Sunday, March 31, 2013


If you go to a G.I. JOE movie looking for complex characterizations, deep emotion, drama and thought-provoking intrigue … well, you're an idiot.

If, however, you go looking for slam-bang, over-the-top, non-stop kick-ass action done with real life actors filling in for the legendary plastic action figures many of us spent time playing with as kids … well, now you're talking. And the G.I. JOE: RETALIATION movie released over this weekend fills the bill nicely, thank you.
It will undoubtedly be panned by all the "serious" critics and most likely will set—or come close—some kind of attendance record.
All I care about is: Did it measure up to my personal expectations and was it worth the money I shelled out (or, to be exact, what my grandson shelled out since it was his treat as a late birthday present) to see it? The answer was yes, in both categories.

The story? The plot? Hell if I know, not for sure. The Joe Force was wiped out in the beginning so a bunch of underhanded stuff could take place once they were out of the way. I figured that much out. But a small handful of Joes, led by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, manage to survive (BIG mistake for the bad guys). They recruit an old school Joe—Bruce Willis—to help them figure out what's going on, why their force had been whacked, so they can proceed to set things straight and … well, retaliate.
Nuclear domination of the world and a phony U.S. president (played with scenery-chewing relish by Jonathan Pryce) under the command of the dreaded COBRA are behind the whole mess and it is up to the misfit band of Joe Force survivors to stop them.

Tons of action, breath-taking stunts, gunfire and explosions, tough-guy banter, and even two or three snazzy chicks who manage to kick their own share of asses and look mighty fine doing it.
What's not to like?

The Rock is engaging, believable, and fast becoming the top action star for this kind of thing. But Bruce ain't going down without a fight. He comes on with equal parts wisecracks and deadly force and darn near steals the show. It's a role he could by now play in his sleep—but it's exactly what we want to see him doing, right?

Go see it.
Get your heart pumping strong again and do it while having lots more fun than being burn-tattooed by a couple de-fib paddles.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

MY NEBRASKA: Arthur & Arthur County

At the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition held in Chicago, the United States frontier—defined as any region with a population density of less than 2 people per square mile—was officially declared dead.
Hooray for progress.

Trouble is, using the boundaries of a state county as a reasonable and finite replacement for the loosely defined "region," one quickly discovers the bold, sweeping declaration to have been both inaccurate and premature. In fact, more than a hundred years later, at last count there are still roughly 130 counties in our country that fail to meet the 2-per-square mile population density criteria. Some by quite a bit.
One of those—the one I'm going to focus on here—is Arthur County, in north central Nebraska. With a total area of 718 square miles and a population of 460, according to the 2010 census, this gives it a pop density of 0.618 people per square mile. It is the least populated county in Nebraska and the fifth least populated county in the country.

In other words, as a sign just outside the town of Arthur (the county seat and only town in the county, with a population of 117) reminds us: This is "God's Cow Country" … People are more or less incidental.
Located solidly in the lower reaches of Nebraska's fabled Sandhills—20,000 square miles of rolling, treeless sand dunes anchored in place by stubborn prairie grass enriched by a massive underground aquifer, this is indeed beef-growing country. Not good for much else, many would say. In fact, for several decades the Sandhills were dismissed and ignored, considered a wasteland, a vast inland desert. Wagon trains and settlers following "the Great Platte River Road" forged by the North and South Platte rivers, never ventured north away from the waters.

All of that changed one spring, following a particularly devastating winter, when various ranchers along the river—among them Buffalo Bill Cody and the North Brothers, who at that time had a joint operation about forty miles east of present-day Arthur—ventured up into the Sandhills to see if any of their stock thought to be lost to the weather had somehow survived. To their amazement, they found large herds of not only cattle but buffalo, deer, antelope, and all sorts of animal life thriving on the grass that reached for as far as the eye could see and the marshes and small creeks provided by the invisible aquifer. Hence, God's cattle country was discovered by humans and continues to serve primarily in that capacity yet today.

Arthur was formed in 1913 and was named after President Chester A. Arthur, who served one truncated term in office after the assassination of President Garfield. At its peak, the county boasted a little over 1,000 residents. It has maintained its current level of just under 500 for the past four or five decades.
The town's side streets are unpaved. It has an outdoor public pool, grade school, and high school (which fields a 9-man football team and frequently ranks highly in the state at that level). Business-wise, there is one filling station, one bar, a saddle shop, an auto/truck repair shop, and a locker/meat processing facility. For several years there was no grocery store in town, which left residents nearly 30 miles to travel for shopping; about four years ago, the Wolf's Den Grocery opened in a formerly empty house to supply a welcome selection of essentials.

