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

Monday, March 31, 2014

The Hanging Tree (Warner Bros, 1958)


Coop's finest Western since High Noon




 
 
Last night, The Hanging Tree was on TV here in France, on the Franco-German channel Arte. This station has a lot to recommend it; for example it shows movies in a choice of languages – French, German or the original – well done, Arte. And shame on the channels that only show movies dubbed into French, and shame on the French broadcasting authorities that allow that. No wonder the French are so bad at foreign languages.

Of course I had to watch it. A Gary Cooper Western is not something you pass over lightly and I hadn’t seen it for, oh, weeks.

Actually, I hadn’t seen it for a long time, and as can often happen when watching a Western like this, you can end up re-appraising it. Yesterday I came to think that it’s Coop’s best Western since High Noon (1952).

Cooper himself said just before he died,

Nothing I’ve done lately, the past eight years or so, has been especially worthwhile. I’ve been coasting along. Some of the pictures I’ve made recently I’m genuinely sorry about. Either I did a sloppy job in them, or the story wasn’t right.

He was certainly being too harsh on himself. Yes, he had done some pretty poor Westerns since High Noon, such as Springfield Rifle, Vera Cruz and Friendly Persuasion (a semi-Western). But even in those he himself was never “sloppy”; he always lifted mediocre movies. And he had also done some very good ones, notably Garden of Evil with Henry Hathaway (1954) and the powerful Man of the West with Anthony Mann (1958). Most of all, his last two Westerns were superb, The Hanging Tree and They Came to Cordura.

The Hanging Tree was written by Wendell Mayes, whom Billy Wilder had hired in ’57 to work on the script of The Spirit of St Louis and who did three outstanding scripts for Otto Preminger but they are not Westerns so we can't talk about those now, and Halsted Welles who had adapted Elmore Leonard’s short story for the screenplay of 3:10 to Yuma for Daves, also in ’57. They used as a basis a novella by Dorothy M Johnson, writer of A Man Called Horse and The Man who Shot Liberty Valance, and a fine Western author. Quality writing all round, then, and it shows, in the subtlety of the characterization and the tension of the plot.

The director was Delmer Daves (1904 – 77). Now Delmer must be thought of as one of the top helmers of Westerns. He had lived on reservations with Hopi and Navajo Indians. He started his film career as a prop boy on The Covered Wagon in 1923 and became an actor, writer and producer. He was especially fond of Westerns and directed nine, from the seminal Broken Arrow in 1950 to The Hanging Tree, his last, in 1958, passing by Drum Beat, Jubal and, his masterpiece in my view, 3:10 to Yuma, among others. A fine record. He contributed visual artistry and he also managed to extract great performances from his actors (not that that was difficult with Coop). In fact on this, his last, movie, Daves became ill with ulcers towards the end, and Cooper, whose new company, Baroda Productions, this project led, asked one of the actors, Karl Malden, to finish the direction, which he seems to have done competently.
 
Delmer Daves
 
Coop’s health had at last given way. His years of stunting finally took their toll. He suffered hernias, ulcers and severe back trouble. In 1959 he was diagnosed with cancer. He made these last films in considerable pain, yet while he resorted as much as possible to his double, Slim Talbot, he still did quite a few of the action scenes himself. He was in especial agony when he had to ride a horse. But he was magnificent. The character he plays, Dr. Joseph Frail, is a much more complex personality than Coop’s previous Western figures, even Will Kane. He is at once a caring, thoughtful physician and a cold, rebuffing and almost sadistic man. He drinks, smokes and gambles, ruthlessly accumulating wealth, and totes a .45. Cooper captures this wonderfully well, as always, “underacting”, transmitting so many emotions with the face, especially the eyes, suggesting mystery, a painful past and intelligence. It is a breathtakingly good performance.
 
