Monday, July 17, 2017

Another Look: THE LAST COMMAND (1955, starring Sterling Haydden)

I first saw this film when it aired on TV (probably WGN out of Chicago) in the late Fifties. Since then it has been little seen and largely out of circulation, though I understand it was available in VHS and only recently on DVD.

It made an impact on me for a number of reasons. First, by then (at the tender age of 9 or 10) I had become quite interested in all things Alamo. (This stemmed, at that point, mainly from the Disney-Davy Crockett phenomenon that swept the country through the mid-Fifties and from a great uncle who told me about visiting the actual Alamo down in Texas and being able to still see bullet holes in the structure.) Secondly, the Alamo sequence in this film had a number of things in stark contrast to what had been presented by Disney --- mainly that there were women and children present in the fort (which I thought had to be an error) and then the portrayal of Davy Crockett by actor Arthur Hunnicutt (more on that later). Third it was my introduction to actor Sterling Hayden, whose work I would seek out and enjoy in many movies thereafter --- and then enjoy as an author much later on.

The film is constructed around legendary Jim Bowie (played by Hayden). It starts out a little slow and talky during the months leading up to the breakout of the Texas war for independence from Mexico, portraying Bowie (correctly) as a wealthy land owner and quite close friend (exaggerated) of Mexican tyrant-on-the-rise Santa Ana. It touches on the death of Bowie's wife and children due to the plague, covers a restless period where Bowie is on the fence about which side he should take, and then culminates in him taking charge of the Texican volunteers at the Alamo and sharing overall command with William Travis (played by Richard Carlson in probably his finest role).
You all know the story from there. The decision is made to defend the Alamo at all costs, costing Santa Ana days and weeks of delay while Sam Houston builds a true Texas army. Crockett, expected to arrive with hundreds more volunteers only shows up with 29; Fannin's reinforcements due to come from Goliad breaks down and can't make it in time; the line in the sand is drawn --- cross over if you're willing to fight to the death, take your chances and flee if not (with all crossing over). And then the rousing final battle where 180 go down fighting bravely against several thousand.

Produced and released through Republic Pictures, this is a considerably more ambitious feature than the Disney feature (which was originally made for TV) though not nearly on the scale of John Wayne's epic THE ALAMO which would come five years later. The well known back story is that Wayne, who was Republic's biggest star for many years, had long wanted to make a film about the Alamo. Herbert J. Yates, the head of Republic, strung him along for a number of years. A script was even written and approved. But Wayne, wanting control to tell the Alamo story his way, insisted on producing and directing the film; Yates wanted him only as a star. Wayne left Republic Pictures over the dispute and Yates refused to release the prepared script to him. In the end, once Wayne's version was completed and released in 1960, there are a couple key scenes that closely mirror each other and of course the overarching story is the same. But otherwise the two films have their own distinctions and both, in my opinion, turned out pretty good.


Though THE LAST COMMAND did not receive an extravagant budget (such as Wayne's later version) it nevertheless was made to high production standards. It was produced and directed by Frank Lloyd (a two-time Academy Award winner). The musical score was by acclaimed Max Steiner (complete with title lyrics sung by Gordon MacRae, at that time super hot as the star of Oklahoma! on Broadway).
As Bowie, Hayden does his usual competent, low key job. As Travis, Richard Carlson (fresh from appearances in numerous sci-fi and horror B movies, including Creature From the Black Lagoon the year before) gives perhaps one of the best Travis portrayals I've seen to date; his speech upon drawing the cross-over-if-you're-willing-to-fight scene (which may not have ever truly happened in real life, but is great drama nevertheless) is stirring and the intensity on his face and in his eyes during the final battle seems to fit perfectly. In a relatively small role as a fictional love interest to Bowie, Anna Marie Alberghetti does an okay job (come on, for an Italian opera star playing a Mexican contessa, you gotta cut her some slack). The previously mentioned, Arthur Hunnicutt plays the Crockett role as yet another cantankerous old Indian fighter, the mold he fit comfortably in on so many other occasions (The Big Sky, El Dorado, to name a couple classics); he's always a joy to watch and listen to, but his Crockett is not only a distinct departure from other interpretations but somehow seems a little too backwoodsy for a man who traveled the country and served in Congress. The rest of the cast is filled out nicely by numerous character actors giving solid performances --- Ernest Borgnine, John Russell, Jim Davis, and Slim Pickens among them. Finally, J. Carroll Naish gives an interesting performance as Santa Ana, making him pompous and ambitious yet at the same time a bit sympathetic, something never done in other Alamo films.
When the final battle comes, it is rousing and exciting and very well done, even though the budget allowed, appearance-wise, for a very scaled down version of the old mission and the “horde” of Mexican soldiers seems stretched a mite thin in a few scenes.

