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


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 and Jwatching ohn Wayne or Clint Eastwood save 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 his 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 watchings 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. 

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Not a List of My Top Five Favorite Westerns

Jim Cornelius posted today that Mel Gibson is planning to remake Sam Peckinpah's epochal The Wild Bunch. While I don't doubt Gibson's affinity for bloody action, I have, let's say, serious doubts about this undertaking. You don't remake perfect movies, only crappy ones that have some cool idea buried inside. Still, I'll wait and see what happens.

It got me to thinking about my plan to review Westerns here a few years back, which in turn got me to thinking about which of them are my favorites. Since I've gone back to writing about the Long 19th Century, I thought I might ramble on about Westerns as well. The trick I'm learning, is to not let myself become focused on any one thing, but instead, like the title implies, write about stuff I like, whatever it is.

Making a list of my ten favorite Westerns would be a foolish effort. It's too wide a genre and there are too many I prefer at different times for different reasons to proclaim "these ten are my favorites" or "these are the best." Instead, I'll pick a few I think standout for assorted reasons and every fan should see.

The Wild Bunch (1969) - dir. S.Peckinpah, writ. W.Green and S. Peckinpah

Since this is the movie that reignited my interest, I'll start with Peckinpah's bloody, bloody masterpiece. Starring William Holden, Robert Ryan, Warren Oates, Ernest Borgnine, Ben Johnson, among many other actual tough guys, this movie is awash in testosterone. There are damn few contemporary actors who can hold a candle to the manliness of anybody in the cast The Wild Bunch. Several of the cast had been in the military (most notably Borgnine who served nearly ten years in the navy), while others had been stuntmen and longtime actors in Westerns. Every line etched in their faces looks bought and paid for. There's a real toughness to the cast that enhances some of the best acting of all of these men's careers. When Holden utters the line "If they move...kill 'em." you believe him.

  When Peckinpah was on target he made some of the greatest Westerns of all time. He was completely on target here, and while I love the melancholy Ride the High Country more, this is a big, tough movie that makes no concessions to the viewer whatsoever. Save for the martyred Angel, there are no good men in The Wild Bunch, only men at different points on a scale of bad.

   The movie opens with robbery gone wrong and innocents' bodies in the streets. It ends in one of the most famous bloodbaths in movie history. In between there's mayhem and betrayal, all carried out by very bad men, including the "heroes." The bandits, led by Pike Bishop (Holden), are a band of aging outlaws who are seeing their age is coming to an end. In order to survive civilization's enclosure of the West, they plan one last score.

   What makes its plot more than just another series of robberies is the almost overwhelming feeling that an age of giants - even if monstrous ones - is passing. The badmen of the old West, who at least stood on their own feet and fought for themselves and their compadres, are being replaced by the diabolical agents of the new age, portrayed here by Albert Dekker as the railroad agent, Pat Harrigan.

   The movie was infamous for its violence when it premiered, and even by today's scant standards it's still a brutal piece of work. Innocence and idealism are no defenses against the violence that permeates the movie's world. There are few real differences in how they act between Pike Bishop's bandits and General Mapache's Federales, until the end. That's when the Wild Bunch decide there is something worth fighting and dying for.

The Tall T (1957) - dir. B.Boetticher, writ. B.Kennedy

I was never a particular fan of Randolph Scott. I had seen him in Ride the High Country, but only once. Then I saw this movie. It is one of the sparsest, most minimalist Westerns ever made. The main body of the film only has six characters and the action takes place at a lonely way station out in the middle of nowhere. There's none of the almost romantic attention to the landscape like in John Ford's films and the plot involves no great acts of revenge or getting the gold. This is the Western as anti-epic.
The Tall T is based on the Elmore Leonard story, "The Captives." The unfortunate passengers of a stagecoach are taken prisoner by a trio of bandits. To keep from being killed, one of the passengers convinces his captors that his new bride is worth a huge ransom that her father will gladly pay. There's a murdered father and son, marital betrayal, 

At the center of it is the back and forth between ranch hand Pat Brennan played by Randolph Scott and bandit Frank Usher played by Richard Boone.

