Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Meek’s Cutoff

Imagine a western without a single western cliché. This one comes close. If it used documentary camera techniques, you’d call it a docudrama. But in fact a large part of the film’s effect is the artistry of the cinematography and editing, plus a haunting music track.

The plot of the film is based on an actual journey of emigrants by wagon train across Oregon in 1845. In the film, three families are traveling over high desert terrain, led by a Buffalo Bill-style scout called Meek (Bruce Greenwood), who may or may not know where he’s taking them.

The group dynamics begin to shift as some of them lose confidence in the blowhard Meek. One of the wives (Michelle Williams) has yielded, like the other wives, to the will of their husbands, who do all the deciding. But she doesn’t pretend to like or respect Meek. Eventually they lock horns.

Running low on water, with no sign of an anticipated mountain range ahead, they encounter a lone Indian in beads and buckskin leggings. After he is captured, Williams and Meek disagree over whether to kill him or keep him alive. Meek considers him dangerous, but she and others hope that he can lead them to water.

The difficulty is that neither understands a word of the other’s language. The Indian leads them onward, but it is never clear that he is taking them where they want to go. Meanwhile, one of the families relies on the good will and protection of the God they pray to. The wife of one man loses heart and panics, wanting only to go home. Another man falls ill.

Oregon high desert
With the loss of one wagon, they quickly regroup, generosity and helping each other coming as readily as the expected mercy of God. But their blithe acceptance of adversity and uncertainty is not assurance of eventual deliverance from the growing dilemma of their situation. They are lost in a harsh, uncharted land.

The film sloughs off all the Hollywood and textbook myths about transcontinental emigrants and leaves you with the more likely reality of the actual experience. Long takes and slow tracking shots mirror the slow, tedious process of covering hundreds of miles on foot. Shown sometimes as tiny figures moving across a serenely empty landscape, they appear plainly vulnerable to unspeakable dangers.

The startling effect of the film is the way it cuts you off from all the comfortable expectations of the Hollywood western. The most comforting of those is the element of story itself. Real life, someone has said, has lots of beginnings, some middles, and rarely the endings we are used to from fiction.

While there are plenty of story elements (character, setting, conflict), they keep dissolving into a formlessness that is more like life. You realize that if they ever reach their destination, there will be no ending and no happily ever after. Life will continue on as it has for them, rife with uncertainties and lack of resolution.

Without the usual conventions, Meek’s Cutoff puts the audience into terra incognita, just like the characters in its story. Watching it, you literally have no clue what if anything is going to happen next. It’s a strange, uncomfortable, but illuminating feeling. If the western is in fact entering a renaissance, Meek’s Cutoff is a doorway out of the dusty storehouse of overused western clichés into something new and excitingly different.

Further reading: An account of the 1845 emigrant train led by Meek

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith (1911)

Monday, November 28, 2011

Old West glossary, no. 22

Montana cowboys, c1910
Here’s another set of terms garnered from early western novels. Definitions were discovered in various online dictionaries, as well as searches in Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, Dictionary of the American West, The New Encyclopedia of the American West, The Cowboy Dictionary, The Cowboy Encyclopedia, The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology, The Oxford Dictionary of Idioms, and The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

These are from Caroline Lockhart’s novel Me—Smith. Once again I struck out a few times. If anybody knows the meaning of  “long-geared,” “Mormon lilies,” or “medicine shark,” leave a comment.

Battle Axe = a brand of plug tobacco. “Alkali nothin’. That’s gum-boot, or else a plug of Battle Ax fell in.” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.
Bartender, 1862
booze clerk = bartender. “He congratulated himself that he had filled his pocket from the booze-clerk’s sugar-bowl before the mix came.” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.

buck ague = nervousness while taking aim at deer or other game. “Would you get buck-ague in a pinch and quit me if it came to a show-down? Are you a stayer?” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.

bug-hunter = any stranger engaged in scientific pursuits. “He decided to ride over to the MacDonald ranch that evening and have a look at the bad hombre who masqueraded as a bug-hunter.” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.

buzzard head = a useless or mean horse. “Don’t that look like a reg’lar Injun outfit? One old white horse and a spotted buzzard-head.” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.