All and all, THE LAST COMMAND is rousing and entertaining. As big a John Wayne fan as I am and much as it pains me to admit it, it stacks up very well in many regards against Duke's bloated, long-winded epic (which I still like a lot) and is considerably better than the dark, dour 2004 ALAMO starring Billy Bob Thornton.
It is now playing regularly on the Starz Western channel and well worth keeping an eye peeled for.




Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Noteworthy Reads: THE PECOS UNDERTAKER by Colby Jackson



Mel Odom, under his Colby Jackson byline, has been on a real tear across the Western fiction landscape this summer. Recently on these pages I wrote about THE MATAMOROS BULL, his latest novel in the Rancho Diablo series. On the heels of that, though not covered here, was the novella THE ARMADILLO'S HOLE SALOON. Both are mighty fine entries not only in the series, but in the Western genre overall.


Now comes the just-released THE PECOS UNDERTAKER, the first book in a projected new series featuring protagonists Charlie Stark and Maggie Buchanan. It is one of the most original and exciting page-turners I have come across in a long, long time!

At the start of the book, Charlie is an assistant undertaker to his mentor Mr. Henson; Maggie is a deputy working for her father, the town marshal. Both are loners with troubled pasts and few friends, though they have a rather tenuous relationship with each other.
Mr. Henson is tortured and killed for mysterious reasons by the vicious outlaw Angel Blunt and Charlie is shot and left for dead. Not long after that, Maggie's father is also killed by Blunt and his gang as the result of a raid that leaves many other Pecos citizens injured and dead as well. The worlds of Charlie and Maggie have been turned upside down and the two loners (now more so than ever) gradually strengthen their friendship and unify to put the pieces of their lives back together, always with the end goal of seeing Angel Blunt brought to justice. Charlie – even though a bit hot-tempered and handy with his fists – is nevertheless the calmer and more practical of the two; Maggie – cool, deadly with her brace of pistols and also quick to throw a punch – is the force that propels them forward.
Charlie no longer pursues the undertaker trade, though he still prefers dressing in a suit and tie such as he's become accustomed to; hence he is often still referred to as “the undertaker”. Maggie, discharged from her deputy duties by the new town marshal, continues to wear jeans and colorful blouses and to pack a pair of guns. Together they form a bail bond service and bounty hunt their own fugitives when the need arises.
They have several encounters with nasty hombres, learning as they go and becoming quite good at their trade. But they're always alert for something that will eventually lead them to Blunt and his gang and, without giving too much away, they achieve that in the rousing climax.

This is one of those books you never want to see end because it is that good, and you will definitely want to see more of Maggie and Charlie. The pace is fast, the action plentiful, the characters colorful and memorable, and the writing is top-notch.
I strongly, strongly recommend this book!

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Noteworthy Reads: CHIRICAHUA BLUES

 

This third installment of Frank Leslie's "Bloody Arizona" quartet of Yakima Henry tales is once again an action-packed romp featuring everything readers have come to expect from Leslie (who, as most everybody knows, also doubles as Mean Pete Brandvold). 

The characters are memorable (some of them in rather unpleasant ways), the plot twists and turns in unexpected and exciting ways, and the writing is rich in details that add that special Brandvold/Leslie touch. Yakima, nowadays the marshal of Apache Springs, is still finding his hands full with the two quarreling Kosgrove sisters in addition to trying to keep peace in the town. Additionally, much of the story this time around is focused on Yak's deputy --- the aging former outlaw known as the Rio Grande Kid --- who is escorting in a vicious killer and runs into trouble with some renegade Indians. 

The two parallel stories switch back and forth and the action comes so hot and heavy readers will be breathless trying to keep up.
Strongly recommended!





Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Noteworthy Reads: SHADOW MAN by Andrew McBride


SHADOW MAN is the second novel in Andrew McBride's Calvin Taylor series, though you needn't have read the previous title to thoroughly enjoy this one.