Without any explicitness, it's one of the most vicious Westerns. Richard Boone, probably best remembered as Paladin on Have Gun Will Travel, played several brutal villains in his career. Frank Usher is clever and funny and completely amoral. Whereas his two partners seem borderline psychotic, Usher is completely matter of fact - whatever happens, he's going to kill everyone - and utterly chilling.

Randolph Scott and Budd Boetticher made seven Westerns together. If one were to make a list of, say, the top 50 Westerns, six of them would belong on there (Seven Men from Now, The Tall T, Decision at Sundown, Buchanan Rides Alone, Ride Lonesome, and Comanche Station). They are all psychologically rich and at the center of each one is the weathered and often battered figure of Randolph Scott. If they've escaped your attention, go right now and find them, starting with The Tall T.

The Searchers (1956) - dir. J. Ford, writ. F. Nugent

For many people, John Ford is the quintessential Western director. With John Wayne (and a regular company of actors and crew) to bring his vision of the frontier to life, Ford created some of the most indelible images in American cinema, let alone in Westerns.

When you see the perfectly framed shots in The Searchers, you can believe Orson Welles' claim that he watched another Ford movie, Stagecoach, forty times before making Citizen Kane. Ford might have had problems with sentimentality and romanticism, but even his weakest movies look amazing.

Visually, The Searchers is the opposite of The Tall T.  Where Boetticher's film is spare, Ford's awash in vast horizons and rugged skylines. Shot in Ford's beloved Monument Valley, even the desert scenes feel lush and alive. Even if the story and acting had nothing to offer, it remains one of the most beautiful movies ever made.

John Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, a Confederate veteran who has been away from home in Texas for eight years. After the Civil War he ended up in Mexico fighting against the French. Now he's returned just in time to help with Comanche raiders.

Wayne made plenty of crappy movies and rarely pushed himself as an actor. He seems to have been quite content, once he'd achieved icon status, to just stay within its confines and play every role the same way, time and time again. The Searchers, along with the earlier Red River and this final movie, The Shootist, are the best examples of what he could do when took chances with his image. In The Searchers, other than his complete devotion to his cause, there's little good about Wayne's character, and even that's debatable. You may want Ethan by your side in fight, but even he's smart enough to know no one wants to live with him.

While riding the countryside with the local Texas Ranger unit, Ethan's brother Aaron's farm is raided. Aaron, his wife, and son are all killed and his daughters, Debbie and Lucy, kidnapped. The rest of the movie is about Ethan's quest to recover his nieces, or at least that's what he keeps telling everyone.

At the core of Ethan, and the movie, there burns the furious white-hot flame of racism. It becomes clear Ethan's plan isn't to recover his niece, but kill her alongside the Comanches he's hunting. Another character states that "Ethan will put a bullet in her brain. I tell you Martha would want him to." The Comanches are just as driven in their hatred of the whites, with one promising to kill many whites for each of his two murdered sons. John Ford has been accused of sentimentalizing the West and its settlement by whites, but there's none of that here.

There's some silliness involving Jeffrey Hunter's and Vera Miles' courtship that almost disrupts the dark tone, but not quite. Should you meet anyone who disparages Ford's Westerns as mawkish, point them to this movie. Even today The Searchers remains a raw wound of a movie.

Lonesome Dove (1989) - dir. S.Wincer, writ. W.Wittliff                                                                                                                                                        I thank my dad for getting me to watch this miniseries. Something about the commercials made it look cheap in my eyes. Man, oh, man, was I wrong. It is epic stuff from the final days of major network miniseries. To this day, Robert Duvall claims the role of Gus McCrae as his favorite role.                                                                          Lonesome Dove is primarily the story of two retired Texas Rangers, Gus McCrae (Duvall) and Woodrow F. Call  (Tommy Lee Jones), at the urging of an old comrade, Jake Spoon (Robert Urich), making a cattle drive to Montana. Along the way bad things happen and their path intertwines with those of drygulchers, a sheriff from Arkansas, his deputy, and a horrifying bandit, Blue Duck. 

Novelist Larry McMurtry first envisioned Lonesome Dove as a movie that would star John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, and Henry Fonda. John Ford convinced Wayne not to do it so it never happened. So McMurtry turned it into a big, fat book that won the Pulitzer in 1986.