dead game = never daunted. “You work along with me, kid, and I’ll make a dead-game one out of you!” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.

digger = a crippled horse. “Ralston’s rope, cutting the air, dropped about the neck of the insignificant, white ‘digger’ that had caused it all.” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.

glanders = an infectious bacterial disease usually found in horses. “‘It’s dum nigh as bad as glanders. Catchin’, too, and I holds that anybody that’s got it bad ought to be dipped and quarantined.” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.

hand running = in a row, successively. “I’ve seen myself in my coffin four times hand-runnin’, when I was wide awake.” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.

hunks = even (as in “to get even”). “Smith’ll never rest till he’s ‘hunks’.” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.

lump-jaw = a fungus infection in forage-eating animals, causing swelling of the jaw. “‘Love is a terrible disease,’ Tubbs spoke with the emphasis of conviction. ‘It’s worse’n lump-jaw er blackleg'.” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.
Postcard, c1910
make a mash = to seduce someone. “‘He’s makin’ a mash,’ said Ling laconically, as he jerked his thumb toward the open door of the living-room.” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.

make medicine = to hold a conference, plan some action. “I’m goin’ down the road to make medicine with the Schoolmarm.” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.

on the peck = fighting mad. “I’m more er less a dang’rous character when I’m on the peck.” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.

Oregon grape root = a tonic and blood purifier. “Why don’t you bile up some Oregon grape-root. That’ll take most anything out of your blood.” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.

plant = a hiding place for stolen goods. “I’ll go with her. It’s no use for me to get to the plant before afternoon.” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.
Oregon grape, 1917
queer = spoil the reputation or chances of a person. “‘Look at that dude,’ said Smith contemptuously, viewing the incident through the living-room window. ‘Queerin’ hisself right along. No more sabe than a cotton-tail rabbit.” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.

quit the flat = leave the country. “I got a lickin’ that wasn’t comin’ to me, and I quit the flat when I was thirteen.” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.

rave and cave = quarrel, complain, object. “I don’t row often, but when I does—oh, lordy! lordy! I just raves and caves.” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.

rip up the sod = have a good time; go on a tear. “When we make a stake, we’ll go to Billings and rip up the sod!” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.

roached mane = a horse’s mane, clipped short. “Have you seen a brown horse, with a star in its forehead, roached mane” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Western writer inspiration, no. 13

Here is this week's omnibus of #westernwriter inspirations posted each day at twitter [click to enlarge]. If you are on twitter, you can follow me @rdscheer.

Ground Spider, Oglala Sioux, Nebraska, 1899
Flagstaff, Arizona, 1899
Georgetown Loop on the Colorado Central Railroad, 1899
Wibaux, Montana, 1894
Denver, Colorado, 1898
Indian Day Parade, Omaha, Nebraska, 1898
Bank in Salida, Colorado, 1890s
Picture credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Old West glossary, no. 22

Friday, November 25, 2011

Photo-finish Friday: out and about

The muffin man at the corner of 23rd Street and Portland makes his morning delivery at the 23rd Street Cafe, where I'm waiting for a shuttle to work at 7:00 a.m. He's got Mexican pastries, which are great with a cup of hot chocolate.

Photo-finish Friday is the bright idea of Leah Utas over at The Goat's Lunch Pail.

Coming up: Old West glossary, no. 22

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Paul St. Pierre, Smith and Other Events (1984)

Long out of print, Paul St. Pierre's stories in this collection are a total pleasure—wryly humorous and sharply detailed in their understanding of his characters' behavior, motives, and feelings. Set mostly in the Chilcotin of British Columbia, the stories take place in the 1950s and share the same dozen or so characters—ranchers and their families, Indians, a cowboy or two, and a storekeeper.

The longest story, "How to Run the Country," involves a handful of politicos in Vancouver who persuade a local rancher to run for office. The author, having served a term as a Member of Parliament himself, tells this story with apparent delight as he interweaves the complex ironies of political careers and ambitions.

My favorites of the bunch include stories about the premature funeral for an old Indian from the local reservation, the long suffering of a ranch wife who literally spills the beans on her husband, an elderly recluse's long-distance romance with a young woman, and a husband and wife's indecision about whether to sell the ranch. In another, a mid-winter trip to town evolves, thanks to a cowboy's gambling winnings, into a days-long bacchanal in a hotel room.

