Between Hay and Grass: The Cowboys (1972)

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By Scott Ross

There was probably no adequate way a movie could be made of William Dale Jennings’ 1971 novel The Cowboys that would not have been a diminution of the material, in 1972 or even now. Possibly someone in Europe, where audiences are less prudish, and don’t go insane at the suggestion that children are anything less than entirely innocent (or neuter) could have managed it better — especially in Italy, which had at the time a feel for Western authenticity and a notable lack of squeamishness. Certainly an artist, of any nationality, might have made a noble stab at the thing, but if the man you hire for the job is Mark Rydell, the last thing you’re interested in is art.

And the problem isn’t merely the sudden and horrible (if, in context, wholly explicable) intrusion into the narrative of a violence that, in a picture populated by adults, would not have raised a dust cloud but which, as encountered in this story, set some critics’ hair on fire… although that would have been enough of a challenge. Nor is the difficulty wholly or even substantially to do with the inevitable difficulties attendant on adapting prose as rich and masterful as Jennings’; one accepts that a movie is not a book, however much one may regret the loss either of authorial voice or of detail. (The Cowboys is not a lengthy book, but there was much to lose, and the filmmakers lost far more than they needed to.) The major obstacle to producing an acceptable adaptation of this story has to do with what Jennings understood, both about the realities of the West, and about adolescent boys in it.

That Jennings was a Westerner by birth, and a founding member of both the Mattachine Society and ONE, Incorporated (something that, had John Wayne known it, would likely have given him apoplexy) I feel certain contributed to his understanding, on any number of levels. The book is not merely a “revisionist” Western — which in this case merely translates to a certain documentary realism, within a somewhat fanciful structure — but an attempt by its author to capture for a wide readership the authentic vernacular of the time and place. In a lengthy glossary addendum Jennings explains those terms in ways that, while never more than suggestive, and often eloquent, likely caused the pure of heart to blanch. He defines the word “bunky” (or “bunkie”) for example both in the sense of what we think was meant, and which slang term we still use, as well as by its largely unspoken meaning, as someone with whom a man (or boy) shared a bedroll for more than merely warmth or convenience.* In his preface to this glossary Jennings, a quarter of a century before Annie Proulx explained the obvious to a mass audience, observed wryly, “It seems unwarranted to assume that no such thing existed. Men do not cease to be men simply because there are no women around. Yet western historians and Hollywood would have us believe that erectile tissue was completely missing in the metabolism of the West.” Tissue belonging, let’s remember, to adolescent boys; not for nothing does the drive’s black cook Charlie Nightlinger (re-Christened “Jebediah” in the picture) note that their blankets are so crinkly he’s surprised they can roll them up in the morning.

Yet Jennings first wrote The Cowboys as a treatment for a potential John Wayne movie, which he then reconsidered as a novel, so one has to assume he understood that much of what he was trying to portray would inevitably fall by the wayside. (That he envisioned Wil Andersen, the ageing rancher at the heart of the story, as a role for Wayne seems obvious from even a cursory perusal of the book; you can hear Wayne reciting that dialogue as you read it.) Not that the author ever depicts anything sexual between any of the boys. It’s all implication, as when Wil wonders which of them will become bunkies on the trail; he’s been around long enough to know the score, and one imagines he had some experience of his own as a youth. Still, one can hear the panicked studio heads as they contemplated Jennings’ first draft screenplay: “Jesus Christ! We’ve got a picture where we kill off John Wayne three-quarters through, have pubescent and adolescent boys getting drunk and running into whores and then later turning into killers! You want to imply they might have humped each other too?”

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That Harriet Frank, Jr. and Irving Ravetch, Rydell’s screenwriters on the previous The Reivers, get a credit over Jennings in the main titles is telling. And while I admire the Ravetches’ screen work, especially for Martin Ritt, and most especially on Norma Rae, I can’t help feeling that all the little “improvements” in the picture, and which collectively diminish it, are theirs. For all I know, Jennings’ script may not have been filmable; but the Ravetches’ seems to have been all too filmable. Put simply: What’s good in the picture comes from Jennings’ book. What’s bad comes from someplace else.

