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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Thursday, July 23, 2015


The following are some quick looks at a few books dealing with war that I think deserve a 5 out of 5 rating:

WOE TO LIVE ON, Daniel Woodrell, (originally published in 1986)


This is early Woodrell and a departure from what would come later.  Woe To Live On is a work of fiction, but is nevertheless an accurate depiction of the dirty little guerrilla conflict fought in Missouri during the Civil War in which nobody won and everybody lost.  The title of the movie based on the book was RIDE WITH THE DEVIL (1999). 

Woodrell, who lives in the Missouri Ozarks, knows the history and the territory.
Later he would become best known for stories and novels that he characterized as country noir.

THE YOUNG LIONS, Irwin Shaw, (originally published in 1948)


I had always believed that there were three great American World War II novels that shared the common characteristics of being written by veterans of that conflict and being published during its immediate aftermath.

They are: The Naked and the Dead (1948) by Norman Mailer; The Caine Mutiny (1951) by Herman Wouk; and From Here to Eternity (1951) by James Jones. But I need to add a fourth book that belongs in the same company: The Young Lions (l949) by Irwin Shaw, a book that was originally overshadowed by the others.

I first read The Young Lions about twenty-five years ago. Based on my memory I ranked it below the aforementioned books. However, as a result of my recent re-reading of the book, I see that it was better than I remembered.

With one exception, these novels are enriched by the fact that they are based upon the writers’ personal experiences during the war. The exception is The Naked and the Dead. Mailer did serve in the Pacific, but saw little combat and ended the war as a cook in the Philippines. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but it does mean that his classic story of a reconnaissance mission on a Pacific island was not based on his personal experience.

One of the ways that I judge my enjoyment of a book (or a movie) is whether or not I am willing to revisit it. Well, I have now read The Young Lions twice and the others three times each. Twenty-five years from now I plan to read Shaw’s book for a third time.

THE BIG WAR, Anton Myrer, (originally published in 1957)


 A reviewer for The Saturday Review made the claim that The Big War was "incomparably the finest novel to come out of World War II..." I don't quite agree with that evaluation (after all, I have read it only twice), but I do think it is a classic.  Like the finest novels dealing with that conflict, it was written by a veteran who was able to draw upon his personal experience.

The film adaptation is titled IN LOVE AND WAR (1958).

QUARTERED SAFE OUT HERE, George MacDonald Fraser, (originally published in 1994)


A memoir written about a young British soldier's experiences in the Burma campaign during World War II. Skillfully written, it reads like a novel. And no wonder. It was written by the author of the hugely popular and critically acclaimed "Flashman" series of historical novels.

 THE FORGOTTEN SOLDIER, Guy Sajer, (originally published in 1965)

 Forgotten Soldier.jpg

The author makes the claim that The Forgotten Soldier is an account of his experiences as a teenager in the German army fighting on the Eastern front against Soviet Russia.  Some experts believe that it is an authentic memoir while others dispute that claim and insist that it is a novel. Whether memoir or novel, it is a powerful book.

Once Upon a Distant War: David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan, Peter Arnett--Young War Correspondents and Their Early Vietnam Battles, William Prochnau (originally published in 1996)

 Front Cover

The following individuals should read this book: 1) anyone interested in the Vietnam War; 2) anyone interested in journalism; 3) anyone not interested in the Vietnam War; 4) anyone not interested in journalism; 4) everyone.


Sunday, July 19, 2015


The following are some quick looks at a few books set in the American West  that I think deserve a 5 out of 5 rating:

THE COURT MARTIAL OF GEORGE ARMSTRONG CUSTER, Douglas C. Jones (originally published in 1976)


Douglas C. Jones has long been one of my favorite writers.  This was the first of many fine novels to be written by the native Arkansan and retired military officer.  In 1976, it was the winner of the Western Writers of America's prestigious Spur Award for best Western novel.

Publisher's blurb: Suppose that George Armstrong Custer did not die at the Battle of Little Bighorn. Suppose that, instead, he was found close to death at the scene of the defeat and was brought to trial for his actions. With a masterful blend of fact and fiction, The Court-Martial of George Armstrong Custer tells us what might have happened at that trial as it brings to life the most exciting period in the history of the American West.

