Thursday, April 28, 2011

WARLOCK: A Neglected Western Classic

Lately I have been posting several articles I wrote in the late 1990s. This week I am sharing a piece about the 1959 Edward Dmytryk Western Warlock. If you haven’t seen the movie, be warned: I include many plot details.

WARLOCK: A Neglected Western Classic

Imagine a movie with an intricate plot, driven not so much by events as by the tangled relationships between several well-drawn characters. It is a movie with obvious homoerotic undertones and some surprisingly intense violence. To further stretch your imagination, envision it as a film made in 1959 –and a Western, at that.

The film in question is Warlock. Based on a novel by Oakley Hall, it is one of the best examples of that post-war golden time –between the late 1940s and the mid-1960s –when Westerns became an arena of serious adult story-telling. The gunfights and brawls were still there, but a new element was added –the characters were real people, with weaknesses and emotions. The seeds planted by John Ford in Stagecoach grew and flourished.

The rough-and-ready cowboys of the San Pablo spread are terrorizing the frontier town of Warlock, Utah –chasing out the amateurish lawmen, boozing it up in the streets, even shooting a barber for having an unsteady hand. Only a few of the cowboys seem to have any redeeming qualities: the shy Johnny Bannon (Richard Widmark); his younger brother Billy, who idolizes the group’s vicious leader Abe McQuown (Tom Drake); and Curly –portrayed by scene-stealer DeForest Kelly (better known as Star Trek’s “Bones McCoy”) as a good-natured clown.

The city fathers decide they have had enough. Unwilling to face down the rowdies themselves, they decide to hire a famous gunman to serve as town marshal. Warlock’s moralizing, unofficial judge objects but is overruled (one is reminded of Judge Roy Bean’s words in Larry McMurtry’s Streets of Laredo: “Out here, if you want to be a judge bad enough you are one.)

Enter Clay Blaisedell (Henry Fonda.) The character is a blend of historical lawmen Wyatt Earp and Wild Bill Hickock –a former Union officer who tames one town after another, setting up gambling establishments on the side. His partner is Tom Morgan (Anthony Quinn), a gambler and gunfighter in his own right (read: Doc Holliday.) Instead of tuberculosis, Morgan has a crippled leg.

Blaisedell warns the council what to expect from him. Once he has cleaned out the threat the townspeople will begin to resent his authority and even to fear him –at which time he will move on, both parties having been satisfied. At this point we are introduced to the obligatory “good woman,” Miss Jessie (Dolores Michaels), who disapproves of the big, bad gunfighter yet is obviously destined to tumble for him. While her character is probably the weakest part of the movie, her presence is necessary to define Blaisedell, especially near the end.

The bond between old friends Blaisedell and Morgan is the central relationship of Warlock. Morgan, the crippled gambler, lives his life vicariously through Blaisedell, pushing him toward ever greater glory –like a dapper male version of Lady MacBeth. Indeed, the two act like an old married couple. Morgan decorates their new quarters with drapes from San Francisco, and desperately looks for a word of approval from his partner. He ignores the advances of his own saloon-girls –his only interest is protecting Blaisedell, guarding the marshal’s back at all times.

Blaisedell runs the cowboys out of Warlock, warning them that if they cross him once more they will be banned from the town permanently. Bannon leaves the gang –he had kept one hothead from back-shooting the marshal –and remains in Warlock.

Morgan later receives word that “she” is coming into town on the next stage. “She” turns out to be Lilly (Dorothy Malone), Morgan’s old flame. Lilly is traveling with her late fiancé’s brother; Blaisedell had killed the fiancé in self-defense, never guessing that Morgan had secretly arranged the fight with such an outcome in mind. The man’s brother was now seeking revenge against Blaisedell, which would also bring Lilly her vengeance –she wants to hurt Morgan by destroying the one person he loves.

Morgan hides on a ridge to meet the stage, only to find that it is being robbed by two of the San Pablo boys. Young Billy is one of them. Morgan kills Lilly’s companion, shooting from the ridge, letting the cowboys get the blame.

The cowboys are arrested and sent to the county seat for trial –Blaisedell saves them from a lynch mob –and are acquitted due to lack of evidence. Blaisedell still “posts” them from the town of Warlock, on pain of death. Bannon has meanwhile accepted the job of deputy county sheriff. This thrills the old judge, who wants only “official” law.

