Monday, September 4, 2023

Fort Apache - 1948 Movie

Movie Poster showing John Wayne and Henry Fonda at top, text in middle, and a scene from the movie at the bottom
Opening with shots of a stagecoach traveling through Monument Valley, viewers soon find out that Colonel Owen Thursday, one of the passengers, is on his way to assume command of Fort Apache.  It’s clear that he does not look forward to his new posting but the young woman accompanying him is pleased because she was not able to be with him while he was in Europe and can be now.  At a stage stop, they learn that news of his arrival has not yet reached the fort.  This is the first of many foreshadowing scenes in Fort Apache, an enjoyable if somewhat predictable film.
Henry Fonda plays Owen Thursday in this 1948 movie directed by John Ford.  Shirley Temple is his daughter Philadelphia, the young lady traveling with him in the stagecoach.  Glimpses of her persona as a child star percolate through her performance in Fort Apache as a headstrong woman unused to life in the West but for the most part, she is convincing as the daughter of an Army colonel.  John Wayne is a supporting character, Captain York, who repeatedly clashes with Colonel Thursday. York is the commanding officer of Sergeant O’Rourke, played by John Agar, who becomes Philadelphia’s love interest and was her husband in real life.
At one point Thursday states, “I’m not a martinet but I do want to take pride in my command.”  Which is emblematic since he says that as he dresses down his senior officers for not wearing their uniforms properly.  There are several conflicts between various groups of men in Fort Apache, especially between Thursday and York, and especially over how to handle the Apaches who have left the reservation they were forced onto.
The women at the fort – the wives of the soldiers stationed there and the Spanish-speaking servants – all seem to get along with each other, though.  Sprinkled throughout Fort Apache are several domestic scenes showing what their life was like at a frontier fort; at least, what it was like according to John Ford.
The plot of Fort Apache is both a “fish out of water” story and the story of one man’s hubris.  But the quality of acting elevates this 128-minute movie and makes it worth watching.  Colonel Thursday, who thinks he knows more than the seasoned soldiers who have been stationed at the fort far longer than him and who have dealt with the Apaches many times, forces the troops to engage in activities and battles the others know are foolhardy.
Just before the end, there’s a scene with journalists that reminded me of another John Ford movie, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, even though that film was shot many years later.  It made me wonder if the scene in Fort Apache was the inspiration for the famous quote from that movie.

Friday, August 11, 2023

Fighting Caravans - 1931 Movie

Fighting Caravans was made in 1931 and this black-and-white movie shows its age.  Based on a Zane Grey novel, it stars a young and very thin Gary Cooper.
Set during the Civil War, on-screen text at the beginning of Fighting Caravans explains that the term “fighting caravans” refers to wagon trains loaded with freight going to California.  As the movie progresses, the phrase takes on other meanings as well.
The plot of Fighting Caravans is basic: A diverse group of people are heading West and during their journey, they experience adventures and setbacks.  Gary Cooper plays Clint, a scout who got in trouble with the law after a night on the town and is facing a 30-day stint in jail.  Lily Damita, better known as the wife of Michael Curtiz and Errol Flynn, plays a Frenchwoman heading to California on her own.  The machinations of Clint’s two grizzled friends throw them together and from then on, the question is will they or won’t they stay together.
After a series of typical setbacks, including the lack of Army protection, a suspicious-acting trader, sober wives with drunk husbands, a stagecoach that’s attacked by Kiowa people, the travails of travelling through mountains covered in snow, runaway wagons, and a climactic attack by Kiowa and Comanches, the wagon train finally reaches California.  Throughout these adventures Clint’s friends, the two old-timers who raised him and also are scouts, act as both comic relief and narrators who advance both the plot of Fighting Caravans and the budding romance between Clint and the Frenchwoman.
Despite some proto-feminist comments by the Frenchwoman saying she can travel on her own and doesn’t need a man to aid her, it’s very obvious that Fighting Caravans was filmed when women were not treated equally and Indians (as they were called in the movie) were always the enemy.  The women on the wagon train had more sense than most of the men but their ideas were played for laughs.  The Native Americans never became full-fledged individual characters and were mostly seen as an unnamed horde.
The audio quality was poor and the continuous background music made it even more difficult to understand the dialog.  (If the Frenchwoman was ever named, I didn’t catch it.)  Fortunately, the movie was only 81 minutes long.  At least, that’s what the Netflix DVD says; other sources give the running time as 92 minutes.  Whatever the duration actually is, Fighting Caravans is a movie worth seeing only if you are a die-hard Gary Cooper fan.