Points of interest around town are:
  • The Pilgrim Holiness Church, built in 1928 and constructed (due to the scarcity of trees and lumber in the Sandhills) entirely of straw bales and covered over with thick coats of whitewash.
  • The country's smallest functioning courthouse and jail, built in 1915 and in operation until 1963, when a new courthouse was built and the former structures were turned into a museum.

(All of these were featured in Ripley's Believe It Or Not and are now listed in the National Registry of Historic Places.)
  • A log cabin line shack built by Buffalo Bill and the North Brothers and originally located several miles east, has been moved and reconstructed for prominently display on the north end of town.
But, for me, the entirety of Arthur and Arthur County is one big point of interest. They are like pages out of time—a better time, I feel. Rural/ Small Town America at its best. The drive up there from where I live in Ogallala is beautiful and soothing and I take it every chance I get.
Oh yeah, I almost forgot the Arthur Airport on the south side of town, near the fairgrounds. It handles about 25 flights a year … which gives the proper authorities sufficient notice to clear the cows off the runway.

If you're ever passing through Nebraska on I-80 (and pass through is pretty much all most people do when they find themselves in the western part of our state), do yourself a favor, take an extra day or two, and get the hell off the interstate. Do some exploring, particularly up into the Sandhills. There is rich history and gemlike discoveries like Arthur scattered all over. Visit the still-existing frontier.
Take my advice, you'll be glad you did.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Another Look: THE THING (From Another World) - 1951

A couple months back, in the course of an interview Thomas Pluck conducted with yours truly—on his fine blog, Pluck You, Too—one of the things he asked was what were some of my all-time favorite movies. One of the ones I mentioned was THE THING, and in subsequent correspondence Thomas indicated that he thought I was referring to "the original"—i.e., John Carpenter's 1982 movie of that title. I had to explain that no, I was referring to what I considered "the original", which was the 1951 film from my all-time favorite director, Howard Hawks.

What I failed to realize was that the Hawks film is nowadays referred to as THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, which was its full title on the screen but commonly came to be called simply THE THING.
Until Carpenter's film came along, apparently.
And then, in 2011, yet another movie came out called THE THING.
Confused yet?
All three were based on a classic science fiction story by John W. Campbell titled "Who Goes There?" The 1951 version did not adhere very closely at all to the Campbell story; the 1982 film followed much closer but also showed some influence from its cinema predecessor (due, one suspects, to the fact Carpenter has long been a huge Howard Hawks fan and the latter's influence can be seen throughout much of Carpenter's work); the 2001 film was somewhere in between as far as following the Campbell story, as it was actually a "prequel" to the Carpenter movie.

Whew! That's a long way around the barn to get to the one I really want to talk about, and that's the 1951 Hawks version. As stated earlier, Hawks is my all-time favorite movie director. He could do any genre—ranging from screwball comedy to drama to high adventure to Westerns—and do each with his own distinction and as good or better than anybody else you can name. With THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD you can add science fiction/horror to the list. (I tend to like most of John Carpenter's stuff, too, but did not care at all for his version of THE THING; the 2011 version I've never seen and have no interest in.)
Just to add to the mish-mash presented so far, I'm on the side of the fence that considers Hawks to be the true director of THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, even though all the official credits lists Christian Nyby as fulfilling that task. Up to that point, Nyby was a highly respected film editor who worked frequently with Hawks, even receiving an Academy Award nomination for his work on RED RIVER. He went on to undeniably direct several films and do a lot of TV work, but Christian Nyby, on his best day, was no Howard Hawks. And IMO (see how "hep" I am with this web-speak stuff), THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD had all the earmarks of a Hawks-directed film. Period.

Shot in black-and-white, with a modest budget, nothing extraordinary in the way of special effects, and a cast of seasoned B-movie stars (including a pre-Gunsmoke James Arness as "the Thing"), THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD is widely regarded as one of the best science fiction films of the 1950s, when space invaders and science-out-of-control themes were all the rage. With passage of time, its prestige has only grown.

