Sunday, January 16, 2011

Young Billy Young

This 1969 movie, directed by Burt Kennedy, had a lot of scenes that reminded me of ASJ episodes. But throughout the course of its 89 minutes, the music in Young Billy Young kept me from enjoying it as much as I might have otherwise as it was very jarring, very out of context--very 1960s in tone.

The opening scenes of a train making its way through the West reminded me of all the train scenes in ASJ that were used to show the passage of time and the movement of characters from one place to another. The train passes through what is apparently supposed to be a Spanish-speaking region, and for quite a while there is no dialog at all in the movie; when people do finally start talking, it's in Spanish. Suddenly, a group of men are lined up against the wall of a church and another group of men who look like soldiers executes them, in an obvious reminder of Kid's daydream or, rather, nightmare, in Miracle at Santa Marta.

Another early scene occurs in a saloon, where the title character, played by Robert Walker, gets into a gunfight and uses his fast draw to his advantage, reminding me of Kid in Exit from Wickenburg. But unlike Kid, Billy has no evident compunction about killing people. He escapes and encounters Ben Kane in the desert, played by Robert Mitchum. Kane is a lawman who travels around the West cleaning up lawless towns; he has a secret which is revealed in the second half of Young Billy Young.

They meet up with Paul Fix (Clarence in Night of the Red Dog), who plays a stagecoach driver and has an important part at the end of the movie. Angie Dickinson also stars in the film. There is a climactic gunfight that reminded me of Stagecoach Seven: two men inside a small building trying to hold off a much larger group that was shooting at them.

I think the plot is supposed to be serious but there are many slapstick and sort of silly moments in it, which lessened its impact. There were long periods without dialog, but they seemed to go on interminably instead of add to the suspense. Young Billy Young was filmed at Old Tucson Studios and, having been there, I recognized the location and some of the sets, which made it difficult for me to accept that the movie was set mostly in a lawless place called Lordsburg.

Plus, an early scene in the film occurs in Bisbee but it didn't at all resemble the Bisbee I have visited. However, the scenery was beautiful--lots of scenes in the desert filled with saguaro and ringed by mountains. Although several veterans of Westerns were associated with Young Billy Young, the movie just didn't resonate with me.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Medicine in the Old West

If you overindulged during the holidays and suffered from an upset stomach, perhaps you chewed some mint leaves or drank some mint tea to feel better. If so, you were practicing a health cure that was common in the 19th century. This folk custom, according to Medicine in the Old West: A History, 1850 – 1900, by Jeremy Agnew, was the origin of having an after-dinner mint.

This 252-page book, published in 2010 (ISBN 978-0-7864-4623-0) by McFarland, is both an excellent resource about medical care in the latter half of the nineteenth century and a fascinating look at how people in various walks of life managed to survive during that time period. Considering the general lack of knowledge about pathogens, sanitation, hygiene, and diet, it’s a wonder that so many people lived to adulthood. Of course, they didn’t live nearly as long as we do now—in 1880, life expectancy for men and women was around 40 years old.

There are twelve chapters in Medicine in the Old West. After providing a general introduction to medical beliefs, the training of physicians, and general living conditions experienced by various groups of people living on the American frontier in the first three chapters, the author then spends the next two chapters describing numerous “Common Diseases” such as cholera, dysentery, malaria, smallpox, tuberculosis, and others, and “Unmentionable Diseases,” which were sexually-transmitted diseases. Information about each disease is presented clearly and includes how they were treated. One chapter at the end of the book describes dentistry and ophthalmology in the Old West.

Perhaps the most interesting chapter in Medicine in the Old West is Chapter 6, entitled “Healing with Drugs.” Purging the bowels was a common treatment as doing so was thought to purify the body. As Agnew writes, “…neglect of the bowels was thought to send a person down the pathway to appalling disease.” (p. 98). Plummer’s pills, a mixture of jalop, antimony, and colomel, was one very powerful laxative. Exit from Wickenburg takes on a whole new meaning when I think of Jim Plummer now!

Later chapters in the book include information on folk remedies, patent medicines, and Native American healing practices. The heyday of medicine shows was from 1870 - 1920, and Dr. Snively and his daughter Cybele in Witness to a Lynching are archetypes of the pitchman, who was "...a distinguished older-looking man dressed in a frock coat and top hat..." who sometimes "...conferred the title of 'Doctor' on himself..." (p. 193), and the entertainer who sang and danced and then sold the show's product.

Chapter 8, "From Sawbones to Surgeons," deals with common injuries and how they were treated. According to Medicine in the Old West, infection almost always occurred after surgery, due to the fact that surgical tools were not sterilized before use and because doctors did not understand how infection could be prevented until the 1870s and 1880s and even then, many did not take preventive measures when they operated on patients. One section in this chapter describes the use of anesthetics. Four and a half pages are devoted to describing how gunshots and arrow wounds were treated. As in other parts of this book, Agnew intersperses medical information with historical accounts of people who were shot and the doctors who treated them, often quoting from primary sources; these eyewitness descriptions offer readers a sense of how difficult life really was at that time. After reading this part of the book, it is obvious that Heyes was exceptionally lucky in The Fifth Victim.

Another chapter in Medicine in the Old West describes several different job occupations and the hazards that arose from that work. Working in a mine, in a mill, and on the railroad are extensively covered. The section on dynamite (pgs. 160 – 165) is very revealing: Kyle Murtree had to be very brave and not nearly as, well, stupid, as he is often made out to be; otherwise, there is no way he would have survived so long using such a dangerous explosive.

A glossary; two appendices: a list of drugs commonly used between 1850 - 1900, and a description of what a doctor's bag typically contained; along with endnotes, an extensive bibliography, and an index round out Medicine in the Old West.

Contributing a beneficial counterpoint to how gunfights and illness are portrayed in movie Westerns and TV shows, and as an essential reference for writers of Western fiction, Medicine in the Old West: A History, 1850 – 1900 is a must-read for anyone interested in the reality of medical care during this time period.

Publisher's website for the book: