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READY. PLAYER. ONE. …Spielberg’s film of the novel, In Review

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UPDATED: 08/12/2018.  (I was a little hard on this one — to say the least.  Don’t get me wrong, there are still things from the book that I truly miss, here and there.  But having recently viewed the film a handful of times at home, I have revised my thinking from a negative position, to a very positive one.  And although I have decided to let my original review stand (both for the sake of honesty as well as posterity,) I think in all fairness, I should disclose that much of what once bothered me about Spielberg’s film of the book is no longer an issue for me.  I do still have problems with both the handheld camera work when Sorrento is searching the IOI War Room for Art3mis, as well as the really bad old age makeup applied to actor Simon Pegg at film’s end.  But everything else I am now dealing with just fine, and retract all other complaints.  I’ve also read that author Ernest Cline is working on a sequel: Ready Player Two.  Perhaps that will become a Netflix limited series, allowing for a longer run-time.  The only real problem with Ready Player One is that the film needs a longer run-time to better establish and appreciate the OASIS.   In any event, I am changing my attitude and recommending the film.  Hopefully no one was put off too much by my ridiculously scathing review.  Be well. ~ Jim)    

Let’s start and end with the book.  Ernest Cline’s ‘Ready Player One’ centers on a teenager named Wade Watts, who spends much of his time in 2045 Oklahoma City (Columbus, Ohio in the film,) within an online virtual world.  He goes to virtual school there, he hangs out in his best friend’s virtual basement there, he watches movies there, listens to music there, plays virtual video games there …  You get the idea.  In contrast, twenty-six years from now the real world has become humanity’s compromise in the face of economic upheaval, environmental catastrophe, and overcrowding.  Things have gotten so bad that mobile home trailers aren’t lined up in out-of-the-way trailer parks, anymore.  No, to save space, they’re stacked sky high all over town.  And just like everybody else across the globe, Wade Watts is jacked into the next generation of the internet much of the time, to delude himself from it all; with a highly advanced version of an Oculus headset wrapping his vision with on-line computer generated imagery, of astonishing detail.

This new technological frontier is called, ‘The Oasis.’ 

Visualize from a great distance, a series of interconnecting solar systems, partitioned in space utilizing the framework of a Rubik’s Cube.  Within these online planetary systems, are tens of thousands of worlds, with more being perpetually added.  You get up in the morning, place a headset over your eyes, and you step inside a virtual world where the rules are not the same as the real world.  And inside the Oasis, you can be anybody you want to be, because no one knows who you really are or what you really look like.  And vice versa.  Everywhere you look, you are presented with the unimaginable and the truly unpredictable.  Willy Wonka described it best: “pure imagination.”

ready-player-oneBut there’s a monetary catch.  It works like this: you pay for everything within the Oasis, except a base avatar (your personal computer generated image within the Oasis,) and the base set of abilities you need to function.  If you wish to wear a better avatar, say you want to be a licensed property like Kurt Russell’s ‘Jack Burton’ in Big Trouble in Little China, or perhaps RoboCop, then you have to pay for it.  If you want to travel the Oasis, and visit the multitude of worlds, such as everything from planets emulating popular video games, or even a world carefully constructed to emulate the television sitcom, Family Ties, then naturally, you have to pay to get there.  If you want weapons or magical abilities, you pay.  If you want a full immersion rig, i.e., a real world physical harness and revolving rig you climb into, that better interacts with the online world — then you pay big.  Naturally, there are ways around paying out of pocket.  By winning battles in virtual video games, you win massive amounts of bitcoin.  Currency which will remain in reserve in your account to be utilized at your leisure.  But regardless of this fail-safe, most people who travel, play, party, study, work, and generally communicate within the Oasis, still fall into two groups: the haves and and have-nots.

This next gen internet was created by a computer geek/Steve Jobs competitor, named James Halliday.  When the Oasis first went online, in 2025, Halliday was already a very wealthy man, having created various successful video games and software platforms.  But ‘Jim’ Halliday had saved his greatest creation for last.  He wanted to connect people in perhaps a way that he had never been able to connect to anyone, himself.  And the Oasis was intended to be his gift to the world.  In profile, Halliday was an unremarkable, socially innocent figure.  Possibly autistic.  In point of fact, whether or not his obsessive reverence for 1980’s pop-culture was a symptom of a form of autism, is never made clear.  But either way, no one really cared.  The Oasis had taken over the daily lives of almost everyone on the planet so fast, that generally everyone came to idolize its creator.  So when Halliday suddenly died in 2044, and left behind an easter egg treasure hunt for three keys hidden within the Oasis that lead the winner to Halliday’s personal fortune, as well as control of the Oasis itself, you can imagine the broad spectrum of responses.

Much of the world’s destitute population immediately began studying Halliday’s favorite aspects of 1980’s pop-culture, searching for clues to the locations of the three hidden keys, which lead to the easter egg.  And of course those who showed the most enthusiasm, were the new generation of teenagers.  Thus, Cline’s story begins (2045: one year later,) with teenagers nicknamed ‘Gunters’ (egg hunters) having searched the Oasis, high and low, without pause, but also without having made any headway.  In tandem, the world’s largest internet provider, a multi-trillion dollar corporation called I.O.I. (Innovative Online Industries,) has spent a fortune hiring young people nicknamed ‘Sixers’ (they each wear an employee # that starts with 6, and ‘check your six, they may be behind you,’) to stack the deck in its own favor.  Did I mention that after successfully claiming the three hidden keys, the winner will face the avatar of James Halliday himself?  And said winner could either be an unknown underdog, or an emissary of evil corporate America.  In the words of Sarah Connor in Terminator 2: Judgement Day: “It was just a question of which one of them would reach him first. “

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During a truly perilous journey, Wade Watts (avatar name: Parzival) works alongside his best friend in the virtual world, and fellow treasure hunter, Aech (pronounced ‘H,’) along with a female avatar Wade develops an enormous crush on, named Art3mis.  They are joined by Daito & Shoto; two Asian kids who also make it onto the scoreboard.  And all five are hounded by ‘Sixers’ whose strings are being pulled by I.O.I.’s Head of Operations Executive,  Nolan Sorrento.  Who in the book turns out to be a bonafide sociopath.

Please be aware, from here on, spoilers abound in respect to the recently released film adaptation of Ernest Cline’s book ‘Ready Player One.’  

LEVEL ONE

Now let me make something clear.  In general, I enjoyed the movie and thought about half the scenes within the Oasis were fun.  It was charming.  But having said that, you don’t need to be a clairvoyant to perceive the truly fantastic film that could have been made out of Ernest Cline’s book.  Taken on its own merit (as it should be,) the book is a truly transcendental love letter to 1980’s pop-culture, as well as an entire generation who grew up in said era.  It is a kind of storytelling that reaches an unexpected place in the heart of the most unexpected of random people.  And whether you were a teenager in the 80’s or not, it’s a book I highly recommend anyone read.  Stories which are this well devised don’t come around often.  But when they do, they capture your imagination in such a way that you are at once both transported into the story,  and also compelled to draw almost conspiracy level parallels to the real world, currently around you.  That’s really where the fun is.  And while that can sometimes happen with a movie, it didn’t happen here.  No, here a divergent version of the story has been created, which seems to have re-purposed much of the material, and dropped 1990’s anime and video game cameos like little poodle bombs, all over the place.

It is ironic that the last book similar in imagination and thrills to ‘Ready Player One,’ was Michael Crichton’s techno-thriller, ‘Jurassic Park.’  So logic follows that the director of that film adaptation, Steven Spielberg, would be the first set of hands the galleys for ‘Ready Player One’ would wind up in.  Seems like a match made in heaven, right?  Well yes, and … not quite.  I would say he both succeeded and failed, here.  And I suspected that would be the case even before I had finished reading the novel.  Let me explain.  And let’s start not with the essence of the sentiment that the book is trying to convey, and whether or not the chosen director’s heart is really ‘in it,’ so to speak.  Let’s instead focus on the current artistic identity of the filmmaker himself.

When you remove the possibility of a highly expensive Netflix limited series of 9 one-hour episodes (which would have been the ideal avenue to adapt this material,) what you are left with is a list of requirements for the director of a theatrical feature film, that only a name brand like ‘Steven Spielberg’ could fill.  Keep in mind, said ‘requirements’ include concerns among investors, insurance companies, studio heads, studio board members, studios stock holders, the multitude of companies that own the intellectual property rights which will be referenced during the film, and a partridge in a pair tree…  You getting my drift?  But while they see Spielberg as their savior in this situation, Spielberg isn’t really the same director he used to be.  Spielberg has moved on.  He’s even publicly stated that he’s past his popcorn days.  And it’s very likely that Studios in Hollywood are tone deaf to this fact.  So perhaps ‘yesterdays’ Spielberg would have been perfectly cast as a director for this project, but maybe ‘today’s’ Spielberg, not so much.  Spielberg admitted in recent interviews that this is one of the three hardest films he’s ever made in his career.  The other two being JAWS, and Saving Private Ryan.  To be fair, he also intimated that his work with the Computer Effects teams is really to blame, but again, his lack of … I don’t mean to say affection, I don’t mean to say enthusiasm … no, his lack of compassion for the source material, betrays the simple fact that Ready Player One is not exactly a film ‘today’s’ Steven Spielberg, holds dear.  And that is definitively one of the big problems this film adaptation has.

In truth, it’s very unlikely that Spielberg has any loyalty whatsoever to the 1980’s pop-culture references that give Ernest Cline’s story its added spark.  Spielberg was a teenager in the 1960’s.  And in the 1980’s, he was in his 30’s.  Added, he was working quite a bit, throughout the 80’s, and therefore his personal tastes are likely highly divergent to that of a 1980’s teenager.  Why does this matter, you ask?  Because changes were made from book to screen, that are things that make ‘ya say, ‘hmmmm,’ that’s why.  Arbitrary changes.  And while some of them make sense (like having Art3mis be the one who goes inside I.O.I.,) others are just puzzling to no end.  Unless, of course, you simply accept the fact that the filmmaker didn’t truly understand the source material to begin with.

So let’s investigate the differences, break them down into their various necessities, and ascribe meaning to them.  I kid because I care.  Now let’s talk some trash.

LEVEL TWO

1. The Music: the new version of the Willy Wonka theme ‘pure imagination,’ so ever-present in more than one of the trailers, was noticeably absent from the finished film.  Why??  You can listen here: https://youtu.be/XTPCwA1AcPk  Or better yet, why not just license the original song from the 1970 film, and use that?  And why was John Williams’ Superman The Movie theme used prominently in a key scene in a trailer, and then not used in the same scene in the finished film?  Also, a handful of songs, such as ‘Tom Sawyer,’ by Rush, which were also utilized in various trailers, were A.W.O.L, as well.  Those who have read the book remember well that ‘Rush’ was James Halliday’s favorite band, and figures into the plot with some importance.  So why was the song only used for marketing the film??  Fine; okay, we’ll let that slide.

2. While I generally enjoyed Ready Player One (I chuckled now and then, and was pleasantly surprised now and then) I still knew early on while watching the film that ‘Cinematic Game Changer’ Steven Spielberg was the wrong director for this project.  ‘Today’s’ Steven Spielberg just didn’t feel it.  And the emotion at the core of the story, is the core of the story.  It’s like a map that leads you everywhere you need to go.  Thus, it seems the heart of the movie has either been left on the editing room floor, or discarded very early on in the ‘Development Process.’  A friend pointed out that there must be footage missing, as Wade’s body suit somehow ends up in the possession of his Aunt’s boyfriend.  The boyfriend is seen wearing it, just before their trailer explodes in the stacks.  And the more we chatted about it, the more we agreed that there must be other pieces which had to be missing from the finished film, as well.  In fact, one could generally estimate the missing footage to clock in at around thirty minutes.  At least, if not more.  Not good.  Not good vibes, here, people.

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3. There are multiple differences in the plot of the book, to that of the film.  I won’t waste the reader’s time with an academic dissertation, but a few of them are key to understanding the true meaning behind the book.  Therefore it baffles that they specifically would be omitted.  A good example would be that in the book, acquiring the first key is something that Wade does himself, alone.  There is no race for the key.  There is no King Kong.  Wade simply figured something out first.  Before anyone else.  And THAT is what’s amazing and euphoric about it.  Then it turns out that another ‘Gunter’ named Art3mis has also figured it out.  And neither of them needed anyone’s help to do so.  They simply kept looking for clues in the framework of Halliday’s imagination.  Each find a cave hidden within the Oasis, and after navigating a series of booby-traps, play and win a game of ‘Joust’ against a character from the famous board game, Dungeons & Dragons.  And please know, we are talking about the classic cabinet Arcade Game ‘Joust.’  It’s the type of video game you would have seen in an actual Arcade in the early 1980’s.  And not a big action sequence, as is presented in the film adaptation.  And because of that, it’s a more isolated, clever scene.  And genuinely more thrilling.  “But that is not what ‘they’ would have you believe.” ~ Jerry Seinfeld

But that is not

4. Among other key differences, which feel like more arbitrary changes, is the Flicksync, or WarGames roleplaying test Halliday set up requiring gamers speak all of actor Matthew Broderick’s dialogue in the film WarGames, just so they can ‘clear a gate,’ and move on to the next round.  Something that would have been hilarious, if telegraphed in the film version.  But alas, that element of the story is noticeably absent.  Also, the Blade Runner Voight-Kampff test, which has been replaced in the film, with an uneven sequence taking place ‘inside’ the movie, The Shining.  And don’t misunderstand me, the live action interiors of the Overlook Hotel are a startling moment in the film.  But in its entirety, The Shining sequence in the film, winds up representing everything really bad about modern cinema: U.E.C.G.I. (Unnecessary Excuse for Computer Generated Imaging)  There’s no logic behind it, and it’s not as fun as it should be.  Especially since it concludes with yet another bad take on Disney’s ‘The Haunted Mansion.’  The taste of it was so bad … it was just … I was ill.  Bring me Teddy Grahams, STAT!

5. Is there magic in the movie?  Occasionally.  But it’s low level.  People will be picking apart superficial cameos in the background for years, I’m sure.  But the real magic of the book, along with the emotion associated with it, is kept on a very tight leash, and behind a very high fence.  In other words, this isn’t your grandfather’s Spielberg.  There’s too much context missing.  In Spielberg’s film, we never really get a concrete understanding of why the Oasis is so important.  In the book, Wade sums it up by saying, “The moment I began searching for the egg, the future no longer seemed so bleak.”  But in the film, it’s a bit too nebulous as to why it matters.  And very sorely missed is the presence of the Great Og, alias Ogden Morrow.  The friend who helped Halliday create the Oasis.  He pops up in the book a lot.  Including as an invisible presence in Aech’s basement, at one point.  And while in the book his character is of more importance, and has a certain depth and purpose, in the film adaptation Simon Pegg comes off as a nothing more than a peripheral character.  You don’t get the sense of the friendship between he and Halliday.  You don’t have any understanding of their falling out.  And although Pegg is seen in a couple of flashbacks early on, when Morrow eventually shows up at the end of the movie, it’s just Simon Pegg in the worst old age make-up you have ever seen in a movie.  And his purpose there is to patronize the intelligence of the audience.  And by the way, before I forget … whattheHELL is ‘The Resistance!?’  I mean what exactly was the meaning of THAT ridiculous ass-banana fuckery, anyway??

6. Personally, in Spielberg’s film, I really missed the throwaway things that made the story so special.  Seeing Wade/Parzival go to school in the Oasis, or seeing him sit down in Aech’s basement, and pick up and start reading an old copy of Starlog Magazine.  I missed at least one reference to The Last Starfighter.  I also missed the space travel — which you knew would be awesome, and yet is completely absent from the film.  I missed that wonderful endless multilevel mall of Arcades, where Wade/Parzival finds the quarter.  I miss the way the kids Wade/Parzival and Samantha/Art3mis don’t meet until the end of the story, and the punch of emotion you get when they do.  I missed how the five kids in the story subverted the system, and how they all had contact with one another in private, encrypted chat rooms.  I missed the darker parts of the story.  The fact that Sorrento disguised the bombing of Wade’s trailer as a meth lab accident.  I also miss seeing Daito being thrown from his real world balcony, by ‘Sixers’ after Sorrento has discovered his true identity.  (although I would have altered this so that Daito survived.)   And last but certainly not least, I miss Anorak’s Almanac.  For further explanation of that one, you’ll have to read Ernest Cline’s book.

7. Are there things in the book which should have been left out?  Absolutely.  As I stated before, in the book Wade is the one who infiltrates the big bad corporation, I.O.I.  And it’s such a harrowing experience that when Wade makes his escape (and remember, he’s well aware that Daito has been murdered by I.O.I,) he stops by a vending machine and purchases a gun.  That would be the first thing to go.  In fact the only change made from the book to the film which I was truly thrilled with, was the Wade/Parzival conversation with Halliday, after the game is won.  And that amazing moment when Halliday admits that he’s dead, but claims his avatar … is not really an avatar.   Implying, of course, that Halliday died and chose to live in the afterlife as a ghost in his own machine.  How?  I dunno.  But I bought it.

Ninety-nine percent of these cumulative alterations are almost certainly the work of either Development Executives, or Steven Spielberg himself.  And they add up to a gradual shift in the focus of the material.  Away from what made the book special, and deep into a place which simply smells of focus group marketing.

LEVEL THREE

The final, and most heinous source of trouble, is, as always, the simple act of placing a cross-promotional ‘product’ like ‘Ready Player One’ in the hands of Corporate America.  That’s asking for trouble.  Corporate America has clearly taken over the creative side of the movie business.  To date, and with as much success as failure, Studio Executives in casual dress, have quietly been micromanaging the plotting of most big budget movies we’ve all been watching, for about the last twenty years or so.  It is therefore likely that novelist Ernest Cline (who contributed his own early draft of the screenplay,) screenwriter Zak (Last Action Hero) Penn (who was brought in for a new draft,) and even director Steven Spielberg himself, are all along for the ride, here.

True, when addressed point-by-point, you can dismiss a lot of my condemnation of the film.  But when you add it all up … it’s a different story.  Enough circumstantial evidence always does that.  I’m making valid points when I tell you that all realism available in the original source material, has vanished from it’s film adaptation.  I’m being honest when I say that all sentiment was changed, or that all understanding of our generation and the book’s connection to our generation was essentially severed; removed, altogether.  But maybe it will help if I make a sideways comparison.  This year (2018) is the 50th Anniversary of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Therefore I show reverence by quoting from its author, Arthur C. Clarke.  “I am often asked about ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ — what does it all mean?  And my response is always this: read the book, see the movie, and repeat the prescription as often as necessary.”  In that spirit, I personally advise that reading ‘Ready Player One,’ then watching the movie, and then reading the book again, will indeed leave you with a joyful, sometimes extraordinary reading experience — but alas, a merely ‘typical’ movie going experience.  Mostly because it’s impossible to watch the movie Ready Player One, and ignore the parallel that in reality Corporate America succeeded in taking over the Oasis.
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Some Movies I’ve Seen This Year

Olympus Has Fallen
Olympus Has Fallen 03/24   Grade: B-

Never saw White House Down.  No longer falling for Roland Emmerich’s con that he’s both a director and a movie watcher.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m just as interested in seeing the trailer for the Independence Day sequel, as anyone else is.  I just cannot see how someone could make The Day After Tomorrow, 2012, and 10,000 B.C. and actually be watching movies, as well as making them.  And it is a requirement that in order to make a good movie, you have to be a movie watcher.  Otherwise, you should find something else to do with your life.  So I only have the experience of seeing Olympus Has Fallen to offer, without comparison to it’s similarly themed competition, White House Down.  And in a 1980’s B-movie kinda way, I enjoyed Olympus Has Fallen.  It definitely has its faults.  The special effects are not very well rendered, it feels like a hastily made Die Hard clone.  My God, how many of those have we had now.  And the script seems to be pasted together from various independent drafts of the same central concept, however, the movie is entertaining.  The action sequence when the White House is initially taken is much more visceral and frightening than you expect, the characters are likeable enough, and the structure of the story is predictable but enjoyable.

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Jurassic Park 3D

Jurassic Park 3D 04/06  Grade: A-

I was very happy to get the chance to see this in a theater again, and the 3D was much more fun than I expected !  A lot of fun.  When I came out of the theater, I felt compelled to text the following as a post on my Facebook page: “Saw Jurassic Park 3D.  Great 3D conversion.   A little more respect for the movie now than in 1993.  The kids kept wowwing at the dinosaurs and I know it’s not the effects they’re thrilled by — it’s the way Steven tells the story.  Holds up better than expected.  Well played, Steven Spielberg.  Very well played.”  And that comment — some seven months later — still sums up my memory of that screening. 

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Oblivion

Oblivion 04/21  Grade: B+

I remember enjoying this one in general.  The tone, the music … the chick in the pool.  It was an interesting science fiction story concept and had a somewhat realistic ending, when mirrored against the rest of the film.  And it didn’t have the long list of lingering issues that the director’s previous film, Tron: Legacy had, either.  So that was good.  

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Iron Man 3

Iron Man 3  05/04  Grade: D-

In the last act of this film, the movie seemed to be building to a rather clever action climax — which let’s face it, is really what most people went to see the movie for.  Definitely what the kids wanted to see.  In this sequence, lots and lots of robot Iron Men were coming to the original Iron Man, Tony Scott’s rescue.  If this sequence had really worked, that set-piece, together with the stuff between Robert Downey Jr.  and the kid, would have helped me enjoy the pic a little more, and definitely left me with a better memory of the experience of watching the film.  But alas, my hopes for such a clever action set piece were dashed rather unexpectedly, and quickly at that.  As the multitude of Iron Men arrived, the CGI and the editing collided in what can only be described as a cluster fuck.  For those who’ve seen the film, please note that I never complained about the Mandarin situation.  It seemed novel to me to twist such expectations of comic book fans, in such a way.  But a clumsy action sequence cannot be forgiven.  Not only is not hard to write, storyboard, plan, and execute a legitimately novel and fun action sequence — many industry pro’s have commented that it is also easier to accomplish than any other aspect of a movie’s general paradigm.  I left this movie a little embarrassed and said not a word about what I thought of it for the longest time.   But I should have.  To date the film has grossed one billion, two-hundred and fourteen million, seven-hundred and thirteen thousand, nine-hundred and ninety four dollars, worldwide.   I should’a blabbed when I had the chance.  And by the way, you can always tell how much the kids like these movies by how well the toys are selling.  Next time you’re in a Wal-Mart or Target, take a look down the action figure toy isle and note the dense confabulation of Iron Man 3 toys still sitting on the shelf.

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ALIEN

Alien (1979) 05/08  Grade: A+

It’s always nice to revisit a tried-and-true classic from your childhood.  And it definitely helped me get rid of my disappointment over Prometheus, which was lingering from the preceding summer.  And that was the principal reason I wanted to watch the original on the big screen again, when I saw it was being screened mid-week.  It was a hasty departure for the local Cinemark, and I got there just in time to relive something really cool, and really well crafted.  Actually, the more I think about Prometheus, the more I don’t ever want to think about Prometheus again.

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The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby 05/12  Grade C-

This one was not my choice, I was with a group.  But I wasn’t entirely disappointed.  The modern urban music concocted to play during the party sequences was really a nice touch.  But I had seen the Jack Clayton version before, from the 1970’s, and the story is essentially the same.   Rich, well-to-do individuals expostulating on their status in life.  Utter nonsense and total bullshit, if you ask me.  But like I said, the music was nice enough to warrant the letter grade I grant the film and the experience of watching it.  Never did like that book.  And to be fair, I’m not really a Baz Luhrmann fan, anyway. 

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Star Trek Into Darkness Image 2

Star Trek Into Darkness Imax 3D 05/15  Grade: A-

I enjoyed this one.  Now a little background on my point-of-view going in. 

There’s only so much these movies can be, given the way J.J. Abrams constructed his new alternate Star Trek universe.  And I didn’t really feel impressed by the first one, although I did enjoy the music and the new dynamic given to the crew.  My first issue with Abrams’ initial 2009 film, was the stuff with Kirk as a small child.  It seemed like it was a waste of time, and the meat of it could have been covered in dialogue — and personally, I don’t even see that as being necessary.  And I hated the bad wig they put on that kid.  The only scene which I did enjoy was in the bar, where Kirk gets his ass kicked and Pike comes in and says a variation of, “I couldn’t believe it when the bartender told me who you are.  You’re father was Captain of a Starship for 12 minutes.  He saved 800 lives.  I dare you to do better.  Enlist in Starfleet.”  But we already knew this from the trailer, and the rest of the film deteriorated into very basic sci-fi contrivance and exposition; none of it with any real merit.  Not “science fiction” mind you, not premium ideas, novel concepts, and the appropriate level of writing to accompany all of that, but rather fodder for the Syfy Channel, overproduced on a massive scale in order to compensate for the lack of quality on the page.  (What they should have done was start the film with Tyler Perry’s character in front of a full audience of cadets stating what Starfleet is, what Starfleet stands for, and what their principal duties and responsibilities are as representatives of Starfleet, before revealing that all of them have been accepted into Starfleet.  Gasps, followed by Thunderous applause, then cut to a brief opening title and then straight to the sequence in the bar.  They could’ve saved the prologue involving the death of Kirk’s father for later, somehow.)

In the 2009 Star Trek film, they even sucked Spock’s home planet Vulcan into a black hole and killed his mother.  A terrible plot point which only reminds me of The Core mentality.  That sloppy 2003 sci-fi film about people having to tunnel to the Earth’s core in order to save the planet and humanity.  You remember, the one where once they all get into the craft that drills them down, every time the screenwriter’s needed another plot point, they simply killed another character, because they weren’t good enough writers to envision any other way of moving the story forward.  It’s a ‘let’s destroy something or someone, because we can’t think of what should come next at this point in the fucking movie’ mentality.  And please notice that when I mentioned “Spock,” I didn’t say “Mr.” Spock.  Yea, the Quinto guy isn’t bad, actually he’s quite good, but he doesn’t have that stone, solemn, withered-by-life face that Nimoy had back in the mid 1960’s.  Mainly because Nimoy had been through much more in his life and career than Quinto has.  And Nimoy was a bit older, as well, if memory serves. 