Like the wholly gratuitous manner in which little Charlie Schwartz (Stephen R. Hudis) announces he’s Jewish, or the unnecessary plot-twist involving the chief villain menacing one of the boys and swearing him to secrecy. While the people involved at least included the sequence in which the boys get drunk on Nightlinger’s private stash,† even retaining his and Wil’s eavesdropping on them and having the bottle passed to them in the dark, they made a fundamental miscalculation in stranding Wil entirely among strangers. In Jennings’ novel, while Andersen is forced by circumstance to take on as hands for a crucial cattle-drive from Bozeman, Montana to Belle Fourche a dozen un-tested schoolboys (plus a slightly older, and more seasoned, Mexican youth) Nightlinger is his regular cook, and not, as in the picture, a last-minute substitution. The screenwriters do worse than put Wil at a disadvantage; they rob him of a needed contemporary — a comrade who knows him at least as well as he knows himself, if not better, and with whom a sense of shared history imbues every sentence the pair exchange. That they re-tailored Nightlinger from a colorfully sub-literate former slave to the more cultivated and urbane figure of the movie likely had to do with liberal guilt as much as the casting of the ever-delicious Roscoe Lee Browne, who inhabits the role as completely and comfortably as the unaccustomed but attractive beard he sports on his face.

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Roscoe Lee Browne as Nightlinger

The preparation for the drive takes up nearly half the novel, and that length is necessary. The picture gets the team out of Bozeman pretty quickly. But worse than this loss is that the boys themselves are less individually delineated in the movie than in the book, a necessary telescoping that nonetheless hurts the narrative and the growing sense as it goes along of Wil’s hands becoming a team. Why the group was reduced from a round dozen (plus Cimmaron, the Mexican) to 11 is anyone’s guess, although the most obvious elision is the boy nicknamed “Horny Jim” in the book and whose compelling erotic spellbinding is entirely imaginative. Jim would have been no more welcome in 1972 than the sequence with the traveling madam and her small Conestoga train of whores. They make an appearance, at mid-point, the procurer given husky life by the redoubtable Colleen Dewhurst, but her purpose is less clear. In the novel, Nightlinger arranges cut-rate initiations for the boys, and it is here as much as in any implicit homoeroticism that the Warner Brothers suits must have put their collective feet down. As it stands now in the movie, the scene with Dewhurst is merely an intriguingly brief, and not especially useful, diversion.

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Killing little Charlie Schwartz off in mid-stream makes as little story sense as eliminating his crippled leg. There’s a cattle stampede in Jennings’ book — non-lethal, as it turns out, although precipitated by a similar event to the one that takes Charlie’s life here — but one suspects budgetary constrictions account for the abbreviated oddness of the sequence. The only purpose it serves is to get the filmmakers off a narrative hook; when Charlie dies in the novel, it’s as a result of being shot by one of the rustlers who kill Wil and make off with the herd, and at whom the boys’ wholly justifiable violence is directed. Again one presumes there was no way anyone involved was going to depict that event. But Charlie’s early death, and his lack of involvement in one boy’s working out the Vivaldi Concerto in D on his guitar, robs the movie of Jennings’ final line of dialogue, which in context is devastating.

My citing of the above is not gratuitous. It brings us to the crux, and the thing that drove the commentators mad in 1972: The boys becoming vigilantes — and worse — after Wil Andersen’s death.

As Jennings presents it, the boys’ deliberate and systematic enactment of violence against the rustlers led by the one called Long Hair (enacted in the picture with pop-eyed, spittle-flying psychosis by Bruce Dern) is not merely justifiable. It’s a matter of survival. While Long Hair has murdered their surrogate father, he’s also stolen the man’s herd and stranded the boys in the wilderness, hundreds of miles from home. Their only means of getting back alive, let alone of regaining the herd, is to outsmart the rustlers… which does not admit of leaving any of them alive. And even as the violence is cunningly orchestrated by the cowboys, meted out over a matter of days and arranged initially to look like accidental death (the killings eventually set the rustlers at each other’s throats), their acts are never depicted with authorial approval. Indeed, far from hatching the plans himself as he does in the picture, Jennings’ Nightlinger is so appalled by the calmly enacted bloodthirstiness of these otherwise sweet, good-natured boys that witnessing it performs a kind of psychic murder on his soul.

