Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Tall (but not Dark) Stranger

If I've not been enamored of Western movies, it's even fairer to say I'm nigh totally ignorant on Western novels. ("Read about a...cowboy?")

This will probably lead to hilarity in my upcoming novel. But to be honest, I've never been good with genre conventions. I tried writing Romance novels in my youth, but my model was more a mixture of literature (like Jane Austen) and '40s-style romcoms. I really wanted to establish the female character and her life before introducing the love interest.

So, when someone says, "Oh, this movie is based on a Louis L'amour story," the only thing it means to me is that I know who the guy is and that he wrote a metric buttload of Westerns.

Which brings us to The Tall Stranger with Joel McCrea and Virginia Mayo. Mr. McCrea, whom I hilariously confuse with Joel Grey, plays Ned Bannon, a guy beaten, robbed and left for dead, until picked up by a wagon train.

The wagon train is heading west for Californ-eye-aye but being led astray by the unctuous Mort Harper (George Neise). He's leading them into Bishop's Valley, which is already owned and operated by Bannon's half-brother, Hardy Bishop (Barry Kelly). Harper's plan is to stir up some trouble, with the help of his sleazy Mexican sidekick, Zarata (Michael Ansara).

In the ensuing battle with the settlers, Harper figures Bishop will be weak enough to be completely wiped out by Harper's own band of desperados. It's up to Bannon to unravel the mystery and save the day.

The Syrian born Ansara is quite the television marvel, actually. He's played Mexicans, American Indians, Non-American Indians, Hittites, Klingons, Babylonians in history and a technomage on "Babylon 5". He played Mr. Freeze in the campy '60s "Batman" series--but also in the '90s art-deco style cartoon, and on the video game.

He got to utter the phrase "Only a fool fights in a burning building" in "Star Trek" and then was one of three actors to reprise the same character in "Star Trek: Deep Space 9". (The other two being the also great Bill Campbell and John Colicos.)

No lightweight, as Walter Sobcheck would say.

He also had three guest shots on "I Dream of Jeannie" and was actually married for 15 years to Barbara Eden during the salad days (late '50s through early '70s). Tragically, Ansara stopped working in 2001, the same year their son died of an accidental heroin overdose.

I don't know that that's why he stopped--he was nearly 80 after all--but I do know it's hard for me to look at this picture (IMDB) without tearing up.

Anyway, this isn't what you'd call a great Western but I nonetheless thoroughly enjoyed it. I found myself both really engaged and highly reassured. When the bad guys framed the good guy and things were looking bleak, I still knew that everything was going to turn out all right.

The beauty of the Western, as a genre, is that you always know who the good guys are, and they're really good. They'll be tough.They might even be harsh, because the world is harsh and the sooner you face up to that, the better. But they have a code, and it's going to be a combination of protecting the weak while building them up to be strong, and meting out rough (but fair) justice.

The bad guys are going to be villanous. Snakes who hide their intentions and manipulate people to their own ends. They might not be complete cowards, but they'll exploit any weakness and show little respect for some important aspect of common decency and society.

In the end the good guy will win, however great the cost, and (generally speaking) the truth will be known about the villany of the bad guys.

I take comfort in that.

A commenter over on Althouse was saying that his mother, who had been in the Philippines during the Japanese occupation in WWII had a distinct preference for escapist fantasy to historical tragedy, and made a point I think is probably pretty valid: When times are tough, we want escapism at the movies. When times are good, we enjoy the risk-taking and even tragedy of stories set in hard times.

Of course, the West was tough--tougher than most of us can appreciate--but the Western offers a kind of moral clarity and straightforwardness that a lot of people seem to enjoy muddying up in real life.

In other words, I don't doubt that part of my enjoyment of this movie had to do with the election and recent financial crisis. But, whatever the reason, I liked it.


  1. I will never forget Michael Ansara's performance as Cochise in Broken Arrow a TV show of my youth. His performance has a dignity and style that was unusual for the time.

    One of the best pastimes I enjoy is watching movies that have Star Trek actors working in westerns. Most notably Deforrest Kelly as Virgil Earp in the Gunfight at OK Corral. The studio at Desilu loved to use western actors for both Star Trek and the Untouchables. An old western hand could be a Klingon one week and Frank Niti's side kick the next. Those were the days.

  2. Yeah, I was going to mention the Cochise thing, and that he followed up by playing a Marshall on another series.

    The guy worked.

    "Star Trek" being the most watched of that era, and because it created a strong impression, it's always fun to play "spot the Trek guy". Jeff Hunter, Nimoy, and DeForest were in a lot of stuff prior to. So was Shatner and of course the guest stars, like Ansara, Campbell (who was both a Klingon and the all powerful Trelayne), and Diana Muldaur.

  3. Diana Muldaur. Oooohhhh. I always had a thing for her.

  4. I like Muldaur but her neo-Bones character on Next Gen pissed me off.

    Plus, you know, they replaced Gates McFadden to put her on.

  5. Well she was banging Gene Roddenbery at the time. That's how all the original broads got on Star Trek you know. Nurse Chapel was his wife and Lt. Uhuru was his bimbo on the side.

    I guess Gates just didn't want to do what she had to do.

    Or it could have been a money thing.

  6. I'd have to give the ol' Bird credit if he was still pulling that crap in the '80s, right before he died. (Hmmm...how did he die again?)

    I think it was that the ratings were bad, actually. In the second season, they made Muldaur be Bones and Brent Spiner be Spock.


    "Star Trek" sucks.


Grab an umbrella. Unleash hell. Your mileage may vary. Results not typical. If swelling continues past four hours, consult a physician.