THE AMERICAN WEST (mostly): Fact and Fiction (mostly fiction)

"NOBODY GETS TO BE A COWBOY FOREVER." -- Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) in MONTE WALSH (NG, 1970)

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Friday, June 15, 2018

ROUGH RIDERS: Theodore Roosevelt, His Cowboy Regiment, and the Immortal Charge Up San Juan Hill by Mark Lee Gardner


"The day that Roosevelt can go into battle with [the Rough Riders] will likely be the happiest of his life." -- Chi
cago Tribune

Mark Gardner writes early in his thoroughly researched and lively account of Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders, “This war with Spain was no surprise to Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt. For months, he had been doing everything in his power – not always with the direct knowledge or approval of the secretary – to make the navy ready for the great conflict he was certain was coming. And he also let it be known that he had no intention of observing the war from afar. Crazy as it sounded – and more than a few did think Roosevelt was crazy – this lighting-rod bureaucrat intended to go where the bullets were flying. He had been waiting for a war, any war, his entire adult life, and now that it was here, nothing was going to keep him from the battlefield.” 

Gardner adds, “But Roosevelt’s war fever was actually due to America’s fever for war, or at least its long glorification of all things military.”

In 1898, the USS Maine was dispatched to Cuba to protect American interests and property due to reported riots by Cuban insurrectionists who were in rebellion against their Spanish rulers. On February 15, the ship exploded in the Havana harbor; two hundred and sixty-six sailors were killed.

A court of inquiry called by President William McKinley ruled that the explosion had been caused by an underwater mine, but did not place the blame on the Spaniards. It didn’t matter. The Hearst and Pulitzer newspapers did not hesitate to name the Spaniards as the perpetrators.

McKinley was the last U.S. president to serve during the Civil War. He knew war wasn’t all glory and adventure for he had experienced it firsthand. Reluctant to plunge his nation into another conflict, he hoped to avoid war by negotiating independence for the Cubans. When his efforts failed, Congress declared war on Spain. “Remember the Maine; and to Hell with Spain” became the rallying call for battle.


Thirty-nine year old Theodore Roosevelt resigned his position as Assistant Secretary of the Navy and began using personal and political contacts to lobby Russell Alger, the Secretary of War, to allow him to raise a volunteer cavalry regiment. One of the personal contacts he called on was Colonel Leonard Wood, and through their combined efforts they were successful in getting the secretary’s consent.

While Wood was named commander of the regiment, Roosevelt received a commission as lt. colonel and was named second in command. Roosevelt was impressed by the fact that Wood had won a Medal of Honor during the campaign against Geronimo in the American southwest and he fervently desired to win one of his own.

As long as there is a war, Roosevelt wrote his friend, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, “the only thing I want to do is command this regiment and get into all the fighting I can.” 

Since cowboys were regarded as natural born horsemen, the two officers decided to recruit from among their ranks. And it worked. Cowboys from Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona readily volunteered to serve in the regiment. Although it was sometimes called the “cowboy regiment,” it also included “Oklahoma Indians, Ivy League football stars, and champion polo players,” -- and more than one fugitive from justice.

The official name of the unit was the First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry Regiment, but it quickly became known by the press and the public as the “Rough Riders,” or more specifically, “Roosevelt’s Rough Riders,” despite the fact that he was second in command.

But Colonel Wood didn’t mind that his subordinate was getting all the attention. And what could he do about it if he had minded? One newspaper observed “this only goes to show that wherever Roosevelt rides is the head of the parade.” It was not meant as a compliment.

The Rough Riders were “riders” in name only. In fact, due to a shortage of transports needed to ship the horses to the island all the cavalry units were dismounted. The only horses to make it to Cuba were pack animals and the horses belonging to the officers. As a result, the natural born horsemen of the American West fought the war on foot as infantrymen.

And it wasn’t long before Roosevelt did command the regiment. It happened when Colonel Wood was given the command of a brigade and Roosevelt received a promotion to full colonel and command of the Rough Riders.


I put myself in the way of things happening, and they happened." – Theodore Roosevelt

The war’s final decisive battles were fought on two hills located in the San Juan Heights: Kettle and San Juan. Roosevelt and his Rough Riders were in the thick of those battles and were instrumental in the victorious outcome. That is not to say that they didn’t have a lot of support from other cavalry units. But as Gardner writes, “It was no surprise that the news reports gave the Rough Riders much of the glory, even though the First and Tenth Cavalries fought equally as hard.”

Col. Roosevelt and Rough Riders pose for camera atop San Juan Hill

The Tenth Cavalry, it should be noted, was one of two cavalry regiments made up of African American troopers. They were the so-called “Buffalo Soldiers” that fought in the Indian wars in the years following the Civil War. 

"There can be no better soldiers in the world, and yet I used to doubt whether the negro could fight with as much dash as the white man." – Rough Rider


"I don’t ask this as a favor, I ask it as a right….I am entitled to the Medal of Honor, and I want it." – Theodore Roosevelt, letter to Senator Henry Cabot Lodge

Theodore Roosevelt was courageous and bold to the point of foolhardiness. Throughout the campaign he exposed himself to enemy fire. Since he was often mounted on horseback he represented an inviting target for enemy bullets. But by some miracle he didn’t receive a scratch even though men who were charging into enemy fire near him were killed or wounded.

