Thursday, February 7, 2019

The Happy Return by C.S. Forester

For five blood-soaked chapters of C.S.Forester's debut Horatio Hornblower novel, The Happy Return (1935) (Beat to Quarters in the US) the British frigate Lydia battles the Natividad, an old Spanish ship-of-the-line crewed by Nicaraguan rebels. For all of author Forester's tremendous success at recreating the wooden world of King George's navy during the Napoleonic Wars, it's that battle, as presided over by the brooding Hornblower, that got me. It's tense as hell and never once do you assume Hornblower, his crew, and his ship, are going to get out of it alive.

"For what we are about to receive--," said Bush, repeating the hackneyed old blasphemy quoted in every ship awaiting a broadside.
   Seconds seemed as long as minutes as the two ships neared. They were passing within a dozen yards of each other. Bow overlapped bow, foremast passed foremast and then foremast passed mainmast. Rayner was looking aft, and as soon as he saw that the aftermost gun bore on the target he shouted the order to fire. The Lydia lifted to the recoil of the guns, ears were split with the sound of the discharge, and then, even before the gale had time to blow away the smoke, came the Nativdad's crashing reply.
   It seemed to Hornblower as if the heavens were falling round him. The wind of a shot made him reel; he found at his feet a palpitating red mass which represented half the starboard side carronade's crew, and then with a thunderous crackling the mizzen mast gave way beside him.

Frigates of the British Royal Navy

The Happy Return begins with an espionage mission against Spain's Central American colonies. Hornblower has been sent to deliver arms and ammunition to a mad Nicaraguan rebel - and eliminate a much heavier, if antiquated, Spanish warship patrolling the eastern Pacific. His success against the enemy vessel leads to its capture and being handed over to the rebels. When Spain suddenly becomes England's ally, the state of affairs in the New World change drastically and that's when Hornblower and the 36-gun Lydia find themselves forced to fight the 50-gun Natividad once again, this time crewed not by dispirited colonial sailors, but by the same rebels they've just supplied, driven men with a competent captain.


Hornblower, on the surface, is a steely, determined commander. He paces the deck each morning, meticulously planning out the ship's and the crew's day. Of course, there's much more going on than it appears. Inside, he's constantly playing out the various outcomes of his mission and what the implications could be for his career. A commander of a minor ship, his fortunes can ebb and rise seemingly at the caprices of the vast and distant bureaucracy that directs the Royal Navy.
Back in the main cabin Hornblower stretched himself on the locker below the stern window and once more unfolded his secret Admiralty orders. He had read them so often that he almost knew them by heart, but it was prudent to make certain that he understood every word of them. They were comprehensive enough, in all conscience. Some Admiralty clerk had given his imagination loose rein in the wording of them. 
Hornblower's physically uneasy with much of the harsh discipline and blood common to naval warfare of the time. Still, he forces himself to rise up to the demands of his position, and it's in those times that the character of Hornblower shines. He actually is the superior commander everyone assumes he is all the time, but the reader has suspected he mightn't be. He's able to smother his worries and revulsion and bring his considerable tactical and command talents to bear and perform with cold and deadly brilliance.

There's also romance. When Spain becomes England's ally, Hornblower's able to revictual his ship in Panama. There he picks up Lady Barbara, the sister of Sir Arthur Wellesley. A married man, his gradual attachment to, and eventually falling in love with her is practically an existential crisis for the reserved captain. Of course it's made easier for Hornblower; his marriage is loveless, the result of a spur of the moment decision when he first shipped out. It's a bit of cheat on Forester's part, but when Hornblower and Lady Barbara are separated at the book's end, it's clearly not forever. Too often adventure story romances fall flat, but that's not the case here.

The Happy Return is a roaring adventure with a great, brilliant hero, tempered with self-doubt and admirable rectitude. You can smell the ocean and feel the Lydia swaying upon it. The cries of the wounded and maimed echo between the roar of the frigate's broadsides. Forester's storytelling is gripping and his portrayal of the shipboard life and combat feels true. It is exactly what I'm looking for from this sort of historical fiction - rousing adventure, detailed recreation of the period, and a hero worth following.

Once again, I'm angry and excited about discovering what looks to be a terrific series - angry that it's taken me so many years to finally start it and excited that I have a whole new bunch of books to read. While I'm going to take several detours before returning to Hornblower's adventures, I'm hoping to read the next two books, A Ship of the Line (1938) and Flying Colours (1938), sooner rather than later. They're a closely linked trilogy, really a single longer work, and I don't want to forget anything. 


















My father was a fan of nautical adventures. He read C.S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower as a boy and later he read much Alexander Kent's Richard Bolitho series and then Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey & Maturin series. For whatever reason I got it into my head last year to read the first published book in each series. He liked the Hornblower books best (which is why I decided to start there), while he found some of O'Brian's books too talky for his tastes. Since I've heard the latter described as Forester meets Jane Austen, his qualms actually made them sound fine by me (if you haven't read anything by Austen you owe yourself the delightful pleasure of her company as soon as possible). Someday I'll do a post about my dad's taste in reading vs. my own (I've come to suspect in a lot of respects his regard for bad books was much higher than my own), but not now.


As I started doing a little research on Forester, O'Brian, and Kent, I discovered there are a huge number of authors of nautical adventures I've never even heard of. To this day, there are shelf loads of new books being written. If you doubt me, just check out the author list on the very cool Old Salt site. Some look really, really fun. I definitely want to check out James L. Nelson's short series about Isaac Biddlecomb, an American captain in the Revolution and Julian Stockwin's Kydd series about the rise of an impressed seaman through the ranks of the Royal Navy. Yeah, based on single book, I'm approaching this whole thing with my usual abundance of enthusiasm, but The Happy Return was just so much fun.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

A Century Ago

I started this back in November just before the Great War's centenary. My usual laziness coupled with my efforts to finish off my Black Gate obligations delayed its completion until now. It's not an especially focused piece of writing, but it does gather together several thoughts I've had on the war.

It's a good thing, however. I didn't expect to actually see Peter Jackson's astounding They Shall Not Grow Old. Fortunately, I did, so I can add some comments about it here.

I'm not exactly sure when I became aware of and fascinated by the terrible nature of WWI. It was probably around third or fourth grade when I found my dad's coffee table-history of the war by S.L.A. Marshall. It was the pictures that seared became seared into my brain, especially the one of a dead soldier in the mud. His head was just a skull and his limbs were bent in a grotesque parody of life. It's his hand, palm upturned, that for some unknown reason disturbed me the most. Skulls I had seen plenty of, from Halloween to movies, but the hand of a corpse, never.

I didn't read the book at first; I was content to stare at the hundreds of pictures. There were photos - some, incredibly, unposed - as well as propaganda and newspaper drawings. There were cartoons by a soldier on the Salonika Front and terrifying paintings by men trapped in the endless hell of the Western Front.

German soldier on the Western Front
When I finally read the book it proved far more horrible than the pictures. For those unfamiliar with the history and nature of the First World War, it's a tale of unremitting horror suffused with stupidity and arrogance. Fundamentally, it's the culmination of Western hubris, that somehow this great war could be fought and won without completely destroying the society that gave rise to it. For nearly fifty years, the time between the Prussian defeat of France in 1870, the Great Powers of Europe had direct avoided war with one another, but they seemed to be always testing each other's mettle. Oh, they backed each other's opponents to varying degrees, but real war with each other was avoided.

Australian watching Greek picking lice near Salonika

1917 - Loyal Russian soldier attempts to drive his comrades back to the front
On the other hand, the Russians and Japanese learned the nature of modern industrial in 1905, where artillery and machine guns slaughtered men by the thousands. These lessons do not seem to have been learned by any of the men who would command the armies on the Western Front only a decade later. Within weeks of the First World War's start in 1914 they were already beginning to feed their men into the bottomless meatgrinder of machine gun-swept battlefields.
British Infantry at the Mons-Conde Canal - 1914
I've recently read that casualty rates for the Great War really weren't higher than those of the Second World War. I'm not sure I believe that (except for maybe on the Russian Front and some of the Pacific island assaults), but the moments of suicidal attack and counterattack that define the 1914-1918 Western Front were much rarer in the later war.


The Western Front seems like war stripped down to an elemental level. There is only mud and ruins, gun and shell fire. The landscape, crisscrossed with trenches and fields of barbed wire, is lifeless and torn up. Soldiers exist in a darkling world lit by tracers and explosions. It is as the real world had been banished and only the muck of No Man's Land, stalked by death remained. As I've learned more, I've become equally interested in other areas of operations during the war (East Africa, the Caucasus, Poland, etc.). It's the West, though, that still remains the predominant image in my mental image of the war.

British infantry and tank at Cambrai - 1917

There are numerous single-volume histories of the First World War and I've read at least three of them. While adequate at providing information, I didn't like Martin Gilbert's The First World War. Liddell Hart's The Real War is concise. It's interesting because it partially serves as a platform for exploring the personal observations he made of static warfare and helped inspire his interwar theories of mobile warfare. Finally, and my favorite, is John Keegan's The First World War. He was a good writer, and he does a good job exploring the war outside of the usual Western Front that tends to dominate public consciousness of the war. You will still need to read campaign-specific works for the Italian or East African fronts, but Keegan is better on them than Liddell Hart. Oh, and SLA Marshall's isn't too bad, but it's really worth having for the pictures and isometric battle maps.

I'm only just starting to get into campaign specifics of the war. The first I remember reading was, that master of all things British army, Byron Farwell's splendid The Great War in Africa, 1914–1918. A short book, it covers all various efforts to conquer the German colonies in Africa - Kamerun, Namibia, and Tanganyika. The first were relatively short (ten months and nineteen months), but that in Tanganyika lasted two weeks longer than the entire First World War. The German commander, Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, with a force of never more than 14,000 men, tied down hundreds of thousands of Allied troops that could have all been used elsewhere. Farwell, surprisingly, an American, wrote numerous fast paces histories of the Britain's colonial wars, but this is still my favorite of his works.

A few years ago I read and reviewed Alistair Horne's classic study of Verdun from a Francocentric perspective: The Price of Glory. If you haven't read my piece, go HERE. It's a powerful book and I recommend it.

Finally, I'm still working through Holger Herwig's The Marne, 1914: The Opening of World War I and the Battle that Changed the World. Another good book, it covers a lot of ground, from the German and French preparations for war, to the actual campaign, following those two armies as well as the British and, to a lesser degree, the Belgian. I'm reading it as I'm also reading Geoffrey Wawro's The Franco-Prussian War about the 1870 conquest invasion of France. It's extremely interesting setting the two campaigns side by side, seeing the difference in tactics and strategies, and especially how French experience in 1870 dramatically affected their 1914 plans.

None of the histories I've read compare in ramming home the brute reality of attrition combat on the Western Front as Ernst Jünger's Storm of Steel. It's a gut-punch of a read. He was wounded fourteen times, including five times by bullets. He fought in the Somme Campaign, the battles of Arras, Passchendaele, and Cambrai. He led a company in the 1918 Spring Offensive and was shot through the chest. And for all the gore and death surrounding him, he never seemed to fail to find a certain level of deep excitement from combat and surviving one near-death experience after another. 
As the storm raged around us, I walked up and down my sector. The men had fixed bayonets. They stood stony and motionless, rifle in hand, on the front edge of the dip, gazing into the field. Now and then, by the light of a flare, I saw steel helmet by steel helmet, blade by glinting blade, and I was overcome by a feeling of invulnerability. We might be crushed, but surely we could not be conquered.
 Ernst Jünger

Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front is always presented as the great anti-war novel of the Great War. It's been ages since I've read it, by my memories of it are that it is a solid read and a powerful condemnation of war. I always assumed it was semi-autobiographical and based on his wartime experiences. 

When reading about comparisons between the two books, I was surprised to learn Remarque, unlike Jünger, only spent a few weeks in combat. That fact doesn't take away from the strength of AQotWF as a work. The almost completely opposite reaction to the war on the part of someone who lived through far more of it, on the other hand, for me at least, makes Jünger's memoir a far more interesting one. Remarque's novel is the reaction of a civilian to the war, while Jünger's book is a soldier's.