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Bruce Dern in full bull-goose loony mode.

The filmmakers were probably going to get pilloried for this no matter what they did. But where they erred worst, it seems to me, and most avoidably, was in the way the long, violent sequence at the end of the boys’ war against the rustlers was put together, especially in its musical accompaniment. Bringing in John Williams’ big, Coplandesque main theme as the battle intensifies is probably what set the reviewers off in 1972, because it seems to do precisely what the movie’s critics alleged: Urge the audience to cheer it on. I like to think this was not the composer’s doing but Rydell’s as director and producer; Williams can be bombastic, and overly lush, but I can’t think of any other time in his long career when he could be accused of insensitivity. Some of the mickey is taken out of this by the shots of the boys’ faces as they drive Wil’s herd into Belle Fourche.‡ The accusation most frequently leveled was that the movie endorsed murder as the means by which a boy becomes a man, and indeed the faces Rydell depicts here are devoid of innocence or pleasure. But neither are they celebratory, nor their deeds celebrated. Rydell may be less an artist than a gifted hack but whatever his reasons for bringing in the big strings and horns at that crucial juncture described above, I don’t seriously maintain he made the leap that killing equals maturity.

The Cowboys required an epic widescreen presentation (the early engagements even included an Overture, an Intermission, an Entr’acte, and Exit Music) but Rydell isn’t up to the challenge, even with so gifted a cinematographer as the great Robert Surtees. The director’s images are unexceptional, pedestrian. He does get off one nice effect, when, early on, Wil lets his horses out of the paddock. It’s an elegant means of depicting the character having decided to forego this year’s drive without making the actor say it. Rydell almost immediately undoes the good impression this makes, however, by including an irritating bit of foreshadowing involving a young and an older bull in battle.

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At least the picture is, with the notable exception of Dern, well-acted. Wayne knew and admired the novel, and it shows; when he speaks to the boys in the schoolhouse near the beginning of the picture, he keeps his fingers in his pockets, but not his thumbs, exactly as Jennings describes Wil doing on numerous occasions. But Wil doesn’t clear the schoolroom of girls and teacher through a great wash of deliberate obscenities as he does in the book — although I again suspect he might if the picture was made today — and although prideful he is never as hard, or as tough on the boys, as he is in the novel where, interestingly, his threats have a weight not even John Wayne can match. And while he visits the graves of his two sons and alludes to them in speech, we don’t get a sense from the screenplay of why Wil is wracked with guilt over their deaths, something Jennings in his novel teases out masterfully. That lapse, of course, is no fault of the actor’s, nor is the trace of uncharacteristically blunt sentiment Wil is given before he dies; if Wayne doesn’t do anything here he hasn’t done before (and if he’s rather obviously doubled in his stunts) he at least appears to be trying to stretch further than Rydell and the Ravetches.

Dewhurst is likewise pleasing, if ultimately wasted, as the traveling madam. Slim Pickens gets a good, albeit too-brief, turn as a saloon-keeper, Allyn Ann McLerie makes the most of her appearance as the schoolmarm, and Sarah Cunningham nicely underplays her abbreviated role as Wil’s wife Annie, another character given a great deal more heft and presence in the novel. Browne, with that most distinctive and unforgettable of voices, is his usual breath of fresh air, but in place of a character as real as Jennings’ Nightlinger, was given a monologue of such airy (and pointless) abstraction its only discernable purpose is to impress the gullible boys. Big deal.

