Life in the Real Desert: Westerns and Old Movies

Town sign outside of Burger King
My life in the real desert thus far has consisted of much more than personal injury and the shock of having no television. It includes the reading of old western favorites and movies that remain in the collection. Split into blu-ray, NTSC, Region 0 and Pal, the DVDs are spread out between RV and 5th wheel. In terms of stimulation, the tales by Louis L’Amour are hard to beat. Each story a sort of male romance novel built around rugged and hard men who must either fight, solve a mystery or puzzle, or defeat a villain who has designs on the girl of the protagonist’s dreams.

It took me awhile to figure out that these adventure stories of the old west were, in fact, the male answer to Harlequin Romance. These gunfighters, gamblers, cowboys, miners, lawmen, soldiers and so on are all just men searching for something. In the books it is either home, land, destiny and/or a woman. Each hero is an individual who yearns to put down roots, eventually for some and sooner for others, and they are tired of being a lone traveller.

The best thing about the heroes in L’Amour’s books is that the partner they seek is not a helpless and timid female. These men want strong women who will be an equal partner in the relationship. In that sense the author, through his protagonists, was an early feminist supporter way before it became fashionable. Considering L’Amour wrote during the 1950s and 60s he was ahead of his time.

While hanging the title of feminist around the neck of this self-educated wandering man may feel awkward, it is worth remembering that L’Amour himself was a strong character. A man who struck out to explore the world and all it had to teach him in his early teens. There is little doubt that his own strength moved him to admire the trait in anyone else who possessed it and this is reflected in his writing.

Each of the many books written by the late author are “page-turners,” and impossible to put down until the tale is finished. Many of his stories have been made into films or, in the case of the Sackett sagas, made for TV programs starring Sam Elliott and Tom Selleck as two of the many brothers in the large clan.

Perhaps it is the location I’m in that makes the reading of these books seem a necessity. While L’Amour’s writing about the West took in all of the frontier, many of his characters crossed not only the plains but the deserts of the southwest. Some died from attacks by indigenous tribes of the region and others for lack of water in a dry and barren land. Still more were victims of a slow draw or died as the result of poor judgement.

The area where I live, like others that have been home in the US, feels like a land “out of time” and if one suddenly came across a calvary patrol, dusty, tired and sweat stained from their efforts it would not be surprising. The people who populate the country now are just as fiercely independent as the settlers, nesters, ranchers, cowboys and pioneers that L’Amour writes of in his stories. All that is missing, when one goes to town, is the sound of spurs jangling on a boarded sidewalk.

deserted house in the desert

Rather interestingly, out of all the films in my collection, Westerns have not been viewed very often. Possibly because most of the ones on hand were filmed in either Mexico (Durango) or some other “standard” setting favored by the studios, like Death Valley et al. Although that may not be the case at all.

It could well be that this part of the “old West” is new to me. From Hi Jolly’s grave to the infamous Yuma state (territorial) prison miles down the road, all the local history, from Tyson Wells stage stop to the army presence here in this part of the desert, is waiting patiently for me to discover it. It is all, except for Hi Jolly, new to me.

Once the dust has settled from my move, a lot of research into the area will be done. I have already read about the camel experiment and a short book about Arizona Rangers has provided a wealth of information about the times and, rather interestingly, about news coverage of events back then.

The small stage stop museum is only open part time and once my injuries clear up completely, I will be seeking information on the old way of living in the real desert. A lifestyle that is only remembered, it seems, in western books and movies.

14 April 2015

Louis L’Amour: A Biography by Anita Y Tsuchiya

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Another e-book of the “Reader’s Digest” variety that obviously is aimed at the “limited” reader. Limited as in not feeling like they have the time to peruse a “proper” book versus these watered down versions. As in the American Legend series I just reviewed on Duke Wayne, this book will not break the bank and just under 2 pounds, but it is fairly limited in the amount of information that is related about this iconic author.

I was going to include this book review with my John Wayne review because it was Wayne’s role of Hondo in the picture of the same name that propelled L’Amour even further into the limelight as the film was adapted pretty faithfully from his book. He was not unknown at the time that Hondo was made (as a 3D film yet!) but the public reception of the film was such that L’Amour became even more popular as the preferred storyteller of America’s west.

I grew up reading both Louis L’Amour westerns and those of Zane Grey as well. My father was a huge fan of both authors (with a definite preference to Grey’s novels) and because he had plenty of these books around the house I read them as well. L’Amour’s life, as chronicled by several interviews and articles over the years could have stepped whole out of one of his stories.

He left home and “rode the rails” to find work and an education. He had left school at an early age to “round” out his learning as he felt the academic system used in the formal setting of  his school was lacking. Coming from a family of readers and teachers, he already knew everything that he considered important from a scholastic viewpoint and was eager to learn more than what he had current access to.

For a really great source of  information on Louis L’Amour read his autobiographical novel Education of a Wandering Man. While the book is not all-encompassing, it does relate a lot of facts from the man himself. It is a fascinating inside look at the man who created such iconic sagas with the feudal and familial Sacketts.

