“In the early days storms drove the cattle irresistibly before them; the cowboys not able to handle the frightened and half frozen animals were forced to drift with them, often for a hundred miles, living as best they could.” –Frederic Remington
“A bovine was what made a cowboy a cowboy, with the help of a horse, and to lose one that bore his outfit’s brand meant that he had failed.” –Patrick Dearen, The Big Drift
The “cattleman western” has a dynamic and powerful blend of themes. For every trade novel with a stock greedy cattle baron, hard-bitten cowhands, and [insert gimlet-eyed staunchly individual protagonist here], we get Red River, Shane, and Lonesome Dove to give dimension both to plain folks who believe we need to all get along and those who seek their own path come hell or, well, high snows. The Big Drift by Patrick Dearen (Texas Christian University Press, 2014) is filled with cattlemen and cattle—the latter lowing and frightened as they drift and freeze to death before the winds of the calamitous blizzard of 1884, and as ghastly hills of dead matter, an omnipresent presence of beasts that represent both economical gain and physical obstructions to be contended with.
The aftermath of this singular blizzard also tried men’s souls, the “six-bits-a-day” cowboys rounding up scattered cattle that had flooded the Great Plains and tallying up the dead animals for the owners. The blizzard and the vast roundup is the backdrop of another story, that of Zeke, a freed slave who has become a capable cowhand, and Will, the white cowboy who falls in reluctantly with the man who has saved his life. Will’s reluctance stems from a dark childhood event that has saddled him with guilt he can’t bear to face–yet he finds that Zeke also carries a heavy burden of sorrow and tragedy, a realization that begins to undermine his concept of how races interact and, eventually, allows him to find honor and acceptance with himself. “Me and you, we’s kinda alike, ain’t we,” says Zeke one dark night after they both have nearly succumbed to the cold. “We’re not nothin’ alike,” declares Will. Yet no matter what he feels, they must work together, facing the elements and their inner demons, to bring the cattle home.
Black cowboy with horse (c. 1890). Courtesy Western History:Genealogy Department, Denver Public Library
As in Dearen’s book To Hell and the Pecos (review here!), the West is not a blissful paradise to escape to but a purgatory one must traverse. The blizzard is not only a driving force in bringing the “lost souls” of dual/dueling protagonists Will and Zeke together but also a way to test them, to bring them to acknowledge a force infinitely greater than themselves that is also infinitely wiser and more merciful. While westerns come in all spiritual flavors (the neo-pagan return-to-nature of Dances with Wolves, the humanist community of Stagecoach, the nihilism of every spaghetti western ever), The Big Drift has a powerful Christian theme of being reborn out of suffering.
Drifting Before the Storm, Frederic Remington, Collier’s Magazine, July, 1904
The Big Drift has struck a chord in readers of westerns; it’s recently gone into its second printing (congrats!). No matter how successful a book may be, however, writing westerns can be as hard than wrangling cattle, so I always like to celebrate these authors, especially those who combine respect for western history and conventions with the courage to confront them. Patrick Dearen (website here) is a well-respected historian and folklorist whose interviews with men who cowboyed before the 1930s and decades of archival study enrich his craft. He was kind enough to answer questions as far-ranging as research, character development, and the inevitable (for moi) “which actor would play which character” query.
The author! Patrick Dearen, 2013
Bucko: You use the historical calamity of the Big Die-Up to explore how people can be pushed to their limits and find a way past them. What drew you to that event? It’s a well-known historical fact, but you bring it to fierce life. Was there a point in your research when you discovered a crucial, little-known fact or confirmation of what you hypothesized that helped you create your book?
Patrick Dearen: I like to think that my nonfiction research into the American West has enriched my dozen novels, not just by providing ideas and background details, but by unearthing prototypes for characters. I’ve produced nine nonfiction books, with a tenth set for release in March 2016. I’m particularly drawn to the history of West Texas, to which my cowboy-grandfather emigrated in the 1880s. I suppose that my deep roots in the region have led me to try to tap the soul of the nineteenth-century West Texan, a figure who needed courage and grit to cope with the harsh landscape, the recurrent droughts, and the sudden blizzards.
One such winter storm pushed hundreds of thousands of open-range beeves down into West Texas in 1884. This big cattle drift and ensuing roundup on the Devils and Pecos rivers tested the mettle of every cowhand involved. In my research into the Big Drift of history, I was struck most by the unparalleled work ethic of cowboys who stayed with those drifting cattle hour after hour as fearsome winds howled across an 18-inch snow. It’s been said that a cowboy would cling to a herd long after the actual owners would have given up, and accounts of the actual Big Drift bear that out.
In my novel, the cattle drift allowed me to push my characters to their limits and beyond. I’m not speaking of a mere physical journey, but also an inner journey through crippling memories that can destroy as surely as a blizzard. To push ahead through adversity until an inner voice screams “Not another step!” —and then to take that step—is to live, say philosophers. But even as that moment might tell a person who he really is, it can also mean death.
B: The characters seem to emerge from the blinding snow fully formed. But how did you begin to build them? When did you “see” Will and Zeke?
PD: Before a novelist writes the first sentence of a new work, he needs to know his major characters inside and out. As a character leaps into his first scene, he should reflect reality, and an important aspect of that is to give him a past that has helped shape who he is. I saw a need for my 1884 versions of my white cowhand Will and his black counterpart Zeke, but I got to know them by reaching into their past and creating a common, racially charged element that haunts each man. This immediately established the all-important man-against-man conflict that would play out against the man-against-nature backdrop of the Big Drift and ensuing roundup.