Paramount originally intended the 2009 Star Trek film to be Starfleet Academy, a proposed story Producer Harve Bennett had pitched to Paramount following the regretfully bad Star Trek V: The Final Frontier in 1989.  Unfortunately, the only aspect of it the Studio liked was bringing in a new, younger cast to replace the old guard.  And the age range for recasting the crew apparently remained constant over the 20-year stretch before the reboot finally got greenlit after the turn of the Century.  (For the record Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, which in 1991 followed The Final Frontier, and ended the original casts 25 year run, was an exceptional film.)  Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, and Simon Pegg are all over thirty.  But the two most important actors on the show are just a tad too young to be taken seriously in their roles.  Too bad, really.  Pine and Quinto, are solid actors, but they’re just kids, really, and it’s hard to believe that anyone under thirty would have the maturity to handle the kinds of situations that a Starfleet Captain and his First Officer would be dealing with.  And Starfleet would know that, right ?  (I think this is what Abrams and his writers were trying to accomplish by establishing that Kirk and Spock had each lived through a tough childhood, thereby establishing that each would have what it takes to handle the events of the 2009 film.  It didn’t work.)  Oh well, perhaps as these actors grow, they will mature into their characters, and these new Star Trek films will get better and better.  Nothing wrong with more Star Trek movies.  Nothing at all. 

So, onward.  At the end of the 2009 film, Kirk is back at Starfleet Academy — but wait a second, now Kirk is back on the Enterprise — and then the ship shoots off into space.  So inevitably the next film should have taken place at the beginning of that five year mission, right ?  Well, either A) that’s not what J.J. wanted, because he’s selfish, or B) neither J.J. nor his writers knew how to write science fiction without soap opera.  Because guess what ?  That’s right, we’re back in Earth’s orbit for about three-quarters of the story of Star Trek Into Darkness.  And although I expected to not really enjoy the film, mainly due to all the reported homages to the original television series, and the films that followed it, I nonetheless enjoyed the story of Into Darkness much, much better than Abrams’ original 2009 outing.  And that completely took me by surprise. 

I don’t want to spoil too much, but I will advise you that I was personally disappointed that Benedict Cumberbatch turned out to be … well, Abrams’ reinterpretation of a classic villain.  Why couldn’t they have made him “Q”?  I mean they’ve reinvented everything else in this alternate universe, why couldn’t Q have showed up much sooner in the timeline.  Anyway, between the story and the scale of the film and the action and the general sci-fi mashup, I cannot lie and say that it wasn’t a fun Saturday matinee.  Although for the record, I actually saw an IMAX 3D sneak preview of the film.  And it was actually worth waiting in line for.  When was the last time anyone said that about one of these big budget summer tent-pole craptastic extravaganza movies ?  They even gave us a limited edition free poster on the way out.  Nice. 

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Man of Steel

Man of Steel 06/14 & 06/15  Grade: A-

The issue I had was not the damage done in Metropolis during the climactic fight scene.  The issue I had was not with the billions of people who reportedly would have died during that whole sequence.  The issue I had was that the effects during the fight were sped up so fast, that I could not tell who was hitting who.  Don’t get me wrong, I loved the movie.  Loved the music, too.  Even thought Costner was really spot-on as Jonathan Kent.  But the filmmakers seemed to feel in the end that in order to really “effect” the audience, they needed every punch, shove, hit, and skybound flying squirrel to just be really, really fast, and too blurry for audiences to actually see what was happening.  Clearly, they didn’t want audiences to discern to much, or criticize the fight moves.  At least I guess that’s why they sped it up that way.  I mean that’s the only explanation I could come up with.  Rest of the movie was really great, easily holds up to Snyder’s work on Watchmen.  But he’s got to do something about his fight scenes in the next film, Superman Vs. Batman.  I still can’t tell you that I saw that fight, because I didn’t.  It was moving so fast, and there was so much digital blurring, I have no idea what I was looking at.  I did love the last line when Kent starts his job at the Daily Planet.  “Welcome to the Planet.”  As a huge fan of the original Superman: The Movie, the hairs on both my arms stood straight up.

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The Heat

The Heat 06/30  Grade: C+

Disgusting but funny.  The plot was a bit too thin, but there is talk of a sequel and hopefully they will rectify that issue next time.  Very much enjoyed the dynamic between the two characters, and the vulgarity was hysterical.  Again, this is one I saw with others, so it wasn’t really my choice.  But nonetheless, I laughed a lot.  That’s enough for me to recommend someone watch it on cable for free. 

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THE LONE RANGER

Disney’s The Lone Ranger  07/04  Grade: D+

To begin with, Lone Ranger was too long.  With more film snippets and elements, and access to Avid editing software, even I could make Disney’s Lone Ranger into a better film.  Mainly by removing around half an hour of its running time. 

On another note, one of the critics complained that, “…there is a limit to what can be accomplished with Johnny Depp and a bucket of makeup.”  Although a funny quip, this was not an accurate assessment of the film’s issues at all.  Depp did a very good job, even with the script that he had.  Some who followed the film’s development commented that they should have left in the Werewolves.  Perhaps that would have helped, I dunno.  But if you intend to make a fantasy of it, you might as well go for it.  And I saw none of the things the Lone Ranger stands for really evidenced in this film.  Lots of obvious mistakes on that front.  Then there was an issue with some wrong casting (or merely a bad choice of how to take the lead character, you decide,) a script that needed another pass, the overbloated running time, as I mentioned … and don’t think I ever heard a single character state that Barry Pepper’s character was supposed to be Custer — not even once.  Then there’s that shot at the end where Tonto just walks into Monument Valley for no apparent reason.  This could possibly be intended to imply something in connection with a statement on the tragic slaughter of the American Indian, but it’s so vague, most of the audience won’t even pick up on it.

Then there’s Helena Bonham Carter’s character — who’s name I don’t even care to recall.  She seems not to have much of a purpose other than to add a spot of colorful character.  If so, they generally failed in that respect.  Which in my opinion, applies to every ancillary character in the damn movie.  And then, there’s the kid at the sideshow.  An idea which partially works, and partially doesn’t, mainly because several times you’re left with the general impression that Tonto was simply lying to the kid about a lot.  As though the story he tells is how he wished it had happened.  Especially since he leaves the sideshow wearing the lawyer brother’s suit, and these clothes appear to be A) the clothes Armie Hammer was wearing during the ambush in the canyon, and B) appear to still be covered in some of the same dirt Tonto buried him in — and that was before he was brought back to life.  Which, just perhaps, never really happened.  Frustrating.  How nice to reach the end of the film and be left with the possibility that the filmmakers are laughing at you, because they conned you into buying into a story that never happened.  Gee, I love it when they do that, don’t you.

If point of fact, the only thing I really enjoyed was the train sequence at the end.  Reportedly, the filmmakers really fought hard for this action set piece.  And now I realize why.  Without it, they don’t have much of a movie.  Guess you can tell, I didn’t really like it all that much.  I did, however like the white horse.  Although it was a little on the fat side.  And I really appreciate the fact that a major studio spent the kind of dough on a western that they did on this film.  Perhaps they’ll try again and get it right next time.   The LEGO sets seem to have sold really well, maybe someday we’ll find out the kids liked it.


Happy Easter Weekend !!


04/05/2012

It’s been so many weeks since I’ve posted, I thought I would put something up just to put something up.  I am working on something new, just not done with it yet.  In the meanwhile, here’s me retyping an all too brief article which appeared in the Sunday, August 14, 2011 edition of the Nacogdoches, Texas newspaper, The Daily Sentinel.

‘Western Legend’ set in 1899

In this recently released book of historical fiction, “Western Legend,” author James Allder relates the story, set in 1899, of four legends, most once considered “desperados” (sic) — Frank James, Virgil Earp, James Earp and a notorious assassin of cattle thieves, named Tom Horn.

In the narrative he describes how authenticated accounts detail a chance encounter, wherein these men arrived separately in the burgeoning metropolis of Nacogdoches, Texas on a lazy Sunday morning, sought respite in a local saloon, and quickly found themselves entertaining adventurous children.  Hastily crafting and illustrating tales of the West, the men threw adventure around the room; dismissing the many myths surrounding their more infamous exploits, and denying the existence of ‘notches’ on their guns.

However, when finally called upon to dispatch a new breed of desperado terrorizing local citizens, these western legends proved every one of those myths true — and in high style.” (sic)

Cost for “Western Legend” by James Allder starts at $6.99.  Classified as Western historical fiction (ISBN-978-1-6116-033), the book is published by Whiskey Creek Press LLC; ebooks are available from whiskeycreekpress.com, fictionwise.com and amazon.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Top 25 Western Movies

Below, you will find a frivolous list of “my” top 25 favorite Western Movies — all of which provided inspiration while writing my novel.  Each entry in the list includes a comprehensive commentary/summary — but feel free to just scan all that.  You’re welcome to add your own opinions, suggestions — or even your own list in the comments box at the bottom of the post.

 #1 The Searchers (1956)

Based upon the 1954 novel of the same name by Alan Le May, The Searchers is the story of an over the hill Civil War vet who spends several years searching for his niece who has been abducted by Native Americans.  The plot successfully examines racism toward the American Indian while also utilizing the Vista Vision camera to breathtaking effect. (My only complaint would be that opening shot in Monument Valley, which we are told is Texas!)

The American Film Institute named this one The Greatest American Western of all time in 2008.  I can’t argue with that.  It’s also #12 on the AFI’s list of the 100 Greatest Movies of All Time, and it was voted into the National Film Registry in 1989.

The story is similar enough to an actual 1836 historical incident (almost identical in fact,) that it is probable that the novelist derived much of his inspiration from it.

David Lean watched this film several times while prepping Lawrence of Arabia, and Steven Spielberg has stated that The Searchers is always one of the films he watches before he begins work on his next film.

#2  Stagecoach (1939)

John Ford’s first sound film after making uncountable silents and serials, is still a textbook example of economic storytelling.  The first of several productions Ford would shoot in Monument Valley, Stagecoach was based upon a 1937 short story by Ernest Haycox called “The Stage to Lordsburg.”   (Although there were reportedly other fiction sources which served as inspiration as well.)  

The story centers on a group of stereotypical strangers who board a stagecoach headed through dangerous territory, inhabited by angry American Natives.  Escorted through much of the story by the U.S. Calvary, they are joined early on by a fugitive known as The  Ringo Kid, embodied by now legendary actor John Wayne.  And this is pretty much where that legend started.  In fact, the shot that introduces Wayne was so iconic, it literally skyrocketed him to superstar status overnight.  Although this was not his first role, Stagecoach was thereafter referred to by the press as the movie that formally introduced John Wayne to the public.

The film uses the same dynamic of multiple character examination used by the equally successful Grand Hotel, in 1932.  And it additionally exhibits many of the techniques and “isms” that Ford invented during his silent years making serials.  All of which only add to a tight plot that moves at a brisk pace.

The famous stunt performed by Yakima Canutt, involving a man run over by a Stagecoach in a very dangerous manner, was repeated with rousing success by stuntman Terry Leonard in the film, Raiders of the Lost Ark. 

Ford had made numerous films before this — so many in fact, that many are lost.  And John Ford is today considered by many to be the most prolific director in cinema history.

Stagecoach was a massive success with the moviegoers and critics, and was nominated for several prestigious awards.  Orson Welles admitted to watching it approximately 40 times while making Citizen Kane.  And both Alfred Hitchcock and Akira Kurosawa each named Stagecoach as one of the films they greatly admired for it’s economic storytelling, and technical virtuoso.

#3 High Noon(1952)

So many writers have cited this film as a truly great example of perfect character examination in film, I wouldn’t know where to start.  The film’s story is told in real time, hence the use of the clock.  And its story centers on a town Marshall fated to face a group of killers he previously defended the town against, who got off on a legal technicality and are now gunning for revenge.  The catch ?  Due to the cowardliness of local residents, he’s on his own.

If you haven’t seen it, and it sounds a bit familiar, that’s because the story was regenerated in 1981 by writer/director Peter Hyams for his film, Outland.  High Noon is also that film John McClane and Hans Gruber discuss via walkie talkies in the movie Die Hard. 

“…well this time John Wayne does not walk off into the sunset with Grace Kelley!”

“That was Gary Cooper, asshole.”

Carl (The Guns of Navarone) Foreman wrote it while under scrutiny by (HUAC) The House Un-American Activities Committee, and channeled much of his frustration over their witch-hunt into his screenplay.  Many have pointed out the allegory of people afraid to stand up for what they believe in, and for a long time, the film divided many people.  Self-proclaimed anti-communists (typically conservatives) shunned it for many years.  As late as 1971 John Wayne even labeled it, “The most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life,” in an infamous interview with Playboy magazine. 

But as time passed and people began to question the utterly bizarre and misdirected grilling by HUAC and the blacklist in general — High Noon lost its controversial status.  In time, several American Presidents found the film prescient enough to screen at The White House, including Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton.

The film won numerous Academy Awards but in a major upset, lost Best Picture to The Greatest Show on Earth.  High Noon was selected for the National Film Registry in 1989, and the AFI ranked it #2 in their list of the ten greatest westerns ever made.

#4 The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

More compelling character study.  This time with the unique twist of a wraparound narrative that involves an elderly U.S. Senator (James Stewart,)  known for being the man who shot a notorious gunfighter named Liberty Valance.  Upon returning to a small town for the funeral of an old friend (John Wayne,) Stewart is met by a reporter eager for an interview.  And the newsman gets more than he expects when Stewart begins relating his remembrance of how he knew Wayne’s character, and all which that entails.

This is the film that originated the phrase, print the legend.  It all started with the following line of dialogue: “This is the West, Sir.  When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”  And in accordance, much of the film’s substructure is built on the notion that much of what we believe about “The West,” is nothing more than hearsay.

A few who worked on the film stated in interviews that it was a miserable experience due to director John Ford’s behavior.  Sergio Leone named The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance as his favorite Ford film.  The film was nominated for an Academy Award for best costume design.  And the film was placed into the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 2007.