Smith, the title character, is vividly drawn, perfectly believable, and as likable as he can be obtuse. The others, his wife Norah, sons Sherwood and Roosevelt, Arch McGregor, Morton Dilloughboy and his son Abel, cowboy Henry James, Ol Antoine the Indian patriarch, Frenchie and Frenchie's wife (who gets her own story), all of them are equally memorable, including Ken Larsen, whose arch-conservative values are no obstacle to his loyalty to the Liberal Party.

St. Pierre’s novel Breaking Smith’s Quarter Horse (reviewed here a while ago) takes up with the same characters and is equally enjoyable. Smith and Other Events is currently available at amazon, AbeBooks, and alibris.

Friday’s (Canadian) Forgotten Books is the bright idea of Patti Abbott over at pattinase.

Coming up: Meek's Cutoff

Postcard, 1900

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Winning of Barbara Worth (1926)

Harold Bell Wright’s popular novel, The Winning of Barbara Worth (1908), was a challenge to adapt to the screen. Its climax involves a devastating flood as the Colorado River inundates the California desert and wipes out a town and the reclaimed land around it.

Under Henry King’s direction, this silent film manages to amaze with its primitive visual effects. A tsunami of surging water destroys buildings and sends people fleeing on foot and on horse-drawn wagons and carriages. The most dramatic moments in this prolonged scene seem inspired by Eisenstein’s Odessa Steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin (1925).

As in the book (reviewed here recently), it’s a rather long wait for all that excitement. Lead performers Ronald Colman and Hungarian actress Vilma Bánky are supposed to have a big romance. He is chief engineer of the reclamation project, an outsider from New York. She is a local girl, raised by a banker who found her as a child in the desert beside the body of her dead mother.

Colman is charmed by her; she lacks or feigns to lack interest in him. Hard to say which. There’s every chance she will be the sweetheart of another young man, a surveyor played by the young Gary Cooper.

It’s Cooper’s performance that probably accounts for the film’s existence today on DVD and its screening on TCM. Lean, tall, and even taller in his high-crowned hat, he was all of 25 years old and in his first big role. The camera clearly likes him, and he nearly walks away with the picture.

Vilma Bánky, 1927
More “western” in many ways than the book, the film gives us many images of riders on horseback and mule teams pulling wagons. An ambush in a canyon is played for all the excitement of men with six-guns, horses, and cowboy hats. As one man is left behind badly wounded, the other races across the desert to deliver a payroll before angry workers revolt.

The fairly complex story in the novel is trimmed down to its basics. The venture capitalist from New York, whose reckless cost cutting causes the flood, nearly drowns. He survives so covered with mud he’s unrecognizable. Colman stops the flow of water from the river and, after saving the day, learns that he is the true love of Barbara. Cooper has to settle for the consolation prize, her sisterly affection.

An ambitious spectacle, The Winning of Barbara Worth was shot mostly on location in Nevada and offers an entertaining journey into the Golden Age of Hollywood silent film. The print is crisp, many scenes are appropriately tinted, and the organ music track is spirited. It is currently available at netflix and amazon. Overlooked Movies is a much-appreciated enterprise of Todd Mason over at Sweet Freedom.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Paul St. Pierre, Smith and Other Events

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Western writer inspiration, no. 12

Here is this week's omnibus of #westernwriter inspirations posted each day at twitter [click to enlarge]. If you are on twitter, you can follow me @rdscheer.

Canteen, Fort Keogh, Montana, c1892
Gold miners, near Leadville, Colorado, c1895
Fairbank, Arizona, c1890
Glacier Point, Yosemite, California, 1898
Hayden's Ferry over Salt River, near Tempe, Arizona, c1900
Canyon of Rio Las Animas, Colorado, 1899
Sunset glow on Mt. Tamalpais, California, 1896, William Keith (1838-1911)

Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Gary Cooper in The Winning of Barbara Worth (1926)

Friday, November 18, 2011

Photo-finish Friday: out and about

Here's another wall mural. This Diego Rivera inspired painting of a man carrying a huge basket of lilies is on a wall of the Latinos Taqueria and Carniceria (below) on Palm Drive in Desert Hot Springs, California. A matching mural of a woman with a basket of lilies is on the oppostie side of the building.