I found the prototype for Zeke in Sam James Washington, a former slave who cowboyed for his onetime master after the Civil War. As Washington related in a Work Projects Administration interview, a killing might have occurred if his employer hadn’t intervened when a drunken cowhand confronted Washington outside a whites-only tavern. As a novelist, I asked myself, “What would the consequences have been if Washington and the drunken cowhand had scuffled over a revolver and it had discharged, killing his employer?”
My white character Will, meanwhile, grew out of my interviews with 76 men who cowboyed in West Texas before 1932. For the one event that shaped his life more than any other, I reached into his childhood and crafted a horrid moment for which he still felt responsible, even though he had been a bystander too young to be accountable.
B: What is your impression of the role of faith (whatever religion one had) in the cattlemen and cowboys of the late 1800s? Were they a religious group in general or a go-on-Holy-Days kind of group?
PD: I’ve already referenced my interviews with 76 old-time cowhands. I supplemented that research with more than 150 archival interviews with nineteenth-century cowboys. One almost universal trait among all these men was that, in the strict sense of the term, they were not religious during their cowboying days. This is not to say they didn’t believe in God; it was more a case of not having an opportunity to know Him well. Isolation on the range ruled out church attendance and thus any instruction in spiritual matters. But the very fact that cowboys were honest and trustworthy—not to mention respectful toward women—meant that they had a moral foundation that led the vast majority of them to become spiritual in later life.
Doubtless, a cowhand had things in his past for which he yearned for forgiveness. The need for redemption is something that’s common to all of us, and the search for it is what drives my characters Will and Zeke.
B: And again, I have to ask! Your novels are so cinematic. Who do you see as playing essential characters in your novel if it were to be made into a film?
PD: This is fun to think about, but I’m a realist when it comes to the daunting odds in Hollywood. I’ve had screenplays of my novels When Cowboys Die and The Illegal Man floating around producers’ offices for quite a while now. I do have renewed hopes for The Illegal Man, dealing as it does with the tribulations of an illegal Mexican alien who crosses the Rio Grande into Texas in search of ranch work in order to support his family in Coahuila. Texas Christian University Press (TCU Press) will reissue The Illegal Man as an ebook in Spring 2015, so I’m hoping that this new exposure will reignite interest from Hollywood, where it was twice optioned.
Inasmuch as The Big Drift is concerned, I think Matthew McConaughey would be a natural for my character Will. As a Texas native, he already has the appropriate accent and bearing, and he has the lean build and hewn features that I picture in a nineteenth-century cowhand. Even more importantly, McConaughey has the sensitivity and depth as an actor that the role would demand.
Dearen’s gift is that he can write a novel that does double-duty. It fits into the established canon of western romance–not the “sexy cattleman” type, please, but the genre in which a charismatic yet reader-identifiable protagonist overcomes deep self-inflicted obstacles, in which there is such a thing as true feeling, in which there is a “way out.” Yet his research and experience flesh out the mythological Cowboy. Zeke and Will and the other characters evince the canny adaptability of Owen Wister’s formidable “knights” but their wrestling with fear, self-preservation, and despair is very real life.
Purchase The Big Drift in print here or in ebook form here (easier to round up cattle on a Kindle, no?). Purchase, read, enjoy!
Anson Mount, handsome and gifted star of AMC’s railroad blood-mud-and-guts western Hell on Wheels, waxes poetic in Cowboy & Indians magazine (August 2014) as he explains what about westerns gets him in the solar plexus. But first he stakes an XY chromosome claim on the genre, describing it as perhaps the most masculine of them all, depicting manly manly men men men men men men men men menmenmenmmuhm. Which it does, yes. And very well. BUT–
–oh hell, buckos, just skip over that part, frankly, because it’s a claim we’ve heard before. Go right to the beautiful contrast he sketches out in a few minimal lines soon thereafter.
On one hand is the war genre, in which “the delicate interplay of light and sound is actually exploded and perverted for the sake of shocking us with what we are capable of doing.” On the other, in a western, he says, “the interplay of light and sound must not be ripped from its mooring but achieve a kind of stillness in motion.”
Mr. Mount loves this scene too!
The evocative “stillness in motion” arrested me, halting the sounds of gunplay and galloping hooves still echoing in my ears from a mid-afternoon binge watch of Man with a Steel Whip. He explains it further as a kind of “listening” that is at the heart of the western performance. It’s a beautiful way of depicting the strong, silent protagonist. I think he’s also describing the archetypal western’s omnipresent connection between land and sky, character, and action. It’s always there in a western, always rippling between the elements, the way the reins between a horse and its rider are always in play. (I imagine the ham-fisted directors of bad westerns, sawing at the reins, ruining a horse, and the subtle communication that happens between the elements when a great director is astride a western flick.)
Case in point! The Searchers, 1956
What amuses me–and truly, I appreciate throughout the article his depiction of stellar male protagonists and the power of the genre–is the totally quote feminine unquote dynamic that he actually invokes, a term I use with a quote eye roll unquote but which seems important to use in the context of his dichotomization: a “listening” that communes closely with the desire to merge with the monumental dry landscape, the squeak of saddle leather, the bite of the wind, the piercing sun. Jane Tompkins in West of Everything calls it what it is: a romance, a “desire for, wish to identify with…an object that draws the viewer ineluctably to itself….”