In his desire to achieve glory he reminds one of another soldier, George Armstrong Custer. They differed, however, in one important respect. Custer was primarily interested in his own welfare, while Roosevelt never failed to look out for the well-being of his men. His men were fiercely loyal to him and he returned that loyalty by looking out for their interests.

"Our general is poor; he is too unwieldy to get to the front. I commanded my regiment, I think I may say, with honor. We lost a quarter of our men." – Theodore Roosevelt, letter to Senator Henry Cabot Lodge

Roosevelt’s commanders recommended him for a Medal of Honor, but to no avail. Gardner speculates that Roosevelt’s comments to the press about the conduct of the war and a critical letter that was published by the Associated Press so infuriated Secretary Alger that he personally blocked the award. And though the war was a logistical nightmare and in some respects a comedy of errors, his public criticisms did constitute insubordination. He was fortunate that a president like Harry Truman was not the commander-in-chief or he might have experienced the same fate as General Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War.

Roosevelt and the Rough Riders had become the darlings of the press and the public. And Regulars were justified in resenting the situation, for believing that the Rough Riders – and their commander – had received media attention all out of proportion to their actual contribution to the war effort. This also became a factor militating against Roosevelt and his desire to receive a Medal of Honor.

In fact, the tempest in a teapot that their commander had initiated worked against not only him, but also his regiment. When the final names of the war’s Medal of Honor recipients were named – twenty-five in all – not only was Roosevelt not one of them, no member of the Rough Riders was named.

Two Rough Riders did eventually receive a Medal of Honor at a later date. The first was Captain James Robb Church, who had served as assistant surgeon under Roosevelt. The medal was presented to Church in 1906 by his old commander, and now President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt. It must have been a bittersweet moment for the president.

In 1996, Congress passed a bill that waived time restrictions for awarding the Medal of Honor. After some debate, Congress voted to award Theodore Roosevelt the medal. On January 16, 2001 President Bill Clinton presented the medal to Roosevelt’s great-grandson, Tweed Roosevelt. Thus, Theodore Roosevelt became the second Rough Rider, and the only president, to win a Medal of Honor.

As Roosevelt would have said: “Bully! Dee-lighted!”

The Colonel

The Author

Tuesday, June 5, 2018


“My journal tells a story tonight different from what it has ever done before.” – Susan Shelby Magoffin

In November 1845, Susan Shelby, age 18, married Samuel Magoffin, age 45. Eight months after their marriage they embarked on a journey down the Santa Fe Trail that would conclude fifteen months later in Chihuahua, Mexico. On her journey she kept a journal which began with the above quote.

Susan had been born into a wealthy and influential family on a Kentucky plantation. In fact, her grandfather had been the first governor of the state. Her husband was a prosperous trader who had accumulated a sizeable fortune while engaging in the Santa Fe trade.

To protect against marauding bands of Indians, especially the feared Comanche, the traders traveled in large caravans, and the Magoffin entourage made up a large part of this particular caravan.

Susan described it this way:

“We now numbered, ourselves only, quite a force. Fourteen big waggons, with six yoke [oxen] each, one baggage waggon with two yoke, one Dearborn with two mules (this concern carries my maid), our own carriage with two more mules and two men on mules driving the loose stock, consisting of nine and a half yoke of oxen, our riding horses two, and three mules….we number twenty men, three are our tent servants (Mexicans). Jane, my attendant [maid], two horses, nine mules, some two hundred oxen, and last, though not least our dog Ring.” 

A carriage, servants, an attendant? Well, that isn’t the whole picture. One of the servants was a cook. The other tent servants’ jobs included staking out a large tent at the end of each day in which the Magoffins would spend their evenings. Luxuries inside the tent included a bed and mattress, table and chairs, even a carpet to spread on the floor.

Pretty cushy, eh? But have you ever traveled through Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, across the Rio Grande, and deep into Chihuahua, Mexico? Riding in a carriage pulled by a team of mules? I have made that trip – at least as far as the Rio Grande – not in a carriage pulled by mules but in a vehicle equipped with a heater and an air conditioner. I ate my meals in restaurants and spent my evenings in a motel. I made it to the Rio Grande in three days.

My point is that despite servants and all the accouterments Susan possessed, her journey was no cakewalk. And instead of three days, it lasted fifteen months.

Susan Shelby Magoffin

Adding to the drama of the venture was the fact that war had broken out between the United States and Mexico. In fact, the Magoffin caravan traveled west in the wake of the invading American army.

One day after her nineteenth birthday she suffered a miscarriage at Bent’s Fort in southeastern Colorado. From that point on her health forced the Magoffins to spend lengthy stays along the way in order to allow her to recover from various ailments.

Despite the travails of the trail and her illnesses, Susan’s natural curiosity led her to faithfully write in her journal almost every day, in which she described everything: hardships, land and climate, flora and fauna, and people, including the Indians and Mexicans that she encountered.