Photo-finish Friday is the bright idea of Leah Utas over at The Goat's Lunchpail.

Coming up: Gary Cooper in The Winning of Barbara Worth (1926)

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Adrian Louis, Skins (1995)

Poet, short story writer, and former journalist, Adrian Louis presents a harshly comic vision of Indian life in this novel set on the Pine Ridge Reservation in southwest South Dakota. He immerses the reader in a compelling mix of Indian and white cultures and the resulting ambiguities, competing worldviews, and conflicted values.

Rudy, the Indian cop, portrays these confusing conflicts, representing both the law in his tribal police uniform and vigilante justice in his blackface and pantyhose mask. Revealing other dimensions of Rudy's confusion, Louis explores his relationship to the women in his life. Married and estranged from his wife, Rudy indulges his growing attraction to his cousin's wife, Stella, while he carries on with other men's wives as well.

Meanwhile, afflicted with hypertension, he takes meds that affect his sexual performance, and much of the novel traces the rising and falling cycles of his libido, all of which are unpredictable and seemingly under the spell of forces beyond him. It is significant that Iktomi, the trickster spirit and shape-shifter, is a central theme in the novel, for appearance and reality, wisdom and stupidity, pride and shame, love and rage are all in a continuing dance for dominance.

Also at the center of the story is Rudy's relationship with his alcoholic older brother, Mogey. While casting an unblinking eye on the devastating impact of alcohol consumption on the reservation, Louis both condemns and forgives those who seek oblivion in the bottom of the bottle.

In his hands, Mogey is a wonderful creation. While there are vague allusions to the grim effect of two tours of duty in Vietnam, Louis doesn't excuse Mogey for choosing his path of self-destruction. Yet through his brother Rudy, the reader can begin to understand the deep love possible for someone unable to resist the pull of despair.

This book is not for everyone, but it's a commendable read for what it has to say about the Indian nations - in their own voices and without the moralizing or sentimentality of those who have never walked in their shoes. Also worth watching is the film Skins (2002, available at amazon and netflix), which is based on the book.

Friday's Forgotten Books is the bright idea of Patti Abbott over at pattinase.

Coming up: The Winning of Barbara Worth (1926)

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Quick and the Dead (1987)

This HBO western, based on a Louis L’Amour novel, must have pleased the gun lobby. Its message is that decent people will be preyed upon by villains if they don’t arm and defend themselves. “The meek,” as one character says, “will inherit nothing west of Chicago.”

Plot. The plot of the movie bears a strong resemblance to Shane, as a lone gunman (Sam Elliott) befriends a small family of settlers threatened by a gang of nasty men. The family is traveling across Wyoming in a lone covered wagon. Elliott, playing half-breed Con Vallian, joins them as a self-appointed protector.

Running through this story of decent folks pursued by bad men, is a simmering love triangle. The husband (Tom Conti) becomes aware that Elliott is quietly putting the moves on his wife (Kate Capshaw). Meanwhile, Capshaw is more than a little interested in returning his interest.

Conti turns out to be a Civil War veteran, whose experience on the battlefield has made a pacifist of him. He’s vowed never to take the life of another man. But it’s a lawless land in the West, and under Elliott’s influence, his wife parts company with him on this issue and takes up rifle practice. “We have no choice,” she says. “I have no choice.”
Kate Capshaw, 1984 (CC) Towpilot
Women. Out here, we are made to understand, a woman is never safe from a fate worse than death and needs the protection that only guns can provide. While Conti is already “tough as a nail” according to his young son, he is forced to accept this point of view as well. Not only does at least one openly craven member of the villainous gang have rape in mind. There is a fox in the henhouse in the form of Elliott.

Tables turn when Elliott’s character is ambushed and takes a slug. Conti confidently removes it with a bowie knife, and cauterizes the wound with a hot poker. Conti and Capshaw then become his protectors, and Elliott survives, but only just.

Playing nurse to him, Capshaw listens as Elliott explains how he has “a lot of feelings” for her but finally has chosen to consider the feelings of others. He won’t try to take her from her husband and son. “You are a real gentleman,” she says and kisses him on the cheek. Thus the film instructs us is the way sexual urges are civilized, and the world is made safer for women—and their husbands.