#5 My Darling Clementine (1946)

Henry Fonda plays Wyatt Earp in a dramatized study of the man, his family’s battles with criminals and corruption, and his relationship with the love of his life; here renamed Clementine, to further facilitate the purpose of the song in the movie.

It was based very loosely on the story of the street fight in Tombstone, Arizona, known popularly as The Gunfight at the OK Corral.  But like so many other films, it has practically no connective tissue with the documented facts of that gunfight.  And although it drew material from the book “Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshall, by Stuart Lake — a book publicized as being written “with” Wyatt Earp himself — it should be noted that Lake fictionalized most of Wyatt Earp’s life in his writing.  This was also not the first film to use Lake’s material.  There were entire scenes repeated from another previous incarnation, titled, Frontier Marshall.  In fact, it doesn’t work to watch the film for only it’s historical accuracy, so don’t even try.  A Fact Checker would get stressed out in ten minutes watching this thing.

But that’s not really why you’re watching.  Featuring some of the most striking photographic compositions Ford would achieve in his entire career — with any Cinematographer — My Darling Clementine stands out as one of John Ford’s more distinctive works of pure cinema.  Thanks partly to cinematographer Joseph MacDonald.  It plays like Blade Runner in the old west meets a Terence Malick film.  The pacing, the tone, the mood, the quality and purpose of the visuals, everything shouts cinema.  And loudly.

Now for the bad news.  When the film was screened the head of 20 Century Fox felt it was too long, and hired another director to shoot coverage so that Fox could cut it down to 97 minutes.  The original version has since been lost, ala The Magnificent Ambersons, but Ford kept a pre-release cut of 103 minutes, that contained a few large chunks of his cut footage, as well as the original score.  The version now available on DVD is unfortunately the 97 minute version.  My hope is for a “restored” version on Blu-ray, soon.

Director Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch, Pat Garret and Billy the Kid) considered My Darling Clementine his favorite western.

#6 Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

Stylistically epic.  A lot goes on in this movie, and yet it’s all at the service of the film’s style, it’s mojo.  Leone had no intention of making another western after finishing The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, in fact, he was planning Once Upon a Time in America, but could not get independent financing or a greenlight from the Hollywood Studios on anything other than a western.  When Paramount offered him a sizable budget and the chance to work with his favorite actor, Henry Fonda — Leone relented.  He then spent several months watching classic Hollywood westerns and constructing a film filled with references to them.

He also omitted the humor he had come to rely upon in his previous work.  This left a very somber, dead serious tone, which plays well with the story’s deliberately labored pace.  Lots of quiet moments here represent reality.  And that seems to work for Leone more than any other director.

Seen above is a perfect example of the film’s astonishing use of composition available when using Panavision anamorphic lenses.  It was also one of the many aspects of the film that influenced some really notable filmmakers.  Today Once Upon a Time in the West is considered Leone’s best film, and one of the “finest” westerns ever made.  Many directors have cited this one as one of their favorite films of all-time, including Lucas, Scorsese, and Tarantino.  Along with directors John Milius and John Carpenter, both of whom can be heard on the audio commentary for the DVD and Blu-Ray releases.

Leone called Bronson: “The greatest actor I ever worked with.”  The film also features yet another in a long list of highly popular scores by legendary composer Ennio Morricone.

#7  Red River (1948)

Just a great story, really — once it gets going, anyway.  The first 20 minutes include some rather lame moments which can be blamed on the era they were filmed in.  I’ve actually seen Red River many more times than any of the others listed here.  The only reason it’s not at the top of the list is because I haven’t learned as much from it.  My sensibilities are too close to the meat of it, so it’s like I’m on autopilot when I’m watching it.

The film’s not as cotton candy as Stagecoach.  But it has a cut-and-dried quality about it that smells of popcorn like few westerns ever made.  Something about it, and I mean every step of the way, just feels constructed to bring pure joy to a kid on a Saturday afternoon.  Ray Harryhausen’s long-time producer co-wrote the screenplay, and Howard Hawks directed it, so with a combination like that it was bound to emote some element of “serialized storytelling.”  And it does, and often.

The film starts with a young Tom Dunson (John Wayne) dealing with the unexpected death of a woman he just agreed to marry.  She was a part of a wagon train attacked by Native Americans.  Dunson and his driver separated their wagon from the train earlier in the day.  There is a nifty, yet brief night-time attack on Dunson and his driver by Indians, here — the only real bright spot in the initial moments of the film.  The following morning Dunson adopts the only survivor, a young boy named Matthew, who’s clearly in shock from the experience, has a gun, and doesn’t want it taken away from him.  Kid has a specific kind of personality, right from the start.  And yet, while these scenes are very well designed, they are badly executed to the point of being laughable.  Their relationship is rather unbelievable at first (like I said, the first 20 minutes are a bit awkward,) but in time, Dunson starts a ranch, and Matthew is there to pull his weight.

Cut to several years later, and the story quickly develops into a tug-of-war between cattle baron Dunson, and his adopted son Matt (now Montgomery Clift,) during a lengthy cattle drive.  Wayne has a tyrannical way of dealing with the men on his cattle drive, and Clift is increasingly sympathetic — this is where much of the conflict develops.  The original story by Borden Chase, which appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, has Matt kill Dunson at the end.  Which truthfully, would have been the better ending.  To see this story get really good and dark and conflicted, only to wimp out and the end, is kind of a bummer.

Bits of action and adventure pop up along the way, and just at the right moments.  The cinematography shimmers silver (probably the nitrate decomposing,) and it adds to the distinctive feel of Red River, immeasurably.  Director John Ford was so impressed by Wayne’s performance that he was reportedly quoted as saying, “I didn’t know the big son-of-a-bitch could act!”  Though some sources claim he said “lug” and not s.o.b.

Production took place in 1946, although the film didn’t get a release until ’48.  The film was nominated for multiple Academy Awards, and in 1990 was selected by the Library of Congress for the National Film Registry.  The AFI has additionally listed Red River as the 5th best western movie of all time.  Director John Carpenter, a huge Howard Hawks fan, also lists this as one of his very favorite Hawks films.  Like I said, it gets better after the initial 20 minutes.  One more thing, you wouldn’t notice by his performance, but this was Montgomery Clift’s first movie.

#8  Rio Bravo (1959)

Here we come to another perennial John Carpenter favorite.  He remade it twice.  First as Assault on Precinct 13, and then many years later as Ghosts of Mars.  Assault was a pretty good low budget action film.  Mars, unfortunately, was not.  Rio Bravo has the unique distinction of being one of those westerns that have been remade several times.  The original director, Howard Hawks, even remade it — Twice !  First as El Dorado, and then as Rio Lobo — with original screenwriter Leigh (The Big Sleep) Brackett redesigning the story each time.

The story takes place in Presidio County, Texas.  The town Sheriff, played by John Wayne,  is assisted in the arrest of a wanted fugitive by a Sheriff’s Deputy who’s also the town drunk.  He’s played perfectly by Dean Martin.  Once they get the fugitive in jail, the bad guys arrive and begin a campaign of intimidation to force Wayne to let their brethren go free.  The Sheriff knows it’s only a matter of time before the bad guys storm the jail, so he gathers a motley group, deputizes them all, and holds up inside the jail, awaiting the Calvary, so to speak.

On the surface it’s a great American western, with an aura of adventure all around it.  But Rio Bravo has dealt with occasional controversy over the years, really as a result of Wayne and Hawks “intentions” with the film from the outset.  Both men were insulted by the film High Noon, and admitted frequently that they only made Rio Bravo as a conservative statement on how they felt the story should have been told.  Director Howard Hawks had this to say:  “I made Rio Bravo because I didn’t like High Noon. Neither did Duke. I didn’t think a good town marshal was going to run around town like a chicken with his head cut off asking everyone to help. And who saves him ? His Quaker wife. That isn’t my idea of a good Western.”

Wayne supported the blacklist during the McCarthy era, and even helped run the screenwriter of High Noon out of the Country as punishment for its bold stance on McCarthyism.   Being an ardent supporter of Joseph McCarthy, Wayne naturally hated one specific aspect of High Noon: everyone abandons the local Sheriff — just like everyone abandoned those who were questioned during the hearings.  But in the case of High Noon, the everyman stood up for himself and won.  Conservatives who mindlessly supported Joseph McCarthy out of fear of the phantom Communist agenda lol were naturally not comfortable with the message sent by High Noon.  So Wayne and Hawks designed Rio Bravo so that the Sheriff is instead joined by a motley group of supporters, which itself grows as the story evolves.  I guess John Wayne’s logic was supposed to be rat out your friends and you’ll be supported for it, and we’ll all be friends.  Or something like that; people who supported Joseph McCarthy were never really clear on their reasons.  Many have targeted the fear of fear itself.

In any case, the movie generated a good story with a fresh structure.  And like all the others on this list, it was a terrific influence.

#9  The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966)

Very amusing action/western.  For those uninitiated, this film was the third and final in “The Man With No Name” trilogy, created by Sergio (Once Upon a Time in the West) Leone.

Fresh and often inventive (as Leone’s films often were,) The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly starts by introducing the three main characters, one at a time, and each with a title card and distinctive musical note, which follows a unique entrance.  Stylish fun, really.  The film is really a dark comedy from beginning to end.  The plot follows Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and Eli Wallach, as they separately search for a cache of Confederate gold.  And there’s an epic sense to it all, thanks mainly to Leone’s constant shifting of the narrative and multiple set-pieces. There’s even a statement on war in general, as the characters each navigate the death and destruction of the American Civil War, while searching for the hidden plunder.

Most of the dialogue is out of sync, because many of the actors clearly aren’t really speaking English, and because much like director John (The Tailor of Panama) Boorman, Leone choose not to record dialogue on set.  The relationship between Leone and Eastwood was reportedly strained from the beginning, and Leone’s refusal to record dialogue on set didn’t exactly help.  But Eastwood was primarily aggravated by Leone’s insistence on shooting multiple takes (ala Kubrick) from multiple angles.

The original script title was The Two Magnificent Tramps.  And although the studio wanted to call it The Man With No Name to better capitalize off the success of the previous two films, Leone’s “chosen” title, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, remained.  In addition to other problems between Leone and Eastwood, Eastwood was not too happy about sharing screen time with Wallach or Van Cleef.  And Wallach complained that director Leone wasn’t too preoccupied with the safety of his actors, and cited numerous instances where he was almost severely injured during shooting.  This may sound sadistic on my part, but knowing all of this makes much of what happens even more humorous.

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly was voted one of the 100 Greatest Movies of the last Century by Time Magazine.  Director Quentin Tarantino has called it the best directed film of all time.  And author Stephen King referenced the film, along with Eastwood’s portrayal of The Man With No Name, as the principal inspiration for the character of Roland Deschain in his Dark Tower books.

#10  The Wild Bunch (1969) 

Violence, incarnate.

The plot of The Wild Bunch concerns an aging group of  outlaws facing retirement, who plan and implement one last crime — the robbery of a railroad office, holding a cache of silver coins.  But, they’re set up by a former gang member who’s now a railroad detective.  Members of the gang are killed, and the survivors escape across the border to a Mexican town, in the grip of a General in the Mexican Federal Army.  And everything goes literally South for our central characters from there.

The themes of betrayal, and of outlaws from the Nineteenth Century finding their place in the Twentieth Century is clear by the end of the film.  And the later has been copied endlessly since.  (Including by this author.  There’s even a scene where the Outlaws inspect an automobile.  It’s the old world meets the new.  Something I had the character of Tom Horn do in the first draft of my novel “Western Legend,” ignorantly believing that it had never been done before.  After screening The Wild Bunch, I left the passage in — along with various other passages with similarities to other notable westerns I had yet to watch.  It happened again, and again.  By the time I had finished the seventh draft, I had found similarities to scenes in at least 11 classic movies, and one TV movie.  I chalk it up to homage, but it was really ignorance of the genre and medium that caused such similarities to stack up along the way.)

The film was at the time of its release (and is still today) known for repeated ballets of visual violence, with buckets of blood thrown in for good measure.  It was one of the films labeled a “revisionist western” by critics, because it dodged some western cliche’s to the great consternation of many western fans.  And in the process, created a great work of cinema, notably appreciated by students of film as art.

The director was reportedly sick of the lack of realism in westerns and given the current state of the world, came to the conclusion that something had to change.   Some of the techniques director Sam Peckinpah used involved bizarre editing, eventually acknowledged as revolutionary in film.  And in tandem with undercranking and overcranking the camera.  (slow motion, speeded up motion)  This, at the time, was a technique not often seen by American audiences.  And it was partially influenced by a young editor the director had worked with in Television.  The editor showed Peckinpah some footage from a one-of-a-kind slow motion sequence he had cut together for TV, portraying a character being shot.

It was visually arresting, and Peckinpah enthusiastically took the technique a step forward once on location in Mexico.  He instructed the camera men during the action sequences to adjust the frame rate, sometimes down, sometimes up.  What he ended up with were shots of varying speeds.  Some slow motion, some slower, some faster.  This decision briefly haunted the director once in the editing room.  He needed a succession of shots to tell his story, but he hadn’t storyboarded for the excessive time wherein the slow motion would play out.  As a result, a gunfight only a few pages long, would be edited together and clock in at 20 minutes.  And in some cases, it was impossible to re-cut the sequence without creating confusion.  However, when these shots were cut together, it created a very unusual ballet of motion and violence.  And all of it would one day become synonymous with Director Peckinpah.