“Shane, come baaaaack,” is actually the western landscape’s line, if you listen very, very, very closely…
Owen Wister, the granddaddy of the modern western, was himself a yearning kind of man, and his archetypal hero, the tall cool drink of water called the Virginian, describes this swooning kind of love when he shows his secret grove to his ladylove.
Often when I have camped here, it has made me want to become the ground, become the water, become the trees, mix with the whole thing. Not know myself from it. Never unmix again. (Chapter 36: At Dubarton)
And what an awesome mix of feminine and masculine in that written scene.
Follow that there linkage thing at the beginning of the post, dear buckos, to read a fine writeup of westerns from an actor working in a great one. Now if we can just retire that “masculine” thing, that would be awesome.
Courtesy Wyoming Tales and Trails
Mission: Craft reasonably intelligent author queries to write reviews of two novels set in a western mining town (new trend?).
Focus: Mining towns. No idea, really, what they’re all about. I’m all gunslingers and cowboys. Miners are all gold and digging and claims. I think.
Objective: Get back in the saddle and…research!!!
I mean, look, classic western towns are easy. Bank to be robbed. Bath house for bathing dusty cowpokes. Whorehouse for nonprocreating.
Pioneertown, one of the finest examples of storytelling around.
Monument Valley, ditto. Wagons. Apaches. Epic.
Wagons ho, John Ford!
Weird Lone Pine outcroppings, also. Bushwacking and ambushes–all you need to know.
From westerns to sci-fi…
But what about this subgenre of mining+town? Here, buckos, look at this example–what is up with it?
Gold Hill, Nevada
Photo by Timothy O’Sullivan
Are those houses? Tents? Where are the streets? Where is the center? Figuring out the essence of mining towns is crucial: like wrestling with a steroidal chicken-or-egg question, and–one would argue–more than any other genre–a writer of a western must dealz with this old chestnut:
what comes first, the setting or the character?
Or are there more important questions to ask: with western backdrops as well known and set-in-stone as false-fronted frontier towns and high plains and everything else John Wayne rode through, is it even possible to create a setting that doesn’t turn out to be cardboard thin? Or to create a rich character who can thrive in (or conflict mightily with) such a setting?
As usual, perhaps I am overcomplicating things. Characters need their settings. Settings require characters. Period. So stop stressing over some formulaic order of operations, right?
The (often) subconscious choice is probably a bit of both, in a simultaneous birthing that ends with heroes like Shane and Will Kane and the Stranger rising out from their environments like fully fleshed buckskinned, tin-starred Aphrodites.
Case Study #1: Shane, riding his way out of the wilderness to a small farm Eden–the snake, a rival Adam, or their guardian archangel.
#2: The Coop’s Will Kane penned by a town’s high walls–literally unable to see his way out of his predicament.
#3: Eastwood’s Stranger, reborn to wreak revenge, tracing a thin, umbilical trail to a windswept mining town where it all began.
So it’s more algebra that formula. Not so much
C + S = Story
[(Genre ./. Subgenre) x (C + C + C) + (S x Th)] x Authorial Chutzpah = Epically Awesome Western.
And to solve for “S”: The classic reel-life western town branded on our western subconscious has one main street straight down its center, high-fronted buildings crowded together, a train depot not too far away, perhaps separated by a scenic stretch of corrals. Alleys and streets ray out from the backbone of the main road like ribs. (Actually, often real-life western towns along the railroads–despite being planned from afar in a comfortable East Coast office and imposed on a jumble of rocks and cactus–retained this sense of regularity.)
In many westerns, the theme becomes Individual against Civilization. And the author gets the story.
#1: Shane riding into his classic town–and ultimately unable to fit into its ordered streets and riding back out again, mortally(?) wounded.
#2: A stalwart Will Kane finding his moral bearings in the wooden trap of his classic town, rejecting its rotten heart, and leaving with his ladylove and morals intact.
#3: The suspiciously supernatural Stranger turning his classic town inside out and upside down (and red).
And next to find the rules of the subgenre of mining westerns…
Mining towns were created around a discovery–a glimpse of silver or gold, a wide seam in the rock that could yield the mother lode. Instantaneous building ensued. Shacks and tents and roads extended out from claims, straggling around hills and along cliffs, beside rivers and inside valleys. Slapped up by miners and those who made money from miners, the structures were left vacant and creaking in the incessant wind as fast as good luck turns to bad. A few towns, like Virginia City, grew up enough to become a real-life organized town, but a number of mining clusters-of-shacks never made it past the wishing-for phase.
So, turns out, real-life mining towns do make sense, in a dynamic, impromptu, disorderly sort of way, and so I’ll be looking to see if these authors’ fictional mining-town characters do too. What will these characters complement/work with/react against/build/rebuild/destroy/reject? Are they as mercurial as their environments? Are they more superstitious than gunslingers? More romantic than cowboys? Are the villains more urbane or more rustic or more all-or-nothing?
Having poked through ramshackle ghost towns and abandoned mines, I know there will be danger ahead, perhaps shallow 2-D characters that collapse at a gust of skepticism or the gaping maws of incomprehensible plots. But in reading westerns, I’m like those unwashed, crazy-eyed miners: it’s the mere hope of discovery that keeps me going. Just stay off my claim, damn you.