Like so many later era Westerns, Lonesome Dove is about the end of the frontier and the numbered days of the hard men who fostered its settlement in the face of (understandably) hostile Indians, bandits, and a rough, unforgiving environment. 
Once Texas Rangers, now Call and McCrae are ranchers. Well, ranchers who fill out their herd by rustling across the border in Mexico. Later books - Deadman's Walk and Comanche Moon - fill in the blanks of their earlier days -but here they are old men who once walked like giants. Now in their twilit days they are hungry for one more chance to do that again. 

I imagine McMurtry, like Peckinpah with the aged Scott and McCrea in Ride the High Country, wanted iconic Western actors like Wayne, Stewart, and Fonda to underline the theme of an age passing and its heroes with it. I think it would have been a fascinating film, but I'm glad it wasn't made and the novel was written. 

Instead of a trio of Hollywood icons, the miniseries gave two other great actors the chance for roles of a lifetime. Both Duvall and Jones were perfectly cast. 

Duvall has rarely been more buoyant or charming than as Gus McCrae, a man more concerned about where he might find the next available woman than when or if they'll ever make it to Montana. For him, it's just one more lark before the inevitable end.

While decades younger than his character, Jones carries himself with a harsh, self-denying dignity that feels earned with every year of a life lived hard. My favorite scene in the series, one where Jones beats an army scout, is almost frightening in its sudden intensity but his portrayal previously has let you know it's completely in character. 

The rest of the cast are no slouches either. Of particular note are Chris Cooper, Robert Urich, Glen Headley, and Frederic Forrest. There's also Danny Glover, Barry Corbin, Rick Schroder, and Diane Lane, among many, many others. I'm not sure you could make a Hollywood movie with this sort of cast anymore. 

At nearly six and a half hours, Lonesome Dove is the longest of the movies here. It's worth every minute.

A Fistful of Dollars (1964) - dir. S.Leone, writ. A.Bozoni & D.Tessari                                                                                  There might be better made Spaghetti Westerns. It wasn't the first Italian Western. It's not Sergio Leone's best movie either. But, with Leone, Morricone, and Eastwood teaming up for the first time, it's one of the most influential and iconic Westerns ever made (even though it's ripped off from another movie, itself essentially stolen from Hammett's Red Harvest).
According to Wikipedia, the idea was to do a Western version of Akira Kurosawa's 1961 samurai movie, Yojimbo. In that film, a ronin comes to a small town fallen under the control of two warring gangs in order to destroy them both. If you haven't seen it, do so at once.

Leone followed the same basic outline, but Eastwood's character, the Man With No Name, is less the hero than Toshiro Mifune's warrior. Eastwood wanders into the San Miguel and learning of the warring gangs, decides to play them off against each other to make money.

Not the most expressive actor, Eastwood is excellent as the cheroot-smoking, poncho-wearing gringo wandering the direst parts of Mexico. This is the movie that elevated Eastwood from tv star and overseas movie actor to global icon. As much, if not more than John Wayne, the Man With No Name is the universal image of the Western gunslinger.

Barely speaking above a mumble, Eastwood imbues every one of his lines with a grim, sardonic humor. He's clever and ruthless. He stalks across the screen like some lithe beast, tricking first one side then the other before pouncing and leaving bodies scattered at his feet.

All four other movies I've discussed portray the West through a realistic lens. Leone wants nothing to do with that. For him the Western exists completely in the land of myth and legend. Colors, sounds, even the acting - mostly by Italian actors dubbed poorly into English - feels like it's seeped in from some dream world. Even the most elaborate and perfect shots in The Searchers are more "real" than any in A Fistful of Dollars. I remember (perhaps wrongly) Quentin Tarantino saying this was one of the first movies he saw where it was clear everything in it was the result of careful, deliberate choices made by Leone. 

Did I mention the music? I should have, because, next to those of The Big Country or The Magnificent Seven, this movie's is one of the most instantly recognizable Western scores. It's eerie, ridiculously over-the-top, and exactly right for the movie. If you don't think you know it, go to YouTube and check it out. I'll be shocked if you really don't know it.