During his lifetime, L’Amour was: A boxer, miner, merchant seaman, naval officer, skinner and lumber man.  All these on top of being a top-notch writer of western and adventure novels. He was also an accomplished poet and his daughter Angelique has published a collection of these in Smoke From This Altar.

This biography does touch on a lot of information about L’Amour and it appears to be, again, aimed at the commuter market. For those who do not know who this fascinating man is, it is a good introduction. Sadly the only other biographical information out there is the Education of a Wandering Man and assorted interviews and magazine articles. If you are lucky enough to have access to some of his audio-books you can hear the man himself providing background and information on each of the books.

If you have had the pleasure of reading any of his books you’ll know that the “About the Author” preamble states that he was, amongst other things, shipwrecked, stranded in the Mojave Desert, and was a world traveller. This book doesn’t really relate more than the most basic of information with the odd bit of information that delves a bit deeper.

A 3 out of 5 star book just because it did tell me a few things that I did not know already, quite a feat considering that I have spent years in my spare time trying to learn as much as possible about this writer.

The author Louis L'Amour. (b: 1908 - d: 1988)
The author Louis L’Amour. (b: 1908 – d: 1988)

Westerns

When I lived with my parents, in the long ago days before video and DVD players, it was a family tradition to watch any westerns that came on the television. This usually occurred on the weekend, most specifically on a major TV network (NBC I think) on Saturday Night At The Movies.

It was on Saturday nights that I sat with my folks, and later my bother as well, watching The Duke,Gary Cooper, and Robert Mitchum.  In fact, all the old actors who had moved into the genre when they got too old to play romantic leads any more.  We popped lots of popcorn and then rushed in to watch The Sons of Katie Elder, Rio Bravo  or some other John Wayne “Americana” western. Or indeed whatever western happened to be on.  If we didn’t watch westerns on the television, we saw them at the Drive-In.

It was at the Drive-In that I first saw Sergio Leone‘s “Spaghetti Westerns.” Specifically the “Man With No Name trilogy. I was enraptured and captivated by this anti-hero. I was so enthralled by this character that I lost the tendency to emulate The Duke and began to squint a lot and speak softly through gritted teeth. This was at the ripe old age of ten. Oh I never fell out of love with the John Wayne westerns  or old Duke’s characters.  I could still do the swagger and do the “Well, Pilgrim” drawl like a trooper.

I remember staying over  at a cousin’s house and horse riding for hours, wearing the standard western uniform of cowboy boots and hat, riding for about three days straight from sun-up to sun-down. We were both so saddle sore it was hard to sit in a chair let alone walk. But every minute spent in the saddle was a minute spent recreating our favourite scenes from westerns of the day. I believe we were both about twelve.

I remember at the ripe old age of seventeen, playing “Spaghetti Western” with my younger (and only) brother. We would strap on toy guns in the fashion of Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef to do battle as “Blondie” – The Good –  and “Angel Eyes” – The Bad –  oddly neither of us had the urge to portray Tuco (the Ugly); even though Tuco was the more “overblown” and fun character to emulate. I mean really, who doesn’t admire actor Eli Wallach’s  portrayal of “Bandito’s?”

It wasn’t just “film” westerns I was infatuated  with either. I also devoured every book I could read by the authors Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour. Zane Grey was my fathers perennial favourite. I liked old Zane, but, didn’t care for his colloquial dialogue that he insisted on using. All his characters said words like pahdnuh and  mistuh just to name a couple. They were all spelt just like that, it could drive you to distraction after a while. L’Amour’s characters talked in the archaic language of the cowboy without the colloquialism’s.

Unfortunately Hollywood stopped making decent westerns just after the bumper crop year of 1969.  1969 saw great westerns like The Wild Bunch, True Grit, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to name but three out of the many that were released that year. Then “The Dream Machine” started making psychological westerns instead of  traditional or spaghetti westerns. These were a complete waste of celluloid. One such film did not have one gun in it. What kind of western is that?

I knew though, that if I waited long enough that Hollywood would start making  decent westerns again. I was right. My old Man-With-No-Name hero came out with the odd gem now and then.The Outlaw Josey Wales, High Plains Drifter  and Pale Rider (really just a re-working of Drifter, but still good) and then…Unforgiven.

Unforgiven showed that not only did old Clint still have the chops as a “western” actor, but that he was still one hell of a director as well. I still feel that Unforgiven was the “last hoorah” of the genre. I know I still like the cross genre westerns and some of the “modern” westerns (No Country For Old Men being the best thus far) and I even enjoyed the True Grit re-make that came outin 2010. But I do miss the old fashioned westerns as well as the “anti-hero” ones that came out in the late 60’s.

Now  I watch my old favourites via the DVD player and remember how much I loved them the first time I saw them. Watching them makes me feel simultaneously young and old. They also make me feel like strapping on my guns and looking for my brother to see if he remembers our gun battles and also feels young enough to have a go again. I think I might even want to play Tuco.