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

The Nicest Fella: The Life of Ben Johnson by Richard D Jensen – Last of the Cowboys

Ben Johnson

Published in 2010, The Nicest Fella is about one of the last of the cowboys. Ben Johnson was not just a “screen” cowboy, he was the real deal. Growing up in Oklahoma  Son, as he was known to family and friends, earned his spurs on the back of a horse before doing so on screen.  Johnson came to Hollywood to deliver horses to the film industry at a time when westerns were all the rage and the demand for horseflesh was high.

Richard Farnsworth
Richard Farnsworth (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After discovering that he could make more money in a single day than he could for an entire month working on a ranch, he decided to stick around and began doing stunt work.  He worked a lot with another stuntman who became an  actor in his later years, Richard Farnsworth who was later nominated for an Academy Award for his role in The Straight Story. Ben would actually win an Oscar for his work in the film The Last Picture Show, which he referred to as a dirty movie because of the cursing and nudity in it.

Richard D Jensen does an excellent job chronicling the life and times of one of Hollywood’s greatest character actors. He had an enormous amount of help from Helen Lee Johnson Christenson, Ben’s sister, who had collected over 30 years worth of information on her famous brother. Jensen himself met Johnson in 1984 at a film festival and the two got on so well that they ditched the festival and spent the evening at a cafe talking. Jensen says that it was then that he knew he would write about Johnson one day.

The book goes back to Ben Johnson’s own famous father Ben Johnson Sr. A rodeo champion and manager of the largest ranch in Oklahoma, he was well known and well respected. Ben Jr, or Son, new that he would have to do something different from his father if he wanted to make his own tracks in the world. Although he would later return to the rodeo world and attempt everything his father had done as a sort of catharsis.

When Johnson first came to Hollywood, the industry was still in it’s infancy. He was not the only real cowboy in the industry. In fact the famous Tom Mix had not only started life as a cowpuncher, but he had worked on the same ranch as Ben Johnson Sr.

Tom Mix
Tom Mix (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ben Johnson was the last of the cowboys though. His code and moral stand stayed saddle bound his whole life, He did not hold with using foul language in front of women or children and he would stop others from doing so. This same “code” meant that he continually attempted to get Hollywood money funnelled into his home state to help those who needed it.

Johnson also took a “break” from Hollywood to go back to the rodeo. He is the only actor who won an Oscar and the  Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association‘s Team Roping World Champion title in 1953.  Ben was later inducted  into the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association‘s ProRodeo Hall of Fame in 1973.

The title of the book came from paraphrasing Johnson’s acceptance speech for winning the Oscar in 1972. At the end of his very short speech, he announced that what he was going to say would cause  a lot of conversation but, “It couldn’t happen to a nicer feller.”

He was right. What the book shows is that very few, certainly not any in the book, had an ill word to say about the man. The cowboy turned stuntman; turned actor; turned rodeo star  and back to actor, was a man of his word and had time for everyone. His strict moral ethos gave him the strength to stand up to notorious bully John Ford, and it says volumes about Johnson. Even more so that Ford, later in his career, would talk Ben into working in The Last Picture Show. If Ford had not “pushed” Johnson to do it, he would have kept turning the role down.

At 299 pages, the book is not overly long, but after biography finishes, Jensen has one of the most complete filmography’s I have ever seen. This was a monument to a great man and the author has laid his foundation carefully and built a wonderful bio of a brilliant character actor.

Johnson

If you are a fan of westerns, you’ve seen Mr Johnson in countless roles in films that range from John Ford’s epic paintings  to Sam Peckinpah‘s brutal realism. Well known as the “sidekick” of Duke Wayne and the best horseman in Hollywood. It is a wonderful read and definitely a book for anyone who is a fan of this excellent character actor.

I have to give this a five out of five stars just because Richard D Jensen does a brilliant job and he is the only writer who has taken the time to write a Ben Johnson biography.  The book is available from most book sellers, but sadly, is not in an ebook format.

Ben Johnson (actor)
Ben Johnson (actor) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Michael Smith

United Kingdom

4 September 2013

Is The Lone Ranger John Carter on a horse?

Is The Lone Ranger John Carter on a horse?