I've also read Manfred von Richtofen's (the Red Baron) heavily censored autobiography, Der rote Kampffleiger (The Red Fighter Pilot). My memory of it reflects the Wikipedia entry:
The 1933 edition of Der Rote Kampfflieger appears to paint a much more accurate portrait of von Richthofen than the 1917 edition. It contains passages most unlikely to have been inserted by an official editor: "I am in wretched spirits after every aerial combat. I believe that [the war] is not as the people at home imagine it, with a hurrah and a roar; it is very serious, very grim."
I'm curious what it would be like rereading it today, but I doubt I will. As you'll see below, there's just so much more that I haven't read yet. 

There are several other novels and memoirs of the Great War I want to read. Henri Barbusse, a French novelist, spent a year in combat units before being invalided out to a behind-the-lines clerical post. Praised in its day, later attacked as being filled with inventions, his 1916 novel, Le Feu (Under Fire), looks interesting if only because it provides the often neglected perspective of the French poilius (a slang term for infantrymen that translates to "hairy ones"). Robert Graves' Goodbye to All That and Siegfried Sassoon's Memoirs of an Infantry Officer describe the war from a pair of British officer's perspectives. I don't know if there're books by Italian or Russian soldiers, but Jaroslav Hasek's comic novel, The Good Soldier Svejk tells the story of a buffoonish Czech soldier in the Austro-Hungarian army. That's a big shelf full of books to read, and maybe I'll get to some of them this year.

Films of the First World War are fairly few, but many of them are really good.  The most notable are among some of the best films ever made. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) and La Grande Illusion (1937). The first is a moving adaptation of Remarque's novel. It stars Lew Ayres and is more brutal and honest than a lot of later war films. The second is about a group of French officers taken prisoner by the Germans and their relationship with the German commander. It's been a bit since I've seen either one so I feel a rewatch coming on.

The best WWI film I'm familiar with is Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory (1957). While based on Humphrey Cobb's novel, its story of the execution of French soldiers for supposed cowardice ultimately comes from a real incident. I'm generally not a fan of Kubrick, but with Kirk Douglas on hand and a script initially by Jim Thompson, this is a movie that will slam you against a wall, wring you out, and leave you gasping for breath. Less the indictment of war it's usually presented as, it's a damning portrayal of bureaucracy and our lust for prestige and reward.


Finally, as I mentioned at the very beginning, I saw Peter Jackson's film, They Shall Not Grow Old. If you aren't aware, he took century old film from the British Imperial War Museum and made a movie out of it. He slowed it down, cleaned it up, colorized it, added sound and voices to it (the latter with the help of forensic lip readers), and over the top added interviews with British veterans. Footage and stories aren't presented in exact chronological order. Jackson didn't set out to tell a specific story, but instead recreate the general experiences of a British soldier from the declaration of war, through enlistment and training, combat, and the return to the UK.

I cannot urge anyone enough to go see this film. Jackson set out to bring men long dead to life and succeeded far more powerfully than I expected him to be able to. The only thing missing is the stink of death. Restoring voices to these men is one of the greatest gifts that can be given to the dead and I'll be forever grateful to Jackson for doing it in this masterpiece.


Every crime Jackson committed against JRR Tolkien (as well as each he seemed to have committed against Philip Reeve) has been made up for with this movie. If you have the slightest interest, hell, if even if you have none, avail yourself of any chance to see They Shall Not Grow Old. It will move you and leave you exhausted. I'm not sure when it will be available on Blu-ray, but it will be back in the theaters on next week on the 21st.

So, if there's a theme here, it's that there's been a tremendous amount written and filmed about the 1914-1918 war. I've read a lot of it but not nearly enough to satisfy my desire to understand the war as much as one who didn't fight in it and one who is a century removed from it can. In the broken state of Russia, in the ever-present fear of Germany, in the ethnic enmity that lays over most of the Balkans, and in so many other places, the shadow of the First World War remains. It's greatest legacy should be that even when society has reached a supposed apex of culture and civilization that it can all be squandered in a orgy of violence the likes of which had never been seen before.


Thursday, January 10, 2019

Sweet Danger (1933) by Margery Allingham

I've only read a few Golden Age mysteries - a little Agatha Christie, A.A. Milne's Red House Mystery, and most of Edmund Crispin's The Moving Toyshop. Mostly, my knowledge of the genre comes from the excellent British TV versions of Poirot (starring David Suchet), Miss Marple (Joan Hickson), Lord Peter Wimsey (first with Ian Carmichael and later Edward Petherbridge), and Albert Campion (with that old Timelord himself, Peter Davison). Now that I've untethered myself from heroic fantasy for a piece, it seems a good time to rectify the situation and read more of the actual books.