I fell in love with this movie in high school when I watched it one Saturday night on Channel 5 with my dad. I think I saw it  once or twice previously, but it was that night that I really paid attention to it. I was enthralled by all the things I've mentioned. The colors, the script, the music, it came at me from somewhere far to the other side of John Ford's or Howard Hawks' movies. Raised on a steady, and nourishing, diet of John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart Westerns, this movie was a wild, mind-blowing experience. Rewatching it the other night for the umpteen millionth time, all that came back to me, and for an hour and a half everything felt wild and great again.

These are not my five favorite Westerns, but they are some of my favorites. The genre is big and wide. In addition to the sorts described above, there are Gothics and epics, mysteries and noirs, comedies and even horror flicks. 

In my long definition of what a Western is I point out the movies are essentially period pieces set on the frontier. That's a lot of room for a lot of different sorts of stories and themes and I couldn't make a list of which I like best if my very life depended on it, nor would I want to. These five movies, though, if you watch them you'll definitely understand what I'm looking for in the genre, and more importantly, you'll see five very different, and five incredibly successful works of art in probably the most American genre. Really, though, what you'll see are just five awesome freakin' movies.

Friday, September 28, 2018

I Wrote a Guest Post over at Rogue Blade Entertainment's Gathering - It's about grimdark

Like it says over head, I wrote a post for Rogue Blade Entertainment's site. Whether you agree with my sentiments, disagree, or even think I'm a loon, let me (and RBE impresario, Jason Waltz) know with a comment. Go HERE to read it.

Here and in my Black Gate articles, I think I've made my opinions on grimdark clear. I don't hate it - I don't think there's really anything to it to hate. What I do hate are the airs put on by a lot of grimdark's adherents and the ignorance some of them spread about pre-today fantasy.

for your enjoyment, a generic grimdark scene

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Austria Descending, part 1: The Campaign of Magenta and Solferino 1859 by HC Wylly

not, sadly, the edition I own
Today Austria is thought of, if ever, as a quaint alpine country with little importance to anybody outside its own borders. Maybe devotees of Haydn and Mozart turn their eyes, at least metaphorically, to the land of their heroes occasionally. Vienna, once the capital of a sprawling, multi-ethnic empire, and the beneficiary of centuries of accumulated wealth and artistic and architectural wonders, get more attention than the nation as a whole.  A century ago, though, even weakened by years of raging nationalism, political backwardness, and the four years of the Great War, Austria-Hungary, as it was then known, was still an important power.

The end of the Great War spelled the final relegation of Austria to minor state status. Its component parts were set free and used to build new nations - Croatia, Slovenia, and Bosnia were joined to the already independent Serbia to form Yugoslavia. Bohemia and Slovakia were merged into Czechoslovakia. Galicia was added to lands repossessed from Germany and Russia to rebuild Poland. Transylvania was turned over to the Romanians. Hungary became a small, independent state. The first two, constructs built from the dreams of academics, no longer exist. The second two, both with dominant ethnic citizens and long histories predating the Austrian Empire, remain viable and moderately healthy nation states.

Austrian infantry
Austria's decline and fall wasn't an overnight event. The internal pressures of so many nationalities poorly contained within such a ramshackle state meant the empire would probably dissolved eventually, but two military losses in the 19th century ensured it would happen sooner rather than later.

There's something about Austria that's always intrigued me. How had one of the major continental powers come to such an insignificant state, and why wasn't it part of the larger Germany? Reading this book, as well as Geoffrey Wawro's The Austro-Prussian War, I've gotten some answers.

French infantry
First, there was always a fragility to the empire. From the moment Hungary became part of the empire in 1526 it demanded recognition of its historic rights and laws. As various emperors and their ministers tried to tighten control over the Hungarians, there were several major uprisings over the centuries. The last, and worst, in 1848, required help from Russia. The latter sent nearly 300,000 troops to help the Austrian crush the revolution. In 1859, and again in 1866, in was not uncommon for whole non-Austrian units to simply drops their arms and flee the battlefield the first time they were fired upon.

Sardinia troops
As to why Austria isn't part of Germany, it's pretty simple. The only other contestant for ruler and unifier of the numerous German states (reduced to a mere thirty-nine after 1815) was Prussia. There was only room for one leader of the Germans and Prussia maneuvered herself into that place by gradually excluding and finally crushing the Austrians in battle (though that's discussed more in the next book I read).