Coop
 
The story is a curious one. Set in the aptly-named Skull Creek, a Montana gold camp in 1873 (a wonderful creation, all praise to art direction by Daniel B Cathcart, who also did The Law and Jake Wade and The Badlanders; I think the camp in Ride the High Country was modeled on it), it has Dr. Frail (a name he has chosen as it “suits a man with frail hope”) ride into town at the start (that was becoming a trademark in Gary Cooper Westerns) and set up business in a clifftop cabin.

As he passes the ominous tree which dominates the town, center of the lynch mob rule that runs the place, a man comments, "Every new mining town's got to have its hanging tree. Makes folks feel respectable." It's pure Daves. It echoes Clark Gable's wry comment on seeing a hanged man in The Tall Men a couple of years earlier: "Looks like we're getting close to civilization." We also think of the early scene in Anthony Mann's Bend of the River when James Stewart saves Arthur Kennedy from the noose, and The Ox-Bow Incident, and a whole host of other Westerns. They just loved to hang people, preferably without too much concern as to whether the victim were actually guilty of anything. I loathe lynching on screen or anywhere else. Delmer Daves did too. And Henry Fonda. And any humane being.

Frail immediately establishes himself as a kind and caring physician, treating the child of a poor family free and even lending them his milk cow to nourish the little girl.
 
Caring doc
 
Yet when he saves a sluice robber from certain death on the town’s lynching tree (a tree, by the way, which eerily dominates the town in a way reminiscent of the excellent Budd Boetticher/Randolph Scott Western of the same year, Ride Lonesome) and treats the young man’s gunshot wound, we see another side to the Doc. He exploits the boy, forcing him to become his “bondservant”, almost a slave, and there is even something slightly creepy about the relationship. The boy is called simply Rune; this puzzling name may be either first name or last name or neither. His soft, almost feminine looks hint at something nearly corrupt. Rune is played by Ben Piazza, his first big role. Piazza was really a tragic figure who died of AIDS in 1991, survived by his companion. He is really quite excellent in this picture and we see how he gradually changes from anger and resentment to loyalty and affection. At one point he says of himself that he is there because he has nowhere else to go; that is certainly true – he has for the first time found a home and a point in life, assisting the doctor.
 
Ben Piazza, very good performance
 
The arrival of a woman in the camp is what causes all the trouble. She is a Swiss lady, only survivor of a stage hold-up and crash (superbly and impressionistically staged by Daves), who is burned and blinded by the sun and whom Dr. Frail tends and cures. While some of the rough camp men are respectful and decent, others, notably Frenchy Plante (Malden) are not. Plante is indeed a repellent character, sly, lustful and cowardly. But here is a basic weakness of the film: while the character of Plante is a great one, Malden ruins it. He was an absolutely awful Western actor and did his best by overacting to ruin any number of movies. Maybe he was alright in crime dramas but in Westerns he was truly hopeless. He is incapable of speaking but only shouts. His bulbous nose dominates the screen unpleasantly and he wears the stupidest hat you have ever seen. His worst, most scenery-chewing performance was probably as the Army officer in Cheyenne Autumn but he also did his utmost to sink One-Eyed Jacks (which wasn’t actually that hard to sink) and Nevada Smith. The only Western he was half decent in was as the barman in The Gunfighter.
 
Malden, embarrassingly bad
 
The woman, though, is played by Maria Schell and very well indeed. I especially admire the convincing way she coped with the gradual return of her character’s sight. She has the right blend of grace and toughness and really does an excellent job. It is completely plausible when the doctor’s tenderness and her gratitude blossom into genuine love. It was her first Western of only three (she was also good in the Glenn Ford version of Cimarron in 1960) and it is a pity she didn’t do more.
 