The three posted outlaws return to town to protest the unfairness of their banishment –and to have it out with Blaisedell and Morgan. Blaisedell allows Bannon to talk to his old friends. The deputy implores both sides to back away, but to no avail –a gunfight erupts. Bannon’s role if reminiscent of county sheriff Johnny Behan’s role in the O.K. Corral shoot-out; caught between gunmen-turned-lawmen and a group of violent but popular cowboys, he can only watch the inevitable outcome. This further blending of fact and fiction helps establish Warlock as the mythic Western everytown.

The three cowboys –including Bannon’s nineteen-year-old brother –are killed. A fourth dies as well; he had attacked the lawmen from concealment, sent by McQuown. The gun battle does not end the conflict; just like in Warlock’s historical counterpart Tombstone, the surviving cowboys declare war on the city lawmen. Bannon warns Blaisedell not to get involved any further. As a duly-sworn deputy, it is Bannon’s responsibility to keep the peace, not the gunfighters’.

Bannon visits the San Pablo ranch to warn the McQuown that he must not come to Warlock the next day as he had publicly announced he would. McQuown stabs Bannon’s hand, pinning it to the table and threatening to rip it off unless the deputy swears that the cowboys’ version of the conflict is the true one. Only Curly’s intervention allows Bannon to escape alive.

Blaisedell proclaims his intention to retire from the peace-keeping business –he is going to marry Jessie and settle down. He offers his help to Bannon –the outlaws are still on their way –but the injured deputy refuses politely.

Tom Morgan is outraged by the recent events. His greatest anger is directed toward his rival for Blaisedell’s attention –he makes several callous remarks to Jessie, pointing out that Blaisedell could be killed at any time. Morgan is also very upset at Lilly –she has told Blaisedell about Morgan’s role in the death of her fiancé and his brother.

Morgan entreats his old friend not to intervene in the coming battle. He wants Blaisedell safe, and also wants to ensure that Bannon is killed. Then the townspeople would turn once more to Blaisedell to save them. “You can’t let him be the hero,” Morgan says. “If you ain’t the marshal, you’re nothin’!” He holds Blaisedell in their shared hotel rooms by gunpoint until the fight is over. Morgan informs Blaisedell that he is responsible for the gunfighter’s success –always watching his back, arranging his jobs, letting him have all the glory even though Morgan is the better gun. Everything he did was for Blaisedell; as Morgan had told Lilly earlier, “He’s the only person, man or woman, who ever looked at me and didn’t see a cripple.”

The two gamblers/gunfighters watch the fight through the hotel room window, and are surprised. Bannon wins. The deputy kills McQuown and his most vicious sidekick; the others are subdued with the help of Curly and several local citizens who have been inspired by the quiet young deputy to finally take their own stand.

By nightfall Morgan is drunk. The gambler shoots up the town, daring the “big, brave deputy” to come out. Blaisedell locks Bannon up in his own jail –he knows the deputy would stand no chance against Morgan.
Blaisedell faces his friend and warns him to settle down or Blaisedell will be forced to hurt him.

“Then I win,” Morgan says happily. “You’ll be the hero again!” Morgan smiles at the prospect of everything returning to its former status. He draws on his partner, firing first but intentionally missing –lending credence to his claim of being better than Blaisedell –and Blaisedell shoots him.

Anguished, Blaisedell picks up his friend’s body and carries it back to their saloon. A storm has begun –he lays Morgan on the faro table and stands vigil over it to the crackling sound of the lightning. The self-righteous judge is there; Blaisedell kicks the old man’s crutch from under him. “Crawl past him,” he says, pointing to Morgan. “He was a man.” Blaisedell burns the saloon down around Morgan’s corpse.

Bannon informs Blaisedell that he will have to arrest him on the next morning, thus giving him a chance to leave town before then. Blaisedell tells Jessie that he could not remain in Warlock, anyhow –he would have to become a storekeeper or a farmer if he did. Jessie does not understand; those were his plans only the day before, after all.