Meanwhile, through a process of attrition, the eight men in the gang are whittled down to three. When these show up at the family’s cabin, each is shot dead by Capshaw, Conti, and Elliott in turn. When it’s over, husband and wife stand side by side, weapons in hand, as Elliott says, “Damn, you folks are quick.”

Fully recovered, Elliott’s Con Vallian makes his exit. He and Conti part amicably—after Conti punches him—and Conti says, “There’s a kindness in you, Vallian. That’s what I’ll miss.” It’s another way of calling him a gentleman.

Like Shane’s departure from another homestead in Wyoming, Con Vallian remains an enigma. His last words are with Kate Capshaw, and the longing in her eyes is undisguised. “Wild things gotta be free,” he tells her and rides off, the lone drifter again.

Elliot, more than most cowboy actors, captures that particular type of male Owen Wister first found in his Virginian. With a three-day growth of beard and his trademark mustache,  he’s a gentleman in the rough.

Self-reliant, independent, unafraid, he uses the physical strength that comes with his gender to protect good, decent folks—and win the hearts of women. Yet truer to type than the Virginian, who marries and settles down, Elliott’s Con Vallian rides off alone, our last image of him a small figure disappearing on the horizon.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Old West glossary, no. 21

Montana cowboys, c1910
Here’s another set of terms garnered from early western novels. Definitions were discovered in various online dictionaries, as well as searches in Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, Dictionary of the American West, The New Encyclopedia of the American West, The Cowboy Dictionary, The Cowboy Encyclopedia, The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology, The Oxford Dictionary of Idioms, and The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

These are from a fiction by Hugh Pendexter, John Neihardt, James Oliver Curwood, and Harold Bell Wright about a world-roaming showman, frontiersmen and Indians, a splinter group of Mormons, and reclaiming California’s Imperial Valley. Once again I struck out a few times. If anybody knows the meaning of  “buzzle,” “cuggy,” or “picture-general hat,” leave a comment.

bobtail flush = a poker hand with four cards of the same suit. “You win; I pass; mine’s a bob-tail flush; but you stacked the deck!” John Neihardt, The Lonesome Trail.

bourgeois = master of a trading post. “We were loaded with supplies for the American Fur Company’s posts on the upper Missouri, and carried a number of engages of the Company, and a certain Frenchman, Jules Latour, who had been appointed bourgeois of the old Fort Union.” John Neihardt, The Lonesome Trail.

branch house = branch office. “Tib selected a young fellow that was coming out to hold down a stool in his father’s branch house in Melbourne.” Hugh Pendexter, Tiberius Smith.

brownie = a (racist) term for a brown-skinned person. “But these volunteers will never get her by hunting the brownies with a brass-band.” Hugh Pendexter, Tiberius Smith.

brunette = a (racist) term for a Black person. “I reckon the brunettes never before gazed on such wags as we must have appeared to be.” Hugh Pendexter, Tiberius Smith.

cordelle = a ship’s towing line. “Worked on a cordelle gang, handled mackinaws, hammered pack mules, fought Indians, starved and feasted, froze and roasted, like all the other who come out here.” John Neihardt, The Lonesome Trail.

donkey engine = a small auxiliary steam engine, esp. on a ship. “The donkey-engine was mounted in a trice and the big crates containing the mowing-machines were yanked out on deck.” Hugh Pendexter, Tiberius Smith.
elevate = to execute by hanging. “‘We’ve got a half-breed here,’ said he, ‘who’s got to be elevated.’” John Neihardt, The Lonesome Trail.

elflocks = tangled hair. “‘To be sure you’re not the man,’ he said, nodding his head until his elf-locks danced around his face.” James Oliver Curwood, The Courage of Captain Plum.

footpad = a highway robber operating on foot; figuratively, a villain. “I knew he must have ducked when enfilading my footpad.” Hugh Pendexter, Tiberius Smith.
Fresno = a horse-drawn scraper used for excavation. “The acres of land untouched by grader’s Fresno or rancher’s plow were many more than the acres that were producing crops.” Harold Bell Wright, The Winning of Barbara Worth.

green goods men = con men selling supposedly counterfeit currency. “The men who engineered this thing look to me like a bunch of green-goods men who live on the confidence of the people.” Harold Bell Wright, The Winning of Barbara Worth.

herring floater = swimbait; a fishing lure that looks like a fish in the water. “Will be dead as herring floaters if they show up.” James Oliver Curwood, The Courage of Captain Plum (1908).

