Western fans will be saddened to hear of the death of Brian Garfield, who passed away December 29 at his home in Pasadena.
They will know Brian’s work chiefly because of his perfectly splendid book Western Films (Da Capo Press, New York, 1982), which is a marvelous guide to the Western movie, full of highly personal opinions, insight and above all showing a real love for the genre. I first discovered this work by very happy accident in a used-book store in Brighton, England in the 1980s, and it has been a vademecum ever since. One of the great joys of the book is the often direct opinions expressed – Brian wasn’t a one for pulling punches – and though I didn’t agree on all of them I did find myself in agreement on the majority. Again and again after reading a review I would say, “Yup.”
There is a series of essays on different aspects of the Western before the alphabetic guide and these make great reading. Brian was a huge admirer of Gary Cooper, and also of the writing of Luke Short (Frederick Glidden). I share those opinions. In fact I share a great many of the opinions expressed.
My copy of Western Films has long since fallen apart and is held together with a variety of tapes, string and elastic bands, and it is also much annotated and written on, but I don’t want a new one. It’s an old friend.
Fans will also know that he wrote Gun Down, the source novel of the 1976 movie The Last Hard Men. It’s not actually my favorite film, partly because it was directed by Andrew V McLaglen, whom I always thought very much in the second rank of Western directors, and partly because it starred Charlton Heston, who was only ever good in one good Western (Will Penny).
Something similar happened to Garfield in the non-Western Death Wish, probably his most famous filmed novel, which was supposed to have been directed by Sidney Lumet and star Jack Lemmon but which ended up with Michael Winner at the helm and an actor of equally limited talents, Charles Bronson, in the lead. It was a lousy movie and the sequels were even worse.
Garfield started early with Westerns. Born in 1939, he grew up in Arizona "accustomed to having writers around the house," he said, and wrote his first book, a Western titled Range Justice, when he was 18. Many Westerns followed, often under various pen names, Frank Wynne, Frank O’Brian or Bennett Garland, among others. Altogether he wrote more than 70 books which sold more than 20 million copies worldwide, and 19 of his works were made into movies or TV shows. He later served as president of the Western Writers of America and the Mystery Writers of America.
He was the son of Frances O'Brien, a protégée of Georgia O'Keeffe, who introduced his mother to her future husband, George Garfield. Brian was a man of many and varied talents. In the 1950s, he toured with The Palisades, a doo-wop group that recorded the song I Can't Quit. He attended the University of Arizona and served in the US Army and the Army Reserves. His 1969 nonfiction book The Thousand-Mile War: World War II in Alaska and the Aleutian, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction. His website says: “Having performed as jazz, blues, and rock-&-roll artist, and having written and/or produced Westerns, mysteries, hard-boiled crime novels, spy stories, and a musical comedy movie (“Legs”, about the Rockettes, co-produced by Radio City Music Hall), he claims to have worked in nearly all the original Anglo-American popular arts. Inevitably his publishers’ frequent complaint has been that he and his work cannot be type-cast.”
In his last years he suffered from Parkinson’s, which my own pa did, so I know a little about it, especially how frustrating it can be for a natural-born communicator when failing motor skills impair speech and even writing. But I hope that like me you are just grateful for what he did achieve when in his prime, and the world of the Western will miss him.