriff slaps the boy about the face to find out where the gold is and in a rather sweet 1951 way this is masked from us viewers by a cave outcrop so we won’t have the trauma of seeing a child beaten. But the lad won’t tell where the gold is. Does he even know?
Russ is the boy-outlaw
Fifteen years later and Russ has now grown and turned into Macdonald Carey, 38. He is released from the state pen and of course heads right off to the town of Copper Bend, the nearest burg to the cave, to recover, we presume, the gold. The whole town also presumes so, and extends him unlimited credit. Crafty Wells, Fargo ‘tec Edgar Buchanan is there waiting for him. He wants that gold back.

There’s a dame, natch. Liz Trent is trying to make a go of her missing husband’s newspaper and she beguiles Pete into using some of his credit to bankroll the paper. She is a recent widow, and the charming boss of the local copper business, who also owns half the town (Jory, obviously, in a role he was designed for) is wooing her. But we all know she’ll really fall for Pete. Liz is played by the rectangular-mouthed Alexis Smith, touted as “the dynamite girl”, not known for her Westerns though she had been Errol Flynn’s amour in both Montana the previous year and San Antonio five years before that.
Alexis is the rather glam newspaper editor
Carey is a bit too gentlemanly and well-spoken for one just released from a fifteen-year stretch at hard labor. He seemed to be going for a James Stewart style. Of course Jimmy was hot cakes as far as Westerns went, having done both Broken Arrow and Winchester ’73 in 1950.
Going for the Jimmy Stewart vibe
Now and then Mr. Carey even bears a resemblance to a more recent actor, or I thought so anyway:
Nicolas Cage, anyone?
The Carey/Jory showdown is fought in Main Street, with Colt .45s, as was right and proper, but in a formal way, like a posh duel in Europe. It kind of peters out in stalemate, though.

Anyway, all the bad guys get their just deserts, no spoiler here, and Pete ‘n’ Liz walk off into the sunset headed for marital bliss and, we assume, a joint journalistic career.

It’s harmless fun and if a bit on the innocuous side is still worth a watch. You get Victory Jory being villainous and Edgar Buchanan with a derringer. A viewing would be worth it for that alone. And you could even try to spot Lee Marvin, though blink at the wrong time and you’ll miss him.



Saturday, November 18, 2017

Bill Tilghman in fact and fiction

Billy Tilghman takes the stage

Distinguished Bill in later years

William Matthew Tilghman (1854 – 1924) was one of the great lawmen of the old West. His name may not trip off the tongue in the way that an Earp or a Hickok does, and he certainly has not enjoyed the levels of Hollywood exposure that those men did, but nevertheless, to students of the West he was an important figure.

Silent-movie Bill

He’s only appeared twice on the big screen, that I know of. The first time he was played by himself, in The Passing of the Oklahoma Outlaws, subtitled Picturization of Early Days in Oklahoma, a 1915 silent movie directed by himself, filmed by Benny Kent, a pioneer movie photographer and Tilghman's neighbor in Lincoln County, Oklahoma, and released by Tilghman’s own Eagle Film Company.
Outlaws and lawmen, 1915 style
Bill intended to produce a movie that gave a realistic portrayal of outlaws and lawmen, though the motion picture, while showing many actual events, contains several fictional people and scenes. Tilghman filmed on location at many of the old outlaw hideouts in Lincoln and Payne counties and in the old Creek and Osage reserves. He recruited local people, as well as cowboys from the 101 Ranch, to act in the film. He enlisted Deputy US Marshals Bud Ledbetter and Chris Madsen to take part. Arkansas Tom Jones (Roy Daugherty), the only survivor of the Doolin–Dalton Gang, also played himself.
Arkansas Tom plays himself
Tilghman toured with the movie, introducing it personally to enthusiastic crowds, and he picture was a huge hit in the nickelodeons, though not everywhere: the Chicago Board of Censors refused to issue a permit allowing the showing of the film because it featured the exploits of a band of train robbers and outlaws.
Bill also plays himself
The Passing of the Oklahoma Outlaws originally ran for about 96 minutes. Today, only thirteen minutes of the film survive. It’s available among the features on a 2011 3-DVD boxed set with 132-page book at $59.98 from The National Film Preservation Foundation. There’s a two-minute extract on YouTube, with surprisingly good picture quality, here.