Sunday, July 2, 2023

Young Guns - 1988 Movie


Young Guns is yet another Western which opens with a scene showing an ordinary main street in a nameless town that is suddenly interrupted by a violent action.  In the case of this 1988 movie, two men talking on the sidewalk hear a gunshot and see a youth running down the street.  Cut to the men rescuing the youth and taking him back to a ranch in their wagon.
So begins Young Guns, which tells the story of the Lincoln County War in New Mexico, although it was filmed at Old Tucson in Arizona.  Starring Emilio Estevez as Billy the Kid – although viewers don’t know that’s who the character is until about 30 minutes into the movie -- and several other well-known young actors of the 1980s and 1990s including his brother Charlie Sheen, Keifer Sutherland, and Lou Diamond Philips as Regulators, the film does a good job of showing the conflict from their viewpoint.
Early scenes in Young Guns reveal the friendly rivalry among the Regulators, the young men employed by John Tunstall (played by Terence Stamp) to work his ranch and protect it from outsiders, as well as how Billy does and does not try to fit in to the group.  One scene in particular makes clear one way he is different from some of the others: After dinner one evening, the boys take turns reading from a newspaper as Tunstall contentedly sits in a rocking chair.  He calls on Billy to read but Billy declines.  After being told he can either read now or leave the ranch in the morning, Billy acquiesces and reads far more fluently than the previous youth.  Tunstall is clearly pleased.
My impression was that Tunstall was trying to “civilize” his young workers.  He refers to them as the “jetsam and flotsam of society” and dispenses nuggets of wisdom as they do their chores around the ranch.  It’s a relatively peaceful, tranquil existence. 
But it doesn’t last.  In an altercation with a business rival, Tunstall is killed and the remainder of Young Guns is about how Billy and the Regulators attempt, first by legal means, to bring the murderers to justice.  However, things don’t go according to plan and they find themselves on the wrong side of the law.  Instead of chasing the bad guys, they are now the outlaws.
Billy’s true character is exposed as he repeatedly shoots people whom he believes are in his way of obtaining justice for Tunstall.  The other Regulators he rides with are at first angry with Billy, then scared about what his actions mean for them, and finally resigned that they are stuck with being labeled as his accomplices.  Billy seems to revel in the violence, unlike his companions, but they are unable to stop him.  As Young Guns progresses, their situation becomes more and more dire.
A side plot involves Doc Scurlock (played by Kiefer Sutherland), one of the Regulators, trying to rescue a Chinese woman who appears to be the property of a wealthy man who was an enemy of John Tunstall.  To the best of my knowledge, it’s not historically accurate but regardless of whether the purpose was to provide some romance or show the plight of Asian women in the Old West, it doesn’t detract too much from the main plot of Young Guns.
The climax of Young Guns involves the inevitable showdown between the Regulators and the men who opposed them and were behind the murder of John Tunstall.  It’s suitably action-filled and tense.  I won’t give anything away but will say that I disliked how the director (Christopher Cain) chose to film part of the ending.
Other stalwarts of Western movies who appear in Young Guns include Brian Keith and Jack Palance in supporting roles.  At 102 minutes, the movie never drags and even if it isn’t quite true to what really happened in the Lincoln County War, Young Guns is enjoyable viewing.

Friday, June 23, 2023

Doing Research at the Wyoming State Archives is Fun!

Sifting through 19th century documents and struggling to decipher old-fashioned handwriting might not be your idea of a fun time but I recently spent a week at the Wyoming State Archives doing just that and it was wonderful!  I stayed in a nice hotel with a kitchenette in Cheyenne, just off a highway that made it easy to drive to Laramie on the weekend. 
In this post, I’ll describe my trip to Wyoming and include a few of the photos I took.  You can see lots more photos on my Instagram account, PicturingTheWest, about each of the places I discuss here.  Cheyenne and Laramie are fun to visit but this post would be way too long if I wrote in detail about what I did when I was in Wyoming.
I’d been to the Wyoming State Archives several years ago when I first started working on my book about the Wyoming Territorial Penitentiary but at that time, I was just gathering general information.  Now that I have a clear vision for the book and have started writing it, I wanted to find information about specific aspects of the penitentiary and the inmates who were confined there.

