Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The western heist film: Yesterday’s Westerns: ‘Badman’ by Clair Huffaker by Fred Blosser

Yesterday’s Westerns: ‘Badman’ by Clair Huffaker
by Fred Blosser    

In Clair Huffaker’s “Badman” (1957), gunfighter Jack “Taw” Tawlin drifts into Pawnee Fork, S.D., after serving a sentence in Arizona’s Yuma Prison.  He wants to put his violent past behind him, but his reputation stands in the way.  Wary of his prison record and his legacy of  gunplay and brawls, the local sheriff and the other good folk of Pawnee Fork think the worst of him when he arrives in town to visit his younger brother Jess.  So when Jess offers him a part in a big-time robbery that Jess and four partners are planning, the ostracized Taw figures why not.  The target is “Old Ironsides,” a steel-reinforced stagecoach hauling a $300,000 load of gold dust from the Black Hills for mine owner Chunk Holiday.  

The heist is plotted as carefully as one of Parker’s modern-day scores in the Richard Stark books.  The mastermind of the robbery, Snyder, incites an attack by Sioux to draw off Old Ironsides’ escort of heavily armed, mounted guards.  Once the horsemen are diverted, the robbers further isolate the coach by blowing up a bridge after the vehicle crosses.  Then the driver and the guards in the coach are spooked by a fake tree laid across the road by the robbers; fearing a collision, they all jump out, abandoning the vehicle.  Further down the road, as the runaway coach reaches an abutment, the weakened trestles underneath collapse under its weight.  The vehicle plummets into the valley below, where the robbers relieve it of the gold dust.

Like those of other classic big-heist books and movies from “The Asphalt Jungle” and “Rififi” on, the robbery comes off much as planned.  Minor complications arise, threaten to disrupt the carefully laid scheme just long enough to worry Taw and his partners, and are quickly surmounted.  But -- SPOILER ALERT -- things go awry in the aftermath of the heist, and Taw discovers that Jess and his partners had ulterior motives for bringing him in on the job.

“Old Ironsides” . . . big gold heist . . . a character named “Taw.”  Yep, “Badman” was the basis for John Wayne’s “The War Wagon” (1967), directed by Burt Kennedy.  Huffaker himself wrote the script, retooling the elements of the story and the character of Jack Tawlin -- renamed “Taw Jackson” for the film -- to fit Wayne’s big-screen persona.  Huffaker had done much the same thing six years earlier in adapting Paul I. Wellman’s 1952 novel, “The Comancheros,” into one of Wayne’s seminal 1960s westerns. 

The opening scene of “Badman” is virtually identical to the opening title shots of “The War Wagon.”   You can almost hear the first notes of Dmitri Tiomkin’s rousing theme song in the background:

“In a stunted oak near the foot of the pass a sleepy sparrow hawk suddenly became alert, arching its head high.  Alarmed, it stretched up, spreading itself.  Then, wings thumping a hollow, rapid beat on the still air, it flapped away from its perch.

“The bird was a hundred feet high and gaining speed when the sound came.  A low, rumbling sound as of distant thunder booming beyond the edge of the cloudless sky.

“In a moment two outriders came into sight.  They topped a rise and held their blowing horses in briefly, the worked-up animals edging into choppy, side-stepping walks while the men searched the passage ahead with quick, restless eyes.

“Satisfied, they let the mounts move back into easy, deceptively swift lopes, their eyes still tirelessly exploring the hills and ridges to each side of the dusty trail before them.”

But the film swiftly diverges from the novel in nearly every detail.  In “The War Wagon,” Taw Jackson returns home to Emmett, N.M., released from prison on parole.  Taw had been a respectable rancher until mine owner Frank Pierce (Bruce Cabot) had him railroaded on a trumped-up charge, and confiscated his land.  Taw masterminds the robbery to get even with Pierce by stealing the gold that is rightfully, if not legally, his.  The script eliminates virtually all the characters from the novel and introduces new ones who serve similar functions, notably Kirk Douglas’ flamboyant gunslinger Lomax.  

Where the novel is taut and earnest, the movie is briskly paced but looser and more inclined to exploit the material for sardonic laughs, as in a scene where Pierce orders two hands, Hammond (Chuck Roberson) and Brown (Bruce Dern), to offer Lomax $10,000 to kill Taw.  With shifty eyes and fawning grin in the best 1960s Bruce Dern style, Brown says, “Hell, Mr. Pierce, we’d be willing to kill him for a lot less than ten thousand dollars.”  Later, Taw and Lomax have a characteristic one-ups-man exchange after a fatal shootout with the two hapless henchmen.  “Mine hit the ground first,” Lomax claims.  “Mine was taller,” Taw rejoins.  

This jokey, “Don’t take this seriously, folks,” approach became Burt Kennedy’s primary stock-in-trade as a director and scriptwriter of western films and made-for-TV movies through the rest of his career, from “Support Your Local Sheriff” and “The Good Guys and the Bad Guys” in 1969 to “Once Upon a Texas Train” and “Where the Hell’s That Gold” in 1988.  Until the Budd Boetticher revival a few years ago, you tended to forget that Kennedy first made his mark as a writer with his tough, tense scripts for “Seven Men from Now” (1956), “The Tall T” (1958), and Boetticher’s other classics with Randolph Scott.  
Later editions of “Badman” were renamed “The War Wagon” to tie in with the movie.  The original edition was a Crest Original that carried a 25¢ cover price and deftly packed a lot of plot into 128 pages, including a budding romance between Jack Tawlin and Jess’s mistreated wife, Christine.  Christine is also a decent person trying to escape a shady past -- in her case, saloon girl:  “Thoughtful Christine.  The only cowtown girl in Dodge that every rich cattleman took to his hotel room and proposed to the next morning,” she says flatly about herself.  The TV westerns of the time like “Gunsmoke” and “Lawman” tended to skirt the seamy reality of prostitution in the Old West, but Huffaker acknowledges it as the backstory that informs Christine’s empathy with Taw.   

The copyright page of the Crest paperback says that a shorter version of the novel, “Holdup at Stony Flat,” appeared in “Ranch Romances” in the twilight gasp of the western pulp magazines.  Huffaker’s prose is lean and flavorful in the way in which western novels began to move in a grittier, more character-grounded direction in the late ‘50s and 1960s, thanks to writers like Huffaker, Elmore Leonard, and Brian Garfield.

1 comment:

Bill Crider said...

For some reason the main thing I remember reading about THE WAR WAGON when the movie came out is that Kirk Douglas used a small trampoline to aid him in his leaps onto his horse. I'm pretty sure I'm remembering that correctly, but you never know.