Steiger is Bill

The second feature appearance was when Rod Steiger played him in Cattle Annie and Little Britches (1981) and Steiger is reasonably restrained for once. Steiger’s Tilghman is hunting down outlaw Bill Doolin (Burt Lancaster) and his gang. Steiger does manage to convey a steely determination to bring the renegades to justice.
Rod is an aging Bill - though in fact at the time he was in his thirties
At one point in the movie, Tilghman says, “Bill and me, we’re old.” Steiger was 55 and Lancaster 67 so he had a point (Lancaster was ill with hepatitis and suffered a mild heart attack during filming) although in reality in 1893 both Tilghman and Doolin were in their thirties. Never mind. It adds to the slight ‘end of the West’ tinge to the film: the Wild West is disappearing. The day of the outlaw and gunman is over.

TV Bills

Tilghman appeared more often on the small screen. In 1956 Don Kennedy played him in an episode of The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp entitled Dodge City Gets a New Marshal, which you can watch here. It’s complete hooey historically: Wyatt arrives from having cleaned up Wichita in 1876 to take over as Marshal of Dodge and promptly shoots half a dozen men on Front Street. Charlie Bassett (Bob Fortier) is the county sheriff and Bill Tilghman the “chief deputy”.
Don as Bill
Actually, Tilghman probably did sign on as Ford County Sheriff Charles Bassett’s deputy in September 1874, when he was twenty. There is no historical record of this but his second wife, who wrote his biography, said so.
That's Charlie, seated, left, next to Wyatt
His farming family had come to Kansas from Iowa when Bill was three and the young man had been a buffalo hunter before taking up the lawman’s trade. Tilghman later became a partner in the Crystal Palace Saloon in Dodge. His first documented service as a lawman began on January 1, 1878, when he became a deputy under County Sheriff Bat Masterson.
Buffalo Bill Tilghman, left
Anyway, in the Wyatt Earp episode Charlie and Bill are surrounded by thirty gunmen at the depot. Jim ‘Dog’ Kelley (pre-Rawhide Paul Brinegar), a saloon owner and not yet mayor, reluctantly helps out and Wyatt heroically saves them. Earp, Bassett and Tilghman, “the greatest lawmen who ever lived,” as Dog Kelley calls them, then go out and arrest the ringleader of the gunmen, shooting a few more gunhands while they are at it. Boot Hill gets several new residents. Oh well, at least Bill Tilghman was featured.

In February 1960, Brad Johnson played Bill Tilghman in an episode of the syndicated TV series Death Valley Days enitled The Wedding Dress (Season 8, Episode 18). I can’t find this on YouTube among the many episodes available but it may exist. Send me a link if you find it!

Not quite clean-as-a-whistle Bill

Bill Tilghman may not have been the spotlessly clean peace officer he is usually shown as on screen, however. Within a month of his appointment as Bat Masterson’s deputy, he was charged with being an accessory to an attempted train robbery, though the charges were later dropped for lack of evidence. Tilghman was again suspected of a crime only two months later, in April, 1878, when he was arrested by Bat on a charge of horse theft. Once again the charges were dismissed. In March 1879, Masterson had to sell his deputy's Dodge City house, at auction, to satisfy a judgment.

Bill is marshal of Dodge City

In 1883 Tilghman became deputy to the new Ford County sheriff, Patrick F. Sughrue. He sold his share of the Oasis saloon in Dodge to his brother Frank. But Bill gained his first important lawman's position on April 10, 1884, when he was appointed city marshal of Dodge City. In May 1884 the citizens of Dodge presented Tilghman with a solid gold badge. Tilghman's widow, in her biography of her husband, wrote that Tilghman and Assistant Marshal Ben Daniels ran Mysterious Dave Mather out of Dodge during late July 1885, though this is dismissed by Mather’s biographer Jack DeMattos. In March 1886 Tilghman resigned as city marshal of Dodge to tend to his ranch, but the great blizzard of that year wiped out his livestock.

It was as a peace officer rather than rancher that Tilghman would continue. In 1888 he shot and killed a man named Ed Prather. Prather, a newspaper reported, “threw his hand upon his revolver; but Mr. Tilghman was too quick for him and held a revolver in his face. Mr. T. ordered him three times to take his hand off his gun, and would have disarmed him if he had been near enough; but Prather sought a better position, but Tilghman pulled the trigger and Prather was a dead man. A coroner's jury ... after a thorough examination of the circumstances, returned a verdict of justifiable killing.”