The Second Italian War of Independence (29 April – 11 July 1859), fought by the Austrian Empire against the combined forces of France and the Kingdom of Sardinia set the stage for Italian unification in 1871. The latter wasn't just the island of Sardinia, but also a substantial part of northwestern Italy. Its capital was at Turin.

The political turmoil that had swept across Europe in 1848 had led to war between Sardinia and Austria. Austria had ruled the Northeast of Italy, in particular the cities of Milan and Venice, for over a century. There had been a break when Napoleon conquered the region, but the Congress of Vienna in 1815 had reaffirmed Austrian Hapsburg rule of the area. The war, called the First Italian War of Independence, ended in Austrian victory, but it clearly set the stage for next one.

Sardinia realized it would need allies in order to defeat its enemy. To make friend, she allied herself with the French and British in 1854 and sent troops to help fight Russia in the Crimea. This, coupled with a later deal to transfer Nice and the region of Savoy to France, ensured when the time came, Napoleon III would bring his army in on the side of Sardinia - provided the Austrians declared war first. In 1859, that happened.

When I set my sights on reading about the wars of the 19th century, I didn't think I'd have a hard time finding books on them. Hah! There isn't much and, since I wanted an ebook, I ended up with H.C. Wylly's  1907 The Campaign of Magenta and Solferino, 1859. The title references the two main battles of the short war. The latter engagement, the largest in Europe since Leipzig in 1813, led directly to the end of the war two weeks later.

As over-a-century-old military works go, Wylly's is adequate. In the preface he states his is the first work in English about the campaign to draw on official sources. Unfortunately, in buying the nice, cheap Kindle version, I didn't get any maps (even though the original included a portion of on from the book "la campagne de Napoleon III en Italie"). A war with lots of rapid retreats and advances, it is practically impossible to follow some of the events without pausing to find maps somewhere else. I guess it serves me right for being cheap, but it was seriously frustrating.

The Sardinians began pressuring for a European congress in order to force Austria's withdrawal from the Italian territories it controlled (Lombardy and Venetia in particular). The Austrians also had their fingers in the affairs of several other independent states and the Sardinians wanted them gone.

The Austrian response to Sardinian agitation was to agree to a congress but only is the Italians disarmed. When this was clearly not going to happen, the Austrians declared war and invaded. 

Despite having a large, relatively modern army, the Austrians committed one blunder after another. Under the command of Count Ferenc Gyulai, governor of Lombardy, the Austrian army slowly advanced on Turin. When it became clear his lackadaisical pace had allowed the rapidly arriving French army would cut them off from their supplies he retreated. 

In preparation for the war, France had transferred large numbers of veterans out of North Africa to southern France. They then began using the railroads to move these same forces quickly into Sardinia. Wylly states this was one of the first times railroads were successfully used to move such large numbers of soldiers - nearly 170,000.

Battlefield of Magenta
There were several small engagements in the opening weeks of the war. Each time the French maneuvered around Gyulai's flanks causing him to pull back eastward. On June 6th, Napoleon threw a large portion of his army head on into the Austrians on the east bank Tincio River town of Magenta. It was a tough battle, with the town being captured, recaptured, and captured again. In the end, though, the Austrians were forced out. On June 7th, the Allies marched into Milan.
Towards 7:30 o'clock Espinasse ordered the final advance of his division upon Magenta, and his two columns entering from the north and east, while La Motterouge, closely followed by Camou, penetrated from the west, bloody fighting took place - in the streets, in the churches and from house to house. Here General Espinasse was killed. The Austrians were driven from the town and fell back in great confusion upon Corbetta, covered by Lilia, by Mensdorfl, and by Lippert of the VIII Corps who ha at this moment reached the scene of action.
French troops force the crossing into Magenta
At that point he abandoned any plans for serious offensive operations and shifted to a defensive posture. Gyulai's plan was to build a secure position within the Quadrilateral, the geographic area of Lombardy marked off by four great fortresses - Peschiera, Mantua, Legnago and Verona.

For his withdrawal from Sardinia and the defeat at Magenta, Gyulai was relieved. Instead of relying on a veteran general, Emperor Franz Josef himself took personal command of his empire's army. He was 29 and inexperienced.