Maria Schell, outstanding
 
Another impressive aspect of the tale is the way that malicious (female) tongues wag as the woman patient is tended by the doctor. Virginia Gregg as the wonderfully-named Edna Flaunce is superb. I also loved the young George C Scott as the poisonous preacher Grubb, furious that a real doc was taking away his lucrative trade as crooked faith healer. Daves was as anti-clerical as he was anti-lawmen and his preachers and sheriffs, when they appear at all, are corrupt or vicious or both. Grubb has a great line, "I hear tell she's a foreigner. Is she loose virtued?"
 
George C Scott as crazed preacher: excellent
 
John Dierkes is also very good indeed as the bearded gambler Society Red, and when the bacchanalian mob run riot after a big strike and a bonfire gets out of hand and burns the camp, there is even a hint (as far as 1959 mores would allow) of homosexual rape as Red and a couple of cronies trap Rune in the cabin and seem to have their way with him. Daves often played with homoeroticism, on a subliminated level, in this case done in a dark and unpleasant way.

The writing and, with the exception of Malden, acting, is really first class.
 
Fascinating relationship develops
 
The Max Steiner music is a bit turgid and there is the inevitable (and inevitably ghastly) ballad crooned over the opening titles by Marty Robbins. Oscar-nominated, would you believe; it didn’t win, at least. No 50s Western was complete without an excruciatingly warbled ballad. Of course Tarantino’s still doing it… The worst part of this is at the end when the moving last scene is ruined by this trite ditty.

It’s supposed to be Montana, Coop’s home, but the locations were in Washington – very nice, though and well photographed by Ted McCord (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Giant). Visually, this is an attractive picture.

I really would recommend you to have another look at The Hanging Tree. It is very fine.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Kindness Goes Unpunished by Craig Johnson


“No good deed goes unpunished” (Oscar Wilde)


Those who think that Craig Johnson’s Longmire series, about Sheriff Walter Longmire of Absaroka County, Wyoming, are not Westerns are going to have their views confirmed by volume 3 of the saga, Kindness Goes Unpunished (Viking Penguin, 2007), because in it Walt, Henry Standing Bear and Vic Moretti (and even Dog) all decamp to the City of slightly less than Brotherly Love and the book is really a hard-boiled urban crime drama.

Still, if I tell you that the final pages have Walt and Henry mounted on paint horses chasing down the villain with forty-fives, like some overweight Lone Ranger and a rather bossy Tonto, you will agree that Walt manages to bring just a bit of the West to Philadelphia. There is a cowboy-and-Indian theme running through it and Walt has to decipher Indian clues to solve the mystery.
 

 

For daughter Cady – a lawyer in Philly; that’s why Walt went there – has been attacked and lies in a coma at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and having no jurisdiction there will not stop her dad finding out who did it. Henry is there to exhibit those Mennonite photographs from volume 2, and he and Walt drive there from Wyoming in Lola, the powder-blue 1950s Ford Thunderbird (which gets, er, slightly damaged in a car chase).

New characters are Vic’s family, the Moretti clan, 99% of whom seem to be police, and Walt dallies with Vic’s mother – though finally consummates his interest in Vic as well. At least Vic isn’t married to the Philadelphia police chief, so it’s probably safer.

Well, The Wire it ain’t but there are plenty of drug-related lowlifes to combat and mucho shootin’ to match the rootin' and the tootin’.
 

 

I like these books and Walt in his cowboy boots and Stetson give me hope that the West is not dead and gone but alive and well, even if living (temporarily) in Pennsylvania.

There’s slightly more Native American mumbo-jumbo than I like but I can live with it.

Western fans will pick up references to Have Gun, Will Travel (page 36), Audie Murphy (page 83) and The Lone Ranger (page 275).

Kindness Goes Unpunished is a must-read if you are into the series but moderately missable if you are just a hopeless dyed-in-the-wool Westernista. If, like me, you appreciate hard-boiled detective drama and police procedurals as well as Westerns, this would definitely repay a visit to your local bookstore. Writers like Elmore Leonard and Robert B Parker understood very well the similarities between the two genres, and Craig Johnson does too.



Saturday, March 29, 2014

Monte Walsh (TNT, TV, 2003)


Monte rides again




 
 
The 1963 book Monte Walsh by Jack Schaefer is one of the great Western novels, and the 1970 film that was made of it, starring Lee Marvin and Jack Palance, was really very good. Book and film influenced a lot of people, among them Western aficionados such as actor Tom Selleck and writer Robert B Parker.

Tom Selleck is probably best known for Magnum PI, though I only really liked his car in that. He is, however, an admirer of and significant contributor to the Western genre. After a couple of small parts in Lancer episodes, he came to Western prominence in 1979 as Orrin in The Sacketts, the made-for-TV adaption of Louis L’Amour’s novels. Other Western TV movies followed, The Shadow Riders (1982), Ruby Jean and Joe (1996), Last Stand at Saber River (1997) and Crossfire Trail (2001). They were increasingly good – well-made and well-acted. Probably his biggest Western, though, was the feature film Quigley Down Under in 1990. It was an excellent movie and Selleck (replacing Steve McQueen who was too ill) was outstanding in it. Quigley and Crossfire Trail were directed by Lonesome Dove man Simon Wincer and it is clear that the collaboration worked. They got together again for a new Monte Walsh in 2003, Selleck as producer as well as in the title role.
 

Selleck is Monte Walsh
 

The late and much-missed Robert B Parker is chiefly known as writer of hard-boiled detective dramas and police procedurals, and indeed, since 2009 Selleck has been Jesse Stone in five movies. But like Elmore Leonard, Parker crossed over often into Western fiction, notably with his fine series of Cole & Hitch novels, starting with Appaloosa in 2005 (made into a good movie by Ed Harris in 2008). He too was a great admirer of Monte Walsh and worked with Selleck on the new version. He wrote the teleplay with Michael Brandman, who wrote for Selleck in the Jesse Stone mysteries as well as Crossfire Trail and Last Stand at Saber River.

Such was the history of the 2003 TV movie.

When you watch it, the first thing you notice right away is that it is not so much a new version of the book as a remake of the 1970 movie. Yes, it adds a couple of episodes from the book that the 1970 film didn’t but it adopts the plot changes of 1970, notably and unfortunately the murder of Chet, continues with some of the invented characters, and some of the Goodman/Heller (non-Schaefer) dialogue is identical.

The other thing you notice, though, is how good it is. The movie is a respectful and affectionate tribute to book and earlier film. The production values are very high. The direction and acting are top class.

The setting has been moved from New Mexico to Wyoming, perhaps because the Calgary locations where it was shot resemble Wyoming more than they do the Southwest. They are very beautiful, anyway. I thought some of the scenes were the Grand Tetons at one point. David Eggby was behind the lens, as he had been for Wincer on Quigley in Australia and Crossfire Trail, also in Alberta. Visually, it is fine and Wincer and Eggby have real talent. Just occasionally they slip over into picture-postcard sweetness but in such an elegiac ‘sunset’ picture as Monte Walsh it works perfectly. The look of the picture is enhanced by the fine authentic costumes and props, as the 1970 film had been (2003 production design by Rick Roberts, costumes by Michael T Boyd).

What about the acting? The first thing to say is that Mr. Selleck is a very good Monte. Lee Marvin was a hard act to follow and perhaps Selleck hasn’t quite got the charisma of Marvin but he is still very convincing. He does the leather-tough cowpuncher with a twinkle in the eye with charm and skill, and he delivers Monte’s “My, my” most amusingly (though unfortunately we don’t get any Shucks). Much as I loved Jack Palance as Chet in 1970, I thought Keith Carradine was even better. There are actually two members of that noble dynasty in the movie (as there were in Saber River) because Robert Carradine plays Sunfish Perkins.
 