Lysette Anthony and Peter Davison - 1989
My favorite of the Campion TV episodes is based on Sweet Danger, so, I decided to start with that. When an earthquake suddenly gives a small oil-rich Ruritanian state on the Adriatic called Averna a deep water port, the race is on to discover if there are any heirs to its throne living in England. Albert Campion, upper class twit to strangers, but in reality a solver of mysteries and special agent of the crown, enlists a trio of fellow aristocrats to ensure England's interests regarding Averna. Standing against them are the henchmen of a sinister businessman named Brett Savanake.


Sweet Danger is a great and utterly ephemeral read. While not developed too much beyond surface traits and tics, Allingham's characters still manage to be vivid and leave a memorable impression. The character she seems to have had the most fun with is Campion's butler, the ex-burglar, Magersfontein Lugg. He's big, bald, and prone to fighting. He's a far cry from Lord Peter Wimsey's ex-batman, the much more proper, Bunter. Other characters, particularly the obviously-mad Dr. Galley and the mechanically-inclined Amanda Fitton, are nearly as good fun.


Plenty of Golden Age mysteries are really thrillers and that's definitely what Sweet Danger is. Instead of an absurdly complicated crime, there's a hunt for a lost will, a super villain, and the whiff of black magic in the woods of Suffolk. There's lots of fisticuffs, disguises, and even some secret messages. It's all of absolutely no consequence and utterly great fun.

While I'm planning to read several other Golden Age writers before going back to Allingham, I will definitely be reading more of her. Supposedly, The Tiger in Smoke (1952) is supposed to being an absolutely terrific book, featuring a killer at large in the thick London fog. J.K. Rowling is a big fan of Allingham and called Tiger a "phenomenal novel."

Apparently, while the Campion of the early books is the a bit of a upper-class twit, flitting about from crime to crime, as the series progressed he became more serious as did the books 

PS - Here's a fun and loving write up about Allingham and her fiction by Jane Stevenson in The Guardian I highly recommend.




Thursday, December 13, 2018

Future Reading

I'm not done with heroic fantasy, not by a long shot, but I do need a break. There are a few books on my radar (or the mail) that I will definitely read, but I'm hoping to get to a lot of non-fantasy books before my Black Gate hiatus is over.

Right now I'm, simultaneously, reading Alan Le May's The Searchers and Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove. The Searchers is a raw, bloody book, even more so than the movie. Le May wrote many other Westerns, several of which were filmed, and some screenplays. Reading about the latter, I'm totally planning to track down Reap the Wild Wind. It's an adventure set in the Florida Keys in the 1840s and stars Paulette Goddard, Ray Milland, and John Wayne.

There are also a passel of other Westerns I'd like to take a crack at this year. Louis L'amour was one of my dad's favorites, but I've never read anything by him. Hondo, made into a John Wayne movie, is supposed to be one of his better ones. I've read a little Elmore Leonard, but never one of his Western novels. I like the Paul Newman movie based on Hombre so I'd like to give that a go. I've still got to get to John Benteen's Fargo and Ron Hansen's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.



I've long been curious about three nautical series; C.S Forester's Hornblower, Alexander Kent's Bolitho, and Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey and Maturin. I'm not sure I'll pull it off, but I'd like to give the first book written in each series a go. From what I know of all three series, both Forester and Kent are more adventure oriented while O'Brian less so. I tried listening to Master and Commander and liked it but decided to really get the most out of it I'll need to actually read it.



I'd also like to read several Golden Age mysteries. I'd like to read one or two of Margery Allingham's early books, maybe Ngaio Marsh's first Roderick Alleyn book and Dorothy Sayers' first Peter Wimsey book, and reread A.A. Milne's Red House Mystery. If I get really ambitious, I'll pull out Edmund Crispin's The Moving Toyshop.


At the same time, there are lots of other books I want to read over the next year. I'd like to get to Gogol's Dead Souls and Turgenev's Fathers and Sons. And Tim Willocks' latest, Memo from Turner, and the next Captain Alatriste book, The Sun Over Breda.