Taylor is a hard-bitten veteran of the harsh Southwest frontier, a former Army scout and prospector, now hired on to scout for the Cameron wagon train, a small outfit beginning the perilous trip from Ore City to Rio Azul. The undertaking would be brutal enough under any conditions but with some renegade Apaches under the leadership of a chief called Loco raiding throughout the area, Taylor tries his best to warn Major Cameron against starting out. But the people in Cameron's party are desperate and worn down by hard luck and getting to Rio Azul is their last hope --- so they're willing to take the gamble. And, in order to give them their best chance for survival, Taylor feels compelled to stick with them.
What follows is a rousing, gritty, action-adventure filled with drama, suspense, betrayal, tragedy, and even a hint of romance.

Taylor makes a terrific hero and the cast of supporting characters is also colorful and memorable. The story takes numerous twists and turns, pitting Taylor against odds that at times seem impossible to overcome --- yet by raw guts and determination, he does.

The real star here, ranking right alongside Taylor, is author McBride's writing skill. He paints a vivid picture of the time and place and relates gritty, unflinching scenes rich with the enduring spirit and sometimes the savagery of the times. Here is a writer to watch and to savor. I urge you to seek out all of his titles --- like I know I am going to.
You won't be sorry you did.







Friday, June 16, 2017

USE AMAZON SMILE - SUPPORT A WORTHWHILE CHARITY







For those who regularly shop via Amazon and perhaps are unaware, they now offer a very simple yet beneficial way for a portion of any of your purchases to go toward the charity of your choice. 0.5% of every purchase goes toward the designated charity. Costs you nothing yet, in volume, can mean a great deal to the selected cause.

Regular readers of this blog are well aware that I am a friend and supporter of Andrew Vachss --- not just his writing, but the bigger cause that said writing and all he does is aimed toward: The protection of the young and vulnerable who are at risk in so many ways from the predators in today's society.

One of the ways Andrew is fighting this war is his recent alignment with LDICP (Legislative Institute for Child Protection).  The goals of LDICP, in Andrew's own words, are: "To create, upon request, highly specific legislation to accomplish the goals of self-organized, grassroots organizations which intend to achieve a child protective objective. The passage of each piece of legislation is the goal, each time. So: no legislation to “form explanatory groups,” or “fight child abuse” or “raise public awareness.” Examples of what legislation might be requested include: Closing the loophole in the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act that allows non-lawyer volunteers to “represent” children in abuse/neglect cases. Raising the stakes for “circle of trust” crimes. Requiring victim reparations in child pornography cases. Extending the statute of limitations in “vulnerable victims” cases. Establishing a Secure Treatment Unit for “the worst kids in the state” – any state, as the plan would be to construct and operate such an institution as a model, and to allow for independent monitoring and evaluation of its effectiveness. But these are illustrative examples, not suggestions." 

Consequently, I have chosen LDICP as the charity my Amazon purchases will benefit. You can learn more about the organization by following this link:
If you should choose to also select it as something you would like to support via the Amazon Smile program, you can do so through this link:
Whether you choose LDICP or perhaps another charity you feel more strongly about, I encourage you to explore the Smile program. It is a simple, automatic way -- at no cost to you -- to do a lot of good. 






Friday, June 9, 2017

Another Look: THE HANGMAN (1959 western starring Robert Taylor)

The title of this fine Western drama is deceiving and (for me, at least) somewhat off-putting. Turns out it's not about a hangman at all but rather a relentless U.S. Marshal named Mac Bovard (played by Robert Taylor) who has a reputation for bringing in the worst owlhoots in the territory, most of whom end up on the gallows. Hence it is he who becomes known as “the hangman”.

At the time of this tale, Bovard has been wearing a badge of one kind or another for 20 years and has grown hard-edged and cynical. As the story opens, Bovard is delivering the third of four men wanted for bank robbery and the killing of another marshal who was previously on the case. Two of the robbers have already been hanged and the just-delivered varmint is expected to have his turn in short order. It's up to Bovard to bring in the fourth and final man. Trouble is, though his name is known to be John Butterfield, Bovard doesn't know what he looks like. If he can't find anybody else who does, Bovard's last chance to get a positive ID on Butterfield may be to bring him in front of the other remaining gang member before the latter hangs.

With the clock ticking, Bovard chases leads from Fort Kenton to a distant town where he finds a very likely suspect --- a man calling himself John Bishop who everybody in town, including the marshal, likes and respects and refuses to believe could be a former outlaw and killer. As a last resort, Bovard pays money to a down-on-her-luck widow and former girlfriend of Butterfield's (played by Tina Louise) to come to the town and confirm that Bishop/Butterfield are the same person. Things don't work out that easily, of course; there are a number of twists, confrontations, a few touches of humor, and even some romance before Bovard closes the case.

This is a highly entertaining little gem that I greatly enjoyed watching. It's a slightly offbeat Western yet at the same time fulfills all the requirements for a satisfying oater. The opening scenes could almost qualify as a crime drama and, since it's filmed in black and white and the dialogue is crisp and snappy, it even has some noirish touches. As the story unfolds and the backdrop broadens, it becomes steadily more “Western-y”.

Robert Taylor turns in a great veteran performance, the pitch-perfect delivery of brusque, no-nonsense dialogue and intensity that fits his character dead-on; Fess Parker, as the amiable, chain-smoking town marshal (trying to break his Davy Crockett mold during this period when he was at odds with Disney) also comes across well; but the real surprise is Tina Louise as the alternately sultry/vulnerable former girlfriend who is torn between loyalty and the need for money to start a better life. The combination of acting chops and a more voluptuous figure (almost Sophia Loren-ish) completely blows away her typecast image of slinky Ginger from Gilligan's Island that would eventually and unfortunately stall her later career.

In the very capable veteran hands of screenwriter Dudley Nichols and director Michael Curtiz, this is an extremely entertaining film. I DVR-ed and watched it for the first time about a week ago and then, when I was getting ready to write this article, I decided to skim through some parts again to refresh my memory --- but instead of skimming, I found myself enjoying it so much that I watched the whole thing all over again.
I don't know if it's available on DVD. If not, watch for it on cable --- either TCM or the Western channel. It's definitely worth catching. You won't be sorry.




Sunday, June 4, 2017

Noteworthy Reads: THE MATAMOROS BULL (Rancho Diablo #9) by Colby Jackson



Readers of the popular, award-winning Rancho Diablo Western series have good reason to rejoice. Not only does MATAMOROS BULL mark a new, much-anticipated entry (ninth overall and the first one in four years), but it is an outstanding adventure well worth the wait. What's more, according to the author's note preceding the story, we've got three more titles (including a soon-to-be-released novella) to look forward to, coming in rapid order. The novel-length works—excluding the novella and starting with MATAMOROS BULL—will comprise a trilogy called “Storm Season” during which various members of the Rancho Diablo cast will be caught up in adventures that draw them away from the ranch itself.

As followers of the series likely already know, one of its unique features is that the titles to date have been written by three top-notch authors—James Reasoner, Bill Crider, and Mel Odom—all sharing the “Colby Jackson” byline and contributing different entries. This time around (as well as for the aforementioned novella and all of the “Storm Season” trilogy) it is Mr. Odom behind the curtain and, as already mentioned, he turns in a bravura performance.

Although many of the Flying D regulars we are familiar with from past adventures (Sam Blaylock, boss of the ranch and patriarch of the Blaylock family; Mike Tucker, his long time friend and right hand man; Gaby Darbins, another old friend and chuck wagon cook, etc.) are present here, it is Sam's youngest son Elijah who takes center stage for most of MATAMOROS BULL. He is a fifteen-year-old boy accompanying his father and a handful of wranglers on a trip into Old Mexico to buy a special breeding bull for the ranch. The adventures he experiences—both as part of the ranch outfit and, more importantly, when separated from the others—is a coming of age tale that is exciting, sometimes humorous, often dangerous, at times poignant, and plays out at a breakneck pace. Much of what Elijah has to deal with revolves around protecting his father's prize bull and trying to come to grips with his personal feelings for the lovely, sassy, ever challenging Ofelia—a young Mexican beauty he meets down in Mexico.
In a matter of only a few event-filled days, Elijah transitions from boy to man—in the eyes of himself and many others—before this tale is done, and makes his mark as a character we will be wanting to see more of in future Rancho Diablo tales. But, at the same time, author Jackson/Odom leaves Sam Blaylock and most of the rest of his crew in a cliff-hanger of a situation that will make readers count the minutes until we see what befalls them in the next episode, tentatively titled GHOST TOWN GUNDOWN

Good stuff. Strongly recommended!