But probably the most quietly revolutionary thing the director did (ironically) was require that new gunshots be created for the soundtrack.  A separate sound for each gun.

Warner Bros. and Seven Arts practically rushed the film into production once Peckinpah had agreed to rewrite and shoot the spec script of The Wild Bunch — mainly to beat Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to the screen.  The two scripts were reportedly very similar in theme.

The film was nominated and won several awards, and in 1999 was placed in the National Film Registry by Congress.  And the AFI ranked it #6 in its list of the best westerns ever made.  Film critic Roger Ebert saw the film as a part of a Warner Bros. press junket in 1969 and immediately claimed it a “masterpiece.”  In 1993 Warner Bros. resubmitted the film to the ratings board, expecting to get an “R” and got an “NC-17” instead.

#11  Unforgiven (1992)

While The Wild Bunch ended with a statement on aging gunfighters, Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven embodied that statement from beginning to end.  The story starts simply and quietly.  We are given information and we surmise the rest.  Eastwood plays a former outlaw and cold blooded murderer who was turned around by a woman he fell in love with.  Now elderly and a widower, he’s not the same person he was when he was younger.  He’s a father now.  And he’s more mature, thoughtful about his actions, and reluctant to embarrass himself by repeating his past actions or worse, fall back into a dangerous pattern of violence — which we deduce was fueled by a change in his personality when under the influence of alcohol.  Never get this guy drunk, that’s the best way to put it.

The script was originally titled The William Muney Killings, and written in the mid 1970’s by David Webb Peoples, the co-writer of Blade Runner.  And it is ironic that both films use the conventions associated with noir cinema, to great effect.

Regardless of Eastwood’s feud with Sergio Leone, he dedicated this film to both Leone, and Don (Dirty Harry) Siegel.  The film won numerous Academy Awards, including Best Picture.  Note that Unforgiven was only the third western to win the prestigious Best Picture Oscar, behind Cimarron and Dances With Wolves.

The film was listed at#4 on the AFI’s list of the top ten western films of all time, and was admitted into the National Film Registry in 2004.  And after the film’s release, the poster you see above won an award given out by The Hollywood Reporter, called the “key art” award.

#12  Pat Garret and Billy the Kid (1973) Director’s Cut

Probably the best example of the now typical Corporate response of tampering with anything that resembles high art — and instantaneously cutting the chances the film has at making a profit, by two thirds.  (And as icing on the cake, sabotaging their own investment.)  Pat Garret and Billy the Kid was pretty much the dawn of that disgusting shit.

Peckinpah sought to make this film the third act of a trilogy that included Ride the High Country, and The Wild Bunch.  Thus book-ending a visual novel.   And he really put his heart into this.  The story, very simply, is loosely based on historical information available concerning Pat Garret’s killing of his friend and fugitive, William “Billy the Kid” Bonney.  Peckinpah re-wrote an original script by Rudolph Wurlitzer himself, and turned it into an epic tragedy of two friends, who wind up on opposite sides of the law.  (Shades of The Wild Bunch)  It’s sounds close to the authentic history, but it’s not intended as an historically accurate film.

People have complained about the casting choices, but those people aren’t really getting the point.  Bob Dylan as “Alias” is a wonderful addition to the substance of the film.  Yes, in truth, he has no fucking reason for being in there whatsoever.  However, this is a Peckinpah film, not a history lesson.  So Dylan’s purpose is merely aesthetic.  And on that basis alone, his character works wonderfully — in fact, the film has a wonderful cast.  And, this is the director’s last truly great film.  In my opinion, anyway.  An artistic accomplishment as visually disgusting as it is beautiful.  Which was precisely what made a Peckinpah film a Peckinpah film.

It’s sad that at the time of its release, the behind the scenes turmoil was more well known than the film itself.  Sam Peckinpah unsuccessfully fought interference by the head of Metro Goldwyn-Mayer on this film.  I mean that guy just harassed the hell out of Peckinpah; gave him hell.  And this was right on top of both technical problems, and much of the crew coming down with Influenza.  And what was worse, the more the studio harassed the director, the more heavily he drank.  And he was tough.  There were no slimy corporate methods of intimidation that worked on him.  The studio even spread false rumors about him and the production of his/their film, making it sound much, much worse than it really was.

But Peckinpah persevered, somehow.  He managed to just barely complete the picture with the footage he needed, it took almost two million dollars and 21 days more to get him there, due to all the difficulties during shooting, but he got there.   And the studio promptly removed him from the picture during final editing, completely re-cutting the film, releasing a very embarrassing movie and actually blaming Peckinpah for it.

Peckinpah had finished his Director’s Cut by 1973, and just before being fired by the studio, screened it for critics.  Martin Scorsese was present and called it Peckinpah’s best film since The Wild Bunch.  But this version of the film would not be seen by the public for many years.  The head of the studio ordered the film cut from 124 minutes to 106 minutes.  If you round off those numbers that’s almost 20 minutes of excised footage !

The film naturally flopped and critics universally panned the hell out of it, calling it “incoherent.”  When Roger Ebert reviewed the film, he gave it two stars, and noted that the studio would have been better off releasing Peckinpah’s version.  The picture was completely disowned by the cast and crew once they saw the studio’s version of it.  And while Peckinpah had in his possession his own director’s cut, which he often screened for friends in his own defense, Pat Garret and Billy the Kid was a massive blow to his career.   He practically made this film coming off The Getaway, a massively successful film for Peckinpah.  And now … now he was considered a land mine by Hollywood.

In 1988 the director’s cut was finally made available to the public on home video and the response was very enthusiastic.  In 2005 the DVD was released, which is when I first saw it.  Even though I consider myself a moderate fan of the director’s work, I was amazed by it.  There is also a “third” version included on the DVD, which includes various elements of both the theatrical and director’s cuts.  It’s worth checking out, as well.

#13  The Professionals (1966) 

Based on the novel, “A Mule for Marquesa” by Frank O’Rourke, The Professionals is a fantastic blend of character study and hard-hitting action.

A wealthy man (Ralph Bellamy) hires a weapons expert (Lee Marvin,) an explosives specialist (Burt Lancaster,) a horse wrangler (Robert Ryan,) and a scout with Apache skills (Woody Strode,) to rescue his wife (Claudia Cardinale) from a Mexican bandit (Jack Palance.)

Not as much an “Oater” as an action/adventure film, The Professionals has been a mainstay of critics lists for many years.  I viewed it initially as a study in cinematography, after having watched Visions of Light: The Art of Cinematography on Laserdisc, back in the early 1990’s.  (Conrad W. Hall was nominated for an Academy Award for his work on this one.)  But I came back to this film when turning my screenplay “Western Legend” into a novel, and I now believe my book greatly benefited from that second round of viewings.

There’s a lot to inspire in this one, just be default.  Richard (In Cold Blood, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Blackboard Jungle) Brooks, who wrote and directed the film, imbued it with strong dialogue, creative, yet hard action, great performances by the actors, and a twist ending.

And there’s a lot more going on here than you expect.

Great movie — I highly recommend it !

 

**

#14  How the West Was Won (1962)

Spectacular All-Star Old-Fashioned Epic Thingee !  This movie is still one of the most anomalous, yet ambitious movies in cinema history, for multiple reasons.  I mean there literally is no other western like it. There were only two films made using the Cinerama process.  Some people even argue that it was nothing more than a “stunt.”  But trust me, seeing it up on a big screen opens your eyes.

Inspired by a series of articles in Life magazine, the film follows four generations of a family on their westward expansion across the Country in the Nineteenth Century.  Split into several segments, these sequences were variously directed by John Ford (The Searchers, Stagecoach,) Henry Hathaway (The Sons of Katie Elder, True Grit,) George Marshall (Destry Rides Again, Houdini) and Richard Thorpe (The Prisoner of Zenda, Jailhouse Rock.) The story goes from The Rivers in the 1830’s, to the Plains in the 1850’s, to the Civil War & The Railroad in the 1860’s, to The Outlaws in the 1880’s.  And it’s quite a ride.  The movie ends with some of the stock footage showing L.A. and San Francisco in the 1960’s, evidencing the molding of a raw Country into a modern civilization.  And there are so many celebrity actors who pop along the way, you need a notepad and pen to keep up.

The film was advertised as being shot in the Cinerama process, although some of the Cinerama footage is actually stock footage acquired by the studio. But forget that,  this is a film which involves a triple-camera process that spreads across a screen so wide that you feel like you are literally there.  And that has a massively visceral effect on the viewer.  I saw this thing in a theater in L.A. once and man, you can get drunk watching it, but what an amazing experience !  Kevin Costner cited this as one of his principal influences as a director, and talked repeatedly in interviews about the Cinerama process.  For years I wondered if he was just nuts, or what.  But seeing the film on a big enough screen, changes anyone’s perspective instantly.

A new Blu-ray transfer was released not long ago, which fairly accurately replicates the curved screen effect and removes the two process lines which strip the screen in-between the three separate camera shots. There’s special feature on the Blu-ray called “Smilebox” which curves the image to replicate the Cinerama experience.  I haven’t screened it yet, but I’ve read it approximates the experience.  Worth checking out.  Here’s a screenshot I got off blu-ray.com:

CLICK ON IMAGE FOR LARGER

The film was nominated for several Academy Awards and won a handful.

#15  The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)

Travel this Country, bring up the topic of the movie western, and pull out a stop watch.  Twenty-five to thirty seconds — at the most — and you ‘ll hear “The Outlaw Josey Wales“; you can clock it; I shit you not.

Being yet another example of the revisionist western, the film tells the story of a simple farmer, who following the violent murder of his family by pro-Union Jayhawkers during the American Civil War, is initially driven mad, then driven only by revenge.  He joins up with Bloody Bill Anderson’s Bushwackers. (Guerrillas on the Confederate side of the war.)  And presumably spends many years with them.  His name is known by Union Soldiers, and they are hoping for his surrender.  Right off the bat, the film does a good job making Josey Wales a mythical character, by elevating his status as a dangerous individual above that of historical blood-letter, William T. “Bloody Bill” Anderson.   

As the war comes to a close the Union entices these men into surrendering and giving up their fighting in exchange for amnesty.  Several of the men go into a Union camp, but Wales watches from a distance.  When he realizes the men will be executed, he sneaks into the camp, and creates a diversion using a Gatling Gun.  And in the skirmish that follows, he manages to save some of their lives.  But he winds up a fugitive with his face on wanted posters all over the Country.

Now on the run from Union Militia Men and bounty hunters, Wales heads for Texas with the hope that he can make a new life there.  Along the way, he has several encounters that test his character and his metal.  And he also accumulates a motley group of followers, also looking for a place to plant their feet.  Eventually, all of these characters end up barricaded inside a small ranch house built withstand an Indian attack — with those hunting Josey Wales doing the attacking.

Wales survives to face his pursuer in a bar.  The man chasing him for the Union essentially gives him a head start and lets him go.  Wales rides off.

Here’s the truly NASTY part, so let me get this out of the way.  The film was based upon a book written by a man named Asa Earl Carter, who “claimed” to be a Native American Cherokee, and A) who was also a member of the “Klan,” and B) a controversial “anti-Semite” speechwriter for Governor George Wallace.  He wrote the book “The Rebel Outlaw: Josey Wales,” also titled, “Gone to Texas,” under the pseudonym Forrest Carter.  No shit.  The guy who wrote the book Outlaw Josey Wales was based on — was a wacko racist.  Weird, man.  Almost makes you wanna never watch the fucking movie, again.  If his estate got one penny from it, I probably wouldn’t.    

The script was worked on by four separate writers, including directors Michael (Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, The Deer Hunter)  Camino and Phillip (The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid) Kaufman.  The picture actually started with Kaufman as director, but he and Eastwood had a personality conflict that got worse and worse, until Eastwood instructed his co-producer to fire Kaufman.  The Director’s Guild of America fined Eastwood $60,000 for it and instituted a new union rule that disallowed a producer from firing a director and replacing him with himself.  How much of Kaufman’s footage remains in the film has never been disclosed.

Most critics praised the film on its release and Eastwood has referred to The Outlaw Josey Wales as one of the high points of his western making career. Thematically, Eastwood has referred to it as an anti-war film.  In 1996 the film was selected for the National Film Registry, and it was also listed as one of Time magazine’s Top 10 films of the Year in 1976.

#16  The Magnificent Seven (1960)

The Seven Samurai in the West.  Filmed by the guy who made The Great Escape.  What could go wrong ?  Absofreakinlutely Nuthin !

Mexican villagers are being terrorized by a bully and his company of bandits.  Members of the village approach a professional gunfighter, and persuade him to hire six others to help protect the residents from the bully and his men.  Very little payment is offered, yet six capable men are recruited.  Maybe they’re eager to stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves, maybe they’re eager to test their metal, maybe they’re bored.  In any case, all are ready for Action !  You really don’t want me to spoil the rest do ya ?  Great action, great exposition between the characters, great music — see it, you’ll like it.