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Westernwriter inspiration, no. 11

Here is this week's omnibus of #westernwriter inspirations posted each day at twitter [click to enlarge]. If you are on twitter, you can follow me @rdscheer.

Plaza, Arcata, California, c1905
Toll Gate Saloon, Blackhawk, Colorado, 1897
Laying tracks on the Prescott & Eastern Railroad, Arizona Territory, c1898
Teacher and students, Helena, Montana, 1893
Monte Cristo gold mine, California, 1890s
Rounding the curves on Marshall Pass, Colorado, 1898
Skating party, Fort Keogh, Montana, c1890

Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Old West glossary, no. 21

Friday, November 11, 2011

Photo-finish-Friday: out and about

A guitarist strums on a late autumn afternoon as a nude sculpture reclines nearby in the grass.

Photo-finish Friday is the bright idea of Leah Utas over at The Goat's Lunchpail.

Coming up: westernwriters inspiration, no. 11

Thursday, November 10, 2011

James Oliver Curwood, The Courage of Captain Plum (1908)

An early example of pulp fiction, this is one heck of a potboiler. Set in 1856 on an offshore island in Lake Michigan, it’s a fevered and high-pitched adventure story that pits a young man, Nathaniel Plum, against a colony of Mormons. The entire story takes place within 48 hours and includes blood-curdling scenes of torture, pursuit, imprisonment, and death by execution.

That’s not all. Well mixed with all the adrenalin is a head-spinning concoction of romantic and sexual appetites. James Oliver Curwood (1876-1927) has given us a book intended for just about every prurient interest.

Far-fetched as all this may sound, it has some basis in history. A splinter group of LDS faithful, under the leadership of James Strang, did in fact not follow Brigham Young to Utah in 1846. Claiming to be the true church, they remained behind on Beaver Island in Lake Michigan, with Strang proclaimed as their “king.”  

Escape through the swamp
In the novel, Mormons are a nasty cult, and Strang is their cruel spiritual leader and monarch. Charismatic and cunning, he is a violent tyrant, with six wives and plans for a seventh. While his name suggests the stranglehold he has on the hearts and minds of his followers, he also has a reputation as a ravager of peaceable settlements elsewhere.
Plot. Plum, the young captain of a sloop loaded with barrels of gunpowder, comes ashore on the island with plans to put Strang out of business. In short order, he meets an old man with all the signs of lunacy, spies a pretty girl, Marion, and instantly falls in love, and intervenes in the public flogging of a young man who turns out to be Marion’s brother, Neil.

The two men escape through island marshes with baying bloodhounds in hot pursuit. By evening, there’s a full-scale attack on the island by a force of combatants from the mainland. The Mormons beat them back and take Nathaniel and Neil prisoner. Thrown into a dank cell, they await certain execution.

Marion tries to stop the whipping
In all this, Plum learns that Marion is to be married to Strang, but that she will commit suicide rather than be the man’s unwilling bride. The young captain is distraught. Taken from the prison in the dead of night, the two men are rowed to the mainland where they are tied to stakes and left to die from strangulation, choked by leather thongs around their necks.
At the point of death, they are saved by Marion and Neil’s girlfriend, Winnsome. Returning to the island, Plum arrives in time for yet another armed assault, this time by a force of U.S. soldiers. Strang is taken, an old man who has befriended Plum is shot and dies after a long confession, and Plum and Marion fall into each other’s arms professing their undying love.

Mormonism. Historically, the novel is set at a time of open hostility between the U.S. government and the Mormons. The Mountain Meadows Massacre occurred the following year, in 1857. Meanwhile, the practice of polygamy had become illegal in Utah only as recently as 1890, within the lifetime of most of the book’s readers.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Buchanan Rides Alone (1958)

What you immediately notice in this Boetticher-Scott western is that Randolph Scott is smiling most of the time. His character, Buchanan, is dead serious behind that smile, but he's "alone" in a bad border town, and the smile is open admission that he's outnumbered from the start. Gotta go along to get along.