Susan seated at a table and doing research at the Wyominng State Archives
Researching at the WY State Archives; note Elnora Frye's book on table

The staff at the Wyoming State Archives could not have been more helpful.  With their support, I was able to find a lot of the info I was looking for.  They also took the photo of me conducting research.  I spent Tuesday through Friday, 8:30am – 4:30pm, from the time it opened to when it closed, going through all the books and boxes of materials I’d identified as being of possible interest.  (On Monday, I arrived mid-morning after first picking up a rental car.)
However, there just wasn’t enough time to read everything from start to finish so I took photos and made scans of material I thought might be useful.  Tip: If you bring your own flash drive, you can make scans for free.  And although I brought my Sony camera with me, taking photos with my phone was much faster and easier (and also free).  Since I planned to use the photos only for research, and not publish them in the book, the quality of the images didn’t matter as long as I could read the text.
I also managed to squeeze in some sightseeing.  The Wyoming State Archives is located in downtown Cheyenne in an area with several other government buildings. One day, I walked over to the Capitol, which I hadn’t seen when I was there years ago.  Another day, I went to the Cheyenne Depot Museum, in the building that used to be the United Pacific Railroad depot.  I wanted to ask a question about the railroad but the person I was told could answer wasn’t there.
On Saturday I drove to Laramie, where the penitentiary is located, and had the honor of meeting Elnora Frye.  Elnora is the author of the Atlas of Wyoming Outlaws at the Territorial Penitentiary.  The book has been an invaluable reference for my project.  We talked for over 3 hours and it was a real pleasure hearing how she got started writing her book and how she found all the info.  Since she wrote it before the Internet existed, Elnora did everything offline.  I was very impressed!

View of the Wyoming Territorial Penitentiary as one facrs the entrance
View of the Wyoming Territorial Penitentiary
The same day, I visited the Laramie Plains Museum.  This was my fourth trip to Laramie but my first time to this museum.  It’s the former home of Edward and Jane Ivinson, prominent citizens of Laramie in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  I enjoy visiting house museums and this one has several pieces of furniture made by an inmate in the penitentiary that I wanted to see because I plan to include a short biography of him in my book.  I took a tour led by a very knowledgeable docent and then bought some souvenirs in the well-stocked gift shop.

Cabinet at the Laramie Plains Museum made by John Horth
The large cabinet was made by John Hjorth and is in the Laramie Plains Museum
After that, I drove out to see the Fort Sanders Guard House, on the outskirts of Laramie.  Fort Sanders was a military fort and before the penitentiary was built, local people convicted of crimes served time in the Guard House.  All that’s left now of the fort is a shell of the Guard House.  My book goes into much more detail about Fort Sanders and its connection to the penitentiary.

View of the Fort Sanders Guard House under a very overcast sky
All that's left of Fort Sanders is this Guard House
On Sunday, I drove to Laramie again and met with the site superintendent of the Wyoming Territorial Penitentiary.  I had met the previous superintendent but she retired so I wanted to meet her replacement.  We had a very productive meeting.  Then I took a guided tour of the prison and afterwards walked around again on my own.  Seeing the penitentiary never gets old, partly because there are changing exhibitions so I always learn something new each time I visit.
The Overland Trail, a major route for migrants moving West in the 19th century, passed near Laramie.  I drove the 13 or so miles out of town to see a historical marker acknowledging the trail; I briefly discuss the importance of the Overland Trail in my book.  The marker is just off the side of a two-lane road with an information plaque next to it.  Situated in the middle of nowhere in the undulating landscape with mountains in the distance, I tried to envision what it must’ve been like for people traveling in wagons across these high plains.  Turning my back to the cars whizzing by, I could just about imagine it.

Overland Trail historic marker and information board near Laramie
Overland Trail historic marker at left and information board about it at right
Driving from Cheyenne to Laramie and back on I-80, I passed 3 scenic sites of interest so I stopped to take a look.  They were the Tree in the Rock natural feature, the Abraham Lincoln Memorial Monument, and the Ames Monument.  I’ll be posting about each of these attractions on my Instagram account soon.
If you’d like to get updates about the progress of my book, I invite you to like and follow my Facebook page, where I’ll be sharing how things are going.  I’d love to see you there!

Thursday, June 8, 2023

The Deadly Companions - 1961 Movie

Image shows DVD cover of movie. Director Sam Peckinpah's name is at top, underneath is picture of 3 main actors looking serious. Movie title is in center of image and in small text below is a description of the film. At the bottom are the actors' names Brian Keith and Maureen O'Hara.

The Deadly Companions, based on the novel of the same name by A. S. Fleischman, is a short 92-minute movie from1961.  It was the first movie directed by Sam Peckinpah and stars Maureen O’Hara and Brian Keith.