Keith Carradine as Chet - outstanding
 

The Jeanne Moreau part of Martine (Hattie in the book) is taken by Isabella Rossellini. She is again called Countess by Monte (“I thought all you foreign women was countesses”) although Monte slightly spoils the effect by pronouncing it cowness. Now, I am sure Ms. Rossellini is heartily sick of the comparison but sorry, I can’t help it: when she smiles she looks so like her mother (who was, as we all know, the most beautiful woman in the world) that my heart just melts. And the first time we see her, when Monte first visits Martine, that smile illuminates the screen, the theater and our lives.

William Devane is Cal Brennan. The highest compliment I can pay is to say he was as good as Jim Davis in 1970. He hasn’t, sadly, done many Westerns, though he was in a couple of Gunsmoke episodes and was very good as the political lawyer in McCabe & Mrs. Miller.
 

William Devane in the Jim Davis part of Cal Brennan
 

Some of the smaller parts are very well done too. The ‘Fighting Joe Hooker’ role from the 1970 screenplay is continued and actually improved because it is played by the excellent James Gammon, who, until his sad demise in 2010, became the standard and very high quality old-timer in Westerns, rather as Walter Brennan had been. In Wyatt Earp, Silverado, Appaloosa and many, many others he was first class. Similarly, Barry Corbin as the fly-swatting storekeeper Bob is a colorful character actor of great charm, and just right in the part. I think of him particularly for Crossfire Trail and of course Lonesome Dove. Wincer stock company again.

George Eads is very good indeed as Shorty Austin. It’s his only ever Western as far as I know. Absolutely outstanding is William Sanderson (EB Farnum from Deadwood, Lippy from Lonesome Dove) as Skimpy, the cook. The excellent Marshall Teague (Snake Corville in Crossfire Trail, he is to have a leading part in next year’s biopic of John Wesley Hardin) is Dally.
 

George Eads as Shorty Austin: he should do more Westerns
 

All the acting is really very good.

When reviewing the book, I talked about the automobile as symbol of the end of the West. Many movies took this up and Sam Peckinpah in particular often used it. The 1970 version of Monte Walsh didn’t have that but Selleck’s does, and indeed, in the 2003 version the anonymous Eastern corporate interests (the only true villains in the story) actually appear, in the shape of ranch manager Robert Slocum (John Michael Higgins). In the novel, Monte, much in character, tows the auto out of the mud on his horse, thus demonstrating the superiority of beast over machine. Less in character but more amusingly, perhaps, in this movie, Monte leaves the car stuck and leaps over it, like John Wayne at the end of True Grit.

Another good addition is the train episode when the engineer stupidly frightens the herded mustangs into scattering and the cowboys take revenge by roping the smokestack and disabling the locomotive. It’s a great scene in the book and well done in the film.
 

The .45 Selleck used as Monte
 

This movie also starts with another episode from the book, the little boys throwing mud at the red door of the attorney, the lawyer kicking one of the children and Monte’s revenge. Of course this is a very well-known trope in Western movies: you often establish the goodness of the good guy in the first reel by having a bad guy beat a child or animal and the hero punish the malefactor. Watch out for it; in so many westerns you will see this. A nice touch is that towards the end of the movie we see the attorney again and he has become Mayor. Ah, the world is changing – and for the worse…

It’s sad that there is no Dobe Chavez (he wasn’t there in 1970 either) and I would have had the Christmas Eve blizzard episode too. But you can’t include everything from a crammed 450-page novel in a 117-minute movie so we forgive them.
 

Less grizzled than Lee Marvin but perhaps more fun
 

When the US Marshal is shot in the saloon and lands in the mud (another scene from the earlier film but not in the book) it suddenly reminded me of Jack Palance shooting Elisha Cook Jr. in another Schaefer story, Shane (and in its semi-remake Pale Rider, Stockburn shooting Spider). Maybe it was a deliberate quotation.

Perhaps the best scene of all is when the motor car passes and Bob the storekeeper and Cal the retired rancher spit in unison.

