APACHE. United Artists, 1954. Burt Lancaster, Jean Peters, John McIntire, Charles Bronson, John Dehner, Morris Ankrum, Monte Blue. Based on the novel Broncho Apache by Paul Wellman. Director: Robert Aldrich.
You’d think that a movie starring Burt Lancaster with strong supporting roles by John McIntire and Charles Bronson (billed as Charles Buchinsky) would be more captivating and engaging than Apache, a mid-1950s film about the life and times of Massai, one of the last Apache warriors. The film is based on Paul I. Wellman’s novel, Broncho Apache and on fact as well as fiction.
The story follows Massai (Lancaster) as he escapes a prison train meant to deliver him and other Apache prisoners, including Geronimo (Monte Blue) to confinement in Florida. Massai makes his way through the Midwest, encountering Whites in St. Louis and a Cherokee Indian man who teaches him about the Cherokees’ decision to grow corn and to adopt a non-warrior lifestyle. Initially, Massai, who really isn’t all that personable a fellow, thinks little of this approach to living, but eventually decides to crow his own corn when he arrives back in Arizona.
There is, of course, a love interest. Massai falls for Nalinle (Jean Peters), daughter of an Apache man who betrays him to the White authorities. He is a fugitive, after all. On his trail are two men, Al Sieber (McIntire) and the Apache Calvary officer Hondo (Bronson). Both of them are excellent in this otherwise average Western.
Apache often feels labored, almost soporific. It’s not that there isn’t any action. There’s actually action a plenty, but much of it seems so forced and downright tedious. There is, however, one notable exception. In a tense, beautifully filmed sequence, Massai and Al Sieber (McIntire) play cat and mouse in Massai’s small cornfield. For a moment or two, it’s not quite clear who is going to best whom and with what weapon.
Unfortunately, too many of the other chase sequences just aren’t all that thrilling. And then there’s the unavoidable question of whether the casting of the blue-eyed Lancaster as an Apache warrior was a good choice. I’ll leave that to future viewers to decide.
CONQUEST OF COCHISE. Columbia Pictures, 1953. John Hodiak, Robert Stack, Joy Page. Director: William Castle.
On the other hand, for a Western/historical drama that isn’t all that, you know, historically accurate, Conquest of Cochise is nevertheless a fairly entertaining action packed little film. Like Masterson of Kansas, which I reviewed here, Conquest of Cochise is a William Castle/Sam Katzman collaboration that holds up to the test of time far better than many other similarly situated lower budget 1950s Westerns.
Why is this the case? First of all is the strong cast. Although they may not have been the biggest box office stars of their time, both John Hodiak, who portrays Apache chief Cochise, and Robert Stack, who portrays U.S. Calvary Major Tom Burke, are both solid actors more than capable of delivering above average performances. The two men’s attempt to bring peace between the United States and the Apache Nation is repeatedly thwarted by events both in, and out of, their direct control.
The film also benefits greatly from the presence of Joy Page in her portrayal of Consuelo de Cordova, a Mexican woman caught between her family, the Apaches, and Major Burke’s romantic advances. Rico Alaniz, who may be familiar to fans of 1950s TV Westerns, portrays Felipe, a hotheaded Tucson man seething at the Apaches for the murder of his wife.
The film’s story line, if not true to history, is both fairly straightforward and (thankfully) without a lot of the forced, well meaning, anti-racist platitudes that ironically only served to categorize Indians as a people almost irrevocably culturally apart from broader American society. In Conquest of Cochise, the Apaches are neither presented as fundamentally misunderstood “noble savages,” nor as mindless brutes. They are a people caught between the Americans and the Mexicans, with their leader Cochise trying to make good decisions under difficult geopolitical constraints.
Indeed, Conquest of Cochise is a surprisingly thoughtful Western with some breathtaking scenery to boot. Although it doesn’t have the cinematography and sentimentalism of John Ford’s cavalry trilogy or the star power of James Stewart (Broken Arrow), William Castle’s Conquest of Cochise, with a running time of around seventy minutes, nevertheless remains a worthwhile investment of one’s time.
True, it’s no classic. But there’s action, moderately well developed characters, internal and external conflict, and romance. Perhaps more importantly, it doesn’t try to be a heavy-handed horse opera.
