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, September 27, 2013

ANGEL WITH SPURS by Paul I. Wellman

General Shelby

Angel with Spurs was originally published in 1942.  It is a fictional account of the real life epic march of Confederate General Jo Shelby and his men from Texas to Mexico City after the South’s surrender.  They marched there to offer their services to Maximilian, the Austrian figurehead who had been placed on the Mexican throne by the French emperor, and who remained there because of the presence of French troops and the support of conservative political elements among the Mexicans.  The elected president of the country, Benito Juarez, a reformer whose followers were primarily peasants who were called Juaristas, opposed Maximilian and the French.

Benito Juarez

Maximilian I
 At first glance, it would appear that Shelby and his men had more in common with the Juaristas than the aristocratic Maximilian and the French military.  After all, the Confederacy had rebelled against what they saw as a too powerful central government.  But Juarez was an Indian and his followers were primarily Indian and mestizo.  As far as Shelby's men were concerned, the Juaristas were not white men. They believed that supporting the revolution of peasants against the aristocratic government would have been akin to supporting black slaves in the American Civil War.  Even though Shelby was a member of the aristocratic class back home in Missouri, he personally favored the Juaristas.  However, since he had earlier indicated that majority rule would dictate the decision, he had no choice but to follow the lead of his men.
Joseph Orville (Jo) Shelby was born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1830.  He was born into a family of wealth and after the death of his father was raised by his stepfather, a wealthy landowner and hemp rope manufacturer.  When Shelby was twenty-one, and the recipient of a rather lucrative inheritance, he migrated to Waverly, Missouri where he purchased farm land and also went into the hemp rope business.  Slaves supplied the labor in both enterprises.

Just before the outbreak of the Civil War, Shelby suffered a number of financial setbacks that forced him to sell his business, plantation, and slaves.  The war became his new business and despite a lack of prior military training, it was readily apparent that he was a natural.  He fought in almost every major battle that occurred west of the Mississippi and was usually victorious, and when he wasn’t, it was never due to any failure on his part.

Wellman wrote in the foreword to his novel, “Shelby himself was a figure out of the Middle Ages, almost, with plumed hat and cloak, and flamboyant manner; but he also was the hardest riding and hardest fighting of all the Confederate cavalry chiefs, campaigning during the war over a sweep of country which dwarfed the arena of the Virginia struggle.”

Shelby is not as well known as Jeb Stuart, for example, because he spent nearly all the war in the backwater theater west of the Mississippi.  Nevertheless, an historian or two have claimed that he was the greatest cavalry officer – North or South -- on either side of the river.  That may be an exaggeration, but nobody disputes the fact that he was the greatest cavalry officer in the Trans-Mississippi theater.

When the war ended, he and his command were in northern Texas.  He refused to surrender and asked volunteers to march with him to Mexico City.  According to Wellman, a thousand volunteers made the trek, while others have placed the numbers at 300 or 600 or some number in between.  Wellman can’t be faulted on the numbers, for at the time he wrote his novel little had been written about the expedition.  More information is now available as the result of several histories and biographies that have since been published.  What is known for sure is that most of the volunteers were Missourians who had been members of Shelby’s Missouri Brigade. 

Wellman’s account of the march, though fictional, is an interesting read, particularly for any individual who is not already familiar with the history.  However, the melodramatic subplot involving one of Shelby’s young lieutenants and a young woman attempting to attach herself to the expedition in order to travel to Mexico has no factual basis and weakens the novel with too many contrived coincidences and hairbreadth escapes.

The subplot brings me to the cover of the paperback copy of the book that I own, which was published in 1952.   It features a beautiful young blonde woman dressed in a Confederate army uniform.  The blouse is unbuttoned to her waist exposing a fair amount of cleavage, the better to attract readers desiring more spice in their reading.

The lipstick is probably why the disguise wasn't successful.

It is a case of false advertising.  Paperbacks during the ‘50’s were nearly always misleading, promising much more on the covers, especially sex, than what they delivered between the covers.  It is true that the heroine did wear a confederate uniform in the story, but only for the first fifty pages of a 400+ pages novel. 

Here is the tagline that is written above the title on the front cover: “She tried to live – as a man – with a renegade band of mutinous soldiers.”  Well, yes, for fifty pages she did, but not during the remaining 400 pages.  Moreover, nowhere in the book is there a scene remotely similar to the one depicted on the cover.

