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October 15, 2016 BOOKLIST
Find more Reading the Screen
Westerns may own only a tiny piece of today’s publishing landscape, but patron demand in libraries remains steady, both for reprints and for new books by authors who can write ’em just as good as the old hands. Leisure Books’ new Classic Film Collection offers a fresh look at the works that inspired some of Hollywood’s most memorable westerns—and a chance to compare both versions. In some cases, the movies we remember were markedly different from their source material.
Destry Rides Again (1930), by Max Brand, tells the story of a hard drinker and habitual fighter, Harry Destry, who’s sent to prison for a crime he didn’t commit. After his release, when he returns home, he acts as though the spirit has been beaten out of him. But, in truth, his meek exterior conceals a raging furnace of hatred, and he soon begins systematically exacting revenge on the men who framed him and stole six years of his life. It’s the kind of revenge story that Brian Garfield might write (as in Death Wish and Hopscotch), and it is, deservedly, considered a classic of the genre.
On the other hand, here’s Destry Rides Again (1939), the movie directed by George Marshall. The film’s opening credits say it’s “suggested by” Brand’s novel, which is usually code for “this movie isn’t anything like the book,” and that’s certainly true here: the movie is a parody of the western genre. Destry—the surname, if not the actual character—is lifted from the novel and plunked down in a story about an ambitious saloon owner and a crooked mayor who, having done away with the sheriff, conspire to appoint the town drunk as a replacement, leaving them free to run the town unimpeded. But the new sheriff summons Tom (not Harry) Destry to be his deputy, figuring Destry, who has a reputation as a tough lawman, is just what the town needs.
When Destry, played by James Stewart, arrives, he turns out to be a gangly, soft-spoken, polite young fella who prefers wordplay to gunplay. Destry promptly gets himself in hot water with Frenchy, the saloon singer played with gusto by Marlene Dietrich (and spoofed, right down to the lisp, by Madeline Kahn in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles). Frenchy doesn’t appear in the book; neither do the crooked mayor, the saloon owner, and the town drunk. Marshall and his screenwriters have turned Destry into a detective; instead of being out for revenge (because, in this version, he was never framed or sent to prison), he’s out to find out who killed the previous sheriff. Think of him, with his deceptively polite mannerisms, his razor-sharp intellect, his refusal to carry a gun, and his never-ending supply of yarns about people he knows, as a sort of nineteenth-century Columbo.
Destry Rides Again, the movie, is rightly considered a classic. Well written and beautifully performed, it’s a lot of fun—Stewart, in particular, is a joy to watch. But the movie is a comedy, a long way from Brand’s dramatic story of retribution.
The Man from Laramie, by T. T. Flynn, was published in 1954. It, too, is a story of revenge, a common theme in the western genre. When Will Lockhart comes to Coronado, New Mexico, he’s got one thing on his mind: to find the man who sold the Apaches the rifles they used to gun down Lockhart’s young brother. It’s a classic setup, one man pitted against a town that doesn’t want him there. The key villains are Alec Waggoman, the nasty rancher; his son, Dave, the greedy heir; and Vic Hansbro, Alec’s foreman, the kind of guy you never turn your back on. And, lurking in the shadows, there’s Frank Darrah, the conniving, mercantile owner who’ll do anything to get his hands on Waggoman’s ranch, not to mention his beautiful niece, Barbara.
The movie adaptation, released in 1955, was the final collaboration between James Stewart and director Anthony Mann (they had already made some great films, such as Winchester ’73). It’s a faithful adaptation of the novel, with one major exception: the excision of one of the novel’s major characters. In the novel, Frank Darrah is a sort of puppet master, manipulating the story’s other villains. In the movie, he simply doesn’t exist.
But here’s the thing: if you watch the film without having read the book, you’ll never notice Frank’s absence. The screenwriters have cleverly reassigned Darrah’s key duties—in the movie, for example, Dave Waggoman is rather more villainous than he is in the book—seamlessly editing him out of the story. This simplifies the story, reducing the number of characters and villains, but it also adds depth. The relationship between Waggoman and his two subordinates, Dave and Vic, takes on Shakespearean overtones, with two young princes vying for the king’s favor.
Aside from the Darrah characterectomy, the film follows the book closely. Stewart is a perfect Will Lockhart: 15 years on from Destry, he’s more substantial, more mature, giving an emotionally charged performance that captures the sorrow and rage of Flynn’s character. Whole scenes and passages of dialogue are lifted off the page, and Mann, filming in CinemaScope, uses his wide screen to maximum effect. See, for example, the scene in which Stewart, spotting Waggoman on horseback, walks toward him: the camera tracks with Stewart, keeping always in front of him, the town and its people receding behind him (visually, one man set against a town). Mann frequently films his characters against panoramic backgrounds, too, firmly anchoring them in their surroundings: men of raw emotions in a raw landscape. It’s a masterful adaptation of the novel.