County seat wars

In the late 80s and early 90s conflict raged over whether Ingalls or Cimarron should be the county seat and in January 1889 there was a pitched battle between partisans of the two towns in which one man was killed and five were wounded. Bill Tilghman was one of the wounded: he sprained an ankle.


It was at this time that the Tilghmans moved to Oklahoma. One of the 15000 population of the new boom town of Guthrie was Bill Tilghman, who built a commercial structure on his Oklahoma Avenue lot. Another land rush was held on September 22, 1891, and Bill Tilghman established a ranch. But the profession of lawman was never far away: Oklahoma was suffering the depredations of outlaws and in May 1892 Tilghman was appointed a deputy U.S. marshal.
Bill in his prime
When the new town of Perry, Oklahoma was created after the Cherokee Strip land rush of 1893, Tilghman was appointed city marshal there. It was at this time that he and his fellow lawmen were tracking down members of the Doolin gang. On September 6, 1895, Tilghman and two other deputy marshals tracked down William F "Little Bill" Raidler. After being ordered to surrender, Raidler opened fire and was brought down by a blast from Tilghman's shotgun. The outlaw survived his wounds and was sentenced to ten years.

The capture of Bill Doolin

Tilghman's career as a peace officer came to a famous climax in January 1896, when he captured Bill Doolin. Tilghman had followed Doolin to Eureka Springs, Arkansas. He recognized Doolin sitting in the lobby of a bath house. Doolin failed to recognize Tilghman, though, and Tilghman was able to overpower the gang leader without a shot being fired. It was a mighty coup. The day after, 2,000 people crowded into the Guthrie railroad station to see Tilghman bring Doolin in. But it didn’t pan out well for Tilghman: on July 5 Doolin escaped from jail, and Tilghman never got the reward. Doolin was finally tracked down by Tilghman’s friend Heck Thomas and his posse and was shot to death on August 24, 1896.

Doolin is nabbed
The popular Bill Tilghman won an easy victory in the elections to the post of sheriff of Lincoln County, Oklahoma in 1900. He was re-elected two years later. In 1900 his first wife, Flora, died and three years later Tilghman remarried, to Zoe Agnes Stratton, twenty six years his junior. They had three sons, Tench, Richard and Woodrow.


Politics beckoned. In New York, Tilghman’s old friend Bat Masterson introduced him to President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt wasn’t going to give Bill the plum job he wanted, US marshal of Oklahoma – that would go to a Republican and Bill was a Democrat – but Roosevelt remained fond of Tilghman, and these political connections enabled Tilghman to win election as an Oklahoma state senator in 1910. Following his term in the senate, Tilghman became chief of police in Oklahoma City on May 8, 1911. He served two years and helped rid Oklahoma City of much of its criminal element. By now he was a senior figure in law enforcement and state affairs.
Elder statesman Bill
The flickers

It was now that Tilghman turned to the movie business. And it is here that the biggest and best screen depiction of Bill Tilghman starts. On August 22, 1999 TNT broadcast the made-for-television film You Know My Name, which starred Sam Elliott as Bill.

Sam Elliott is Bill

The TV movie concentrates on the last year of Tilghman’s life, so now we will too.

While he is on the set of his motion picture, Tilghman (Elliott, actually a slim 55 to Tilghman’s portly 70 but putting on the age) is approached by a citizen of Cromwell, east of Oklahoma City and about fifty miles to the south east of Tilghman’s home of Chandler. The town is lawless and in the grip of crooks and thugs. Will he help? At first he declines but you can tell he would like one last go at marshaling, and he gets a six-month contract. In reality, this was a good ten years after the making of the movie, but never mind. He goes off to Cromwell alone, promising his wife and sons that he’ll be back soon. Naturally he rides. No perishing autymobile for him.
Sam as Bill
I must say Turner spared no expense (well, maybe a bit) in creating the set for the oil town of Cromwell. It’s a filthy place full of corruption. As Tilghman rides in he regards the lowlife with that Sam Elliott Western silent disdain. Of course it doesn’t take him long to start cleaning up the town.