In addition to her writing about her miscarriage at Bent’s Fort, she had this to say about her stay there:

“There is no place on Earth I believe where man lives and gambling in some form or other is not carried on. Here in the Fort, and who could have supposed such a thing, they have a regularly established billiard room! They have a regular race track. And I hear the cackling of chickens at such a rate some times I shall not be surprised to hear of a cock-pit.”

Her journal ends abruptly due to the fact that she contracted yellow fever in Matamoras, a time in which she gave birth to a son who did not survive.

The Magoffins returned to Kentucky in 1848 and later moved near St. Louis where Samuel purchased a large estate. Susan gave birth to two daughters, but her health further deteriorated and she died in 1855 at age twenty-eight. She is buried in the Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis.

Historians of the western movement will be forever indebted to this bold and adventurous young woman and her colorful journal, originally published in 1926, that provides them with a first person account of life on the Santa Fe Trail.

In commemoration of her journey, a seven-foot high bronze statue of Susan Magoffin holding her journal was unveiled in El Paso, Texas in 2012.  At her side is Ring, her faithful dog.  

Saturday, April 7, 2018


Image result for to hell on a fast horse

Let’s begin with a movie question. What historical individual has been the subject of more films than any other individual?

Yep, that would be Henry McCarty aka Henry Antrim aka “Kid” Antrim aka Billy Bonney aka “The Kid” aka “Billy the Kid.” Beginning in 1911, more than fifty films have been produced with him as a character – and nearly always as the principal character. It is difficult to pinpoint the best of the lot, but the bottom of the barrel is Billy the Kid vs. Dracula(1966), brought to you that same year by the same folks who made Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter. Do I need to say that that they were both fictional? But all the movies dealing with these two most famous of all Western outlaws were fictional to some degree or the other.

There was even a B-Western series in the ‘40s, first starring Bob Steele and later Buster Crabbe, in which Billy was the hero. In these films he was a wanted outlaw, but he had been falsely accused, you see, and roamed the frontier doing good deeds, winning over people, and attempting to clear his name. Since he had no visible means of support, I’m not sure how he and his sidekick (they were required in B-Westerns, you know) survived financially, but they did.

There were four stage productions, one written by Gore Vidal, featuring the Kid and one TV series, The Tall Man, starring Barry Sullivan as Pat Garrett and Clu Gulagher as Billy. The series further advanced the myth that the two were best pals. They weren’t.

People as diverse as Woody Guthrie and Billy Joel have written and sung songs about the young outlaw, who died at age twenty-one. Unlike most outlaws, however, he did not die with his boots on; he had removed them shortly before being shot and killed by Sheriff Pat Garrett.

And books? There have been as many books – maybe more – about Billy than there have been movies. Some are no more than purveyors of the myth without regard for the truth; some are works of historical fiction; and a few have been serious works of history and biography.

Mark Lee Gardner’s To Hell on a Fast Horse falls into the last category. The subtitle, The Untold Story of Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett, and the Epic Chase to Justice in the Old West, informs us that it is a dual biography, which to my knowledge no writer has heretofore attempted.

However, I do take issue with the subtitle, at least the “Untold Story” part of it. Personally, I don’t think that I learned anything about Billy from reading the book, if so it would have to be a minor detail or two. What I did learn, however, and it was certainly “Untold” as far as I was concerned, is what Pat Garrett’s life was like after he shot and killed Billy at Fort Sumner, New Mexico in 1881. 

I knew that he continued his career as a respected lawman for a number of years and that he died ignominiously on a lonely road near Las Cruces, New Mexico. 
He was shot from behind while urinating on the side of the road. There has been much speculation about what happened, but the mystery of his murder has never been officially solved.

What I didn’t know is that he was a rotten businessman, who made many poor decisions. Although he was a successful lawman, the job didn’t pay much – and he had a wife and eight children to support. So he dabbled in ranching and other business sidelines without much, if any, success. His efforts were hampered by his penchant for breeding race horses – slow ones, apparently – and placing bets on horses at race tracks – slow ones, apparently.

Gardner’s book is a thorough look at both men’s lives. If you don’t know the details about Billy’s life – and would like to – or if you aren’t familiar with Garrett’s post-Billy years – and would like to be – this is the book for you. Unlike many who write about Western lawmen and outlaws, Gardner has no ax to grind. He doesn’t take sides. His book is a quest for the truth and is probably as close to it as we will ever come. 


“The double-helix relationship between Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett is one of the abiding fascinations of the West. No one has come closer than Mark Lee Gardner to capturing their twin destinies, and their inevitable final collision. Gardner’s research is so richly detailed, you can almost smell the gun smoke and the sweat of the saddles.” – Hampton Sides, author of Blood and Thunder


Tuesday, March 6, 2018

JUSTICE: STORIES by Larry Watson


Do you know how many books have the word justice in their titles? I’ll tell you: a bunch.

Okay, I’ll narrow that a bit. I did a search on Goodreads and it generated 100 pages with 20 entries to each page. Do you know how many that is? I’ll tell you: a bunch.

Even so, I venture to say that Larry Watson’s book, Justice, is nevertheless unique among that bunch. 

It is a prequel to his best known novel, Montana 1948. But what makes it unique is that it is not a novel. It is a selection of short stories with each told from the point of view of one of the main characters in Montana 1948 – with two exceptions.