And some non-fiction, like maybe finishing off Geoffrey Wawro's The Franco-Prussian War and Holger Herwig's The Marne, 1914. Oh, and Howard Andrew Jones' upcoming For the Killing of Kings, Robert Zoltan's Rogues of Merth collection, and a new one from Milton Davis called Eda Blessed. It's a lot and I'm lazy, but I'm crossing my fingers. It really would be nice to read what I want to read at my own pace after several years of doing the exact opposite.

And, of course, all this is subject to change. There used to a day when I read whatever just happened to catch my eye. That still happens occasionally and I love when it still does.



Saturday, December 8, 2018

Four More Westerns That Aren't My Favorites Either

1908

Can you tell I'm in the middle of a Western kick, 'cause I am. Like every obsession that I get caught up in, it came on me quickly and at some point it'll fade away as quickly. In the meantime, I'm going to get as much out of it as I can. Right now, I'm having a blast watching movies I've never seen and rewatching ones I already love.

There are two prominent reasons I like Westerns. If I sat down and talked with you I could pull a bunch more out for you, but the following two are the most significant. 

First, like hard boiled crime stories or heroic fantasy, Westerns, at their best, are stories of men (mostly) living on the edge of society where civilization's rules are scant and but they have only their own code of honor, will, and strength to draw on in order to survive. That sort of story is one that calls to me across genres. Even in this faceless age, it makes me feel like there's hope to win out against the odds.


Second, I get a definite buzz of comforting nostalgia from the genre. I was introduced to the genre by my dad. He'd been reading and watching Westerns from childhood. Having grown up in the thirties and forties, the heyday of the Western movies, while I can't say he saw and read them all, it sure seemed like that. Watching them sends me back down the years and I picture myself, arms propped under my chin, lying on the floor and my dad sitting in his chair, both of our eyes glued to the TV as John Wayne or Clint Eastwood saving the day or gunning down the bad guys.



I never talked with my dad about Westerns as a genre, only as individual books or movies. I knew he loved Frank O'Rourke and Louis L'Amour and thought Zane Grey dated and thought Robert E. Howard's Western stories were just bad. With movies, in addition to Lonesome DoveThe Stalking Moon with Gregory Peck and A Fistful of Dollars and Stagecoach were ones he'd always leave on when they showed up.


Among the many boxes of books in the attic, my dad kept several full of Westerns. Max Brand, Frank O'Rourke, Louis L'amour, Ernest Haycox were only the most prominent. There were tons of others but at this point there names escape me. I can't just go look through them, though. When my dad got sick and a terminal diagnosis, he took the boxes to the book trader he'd been buying books from for decades. When he told me I was pissed. Just because I hadn't been interested in them didn't mean I would, I claimed. Then he told me that while he was talking with the owner, a little old man came in, exclaimed when he saw them, and bought most of them on the spot. I couldn't argue with that sort of reaction. In fact, I could only hope in my last days I could find someone who'd react that way to finding my books offered up for sale.


The Shooting, (1966), dir. M.Hellman, writ. A. Joyce (C. Eastman)
Roger Corman gave many young film makers the chance to make nearly any movie that they could dream of, provided they could work to tight budgets and strict schedules. Out of this arrangement came some of very successful, artistically as well as commercially, directors, including John Sayles, Jonathan Demme, and Ron Howard. Another was Monte Hellman, who took the offer from Corman and instead of just making good drive-in movies, made some incredibly idiosyncratic films.

While probably best known for the road-race movie, Two-Lane Blacktop, in 1966, Hellman and Jack Nicholson, fresh from making two movies in the Philippines, Back Door to Hell and Flight to Fury, they went out into the Utah desert and made two of the most striking Westerns. The movies were shot back to back, first The Shooting, then Ride in the Whirlwind. Each was made for about $75,000, around $600,000 in today's money.

Ride in the Whirlwind, starring Jack Nicholson, Cameron Mitchell, and Millie Perkins is a dark story of mistaken identities and murder. More like one of Boetticher's bleak films than Ford's mythic ones; it's still clearly part of the Western tradition. There's a lynch-minded posse, bandits on the run and the innocent men mistaken for them.