Gold Mine Incline
Photograph by Timothy O’Sullivan
(And O ye Writing Gods, why does everything end up reminding me about the dratted novel–the damn thing’s outline can and does stretch out as cardboard-cutout repetitious as a B-western movie set–and how I scrawl every little “discovery” with boom-or-bust enthusiasm??? More later–better ride this slippery slope into writing….it’ll probably all be fool’s gold anyway…)
Every once in a long while, there comes a time in a cowboy/girl’s life, when he/she has to stop drifting, stop gambling and whoring and paying for expensive whiskey, and pay down some bills. Hang up the hat a while and put on a clean shirt.
After all, if Shane could do it, so could I, was my reasoning.
I got teased some too. “How’s the writing?” Grrr.
But really, this is just a long-winded way of saying yeah, long time no see.
You see, what makes for a rather dull B-movie scenario is this paying-bills stuff, so hence the lack of blog. Unlike Shane, no evil rancher has been trying to stampede my farmer friends. It’s all been, well, quiet. Just working and bills and visiting the apple of my eye, the reason for laser-like focus on said bills:
my desert maison, where lizards and tarantulas and jackrabbits and roadrunners and coyotes and owls play and the skies are not cloudy all day–
–unless it’s monsoon season and then there sure are some BIG goddamn clouds.
But the mind has been rolling, rolling, rolling (RawHIDE!) and there have been some amazing westerns to read…
Goodreads gives this one a thumbs-up.
such as Silver and Glorious, two books I’ll be reviewing…
cowboy heroes to mourn…
Herbert Jeffrey, who died at 100 (or so) years of age this week…
and westerns to praise and pan.
Best. Fight. Scene. Ever.
and dare I hope or should I just skip One Million Ways to Die in the West?
Or maybe I’ll just read the book…
In any case, pull up a stump. We’ve got a lot to catch up on…
Cowboy cutouts, Kanab, Utah, 2012.
This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.
That infamous line in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (dir. John Ford, 1962) succinctly describes much of what lies behind sepia-toned country nostalgia and pumped-up cowboy-wannabe posturing: the legend of the West is bigger than its reality, and it’s a lot more interesting to watch with popcorn.
But there is at least one instance when the facts trumped the legend. Yesterday was the anniversary of the day in 1864 when seven hundred volunteers under Colonel John Chivington struck against a band of Southern Cheyenne and Arapahoe camped at Sand Creek, in Colorado Territory, killing scores of them in what as at first called a pitched battle, scattering the tribes and effectively breaking tribal alliances in the area forever.
Attack on Sand Creek Courtesy of the Colorado Historical Society
From the Rocky Mountain News (1864): The Battle of Sand Creek!
Among the brilliant feats of arms in Indian warfare, the recent campaign of our Colorado volunteers will stand in history with few rivals, and none to exceed it in final results. . . . A thousand incidents of individual daring and the passing events of the day might be told, but space forbids. We leave the task for eye-witnesses to chronicle. All acquitted themselves well, and Colorado soldiers have again covered themselves with glory.
Chivington, a Civil War hero and staunch anti-slavery advocate, was the stuff of legends again. White people everywhere drew a sigh of relief.
But pesky facts soon began to break through this narrative. Witnesses and survivors began to speak. The people in the encampment were mainly the elderly, women, and children. Black Kettle of the Southern Cheyenne and other chiefs had recently swapped land for peace. An American flag flew above Black Kettle’s lodge. The warriors were out hunting. A white flag was waved in panic when the soldiers swooped into the camp. Women and children were killed. Bodies mutilated.
At the Sand Creek Massacre
From the Congressional testimony of Mr. John S. Smith, Washington, DC, March 14, 1865
Question. Were the women and children slaughtered indiscriminately, or only so far as they were with the warriors?
Question. Were there any acts of barbarity perpetrated there that came under your own observation?
Answer. Yes, sir; I saw the bodies of those lying there cut all to pieces, worse mutilated than any I ever saw before; the women cut all to pieces.
By Mr. Buckalew: Question. How cut?
Answer. With knives; scalped; their brains knocked out; children two or three months old; all ages lying there, from sucking infants up to warriors.
By Mr. Gooch: Question. Did you see it done?
Answer. Yes, sir; I saw them fall.
Question. Fall when they were killed?
Answer. Yes, sir.
Question. Did you see them when they were mutilated?
Answer. Yes, sir.
Question. By whom were they mutilated?
Answer. By the United States troops.
Question. Do you know whether or not it was done by the direction or consent of any of the officers?
Answer. I do not; I hardly think it was.
By Mr. Buckalew: Question. What was the date of that massacre?
Answer. On the 29th of November last.
The “pitched battle” scenario did not hold up for long. Nine of Chivington’s men were killed; 148 of Black Kettle’s followers were slaughtered, more than half of them women and children. After the massacre, the Colorado militia returned and killed the wounded, mutilated the bodies, and set fire to the village.
How did a Civil War hero who fought against the spread of slavery ever get on the wrong side of history? The “destroy the savage for the Christian people” Force was strong in this one. A narrative that neatly dispensed with actual facts made the march across the West a Godgiven right for the betterment of all humankind everywhere, amen. But for once, facts seeped through this myth, bringing widespread disgust for and condemnation of Chivington’s actions and those of his men. However, no charges were ever brought against them.
