Death on the range
In his excellent book on a great Western author, Ernest Haycox and the Western, Richard W Etulain tells us that “By 1935, a new type of Haycox Western hero was emerging, particularly in his serials. A Hamlet-like figure was replacing the cowboy whose life consisted largely of shooting, fighting and loving.”
This is evident when reading Man in the Saddle, first serialized in Collier’s between April 2 and May 28, 1938, and then published as a stand-alone novel. Its hero, rancher Owen Merritt, is a complex figure, a self-questioning and indecisive man – indeed, a man racked by doubts – who, however, also has a certain gaiety and insouciance about him.
The story opens with a wedding. Sally Bidwell is to marry rich landowner Will Isham. Sally and Owen were lovers but, ambitious and determined to break away from her white-trash background and disreputable father and brother, she agrees to marry Isham. It is a calculating bargain, not a love match. Isham knows this but accepts anyway, for she is beautiful and admired and she will grace his empire. Part of the trouble, too, was that Owen is too “fiddle-footed”, a restless and footloose man who loves to roam. Sally wants stability and status.
Actually, the wedding is a slight problem in the narrative. Like an over-assiduous host who wants to introduce you to every guest at the party when you’ve just arrived, and expects you to remember who they all are afterwards, Haycox gives us far too many characters to assimilate in the opening chapter. Fortunately, though, these personages gradually emerge and solidify as real people in the following pages, and we get to know them.
First we meet Owen’s fellow rancher Bourke Pine, who is a sardonic man not afraid to criticize but a true friend, and another neighbor, cranky old Pay Livershim, who sells out to Isham (bringing Isham’s fence up to Owen’s) because if a man like Owen loses his girl to Isham and does nothing about it, well, the writing’s on the wall. But when Owen finally stops dithering and decides to fight Isham, Pay will join him in the struggle, as will Bourke.
For yes, in the last resort Owen is a true Western hero. He tells Bourke:
Put another, and more classic Western way, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.
On one level, Man in the Saddle is just another ‘big rancher vs. sturdy homesteader’ story. The ruthless rich man wants the whole valley and will stop at naught to get it. This story has been written many times, and we have seen it on the screen many times too. It’s a pretty standard Western plot. But Haycox handles it superbly. Man in the Saddle is a cracking good read.
Of course, there’s the “other woman”. Though Owen loves Sally, and this love is reciprocated despite her marrying another, she is lost to him now. 1870s – and indeed 1930s – mores see to that. And Sally has a friend, Nan Melotte. The name reminds us perhaps of Cherry Malotte, “the other woman” in The Spoilers, who, though, was in some versions elevated to female lead. Nan almost could be female lead in Man in the Saddle. She it is who selflessly takes Owen to safety into the hills and tends him when he is shot by Isham’s thugs, for she loves him, even knowing that his heart will be forever Sally’s. She finds him and nurses him back to health, which reminds us of another famous Western: this passage is very like the one in The Virginian in which Molly finds the Virginian gravely hurt and nurses him till he is well again, and indeed, Nan too is the local schoolteacher. Or we might think of Bern nursing the ‘masked rider’ in the canyon in Riders of the Purple Sage.
Nan is actually a great character, feisty, a small-time rancher on the side, a woman who wears pants and rides astride. She has a suitor, an unwanted one. Hugh Clagg, another small rancher, has set his cap (or Stetson) at her but she dislikes, even fears him. He is possessive and slightly creepy. And Clagg knows that she loves Owen, and he hates Owen for it. The question is now, who will be gunning most for our hero, jilted admirer Clagg or jealous husband Isham?
Isham is a smooth type, a short man, clever but not physically imposing, and he has tough gunhands to do his dirty work for him, led by another strong character, Fay Dutcher. While reading, I had the image of Ben Johnson in my mind for Dutcher. Johnson would have played the foreman admirably. Dutcher too hates Owen and would dearly like to kill him, for the foreman is intensely loyal to Isham’s ranch, Skull. We have often seen ranches with the skull of a steer above the entrance gate but this is such a good name for it symbolizes the death that comes from the ranch and its owner.