On the other side, Napoleon III, Emperor of the Second Empire, held the reins of his nation's forces. The final major battle of the war, Solferino, would be the last European battle where both sides were led by their country's monarch. The Sardinian forces were also commanded by the their king, Victor Emmanuel II.

After several weeks of retreating, the Austrians decided to counterattack. At the same time the Allies resumed their offensive. The two armies collided in a series of engagements around the town of Solferino on the morning of June 24th. For nine hours 83,000 French soldiers, 37,000 Sardinians and 129,000 Austrians fought for nine hours. On the north end of the line, the Sardinians attacked around San Martino, in the center the French attacked at Solferino itself, and in the south at Medole. The French army, many of its soldiers battle-tested, long-service veterans, fought with great ferocity. The Austrian army, many of them inexperienced, less so. 

The Austrians were never convinced, until too late in the day, that Solferino was a major engagement. As battalions arrived on the scene they were thrown into battle piecemeal. The result was mostly disaster. 
Battle of Solferino by Carlo Bossoli
The one bright moment of the battle for the Austrians was the stand of VIII Corps under General Benedek around San Martino on the northern end of the line. Outnumbered, they held off the Sardinian army all day, not leaving the field until the rest of the Austrian army had withdrawn.

Sardinians at San Martino - from the Torre di San Martino della Battaglia and Ossuary

The four brigades in Benedek's front line had endured and beaten back the attacks of the Italian divisions of Mollard and Cucchiari, and had indeed so completely overthrown them that about 1 o'clock the battle in this portion of the field had died down, and for some two hours there was no more heard "the voices of them that shout for mastery and the noise of them that cry, being overcome."

In summing up the battle, Wylly quotes two previous writers on Solferino:
Of the battle itself (Edward Bruce) Hamley says: "There was no exhibition on either side of strategical art; none of the movements on either side since the battle of Magenta had altered the chances of success; and the result was altogether due to tactics."
(Wilhelm) Rüstow very truly remarks that it was not gun or rifle or even tactics which won the day at Solferino, but the offensive, spirit which was wanting in the Austrian leaders; and in support of this statement he points out that the Austrians, who crossed the Mincio simply and solely to attack the Allies, had no sooner met them than they took up defensive positions.
When it was done, the vast majority of the Austrian army was in retreat. The French and Sardinians were too battered to pursue. Viewing the human wreckage the next day inspired Swiss businessman Henry Dunant to found what would eventually become the International Red Cross. About 4,500 men were killed and 22,000 wounded.

Napoleon III 
A few weeks later, facing possible Prussian opposition, and shocked by the great losses at Solferino, Napoleon III signed an armistice with the Austrians. While unable to take Venetia, the Sardinians did end up with Lombardy. In return for the French giving up any claim to Lombardy, Sardinia turned over the province of Savoy and its capital, Nice. Within a year, with French and British support, they occupied the rest of the Italian peninsula and in 1861 proclaimed the birth of the Kingdom of Italy.

As for Austria, it took on the appearance of someone slowly dying from gangrene. The empire was still suffering from the aftershock of the 1848 revolutions. The loss of such a wealthy province as Lombardy, isolation from Italy's allies (England as well as France), weakened the empire tremendously. The stage for the next big blow was set.

For anyone with the slightest interest in the wars that built the nations of modern Europe and helped set the stage for the Great War, Wylly's book is only reasonable game around. It's short on any sort of real character study of the commanders or the soldiers as individuals. It's also fairly dry and there's too much attention to the minutia of troop movements., but it's one of the few available studies of a most important, if forgotten, war. I wish there was an affordable, more in-depth work, but there doesn't seem to be.

Nonetheless, there was value in reading the book. In a sense, it's a sequel to Trevor Royle's book I read on the Crimean War, the French-Sardinian alliance being a direct result of that. With Prussia lurking in the wings, it's also a prequel to Wawro's books on the Austro-Prussian War and the Franco-Prussian War. 

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Gobocalypse Now: Playing D&D after 35 years

 SE corner of the Sunken Lands   
For the first time in over three decades I played a session of D&D. Not only did I play with my eleven year old nephew and his friend and my wife, I also played with Densel E., the man who introduced me to the game, as well as another friend from my old gaming days.