This and other atrocities of the Indian Wars are an inconvenient truth that became relegated to sidebars in textbooks (and always weighing in on the side of inevitability). And as I’ve made scores of paper feather headdresses and Puritan hats in my schooldays, celebrating communal harmony and a peaceful gathering of cultures, as stuffed as I am on turkey sandwiches and pumpkin pie leftovers, I have to agree that Ford was right when he made his rather cynical Western: the legend always makes way better copy.
A Peace Council before the Sand Creek Massacre, September 28, 1864
Justin America is just the average guy pursuing the American dream—although he’s doing it in a dusty red union suit, no boots or hat or clothes, and with a bullet hole in his side. But Americans always have that sense, rightly or wrongly, that they can do ANYTHING, so no worries! Right? . . . um, I said . . . right . . .?
Justin America is a new western web series that’s riding into town on the musical twang of spaghetti western–meets–The Magnificent Seven bombast. With the attitude of both—the humor is dark yet the storyline is classic—this pilot episode, “Parting Ways,” is as promising as it is dynamic. In the space of six minutes, we have hope, betrayal, and bloodshed. Cool.
First, the story. There’s been a power play in a tight-knit outlaw gang and all Justin (Myko Olivier) wants is to leave the gang, clear his name as an outlaw, and to “put a few dollars in [his] pocket the honest way.” A chance to start over is what practically every person on this earth yearns to do. Yet not everyone hides the—well, darn, don’t want to spoil it for you. You see, his boots are where he—okay, can’t tell you that either.
Anyway, Justin’s not some naive Eastern dud of a dude; he anticipates danger in his break from the outlaw gang so he’s craftily thought ahead and taken care of that problem. But what he doesn’t take into account is the fury of a broken heart from—okay, can’t. So forget the plot.
Bloodthirsty killer or long-johned hero?
Co-Creator John Schimke (right) finds the shot with Myko Olivier (Justin, left).
Suffice it to say that the poor guy is bootless and in his red long johns and shot—all before the webisode’s six taut minutes ends. (There are more twists and turns in “Parting Ways” than in the total of How the West Was Won’s turgid 162 minutes.) Then our hero Justin is forced to hike into the wilderness and stumbles, literally, over what will become his biggest problem yet. Run credits…
And nope, not the end but a good cliffhanger, a “stay tuned for the next episode, when…!” And durn it all, they have me hooked. Check it out!
The two creators of the series, Jared Isham and John Schimke, ride comfortably in the saddle of Justin America, as familiar with horses as they are with scripts that call for outlawry on the 1880s frontier. This is the third western for Jared, the first being 2009’s Bounty, also a film about second chances, and Trail to Mercy, to be released later this year, about a man on a mission to fulfill a promise to his deceased wife. John’s credits range from thrillers to cowboy-hatted dramas, a matchup that kicks up some dust in this webisode. The spaghetti western twang that sets up the action is from award-winning Nolan Livesey (I love the quick switch from spaghetti to the sweeping “let’s ride, buckos” chords).
Aaron Lyons as outlaw Tanner (photo by Rebecca Carpenter)
Jared was kind enough to take a break in the final week before the pilot of Justin America goes live and tell me about the making of what could be the shortest yet most complete western on earth. (And thanks, John, for your input too!)
Jared said that most of all, he and John wanted to tell a story about “someone who is striving for something good.” But to make a western, you just throw in some guns and horses and saloons, right? “The danger of making a western,” Jared cautions, echoing one his favorite directors, James Mangold (3:10 to Yuma), is that “a western can become a movie about westerns rather than about character.”
So they focused on the characters first, spending five or six months on backstory, getting the lay of the land. “Once we did that,” Jared says, “we went to page one.” A true western tests the mettle of its protagonist, and so they made sure to throw plenty of mettle-making problems at our long-john-clad hero right from the first page. What does a guy who wants everything do when he has nothing? (And by nothing, they mean nothing, not even his boots, one of the primary tools of a cowboy out in the West, good for horseback riding, protection from snakebite—you can even drink water from them.)
What’s great about this approach to a western is that it shifts the focus from stereotypes to types—the outlaw leader, the woman gang member, the burly, gleeful bully, etc.—and then to characters ready to be breathed into life by actors. Over the course of John and Jared’s developmental work, the characters, as people tend to do over time, began to reveal themselves. The gang, the community that Justin is breaking from in the first episode, took on a life of its own, with a shift in hierarchy—a grim-faced Max (Mark Jeffrey Miller) as new leader—that makes Justin’s staying with the gang unbearable. As Max grits through his yellowed teeth, “You’re loyal or you’re dead.”
Mark Jeffrey Miller as Max (photo by Rebecca Carpenter)
The character of Audry (Samantha Colburn), the sharpshooter in this first episode, especially changed and developed over those months, says Jared. “Max is stronger and has more backing from the group [of outlaws],” he continues, “but Audry is smarter and able to manipulate people.” And she’s not the average 1880s woman. She takes her revenge in a short, sharp, and effective way and, I’m betting there’s a lot more to her that will come out. As the camera circled around the fight between outlaw thug Tanner (Aaron Lyons) and Justin, the glee with which Tanner beats up his former fellow gang member is beautiful to behold—and hints that he has a story too. In this western, it’s clear that all characters will get a voice.
Samantha Colburn as Audry (photo by Rebecca Carpenter)
It was also important to the co-creators to create a western that was historically accurate. To that end they were helped by the team at Caravan Western Productions movie ranch, with Peter Sherayko as technical consultant and all-around wrangler of all things western. (No stranger to the genre, Sherayko played “Texas Jack” Vermillion in Tombstone and has written prized books about the guns and gear of western films.)