One exception is the narrator of the earlier novel who is looking back to the summer of 1948 and so we already know his back story (assuming one has read the novel first). The other exception is the most enigmatic character in the novel. Oh, he appears in nearly all the short stories in Justice, but none is told from his point of view.

I found that odd – but intriguing. So I went looking for an explanation; and I found one. In an interview Watson said that he could never find his way into the character’s mind and that was the reason for the omission.

You often hear writers say that characters sometimes take on a life of their own and thus the writer is forced to follow along. But here is a complex character who not only remains an enigma to the reader, but also to his creator.

I recommend both of these books, for Watson is a talented writer. However, even though each can be enjoyed as a standalone, I think that reading both adds to the enjoyment of reading each.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

MONTANA 1948 by Larry Watson

From the summer of my twelfth year I carry a series of images more vivid and lasting than any others of my boyhood and indelible beyond all attempts the years make to erase or fade them ….

A young Sioux woman lies on a bed in our house. She is feverish, delirious, and coughing so hard I am afraid she will die.

My father kneels on the kitchen floor, begging my mother to help him. It’s a summer night and the room is brightly lit. Insects cluster around the light fixtures, and the pleading quality in my father’s voice reminds me of those insects – high-pitched, insistent, frantic. It is a sound I have never heard coming from him.

My mother stands in our kitchen on a hot, windy day. The windows are open, and Mother’s lace curtains blow into the room. Mother holds my father’s Ithaca twelve-gauge shotgun, and since she is a small, slender woman, she has trouble finding the balance point of its heavy length. Nevertheless, she has watched my father and other men often enough to know where the shells go, and she loads them until the gun will hold no more. Loading the gun is the difficult part. Once the shells are in, any fool can figure out how to fire it. Which she intends to do.

There are others – the sound of breaking glass, the odor of rotting vegetables …. I offer these images in the order in which they occurred, yet the events that produced these sights and sounds are so rapid and tumbled together that any chronological sequence seems wrong.

The above is not a spoiler since it is the first thing written on the first page of Larry Watson’s novel, one that has been characterized as a literary page-turner. Those are fairly rare, perhaps almost as rare as literary Westerns. Well, how about a literary page-turner set in the West? Now, that is virgin territory. But as the title tells us, this is not a historical Western. So, readers that do not enjoy Westerns need not shy away from it.

I read this soon after it was published in 1993. It is true that one can’t judge a book by its title or its cover, and I didn’t do that. No, I judged it by both its title and its cover (an oil painting of the Yellowstone valley). Only when I began reading did I discover that it was a coming of age story. For me, that was an added bonus.

At some point I read it a second time and then recently I gave it a third reading. Now, I do read quite a lot of books twice, but it really has to resonate with me if I turn to it a third time.

The narrator is middle-aged David Hayden looking back to the summer of 1948 when he was twelve years old. It was a summer of lost innocence. It was a summer in which he learned that truth is not always what we believe and that power can be abused, but those are not the hardest lessons he learned. Because of a scandal, a murder, and a suicide, he also learned that doing the right thing isn’t always easy, but it is especially hard when the choice lies between family loyalty on one hand and justice on the other. 

The book expertly evokes a time and a place in prose that has been variously described as ‘understated,’ ‘precise,’ ‘clear,’ ‘crisp,’ and/or ‘restrained.’ I would accept those, but would add elegant.

“Part family memoir, part psychological drama, part historical adventure tale, part elegy to a place and a lost way of life ….”
-- David Huddle, 1993 National Fiction Prize Judge

Larry Watson

Sunday, May 21, 2017


"It would seem that the western, telling its story in terms of action rather than dialogue, should have been relatively unconcerned about the mechanical problems of sound .... [But] because of many actual and alleged problems, including most specifically the recording of the camera's own operational noise, the camera became rooted to the ground and housed in small 'sweat boxes.'

"In the first year or two of sound, the western didn't seem important enough to justify the necessary effort.  Like the big elaborate swashbuckler, it was considered a dead relic of the silents and of no major commercial value." -- William K. Everson, A Pictorial History of the Western Film

The humble B-western dominated western filmmaking in the silent era, just as it did during the first two decades following the advent of sound.

There were some silent westerns produced to appeal to adult audiences, those starring William S. Hart, for example, or directed by a young John Ford, but the biggest star of the era was Tom Mix, whose fast-moving, action-filled films were geared to a younger audience.


Mix and Tony

But since westerns were by their nature outdoor films, the coming of sound, and its crude sound equipment, meant that most productions would be filmed indoors and consequently the western would be at a disadvantage.

This was true even after IN OLD ARIZONA (Fox, 1928) proved that sound movies could be filmed outdoors.  However, even this film was unavoidably stilted and static because of the problems presented by the sound equipment which dictated that the camera had to remain stationary much of the time.

Warner Baxter is the Cisco Kid in IN OLD ARIZONA
Despite the success of the film, the major studios tended to shy away from outdoor pictures. Under the best of conditions, it was still a cumbersome process when compared to filming on a sound stage.  As it turned out, it would be the Poverty Row studios that rushed in where the majors feared to tread.

