The real McCoys do it for the camera
I view the ancestors of the modern Western, that is the old silent movies from the early days, fondly, as I do veteran or vintage cars. We don’t expect 1908 Cadillacs to run as smoothly or as impressively as current models but it’s fascinating to see one, and so it is with the 1908 The Bank Robbery.
You get the feeling that some of the Oklahoma old-timers had seen a few early motion-picture Westerns and thought they would have a crack at it too. Unfortunately, none of the principals had the faintest idea of how to make a film, and though released in December 1908, their picture had nothing of the cinematic quality or narrative flow of The Great Train Robbery five years earlier (which we reviewed the other day – click the link for that). And things had moved on apace in those five short years. By the end of 1908 DW Griffith had already made six Westerns, and I’m afraid The Bank Robbery was extraordinarily amateur by those standards. Still, it’s an interesting document.Who were these Oklahoma geezers? Well, the team was led by Al Jennings, self-publicist, lawyer, train- and bank-robber, novelist and Hollywood pioneer. With him were famed lawmen Bill Tilghman and Heck Thomas, ‘gunman’ Frank Canton and Comanche chief Quanah Parker. It’s an amazing line-up.
Alphonso Jennings (left, photographed 1902, in Leavenworth) was born in 1863, so was 43 when the movie was made, and did not die until 1961, aged 98. He settled in El Reno, Oklahoma Territory and served as prosecuting attorney from 1892 until 1894. In 1895 he joined his brothers Ed and John in a law practice at Woodward. It was there in the fall of ’95 that brother Ed was shot and killed in a saloon by the famous Temple Houston, son of Sam, a story which forms the plot of a 1960 United Artists Western with Bill Williams as Houston, Oklahoma Territory. Houston got off. Al joined an outlaw band, he said because the justice system’s failures “enraged him” and “encouraged him to resist it”. They robbed trains, general stores and a post office, though with a singular lack of pecuniary success (from one train robbery netting a bottle of whiskey and a bunch of bananas). Jennings was wounded by law officers on November 30, 1897, and captured one week later. He was sentenced to life in prison, but, due to the legal efforts of his brother John, and friends in high places, his sentence was reduced to five years, and he was then freed on technicalities in 1902. He received a presidential pardon in 1904 from President Theodore Roosevelt.Jennings was now a celebrity. In 1904 O Henry published the short story Holding Up a Train, a tale inspired by Jennings’s career, and later Jennings himself would publish Beating Back, a novel loosely based on his outlaw life in which he recounted his immense skills in horsemanship and marksmanship, and The Saturday Evening Post printed a series of interviews with Jennings that gave the same idea. O Henry had met and befriended Jennings in Honduras, where Henry had bolted to when he skipped bail on an embezzlement charge because the country had no extradition treaty with the US. Jennings was there for the same reason.
After The Bank Robbery Jennings moved to Oklahoma City and became active in politics. In 1912 he won the Democratic nomination for Oklahoma County Attorney, but he lost the election. In 1914 he made an unsuccessful run for the office of Governor of Oklahoma, coming only third in the primaries. He had a starring role in the 1914 film adaptation of his biography and, retiring from law and politics, Jennings moved to California and worked in the motion picture industry making Westerns. What a great story! It’s a wonderful example of how the fictional and factual Old West so often overlapped and merged into one. By the way, in 1951 Columbia made a biopic, Al Jennings of Oklahoma, with Dan Duryea in the lead role. Of course it was highly fictionalized, but then how could a life of Jennings be anything else? His real life was highly fictionalized!
As for Bill Tilghman (photographed below right in 1915), 53 at the time of the film and, ahem, filling out a little, he too has been fictionalized on the silver screen. William Matthew Tilghman (1854 – 1924) was one of the great lawmen of the old West. His name may not trip off the tongue in the way that Wyatt Earp’s or Wild Bill Hickok’s does, and he certainly has not enjoyed the levels of Hollywood exposure that those men did, but nevertheless, to students of the West he was an important figure. He was a buffalo hunter before taking up the lawman’s trade. He later became a partner in the Crystal Palace Saloon in Dodge City. His first documented service as a lawman began on January 1, 1878, when he became a deputy under County Sheriff Bat Masterson.
He moved to Oklahoma Territory and when the new town of Perry, Oklahoma was created after the Cherokee Strip land rush of 1893, Tilghman was appointed city marshal there. It was at this time that he and his fellow lawmen were hunting members of the Doolin gang. On September 6, 1895, Tilghman and two other deputy marshals tracked down William F “Little Bill” Raidler. After being ordered to surrender, Raidler opened fire and was brought down by a blast from Tilghman’s shotgun. The outlaw survived his wounds and was sentenced to ten years.Tilghman’s career as a peace officer came to a famous climax in January 1896, when he captured Bill Doolin. Tilghman had followed Doolin to Eureka Springs, Arkansas. He recognized Doolin sitting in the lobby of a bath house. Doolin failed to recognize Tilghman, though, and Tilghman was able to overpower the gang leader without a shot being fired. It was a mighty coup. The day after, 2,000 people crowded into the Guthrie railroad station to see Tilghman bring Doolin in. But it didn’t pan out well for Tilghman: on July 5 Doolin escaped from jail, and Tilghman never got the reward. Doolin was finally tracked down by Tilghman’s friend Heck Thomas and his posse, and was shot to death on August 24, 1896.
