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.
I have read the nove and it was excellent, one of but not the only reason, to see the movie, which was strong and effective, but a good deal less so than the book. I know what you have written about the film, you were wrong then, and unless modified remain far off base. Clark Gable was the principal reason for the picture, not as a star, but someone special. My wife put it this way. Cary Grant is the best actor, very likely who ever lived, but Clark Gable is apart. Like one of the Gods.
I full agree with your wife about Cary Grant who strangely enough – tell me if I am wrong – was never cast in any (noticeable) western when he has shown himself able to play any kind if roles, Only Angels have wings being as close as possible of a western character. Some will object he was british but many immigrants of the 19th century were too… He is quite an exception compared to the other big stars of his pre 1910 born generation such as Gable, Wayne, Cooper, Stewart, the beginnings of the 2 last ones having some similarities with Grant’s. Even Tracy, Bogart, Cagney or E G.Robinson made some, even if the results were not always memorable…
Well observed, and thanks.
Jeff, good write-up of Henry Wilson Allen’s(Clay Fisher and Will Henry) THE TALL MEN(1954). Will Henry, which is what I tend to call this marvelous writer, is one of my favorite Western novelists. The novel is top-notch in my book. Although, we’ll have to agree to disagree on the movie THE TALL MEN(1955). I like the movie a lot and so do a lot of other people. In 1955 the movie was a box-office hit and placed Clark Gable back in the top ten at the box-office. He hadn’t been in the top ten since 1949.
Barry and Walter are not alone in liking THE TALL MEN as movie. Many people do. I’m in the opposite camp myself, finding it too slow and opverlong. Gable did surprisingly few Westerns for such a big star in the 50s and some of the ones he did do were semi-Westerns at best.
Walter, Mogambo did that, but The Tall Men, back to back with Ford’s film and followed by Soldier of Fortune solidified his continued success.
Barry, your right MOGAMBO(filmed 1952-53, released 1953) came in number eight at the movie box-office in 1953 and helped bring Gable back. SOLDIER OF FORTUNE(FILMED 1954-55, released 1955) and THE TALL MEN(1955) brought him financial success, also. Gable received 10% of the gross for each movie.
Jeff, to each their own. It would be a dull old world if we all liked the same things. Although, we do agree on most Western Movies.
I think Clark Gable should have made more Westerns after he finally got away from MGM a studio that wasn’t known for making oaters. Wishful thinking, but Gable still had the star power, regardless.
RETURN OF THE TALL MAN(1961) another written under the name of Clay Fisher, is a good read, which I enjoyed. I don’t think that you can go wrong reading anything written by Henry Wilson Allen aka Will Henry or Clay Fisher.