Sometimes “Hollywood” movies can be a bad thing.  We all know that.  But sometimes, they can be a GREAT thing.  And The Magnificent Seven remains one of those great occasions. Sequels were made, none this good. The Elmer Bernstein score was so good, it was nominated by the Academy.  And it was instantaneously so memorable, many over the years chose to license it and reference it.  Commercials, TV Shows — a bit of it can even be heard in the 1979 James Bond film, Moonraker

And the referencing didn’t end with just the music.  Michael Crichton wrote and directed a film called Westworld, which utilized Yul Brynner in the role of a highly advanced robot made to interact with tourists in a futuristic theme park.  The robot was based on the character he played in The Magnificent Seven.  If you’ve seen Jurassic Park, then you know the plot — things go wrong, robots start attacking people.  (Crichton admitted he pretty much recycled the structure and plot of Westworld, for Jurassic Park.  As a side note, there has been some suggestion that Jurassic Park originally started as a sequel Crichton offered to MGM as a follow-up to Westworld.  However, this was never confirmed to be anything other than rumor.)

The Magnificent Seven also inspired (along with The Seven Samurai before it) a low-budget Roger Corman produced Sci-Fi film, called Battle Beyond the Stars.  The film’s structure and plot are essentially identical to the two films that came before, and actor Robert Vaughn more or less repeats his character here, in a more Sci-Fi incarnation.

Brynner complained that McQueen spent most of the film not merely “trying,” but successfully upstaging him every time the two were on camera together.  McQueen quit his own TV show Wanted: Dead or Alive, as a direct result of the success of The Magnificent Seven.  

#17  Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

Another revision, but the most popular of all with the mainstream public.

William (Harper, Maverick) Goldman’s screenplay was based on the story of Robert Leroy Parker (alias Butch Cassidy) and Harry Longabaugh (alias the Sundance Kid) and the numerous train robberies committed by their “Hole in the Wall Gang,” before the Pinkerton Detective Agency literally chased them out of the Country.  Eventually realizing they have no where left to run, Butch and Sundance take off for South America with Sundance’s girlfriend initially accompanying them.  She leaves, they start robbing payroll carriers all over Bolivia, and eventually, the two outlaws are cornered by an entire garrison of South American troops. And I’m sure you know the rest.

My principal interest in this one was the centerpiece of the film — a very long pursuit, wherein Butch and Sundance evade a Pinkerton Detective named Joe Lefors, and his Native American tracker, Lord Baltimore.  This sequence is completely original in it’s simplicity and overall integrity of economical storytelling.  There’s so little dialogue, I’m sure the studio people were wondering why the hell this was done and if they should try and force the director to reshoot it.  But it works its magic, so it’s a good thing they didn’t cause a ruckus over it.

Goldman was initially a novelist, who researched Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid for eight years, before he decided he didn’t really want to write the book.  So he turned it into his first screenplay and sold it for a record $400,000.00: his asking price.  He felt the years of research and the potential the script had, justified his asking price.  It was bold and cocksure, I’ll give him that.

The pairing of Newman and Redford was magic and resulted in some truly great comedic moments on film.  At the time of its release, it got good reviews, it got bad reviews, but it quickly became a phenomenon, regardless of any of that.  And Newman and Redford and their chemistry together, were cited by many as the reason.  For this reason, they repeated their unique pairing in the film, The Sting.  

Steve McQueen, Jack Lemmon, Warren Beatty, and Marlon Brando were all offered one of the two parts in the film, and turned it down before Robert Redford accepted.  The actual name of Butch Cassidy’s Gang was “The Wild Bunch.”  This was changed to “The Hole in the Wall Gang,” to avoid confusion with Sam Peckinpah’s film, The Wild Bunch.  Financially, the film’s gross is wedged in between Goldfinger and Thunderball.  Not a bad balance sheet for a western to be hanging out on.  A prequel called Butch and Sundance The Early Days was released in 1979, directed by Richard Lester, and starring Tom Berenger and William Katt.  It cost $15 Million and made only $5 Million.  William Goldman did not write it, in fact the film was written by a writer of television sitcoms.  But nonetheless, noted author and film critic Harlan Ellison has voiced his opinion that the prequel film is a vast improvement over its predecessor.

The film was nominated and won a handful of Academy Awards, it also won a handful of British awards, and the Writer’s Guild of America awarded William Goldman their Best Original Screenplay of the year award.  In 2003 the film was placed into the National Film Registry, and it sits at #7 on the AFI’s list of the top 10 Best Westerns ever made.

#18  Lonesome Dove (1989) TV Mini-Series

The production was derived from two sources.  The first was the best-selling novel which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1986.  The other was the original screenplay which the book was based on.  Writer Larry McMurty had originally drafted the script in the early 70’s, as a starring vehicle for actors John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, and Henry Fonda.  That “original” version of this film was proceeding when John Wayne backed out, and the entire project fell apart.  Wayne had apparently been advised by director John Ford not to take the role.  After the novel was published in the early 80’s and won the coveted Pulitzer Prize, directors John Milius and John Houston each attempted to get it made, but were unsuccessful.  Finally, McMurty partnered with a television writer and turned the material into a mini-series.

The story is a lengthy, ever-changing soapy drama about a group of retired Texas Rangers driving cattle across Country, and everything that happens along the way.  (I will not give away any turns in the plot, that’s half the joy of this one.)  It really doesn’t sound all that enticing when you sum it up so simply, but the way it plays out is really grand, and with great atmosphere.  It was shot entirely on location and gets by with enough authenticity to suspend your disbelief throughout its entire run time.

Just about everybody who ever watched it, enjoyed it.  And almost everybody watched it when it premiered in February of 1989 on CBS.  I eventually saw it in a re-run; I was in boot camp in the U.S. Marine Corps. when the series originally aired.  But when I finally got a chance to catch up, I was thoroughly absorbed by it; just like everyone else.  It was a fresh take on the western, and a welcome one.  The show was even credited with once again regenerating the western genre.  And industry accolades rained on this thing so heavy, I refuse to redundantly list them here — that just isn’t necessary when everyone knows how good it is.

Some have claimed that the friendship between the two main characters, is based on a similar friendship between real life ranchers Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving.  Writer McMurtry has disputed this.  It runs just over six hours, but if you have the opportunity to do some “power watching” one weekend, I would highly recommend Lonesome Dove.

#19  Tombstone (1993), Wyatt Earp (1994)

Now we come to what I call, “I had no way of knowing that moment would be a turning point in my life.”

I was very entertained by many elements of each of these films when I initially saw them.  However, I was also massively disappointed that the infamous gunfight in Tombstone was not portrayed as accurate as I felt it could have been.  And it took some time for me to get over that.  Time enough for me to write up a screenplay treatment, eleven full drafts of a screenplay, (originally titled “American Western,” and eventually changed to “Western Legend,”) and almost as many drafts of the novel which followed.

Since then, I’ve viewed each of these films multiple times, and am happy to say I can now enjoy them for what they are, without condemning them for what they are not.  Mainly because any contempt on my part ended with the publication of my book; the centerpiece of which is a much more accurate retelling of the street fight in Tombstone.  Therefore, I guess you could say the influence these film had on me was rather profound.

Tombstone (released during the 1993 holiday season) comes off as more of a theme-park attraction, with heavy doses of in-your-face machismo.  Very much 1950’s Hollywood High-Adventure, intentionally contaminated by coarse language, and slight touches that resemble the work of Sergio Leone.  It’s story centers on the subject of its title: the events surrounding the Earps adversarial relationship with the Cow-boys Gang while in Tombstone, Arizona.

It has a cast list that reads like a guest list for an industry event of some kind: Sam Elliot, Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton, Powers Boothe, Michael Biehn, Charlton Heston, Jason Priestley, Stephen Lang, Thomas Haden Church, Dana Delaney, Billy Zane, Michael Rooker, John Corbett.  And that cute chick from Fletch — she’s in there somewhere, too.

The film has over time become a mainstay with western fans, due to it’s action sequences, it’s use of Robert Mitchum’s voice at the open and the close of the film, and several iconic moments in the film surrounding actor Val Kilmer’s portrayal of John Henry “Doc” Holliday.  Additionally, the film is very clearly inspired by a number of films that came before it.  Along with the work of Sergio Leone, others include: Gunfight at the OK Corral, Hour of the Gun, and even The Magnificent Seven. 

Tombstone was one of those movies that defied the odds to fall under the category of, “lucky it got made.”  According to a great interview with Kurt Russell in True West magazine, he was told about the original script in 1989 by his former agent, whom he still had a relationship with.  And at that time, writer Kevin Jarre was going to do the picture with Kevin Costner.  But Costner left, preferring to redevelop the idea into a sprawling bio pic, broadening the scope to refocus on not merely events in Tombstone in 1881, but rather on Earp’s entire life.  And he was keen on working with Lawrence Kasdan, whom he had worked with on Silverado.  So Costner left to develop his own movie.  But, once off the project, he managed to shut down all avenues of Tombstone getting released.  No studio in town would touch the film — except Disney.  This from Russell: “He (Costner) was powerful enough at the time, which I always respected.  I thought it was good hardball.”

With Costner gone, Russell moved into the Earp role, and he and Jarre brought in Willem Defoe to play Holliday.  Russell described Defoe’s version of the character:  “(he was) absolutely brilliant in his conceptualization of it.”   But Disney didn’t want Defoe.  Various sources claim this was due to his part in the controversial Last Temptation of Christ.  So Russell and Jarre brought in Val Kilmer.  Then, two weeks before filming, Russell was called into the office of the mogul who financed the film.  According to Russell, he was asked if he would step aside and play Doc Holliday, and allow Richard Gere to play Wyatt Earp.  Russell said no, stating that he and Jarre were happy with the situation they currently had.

Filming began, but there were problems with Jarre’s inability to recognize the limitations of their budget.  According to Russell, the script needed to loose 20 pages and Jarre never would loose those 20 pages.  Russell warned Jarre that those in charge of financing and distribution had the legal right to fire him for his stubbornness, but Jarre wouldn’t listen.  Quickly thereafter, Jarre was  fired.  And to make matters worse, there was fallout.  According to Val Kilmer over 100 people quit or got fired after Jarre left.  “(and) that’s gotta be some kind of a record.”

Soon after, Kurt sat down to somehow remove 20 pages, from what he termed a Western-Godfather.  He knew he wanted a talented cast, and they would want and deserve more screen time, so Russell made the drastic decision to cut his own part (that of Wyatt Earp) way down, and make it, in his words, “more of an ‘aura’ character.”  Meaning you meet and see Earp, he’s your subject of interest, but other characters fill in the details.  Either while he’s off screen, or in the third person right in front of him.  Russell:  “But it wasn’t fun to do that.  It wasn’t fun to cut out eight of the reasons you wanted to do the movie.”

From there, the film needed a director.  Those in power actually offered the reins to Kurt Russell, even though he had never directed a film before.  Russell turned it down.  He has since stated that he didn’t want his name on it.  And though he hasn’t stated why, it’s a good bet that industry politics are to blame.  So he called Sylvester Stallone and said, “I need a guy.”  Stallone recommended Geroge P. Cosmatos, director of Rambo: First Blood Part II, Cobra, and Leviathan.  Stallone had used him as a surrogate, or “ghost” director twice.

So Russell met with Cosmatos, and laid down the law.  He would come to his room every night and give him a shot list, and Cosmatos could not deviate from it.  And no one on the production could know. “George and I had a sign language going on,”  Russell explained.  And though a few of the actors and crew did catch on, there were apparently no problems for the remainder of the shoot.  But under a tight budget, it was grueling.  Russell has stated that it was the hardest work of his life, and that he only got 4 hours of sleep a night.  Which to those who’ve seen the film, explains that look in Wyatt’s eyes through most of the movie.

Once the film was completed, Russell’s role was diminished.  Possibly by union rules.  “I didn’t get a chance to edit the movie, which I thought was unfortunate because it would have been once of the greatest westerns ever, ever, ever made.  And it’s pretty damn good.  We had a great cast.  A phenomenal script.”  He was, however, allowed access to video of all footage shot, and maintains that he intends to someday edit together the longer version of Tombstone.

Although the film cost $25 Million and made only $56.5 Million, it was deemed a success by Disney Executives.  Actor Robert Mitchum, who narrates the film, was originally brought in to play Old Man Clanton.  But he was in a horse riding accident.  Instead of recasting, the role was cut from the film.  Actor Glenn Ford was originally cast to play Marshall White, but dropped out of the project.  Critical reaction was mixed, though True West Magazine called it one of the 5 greatest westerns ever made.

Wyatt Earp (released June of 1994) is stylistically different in every way from Tombstone.  While Tombstone is garish, Wyatt Earp is conservative.  While Tombstone is abrupt, Wyatt Earp is meditative.  The two films are as different as night and day.  Personally, I’ve never been able to decide which one I like better.  Both films have their charms, and their faults.  Therefore, it’s a tie !

Written by Dan (Passenger 57) Gordon and Lawrence (Raiders of the Lost Ark) Kasdan (who also co-directed with an “uncredited” Costner,) the film is pretty much what Costner wanted it to be: a sprawling bio pic, spanning the life of one of the most legendary lawmen of the American West, Wyatt Earp.

And on the surface, it seems like it would be closer to historical fact than Tombstone.  But do your research and you’ll find it isn’t.  At least not enough to brag about.  There are a few interesting variances which slightly angle this picture toward historical accuracy.  But almost all are aesthetic.  A few of the set pieces, such as the size of the lot where the street fight in Tombstone took place, are drastically more accurate than anything you’ve seen before.  There are also some well researched wardrobe choices, bits and pieces of dialogue here and there, and the incorporation of a legendary supposed incident involving “Tommy Behind the Deuce”  — which like that Tyrannosaur in Jurassic Park, pops up just before the movie ends, just when you want it to.