Ah, yes, Heck Thomas (photographed left, c 1900). Henry Andrew Thomas was born in Oxford, Georgia in 1850. He was a courier at the age of twelve in the Civil War. In September, 1862 Union General Philip Kearny was killed at the Battle of Chantilly and young “Heck” was entrusted with the general’s horse and equipment and was ordered by Confederate General Robert E Lee to take them through the lines to General Kearny’s widow. Heck and his family migrated to Texas in 1875 and, with the help of a cousin he obtained a job with the railroad as a guard. He was promoted to railroad detective and later went to work for the Fort Worth Detective Association. He was appointed Deputy US Marshal out of Fort Smith, Arkansas, working under the famous hanging judge Isaac C Parker (Heck becoming a sort of embryonic Rooster Cogburn). He, Chris Madsen and Bill Tilghman became known as the Three Guardsmen and were credited with bringing law and order to the Indian Territory, what would become the state of Oklahoma in 1907. In August 1896, his fame reached dizzy heights when, as I said above, he hunted down and killed Bill Doolin. Heck was 58 at the time of The Bank Robbery. He died aged 62 in Lawton, Oklahoma on August 14, 1912 of Bright’s disease.
And Frank Canton (right, unknown date). Well, he was born Josiah Horner in 1849 (so he was also 58 when The Bank Robbery was made). He worked as a cowboy in Texas and started rustling and robbing banks. On October 10, 1874, Horner got into a gunfight with some Buffalo Soldiers, killing one and wounding the other. In 1877, he was arrested for holding up a bank in Comanche, Texas. He escaped from Texas Ranger custody and moved to Ogallala, Nebraska, changing his name to Frank M Canton, and there he raised a herd of cattle. He determined to ‘go straight’ and avoid further contretemps with the law. But his future was in Wyoming. He hired on as a stock detective for the Wyoming Stock Growers Association. He was elected sheriff of Johnson County, Wyoming, becoming also a US deputy marshal.On April 9, 1892, in the Johnson County War, Canton led the so-called Regulators to the KC Ranch, where Nate Champion and Nick Ray were staying. Ray was shot and killed in the opening minutes of the ensuing gun battle. Champion, a one-time friend of Canton’s, held off the Regulators for most of the day, killing at least four of them and wounding others. At 5 pm Canton set the house on fire. Champion soon burst out of the house firing his Winchester rifle and was shot 28 times. A few days later Champion’s friends, led by Sheriff Angus, trapped the Regulators at the TA Ranch. When the battle was all but over, the US Cavalry came in and saved the Regulators. Canton was released from custody (his employers and friends were powerful men) but reportedly regretted the incident with Champion. After the lynching of Cattle Kate he left the cattlemen’s association and traveled to Oklahoma, becoming another of the deputy US marshals under Judge Isaac Parker, based in Fort Smith, Arkansas. In 1896 in Pawnee, OK, a certain Bill Dunn, whom Canton had arrested for rustling, confronted him, saying “Damn you, Canton. I’ve got it in for you!” before going for his pistol. Canton managed to draw his firearm faster since Dunn’s pistol got caught in his suspender. Canton shot Bill Dunn in the head, killing him instantly. The shooting was ruled self-defense. In 1897, Canton went to Alaska to follow the gold rush but instead again became a deputy US marshal. He returned to Oklahoma in 1907 and became Adjutant General of the National Guard. At some point during this time, Canton arranged a meeting with the Governor of Texas. He confessed that he was secretly Joe Horner, and the governor took his law enforcement service into consideration and granted him a pardon. Horner chose to be known as Frank Canton for the remainder of his lifetime. He died in Oklahoma in 1927. Another absolutely classic Western career.
And lastly Quanah Parker (left, 1911). His is in many ways the most fascinating story of them all. Kwana, which means “smell, odor” (c 1845 or 1852 to 1911) was a war leader of the Quahadi (“Antelope”) band of the Comanche Nation. He was the son of Comanche chief Peta Nocona and Cynthia Ann Parker, a white woman who had been kidnapped as a child and assimilated into the tribe. Alan Le May used this as the basis for his novel which was made into the great Western movie The Searchers by John Ford in 1956, and Ford referenced it also in the later (and weaker) Two Rode Together.Once certain key Kiowa chiefs were apprehended, Quanah became the leading Native American in the Red River War in 1874. The effort was doomed, though, and in 1875 he surrendered and led the Quahadi to the reservation at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. There he was appointed by the federal government as principal chief of the entire Comanche Nation, a convenient notion, if alien to the Comanche tradition. He became a wealthy rancher, settling near Cache, Oklahoma, where The Bank Robbery was shot. He was elected deputy sheriff of Lawton in 1902. After his death in 1911, the leadership title of Chief was replaced with ‘Chairman’: Quanah is therefore sometimes described as the “Last Chief of the Comanche.” Yet another fascinating story, and it really is remarkable to see these great figures, Jennings, Tilghman, Thomas, Canton and Parker, on celluloid.Tragically, there were no close-ups and these people ride past the camera a lot, some way away, so it is difficult to make them out. Furthermore, the modern print is degraded, faded and blurry. Still, you can see the men, looking a tad portlier than they probably did in their prime (though who am I to talk?) They seem to be very well dressed, for a posse, Bill wearing a tie, Quanah a suit and Heck a rather natty bowtie.