One final thing to consider: although it can be said about nearly every film ever made, I do think that this movie in particular has to be far more enjoyable when watched as it was meant to be seen on the big screen. Maybe it has something to do with Castle’s unique, if not easily categorized, vision of how a film should be directed so as to captivate the viewer’s attention.
Let’s be clear about one thing: gruesome accounts of violence and its results do not float my boat. Or light my candle, or set my blood racing, or any other such popular metaphors. There are authors whose work I avoid, because they seem to delight, if not glory, in the kind of lengthy graphic descriptions that the human imagination can usually achieve in far more vivid detail. And there are authors whose books I’ve put in the charity box after half a chapter for the same reason.
It works for some people, and that’s fine. Talking to readers at a Christmas market the other week, I found that a surprising number actually choose their reading matter for the gore and mutilation. In my previous life I even published one author whose accounts I had to tone down, partly so I could keep my breakfast down while I was editing, but mostly because those accounts went way beyond anything I thought even the most bloodthirsty readers would need. She was one of my best sellers; go figure.
What’s more, there are authors whose work contains plenty of examples of that kind of description whose books stand in whole rows on my shelves.
So today I have two questions: why can I read some books which contain thoroughly depicted violent crime but reject others; and, how far can violent crime in fiction escalate before the tide turns?
I don’t think question #1 is so very hard to answer. The difference between books containing the graphic stuff which I find I want to read and... the other kind is this: the ones I want to read also give me plenty I want to read about.
Usually that means great atmosphere, a central plotline which grabs me and makes me want to follow it to the end, however bitter it gets, and mainly, characters I’m persuaded very early to care about and want to get to know better.
Well-known examples of the above aren’t exactly scarce, but if you want a couple of names, how about Lee Child and Val McDermid?
On the less well-known front, though that may change, I’ve just finished my second sampling of T F Muir, one of the emerging ‘tartan noir’ authors I mentioned last week. A particularly macabre murder was described long before I applied the fifty-page test, but I took a deep breath, read those pages very quickly with my eyes half-shut and kept going. Why? Largely because Frank, as he’s known to his friends, has a deft hand with female characters (he’s a man – it’s not always the case). I wouldn’t have gone back for the second book if those characters hadn’t captured my imagination long before the end of the first, and I wanted to see how they developed.
The second question is trickier. I’m sure a lot of particularly horrible murders happen in real life as well as in fiction – but I can’t be the only person who has trouble with stomach-turning serial killings which seem to happen every few months in peaceful villages or scantily populated beauty spots. If I’d let myself believe there was a grain of truth in Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse series, I would have strongly discouraged my daughter from studying at the University of Oxford. And I’m pretty sure the Royal Family would have felt much the same about the next-but-one heir to the British throne completing his education at the venerable institution located in St Andrews if the local newspapers gave any hint that T F Muir might have a point.
But that’s not really the issue here; my real question is, how much gorier and more graphic can the descriptions get? And how much further can the boundaries be pushed? Without giving too much away, Mr Muir will have to work pretty hard to top his latest foray into the realms of grotesque brutality.
There must come a point where readers say enough! I can’t suspend disbelief any more.
In the summer of 1980, I spent a month at Chase Tennis Camp in a boarding school in Pennsylvania. I’d gone to camp before, but this was the first time it wasn’t in the woods with bunks, but rather a dorm setup with a roommate.
My roommate was a kid from Long Island named David, also 12 years old; fine kid, we got along well. He was a slob, if I recall, but, I mean, we were 12 year old boys, so I’m sure he felt the same about me.
The first night we were there, David took out a little Panasonic cassette recorder and a home-made cassette. 60 minutes. I asked him what was on it.
“My Bar Mitzvah studying. I told my mother I’d listen every night.”
“You have headphones?”
So that was the last time his bar mitzvah was mentioned, and side A of the tape was never played.
Side B, on the other hand, contained the first half of the album Glass Houses by Billy Joel (You May Be Right through All For Leyna), which had just been released. For those of you reading this born post-cassettes, the optimal length of cassette was 90 minutes, because the typical album in the late 70s through the 80s was approximately 45 minutes, so you could fit two on one tape. The 60 minute tapes were annoying because you really couldn’t do anything with them without wasting a lot of time or cutting off the last three or four songs (or one song if you liked prog rock or live albums).