The then 22-year old A. Martinez makes a fine Cimmaron, although he’s neither as handsome as Jennings describes him nor as ruthless. Roughly half the youngsters could act when cast, while the other half were seasoned riders; they worked together so effectively to shore each other up during pre-production that, in the picture, you’d be hard pressed to decide which boy hailed from which group. Among them, Hudis is very good indeed as Charlie Schwartz, as are the young Robert Carradine as Slim, Norman Howell as the God-burdened Weedy, Sean Kelly as “Stuttering Bob,” Mike Pyeatt as Homer, Alfred Barker as Fats and Clay O’Brien as the wonderfully named Hardy Fimps.

Although Wayne’s Wil, in a line from the novel, describes the boys initially as “between hay and grass,” the movie itself is more fish than fowl, and far more hay than grass.


*I am reminded by this of the way the similar demotic term “gunsel” has almost completely lost its original meaning, presumably by its use in the movie of The Maltese Falcon. John Huston, adapting Dashiell Hammett, knew as well as his source that the word implied a passive young man in a homosexual relationship. It’s precisely why Bogart’s Sam Spade uses the word to twit Elisha Cook, Jr.’s Wilmer, and why Wilmer gets so angry when he does. Today it apparently only means the other thing Bogart calls Cook: A cheap young hood.

†Naturally enough, however, they dropped Horny Jim’s drunken suggestion that the boys engage in a circle-jerk. No one was going there in 1972. Come to think of it, who would do so in 2018?

‡It’s a remarkably small parade of beeves and once again one senses a budget that simply wouldn’t allow for anything like the vast teeming herd Jennings describes in the book.

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John Wayne on set, with Rydell to the left. Note the placement of Wayne’s hands.

Text copyright 2018 by Scott Ross

“What exactly is this Super Bowl?”: Black Sunday (1977)

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By Scott Ross

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Robert Shaw, in contemplative mode as the Mossad agent David Kabakov. Note concentration camp tattoo, which thankfully goes unmentioned. It would be gilding the narrative lily to do so – and the image itself makes its own statement.

Black Sunday (1977) could probably not be made today — or at least, not the same way. Doubtless its depiction of utterly ruthless Arab and Palestinian terrorists would raise an outcry no Hollywood studio would be comfortable attracting to a big-budget thriller. (Especially considering the new reliance for mega-bucks on the mass of sub-literate Asian picturegoers who are the true intended audience for American movies now.) Never mind that the Israeli agents portrayed in the picture are every bit as unsparing, or that the 1975 Thomas Harris novel on which it was based was written in the early–to-mid 1970s, long before the attacks of 9-11 financed if not indeed carried out by Our Friends, The Saudis but not long after the internationally televised atrocity at the Olympic Village in Munich. If I am skeptical of Movieland suits in this matter it is not that I wish to see Semitic peoples vilified. We’ve had quite enough of that, inside Hollywood and out. But Harris’ bestselling novel (his first, predating the Hannibal Lecter series by half a decade) was surely written at least in part as a response to Munich, and as a commentary on the viciousness, not of Palestinians or Arabs generally, but of the Black Sunday group itself. (Add that his protagonist, the Israeli David Kabakov, is, as he tells a confederate, beginning to question and thus is no good to the Mossad, and you have an idea of Thomas’ ambivalent approach.) Rather I am pointing out that generating such a movie now would take more spinal and intestinal fortitude than can habitually be found among the studio brigade, terrified as they are of taking chances — something their 1970s counterparts were accustomed to doing on a routine basis.*

Still: Imagine the reaction of Paramount executives to John Frankenheimer’s initial cut, which ended with the Goodyear blimp carrying a deadly cargo designed to kill 80,000 spectators crashing over the top tier of the Miami Orange Bowl as the screen goes to black. The End. Not on your nellie, mister! We paid top dollar for that goddamned book, and it’s not ending that way! Frankenheimer (who surely knew he couldn’t get away with it) was forced to shoot additional sequences that conformed more closely to Harris’ book (although Kabakov does not go down with the ship — er, blimp — as he does in the novel) and it’s a good thing he was. Audiences who sat through a terrifically exciting two-hour thriller, only to be greeted with that ending, would have been ready to set a bomb off under the filmmakers themselves.