 

Friday, March 28, 2014

Monte Walsh (NGP, 1970)


Shucks, it's a horse, ain't it?






The first movie adaptation of Jack Schaefer’s 1963 novel Monte Walsh was made seven years later and starred a magnificent Lee Marvin in the title role, backed by an equally fine Jack Palance as Chet Rollins.


 

It was directed, interestingly, by William A Fraker. Fraker had been a member of the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) since 1968 and had photographed The Professionals and Paint Your Wagon (both also with Marvin). To give you an idea of the lengths he would go to get a good shot, when filming Bullitt (a Western deep in its heart) he had himself strapped to the hood of McQueen’s Shelby Mustang so he could have his camera (and you, the viewer) drive thru San Francisco at 100 mph +. As a director, he was essentially a visual director and indeed, one of the great merits of the 1970 Monte Walsh is the look of it. The lovely Arizona locations (Patagonia, Mescal and Old Tucson) are often photographed in long-shadowed evening or early-morning light. The picture looks like an elegy even before you get into the story. The opening titles are done over some nice drawings and there is something Remingtonesque about the whole. Remington, like Schaefer, managed to get soft-yet-hard artistry without sentiment into his portrayal of the West. The DP on this Monte Walsh was David M Walsh, Monte’s cousin maybe, who had worked on An Eye for an Eye, A Gunfight, The Hallelujah Trail and Paint Your Wagon.
 

 

It can’t have been easy to transfer such a long, episodic if not rambling tale to the screen. In the 450+-page book, Monte is first introduced as a fifteen-year-old boy and dies a battered, worn-out cowpoke of 57 in 1913. In between he has a long series of adventures and escapades and rides many trails. So an adapter must select. Screenplay-writers David Zelag Goodman and Lukas Heller had the task of squeezing Schaefer’s novel into 106 minutes of runtime and clearly they had to pick a representative sample. They chose to cover the Slash Y years only and have Monte ride off at the end into further adventures. Fair enough. Goodman is best known for The Untouchables and Straw Dogs and this was his only Western; Heller is best known for The Dirty Dozen and had only worked on one other Western, the trash The Deadly Trackers starring Richard Harris and co-written with trash-expert Samuel Fuller. Still, they did cope with Monte Walsh quite well.

Only, when you have such a full novel, crammed with events, why do you need to add new scenes? The ‘Fighting Joe Hooker’ episode is quite good but what is it doing there? Why do you try to ‘improve’ the story? One thing I don’t really forgive Goodman, Heller and Fraker for is killing off Chet. In the movie Shorty holds up a hardware emporium (Chet has become a store clerk, not a successful businessman as in the book) and shoots him with a shotgun. I don’t really see what was gained here. Chet was the obverse of the Monte coin (probably a plugged nickel). You need Chet to set off Monte; they were inseparable in the story and each complemented the other. Kill one off and you are left with the other in the wind.
 

 

The changes were perpetuated in the 2003 Tom Selleck remake.

There are also some features which will annoy the Walshistas out there. Monte rides a black and Chet a leggy dun. Now that’s wrong. But the costumes, props and sets are frankly superb. You can smell the real West.

Although the musical side is spoiled by an inappropriate late-60s pop song croaked by Mama Cass, which introduces and ends the picture, most of the original music, by John Barry, is very good – unusual, sometimes dark, moody and atmospheric. Some of it seems to have come from a gangster noir.

One interesting aspect is that this is a Western without villains. No one, not even Shorty, has bad intentions or is on the side of Evil. Only the nameless Eastern corporate interests are wrong 'uns and they are 3000 miles away and never appear.

As for the acting, there are some nice lesser roles. In particular, Jim Davis made an excellent Cal Brennan. What a fine Western actor Davis could be. Mind, he was also in some junk. Most people, I suppose, think of him as Jock Ewing but in fact he was a trail-hardened cowboy who appeared in 220 Westerns if you include all those Stories of the Century episodes when as Matt Clark he was instrumental in the life (and often the demise) of every significant figure of Western history and myth there has ever been. But even in those silly shows he was good.
 

