Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Naked Spur

This 1953 movie, which was filmed in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Writing, Story or Screenplay, bears a passing resemblance to The Bounty Hunter in that it's about a man who has captured an outlaw and is determined to bring him in no matter what happens along the way.

Howard Kemp, the bounty hunter, is played by James Stewart. He pays an old prospector to join him and a dishonorably discharged soldier attaches himself to the pair (played by Millard Mitchell and Ralph Meeker, respectively). When they find outlaw Ben Vandergroat, played by Robert Ryan, they discover that he is accompanied by Lina Patch (played by Janet Leigh), the daughter of one of Vandergroat's accomplices. This is the entire speaking cast of The Naked Spur and the rest of the movie is about the interplay between the characters as they travel back to Abilene, Kansas, where Kemp intends to turn Vandergroat over to the law and claim the substantial reward on him. There is plenty of action and drama and adventure as the movie unfolds.

Vandergroat reminded me, vaguely, of Heyes because he was constantly using his silver tongue in attempts to talk himself free. With very little effort, he was able to sow discord among his captors by exploiting their weaknesses. But in one very important respect, he was completely different from Heyes--Vandergroat was on his way to Abilene to face a murder charge, and everyone knew he was guilty.

I found it interesting that the prospector and soldier could just, more or less on a whim, decide to pick themselves up and follow a complete stranger on a journey halfway across the country, just because they hoped to share in the reward. I can't imagine something like that happening nowadays, and the fact that it seemed plausible in The Naked Spur only shows how much American society has changed in the past 140 years or so.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

An Outlaw Thanksgiving

This children's book, by Caldecott Medal winner Emily Arnold McCully, is a fictional account of a Thanksgiving dinner hosted by Butch Cassidy in the mid-1890s.  Published in 1998, it is based on fact and there is a detailed author's note at the end of An Outlaw Thanksgiving that provides information about Butch Cassidy and other real-life participants in the holiday meal, the railroads of the time period and how people regarded them, and train travel in the late nineteenth century.

The plot describes the journey west of Clara who, with her mother, is travelling by train to meet her father in California. On the prairie, their train becomes snowbound and sleds appear to take the passengers to nearby hotels to wait until the train is plowed out. A fellow passenger, kindly Mr. Jones, invites Clara and her mother to join him on the sled he has hired. Unbeknownst to the ladies, Mr. Jones takes them to Brown's Hole, where Butch Cassidy, going by the name Bob, is hosting Thanksgiving. Clara eventually recognizes the outlaw and Clara has to decide if she should reveal what she knows.

An Outlaw Thanksgiving is a quick, pleasurable read for elementary school-aged children. The many watercolor illustrations by the author effectively capture the spirit of the story and there is a map showing the routes of various railroads across the United States. The author visited Brown's Hole in Utah to research her story and adults interested in the Old West will also enjoy this work of historical fiction.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Winchester '73

Now I know why I like Jimmy Stewart so much--he had the same birthday as me! I found that out after watching this movie, because after listening to the interview he did as a bonus feature, I wanted to learn more about him. In Winchester '73, he stars as a man who wins a special rifle, the eponymous Winchester 1873, in a shooting contest, the end of which brought to mind the scene in the Pilot where Kid shoots two bullets at once.

While Stewart's character, Lin McAdam, doesn't quite do that, he does demonstrate an equally impressive feat of shooting. The referee for the contest is Will Geer (Seth in Smiler with a Gun, another episode with a shooting contest), playing Marshal Wyatt Earp when he was a lawman in Dodge City, Kansas. But this Earp is very different from the one portrayed in Which Way to the O.K. Corral?, played by Cameron Mitchell.

However, things go downhill for Lin when the rifle is stolen. He and his sidekick spend the rest of the movie trying to recover the weapon, which passes through several hands in a series of adventures. One person who acquires the rifle for a brief time is Rock Hudson, playing an Indian! Another actor is a US Cavalry sergeant who was at Gettysburg (as mentioned in Stagecoach 7 by LQ Jones).

There is an on-going conflict between Lin and a man named Dutch Henry Brown which is finally explained and resolved at the end of Winchester '73. Shelley Winters plays a sort-of love interest. One aspect of the movie that I especially appreciated was the lack of continual background music; only at certain points was music heard and that made it very effective.

A few other notes: There is a high stakes poker game, but I do not think Heyes would ever be caught playing for the stakes in this game. There is also a remuda in Winchester '73, just like in 21 Days to Tenstrike, but it was only after watching this film that I learned that the word refers to the string of horses a cowboy uses and not the place where they are corralled for the night.

And, when not riding horses, people are shown using stagecoaches for transportation, in particular, Butterfield stagecoaches. Since their stages are frequently seen in ASJ, I looked up the company and included a couple links for further information below. This is a Universal picture and I kept trying to find locations in the movie that were also used in ASJ, until I heard in the interview that it was filmed mostly in Arizona.

In his interview, Stewart is asked about working with Will Geer and his response is interesting. He also has some very interesting comments about the advantages of working under contract for a movie studio, which contrasted with what I've read of Pete's thoughts on the subject. Although it is not my favorite Jimmy Stewart Western, I enjoyed Winchester '73. The bonus feature, the only one Stewart ever did, makes it all the more worth watching.

Information about Butterfield's, with many first-hand descriptions from passengers: