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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Sunday, March 6, 2016


DOUGLAS C. JONES (1924-1998).
I find it difficult to understand why some western novelists are so fortunate to have many of their books and stories make their way to movie and TV screens, while other writers often just as talented, or maybe even more so, rarely, if ever, see their work adapted to film.

There is no doubt that timing is a factor. Writers such as Zane Grey, Ernest Haycox, and Luke Short, for example, were turning out novels at a time when western movies were extremely popular and were annually produced by the hundreds.  In the case of Grey all of his western novels were filmed, most of them more than once, though in some cases only the title of the story survived the screenplay.

On the other hand, the stories of a few other writers -- Louis L'Amour and Larry McMurty come to mind -- have made their way to the screen even at a time that fewer and fewer westerns were being filmed.  True, most of the L'Amour stories were filmed as made-for-TV movies, but they were filmed.

Then there is the late Elmer Kelton, who was a prolific writer of popular western novels, some of which were acclaimed by critics and won prestigious awards. And yet only one of them, The Good Old Boys, was ever filmed, and that as a TV movie with Tommy Lee Jones as producer, director, and star.

And that brings us to Douglas C. Jones.  

First of all, it would be a misnomer to call him a "western novelist."  While it is true that most of his novels were set in the West, they were far from the formulaic stories produced by the likes of L'Amour, Haycox, Short, and company, or even Kelton.  While Kelton did write a few novels that approached literary status, most of them would have to be classified as formulaic, which is not to say that they weren't well-written and enjoyable.  Jones' novels, on the other hand, were anything but formulaic.  They weren't really "western novels" as we think of the term, but were in reality historical novels that happened to be set in the West.

But like Kelton, only one of Jones' stories has been adapted to film and is likewise a TV movie. Jones' very first novel, The Court-Martial of George Armstrong Custer, was produced as a Hallmark TV movie in 1977, and is thus far the first and last Jones story to be filmed.  

He was born in 1924 in the small northwestern Arkansas town of Winslow, located about half-way between the larger towns of Fort Smith and Fayetteville. After graduating from high school in Fayetteville in 1942, he was drafted into the army and served in the Pacific Theater.

After his discharge, he attended the University of Arkansas, graduating with a degree in journalism in 1949.  He then returned to the army where he served another twenty years.  But during that time he attended the University of Wisconsin where he was awarded a master's degree in mass communications.

Having grown up in northwestern Arkansas just across the Arkansas River from the former Indian Territory, it is only natural that Jones developed a deep and abiding interest in the history of the Indian frontier.  That interest led him to deal with the conflict between Indians and whites in his first book, a work of nonfiction, as well as his first three novels which followed.  And it was a subject that he would also return to in his later work.

While still in the military, his first book, The Treaty of Medicine Lodge, was published in 1966.  His only nonfiction book, it was a re-working of his master's thesis.  That might seem a strange thesis for a degree in mass communications until you read the book's subtitle: The Story of the Great Treaty Council as Told by Eyewitnesses.  The eyewitnesses were the newspaper correspondents such as Henry Stanley who were sent to cover the proceedings.

The above marker which sets in the town of Medicine Lodge, Kansas is somewhat of an over simplification of the treaty's impact, but it is correct in stating that it did not bring immediate peace.  There were several causes, but the chief one was the fact that Congress failed to follow through with its side of the agreement.

Retiring as a Lt. Colonel in 1968, he taught journalism for six years at Wisconsin, eventually devoting full-time to his writing. Fifty-two years old when his first novel was published, he would write sixteen more, with the last being published posthumously.  His historical novels range all the way from the American Revolution to the Great Depression.  There is also an eighteenth novel, set in World War II, that has as of yet not been published.  It would seem a natural fit for a career soldier who served in that conflict, but with the passing of almost two decades since his death, it doesn't seem likely that it will ever see the light of day.

According to Jones, the premise of his first novel was born as a result of a discussion with a friend about what Custer's fate might have been had he survived the Battle of the Little Bighorn.  

It was Jones' opinion that Custer would have faced court-martial charges related to his leadership and conduct during the battle.

In the alternate history that resulted (the only foray that Jones made into that genre), charges are brought against Custer and witnesses are called to testify for and against him.  The witnesses present conflicting views of the man and confusing testimony about the events surrounding the battle that in many ways reflect the confusion that still surrounds the man and his actions to this day.  It is through the testimony of the eyewitnesses that the battle is recreated.

View from "Last Stand Hill" with Little Bighorn valley in the distance marked by trees along the bank of the river.  It was in the valley that the large villages of the Lakota (Sioux) and Northern Cheyenne were hidden.
The verdict?  I'm not at liberty to say on the grounds that I would be guilty of spoiling a good story.  But I do recommend it to anyone who is interested in the intriguing possibilities that the book offers.  I should also mention that it won the Western Writers of America's spur award for Best Western Novel.

"This is a fantasy which needs no apology, for who among us has not been intrigued by the alternatives history never reveals." -- Douglas C. Jones, writing in the preface of The Court-Martial of George Armstrong Custer

Enhancing the pleasure of reading the book are the pencil and charcoal sketches of the principal characters that are included in my first edition copy. The artist is the author.  I forgot to mention that he was also a talented artist. And as a painter, he was able to describe and bring to life landscapes in a vivid fashion in his novels.  His sketches also appear in the first editions of several of his other books.

One critic wrote that Jones' abilities as a writer, journalist, historian, and painter represented "a happy amalgamation of talents."  And so they did.  Oh, I also forgot to mention that he played the upright bass in a jazz band.  I guess that was in his spare time.

"Countless movies and books have ... featured Custer.  Sometimes Custer is a hero; recently, more often, he's a villain, but never boring .... Both admirers and critics of Custer will find something in the book to support their points of view. -- William F.B. Vearey, The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable 

"This superb novel answers the question that everyone has asked: What would have happened to Custer had he lived?  Read it." -- Jessamyn West

The Film (Warner Bros. TV, 1977)  (NBC-TV).
DIRECTOR: Glenn Jordan; PRODUCER: Norman Rosemont; WRITERS: teleplay by John Gay based on novel by Douglas C. Jones; CINEMATOGRAPHER: Jim Kilgore

CAST: Brian Keith, James Olson, Blythe Danner, Ken Howard, Stephen Elliott, Dehl Berti, James Blendick, J.D. Cannon, Nicolas Coster, William Daniels, Richard Dysart, Anthony Zerbe

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