But something very important had happened since then. Morgan had indeed won. By his death, the gambler had ended Blaisedell’s idyllic plans and returned him to the life of the celebrated gunman –a life which Morgan’s lame leg and crippled self-esteem had caused him to deny himself. Clay Blaisedell rides away from Warlock, looking for a new town to tame. The viewer is left to wonder whether he can survive without his alter ego.

Tom Morgan was one of Anthony Quinn’s best roles, and one of the most complex characters to ever stride down a dusty Western street. He is sophisticated yet tough, and insanely jealous where his friend is concerned. The film’s title, Warlock, obviously comes from the town’s name; it could also apply to Clay Blaisedell, who performs dark magic with his guns, or to the story’s catalyst, Morgan, a male “witch.”

It is a mystery to me that Warlock is not more widely-known, or more fondly remembered. At certain points –especially the scene where Henry Fonda, his face lit by lightning, regards the body of the beloved partner he slew –the film achieves the quality of a classic tragedy. Perhaps the casual Western viewer likes his heroes to wear white hats, or his anti-heroes to wear black ones, and is left uncomfortable by these ambiguous figures whose very relationship is unclear –especially when that relationship is very homoerotic, as this one unquestionably is. Maybe the marshal should just stick to his job of killing the bad guys, and not let things get cluttered up by feelings and desires and the like.

I for one do not believe that to be the case. If it is, it should not be –the Western, as restrictive as the genre might seem at first glance, has the potential to be one of the most interesting story-telling avenues a writer can use. Think of Lonesome Dove or Unforgiven. The viewer who likes the Western for its action and intensity –and also the viewer who believes that the Western goes no deeper than those qualities –would both be pleasantly surprised by a visit back to the “psychological Westerns” of the 1950s. In the town of Warlock, all the hats are gray.

Now Available from Award Winning Author Troy D. Smith
“Troy Smith has a rare and wonderful gift… his work is a treat.” –Frank Roderus, two-time Spur winner

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Top Ten Greatest Western Comics

I recently polled a group of published Western authors and/or  comics professionals for their choices of best Western comics characters and titles. It is posted at the Western Fictioneers website:

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Dark West: The Western Films of Anthony Mann and Jimmy Stewart

A couple of weeks ago I found a stash of old articles I wrote in the late 90s. Last time I posted an interview with Stan Lee: today I am posting the first of several film commentary pieces, this one about the 1950s Western movies directed by Anthony Mann and starring Jimmy Stewart. This particular piece has a sort of convoluted history. I sold this article to American Cowboy magazine in 1997- not long before it went to press, though, Jimmy Stewart died. They did a cover article which was a retrospective of his entire career, and decided they didn't need two Stewart articles. So I got a kill fee, but no publication. It eventually appeared in the online magazine American Western -where I got a publication but no fee, so I guess it balanced out.

DARK WEST: The Western Films of Anthony Mann and Jimmy Stewart
By Troy D. Smith

Glyn McLyntock—Jimmy Stewart’s character in Bend of the River—had been beaten and left behind by his partner, played by Arthur Kennedy. “I’ll be seeing you, Glyn,” the greedy partner said.

“You’ll be seeing me,” Stewart answered, his eyes bulging and his jowls quivering with rage. “Every time you bed down for the night you’ll look back into the darkness and wonder if I’m there—and some night I will be. You’ll be seeing me.” He is profiled against the harsh mountain peaks as he watches his attackers leave, and begins to plan his revenge.

This was not the Jimmy Stewart that audiences had become accustomed to in films like Destry Rides Again and It's a Wonderful Life. This was Jimmy Stewart as directed by Anthony Mann, who had cut his teeth on 1940s films noirs. Stewart had needed an image change; post-war audiences were no longer content with whitebread heroes. They wanted the depth, the ambiguity—and yes, the violence—to which their own wartime experience had inured them.

Stewart had previously shown his ability to portray a dark, cynical character pushed to the edge, in It’s a Wonderful Life. Mann may well have seen the actor’s potential in that movie, and wondered: “What if instead of sending George Bailey an angel, someone had handed him a gun?”

Mann did just that, in five classic Westerns: Winchester ‘73 (1950), Bend of the River (1952), The Naked Spur (1953), The Far Country (1955), and The Man from Laramie (1955). Stewart’s characters were dark and flawed, and Mann’s direction made their unspoken passions bubble just beneath the surface, threatening to boil over at any time.