Many of them didn't even own a sound stage and didn't possess the necessary financial wherewithal to rent one. For that reason, among others, B-westerns flooded the market.  Many of them were so crudely done and amateurishly acted and unintentionally laughable that they are extremely painful for even lovers of western films to watch today.

But the equipment improved and the films began to slowly but surely improve as studios such as Republic and Monogram began to produce superior B's and some of the majors also got back into the business of making quality B-westerns.

And as equipment improved and logistical problems were worked out the majors also began to film A-westerns geared to adult audiences.  It was still a slow process, however, and did not build up a head of steam until the landmark year of 1939.

As Les Adams and Buck Rainey noted in their detailed study of western movies, Shoot-em-Ups, the years from 1933 to 1937 were boom years for the B-western programmer, but not so much for the A-western.  In fact, almost 500 of the 530 western features shot during the period were B-westerns.

What follows are some of the significant sound A-westerns made prior to 1939, beginning with, naturally:

IN OLD ARIZONA (Fox, 1928)

DIRECTOR: Irving Cummings and Raoul Walsh;  WRITERS: adaptation by Tom Barry based on O. Henry's short story, The Caballero's Way; CINEMATOGRAPHER:  Arthur Edeson

CAST:  Warner Baxter, Edmund Lowe, Dorothy Burgess, Henry Armetta, Frank Campeau, Tom London, J. Farrell MacDonald 

Warner Baxter is the Cisco Kid, a Robin Hood type who robs the rich and gives to the poor.  In O. Henry's short story the Kid was actually an Anglo, but Baxter plays him as a Mexican, unconvincing accent and all, and in the many Cisco Kid films (and TV series) that followed, he would never return to his original Anglo status. 

In the second year of the Academy Awards the film was nominated for five Oscars out of a possible seven.  However, Baxter's award for Best Actor was the film's only winner.  Despite the award it is difficult today to watch his attempt to portray a Latin outlaw without cringing at its stereotypical nature.  Neither his performance nor the film has stood the test of time.

"[It] was of its time -- a romantic triangle melodrama with a gloomy ending." -- Brian Garfield, Western Films: A Complete Guide

"[It] was hardly a super-western but was certainly one of style and importance.  Microphones hidden under prairie scrub and foliage enabled naturalistic sound effects to be picked up, and even more than the gunshots and the galloping hooves, the sound of frying bacon impressed itself on viewers and showed that the realistic quality of sound was perhaps just what the western needed. -- William K. Everson, A Pictorial History of the Western Film

"Novelty of first major sound western and first talkie to take microphones outdoors has long worn off, leaving only a stilted performance led by Baxter's dubious Oscar winner as the Cisco Kid." -- Leonard Maltin

THE VIRGINIAN (Paramount, 1929)

DIRECTOR: Victor Fleming;  PRODUCER:
B.P. Schulberg;  WRITERS:  screenplay by Howard Estabrook based on novel by Owen Wister;  CINEMATOGRAPHER: J. Roy Hunt;  Assistant Director: Henry Hathaway;  Dialogue Coach: Randolph Scott

CAST:  Gary Cooper, Walter Huston, Mary Brian, Richard Arlen, Chester Conklin, Eugene Palette, Victor Potel, Ernie Adams, George Chandler, Bob Kortman, Ethan Laidlaw, Lee Meehan, Jack Pennick, Randolph Scott, Charles Stevens

TRAMPAS (Walter Huston):  "Well, who's talkin' to you?"

THE VIRGINIAN (Gary Cooper):  "I'm talkin' to you, Trampas!"

TRAMPAS: "When I want to know anything from you, I'll tell ya, you long-legged son-of-a-...."

THE VIRGINIAN:  [Trampas stops talking abruptly as the Virginian's pistol is pressed against his abdomen.]  "If you want to call me that, smile!"

TRAMPAS:  "With a gun against my belly, I -- I always smile!"
[He grins broadly.]

Owen Wister's seminal western novel is perhaps the most famous ever written. It was so popular that it was twice produced as a play and has been the basis for six films, including two during the silent era.  And then there was the popular TV series that ran for nine seasons from 1962 to 1971.

The 1929 film is known primarily for the above scene and the exciting shoot-out conclusion.  An early talkie, it is generally considered to be a classic film and easily the best production of the story.  It also made Gary Cooper a leading man though real stardom would have to wait a few more years. 