As with many Westerns of this era, The Deadly Companions opens with a shot of a man, who turns out to be a Union solder, walking into a saloon in a nameless town.  He orders tequila, looks around and see a group of men playing cards, and then sees another man, accused of being a “five ace card player,” with a noose around his neck struggling to keep his footing. 


The soldier is about to save the other man when a young guy, with two saloon girls hanging on his arms, shoots the rope instead.  All three men quickly leave.  The young guy is Billy (played by Steve Cochran) and he was supposed to be looking out for his friend, the man he saved whose name is Turk (played by Chill Wills).  They’re Southerners so they call the soldier Yellowleg (played by Brian Keith).  


It looks like Billy and Turk were planning to rob the bank but Yellowleg by force of will convinces them to go to Gila City instead.  Is the name of that town a foreshadowing of the poison that is soon to overwhelm them all?  


They arrive in Gila City, where a group of boys are playing in the street and a lone boy is on the roof of a building playing a harmonica.  Yellowleg tells Turk to see to the horses and he and Billy enter the saloon to satisfy their thirst.  Yellowleg and Billy manage to get served but Turk is out of luck because it’s being transformed into a church and no liquor can be served until the service is over.  Turk insists, though, and gets his way.


The townspeople enter the saloon and sit on the benches set up for them, warily eyeing the strangers on the other side of the room.  A woman (played by Maureen O’Hara) and the boy who played the harmonica enter and the other women start gossiping about her morals, or lack thereof.


The reverend reminds all the men to remove their hats.  That’s a problem for Yellowleg who, for some unknown reason, refuses.  He leaves the saloon and goes to a doctor instead, who seems to recognize who he is.  Yellowleg asks about getting a bullet removed from his shoulder but when told he’d be laid up for a while, decides against the operation.  He does, however, tell the doc he’s in town to get revenge though doesn’t reveal any details.


After the church service ends, Billy forcibly kisses the woman the others were talking about.  She slaps him.  Billy and Turk prepare to rob the bank in that town but other bandits beat them to it.  In the mayhem that follows, someone is killed.


The remainder of The Deadly Companions is about revenge, redemption, and revelation.  The movie is a series of adventures where anything that can go wrong does, and even a good guy does bad things.


Filmed at Old Tucson Studios, its trademark three mountain peaks are visible about halfway through.  Maureen O’Hara and Brian Keith work well together and the final scenes of the movie are satisfyingly tense.  The Deadly Companions is certainly an apt description of the trio at the center of this taut, well-acted movie.


Wednesday, April 26, 2023

El Dorado - 1966 Movie

Image of movie poster for El Dorado listing John Wayne and Robert Mitchum as stars, with picture of actors underneath and other credits below the picture.

I’m not quite sure why this 1966, Howard Hawkes-directed movie is called El Dorado.  It certainly isn’t a gilded, gold-plated Oscar-worthy film.  In fact, it is sort of a mirror image of Rio Bravo, a pale sideways version of that much better movie.  I wrote about El Dorado in 2015 when I saw a special screening of it but now I'll post a detailed review.

Instead of being the sheriff as he was in Rio Bravo, in El Dorado John Wayne is the hired gun.  Instead of the alcoholic deputy that was played by Dean Martin in Rio Bravo, Robert Mitchum plays the alcoholic sheriff.  The gruff older lawman, who plays a bugle instead of a harmonica, is acted by Arthur Hunnicutt rather than Walter Brennan.  The young, na├»ve, fish-out-of-water character isn’t Ricky Nelson but a young James Caan, who was only 26 when this film was released.
An alternate title for this movie could be “The Adventures of Cole Thornton.”  After the opening credits, which are overlaid on paintings resembling those of Charles Russell but were in fact by Olaf Wieghorst, a noted painter originally from Denmark who also acted the role of Swede, a gunsmith in El Dorado, we see, from the back, a man strolling down the middle of a main street of a nondescript Western town.  He enters the saloon, which is also a bathhouse, and discover he’s the sheriff.  He confronts a man washing up at a sink who, clearly at a disadvantage, turns out to be Cole Thornton, played by John Wayne.  The sheriff is J.P. Harrah, played by Robert Mitchum, and apparently they are old friends.
Thornton is in the town, which is named El Dorado, in response to a job offer from Bart Jason, a rich rancher played by Ed Asner, very much against type (or at least, against his Lou Grant character of much later fame) who wants him to get rid of the MacDonald family.  But Harrah sets Thornton straight -- Jason needs the water on the MacDonald land for his animals but the MacDonalds don’t want to sell.  That wasn’t exactly the story Thornton had been told so Thornton rides out to tell Jason he won’t be taking the job after all.  On his way back to town, he’s shot at by one of the MacDonald sons.
From that point on, the plot of El Dorado is a series of events typical of Westerns: Thornton has an encounter with another gunfighter, he acquires a young man as his sidekick, he rekindles a relationship with a woman.  These adventures gradually reveal Thornton’s character.
Which is why we soon find Thornton back in the town of El Dorado where, while he was gone, Harrah has become an alcoholic.  But Thornton will help him get back on track!  It’s just too bad that Bart Jason and the MacDonald family are still at odds with each other. 
Several scenes in the saloon and sheriff’s office are reminiscent of Rio Bravo.  Of course there are shoot-outs; one in particular occurs in a church and observant viewers will recognize it as Old Tucson, which is where El Dorado was filmed. 
The characters faced no great moral quandaries.  So it shouldn’t be a surprise that in El Dorado, the good guys prevail.  The ending, however, didn’t wrap things up completely and left me wondering what Thornton was really going to do.  I actually liked that about the movie.
One thing I did not like, though, was when one actor dressed up as a Chinese person towards the end of El Dorado to distract one of the bad guys.  It was a caricature, it was racist, and it was jarring.