SEASON OF YELLOW LEAF, Douglas C. Jones (originally published in 1983)


Based on the life of Cynthia Ann Parker, this is the story of ten-year-old Chosen who was taken captive by the Comanches and whose son Quanah later became the last war chief of that tribe.

GONE THE DREAMS AND DANCING, Douglas C. Jones  (originally published in 1984)

Quanah Parker

This is a sequel to Season of Yellow Leaf.  Based on the life of Quanah Parker, it is a fictional account of his efforts to save his people.  In 1984, it was the recipient of the Western Writers of America's Spur Award for best Western historical novel. 

FOOL'S CROW, James Welch (originally published in 1986) 


Dee Brown says this about James Welch's Fool's Crow: "Remarkable for its beauty of language...May be the closest we will ever come in literature to an understanding of what life was like for a western Indian." That is high praise indeed and even more meaningful since it comes from the author of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and who is also one of the most respected of all historians of the American West.

THE LAST CROSSING, Guy Vanderhaeghe (originally published in 2002)


The Last Crossing is a big, sprawling epic Western novel. Some critics have compared it to the Western novels of Cormac McCarthy. I can't agree. It is true that it does share some similarities with McCarthy's novels, but it isn't nearly as dark.

I think a better comparison would be Larry McMurtry. Both writers have a better sense of humor than McCarthy (who seems to have none at all), and their writing, though often characterized by scenes of graphic violence, also have moments of humor which help lighten the mood.

The Last Crossing is as almost good as McMurtry's best and far superior to his worst. 


Wednesday, July 15, 2015

SILAS MARNER by George Eliot

Dear Ms Park,

I finally finished reading Silas Marner.  Yes, I know you assigned it during my sophomore year in high school, but I didn't finish it until this past February.  I know I passed the test you gave us on the story and I even made a passing grade on the paper that I wrote about the story.  But I have to confess that it was Jake D.'s Classic Illustrated Comics version of the story that allowed me to make those grades.  Poor Jake.  Even after reading the comic book  from cover to cover he still failed both assignments.

Since I'm confessing and apologizing I suppose I should add one more thing.  I'm sorry you caught me that day in class reading a paperback copy of Erskine Caldwell's God's Little Acre that I had tucked inside my lit book when I was supposed to have been reading about Silas.  Now there was a writer.  Erskine Caldwell, I mean.  He could tell a story and, unlike Silas Marner, things happened in his books.
I had just gotten to a really interesting scene in this one when you caught me, the one with Darlin' Jill and the albino.  I can still see your hand dart across my shoulder and snatch the book away.  And then with everybody in the class looking, and while you held the book between your thumb and forefinger like it was a dead mouse, you looked at me and said one word, "Trash." Boy, was my face red.  I never did know if you were talking about the book or me -- or both.

But in my defense, neither I nor any other fourteen-year old boy should have been required to read Silas Marner, unless, of course, the goal was to instill a hatred of reading.  I say this as someone who always loved to read from the time that he first learned to read.  Discounting comic books, poor old Jake, on the other hand,  despised reading and had never read an entire book in his whole life.  He might have been enticed to read about the Three Musketeers or Robin Hood or Huck Finn, but never Silas Marner.
One of the problems that I had at first with the story was the fact that you told us that the author's name wasn't really George Eliot.  I remember thinking that I didn't blame him for not using his real name.  I wouldn't have either.  But then you told us that George's real name was Mary Ann Evans!  Well, as far as I was concerned that made George a lot more interesting than Silas.

I also remember you telling us that Eliot/Evans' most famous quote was: "It is never too late to be what you might have been."  Even at age fourteen, I found that to be profound and inspiring, much more so than the few pages I read in Silas Marner.  But I recently discovered that the quote does not appear in anything that she wrote and that there is no evidence that she ever said it. I am no longer inspired, just disappointed.

But, as I say, I finally read the whole story.  Here's my review: "It was better than I expected."

By the way, if you read my copy of God's Little Acre, the one you never returned, I bet you found it to be better than you expected, too.

Your former student,

Sunday, July 12, 2015

YOU HAVE SEEN THEIR FACES by Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White

The sharecropping system was born of the plantation system, and the new was anything but an improvement over the old. The old produced numerous families of wealth who developed a culture that was questionable. The new concentrated wealth in the hands of a few families who are determined that no culture shall exist. -- Erskine Caldwell, You Have Seen Their Faces (Viking Press, 1937)

The idea for this book originated with Erskine Caldwell, who wanted "to show that the fiction I was writing was authentically based on contemporary life in the South." Needing a photographer to accompany him on a tour of the South to document through words and pictures the lives of southern tenant farmers, his agent suggested Margaret Bourke-White, already famous for her photos that had appeared in Fortune and Life.

During the summer of 1936 and early 1937, the two traveled from South Carolina to Arkansas interviewing and photographing poor white and black tenant farmers and their families.

Historian Alan Trachtenberg writes in the introduction of my copy of the book that when it was first published that it "struck viewers as a new kind of book, one in which pictures appeared on an equal basis with words" and that through Caldwell's prose and Bourke-White's images it can be viewed as "a long-lost moment of artistic protest against economic injustice and suffering" and that "whatever shortcomings new readers may find in the book, its evidence of a passion for justice joined with a passion for artistic communication makes an irresistible claim on our respect." As such, it was very much considered to be radical for its time.

Readers then and now have been confused by Caldwell's fiction. While he claimed to sympathize with the poor sharecroppers and their families, he nevertheless seemed to be poking fun at them in his novels. Readers searching for stories about the suffering of the noble poor during the Great Depression had to look elsewhere. The poor in Caldwell's novels were anything but noble.

So, what was his personal opinion of poor sharecroppers? And who did he really blame for their poverty and their ignorance?

The answer to those questions may not be clear in his novels, but he makes it crystal clear in this book. It was the landowners, he wrote, "who are to be held responsible, and in the end to be called upon to answer for the degeneration of men as well as the rape of the soil in the South."

Conversely, the sharecroppers, the people who shared in the risk, but not the control, "are the wasted human beings whose blood made the cotton leaves green and the blossoms red. To the cost of raising cotton add the value of lives."

Many of the Bourke-White photos that appear in the book can be viewed at the link below along with some that appeared in Agee and Evans' Let Us Now Praise Famous Men:

Erskine Caldwell
Margaret Bourke-White

Tuesday, July 7, 2015


"In the summer of 1949, television sets were large and television screens were small; wrestling, quiz shows and test patterns dominated the air waves, and Milton Berle was the undisputed king of the medium.  Onto that range rode television's first cowboy hero, Hopalong Cassidy, on Friday evening, June 24.  During the years that followed nearly two hundred horse operas galloped into countless millions of American living rooms." -- Gary A. Yoggy, Riding the Video Range: The Rise and Fall of the Western on Television

Hoppy and Topper

Yep.  Hoppy was the first of many Western heroes who would come to dominate TV programming.  Just three months later he was joined by the masked rider of the plains, The Lone Ranger.  Unlike Hoppy, this hero originated on radio.  True, he had been the subject of two chapter serials made by Republic, but had never been a regular movie series hero.  But he would enjoy great success on TV and after his network run, syndication would allow him to ride the range for many more years.

Gene Autry and Roy Rogers were the only two B-Western movie cowboys to surpass Hoppy in popularity.  And a year after Hoppy made his TV debut, Autry joined him on the small screen and a year after that Rogers made the transition.

Autry's Flying "A" Productions not only produced his own series, but was also responsible for launching four other series that were set in the West: Annie Oakley (1954 premier; starring Gail Davis); Buffalo Bill Jr. (1955 premier; starring Dick Jones); and even a series starring Autry's horse, The Adventures of Champion (1955 premier; starring Champion, of course, but featuring Ricky North and Jim Bannon).

Better than those three, however, was The Range Rider, which premiered in 1951, starring Jack Mahoney (for now; the name would change) as the Range Rider and Dick Jones as Dick West. 

