Point ‘em north
Fox’s 1955 movie The Tall Men (click the link for our review) was a great letdown, especially for a fine director like Raoul Walsh. Western reviewer Bran Garfield was on the button as usual when he called the picture “disappointingly hackneyed and mediocre, bloated far beyond its proper scale, overlong, underscripted, flabbily directed and downright silly.”
Yet the novel it came from was really good.
Heck Allen used several noms de plume, notably Will Henry, partly because he was afraid that writing novels might constitute a conflict of interest with his work scripting MGM cartoons, at which he was supremely good. But he loved the old West and, as Clay Fisher, wrote books like Yellowstone Kelly and The Crossing. The Tall Men dates from 1954.
It tells the story of two tall Texans, former Confederate soldiers (they are Quantrill men in the film) Ben Allison and his brother Clint.
These names are full of Western redolence, the Allison citing gunman Clay Allison, the Ben perhaps referring to another Texas gunman, Ben Thompson, who also had to to deal with a firebrand younger brother, and the name Clint of course very Western on its own, as Mr Eastwood would probably agree.
Broke, they go north after the war, to the goldfields of Montana, looking to make a Yankee dollar or two and perfectly ready to hold someone up to acquire it.
There, they plan on robbing rich man Nathan Stark (Robert Ryan in the movie), but Stark cannily persuades them instead to join with him in a risky but potentially enormously profitable venture, driving beef on the hoof from Texas, where the asking price is around $4 a head, to beef-starved Montana, where the steers will fetch $60 each.
I will say at least that the opening scenes of Walsh’s film are better than the book, as the two brothers (Clark Gable and Cameron Mitchell) near the gold town in winter, see a hanging corpse and Ben remarks to Clint wryly, “Looks like we’re gettin’ close to civilization”.
Once past that, though, the novel is infinitely better, rattling along (unlike the movie) at a good pace and furthermore being credible, plausible and obviously authentic. I suppose we must assign much of the blame to the screenwriters, Sydney Boehm (Branded, The Raid, The Savage, etc) and John Ford’s son-in-law Frank Nugent, who wrote six Westerns for ‘Pappy’, so it ought to have been better. They should have stuck more closely to the original text.
Personally, I don’t care much for Allen/Fisher’s rendering of Texas dialect, which comes close to hokey and reminds us uncomfortably of Owen Wister. Goddam it, Ben, git thet crazy gal back in the wagons ‘fore she skills herse’f. Lookee there! Lookit thet, by Gawd! You see her run thet goddam paint mare of hers square inter thet dun steer was beginnin’ to run yonder? That kind of thing. You get used to it but I could have done without it.
It’s my only criticism, though. The book is gripping.
The character of Nella was built up for the movie. Maybe Walsh and producer William Hawks (Howard’s brother) were hoping for a sexy The Outlaw vibe by casting Jane Russell. If so, they didn’t get it. The unmarried Gable and Russell characters may have stayed alone a daring (for the prudish 1950s) two nights in a snow-bound cabin but they did nothing there but talk – for what seems like hours – in an interminable part of the film. They are in this cabin talking for 17 minutes of screentime, totally bogging the action down, and it seems like an hour. Western watchers were used to the US Cavalry finally arriving to save the day but the soldiers usually saved wagon-trainers or settlers; this time a patrol turns up to save us, the viewers, from any more of this agony. Difficult to see how Walsh, of all people, would have allowed this. In the book, it’s far better done – and indeed it’s perfectly clear that they do indeed make love. In the book Nella is lower-key. She’s there, and Ben does finally win her from Stark but for much of the narrative she isn’t even mentioned and we almost forget that she’s on the drive – a very male affair.
I wonder if Larry McMurthy read this novel. There are distinct similarities in theme with McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, though Fisher’s book is on a less epic scale.
At any rate, I heartily recommend The Tall Men, as a book. After that, you may want to see the film, once, as a comparison, but be ready to be disappointed.