The Shooting, on the other hand, is a like a nightmare, and its secrets remain hidden until the final frames. The characters are ciphers, to the viewer and to each other. Monte Hellman himself in an interview with Millie Perkins from 2014 admits exactly what happened to trigger the films events is a mystery that even he doesn't have an answer to.

Like its companion, it was shot out on a desert in Utah, but it looks it might as well have been shot on the moon. Save a few scenes in a mining camp and a town, the story unfolds on barren desert and stony hillsides. Other than the enigmatic characters and their mounts, nothing alive crosses the landscape.

The movie opens with Willett Gashade, played by the always-grizzled Warren Oates, returning to his mining camp. He seems to realize someone is following him and he deliberately leaves a trail to help them. Back in camp, his partner, Coley (Will Hutchins) opens fire on him from inside a cave.

It turns out another partner was murdered the other day by an unseen shooter. Before that, Willett's brother, Coin, had fled the camp. Something had happened in the nearby town and Coin might have accidentally trampled someone to death with his horse.

A short time later a mysterious woman appears. She has heard Willett's a good tracker and wants hire him to get her across the desert to the town of Kingsley. He agrees, but only if he can take Coley with. They set off right away. Later, a gunman, Billy Spear (Jack Nicholson), joins the trio. Exactly why he's there is unclear to Willett, but he's clearly been hired by the woman.

I won't say anything more plot wise about The Shooting. Hellman and Carole Eastman (credited as Adrien Joyce) created a film that was meant to be mysterious and stay that way. The whys and wherefores of certain things remain unclear all the way to the end.

Millie Perkins
Warren Oates was one of the greatest character actors of all times. That meant, even when relegated to the sidelines, your eyes will focus on him whenever he come on screen. In the all-too-few films he is the lead in, he is absolutely mesmerizing.

There's an unnerving watchfulness in his performance in The Shooting. As Willett, he seems to know the answers to all the film's questions, even the ones he's asking, and is waiting for some terrible resolution to come hammering down. He rides off with the woman fully aware of the calamities that lie out on the desert before him.

If Boetticher stripped away much of the romance of John Ford and others' version of the West, Hellman sands away even that. Boetticher's movies are still driven by recognizable human drama; The Shooting is like something by Beckett. The characters look recognizable, but every motive, every riddle's answer, lies hidden and the story takes place somewhere off to the side of reality.

Jack Nicholson and Warren Oates


Stagecoach (1939), dir. J. Ford, writ. D. Nichols
This is one of the first great Westerns. It also helped set in stone John Wayne's persona as a self-reliant, laconic, tough guy, and, arguably, playing the Ringo Kid, it's the movie that made him a super star.

Stagecoach is based on a short story, "The Stage to Lordsburg," by Ernest Haycox. A disparate band of travelers find themselves together on the titular vehicle. There's an attack by an improbably large number of Apaches, a hooker with a heart of gold, and a showdown. In other words, this movie is chock full of classic tropes, but here they're done with near absolute perfection.

Orson Welles claimed to have watched Stagecoach forty times in preparation for making Citizen Kane. I totally believe him. Ford knew how to shoot a movie. Every scene is perfect, whether out in the open spaces between the buttes of Monument Valley or in the cramped confines of the titular stagecoach. 

Each character gets enough screen time and dialogue to feel alive instead of like a bundle of tics and mannerisms. There's the drunken doctor (Thomas Mitchell) and the hooker (Claire Trevor), both driven out of town at the movie's start, the cavalry officer's pregnant wife (Louise Platt), the marshal (George Bancroft), the thieving bank president (Berton Churchill), the mysterious gambler (John Carradine), the whisky salesman (Donald Meek), and the stagecoach driver (Andy Devine). Partway through their journey across the Apache-haunter desert, they're joined by the vengeance-driven gunman (Wayne). It may feel all too familiar to some modern viewers, but this is where these characters and the trope of them traveling together come from. 

Claire Trevor
and John Wayne
Wayne got (and gets) a lot of grief for being a limited actor. I don't agree, but I do think he was happy to coast on the strength of his persona, something that he and Ford created in this picture. Here, in its earliest manifestation, it's powerful. Wayne's Ringo Kid is driven to avenge his murdered father and brother and, later, to dismiss social conventions when he falls hard for Trevor's Dallas. He's tall, striking, and when that distinct voice rolls out of him there's still a bit of a shiver that goes up my spine. 