"....and Dick West, All-American boy."

Each episode opened to the strains of "Home on the Range," followed by scenes of The Range Rider (Mahoney) mounting his buckskin horse, Rawhide, and galloping after a runaway stagecoach whose driver had been wounded.  Mahoney leaps from his horse onto the stage.  Then there is a scene of Dick West (Jones), the All-American boy, leaning out of the saddle to fire his six-shooter underneath the neck of his galloping pinto, Lucky.  While all this is occurring, an announcer is intoning the above lines.

Well, it would help if you could see all of that.  And you can, if you click on the picture below.

It is obvious in the program's intro that Mahoney is doing his own stunting.  And why not, he was one of the greatest stuntmen of all time, ranking with such notables as Yakima Canutt, Davey Sharpe, Cliff Lyons, Tom Steele, and Chuck Roberson.  In fact, he was even capable of performing stunts that were even beyond the capabilities of that inestimable group. 

His young sidekick, portrayed by native Texan Dick Jones (1927-1914), was no slouch either when it came to the action scenes.  A former child actor, billed at age six as "The World's Youngest Trick Rider," he excelled at horsemanship and like Mahoney was able to perform his own stunts. 

Mahoney (1919-1989) was born in Chicago, but grew up in Davenport, Iowa.  Of French and Irish heritage, his birth name was Jacques Joseph O'Mahoney.  He entered the University of Iowa where he participated in several varsity sports.  When WW II began, however, he left school and enlisted in the Marine Corps, eventually becoming a fighter pilot.

After the war, Mahoney moved to Los Angeles where he broke into the movie business as a stuntman.  He would eventually appear in over 200 movie and TV productions as a stuntman or actor or both.  Tall (6-4) and lanky, he was a perfect stunt double for actors such as Gregory Peck, Errol Flynn, Randolph Scott, and Rod Cameron.  In some of the films he also was given supporting roles, usually as a villain.

In the late '40's, billed as Jacques O'Mahoney, he signed on with Columbia Pictures, where he became the stunt double for the studio's long-time B-Western star, Charles Starrett.  By this time, Starrett was portraying a character called the Durango Kid.  Since Durango wore a mask it was possible for Mahoney to do all the stunts without anyone being the wiser.  It also made it appear that Starrett, approaching age fifty, was becoming more athletic as the years went by.

Charles Starrett as The Durango Kid

Jacques O'Mahoney as The Durango Kid

"I certainly had the best stuntman.  Jocko was just beautiful.  He was like a cat." -- Charles Starrett

"Columbia left the Starretts up to me.  I'd walk around the location and find interesting things to do, and they would plain just write them into the script." -- Jacques O'Mahoney

Mahoney was also given featured roles in these films and it was said that he was being groomed to take over the series from Starrett who was contemplating retirement.  However, it was almost the end of the B-Western, its demise hastened by the popularity of Hoppy, Roy, Gene, and the Lone Ranger, all of whom could be watched for free on TV.  Instead of continuing with a new star, the studio decided to pull the plug on the series in 1952. 

Mahoney did star in three chapter serials made by Columbia, all Westerns.  But by that time serials were also rapidly losing their audience to television and soon thereafter they too disappeared from movie screens.   

In the final years of his movie career, Autry's B-Westerns were independently produced by his Flying "A" production unit, but were released through and distributed by Columbia Pictures.  It was this association that made Autry aware of Mahoney and led him to use him in a number of his films as both an actor and a stunt double.  Therefore, when Autry decided to launch The Range Rider series in 1951, he knew who he wanted to play the role.  However, he did request that Jacques O'Mahoney change his name to Jack Mahoney.

He agreed, for now.

With the exception of the anthology series, Death Valley Days (1952 premier), all the early TV Western series shared in common the fact that they, like the B-Western movies that they were replacing, were aimed at a juvenile audience.  Hoppy, Roy, and Gene portrayed the same characters on television that had appealed to juvenile audiences in the movie theaters and the TV Lone Ranger was very much the same character that had attracted juvenile listeners during its long tenure on radio.