The panoramic backgrounds of The Searchers, John Ford’s 1956 film version of Alan LeMay’s 1954 novel, may be some of the most enduring in the public’s imagination. Set in Texas, but shot largely in Monument Valley on the Arizona-Utah border, the story is well known. Ethan Edwards (played by John Wayne) spends several years searching for his niece, Debbie, who was taken by Comanches after they raided the Edwards home, killing the rest of the family. Ethan is accompanied by young Martin Pauley (Jeffrey Hunter, with anguish written all over his face), who was taken in by the Edwards family when his own family was slaughtered by Indians.
The movie is remarkably faithful to the book—there are small changes here and there, but large chunks of the book remain virtually intact. Wayne plays Ethan (in the book he’s called Amos) exactly the way the character is written, as a weary former Texas Ranger whose hatred of Indians is a mixture of inherent racism and long experience: he’s seen a lot of scarred victims of Indian atrocities. Hunter (who would later be briefly cast as the lead in a new TV series called Star Trek) is wonderful as Martin, torn between his love for Ethan and his duty to protect Debbie from Ethan, who, he slowly realizes, isn’t on a rescue mission.
LeMay tells the story in close-up, focusing on the characters, their actions, and their words. Ford pulls back, setting the characters against a stark background of massive rocks and dusty hills, visually conveying the book’s relentlessness and the seeming futility of Ethan and Martin’s quest.
Like the novel, the movie is a story about life and death, and the hard decisions that sometimes must be made. We know Ethan intends to kill Debbie to save her from living as “the leavins of a Comanche buck,” but is Ethan planning a mercy killing or a murder? The movie doesn’t take an overt moral stand on the issue, but near the end, when we finally meet Debbie, played by Natalie Wood, the movie pushes us in a certain direction.
Wayne is brilliant in the film. He is large and imposing when the moment calls for it but also subtle and graceful (see how he conveys his love for his brother’s wife with an almost imperceptible look in his eyes). He is a man split almost in half: desperate to find the missing Debbie, yet terrified that he will find her, and of what he will have to do to her. The movie ends differently than LeMay’s novel, a decision surely made on the old you-don’t-kill-your-star principle, but it really doesn’t matter: the movie tells the same story and leaves you with the same haunted feeling inside.
Less successful, though still well worth a look, is John Huston’s 1960 adaptation of LeMay’s novel The Unforgiven (1957). The story is a reversal of The Searchers: here, the Zachary family is besieged by Kiowa warriors who are determined to take back Rachel, the Indian girl the Zacharys took in 17 years ago and raised as their own. But, while the book is tense and claustrophobic (many scenes are set in the family’s tiny “hole in the ground” home), the movie feels lethargic and aimless, with Huston concentrating too often and too long on his scenic vistas. Ford’s The Searchers jumps right into the story, but Huston’s The Unforgiven takes its time introducing the family and their surroundings. And their home looks, unlike LeMay’s dusty little soddy, like a veritable palace—perhaps because filming inside a dark, tiny, dirty set would have been difficult.
The novel’s central character is 24-year-old Ben Zachary, played in the movie by Burt Lancaster, nearing his mid-forties. He’s very good in the role, but you can’t help noticing he’s a guy in his mid-forties playing a guy in his mid-twenties. A pale, wispy Audrey Hepburn, who would have been about 30 at the time, plays Rachel. She, too, turns in a good performance, but physically she is unconvincing as a 17-year-old girl of Indian descent.
But while the texture of the movie is off, the subtext is dead on. The Unforgiven is a story of conflict—Indians against settlers, settlers against Indians, family against family—and Huston and his writer, Ben Maddow (he also wrote Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle), preserve that element of LeMay’s novel. More than most western films—more, even, than The Searchers—The Unforgiven makes explicit the racist views of its characters. Ben’s brother Cash, for example, would rather abandon the family to certain massacre than defend Rachel, the “red-hide nigger.” Cash, played by war hero-turned-actor Audie Murphy, offers the best performance of his career (incidentally, he also starred as Tom Destry in George Marshall’s 1954 remake of his own movie).
Cash in the movie is more overtly, hatefully racist than he is in the novel. It’s easy to suspect that Huston, who famously battled with the studio over the movie’s direction, took the character and used him for his own purposes. Given the timing of its release (at the height of the civil rights movement), the movie’s frank treatment of racism, and its use of LeMay’s hard-edged language, must have seemed daring. Today, the language in the movie hits the viewer like a slap across the cheeks. Huston may have stumbled with many aspects of the film, but he dug down to the core of LeMay’s story and extracted a powerful statement about racism, love, and honor, one that is perhaps more shocking today than it was at the time of its release.
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