Another well-defined character in the story is Cultus Charley, Owen’s Indian cook. He is spooked and slightly spooky, and, smelling trouble, he will desert Owen’s cabin and disappear, but he will return, and his tracking skills will be invaluable.
There are many other characters, perhaps too many really (a bit of a failing with Haycox sometimes) but Owen, Sally, Nan, Isham, Clagg and Owen’s pals Bourke, Pay and Cultus are the key ones.
Where is the law, you ask? There has to be a marshal or sheriff. Yes, there is County Sheriff Medary but he is in thrall to Isham and decides to absent himself on a hunting trip during the showdown, so the law is out of the picture.
Action scenes are really well handled, such as the shoot-out in the darkened saloon in Winnemuca (this is an Oregon/Nevada story). But it’s really the characters, and their thoughts and developments, which grip you in the end.
In 1951, Randolph Scottand his business partner Harry Joe Brown decided to make a movie
They hired experienced hand Kenneth Gamet to work Haycox’s story up into a screenplay. It couldn’t have been easy because while the action sequences would transfer very well to the silver screen, it would be hard to get across the conflicts and thoughts, many of which were rendered by soliloquies in the book. Gamet had, in 1948, adapted the story of another great Western writer, Luke Short, into the absolutely superb Western movie Coroner Creek, also with Scott, also for Columbia, and would do the (less stunning) Canadian Pacific and The Doolins of Oklahoma with Randy too. Earlier in ’51 he wrote Santa Fe. So he and Scott knew each other very well.
Scott, of course was superb at the thoughtful-but-tough Westerner with grit, the man who’s gotta do, etc., and he was able to convey doubt and worry but determination at the crunch in an understated way, almost as well as Gary Cooper. And he could handle very well the twinkle-in-the-eye side.
They chose Alexander Knox as Isham. At first blush this was odd casting for Knox was far from a Western specialist (he would later be one of the party in Shalako and President Madero in Villa Rides! but that was all). He was a Canadian stage actor with an English accent who did Shakespeare and Bernard Shaw. Yet he is very good as rancher Isham. Steely, restrained but entirely ruthless, he is a man who feels entitled, and his belongings include his trophy wife. He cannot stand that she loved Owen before – and may still. It drives him to the edge of madness, and eventually to ruin.
The women are Joan Leslie as Sally, rechristened for the film Laurie, and Ellen Drew as Nan. Leslie, in the second of her seven Westerns, comes across mainly as a gold-digger and either the screenplay or the actress (or a combination, I suppose) didn’t quite get the novel’s Sally right. Sally was a more subtle character than that. Drew as Nan, though, is very good. Her “fresh-faced good looks and high-wattage smile” as the IMDb bio call them, are put to good effect. You may remember her as the woman Glenn Ford and William Holden both covet in The Man from Colorado, or as Joel McCrea’s wife in Stars in My Crown.
Gamet also made a key change with Sally/Laurie: after marrying Isham she rather rashly goes to visit Owen on his ranch, to warn him that her husband is planning to move against him, and to ask him to leave, for safety, because she still cares for him. In the book she insists she will stand by her husband but in the movie she offers to go away with Owen if that will convince him to leave. It may be that by 1951, with World War II intervening, social attitudes had adjusted enough to accept such a scandalous possibility, but if that was true or not, it was a dramatically false move, I think. She needed to still love Owen but stay true to her bargain with her unloved husband.
The best casting was probably Clem Bevans as Pay. He was just right. Elderly, wry, shrewd, he is a perfect old rancher. The worst casting in my view was the choice of Richard Rober as Fay Dutcher. He was not a Western actor, he looks too duded up as a ranch foreman, and was not generally Western enough. As I said above, it needed Ben Johnson.
Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams got the part of Bourke Pine, and I suppose there is something of the sidekick about Pine’s role. Williams did semi-comic sidekicks a lot. The thing is, though, in the book Pine is sardonic but not comic. Similarly, I myself wouldn’t have had Alfonso Bedoya as Cultus Charley. It needed a fey Indian, not a cartoon Mexican. Jay Silverheels would have done it well. They invent a bit of actor’s ‘business’ for Bedoya as he tries to find a better hat. It’s quite amusing, I suppose.
As for Clagg, that was John Russell. I am a bit of a Russell fan, not only for Lawman but for his Nathan Burdette in Rio Bravo, his Bloody Bill Anderson in Josey Wales and, especially, for his
superb Marshal Stockburn in Pale Rider. This was only his fourth oater in a long and very distinguished Western career, which went from 1948 to 1985. The Clagg/Owen fight in a collapsing cabin and then outside in the snow is one of the highlights of the film.
The excellent Cameron Mitchell is the rider George Vird, Don Beddoe is Laurie’s no-good dad, and Tennessee Ernie Ford in his first ever film appearance is a wrangler who sings a ballad out on the trail, Man in the Saddle, by Harold Lewis and Ralph Murray, a song which we first heard over the introductory titles (as was the wont of 50s Westerns) and which, as far as introductory ballads go, is actually quite pleasant. There’s also some nice music by George Duning, of 3:10 to Yuma fame.
This picture was the first in a series of six Randolph Scott Westerns to be directed by Sasvári Farkasfalvi Tótfalusi Tóth Endre Antal Mihály, better known to film-goers as André De Toth. Dashing in his uniform film director’s eyepatch (like Raoul Walsh but unlike John Ford, fellow patch wearers, he only had one eye), Austro-Hungarian De Toth had been an actor, then writer, editor and director in Europe. He fled to England when war broke out and worked under Alexander Korda. He emigrated to the US in 1942 and was fêted as a top-drawer film maker of an intellectual kind but he reveled in hard-boiled American crime pictures, and he loved Westerns. He gave them all a hard edge and made them really quite violent for the day. And Man in the Saddle is by no means the worst of the six he did with Scott.
Charles Lawton Jr photographed the movie in Technicolor, in some splendid Lone Pine locations, and he was outstanding at somber interiors, so visually it was going to be a fine picture alright. Lawton shot 19 big-screen Westerns and no fewer than nine of these were with Randolph Scott. Lawton worked with directors of the quality of De Toth, Budd Boetticher, Delmer Daves and John Ford. His 1957 balck & white 3:10 to Yuma would be a candidate for one of the top ten most beautifully photographed Westerns ever.
Bob Morgan did the stunts and some of them are pretty good (though you can tell when doubles are used). De Toth did the gunfight in the darkened salon very well, with muzzle flashes as the only light.
Randy rides his fancy palomino Stardust.
Gamet and De Toth changed the ending quite a bit. In the book Owen remorselessly hunts down and kills both Isham and Dutcher. The film makers probably thought that was a bit harsh for noble Randolph Scott to do, so they have – well, a different ending (not that much of a spoiler then). The book has the showdown shoot-out in the great outdoors, whereas De Toth does it effectively in town during a (pre-Yojimbo) dust storm.
I like the bit (movie, not book) when Dutcher nervously asks, “You wouldn’t shoot a man in the back, would you?” and Randy replies, “I could you.” (He doesn’t though, of course: it’s Randy after all).
They also changed the bit about Owen taking refuge behind a waterfall on his ranch, which kinda reminded me a bit of Riders of the Purple Sage (again), Johnny Guitar and Randy Rides Alone. I guess they couldn’t find a suitable falls up at Lone Pine so they had Randy hide under the surface of a water trough. Rather second best, that. And in the book Owen is gravely hurt, whereas in the movie Randy hardly even has a limp.
Oh well, they’re entitled. No one expects an exact transliteration of the novel to the screen.
There is perhaps a certain fatalism to both book and movie. Anyway, I would definitely recommend both to you. You won’t be disappointed.