It was a winning formula for now, and Autry and his Flying "A" Productions staff did not intend to drastically depart from that formula as it prepared to launch its other TV series.  However, since the cast of one series was headed by a female and another by a horse, there was at least some new ground being broken.  And although The Range Rider series was produced with that formula in mind, it did differ in some respects from the other Western series of that period. 

For example, there was the hero's sidekick.  During the B-Western movie era it became mandatory that the hero have a sidekick, somebody to offer humor, since it wasn't considered dignified for the actions of the hero to be a laughing matter.  The sidekick was nearly always older than the hero, too.  If, however, the sidekick was young, he would also have to be the one who wooed the ladies, because that was also out of bounds for nearly all the heroes.

Dick Jones, as Dick West, filled the bill.  Although he was twenty-four years old when the series began, because of his small stature (5-7) and boyish looks, he easily passed for the nineteen-year old that he portrayed.  His character also had an eye for the ladies.  The fact that Mahoney towered over Jones made it easy to believe that he was much older and more mature than his young friend, while in fact he was only eight years his senior.

As mentioned earlier, Jones had been a trick rider at age six.  He ended up in California due to performing in a rodeo that also featured the old cowboy, Hoot Gibson.  After watching Jones perform, Hoot told the boy's mother that her boy should be in the movies.  She thought that was a good idea and she and her young son headed to Hollywood.  After arriving, Dickie Jones, as he was billed, became a very busy little actor.

The young actor's most famous movie role was one in which he wasn't even seen on the screen.  It happened in 1940 when at age ten he provided the voice of Pinochio in the Disney animated feature of the same name.

As a sidekick, Jones was responsible for more than humor or the romantic angle.  Unlike many of the other Western sidekicks, he could handle the action and thus was able to chip in and provide the support the Range Rider needed to best the baddies.


I have to admire the actor holding the pistol.  He knows that a big galoot is about to jump on his back, but he can't even flinch.

The hero was different, too.  His horse wasn't a white or black stallion and there was no fancy bridle or saddle.  He wore buckskins and his belt and holster were as plain as could be.  Nor did he sport fancy boots and spurs.  He didn't even wear boots; he wore moccasins.  Perhaps that was to look different, but it was also because that particular footwear made it easier to perform stunts.

He was unconventional in another way, too.  He rarely mounted or dismounted his horse in a conventional fashion.  He nearly always created some little piece of business in making his mounts and dismounts even when the horse was at a standstill, and did so with an effortless leonine grace.

Seventy-nine episodes were filmed in 1951-1953.  The show didn't end there; it went into syndication and ran for many years afterwards.  

When Gene Autry decided to produce a new series to be called Buffalo Bill Jr, he did so with Dick Jones in mind to portray the lead character.  Forty-two episodes were filmed and were aired in 1955.  Jones continued to act throughout the '50's before calling it quits to pursue a career in business.

Buffalo Bill Jr.
Meanwhile, one final time Mahoney changed his name.  He now became Jock Mahoney, though his friends always called him Jocko.  After filming ended on The Range Rider, he went on to star in a number of Western features, mainly at Universal.  But he also realized one of his fondest dreams when he became the thirteenth actor to portray Tarzan.  And it almost killed him.

Back in 1949, he had auditioned to replace Johnny Weissmuller in the role.  It was not to be, however, for the role went to Lex Barker instead.

But now at age forty-two for the first film and forty-four for the second, he became the oldest actor to ever portray the character.  But that wasn't the problem.  On location during the second filming, he battled dysentery, dengue fever, and pneumonia.  His weight plummeted, which became apparent to movie viewers, and yet he persevered to the end and finished the film.

"I loved the role of Tarzan because it was such a distinct challenge. I remember being 40 feet up in a tree, sunburned as hell. And I thought to myself, 'What is a 42-year-old man doing 40 feet up in a tree, getting ready to swing out over a bunch of thorn bushes that if you ever fell into you would be cut to ribbons and damned near killing myself to get up there?' So I laughed and thought, 'Well now, who wouldn't want to play Tarzan??!'" -- Jock Mahoney