 

Perhaps as a homage to Jim, there’s an invented character Rufus played by Matt Clark. Clark pops up in many Westerns, including the similarly-themed Will Penny. Bo Hopkins is a good Jumpin’ Joe Joslin. Jeanne Moreau takes the part of the whore Hattie (named Martine in the movie) and does it very movingly, I thought. Mitch Ryan does a powerful Shorty Austin: rustler Shorty is dealt with summarily and quickly in the book but the movie builds up his part till he’s some famous desperado outlaw. Oh well.

But of course the acting is dominated by Marvin and Palance.

Marvin was such a good actor that he could make even a stodgy marathon like Paint Your Wagon seem lively. Depending on your definition of a Western, he was in 17 movies and some TV shows. He was most famously Liberty Valance, and very good too, but I think his best Western performance, despite those box-office comic roles in Paint Your Wagon and Cat Ballou, was as the charming villain in the 1956 Budd Boetticher/Randolph Scott oater Seven Men from Now. He was excellent, too, in The Professionals and The Spikes Gang. Here, he makes a perfectly splendid Monte Walsh. He has the right blend of grizzled, leather-tough trail-hand and sparkle in the eye. And what a hat! Had I been the director or screenplayist I might have played up the sparkle angle a little more, in the spirit of the book, but Lee Marvin delivers the lines he is given with nothing short of aplomb. Yup, aplomb.
 

 

As for Jack, well, I have written admiringly elsewhere about Mr. Palance so click the link for more. He is rather unusual in this film, playing the good guy and back-pedaling modestly to highlight Lee’s Monte (which he hadn't had to do when they were together in The Professionals). He is a sympathetic and gentle Chet and, in my view, absolutely superb. It would have been a better film if they had kept him alive and had him present at Monte’s death. You see, Chet marries and settles down; he adapts to the new times. Monte does not and continues footloose and feckless. Yet it is Chet who is left with regret; Monte regrets nothing. For me, that is almost the message of Monte Walsh.

 

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Monte Walsh by Jack Schaefer


One of the great Western books


Jack Schaefer is of course widely known for Shane. Although Schaefer was an Easterner, Ohio born and educated, living in Connecticut and never been West, Shane, Schaefer’s first novel, 1949, was in fact a good Western. But in essence it was, unlike the famous film that was made from it, rather a children’s story. The tale was told from the point of view of Bob, a farm boy with whom readers could identify (the child was younger in the film and his name changed to Joey). The second edition, in 1954, was purged of all the damns and hells and became a set, almost a sacred text in American schools, which it still often is.
 

 

But Shane was far from Schaefer’s best book. That was probably Monte Walsh.

By 1963, when it came out, Schaefer had moved to New Mexico and was a real Westerner. He loved his adopted country and immersed himself in the ways of the West. It shows.

Monte Walsh didn’t start out as a novel. The friends Monte Walsh and Chet Rollins first appeared in a 1954 short story, In Harmony. Schaefer says,

In March of 1958, living now in New Mexico and pondering a piece on the trail-driving days, I remembered those two and their fellow cowhands of that previous piece.

The result was a new story, Trail Herd and, later the same year, Antelope Junction.

Up to this point, with three Monte-Chet-plus pieces, these spread out in time and written in between many other stories and other writings, I had merely turned out three separate individual tales that appealed to me.

Admirers of the characters urged Schaefer to write more, and various new short stories featuring Monte and Chet appeared in the early 1960s. Now Schaefer began to fashion the tales into a continuous narrative. He added an introductory piece and eighteen interludes – anecdotes told by people who knew Monte. Finally, he wrote an ending, entitled, simply, An Ending. In 1963 the whole was published as a novel, Monte Walsh.