"[It] remains a classic: the essential western, still vital, still funny and moving by turns .... Cooper's performance ... still impresses, but Huston and Arlen aren't far behind ... THE VIRGINIAN is fun, and very good; possibly we may never come nearer to the ultimate western." -- Brian Garfield, Western Films: A Complete Guide

".... stiff but interesting western, salvaged in good climactic shoot-out." -- Leonard Maltin

".... verbose, slow and unlikely .... The film's slowness is a direct result of the new slower pace sound brought to the cinema." -- Phil Hardy, The Western


DIRECTOR: King Vidor;  PRODUCER: King Vidor; WRITERS: dialogue by Laurence Stallings, et al. based on book by Walter Noble Burns, The Saga of Billy the Kid; CINEMATOGRAPHER: Gordon Avil;  TECHNICAL ADVISER: William S. Hart

CAST: Johnny Mack Brown (as John Mack Brown), Wallace Beery, Kay Johnson, Wyndham Standing, James Marcus, Russell Simpson, Roscoe Ates, Warner Richmond, Hank Bell, Chris-Pin Martin

The story of Billy the Kid had been filmed a couple of times during the silent era, but by the dawn of the sound era he had become an almost forgotten historical character.  That all changed in 1926, however, with the publication of Walter Noble Burns' pseudo-biography, The Saga of Billy the Kid, which was not as much a biography of historical Billy as it was of the legendary Billy.  The bestselling book effectively resurrected Billy from the dustbin of history -- or at least the legendary version, the tragic hero, the misunderstood one who was a victim of circumstances.

Johnny Mack Brown ... brought athletic ability and a pleasing personality to the role of Billy, although it was Wallace Beery as Pat Garrett who gave the best performance, a surprisingly underplayed piece of acting for such an extrovert player and an equally surprising underwritten role. -- William K. Everson, A Pictorial History of the Western Film

William S. Hart served as technical adviser to the film and this no doubt added an air of authenticity to the production.  And so did the fact that the film was shot on the actual locations of the Lincoln County, New Mexico conflict.

However, the old cowboy actor had to be displeased with the happy ending that was added to the film, one that allowed Billy to ride across the border to enjoy a peaceful life with the woman he loved.  At least that is what happened in the version released in the U.S.; the film distributed in Europe included the historical ending in which Garrett shot and killed Billy.  One supposes that the producers didn't think U.S. audiences would be willing to accept such a tragic conclusion.

It was hoped by all concerned that the film would make a star of Brown and it did, but not the kind that he or the studio envisioned.  

What he did eventually become, after being demoted to Poverty Row for a time, was one of the most pleasing and most durable of all the B-western stars, spending most of his career at Universal and later Monogram.

"The slow film is rather talky but it recaptures the legend of Billy the Kid very nicely .... The movie conveys an overpowering flavor and sense of history, in terms of time and place, rather than the facts ... and the movie was shot on actual locations at a time when they hadn't changed perceptibly." -- Brian Garfield, Western Films: A Complete Guide

" ... the photography is good, but always naturalistic, the characters drab in dress, the buildings ramshackle, the streets dusty .... its script is frankly untidy, yet the film is quite certainly the best and most convincing of all the Billy the Kid sagas." -- William K. Everson, A Pictorial History of the Western Film

"[It] is undeniably faithful to the look of the old West, despite its big budget and romantic plot." -- Phil Hardy, The Western

"Realistic early talkie western ...; some performances seem highly dated today." -- Leonard Maltin 

THE BIG TRAIL (Fox, 1930)

DIRECTOR: Raoul Walsh;  PRODUCER: Winfield R. Sheehan;  WRITERS: screenplay by Marie Boyle, Jack Peabody, and Florence Postal based on story by Hal G. Evarts;  CINEMATOGRAPHER: Lucien N. Andriot and Arthur Edeson

CAST: John Wayne, Marguerite Churchill, El Brendel, Tully Marshall, Tyrone Power, Sr., Charles Stevens, Chief Big Tree, Ward Bond, Iron Eyes Cody

"The most important picture ever produced" was apparently not a unanimous opinion.

Great pains were taken to give this wagon train tale an authentic look, but the film is severely hampered by a B-western script and Wayne's lack of experience as an actor.  "The most important picture ever produced" was a failure at the box office where it really counted.

Much has been written about this film due to the fact that it provided John Wayne with his first important role. THE VIRGINIAN made Gary Cooper a leading man, but BILLY THE KID failed to do the same for Johnny Mack Brown. And Wayne, like Johnny Mack, would be relegated to B-westerns, but finally, unlike Johnny Mack, he would finally escape in 1939 when John Ford chose him to star in STAGECOACH (UA, 1939)  

But even then, like Cooper before him, the film made him a leading man but true stardom would have to wait several years, in his case, almost a decade, until Howard Hawks cast him in RED RIVER (UA, 1948).  The actor's long and fruitful association with John Ford began after that and eventually he became the biggest star of them all, especially in, but not restricted to, western films.

In a perverse way the failure of THE BIG TRAIL may have worked in
the actor's favor. Those years at Monogram and Republic starring in B-westerns are where he finally learned his craft.