It’s a family-run town. The businesses, the hotel, and law enforcement are all in the hands of the Agrys. Services are expensive--everything seems to cost $10. Scott casts a passing glance at a blonde in the saloon as he makes this observation. All of them ethically compromised, two Agrys eventually fall out over the promised payment of $50,000 for the release of a Mexican prisoner. The young man has killed the ill-behaved son of one of them, apparently over the assault of a woman. 

Scott gets involved because he’s already been aggravated by the victim, a mean drunk, and comes to the young Mexican’s defense when Agry henchmen gang up on him. There’s a quickly organized trial, and very shortly both end up with ropes around their necks.

What follows is a swiftly moving chess match, as the offer of a ransom brings a halt to the hanging.  Buchanan is released only to be attended in his departure from town by two men with instructions to kill him. One of them a Texan (L. Q. Jones) is a friendly sort and draws the line at killing another Texan. Soon he’s switched sides and is helping Buchanan get the Mexican safely back to Mexico.

Randolph Scott as Buchanan
In a closely plotted story that is far from over at this point, greed sets two of the Agrys at each other’s throat. Meanwhile, the prisoner is retaken and becomes a pawn in their attempts to outwit each other. Buchanan is called upon again for some quick thinking, and a final shootout leaves the street littered with corpses.

Craig Stevens (aka Peter Gunn) is a gunslinger dressed in black who gets mixed up as something of a bodyguard for one of the Agrys who’s running for public office. Dressed appropriately in black, he’s cool and professional. Clearly the smartest one of the lot, he’s capable of doing a better job of running the town than the Agrys. In the last scene, as one of the last ones standing, he gets his chance. Buchanan wishes him well with a smile, and rides off—alone.

Scott with his craggy face, mellow deep voice, and smooth physical presence is a pleasure to watch as usual.  L. Q. Jones, with his authentic western drawl, is a comic delight. The dusty border town and desert landscape look good and authentic, too. Neatly plotted, the story unfolds at a brisk pace. Lighter in tone than his other westerns, it’s another Budd Boetticher gem.

Buchanan Rides Alone is currently available at netflix and at amazon. Overlooked Movies is a much-appreciated enterprise of Todd Mason over at Sweet Freedom.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: James Oliver Curwood, The Courage of Captain Plum (1908)

Monday, November 7, 2011

Cowboy Wisdom

Montana cowboys, c1910
For several months, on twitter and Facebook, I’ve been posting daily gems of “cowboy wisdom” collected over the years. For those who missed any, here are all 101 of them:

Never approach a bull from the front, a horse from the rear, or a fool from any direction.

When somebody outdraws you, smile and walk away. There's plenty of time to look tough when you're out of sight.

The hardest thing about learning to ride is the ground.

When you ask for free advice, you get exactly what you pay for.

Don't squat with your spurs on.

Don't judge people by their relatives.

Behind every successful rancher is a wife who works in town.

When you lose, don't lose the lesson.

Talk slowly, think quickly.

Remember that silence is sometimes the best answer.

Live a good, honorable life. When you're older and think back, you'll enjoy it a second time.

Don't interfere with something that ain't botherin' you none.

Timing has a lot to do with the outcome of a rain dance.

It's better to be a has-been than a never-was.

The easiest way to eat crow is while it's still warm. The colder it gets, the harder it is to swaller.

If you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop diggin'.

If it don't seem like it's worth the effort, it probably ain't.

Sometimes you get and sometimes you get got.

The biggest troublemaker a man may ever have to deal with watches him shave his face in the mirror every morning.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Westernwriter inspiration, no. 10

Here is this week's omnibus of #westernwriter inspirations posted each day at twitter [click to enlarge]. If you are on twitter, you can follow me @rdscheer.

Randolph Scott, Buchanan Rides Alone, 1958
Chili con carne
End of Day. Frederic Remington, 1904
Alan Wood on the great bucking mare, Curio, 1953
"Cheyenne," sheet music cover, 1906
Cowboy getting fitted for chaps, 1972
 Old-timers, Leakey, Texas, 1972

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Buchanan Rides Alone (1958)