The foregoing presumably accounts for Black Sunday’s unusually long running time (2 hours, 23 minutes) and the presence in its credits of three screenwriters (the estimable Ernest Lehman and Ivan Moffat as well as Kenneth Ross, the scenarist of the excellent Day of the Jackal adaptation.) It may also explain some rather paltry blue-screen imagery in the movie’s final quarter hour, surely not the fault of John A. Alonzo, the movie’s accomplished director of photography. Not that any of it did Paramount much good: By the time the movie was in release, it had been beaten to the nation’s screens by a cheapjack Charlton Heston Super Bowl disaster picture called Two-Minute Warning, and, while Black Sunday was the studio’s biggest grosser in 1977, it still didn’t do enough business to really matter. Almost no one’s pictures did that year, except a certain space-fantasy released by 20th Century-Fox.†

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The producer, Robert Evans, with Frankenheimer on-set.

Cavils aside, Black Sunday was and remains a superlative example of the thriller genre, at which Frankenheimer excelled. He was, of course, a brilliant director of drama as well — All Fall Down, Birdman of Alcatraz, The Fixer, The Gypsy Moths, The Iceman Cometh — but it is as an assured maker of action pictures that his larger reputation rests: Seven Days in May, The Train, French Connection II, The Challenge, Ronin and, supremely, The Manchurian Candidate. The sheer logistics in his pictures took a steady head, and here Frankenheimer not only staged an exciting speed-boat chase and an agonizing, long, palm-dampening climax but had as well to accommodate thousands of sports fans at an Orange Bowl event… not to mention the presumably nervous heads of the Goodyear Company. There is a single, continuous panning shot late in the movie which begins by following the car driven by Marthe Keller, floats up to the top tier of the Orange Bowl, and down again onto the field to pick up Robert Shaw’s eminently familiar face, that is as breathtaking as it is un-ostentatious. It’s the kind of thing Spielberg became a master of, but which very few picture makers other than perhaps David Lean could have carried off at that time with such seeming nonchalance. (Astonishingly, the picture was made during the director’s long period of bibulousness. Which may account for his attempt at ending it on such a shocking downer.)

Keller is problematic, as she always was, by dint both of her accent and her limited abilities, and the script fudges her character’s origins to oblige her Swiss roots. The lethal Dahlia should ideally have been played by a Palestinian or Arabian actress, but which one would have been an acceptable enough substitution to feature above the title? No such qualms concern Bruce Dern as the movie’s chief psychopath. It’s the sort of role that Dern must have resented at the time (they came to him so often) but he triumphs over the typecasting. That Michael Lander is a Vietnam vet could have been problematic; this was, after all, the era of the Nixonian lie which claimed without any evidence that such soldiers were spat on in airports, and in which so many convenient fictional villains were vets, walking time-bombs “snapping” at last back home.

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Dern’s Michael Lander in full-on madman mode. Keller’s Dahlia knows him too well to register surprise.

Michael’s experiences as a prisoner of war reduced to a coerced statement of Quisling complicity by his captors during the war, and his subjection to unconscionably cavalier bureaucratic treatment by the brass after, counteract that conventional narrative ploy, making him emotionally unpredictable in a way the audience can easily comprehend… although it must be said that the Michael of the movie is nowhere near as frightening a figure as he is in the book; there’s a moment in Harris’ novel where, to make a point, he shoves a kitten down a kitchen sink garbage-disposal that shocked me when I read it at 15, and has remained vivid in my consciousness ever after. Really, I’d prefer to see that nowhere aside from the cinema of my mind. And not even there.

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Detente: Shaw with the marvelous Walter Gottel.

Shaw must have relished both his paycheck, his top billing, and the opportunity to play a quietly heroic (if perhaps necessarily pitiless) hero after so many years of villainy: As that cold sociopath “Red” Grant in From Russia with Love (1963), a scarily mercurial Henry VIII in A Man for All Seasons, the equally dangerous Doyle Lonnegan in The Sting, the chilling Mr. Blue in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, the Ahab-like Quint of Jaws, and even the Sheriff of Nottingham, in Robin and Marian. Kabakov is as dangerous as any of these, but more messily human. It is, after all, his unwillingness to gun down the vulnerable Dahlia at the beginning of the picture that makes the entire “Black Sunday” operation in Miami possible.