I stopped playing D&D around 1983 in favor of other games; first DragonQuest, then Rolemaster, and finally the Hero System. First, a group of us had decided we wanted a system where armor made you harder to hurt but easier to hit. Secondly, we wanted one that awarded experience for cleverness and roleplaying and not just killing things.

As it probably did for lots of viewers, Stranger Things introduced one of my nephews, Jac, to the idea of roleplaying. At the same time he was watching the show I was learning about Dungeon Crawl Classics from Goodman Games. Reading about the game and listening to the hosts of the Appendix N Book Club and Sanctum Secorum podcasts talk about it really made me want to roleplay again. At some point it became clear I was going to have to run a game for Jac. Since he and a friend were coming to stay for a week at my house this summer a date was picked and I started relearning how to run a game.

Somewhere between the decision to play and last week, the guy who taught me D&D and I had renewed our friendship after many years. When I told him about reffing a game, he suggested D&D 3.5. I read the rules and it seemed good enough.

We spent a night making up characters and explaining the basic of roleplaying to the two kids. My nephew made up an elf cleric and his friend an elf paladin. Hallie decided to play a half-orc barbarian and the two old timers a human wizard and a human rogue. The following day we played.

The adventure I created in the preceding weeks was this: With more than a tip of the hat to Apocalypse Now, I planned to send the players off down a river into unexplored hostile country. Unbeknownst to anyone but me, goblins to the south of a frontier settlement had been riled up. A human soldier exposed to strange, chaotic magic had become their leader/shaman. He had infected them with some of the same magic and they had taken to raiding the village and its outlying farms. In turn the village put out a call for soldiers to come protect the town. In other words, standard frpg stuff.

The adventure wasn't planned as anything spectacular, just a nice basic intro to get new players a feel for roleplaying. I expected the players to hunt for some clues, journey down the river in search of the goblin base, and get into some fights. All that happened, just none of it in the way I had planned.

3.5 goblin - not bad...
Immediately upon arriving in the town, the group started throwing a monkey wrench in my plans. No in a bad or annoying way, but in a way that meant I had to switch things up on the fly. I haven't had to do that in ages so I was a little rusty. The longer we played, though, the more it came back.

My plan was that the players would stick around town and the first night goblins would attack. Instead of just waiting, the players decided to find tracking dogs to follow the goblins. It hadn't even occurred to me that idea would even arise, but I sure didn't want them getting dogs. So, I decided a farmer had some good tracking dogs but that when they to get them a frenzied goblin attack would be in full swing.

..but DAT's will always be
THE goblin for me
Later on I got to mess with them when they had to go overland in search of the goblin lair instead of taking boats. If they'd fought the goblins at night they would have been able to take their canoes. This meant instead of meeting more goblins on the river, they instead faced off against several waves of very low level myconids (something I'd never used ever before in D&D). While the goblin fight had proved tough for a first-level party, the myconids had left two players almost dead. After that I got to pull off the big reveal of the goblin lair. I'll save that for the next time I get to ref this campaign.

The best thing that happened was the banter back and forth during the session. I haven't been part of that in 25 years. For the two old-timers and myself who've been friends for forty years it was natural, but it took a little longer for my wife and the boys to get into it. Densel kept prompting people to talk as their characters, not themselves. Soon enough, everyone was speaking in accents, haggling with tradesmen, and roaring in battle. It was everything I hoped it would be. A lot of fun was had and my nephew and his friend are clamoring for another go as soon as possible.

As to 3.5, eh, it's alright. I think it makes things a little too complicated for rand new players, requiring them to think on skills and feats before they have an understanding of how the game's systems work. As an experienced player who prefers skill-based games I deem it ok. The feats are a nice idea and really let you tailor your character, but I think they get too specific and add another bunch of things to be remembered.

While I'll keep on with the 3.5 with my nephew, but what I'm really hoping to do is run a DCC game with some of the old timers. It's got a nicely lunatic pulp feel and looks like it affords the ref and players a looser style of play. I'm also a bigger fan of S&S and pulp in my gaming than high fantasy. I'm thinking it could be a real blast.