We first see the bank at Cache, a stray dog sniffing about in front, and Al Jennings, in dark clothes and leather gauntlets, with the legs of his pants stuffed into boots in proper fashion, arrives, dismounts and enters the bank. Some lawmen look at him suspiciously. The camera just stands there, rolling, until Al comes out again, remounts and rides off past us. The camera now attempts a pan to follow him but it is very jerky and far too slow as it struggles to catch up with the retreating rider. The next scene (there are ten altogether in the 19-minute runtime) is a cabin. Al arrives and gesticulates, presumably sharing with five accomplices the info he gained while casing the joint. Sadly, these men are never identified, either as characters or as actors, so we have no idea who they were, or were supposed to be. They are wearing range duds, with slouch hats and pistols in gunbelts. They saddle up, and we wait while they do so, the camera rooted to the spot. Al straps on a gunbelt and takes out a pistol that he had hidden in his shirt, putting it in the holster on his hip. They are ready for the robbery.Scene 3. Back to the bank in Cache. The gang arrives and almost immediately gunsmoke fills the air. Three men jump from the bank window – amusingly, they thought it really was being robbed, and fled. Two townsmen and one robber are shot and fall. The robbers mount up and grab their fallen comrade, carting him off across a saddle horn. They do a lot of rather pointless shooting in the air, already a Western movie custom. Another robber is shot and falls from his horse.
Now three lawmen arrive on horseback, Tilghman, Canton and Thomas. At the post office they are given rifles.Scene 4. A woman comes out of a house as the four surviving robbers and their stricken colleague arrive. She seems very distressed. Perhaps she is the wife of the shot man. She brings some water for him but then she recoils. Clearly the man has expired. The outlaws pick up the body and ride off. The last one kisses the woman before leaving, so maybe she isn’t a widow (yet).
Now she puts on a bonnet and mounts up, daringly astride, following the bandits at a canter. Just in time because now the posse arrives at a walk (the camera is still rolling). The next scene is a river or lake. The outlaws ride into the water and rather callously drop the body of their fellow robber in. The woman catches up, and crosses the water without noticing the corpse. The camera waits (and waits) until the posse come into frame. The lawmen fish the body out. Now the four badmen arrive at a cabin (their original one, I think). They unsaddle, and one of them counts the loot while another makes a fire and a third washes up. Now the woman joins them. But so does the posse (again, at a walk). The baddies are slow to react but eventually trot off on foot. Although we do not see it (the camera has not budged) they may then have shot at the posse because the lawmen turn round and spur their horses away, to cover. They hide in some rocks, the four robbers (sans woman) walk up, and with no more ado the posse jumps up and opens fire. All the outlaws are shot down, three being killed and one (Al, presumably) captured, the woman then arriving and also being taken into custody. We see the corpses being carried off and loaded into an off-camera wagon, as it later transpires. Bill picks up the sack of money.
The penultimate scene is shot at a gateway marked WICHITA NATIONAL FOREST GAME PRESERVE (the park, about ten miles to the north-west of Cache, was founded the same year the movie was filmed). It’s a basic shot of the posse and its two captives (the wounded man now swathed in bandages) riding past the camera. We get the best look at Quanah, riding an Appaloosa.
The last scene is back at the bank. The posse rides in. A crowd gathers, one man in a straw boater, one in a derby, others in fedoras, a few in Stetsons. There are a few women and children. They are perhaps congratulating the lawmen. Bodies are carried away. The camera keeps rolling till after everyone has gone, then stops. The End, presumably.
It’s amazing to modern eyes how such a short movie can seem so long. Not a small part of the runtime is spent watching things happen (saddling up, for example) in real time. We are so used to cutting, with edited shots briefly showing us men saddling up then moving on to something else, that it seems endless watching the whole process.Bill Tilghman was behind the camera for a time but most was done by James Bennie Kent, known as JB, a friend of Tilghman’s, who is also credited as producer. It was Tilghman’s project, and he is credited as director. He also set up the Oklahoma Mutoscene Company. The company made A Round-Up in Oklahoma and The Wolf Hunt the same year.Don’t expect an enthralling Western movie. But do expect a fascinating historical document, well worth an investment of twenty-odd minutes of a Westernista’s time.By the way, several shots from The Bank Robbery were used in the opening of Tombstone in 1993.It would merit a restoration, and maybe the addition of some intertitle cards and appropriate music.