Click on the picture below and you will see why he had much learning to do:

"THE BIG TRAIL was a surprising box office failure .... Wayne ... is more than adequate in the lead .... The sequences of the wagons fording rivers and being manhandled up mountains and the action scenes are both realistic and visually breathtaking." -- Phil Hardy, The Western

".... an outstanding early sound epic .... But ... the authenticity of detail and the sweep of history was somewhat let down by a standardized 'B' plot ...." -- William K. Everson, A Pictorial History of the Western Film

"The script is poor, but so is Wayne's acting; he is wooden at best, and embarrassingly inept at worst." -- Brian Garfield, Western Films: A Complete Guide

"Epic western may seem creaky to some viewers, but remains one of the most impressive early talkies, with its grand sweep and naturalistic use of sound." -- Leonard Maltin


DIRECTOR: Wesley Ruggles;  PRODUCERS: William LeBaron and Wesley Ruggles;  WRITERS: dialogue by Howard Estabrook based on novel by Edna Ferber;  CINEMATOGRAPHER: Edward Cronjager;  SECOND UNIT DIRECTOR: B. Reeves Eason

CAST: Richard Dix, Irene Dunne, Estelle Taylor, William Collier, Jr., Nance O'Neil, Roscoe Ates, George F. Stone, Stanley Fields, Edna May Oliver, Bob Kortman, Frank Lackteen, Ethan Laidlaw

CIMARRON is primarily noted for two things: 1) it was the first western to win an Oscar for Best Picture (the second to win the award was DANCES WITH WOLVES [1990], fifty-nine years later) and 2) the Oklahoma land rush scene staged by the incomparable action director B. Reeves Eason.
It was reported that the land rush scene took a week to film, utilizing 5,000 extras, 28 cameramen, 6 still photographers, and 27 camera assistants.

Unfortunately, as critics have noted the land rush is the most exciting thing about the film and it occurs at the beginning.  After that, it is unsurprising that the film had a tendency to lose its momentum.

However, it was nominated for seven Oscars and won three (Best Picture, Art Direction, and Best Writing Adaptation).  Both of its stars, Richard Dix and Irene Dunne (her film debut), were nominated for their performances but neither won.

Dix would go on to star in 18 other westerns, but except for one comedic contemporary western, this would be the only one for Dunne.

It was also the year's biggest money maker at the box office, but because of its expensive production costs it still lost money.  

"The opening spectacle -- the Oklahoma land rush -- is tremendous and it's a solid empire-building movie about the conversion of Indian Territory into the state of Oklahoma and the subsequent building of oil fiefdoms ..., it's soap more than horse opera ... it leaves quite a lot to be desired for modern audiences, and with the climactic land rush at the beginning rather than the end, it has nowhere to go but downhill." -- Brian Garfield, Western Films: A Complete Guide

"... it tended to be bogged down in character studies and had the structural flaw of presenting its highlight -- the massive Cherokee Strip land rush sequence at the beginning of the picture .... the film was well-served by Richard Dix and Irene Dunne in the leads [and] many good supporting performers .... " -- William K. Everson, A Pictorial History of Western Film

"Though Ruggles' spirited direction seems dated now, the outdoor scenes still remain impressive." -- Phil Hardy, The Western

" ... it dates badly, particularly Dix's overripe performance -- but it's still worth seeing." -- Leonard Maltin

LAW AND ORDER (Universal 1932)

Based on W.R. Burnett's novel, Saint Johnson, the film is a thinly disguised fictional treatment of the events leading to and including the shoot-out at Tombstone's O.K. Corral.  It stars Walter Huston as a Wyatt Earp-like character with Harry Carey filling the role of the Doc Holliday-like character.

I earlier reviewed the film and if you wish you can read it here.

THE TEXAS RANGERS (Paramount, 1936) 

DIRECTOR: King Vidor; PRODUCER: King Vidor: WRITERS: screenplay by Louis Stevens from a story by King Vidor and Elizabeth Hill based upon data from Walter Prescott Webb's book, The Texas Rangers; CINEMATOGRAPHER: Edward Cronjager 

CAST: Fred McMurray, Jack Oakie, Jean Parker, Lloyd Nolan, Edward Ellis, Benny Bartlett, Fred Kohler, George "Gabby" Hayes, Stanley Andrews, Irving Bacon, Hank Bell, Neal Hart, Charles Middleton

Three desperadoes (L-R): Fred McMurray, Jack Oakie, Lloyd Nolan; two will eventually go straight.
What a pleasant surprise!  It is a much better film than the attention it has received would indicate.  I had read about it, but had never viewed it until recently.  It wasn't because I didn't want to, it was because I couldn't locate it. But what I had read in works dealing with the history of the western, with one exception, had never given the film much more than a  brief mention.

The exception is A Pictorial History of the Western by William K. Everson.  Everson writes:

"By far the best of Paramount's quartet of mid-thirties epics was THE TEXAS RANGERS and indeed, despite its weaknesses, it is still one of the most enjoyable Paramount super-westerns from any period.  It was directed by King Vidor in 1936, his first western since BILLY THE KID [1930], and a much more polished if gripping work .... [T]he script ... was not ambitious enough ... ostensibly based on Texas Rangers records, but actually it seems to consist of well-known Ranger incidents ... fused with a very standard "B" picture plot which constantly threatens to reduce its epic stature.

"[B]ut Vidor fills his film with enough incident, action, and well-developed characters for these flaws to matter too much.

"Even though not a classic, [it] is an exhilarating western with a refreshing schoolboy vigor."

By the way, the other three Paramount super-westerns that Everson alludes to and ranks below THE TEXAS RANGERS are: THE PLAINSMAN (1936), WELLS FARGO (1937), and THE TEXANS (1938).  Two of them are coming up next and I plan a complete review of THE TEXAS RANGERS in the near future.

Fred McMurray: outlaw?

McMurray and Oakie: Rangers or outlaws?

