Thursday, December 31, 2009

Pale Rider

This 1985 film, produced, directed, and starring Clint Eastwood, pleasantly surprised me. I had watched part of one of his spaghetti Westerns but couldn't see it through to the end, and didn't particularly care for Unforgiven when it came out (I should watch it again) so I wasn't sure what to expect from Pale Rider. But with a character named Preacher at its core, I had to see it!

This Preacher resembles Robert Donner's Preacher (Never Trust an Honest Man) in that he also has a mysterious background and can shoot real well. He rides into a mining camp--Sacramento is mentioned but the movie was at least partially filmed in the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho, and looks beautiful--after saving a gold miner from a severe beating in town. The prospector, played by Michael Moriarty, is looking after a woman and her daughter, and Preacher ends up staying with them for a while. He protects the prospectors from a greedy mine owner who owns both the town and the surrounding land and wants the canyon where the miners work for his own, and won't stop until he gets it.

Pale Rider captures the details of life in a mining camp exceedingly well: the hardships of mining, the joy of finding a gold nugget, what living in a cramped cabin with few luxuries is like, as well as the antagonism of small-time miners versus a large, more industrial-oriented mine and its workers who are destroying the land in their search for gold. There are predictable plot turns but the acting is excellent. In one scene in the second half of the movie, the greedy landowner bullies one of the miners who has come to town into doing a dance and of course that reminded me of Kid being forced to do the jig in The McCreedy Bust: Going, Going, Gone. But what happens after the miner does the dance is very different from what Kid did.

The final showdown in Pale Rider is classic Western fare. The last few scenes of the movie echo a very famous Western but I don't want to spoil it for anyone by revealing which movie it is. I invite readers to post a comment and guess!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Sam's Wild West Christmas

This children's book, written by Nancy Antle and illustrated by S.D. Schindler, was published in 2000 by Dial Books for Young Readers. At forty pages, Sam's Wild West Christmas is a quick read. The ISBN is 0-8037-2199-4.

The plot is simple, which is appropriate for a book aimed at children in first and second grade. Sam and Rodeo Rosie, who first appeared in Sam's Wild West Show, by the same author, are travelling home when they come upon a train that has been robbed by outlaws. They track the outlaws to an isolated cabin where they are holding a large man in a red suit hostage, while the rest of the entertainers put on a show for the train crew and passengers. Sam and Rodeo Rosie use their rodeo skills to capture the outlaws, free the man in red and his strange-looking "horses," and rescue the passengers' presents that the outlaws had stolen. They return to the train and everyone is happy.

Although the plot deals with two train robbers, these outlaws are nothing like Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry. There is lots of action in the story; the text is full of Christmas allusions both obvious and subtle; there are some fun anachronistic touches; and amusing watercolor drawings. Anyone looking for a Christmas story with an Old West flavor may find Sam's Wild West Christmas just the book to read.

Author's website:

Friday, December 25, 2009

Rocky Mountain

I never knew that one of my favorite actors was in Westerns! And talk about a connection to ASJ: Robin Hood himself, Errol Flynn that is, starred in several Westerns. Rocky Mountain is the first one I saw, though the last Western Flynn made, and I'll definitely watch his others as Flynn was great in this 1950 black and white movie.

The film has an unusual beginning for a Western, which I won't spoil by describing. Flynn is the leader of a group of Confederate soldiers in California, who are cleverly introduced to the audience as they ride on horseback to fend off an attack by Shoshone Indians. A small dog also has a recurring role, which I found wearisome. The main connection of this movie to ASJ is Slim Pickens (the sheriff in The Man Who Murdered Himself, The Day They Hanged Kid Curry, The Strange Fate of Conrad Meyer Zulick; as well as bartender Mike in Exit from Wickenburg). This is the first film he made--after a successful rodeo career--and he plays one of the soldiers in Flynn's band. Pickens is recognizable only by his voice; in appearance, he is much thinner, younger-looking, of course, and has a mustache. His character's name is Plank.

The plot of Rocky Mountain revolves around what happens after Flynn and his soldiers rescue a stagecoach from the Indian attack, and then have to deal both with the Indians who want revenge and with US Cavalry soldiers who end up their prisoners when trying to rescue the Cavalry officer's fiance, who was on the stage. Most of the movie, which was filmed in New Mexico, takes place on top of a mesa (hence, the title). The ending of the movie is just as unusual as its beginning.

Sidenotes: The sound of rifles slowly being cocked was very effective in creating suspense at one point during the movie. About fifty minutes in, characters talk about poker and the analogy reminded me of dialog in fanfiction stories. There is also a scene in the second half of the movie where Indian drums are played as the background music, and I find it interesting that in Westerns, white people are always so afraid when they hear that sound.

There is an audio commentary by Flynn biographer Thomas McNulty that is well worth listening to. At one point, he talks about the actors in Rocky Mountain and gives a short biography of Slim Pickens, which is very interesting. There are several other bonus features: a) a newsreel about flooding, but there was no sound so I have no idea where it occurred; b) a cartoon about animals, in color; c) an interesting short drama about the conflict between miners and farmers, in black and white; d) another, in color, called "Wells Fargo Days;" and e) another black and white mini-feature called "Trial by Trigger."

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Far Country

I'm beginning to wonder how many times Walter Brennan played a cowboy on a cattle drive! In The Far Country (1955), he and James Stewart are partners in a venture to drive a herd of cattle from Seattle to Skagway, Alaska, to Dawson, Canada, because beef is selling for a high price in the Klondike Gold Rush town.

What's interesting in the beginning of the movie is that the cattle are loaded onto a ship for the journey from Seattle to Skagway. Along the way, they encounter numerous problems. Sound familiar? Yep, I thought of 21 Days to Tenstrike, too. There's a corrupt lawman/judge and the partners meet a mysterious woman and a French-speaking girl, all of whom have major roles in The Far Country.

After the men arrive in Dawson, the plot takes a turn and reminds me, at times, of Night of the Red Dog, in that Jeff and Ben are mining gold in order to get enough money to buy themselves a spread in Utah, where they plan to spend the rest of their lives in comfort. There's also a scene straight out of the Pilot: When Jeff is in a saloon getting a drink, his adversary the "lawman" slides a gun down the length of the bar; Jeff is supposed to take it but someone persuades him not to reach for it.

One of the problems is that Jeff Webster (Stewart) is accused of murder right after he boards the ship to Skagway but, unlike Kid, he has friends who hide him. Ben Tatum (Brennan) tells Jeff they're on another cattle drive with problems--that sure does sound familiar! And then a comment is made that "trouble seems to follow" Jeff--that sounds familiar, too! There's a scene I find very interesting because it quotes prices for food and cattle; I don't know if they're accurate or not but Ben brings a plate of beef and potatoes to Jeff and says it cost $5.00, at which Jeff expresses surprise. Ben then says that beef in Dawson is bringing $1.00/pound a hoof and more than $10/pound when dressed.

A note about the cinematography: Throughout much of The Far Country it looked to me like the background was done in matte shots but according to the closing credits, the movie was filmed in Jasper National Park, in the Canadian Rockies. Well, the transfer to DVD clearly leaves something to be desired because I would never have thought the background scenery was on location if I hadn't been told.

Some trivia: Jeff comes from Wyoming. The corrupt lawman character was modeled after Soapy Smith, who resided in Skagway for a while. A minor character is named Gant. Bud Westmore did the make-up. This is a Universal film.