The story is simple and straightforward:
A U.S. Air Force crew, under the command of Capt. Henry (Kenneth Tobey) is dispatched to a North Pole scientific outpost where it's been reported that something has crash-landed nearby. With the team of scientist, they quickly locate a huge aircraft now imbedded under the ice. When they inadvertently incinerate the craft using thermite charges to try and melt the ice, the only thing (no pun intended) they can salvage is the oversized body of what's assumed to be its pilot, still frozen in a block of ice. After getting this find back to the outpost, they discover it is still alive when it melts and breaks free in the middle of the night to reveal itself to be a 7-foot manlike creature that can't be stopped by bullets and, when one of its arms is ripped off by the sled dogs outside, only bleeds a syrupy fluid.
This, along with the results of further analysis from the arm, causes the scientist to conclude they are dealing with something that one of the fly-boys calls "a highly intelligent carrot." They also soon discover that it can regenerate itself (growing back the lost arm) and that the nourishment it needs to survive and thrive is blood. During all this, a fierce storm is keeping everyone at the outpost grounded and stranded and all radio contact with the outside world disrupted. From there on, it becomes a battle for survival with the Air Force crew and the scientists fighting to hold the Thing at bay until the weather breaks and help can arrive, and the monster trying to get at them for the sake of their nourishing blood.

The end result is a tight, tense thriller the way thrillers are supposed to be done.
There is the snappy, overlapping passages of dialogue containing banter and doses of wry humor that is a realistic coping mechanism in no way distracting from the palpable threat; also a keen sense of male bonding within the Air Force crew, based on each member knowing they can count on one another; and a strong female presence in the form of one of the female scientists, creating some surprisingly frank sexual innuendo (for the period) between her and the captain … All of these being familiar Hawks trademarks.

If you haven't seen this one in a while—or have never seen it, for crying out loud—be sure to keep an eye out for it and give it a look first chance you get. If you've seen it before, you won't be disappointed. It's one of those old classics you can watch again and again and never get tired of it.

If you haven't ever seen it, you're in for a treat. Don't expect buckets of blood and gore or CGI scenes that scream by so fast the naked eye can't follow or massive destruction from "blowing things up real good", as my pal James Reasoner likes to say. You won't find any of that.
You're just gonna get a fast, exciting, entertaining movie done by a solid cast under the helm of a master filmmaker.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

New Releases & New Cover

Last week, in addition to the publication of BLADE OF THE TIGER, my latest Joe Hannibal novel, I also released—via my vast publishing empire, Bil-Em-Ri Media—a pair of Kindle Shorts.

ADELINE and QUICK HANDS, are taken from stories that appeared in previously-published anthologies. In both cases, these tales should be considered "samplers" for the content of the rest of these anthologies, which remain available elsewhere on Amazon. These collections, respectively, are LOST CHILDREN: PROTECTORS as edited by Thomas Pluck; and BATTLING BOXING STORIES, as edited by Gary Lovisi. Both feature a fine range of stories by various authors and PROTECTORS has the added distinction of being a charity anthology with all proceeds going to PROTECT (The National Association to Protect Children –

My two stories can be categorized as Westerns, but each with a bit of a twist.
My oldest grandson, Bill, helped me with the covers and I think they turned out pretty decent. Subsequently, however, Fight Card colleague and fellow author David Foster took the liberty of "jigging up" (his words) the QUICK HANDS cover, and there's no denying his version has some added snap. So I will be revising the Amazon cover accordingly, in the next day or so.

If you give these a try, I don't think you'll be disappointed:

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Available Now: BLADE OF THE TIGER (a Joe Hannibal novel)

The new full-length Joe Hannibal mystery is available now on Kindle, and the print version will be out in the next week or so. 
In BLADE OF THE TIGER, Hannibal gets caught up in the search for a legendary knife—the very one Jim Bowie died with at the Battle of the Alamo. The Bowie knife, sometimes called "the American Excalibur," is perhaps the most famous, most copied and duplicated weapon of all time. But this one is not a copy, it allegedly is the real deal. And enough people are convinced of this to be willing to kill to possess it. Evidence of this is made shockingly clear when a lovely, rather mysterious young woman checks into one of the guest cabins at No Name Bay, Hannibal's home base, and is brutally murdered. The authorities are quickly on the case so there's really no reason—not the murder, not the knife, none of it—for Hannibal to concern himself. Except for one nagging little fact. And that is, as he himself puts it: "I take it kinda personal when some sonofabitch murders somebody right in my back yard."
Filled with twists, action, local color, humor, and a sprinkling of historical fact mixed with conjecture, BLADE OF THE TIGER is an exciting new addition to the Hannibal series that I think readers will enjoy.