Even the title is misleading.  The picture on the cover strongly indicates that the young woman is the “angel with spurs.”  She isn’t.  In fact, it is her father who applies that description to another character.  

It should also be noted that Wellman was guilty of the kind of insensitivity toward women and minorities that was often found in the fiction of that era: all blacks are “lazy,” all Mexicans are “greasy,” all Indians are “savage”; and all women are one-dimensional and totally dependent upon men for their protection.


Paul Wellman (1895-1966) was born in Enid, Oklahoma.  When he was six months old, his parents went to Angola to become medical missionaries.  In 1903, he and his brother were sent to stay with their maternal grandparents in Kansas.  Their parents did not return for six years and then almost immediately divorced.  He and his brother moved with their mother to Cimarron, Kansas.

At age fourteen, he began working as a ranch hand during the summers in order to help support his family.  In 1911, he moved to Wichita to live with his grandparents so that he could finish high school.  He later attended what eventually became Wichita State University.  He served in Europe in 1918-1919 and after his discharge, he pursued a career in journalism.  His first two books, published in 1934 and 1935, were histories of the Indian wars that grew out of newspaper columns that he had written.  It is only fitting then that his first novel, Broncho Apache (1936), covered some of the same territory. 

For several years, he continued to work as a journalist while writing in his spare time.  From 1934-1966, he published thirty-one books, both fiction and nonfiction.  The Walls of Jericho (1947), a best-seller set in Kansas was his most successful novel; he was able to sell the movie rights for a reported $100,000.

The following films were based on Wellman’s stories or novels:



Director: Raoul Walsh;  Producer: Robert Buckner;  Cinematographer: Sidney Hickox;  Writers: screenplay by Allan Le May and Thames Wiliamson based on a story by Paul Wellman

Starring:  Dennis Morgan and Jane Wyman


Director: John M. Stahl;  Producer: Lamar Trotti;  Cinematographer: Arthur Miller;  Writers: screenplay by Lamar Trotti based on Paul Wellman novel of the same name (published in 1947)

Starring: Cornel Wilde, Linda Darnell, Anne Baxter, Kirk Douglas


Director: Gordon Douglas;  Producer: Henry Blanke;  Cinematographer: John Seitz;  Writers: screenplay by James R. Webb based on Paul Wellman novel of same name (published in 1951)

Starring: Alan Ladd and Virginia Mayo

APACHE (Hecht-Lancaster/UA, 1954)

Director: Robert Aldrich;  Producer: Harold Hecht;  Cinematographer: Ernest Laszlo;  Writers: screenplay by James R. Webb based on Paul Wellman novel, Broncho Apache (published in 1936)

Starring: Burt Lancaster and Jean Peters

JUBAL (Columbia, 1956)

Director: Delmer Daves;  Producer: William Fadiman;  Cinematographer: Charles Lawton, Jr.;  Writers: screenplay by Russell S. Hughes and Delmer Daves based on Paul Wellman novel, Jubal Troop (published in 1939)

Starring: Glen Ford, Ernest Borgnine, Rod Steiger, Valerie French

 It takes Wellman more than 500 pages to tell Jubal Troop’s story as a hired sheepherder, a hired cowhand, an itinerant rawhider, a rancher, a miner, a rancher again, and, finally, an oil tycoon.  The movie is based on his days as a hired cowhand, which accounts for only about a hundred pages in the novel.

It is almost a very good movie, but it is spoiled almost single-handedly by Rod Steiger’s over-the-top histrionics.  In the right role, Steiger could give a powerful performance, but he was never good in Westerns and should never have been cast in one.  Lee Marvin would have been perfect in the role.



Director: Michael Curtiz;  Producer: George Sherman;  Cinematographer: William H. Clothier; Writers: screenplay by James Edward Grant and Clair Huffaker based on Paul Wellman novel of same name (published in 1952)


  1. Interesting. I've seen most of the movies based on this author's work and found them very enjoyable. One that I haven't seen yet is Cheyenne, but I just received that on DVD the other day.

    1. Wellman spent a brief time in Hollywood working for WB. It didn't work out. As far as I know, his original story written for Cheyenne was the only result of his tenure there.

      I haven't watched it in many years, but I remember it as being a rather pedestrian affair populated with actors who weren't all that believable in Western roles. Supposedly it became the basis for the WB TV series of the same name, starring Clint Walker. If so, the connection is rather tenuous.