The familiar, genial face of Stewart, framed by a shabby cowboy hat, takes on an edge in these films. He is a man haunted by his secretive past, prodded by his barely-suppressed rage into a violent confrontation which may perhaps redeem him. In a jarring scene from The Naked Spur, Stewart—as the self-loathing bounty hunter Howard Kemp—beats an Indian to death with a pistol. Kemp keeps pounding the Indian long after he is dead, desperate fury pouring from his eyes. Then Kemp finally stands and surveys the silent carnage around him; he limps away, bleeding quietly, his rage reined in but still not expended.

The effect is achieved not only by Stewart’s subtle actions and tones, but by the movement of the camera. Mann moves jerkily from one character to another, sometimes pulling away yet again to focus on a recurring image, such as Kemp’s spur or the cowbell on Stewart’s saddle in The Far Country.

Mountains appear often in these Westerns. It seems incongruous at first that Mann’s dark stories should be filmed in the Rockies, instead of the barren locations of Monument Valley. But Mann’s characters are not really lifeless; they are attempting to choke their lives and emotions back. Perhaps the verdant backdrops to their stories make for appropriate imagery, after all.

The mountains themselves provide a physical obstacle which Stewart must overcome, mirroring the emotional one. Howard Kemp must scale a cliff to reach the outlaw he is hunting, Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan.) It is tough going, and Kemp cannot make it. His opportunistic companion, played by Ralph Meeker, has no trouble scaling the wall and capturing the killer. Unhampered by a conscience, it is easy for him to find the killer within himself—something which Kemp, for all his cynicism, is unable to do until it is in self-defense. At the end of the film Kemp uses his spur as a climbing tool, once more forced to climb a rock to reach Vandergroat. The same rocky setting had been used in the climax of Winchester ‘73.

Water is another recurring image. Many confrontations take place in or near a river; Stewart, his anger purged, is washed clean and becomes a new man. His conscience has won out. He is free to begin his new life.

When Kemp finally retrieves the killer’s body from the river, he shouts defiantly at Janet Leigh. “I’m takin’ him back!” he says. “He’s gonna pay for my land!” The ex-Confederate bounty hunter had once been a rancher, but was bilked out of his property by an unfaithful lover. Vandergroat had been his one chance to take back his old life. When Lena, Janet Leigh’s character, tells Kemp she will marry him anyway, he does not understand why. “I’m gonna sell him—for money!” he sobs. Kemp ultimately buries the body and leaves it behind. The two decide to go to California instead of returning to his failed life in Texas.

The cowbell in The Far Country is an obvious symbol of Stewart’s longing for home and hearth. His partner Ben (Walter Brennan) had bought the bell to put over the door of the little ranch-house they would have one day; it would jingle when their friends came over. Ben is killed, and Stewart ends up using the bell as a decoy when he goes after the villain. The bell rings when he embraces the heroine, like a divine blessing—not unlike the ringing bells in It’s a Wonderful Life.

At the conclusion of Bend of the River, after Glyn McLyntock has killed his evil alter ego Arthur Kennedy—in the river—and the settlers under Glyn’s protection have seen the rope burns on his neck and learned of his secret outlaw past, they accept him anyway. He is thanked by the motherly figure of Frances Bavier (best known as Aunt Bea on The Andy Griffith Show.) Her acceptance seems especially important to him—she is the family (whereas the families of the hero in most of the other films, when they appear at all, are fractured and twisted.) Only in the end has he found release and redemption, and family peace.

Jean-Luc Goddard, speaking of Mann’s work on the Western film Man of the West (which starred, not Stewart, but Gary Cooper), called it “an admirable lesson in cinema—in modern cinema.” Anthony Mann took full advantage of the unique opportunities of the Western genre, perhaps more than any other director. People in a harsh frontier setting have a head start on unleashing passions. No one captured those passions better than Anthony Mann, and the normally amiable Stewart proved to be excellent clay for him to use in shaping his vision.