Other than that, El Dorado was enjoyable.  The banter was light, even if it often wasn’t as funny as it was probably meant to be.  Robert Mitchum and Michele Carey were the most interesting actors to watch.  Cole Thornton was a role John Wayne could play in his sleep.
Three of the actors in El Dorado appeared in Alias Smith and Jones: Patriarch Kevin MacDonald was played by R.G. Armstrong (Max in The Bounty Hunter); Milt, one of the bad guys, was played by Robert Donner (3 episodes, including Nate in The Bounty Hunter); and daughter Joey MacDonald was played by Michele Carey (Betsy in A Fistful of Diamonds). 
At 126 minutes, El Dorado was a pleasant diversion but I won't go out of my way to watch it again.
Related Link:
Olaf Wieghorst Museum

Saturday, March 11, 2023

The Tucson Festival of Books is a Book Lover's Delight

Tucson, Arizona has a plethora of annual fairs and festivals. One of them is the Tucson Festival of Books.  It’s held the first or second week of March and is the 3rd largest book festival in the U.S.
From its beginning in 2009 when 50,000 visitors were estimated to attend to the 2023 festival held a couple weeks ago, with 150,000 estimated attendees, it is one of the largest festivals in Tucson.  The festival is run by a non-profit organization whose purpose is to support literacy in southern Arizona.

Image of Tucson Festival of Books logo
Logo of the Tucson Festival of Books; photo by S.L. Schwartz

For 2 days, the University of Arizona Mall is covered in booths selling books and organizations about writing.  There’s also an area for children’s activities; Science City, with science-themed activities for the whole family; a food court; a culinary demonstration area; and entertainment.   

In the buildings surrounding the Mall, authors give workshops about writing, facilitate panel discussions, and talk about their books.  After each session, authors sign the books.  Authors who give presentations at the festival must have published their books in the past year.

Photograph of festival visitors lining up to get books autographed by authors
Authors signing books after a session; photo by S.L. Schwartz

Winners of prestigious book awards, such as National Book Awards and Southwest Books of the Year, participate as do Indie authors.  In 2023, over 400 authors were involved in the festival.  Over 24 literary genres were represented by the participating authors.


All events are free; however, some talks by the most famous authors require advance tickets.  Members of the public can try to reserve tickets in advance but if unsuccessful, may still be able to get in by waiting in line outside the room it’ll be in.  I did that a few years ago for a panel discussion with members of the cast of the TV show Longmire.  (It was a great session!)
But for most sessions, you can just line up outside the room shortly before the scheduled starting time.  Most sessions last an hour but several sessions are scheduled simultaneously so it’s sometimes difficult to choose what to go to.  And, of course, you have to slot in time to visit all the exhibitors’ booths, too.

Photograph showing view of University of Arizona Mall with booths and crowd of people at the Tucson Festival of Books
Booths on the University of Arizona Mall; photo by S.L. Schwartz

Every year that I go to the Tucson Festival of Books, I learn something new.  Not only do I get info that’s helpful for the book I’m writing about the Wyoming Territorial Penitentiary, I’ve also made some great connections.
The Tucson Festival of Books is a wonderful event and if you’re a book lover, you will definitely enjoy it!