Sorry, digressed. In any case, for one month, therefore, I listened to Side A of Glass Houses, then the side would end, then there would be around 10 minutes of silence, and then the tape recorder would turn off with an enormously loud CLICK-THWAP, which would wake me up; and because Dave was my first roommate who also snored, it would take me forever to go back to sleep. Repressed memories…
I bring all this up because this evening, my wife, Amanda, and I, along with Amanda’s brother and his wife, and another couple of friends of ours, went to hear Billy Joel play in his “Residency” at Madison Square Garden. I’d never seen him, though so much of his music was part of my life (although I confess it was probably 10 years before I could hear Side 1 of Glass Houses after Chase Tennis Camp). The reviews of these shows, which he does once a month like Britney in Vegas only more badass, have been good, and it appears that at least some of his sloppiness of the past decade are behind him. And even though he has had the bald-and-grey-goatee look for a while now, I do kind of miss the scrawny kid from Long Island with the mop of brown hair.
And he gave us a two and a half hour throwback to a time of saxophones and story-songs, to the Entertainer and Paul the Real Estate Novelist and Virginia (and even Uptown Girls). And every time he sang a beautiful, tender love song like Always a Woman or Just the Way You Are, he concluded with, “And then we got divorced.” Everyone knew every song. And unlike U2, whom we’d seen a few years ago at a stadium where it might as well have been on TV it was produced and remote, this felt relaxed and fun, even as his band was ridiculous. And he even brought on Sting and John Mellencamp for cameos (it was a great show, albeit extremely…non-diverse).
This has been a long fall. I had surgery on my shoulder, we planned and executed my daughter’s bat mitzvah (she did not have a cassette of her part), and watched business fluctuate and get busier and busier. But as I stood there at the end and waved goodbye to Brender and Eddie, I realized that, as Amanda’s grandmother used to say—and which she said to our daughter on Sunday—“Kid, you got it good.”
The original miniseries - along with a previously unpublished sequel, Wintersea, by the same creative team, was recently published in trade paperback form by IDW Publishing, and Dixon has followed that collection with a new, ongoing Winterworld comic book series. I've only read the first issue, but it was terrific, and I wouldn't hesitate to highly recommend both the trade collection and the new series to fans of hard-hitting action and adventure tales.
Here are the original Eclipse miniseries covers by Zaffino.
If you’ve been following the comments over the past couple of weeks, you will have discerned that I’ve been out of town for most of that time. Having decided to take my laptop with me, I’ve been able to keep up with email, more or less, and I’ve even been able to keep on posting while I’ve been away. Some of the reviews I’d prepared in advance, others I’ve had to improvise, with fairly decent results, except for the images, which I wasn’t always able to do justice to.
I’ve therefore spent this evening upgrading all of the recent posts, going all the way back to November 12 and Mike Nevins’ review of the first Joe Gall book. Go back and take a look, if it so suits your fancy.
I might also point to you that the comments following David Vineyard’s review of the movie Susan Slept Here last Sunday have evolved into a two-sided conversation between David and myself about the sad state of affairs in mystery writing today, in our opinions. Go back and read it, and join in, again if it suits your fancy.
Hopefully I’ll be able to return to a regular schedule soon, but perhaps not tomorrow as (1) a huge Nor’easter is promised, with dire amounts of snow predicted, and (2) I have two and a half plastic postal bins containing held mail to work my way through. Nasty work, but someone’s got to do it.
It’s that time of year again, when we start pulling together our longlist of nominees for The Rap Sheet’s Best Crime Fiction Covers competition. 2013 saw a particularly tight race for that honor, with David Middleton’s fine design for the front of Death Was in the Blood, by Linda L. Richards, finally coming out on top. We’ve spent the last few months collecting possible contenders for the 2014 honor, but would like to solicit reader suggestions as well.
You’re all well read and observant, right? So which crime, mystery, and thriller book fronts--first released in 2014, in either hardcover of paperback--do you think really stood out from the crowd? Which have demonstrated remarkable use of typography, photography, and/or original illustrations? If you’d like to see the jackets that have drawn our attention in the past, click here. Then drop us an e-mail note with your best-cover picks for the present year. Be sure to include the name and author of any novel you suggest, plus--if at all possible--a link to where we might view the cover artwork online. Working from your choices as well as our own finds, we’ll collect 12 to 15 covers we think are deserving of recognition, and post them in early December, inviting everyone to vote for their favorites.
Let us know soon which covers you think merit special recognition.
Will probably not be around too much for the next week. I have not abandoned the blog and I will return. What does go up is already on tap. Think good thoughts.