Monte is born in 1856 and Chapter 1, A Beginning, tells of his youth. There are certain echoes of Tom Horn’s youth as told in his autobiography and in the Will Henry novel I, Tom Horn. As a fifteen-year-old boy, Monte escapes a step-father who beats him, and leaves the farm. Wandering westwards, he finally gets taken on as a young cowhand by trail boss Hat Henderson.

Chapter 2 covers the years 1872 – 77 and has Monte taking part in drive after drive, covering the West, going to all the cow towns, growing in size and assurance and developing his innate ability with horses. The following chapter, Two of a Kind, introduces Monte to Chet, his lifelong partner, and they become inseparable, Chet as good with a rope as Monte is with a horse. Together, they arrive at what is to be their home, the Slash Y, near the little but growing town of Harmony, 140 miles south-west of Las Vegas, NMT. This outfit is run by Cal Brennan, one of the old school, though he is only the manager: Eastern corporate interests have bought the spread and are interested only in returns on investment. The old pioneer days are already over.

The tale is peppered with anecdotes and practical jokes as Monte especially, though usually backed up by Chet, gets into one scrape after another. These often involve saloon brawls, breakages, jail cells and fines, though are never nasty or malicious. Some of the escapades are genuinely funny. My favorite is when Monte attends a theater performance in Cheyenne. Monte never has a dime to his name; it all goes on booze and fines. Chet somehow manages to save and usually has a dollar available, and always a little sack of tobacco. Monte only provides the cigarette papers and matches.

Schaefer says that he based Monte on a real person:

…among our nearest New Mexican neighbors was a young man named Archie West who to my mind was (and still is) in many respects, certainly in appearance and temperament and cattle-country capability and simple human decency, precisely my Monte Walsh.

Monte Walsh is certainly one of the great creations of Western lore. He shines out from the pages as the quintessential cowboy, tough, decent, feckless, brave, loyal, utterly capable - and doomed.

For of course Monte Walsh’s way of life is bound for extinction. Not for nothing does my edition of Monte Walsh have as cover illustration a cowboy riding into the sunset.

 
 
 
Schaefer talks about men like Monte

who shared that trade, that way of life, in a time and a place, a short time but a big place, a wisp of eternity across a third of a continent.

The West of our imagination, of the movies and the dime novels and the fond memory, if it existed at all, was a fleeting moment in American history, just a heartbeat of time between the end of the Civil War and the end of the century, in a few territories, then states. So many Westerns, paper and celluloid, emphasize the decline, the passing of the old ways, the end of days. And often the automobile symbolizes that unwanted new world. The car horn sounded the death knell of the horse. How often was the auto the symbol of the end if the West! Think of The Shootist, when JB Books’s nemesis, Richard Boone, arrives for the fatal fight in a horseless carriage. An automobile does for Cable Hogue. As the dinosaur gunmen of The Wild Bunch go to their doom, the new men ride around in an open touring car. The equally antique Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea are rudely pushed aside by such a contraption in Ride the High Country. But in Monte Walsh the smug mining engineer who boasts of his shiny new automobile and declares it has relegated the horse to history has to be towed out of the axle-deep mud by Monte on his leggy dun. And Monte’s dying words are used stoutly to maintain that what he and his horse did to rescue the injured miners, “no autymobile could of done it.”

Despite the early chapters of life on the trail and the larks of Monte’s youth, Monte Walsh is essentially a sad book about the end of the West. Chet manages to adapt and survive in the new world. Monte doesn’t. But Chet is the one left with regret.
 

 Two Montes, Lee Marvin and Tom Selleck
 

Two films were made of the book, one in 1970 with Lee Marvin as Monte and one in 2003 with Tom Selleck in the title role. Given the episodic nature of the book, I am actually surprised that no series was made of it. It would have been ideally suited to a weekly episode. Both films were enjoyable but neither was as good as the book. Monte Walsh is Schaefer’s masterpiece and one of the great reads of the West.