Most of the cast had experience shooting guns and riding horses, so with Caravan’s help they trained in using period guns as casually as outlaws would, while keeping up with modern-day notions like safety. No doubt smartphones were turned off while the actors were in character, but one story I liked was about how one actor read Moby-Dick to get into the mood. (Of course! Man versus non-Disneyland nature.)
Aaron Lyons as Tanner (left) and Samantha Colburn as Audry (right) (photo by Rebecca Carpenter)
There’s always a story in why a modern-day artist will choose to work with this genre—westerns are often viewed as fusty, dusty, racist, cardboard-cutout cheeseball fluff. (And yup, some of them are.) For Jared and John, watching westerns as kids gave them a familiarity with the bones of the genre and classic mid-century episodic storytelling. Jared grew up watching reruns of 1950s heroes Roy Rogers as well as Gunsmoke and The Long Ranger. Both John and Jared learned to ride horses early on (this seems to be quite the pattern for people who write/film westerns), but quick fact you can surprise him with if you meet him: he learned on a Shetland pony (aw!), graduating to a mustang when he was ready (classic!).
Justin America will eventually find his town and will get a chance to clear his name—just not the way he was planning. And there will be a bounty hunter . . . and a cattle drive . . . and Justin will cross the western region of the continent, from plains to desert to canyons to towns fueled by railroad expansion, along the lines of Deadwood’s den of iniquity (filmed at Melody Ranch, on the short list of possible set locations) or Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman’s town (filmed at Paramount Ranch, another on the short list of possibilities).
There will be at least one scene in a saloon (because, duh, a western without a scene in a saloon with a guy or gal huskily saying, “Give me a whiskey,” is not really a western). This the co-creators know well, but they also know their characters have hidden quirks and depths. When their grim-visaged man or woman glares around the saloon and orders something, they have a feeling it might not be “the usual.” Tea with sugar? Dynamite? Whatever it is, it’ll be unexpected, the way the real west always is.
Justin America is an American story in a distinctly American genre in a perfect western style, with a minimum of words. This is the first episode of what I hope will be many. Buckos and buckarettes, watch it, tweet about it, Facebook page like the darn thing! Because studios should know westerns have fans. And OMG I HAVE TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS.
Justin America’s pilot episode is just a click—and the ching of a spur away.
And more western trivia, because I had to ask
Jared’s a John Ford fan, with The Searchers and Stagecoach high up on his list, which also includes 2007’s 3:10 to Yuma, Tombstone, Unforgiven, and Once Upon a Time in the West. John Wayne’s 1973 western The Train Robbers, he says, was of particular interest in the creation of Justin America, as it also incorporates some fantastical elements of the west as well as typical western history and great John Wayne–worthy lines. John is a spaghetti western fan, appreciating 1966’s Django and the epic oater Once Upon a Time in the West, among others.
Favorite western wear???
Jared says cowboy hats while writing is key—also very useful for directing for the same reasons cowboys wore them since time immemorial—good against sun and rain, wind and dust. John’s trusty Justin boots see him through all tasks. (And I heartily agree. If you can’t do something in cowboy boots, it probably isn’t worth doing at all.)
The silence of a cowboy-hatted western hero speaks volumes.
This ad for billboards–discovered on a NYC avenue–says it all: if you have to explain yourself, you might as well herd toenail fungus for a living.
So the best of the best buckos never use more words when fewer will do.
In the best of the best westerns, just unadulterated looks could kill. (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1966)
(Although check this out–here is one western hero who talked for a living: Wyatt Earp sold his story–some of it true–for books and films.)
Wyatt Earp, age 79, 1923.
But he was unusual. Many western heroes were like the masterful cowboys that Gary Cooper played, able to melt women with a single glance. Remember: No Words!!!! They defeat the purpose of melting the womenfolk! (The Virginian, 1929)
Most just badassed their opponents with a cold, hard stare. Exhibit A: Woody Strode practicing before Harmonica gets into town. (Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968)
“Say your prayers varmint … dead rabbits tell no tales…“Say yer prayers ya long eared galoot!…Oooo … that gastronomic, epicure, culinary crepe suzette–I hate him!”
OK, except for this guy… But think about it: in the world of Rabbit versus Yosemite Sam, who always wins? Not the talker.
So it’s clear that advertising has always known what it’s doing when it slaps cowboy duds on an ad campaign: You’re a winner! You make things happen in boardrooms and on the frontier!
(And good thing they used scare quotes so we know for sure that the cereal wasn’t actually shot from guns…)
And what got me on this tangent? Just an item I HAD to purchase. It screamed “western hero!”
Because nothing says “I’m a big cocky superboss gunslinger with six-guns the size of Texas…
…like a lunchbox with “Cowboy” on it.
Sometimes it takes just a split second to realize (or remember) that those peddling the western mythos in the middle of last century thought their audience–the common folk eating TV dinners on vinyl poufs–were idiots.
I know full well that our nostalgia for westerns and the monolithic western hero is only made possible by crafty screenwriting and well-rehearsed shootouts with blanks (and, one hopes, unionized labor for cast and crew). But I always believed that the mythmakers had at least some, well, respect for western fans. Especially those honchos behind TV’s classic Wagon Train, whose creaky scripts and stock footage of the same old crooked tree at the mountain pass yet again would’ve cancelled the show, but for the wellspring of affection from the many Wagon Train groupies.