But make no mistake about it, Wyatt Earp uses as much of the Earp mythos as anything else ever has, and the filmmakers have made it clear that they have no intention of apologizing for that.  They set out to make a bio pic and a big event movie, at the same time.  And while they claim they succeeded, audiences and critics begged to differ.  There are some pretty boring moments in this movie.  Rather prosaic moments in fact, that only the elderly truly appreciate.  And that is sad, given that there is so much great stuff to love here.

On a personal note, I really wish Warner Bros. would see fit to re-edit the deleted scenes available only as a special feature on home video, back into the movie.  They are great scenes and help balance everything out, nicely.

Much like Tombstone, Wyatt Earp  benefits from a great supporting cast.  The credits boast the likes of Gene Hackman, Mark Harmon, Jeff Fahey, Isabella Rossellini, Michael Madsen, Jobeth Williams, Bill Pullman, James Gammon, Jim Caviezel, Tea Leoni.  And Costner is great here as Earp; in fact this is one of his very best performances.  You can feel the cold, burning anger when he looks at people, suspiciously.  And Dennis Quad literally gives the performance of his career.  How he didn’t get nominated for a single award is one those great mysteries I’ve discussed with others, many, many times.  Makes no fucking sense whatsoever.

Wyatt Earp also joins the club of being yet another western nominated for an Academy Award for Best Cinematography.

#20 The Shootist (1976)

Directed by Clint Eastwood’s friend, mentor, and frequent collaborator Don (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Killers ) Siegel, The Shootist was Wayne’s final film.  Boasting a really great story and concept, the film nevertheless suffered a lukewarm reception from audiences, due mainly to its pat, television-like sensibility — which was growing stale with the public.  Critics on the other hand gave it mostly positive reviews.  The Shootist was named one of the 10 best films of the year, along with All the President’s Men and Network by the National Board of Review.  And was additionally nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe.

This was the movie that really caught me by surprise.  And I don’t mean that in a nice way.  Here’s how it happened.  In ’77 or ’78 when I was 6 or 7 years old, this film aired on CBS.  It didn’t do well at the box office, so I guess they sold it to TV fast.  Anyway, my Dad pleaded with me to watch it, and I respectfully declined.  Well … maybe not “respectfully.”  I remember my words being something along the lines of, “Does a man ride a horse through a spaceport?”  And my Dad responding, “Jimmy … nevermind … just nevermind.”  Yep, I was a Star Wars kid.

Cut to many years later.  I was on the seventh draft of my book when I finally sat down to watch it.  I got through around a half an hour of it, when I began to spot similarities between the substructure of the plot of The Shootist, and my book, Western Legend.  I felt like I’d been decked like the Ace of Spades.  After agonizing over it, I decided to embrace the similarities.  Screw it, anyone asks I call it homage.  Now ‘ya know.  Eventually, after repeated viewings, I fell in love with it.  But is was a terrible first date, lemme tell ya.

The film, based on a 1975 book by Glendon Swarthout, begins with a very exciting montage of footage of John Wayne, as other characters in older movies.  Including several on this list, and all narrated by then actor Ron Howard.  The function of this is to introduce these separate characters as a single individual — a real historical person — who is about to exist before our very eyes.  That type of thing.  And it works, initially.  But the film quickly falls into the mentality of using many traditional production methods to tell its story.  “And.” there’s no action in this movie.  There’s a shooting at the end, but it’s not much of a gunfight.  On the positive side, THAT’S EXACTLY THE POINT !  The film’s message is that a real gunfight in the West was never what it was thereafter cracked up to be.  Nor was a day in the life of a real gunfighter.

Wayne’s character arrives in Carson City, Nevada in 1901 to see an old friend of his.  A doctor played by Jimmy Stewart.  (An obvious play on their relationship in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.)  Wayne’s character has come for his diagnosis — and sadly, it is cancer.  Soon after, a young man played by Ron Howard recognizes Wayne as a legendary gunfighter he idolizes.  It doesn’t take long before word gets out, and it’s just a matter of time before The Shootist is forced into one last confrontation.   It ends with an anti-gun message.

Wayne found out about the movie after it went into development and campaigned for the role, winning out over George C. Scott.  Wayne had his personal horse “Dollar” written into the script (it was the young horse seen at the end of the film True Grit in 1969,) and he also had the ending changed.  In the original ending his character unexpectedly shoots a man in the back.  The Shootist shared certain story elements and themes with The Gunfighter, a 1950 film that Wayne had wanted desperately to star in.  The project had circled Hollywood for a bit before it landed at Columbia, and Wayne refused to work for Columbia due to a grudge against the head of the studio.  So Gregory Peck got the role.

There was an erroneous belief that Wayne actually had cancer when he made this film.  He was known to have been ill before the film went into production, and many just made the leap of assumption that it was cancer.  It was not.  Wayne had had cancer a decade before and had beat it.  Three years after this film came out, his cancer returned and he died soon after diagnosis.  His death in 1979 ended a career that began in 1926, in silent film.  He was one of the few actors in the silent era to have the chance to meet the legendary Wyatt Earp.  Spielberg had begged him to play one last role as General Stillwell, in his film 1941.  But Wayne turned him down.

#21  Dances With Wolves (1990)

Dances With Wolves started out as a “spec script” written by author Michael Blake.  In 1986, Kevin (Silverado) Costner suggested to Blake that he turn the material into a novel, thereby increasing it’s chances of getting it made as a film.  The book was published in paperback in ’88, and Costner immediately optioned the rights, with the intention of directing the film himself.  Somehow Costner used clout in Hollywood gathered from his successes as a bankable star, to get the movie into development.  And he got a budget of $15 Million to make it.  But due to complications during filming, the weather, and a few accidents, the film went over budget and Costner had to add $3 Million out of his own pocket to cover the expenses.  Many in Hollywood began terming the production, “Kevin’s Gate.”  A satirical play on the Michael Cimino film Heaven’s Gate; which cost a fortune, went way over schedule, and completely bombed at the box office.  Costner was in fact already being discussed in Hollywood as a failure.  The most difficult obstacles a director faces are as follows: being a first time director, working with children, working with animals, making a 3-hour epic as a first film, making a film with subtitles, making a film on location, and making a film in a genre that is considered a risky investment — i.e. a western.  And Costner had it all to contend with.

The story, which gradually becomes epic in scope, concerns a Union Lieutenant during the American Civil War, who boldly attempts suicide on the battlefield, fails, and later gets assigned to a post somewhere out on the frontier by a Senior Officer who’s himself suicidal.

Once reaching his post, Lieutenant Dunbar finds it abandoned and sets about to clean the place up.  It isn’t long before he garners a curious visitor in the character of a wild wolf.  And soon after, Dunbar is surprised by another visitor: a Lakota Indian.  The two men frighten the hell out of each other, and quickly part ways.  Afterward, Dunbar realizes that the Native American meant no harm, and boldly initiates further contact.

Over several months, the Lakota teach him their  language, name him “Dances With Wolves,” introduce him to a “white woman” who’s family was murdered by another warring Indian Tribe and adopted by the Lakota, take him buffalo hunting, etc. etc.  And all of it happens beautifully, thanks to some wonderful cinematography and truly grand music by John Barry.  And the score greatly contributes to the adventurously romantic feel of the movie.

Eventually, things get much more dramatic.  I won’t spoil the plot from there, but let’s just say Dunbar can only have his head stuck in the sand for so long, before someone comes looking for him.  And this results in the viewer getting a fly-on-the-wall perspective of what what it is to have your basic human rights violated by an invading force.

Costner was vindicated when this film was released like no other put-upon director in history.  It made a literal fortune, in comparison with it’s total budget.  And it won numerous Academy Awards, including Best Director, and a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture — Drama.  In 2007 the film was placed in the National Film Registry.  Dances With Wolves quickly became yet another film credited with revitalizing the western genre, and thus, is termed a revisionist western.

An “Extended Director’s Cut” has been available on DVD for several years and is now available on Blu-ray.  Costner claims no involvement with the extended cut, and maintains that the theatrical version is the only cut he prefers people see.

#22  Silverado (1985)

Come One, Come All !  And Bring The Kids !

Silverado has always been a unique western.  Co-written and directed by Larry (Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Wyatt Earp) Kasdan, the film was intended by Kasdan and his brother Mark (who co-wrote) to be a loving homage to the type of western they grew up with as kids.  A western the whole family could enjoy.  A western that embraced and honored certain cliche’s.  And with the exception of a brief moment or two, which I’m sure many would agree would be inappropriate for smaller children, they essentially achieved their goal.

The film was released weeks after Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider, and the same weekend as Back to the Future.  Ouch.  The film cost $23 Million to make, and although it only made just over $32 Million, Columbia considered the film a success.  Perhaps they got a better deal than the theater chains on the revenue stream, I don’t know.  Doesn’t make sense to me, their claim doesn’t add up when you break it down, mathematically.  But I love the movie, so let ’em lie forever as long as they’ll keep it active.

The story centers on a group of four strangers who band together to fight a corrupt Sheriff and his Rancher business partner, in the town of Silverado.  It’s one of the only westerns I’ve seen that features a black man as character in a role of equal standing.  It’s kind of fun to see something different for a change.  And it was Costner’s first visible role.  (He had played ‘Alex’ the friend who committed suicide in The Big Chill, but Kasdan cut him out.)  The movie was entirely shot on location, and the atmosphere that results is really awesome.  Truly one of those great outdoor adventure movies, thanks in part to some great cinematography.  And it really feels like as much of a fantastic adventure film, as as it is a western.  I used to read Starlog magazine religiously when I was a kid, and I noted several times that the magazine staff remarked that based upon the mail they were getting, Silverado was clearly the favorite western of Science Fiction fans.

But the film got mixed reviews.  Critics either loved or hated it.  Didn’t seem to be an in-between at all.  Roger Ebert commented that due to the film being made by the writer of Raiders of the Lost Ark, “it has some of the same reckless brilliance about it.”   In fact many critics cited the film’s resemblance to several old Hollywood westerns, and added that here the filmmakers have managed to bring a new sense of energy and fun into the mix.  One critic added that while many westerns tend to take a revisionist view of their material, Silverado fully embraces the old conventions with open arms.  Thereby making it one of the most original westerns in many, many years.  Ironically.

Many of the critics mused that if you did not enjoy the kind of adventure abundant in Raiders of the Lost Ark, along with small doses of the character relationships on display in Kasdan’s The Big Chill — then you probably would not enjoy Silverado.   The Big Chill ??  I actually read that on Wikipedia, and went, “huh ??”  But eventually my memory returned, and I remembered reading those same reviews back in ’85.  Several critics did contrast and compare the film this way.  I find that funny now.  Just the idea of a writer standing in a pitch meeting at a studio: “Just imagine, it’s Raiders of the Lost Ark … meets The Big Chill.”  Critics are sometimes so stupid, it’s palpable.  The only reason they were bringing up The Big Chill was because Kevin Kline was in the goddamn movie.  Other critics panned it, just calling the development of the character relationships the sinking of the ship.  They really didn’t get it at all.  Of course most of those people didn’t take their families to see the movie, either.    

But there’s a reason why Raiders just keep popping up.  That film’s unique style of action and adventure is sampled in Silverado, and quite often.  And it works really well, actually.  I always preferred the film over Pale Rider  — and as inferred above, so did most fans of the 1981 Spielberg/Lucas collaboration.  Too bad the studio didn’t (or couldn’t) use that to their advantage in the marketing of this film.  Raiders style adventure in the old west.  That’s half of what the film is.

The film was nominated for Academy Awards in Best Original Score and Best Sound Effects Editing.  By the way, the film features a very interesting cameo by Monty Python comedian John Cleese, that many still believe is one of the best performances of his career.

#23  Open Range (2003)

Kevin Costner not only keeps popping up in my own list of favorite westerns, but if he maintains his occasional involvement in the western genre, he could someday catch up with to Clint Eastwood’s own track record.  Seems to be his intention.

I saw this one and thought it was not merely a good western, but a very good film.  And I had high hopes that the astonishing use of actual gunshots in digital surround sound would create a word of mouth that would generate a renewed interest in the western genre.  What the hell, something’s gotta work eventually, right ?   Didn’t really work out that way.

Based on the novel, “The Open Range Men”  by prolific author Lauran Paine, the story focuses on an isolated incident during the “range wars” in Montana in 1882.  Yet another common man against a wealthy bully and his hired thugs kind of a deal.  There are all kinds of relationship themes and realistic character in evidence here. Some nice throw away moments, like Costner going after the dog in the rain.  LOL  And some really nice jarring moments, like the incident in the bar and the gunfight in the third act.  I really like everything about this one, including the late Michael Kamen’s score.  Just a great movie.

The film won several awards and got a really good response from critics.  The film cost $22 Million and made close to $70.  It broke even and made a profit — Hey !  Nice change of pace.

#24  The Long Riders (1980)

Director Walter (48 hrs. Extreme Prejudice) Hill’s sense of style is in full swing here.

The Long Riders, director Hill’s first western, isn’t all that accurate, historically.  Although four writers are credited (including the Keaches,) on imdb.com, Hill is also unofficially credited.  And it’s probable that he completely revised the script to his liking.  And Hill picks and chooses his historical accuracy, as he likes it.  Very much like a salad bar.

But it still makes for a very distinctive movie about the James-Younger Gang.  And the centerpiece is the Gang’s attempted raid of the First National Bank of Northfield, Minnesota in September of 1876.  A unique historical incident, wherein the Gang was in the process of robbing the local bank, when the town citizens unexpectedly fought back, and won.