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Fritz Weaver with Shaw in the extended, nerve-wracking climax.

The great Fritz Weaver does his usual impeccable work as Kabakov’s FBI coeval; Michael V. Gazzo turns up as a sleazy go-between subjected to a typically brutal bit of questioning by the Israeli (whose ironic nickname in the Mossad is “The Final Solution”); William Daniels provides a nice turn as a sympathetic V.A. psychologist; and Walter Gotell, the splendidly multifarious General Gogol of the Roger Moore Bonds, shows up as a finely-judged Arabian ambassador. Frankenheimer himself can be glimpsed, briefly, in what those who worked with would recognize as his occasionally manic directorial mode, as a CBS television director. In this splendid ensemble only the rather blank-faced Keller fails to land. Her presence among so fine a cast is a puzzler. Then again, the entirety of her 1970s stardom itself never made a great deal of sense to me. She isn’t terrible, but she’s barely adequate, and, in this company, that’s nearly as bad as being rotten.

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Shaw’s brutal interrogation of Michael V. Gazzo

Mention should be made here of Tom Rolph’s vigorous editing, and of Alonzo’s use of the hand-held camera, becoming rarer in those early days of the Steadicam and used here for its deliberate effect of documentary immediacy. Alonzo’s work reaches it apogee during preparations for the terrorist attack on the Super Bowl crowd. This sequence contains in the most striking moment in the picture, following Dern’s bomb-test, performed in an abandoned building in the desert, when we see the old wooden structure from the inside, its walls peppered from floor to ceiling by shrapnel blasts; the sunlight streaming through, giving the interior the quality of diaphanous lace. As Dern extols the beauty of the bomb’s symmetry to an unnerved Keller, the visual is in fact beautiful, and deeply chilling: We understand as Keller does what those thousands of sun-drenched pores really represent.

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The aftermath of the bomb test: Bruce Dern extols the beauty of its symmetry to an unnerved Marthe Keller. One of John A. Alonzo’s most eloquent visual effects.

John Williams was, at the time, not yet a household name even after composing the then-ubiquitous Jaws theme. (In a couple of months, everyone would know his name.) This may account for Paramount’s deigning to release a soundtrack album, which seems to me to have been a major miscalculation, as Williams’ score is absolutely integral to the success of the picture.‡ Its main theme is an ominous twelve-note phrase (three clusters of four notes each, with a single variation in the second phrase) that, repeated, becomes a melodic accompaniment to Frankenheimer’s visuals, sowing the seeds of dread early on (although not, interestingly, during the picture’s opening credits, which are played out sans musical accompaniment) and carrying through to the end titles, during which a nervously triumphant fanfare takes over, one that anticipates similar thematic phrases in Williams’ later scores for Dracula and The Fury (both 1978) and that hints at an uneasy truce. This isn’t The End, that composition seems to suggest, merely a temporary lull — a sentiment his compatriot Spielberg would one day echo at the end of his own depiction of terrorism and its bloody aftermath.

That we end with a nod to Munich seems appropriate to the inspiration for Black Sunday itself. Such calculated ideological violence is itself a circle, a corona from whose deadly radiations we never seem to learn.

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* The suits would be utterly un-manned if confronted today by something like the 1984 George Roy Hill-directed adaptation of John le Carré’s The Little Drummer Girl, which looks askance at both the PLO and the Mossad. That one, now, wouldn’t even get optioned, much less produced.

† Close Encounters of the Third Kind also did well enough to be considered a hit, and Annie Hall did exceptional business for a parochial Woody Allen picture. But only Star Wars really went through the stratosphere.

‡ It was, thankfully, released in full thirty-three years later by Film Score Monthly.


Text copyright 2017 by Scott Ross