Speaking of groupie, let me just pause a moment for a Robert Horton moment!!!
I was settling in with a shot (ahem, or three) of whiskey, ready to soak up the bromance between Seth Adams and Flint McCollough–in the second season of Wagon Train they’re often spatting at each other, figuring out who was on top–when a buffalo was shot by one of the men on the wagon train, and my nostalgia was punctured like a proverbial balloon.
“Did you see that?” I asked my urban cowboy. He had not. I stepped the scene back a few frames and paused it.
“That’s a wildebeest,” he said. “Not a buffalo.”
And he was right. And the mystery that obsessed me, that snatched away my concentration from the strutting Flint and Seth, was the question of all questions: A wildebeest? Really?
“The Tent City Story” aired December 10, 1958. Seth Adams (Ward Bond), in his second season leading pioneers westward, had forbidden those on the train to kill any game while crossing a warlike Native American tribe’s lands. Sure enough, one of them shoots a buffalo, sparking a confrontation that threatens to wipe out the wagon train, and, much more importantly, destroy the wonderful friendship of wagon master and scout, Flint McCollough.
Seth Adams shackles the man in irons, a harsh punishment that brings out the fire in Flint and causes the scout to leave the wagon train and fall into a job as lawman for a wild and woolly tent city. There’re pretty women (“Flint…that’s a nice name…”) and gunfire and a fight in the mud between a warrior chief White Eagle and Flint (whoo!). Slim Pickens has a short turn as a hapless man who’s also killed game on tribal lands, allowing Flint to show that he is less of a hardass than Seth Adams. All in all, it’s a fine episode that lets Ward Bond roar and Robert Horton grit his jaw and character actor Slim Pickens do a muted refinement of his schtick. Everything a fan can ask for!!!
But that wildebeest…dang, guys.
Scene opens, man gallops down trail. Smiles. (And sorry for the crappy screenshots–had to use Youtube…)
Sees herd of bovids. (Least they had the family right.)
Shoots one. (Squeamish note: Animals were totally, utterly harmed in this stock footage from the wilds of Africa.)
A brief pause for a science lesson.
Photo by Stig Nygaard
Photo (c) 2004 es. Buffalo exhibit, Nebraska City
I thought their wagons had taken a wrong turn to another continent at Idaho? Or White Eagle’s tribe had taken to caring for exotic animals from a zoo? But then the man walked up to the dead stuffed buffalo, a bovid of North America, and I knew.
Viewers are kind of idiots.
Even in 2013. Example 1: there are TV shows where car chases through NYC landmarks are geographically impossible. Who cares? it’s all about the chase in NYC/Toronto streets. Example 2: Recently my urban cowboy missed the point of a movie because he was arguing about why the protagonist had driven from Phoenix to the Grand Canyon to Tucson–I told him just think “Arizona” and get back to the movie.
So who’s the idiot–the audience that goes with the flow, suspending disbelief, or the viewer who knows too much for his or her own good?
But a wildebeest?! I draw the line.
Did viewers back then notice the switcheroo? Did scores of families watching this not blink an eye at the sleight of hand with these massive land mammals? Did they not know the difference?
But can you really blame the creatives who made the scene in 1958? Bison had been protected for years, so there was probably no footage of a buffalo being shot that could be found for the lightning-speed-need of the TV production world. (A wildebeest being killed, on the other hand, was obviously far easier to find.) I pulled at my whiskey and brooded. Then thought, “Brilliant.” Clearly another directorial gem that allowed this episode to live in my brain far longer than it deserved. I downed the shot. Poured another. Toasted the wild western wildebeest and wild, wild Wagon Train.
Flint McCollough (Robert Horton): He’s yelled at me for the last time. I’ve got a little pride too, you know.
Charlie Wooster (Frank McGrath): Between the pride you’ve got, and the pride he’s got, you both lost a good friend. You were good friends, you know.
There’s a branch of crime genre that’s set in the grizzled lands of the Wild West, its gumshoes/police chiefs in boots, spurs, and cowboy hats, as taciturn as any LA noir street dick–and as secretly well-read, as white-knightly, and as troubled.
Craig Johnson’s Sheriff Walt Longmire, in his gritty page-turner “Longmire series” novels, the latest being A Serpent’s Tooth (Viking 2013), strides along a Wyoming landscape even more windswept and stark and beautiful than the real thing if that’s possible (fiction does that). He’s not the silent stranger riding down from the hills to cure a western town of evil but a man-of-few-words widower who trades banter and affection with his comrades in arms. He’s so much a part of the town and lawman culture in the western states that he knows what’s happening in the bad guys’ heads before he can understand his own grief over his wife’s passing, his attraction for his undersheriff, and his penchant for getting into tough situations that usually end with his skin being punctured multiple times by a lethal weapon.
Robert Taylor as Sheriff Longmire in A&E’s series Longmire
The bad guys are as modern as our hero. They’re drug dealers and battle-scarred vets off their meds, pimps and roughneck extortionists with CIA backgrounds. The issues are never as white hat / black hat as B-westerns protrayed–in that Johnson tips his own broad-brimmed hat to the noir genre with its seething cauldron of social ills like drug use, poverty, big-money greed, and even bigger failings of human nature, a toxic stew flavored with antelope, buttes, and gimlet-eyed sheriffs and undersheriffs.