As stated, much of what is shown to transpire isn’t quite the way the bank raid happened.  If the newspaper accounts had been followed by Hill more closely, this sequence could have been so much more of what Hill clearly intended.  The true nature of what happened step by step, was material tailor made for a Walter Hill film.  But this wasn’t the first film to portray the incident inaccurately, either.  The same can be said for director Phillip Kaufman’s earlier The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, in 1972, and before it, Nicholas Ray’s The True Story of Jesse James, in 1957.  To this day, this incident still hasn’t been translated to the screen accurately.  It’s only been generalized.  Which is why I did the research myself and wrote a more accurate version in Western Legend.

All of that aside, the film is a terrific example of Walter Hill’s distinctive and ultra-dynamic filming style.  And a great inspiration to any writer or filmmaker.  Like it or leave it, this is indeed one of those “auteur” films you hear about.  Yet another case where you’re reminded that true cinema is a director’s medium.  And not a medium that functions on the basis of a committee.

The director also made the unusual decision during pre-production of casting 4 separate sets of brothers, to play the actual brothers portrayed in the film.  The Keach brothers, the Carradine brothers, the Quade brothers, and the Guest brothers.  And the gimmick was used quite effectively in the film’s marketing.  View the trailer below to see what I mean.

The music score by Ry Cooder won the 1980 Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for best music.  The Long Riders cost $10 Million, and only made just over $15 Million.

#25  Tom Horn (1980)

And now we arrive at the end of Tom Horn’s life, the end of Steve McQueen’s career, and the end of my list.

Tom Horn was directed by a veteran television director named William Wiard, who may have stood in on-set only, as a surrogate for McQueen himself.  This was a project McQueen had been developing for years, along with his motorcycle in the jungle, gold hunting adventure Yucatan; which never got made.   And he had used actual journals kept by Tom Horn while he was in prison, awaiting his execution.   Like so many other westerns before it, McQueen designed Horn as a character of the old world, attempting to acclimate to the new.

It’s not really an action film, or a thriller, or even a drama, really.  It’s a story told in great little character moments.  But it’s central character isn’t just an aesthetic prop.  He’s the real deal, not a phony.  And that’s a very interesting element here.

I initially took a look at the Wikipedia article on the film, and something jumped out at me immediately that convinced me to stay away from it.  Tom Horn is listed as a gunfighter on Wikipedia.  Something he never was, by literal, and even metaphorical definition and illustration.  And that’s one of the things this film gets very, very accurate.  McQueen may not look anything like Tom Horn, much of what is portrayed may involve composite characters and stray from the facts.  But McQueen made sure to get his authentic impression of the authentic man, right.  And those who’ve done the research will tell you, it’s pretty damn close.  There have been others, here and there, but this is a studied, measured performance of the man’s psyche.  And it’s often very haunting.

The film manipulates information to composite the last few years of Horn’s life.  Including his arrest and hanging for the death of a teenager named Willie Nickell.  It gets really complicated from there, so I’ll just say that if Horn did kill young Willie, most historians agree that he only did, because he mistook the younger Nickell for the elder father.  Historically, rustling allegations had nothing to do with this incident.  In the film, though, Horn is hired to assassinate the father, who has been accused of rustling.  Horn does the job, only discovering in the immediate aftermath that he has shot a young boy and not his father.

The movie has great cinematography, and almost all westerns do, but it’s also very much in its tone and pacing, a 70’s film.  And that’s sad, really, given that audiences were done with that and the time, and so eager to move on to the 80’s.  Tom Horn cost $3 Million and made $9 Million, thereby recovering its cost and making a profit.  Not a large one, but the film was financially solvent.  McQueen had one other film released after this one: The Hunter.  It was sort of a modern-day western, where he played a real life bounty hunter.  It had its moments, but it wasn’t the final bow McQueen deserved.  Tom Horn is.

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Well, that’s my list.  A number of films got pushed off, to make room for honesty.  Such as Mark Rydell’s terrific film with John Wayne, The Cowboys, Quigley Down Under, the HBO TV Series Deadwood (mainly because I’ve still haven’t had a chance to watch beyond the initial 3 episodes,) Buffalo Bill and the Indians, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Pale Rider, High Plains Drifter,  Hang ‘Em High, A Fistful of Dollar & For a Few Dollars More, Mustang Country … and I still haven’t seen either Shane, or Little Big Man for that matter.

 


Odds & Ends 07/21/2011 (From Cowboys & Aliens to the Comic-Con)

THE COWBOYS & ALIENS TELEGRAM

There was a promotion held yesterday for the film Cowboys & Aliens which involved a website that allowed you to send a Cowboys & Aliens telegram to anyone, literally anywhere in the world — and for free, with a special coupon code.  You had to enter an email address for confirmation, therefore I assumed it was only one free telegram per e-mail. I initially sent three, to three separate production companies in the Los Angeles area.  A few minutes later, I decided to try my luck and go back and enter my three separate email addresses again, just to be sure.  Imagine my surprise when all three worked.  LOL !  I sent a total of SIXTY telegrams.  And each time I got an emailed confirmation.  Most of these went to production companies in Hollywood, and reading: “My book WESTERN LEGEND would make a much better movie !”  With my blog typed underneath.

[Although the telegrams that went to the producers of the movie, got a slightly altered version reading: “My book WESTERN LEGEND would make a great movie !”  I’m bold, I’m not stupid. ]

For fun I additionally sent one to my publishers Debra and Steven Womack at Whiskey Creek Press, and another to the managing editor of True West Magazine, Bob Bell.  For potential publicity I sent along two more to editors of Kirkus Reviews, one to the Nacogdoches Daily Sentinel (I’ve had previous contact with them about a possible article on the book,) one to the Northfield Historical Society, and one to the Tombstone museum for the Tombstone Epitaph.  I would have sent more, but by seven o’clock the code had expired … rofl.  I hope Warner Bros. got something out of that — I certainly did.

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READ ‘EM COWBOY ??  OK, SUITS ME

Apparently the 23rd (Saturday) is “Read ’em Cowboy !” National Day of the Cowboy event.  At least, someone said it is.  I read this on-line, and honestly have no idea if this is an actual designated movement to support literature.  It seems to be coming out of a single Barnes & Nobles store in Redlands, California.  But it fits with marketing my book, so I thought I’d mention it.  Read my book on Saturday.  Be good for ya.  Keep ya outta the HEAT !

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BOOK STATS

I keep getting questions on the stats of sales of the book.  How many have been sold, etc.  I have no idea; the Publisher apparently generate this information quarterly, and not before.

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GNARBLE IN THE SUN

My friend, Tiffany Turrill did this for a children’s book (The Journey of the Noble Gnarble) to be published October 1st, and written by Daniel Errico.  Amazing.  You can visit her website at: http://tiffanyturrill.daportfolio.com/

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COMIC-CON, A PERSNICKETY COMMENTARY

This is the week of the now MASSIVE Comic-Con in San Diego, California.  I went to this thing in the summer of 2001.  Met Ray Bradbury for the first time;  shook his hand.  Got snarled at by George Clayton Johnson (one of the writers on the original Twilight Zone,) attended a panel for the then soon to be released, remastered Director’s Edition of Star Trek: The Motion Picture — which was graced by the presence of Robert Wise: editor on Citizen Kane and Magnificent Ambersons;  director of The Body Snatcher, The House on Telegraph Hill, Day the Earth Stood Still, West Side Story, Sound of Music, The Andromeda Strain.  Got to watch a screening of The Last Starfighter — on film and pretty much alone; not a single sole was in there other than me. LOL.  Watched the promo for the original Smallville pilot, featuring a much older couple playing Ma and Pa Kent.  Sat in on the first Will Eisner Awards Ceremony — few people were there; this was a subdued yet incredible experience.  Saw lots of faces I knew from the comic book store I was working at in Burbank at the time.  Had dinner with some friends at the Lasagna House III, then saw Jurassic Park III … meh.

Stayed at the Marriott there at the Marina, in a very nice room.  Close ?  All I had to do was walk next door to the Convention.  Was amazing.  Had a breakfast in the Marriott Restaurant and when it proved vastly more expensive than what was quoted on the menu, I told the guy to bill it to a room number I came up with on the fly, and mentioned charging it too the “Underhill’s” account —  and believe it or not he walked away content with that bit of bullshit.

Toured the ground floor and saw, in addition to the occasional Movie or TV tie in, a LOT of dealer’s tables filled with COMICS and TOYS, etc., etc. Took a nice walk around the Marina one evening with a beautiful girl, then lost her name and number a day later. Shit.  Did a few of the panels — most pertaining to writing the field of comics and writing in general. All in all, it was a good time.

And none of it could be had, again.  I went back once more, and just stepped in for a visit with a complimentary badge. (I was with someone with pull.)  And even then, I could see everything had changed.  No more dealer’s tables.  No more comics for sale, no more toys, no more artists allowed to advertise and sell their work in the main room.  Oh, no, they had been pushed out, into another wing somewhere.  I mean I just wanted to leave, immediately.  And from what I have been told since then, everything has only gone further down hill.  Into the toilet of Hollywood commercialism.  It is now simply a convention wherein Hollywood connects with the fan-boy culture.  Panels about Movies and TV shows, lots of big banners and over-hyped entertainment properties.  Anything else you’ll see, be it toys or art or whatever, is directly tied to a major corporation.

Yet they still call it a Comic book Convention.  Comic-Con.

I’m told you can find the old school convention, but you have to walk for it and it isn’t what it used to be.  And you can no longer get a room at the Marriott, because while they put them up for reservation every year, they seem to go very, very unbelievably fast, and are said to be quite mysteriously occupied by guests of the Comic-Con, i.e. celebrities.

Two years later, I suggested to someone that when they go to the Comic-Con, they take a walk around the beautiful Marina at sunset with someone, like I did.  They came back in shock at my suggestion.  It was so crowded, there was no where to walk, and no privacy to really enjoy.  And it appeared to them to be that way, constantly.

I’d like to go back.  But the convention I once visited is not there anymore.  The public have been duped, completely into believing that the Comic-Con has simply “evolved.”  But in truth, the San Diego Comic-Con has been kidnapped and replaced with an imposter.  And a Corporate one at that.  The Con is no longer owned by the same people, and reportedly is co-owned by a few of the Studios.  Making it nothing more than a fucking marketing tool.

Oh well, so much for the idea of repeating my wonderful one-time excursion.


4th Excerpt from “WESTERN LEGEND”

For Those Who Came In Late:  Told in “false document,” the story of “Western Legend” details a chance encounter among a motley group of aging historical legends in the Autumn of 1899, their afternoon spent entertaining adventurous children with tales of the Wilder days of the West —  and an astonishing sequence of events that play out over the next 24 hrs.

The story so far: a young Irish immigrant has been terrorized by a full company of horse rustlers.  The Town Sheriff, and his friend and former Texas Ranger, John Armstrong, have discussed what they believe to be the current situation.  Armstrong has cabled the State Capital for assistance.

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The following is a brief excerpt from:

FOUR — AN EXCITEMENT ON MAIN

Down the street, the Sheriff glanced up from reading a small piece of paper, just in time to spot Armstrong separate from the Earps and begin jogging his way. In no time, The Major stepped back up onto the sidewalk next to his old friend, and appeared overjoyed with the current development. As the Earps and the crowd passed, heading to the Saloon, Armstrong gave the Sheriff the news, “Messrs. Virgil and James Earp, respectively. State Capital sent them here in response to my request. Can you believe that?”

“Uh, huh…right,” the Sheriff grumbled, suspicious, “and Frank James?”

“It’s coincidence, Alton — nuthin’ to get unsettled about.”

“Hope you’re right,” the Sheriff said, handing Armstrong the paper, “Barkeeper just passed me this note. Tom Horn just walked in his saloon and sat down.”

Armstrong quickly scanned the note, blinked in surprise, and looked down the sidewalk toward the Saloon. He could see the figure of the Barkeeper rushing back to his saloon, while throwing constant, nervous looks over both shoulders the whole way there.

The Sheriff commented, derisively, “You don’t s’pose State Capital sent ‘em all here, do you?”

Armstrong threw his friend a petulant look.

Behind them, Miss Spinners snuck past the men, yet again — yet again, having overheard everything.  Not a moment later — just as Virgil and Jim transferred from the gawking crowd, and into the Saloon — she hoofed it past the crowd in a most conspiratorial manner, and gossiped in heavy whisper, “…And I just heard Tom Horn’s in there as well; I think there’s a-gonna be a fight amongst ‘em — clear out, fast!”

Reaction from the crowd was varied. Some took off like a shot, some voiced disbelief. Others cried out in mock horror, while the rest merely engaged in further gossip.

And beneath it all, the adrenaline level of the Four Boys shot sky-high.

“Let’s go see Frank James,” J.D. said.

“J.D! Tom Horn is right in there!” Mahlon pointed at the saloon.

“ — And Frank James’ll prob’ly head straight for the saloon, J.D. — they always do that!” Foster begged.

“ — But it’s FRANK JAMES!!” J.D. cried out in desperation.

There was a pause. Then all four darted; with Mahlon commenting in exit, “Let’s go catch him!”

In a journal entry written the following day by a Francis Hall: “The previous morning, and from the second floor window of my little room, I stood with my backside upon the sill and watched as some young boys — I’d say between nine and twelve years, navigated a heavily trafficked street, like mice scurrying a live mine-field. And they come perilously close to getting stomped on by horse, wagon, and all manner of crowds, every step of the damn way.”