Now Available from Award Winning Author Troy D. Smith
“Troy Smith has a rare and wonderful gift… his work is a treat.” –Frank Roderus, two-time Spur winner

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Blackwells

My stories about the Blackwell family seem to be the most popular of my short-story ebooks. To make it easier for anyone who has enjoyed one of those tales and would like to find the others, I have put up a Blackwell page at my website:

Monday, April 11, 2011

Freedom is a place in your soul

I've written several books -I just had a new one come out last month, a mystery called Cross Road Blues. One of my proudest achievements, though, was a book that was released 10 years ago -Bound for the Promise-Land. It won a Spur Award for best original paperback novel from Western Writers of America, and was also a finalist in the "first novel" category (losing out to Stephen Harrigan's great novel Gates of the Alamo.) Doris Meredith, a reviewer for the Amarillo Globe-News and Roundup (official magazine of the WWA) called it a classic, a fact I have been known to point out from time to time (as any author would.)

This particular book meant a lot more to me, though, than awards or compliments. While there is no shortage of action in it, the novel is an examination of many of the things that are most important to me in life: freedom, and justice, and redemption. In many ways it is the polar opposite of another novel I'm proud of, Good Rebel Soil: The Champ Ferguson Story. Bound is about a black Union soldier and his story of redemption, and search for meaning, while the other book is about a white Confederate guerrilla and his story of damnation, and descent into fury. I have always regretted that Bound for the Promise-Land was in print for only a short time, and never really reached an audience.

That has changed now, and I had to take the opportunity to publicize that fact. Bound for the Promise-Land has been re-released, in both paper and ebook format, by Western Trail Blazer (Good Rebel Soil will follow in a few months.) I'd like to invite you to read it if you haven't; it's one of the accomplishments in this life I'm proudest of, and I'd like as many people as possible to check it out.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Chance to help out a little

My friend Charles Whipple, aka Chuck Tyrell, who has lived in Japan for years, is donating his royalties from sales of his collection of Japan-set short stories, A MATTER OF TEA, available as a 99 cent ebook, to disaster relief charities in that country. Here's a chance to send a few pennies for a good cause while introducing yourself to the work of a darn good writer.

Ebook Short Stories from Western Trail Blazer

Western Trail Blazer has released six of my short stories (two of them also horror stories) in their "dime novel" ebook format. There's more to come. Check 'em out!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

New interview in the Cookeville, TN newspaper

Sunday April 3, 2011 -the following piece about me appeared in the Living section of the Herald-Citizen of Cookeville, Tennessee...

Western Fictioneers (WF) is pleased to announce the nominations for the first annual Peacemaker Awards.

Nominees for the 2010 Best Western Short Story Award are listed in alphabetical order:

“Left Behind” by Carol Crigger from the anthology Roundup! Great Stories of the West (La Frontera Publishing

“This Old Star” by Wayne Dundee from the anthology Bad Cop…No Donut (Padwolf Publishing)

“Two-Bit Kill” by C. Courtney Joyner from the anthology Law of the Gun (Kensington) .

“Scourge of the Spoils” by Matthew P. Mayo from the anthology Steampunk’d (Daw Books, Inc)

"Catch a Killer by the Toe" by Pete Peterson published by Untreed Reads

Nominees for the 2010 Best Western Novel Award are listed in alphabetical order:

Avenging Angels by Lyle Brandt (Berkley)
Manhunt (Berkley) by Lyle Brandt (Berkley)
Settler’s Chase by D. H. Eraldi (Berkley)
Long Ride to Limbo by Kit Prate (Western Trail Blazers)
Wulf's Tracks by Dusty Richards (Berkley)
Congregation of Jackals by S. Craig Zahler (Dorchester)

There will be no Best First Western Novel Award awarded this year as there were not enough entries to complete the field of judging.

The Peacemaker Awards will be announced June 23rd, 2011 in Bismarck, North Dakota. A place and time will be announced at a later date.

Western Fictioneers (WF) was formed in 2010 by Robert J. Randisi, James Reasoner, Frank Roderus, and other professional Western writers, to preserve, honor, and promote traditional Western writing in the 21st century. Entries were accepted in both print and electronic forms. The Peacemaker Awards will be given out annually. Submissions for the 2011 awards will be open in July, 2011. Submission guidelines will be posted on the WF web site. For more information about Western Fictioneers (WF) please visit:

NOTE FROM TROY: I am honored to be one of those "other professional Western writers" who formed this distinguished group, and to have been in on the first organizational meeting in Knoxville in June 2010. I am also honored to be one of the judges in our first annual awards contest.