The personal back-story on writing this book doesn't reach back quite as far as the battle of the Alamo, but does go back a ways. Back to the mid-1980s, after I got to know kick-ass poet Todd Moore and he'd helped me start Hardboiled Magazine. (Remember, I wrote about Todd in these pages back in January and I refer you once against to that post and also to the terrific biography of Todd—Gangsters, Harlots, & Thieves – Down And Out At The Hotel Clifton—by his son Theron.) Before he concentrated more exclusively on his outlaw poetry, Todd also did some prose work. A couple of his stories appeared in Hardboiled. And the idea of a contemporary crime novel based around trying to uncover the Alamo Bowie was originally his. He even wrote a few chapters and I remember he called it Shadow Blade. He grew unhappy with it, though, and put it aside. This was all back in Illinois.
Flash forward to a few years ago, after Todd had moved to New Mexico and I to Nebraska, and we did some corresponding via e-mail. At some point I asked him if he ever gone back to Shadow Blade and finished it. When he said no, I asked him if he'd mind if I took a crack at the concept (which I always found intriguing) and used it for a Hannibal story. He said sure, go ahead. So—after a couple false starts, and a number of other projects in between, and the unfortunate passing of Todd—BLADE OF THE TIGER resulted.
I dedicated it (and rightfully so) to Todd. Wherever he's reading it from, I hope he likes the way it turned out.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Another Look: THE PLAINSMAN (1936)

This is a rousing, big scale Western feature film from 1936, starring Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur, produced and directed by the legendary Cecil B. DeMille. Cooper has never been more laconic or handsome (compared to the haggard, leathery-faced Coop from his later Westerns such as HIGH NOON or VERA CRUZ), Jean Arthur has never been feistier or lovelier, and as befitting any DeMille film, the production values are splashy and spectacular.

THE PLAINSMAN takes place in the sprawling, Westward-expansion years following the Civil War and tells the tale of the tenuous romance between Wild Bill Hickok (Cooper) and Calamity Jane (Arthur). It also covers the friendship between Hickok and Buffalo Bill Cody (James Ellison), and touches on both of their acquaintances with George Armstrong Custer. As a prologue states at the beginning of the film, its story "condenses many years, lives, and events."
And, boy, is that an understatement. It not only condenses the years, it flips them and flops them forward and backward and sideways, and then tosses in a handful of colorful events (most of them wholly fictional - except for mention of Custer's Last Stand and, ultimately, the back-shooting of Wild Bill) and laces them through one wild and wooly yarn.
Historically speaking, the whole thing is horribly inaccurate. But, in retrospect, I don't think it's inaccurate in the sense that anyone was actually trying for any degree of accuracy—it's more like the makers of this movie decided to take some familiar names from the period and simply make up a series of adventures for them to gallop through. Not unlike a bunch of kids playing in the back yard, each choosing to be a colorful Wild West character and then making up their own set of adventures to act out. (Remember, this was back in the days when kids still went out and played in their back yards and the fictionalized, romantic images of heroes like Wild Bill and Buffalo Bill hadn't been lost to them.)

From that perspective, despite its corniness and butchering of history, THE PLAINSMAN is really a lot of fun. Its 113-minute length (a very long movie for those days), never lags and is never boring. Jean Arthur tries her darnedest to steal every scene she's in, and although she succeeds with everyone else in the film, she can't quite get past Cooper standing like a slab of granite in the midst of her shenanigans. James Ellison is engaging enough in the role of Buffalo Bill, and the banter between the two Bills in a couple isolated scenes is well done; but more often than not, Ellison is all but blown off the screen by Cooper and/or Arthur. Curiously, in foreign markets the movie was often titled "The Adventures of Buffalo Bill", but still with Cooper and Arthur at top billing. I guess the popularity of the old buffalo hunter/showman, via his world-famous Wild West Show, was still strong enough (after all, he was still touring up until less than three decades prior to this film) to be a bigger draw than the less-specific title.

All in all, if you spot a bargain bin DVD copy of THE PLAINSMAN (not to be confused with the 1966 remake starring Don Murray and Abby Dalton) or spot it scheduled on the Western Channel or TCM, it is definitely worth checking out. There are parts that will make your spirit soar like a kid again, parts that will bring out a smile or chuckle, and a scene or two brimming with genuine emotion. (Spoiler alert: Like the final scene when, after Wild Bill has been wiping off Calamity's kisses all through the movie and then lies dying in her arms in the Deadwood saloon after being shot in the back, she murmurs "There's a kiss you won't be wiping off" after leaning over and putting her lips to his one last time … Come on, if that don't put at least a little bit of a lump in your throat then you probably never leaked a tear at the end of Old Yeller either.)
THE PLAINSMAN is the kind of movie where you could say, "They don't make 'em like that any more" … and then you could add: And that's kind of a shame.