Gabby: crooked judge?

THE PLAINSMAN (Paramount, 1936)

DIRECTOR: Cecil B. DeMille;  PRODUCERS: Cecil B. DeMille and William H. Pine; WRITERS: screenplay by Waldemar Young, Harold Lamb, and Lynn Riggs; CINEMATOGRAPHER: Victor Milner;  SECOND UNIT DIRECTOR: Arthur Rosson

CAST:  Gary Cooper, Jean Arthur, James Ellison, Charles Bickford, Helen Burgess, Porter Hall, Paul Harvey, John Miljan, Fred Kohler, Harry Woods, Anthony Quinn, Francis McDonald, George "Gabby" Hayes, Fuzzy Knight, Stanley Andrews, Francis Ford, Irving Bacon, Hank Bell, Monte Blue, Lane Chandler, Bud Osborne, Charles Stevens, Chief Thundercloud, Hank Worden

Gary Cooper is Wild Bill Hickok, Jean Arthur is Calamity Jane, James Ellison is Buffalo Bill Cody, and Cecil B. DeMille is in charge of what was his first western epic.  The film should have benefited from its big budget, but it didn't always. The director always preferred shooting his epics indoors and never liked spending much time on location, to the detriment of this film and others he helmed.  Consequently, the film is marred by phony studio "exteriors," back projection shots, and actors riding mock-up horses. In fact, most of the outdoor scenes, and not just the action scenes, were shot by second unit directors, in this case, Arthur Rosson.

Wild Bill gets the drop on crooked gambler

But the audiences of the '30's didn't seem to mind and it was a popular, if not critical, success.  And the good cast is able to overcome its shortcomings to some degree and the end result is entertaining.

Jean Arthur is Calamity Jane

James Ellison is Buffalo Bill Cody

And, by the way, Porter Hall is Jack McCall, the dastardly coward who dispatches Wild Bill in a Deadwood saloon, shooting him from behind, of course. Oh, and another thing, if you are interested in the true history of the three principal characters it would be best to look elsewhere.

"... for all its attention to petty historical detail ... it plays fast and loose with history .... Slow moving and overly romantic by modern standards in its depiction of westward expansion, [it] remains an entertaining spectacle." -- Phil Hardy, The Western

"[W]hile a big popular success, it was hardly a good picture.  Its script was heavy-handed and obvious, and far too much of the film was spoiled by DeMille's over-fondness for shooting as much of his pictures as possible within the confines of the studio.  Nevertheless ... the production as a whole was big and certainly entertaining." -- William K. Everson, A Pictorial History of the Western Film

" ... performances by most of the players are spirited.  But its juvenile, an overblown programmer.  [It] isn't much of a movie but it did establish Cooper as the archetypal western hero." -- Brian Garfield, Western Films: A Complete Guide

"Typical DeMille hokum, a big, outlandish western .... About as authentic as BLAZING SADDLES [WB, 1974], but who cares -- it's still good fun." -- Leonard Maltin

WELLS FARGO (Paramount, 1937)

DIRECTOR: Frank Lloyd;  PRODUCERS: Howard Estabrook and Frank Lloyd; WRITERS: screenplay by Paul Schofield, Gerald Geraghty, and Frederick J. Jackson based on story by Stuart N. Lake;  CINEMATOGRAPHER: Theodor Sparkuhl

CAST: Joel McCrea, Bob Burns, Frances Dee, Lloyd Nolan, Ralph Morgan, Johnny Mack Brown, Porter Hall, Robert Cummings, Harry Davenport, Frank Conroy, Peggy Stewart, Ernie Adams, Hank Bell, Lane Chandler, Richard Denning, Jack Perrin, Hal Taliaferro, Harry Woods

Joel McCrea and Frances Dee were Mr. and Mrs. McCrea in real life.  

There's a lot of soap in this hoss opera, a nation-building epic about the formation of Wells & Fargo, Co. McCrea portrays a troubleshooter who is instrumental in the company's efforts to establish an overland freight and mail service. The film covers the years represented by the California Gold Rush, the Pony Express, and the Civil War. This requires the stars to age several decades and suffer through many trials and tribulations, including strains on family life, during those eventful times.

Before all is said and done the story evolves, make that devolves, into more of a costume drama than western adventure.  My advice is to skip this one and to watch Four Faces West, a much more satisfying western starring McCrea and Dee. 

However, WELLS FARGO was McCrea's first starring role in a western and there would come a time when he would devote his entire career to starring in the genre.  And those of us who love westerns (and that should be everyone) can grateful for that.

"[Joel McCrea] proved at home in the saddle here, and hence his selection as the star of UNION PACIFIC [Paramount] two years later ... but the film can be a bore unless you are in a tolerant mood." -- Brian Garfield, Western Films: A Complete Guide

" ... a long, carefully made, but stiff, dull and practically actionless movie, long on historical data, romance, and interior scenes, short on excitement and exteriors." -- William K. Everson, A Pictorial History of the Western Film

"Paramount's production values are solid enough, though Lloyd wisely eschews any crowd scenes, but the material doesn't stretch to the 115 minutes' running time." -- Phil Hardy, The Western