Friday, February 07, 2014


                                     by Fred Blosser

Except for an occasional nonfiction study or cable documentary about the Little Big Horn, writers and studios don’t seem to produce many books, movies, or TV shows anymore about the U.S. cavalry in the Old West.  The last made-for-TV movie I can remember was BUFFALO SOLDIERS (1997), and the last feature film was Walter Hill’s GERONIMO: AN AMERICAN LEGEND (1993).  In Hill’s movie, Wes Studi as Geronimo had less screen time than Jason Patric and Matt Damon as the two cavalry officers who chased the wily Apache chief.  LT. GATEWOOD AND LT. DAVIS would have been a more accurate if less dramatic title.

In the 1960s, when a sufficiently strong paperback market still existed, Brian Garfield contributed a couple of notable novels to the genre.  This was early in his career when he was writing Westerns at an amazingly prolific pace, before transitioning to thrillers and offbeat modern history after the success of DEATH WISH and THE THOUSAND-MILE WAR.  The cavalry novels were set in the fictional Arizona outpost of Fort Dragoon, near the familiar “Spanish Flat” territory of Garfield’s Marshal Jeremy Six paperback series.

In APACHE CANYON (Avalon, 1963; reprinted by Ace, 1964, and Bantam, 1987), jealousy sparks resentment between Captains Harris and Sutherland when George Sutherland thinks that Justin Harris is having an affair with Sutherland’s restless wife Eleanor.  The ill-feeling simmers as Harris and scout Will Brady are dispatched to talk peace with a renegade Apache chief, Inyo.  Meanwhile, on a routine patrol, Sutherland makes a tactical decision that has tragic consequences, rather like Custer’s at Greasy Grass and Col. Thursday’s in John Ford’s FORT APACHE.

The dynamics and tensions among Garfield’s cast of varied characters are skillfully dramatized, and as one would expect from the Arizona-born author, the Southwestern wilderness scenery is vividly described.  The domestic subplot about suspected infidelity adds a 1960s gloss similar to all of those popular books and movies of the time about troubles in suburbia.  Another ‘60s touch: an existential meditation by one character as death closes in at Apache Canyon:

“He remembered a good many things and he thought, I guess after all a man makes his own breaks.  A long time ago, at the time of his first enlistment, he had made his choice, and it had come inevitably to this.  The best he could do was shrug it off: I have to die sometime.”

BUGLE & SPUR (Ballantine, 1966; reprint, 1986) brings back Justin Harris and a few other characters from the earlier novel, including, briefly, Major Cole, the respected  commanding officer at Fort Dragoon, who announces in the first chapter that he’s being transferred to a new command.  Cole’s successor, Col. Mallory, brings to mind the adage about George Armstrong Custer that “luck favors the bold.”  Mallory is as aggressive as Custer in his approach to strategy and tactics, and luckier -- if luckier means more coldly calculating and not so blinded by political ambition. 

His martial philosophy is contrasted with the personalities of his subordinates.  Justin Harris does his job capably but passionlessly, similar to the emotional detachment that other Garfield protagonists of the period, like Burt Mossman in THE LAWBRINGERS and Ethan Scott in VULTURES IN THE SUN, bring to their jobs as lawmen.  Lt. Ben Hannibal, a junior officer, is earnest but inexperienced, which in Mallory’s eyes is an irreparable  liability for an officer serving on the Border during Apache hostilities.

The cover blurb says, “He was the best soldier Fort Dragoon ever had . . . and the Colonel was out to break him.”  The blurb is somewhat misleading, if it leads the reader to infer that Garfield is out to rewrite Melville’s tragedy of Billy Budd and John Claggart in a John Ford setting.  Garfield takes the tension between the commanding officer and the lieutenant in a different but equally complex direction.  This is a more ambitious novel than APACHE CANYON, with a larger cast of supporting characters, subtler interpersonal conflicts, and two more years of storytelling under the author’s belt.

Where APACHE CANYON closed with a hope of happiness for at least four of its characters, BUGLE & SPUR ends with a vicious battle in a snowstorm and an unsettling resolution to the conflicts between the three main characters.  Garfield raises thoughtful questions about duty and leadership in wartime, and provides no easy answers.  This, not MAJOR DUNDEE, was the cavalry story that Sam Peckinpah should have filmed.

1 comment:

Cap'n Bob said...

Good work, Fred, and thanks for posting it, Ed. Just one note: If Fred was implying that Custer had political ambitions, I have to disagree. He was offered spots on the ballot several times and always declined.