The main town crook should have been Robert Middleton, who would have been ideal, but sadly he passed away in 1977 and was unavailable, so they got a Bob Middleton lookalike (perhaps they held a competition) and Walter Olkewicz, the Twin Peaks guy, as Killian does an excellent job of impersonating him. Killian is a saloon owner, naturally, as bad guys have to be. He is properly blaggardly as leader of the anti-law ‘n’ order brigade. Law ‘n’ order will reduce his trade in bootleg liquor (it’s Prohibition time), drugs, gambling and prostitution. I don’t know if there was a real Killian.
Walter is Killian
But the real villain, the seriously repellent one, did exist, though. I’m not sure that in reality Wiley Lynn was quite such a psychopath teetering on the edge of homicidal madness that Arliss Howard portrays him as, but Lynn was certainly a pretty loathsome character. Though a federal agent charged with eliminating illegal booze, he was in fact on the take in a major way. The movie Lynn is addicted to cocaine and pretty well barking mad. He murders various people, including the county sheriff, with glee and shoves their bodies in oil tanks. He was certainly Tilghman’s main obstacle in bringing some semblance of peace and order to Cromwell.
Arliss is the loathsome Lynn
Part of Tilghman’s strategy to tame the town is to show his movie, and we get the delight of James Gammon as Real Arkansas Tom who reluctantly steps onto the stage to back Bill up. The crowd cheer every move the goodies make, in the way that people used to at the flickers. This scene is well handled by the cast and by director/writer John Kent Harrison, who had done another TV 1910s Western with Elliott a couple of years before, The Ranger, the Cook and a Hole on the Sky.

We also get flashbacks as Bill relives his capture of Bill Doolin. In the movie he appears dressed as a clergyman and has a shotgun in a violin case. “You know my name,” he warns Doolin.

Bill is helped by a young assistant, Hugh Sawyer (Jonathan Young), which was in fact the case, and by rather rough methods he manages to get a spy in the enemy camp, Alibi Joe (James Parks), though it does not end well for Alibi when he is discovered. The oil tank has plenty of room for one more.

Bill in the Cromwell time
Bill goes back for bucolic weekends with his family. They are all a bit too good to be true. In fact the middle son, Richard, is written out altogether. In 1929 Richard was shot in the liver while attempting to hold up a dice game and died of his wounds, so maybe he was airbrushed out of the picture. But then Woodrow was also a career criminal, who spent much of his life behind bars, and he features, as a little boy.

Riding back to Cromwell from such an idyllic weekend, Bill is set upon by gangsters in an automobile who spray sub-machine gun bullets at him but of course a cowpoke on his horse is far superior to a mere car, and the vehicle careers over a cliff, leaving Bull unscathed.

You do get the impression that it has all been sensationalized a bit. Still, it is a movie.

The death of Bill Tilghman

Well, a drunken Lynn turns up in town, discharging his pistol wildly. Bill grabs his gun hand and succeeds in wrestling the firearm away from him but the skunk pulls a second pistol from a pocket and shoots Bill in the gut several times. Bill falls, mortally wounded. He died on November 1st, 1924. That was more or less what did happen.

Amazingly, Lynn was acquitted at a trial. Eye-witnesses conveniently disappeared and Deputy Hugh Sawyer, either incompetent or bought off, testified that he could not see clearly what happened, though in fact he was standing right next to Tilghman. Lynn continued his criminal ways until finally killed in a gunfight with Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation agent Crockett Long (who also died) at Madill, OK in 1932.

Bill Tilghman lay in state in the Oklahoma capitol building and was buried in Chandler.

I would recommend any of the screen Tilghmans, except perhaps the Wyatt Earp episode, and even that has its interest, I suppose. Or you could read Zoe’s bio: Zoe A Tilghman, Marshal of the Last Frontier: Life and Services of William Matthew (Bill) Tilghman. Glendale, CA, The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1964. Bat Masterson wrote about him in Famous Gun Fighters of the Western Frontier: 'Billy' Tilghman, Human Life Magazine, Vol. 5, No. 4. July 1907. Or try Guardian of the Law: The Life and Times of William Matthew Tilghman (1854-1924) by Glenn Shirley, Austin, TX, Eakin Press, 1988.

Well, so long, e-pards.