Refreshingly ever-present in the community of the western world of Longmire are Native American voices, notably Longmire’s best friend Henry Standing Bear, whose deadpan take on life wins him the “Best More than a Wise Native Sidekick” award. The love interest is the shoot-from-the-hip Victoria “Vic” Moretti, an Eastern transplant from the mean streets of Philly who brings her share of f-bombs.
I read Craig Johnson’s books like I read my zillion paperback westerns–with an eye to how the genre is shaped, prodded, provoked, and transformed in the hands of a masterful storyteller with respect for the genre–the plots make your pages turn, the characters are drawn skillfully, the setting is gorgeous, dark, and unsettling. His most recent novel, A Serpent’s Tooth, gathers Mormon “lost boys,” polygamists, and Joseph Smith’s very own regulator, Orrin Porter Rockwell, Man of God, Son of Thunder–who just happens to have a yen for My Friend Flicka–into a high-plans high-speed scavenger hunt with the Teapot Dome scandal, shale oil profiteering, and the shadowy side of the CIA.
But most enduring is that Johnson is writing about more than shootouts and scuffed cowboy boots. “They are complex, those chambers of the human heart,” Standing Bear tells Longmire brooding at his desk about wrongs he cannot make right. Then he continues after a beat, “You do realize that it is simply a myogenic muscular organ, right?” The two agree.
The words of Craig Johnson follow the tried-and-true flexing of the muscular crime/western hybrid but they also hint at deeper undercurrents of oh-so-American genre fiction–not only how to find beauty and generosity in a brutal modern world but how to fight for it, one silver bullet at time.
Craig Johnson is the author of eight novels in the Walt Longmire mystery series, which has garnered popular and critical acclaim including the Western Writers of America’s Spur Award, the Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers’ Book of the Year, and a Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year. Hell Is Empty, selected by Library Journal as the Best Mystery of the Year, was a New York Times best seller, as was As the Crow Flies. The Walt Longmire series is the basis for the hit A&E drama Longmire, starring Robert Taylor, Lou Diamond Phillips, and Katee Sackoff.**
**Yes, Starbuck is salt-of-the-earth, sexy Vic!
I love reel-life tough, taciturn cowboy heroes, in case you haven’t guessed. But don’t try to make this into a therapy session about my real-life father figure, who was a generous, slightly nerdy guy who loved music and reading, The Muppet Show (yes, it’s true, eek), and walks in the woods. He taught me just as much as any of those mucho macho heroes, if not more.
This is not my dad. But Ward Bond’s character was like a father to many on Wagon Train.
To wit, DAD’S LESSONS (which–hey I never knew!–are JUST LIKE the lessons of Silver-Screen Western Heroes)
1. Say what you mean and mean what you say.
My dad was a man of few words, but mainly because he understood the power of not talking, which allowed him to actually listen to people and to observe complaining teenagers, Giacometti sculptures, or rocks (he was a geologist). He was well spoken and polite but was known to take action without much chitchat beforehand. He was a little shy, so when he actually talked, it meant he either really wanted to say something or felt he had to say it. So people listened.
This is not my dad. But most dads wanted to be like the Duke.
2. Work hard. Be dependable.
The time 6:20 p.m. lives in my bones. That’s the time he stepped off the commuter bus from work and ambled up our drive to the front door for dinner. I think he would’ve liked to be the cowhand with the geopick, drifting along the continental divide and checking out core samples and metamorphic rock, but he had a wife, four kids, a house, and he was determined for his kids to do as well as he had.
This isn’t my dad either. But if you want a responsible father figure who will do what has to be done, no matter the cost, Will Kane is the bucko.
3. Aspire. And make it happen.
He didn’t have to go to college but he did, at MIT, after a stint in the Marines that paid his way. That is some steely resolve. Whatever you want to do, he seemed to say, do it. Take the bad with the good, and keep trying to make it better.
This is not my father. But it’s Randolph Scott!
4. Lighten up. Cheezus.
All this makes my dad seem a bit grim, like one of those pioneer fathers who make their kids shuck corn until their hands bleed. He was actually a bit goofy, fond of silly puns and odd juxtapositions of words and situations that revealed something startling and new, and were therefore, quite obviously to me then as well as now, funny. While I’m sure he drove my mom crazy–she was better at fixing sinks and building playhouses from scratch than he was–he also taught me it’s okay to let whimsy take over. It’s a lesson I’m still trying to “get” today, in my own driven pursuit of this, that, and the other.
Nope, not my dad, although he shared a similar smile as Robert Horton’s, who played Flint McCollough in TV’s Wagon Train.
My father was/is my hero, although he couldn’t knock someone down with a blow to his fist (Dad? a skinny guy like him?) and he wasn’t a Moses-type charismatic leader (he led by quiet example, not by fire and brimstone).
He was my hero because he once wrestled with whether to be a priest or a scientist, a choice that brought home to me how much he revered the world–and how much it deserves to be revered. (He chose to study the rocks of the earth instead of the hierarchies of the angels, in part because my winsome mother flashed him a smile at the right time.) He’s probably why I’m drawn to the more introverted cowboy heroes, the James Stewarts and Randolph Scotts of the genre, whose soft-spoken demeanors also hid steely resolve.
I miss him every day–he would’ve loved Twitter and smartphones and the Hubble telescope’s photographs.
Happy Father’s Day, Dad, and happy heavenly fossil-hunting to you!
That’s my dad!