If Stagecoach has escaped your attention somehow go right now to YouTube and watch it in its entirety. Now!

Trevor, Wayne, Devine, Carradine, Platt, Mitchell, Churchill, Meek, and Bancroft


The Great Silence (1968), dir. S. Corbucci, writ. S.Corbucci, B.Corbucci, M. Amendola, V. Petrilli

Inspired by the deaths of revolutionaries Che Guevara and Malcolm X, and a major inspiration for Quentin Tarantino's Hateful 8The Great Silence is recognized as Italian director Sergio Corbucci's masterpiece. Most so-called revisionist Westerns are really just grittier versions of the same sorts of stories the genre had always told. This isn't just some subversion of the old stories but a total rejection of them. Supposedly, when Daryl Zanuck saw how it ended he refused to give it an American distribution. Even if you disagree with Corbucci's politics, there's no denying the emotional power they invest in The Great Silence. 

Filmed in the snow-covered Dolomite Mountains of Italy and with a soundtrack by Ennio Morricone, The Great Silence is a beautiful and stark. Against the great fields of white, characters look tiny and insignificant.  

Spaghetti Westerns often look and feel more dreamlike than real. Despite being more naturalistic than many others, Corbucci's film bears down like a relentless nightmare, where the world remains forever unbearably cold and its denizens trapped in privation.

French actor Jean-Louis Trintignant is Silence. As a boy he witnessed the murder of his parents. To keep him from telling on them, one of the killers cuts his throat, leaving him mute. Years later, he's become a gunslinger who makes his way in the world by provoking his opponents to draw first then shooting them. 

Settlers turn to thieving when a terrible blizzard settles on the Utah town of Snow Hill and the surrounding region. In retaliation, wealthy landowner Henry Pollicutt, the same man behind the murder of Silence's parents, hires the mad bounty hunter Loco to kill them. 

Klaus Kinski
Played by the nearly ineffable Klaus Kinski, Loco is a jittery psychopath who is also one of the deadliest gunmen around. His performance suffers from it being dubbed in during post-production, but it's still one of the best.

The first time I saw this I had no idea what I was in for. All these years later I can still recall the shock I felt vividly. Repeated watching haven't dimmed the power of the film, instead, they let me focus on its entirety, not just the surprising parts. Fifty years old now, it still hits like a metal hammer between the eyes.

Jean-Louis Trintignant as Silence

The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), dir. C. Eastwood, writ. P. Kaufman, S. Chernus

Despite being based on a book by segregationist and Klansman, Forrest Carter, Clint Eastwood's The Outlaw Josey Wales is one of the most humanistic Westerns I've ever seen. A man who was unable to save his family goes on to form sort of a new one with Indians, pro-Union settlers, and the rag tag citizens of a dying frontier town. 

Josey Wales, a Missouri farmer, survives an attack by pro-Union guerillas that leaves his wife and son dead. To avenge them he joins up with Bloody Bill Anderson's pro-Confederate guerillas. When the war ends and the amnesty the guerillas is offered turns out to be a trick in order to kill them, Wales and the young Jamie survive and take off for the Indian Territory (modern Oklahoma). 
With a price on his head, Wales begins a series of adventures that will end in a bloody showdown in a small town in Texas. 

Chief Dan George
I like a lot of Clint Eastwood Westerns, but this is my favorite. It's got a satisfying mix of heavy and light. The hilarious Chief Dan George steals every scene he's in as the Lone Watie, a Cherokee chief. The action scenes are tough and exciting. The movie never loses energy. Despite its mostly episodic nature there's a real momentum to the central story that Eastwood never lets flag.

I've never found Eastwood an especially memorable director visually, but he excels at telling stories and bringing characters to life. He does that better in The Outlaw Josey Wales than in any of the other Westerns he directed.  

He also recreates the world of the post-Civil War frontier, depicting both its dangers and the promise it offered. There's hopefulness to the movie that ultimately outweighs its darker parts. An encounter between Wales and the Comanche chief really drives home a sort of pragmatic optimism that the world can be better than it is. I won't write anymore because if you've somehow managed to miss this you I don't want give anything away.