A Dern good movie
Harry Tracy is said by some (though without evidence) to have been the last member of the Wild Bunch. Actual facts known about him are few and far between. Certainly he was a criminal in the 1890s, who, amid huge media coverage at the time, perished at his own hand after being cornered in 1902.
He appeared twice, that I know of, on the screen.
In May 1954, impersonated by Western badman Steve Brodie, he was tracked down by railroad detective Matt Clark, in S1 E19 of Stories of the Century. It’s funny how Matt caught every known outlaw in the West, from Joaquin Murietta in the 1850s to Harry Tracy in the 1900s, all without looking a day older. Wish I had that knack. Brodie’s Harry is an out-and-out bad guy, ready to shoot down innocent train drivers, murder his partner in cold blood, KO little old ladies and even, horrors, try to kiss Matt’s fellow-‘tec Frankie Adams. You don’t get more lowdown than that.
But a much more sympathetic Harry Tracy appeared in the 1982 feature of the same title, also called (because it had various releases) The Last Desperado and Harry Tracy: The Last of the Wild Bunch. As we have been saying on this blog, there were precious few theatrical oaters in the early 1980s, Cimino’s hugely expensive megaflop Heaven’s Gate having sunk United Artists and nearly done for the Western movie altogether, as studios shied like unbroken broncs at the very idea of financing another one. Such pictures in the genre as did come out, such as Barbarosa, The Mountain Men, Cattle Annie and Little Britches and The Legend of the Lone Ranger, lost money hand over fist. It wasn’t till mid-decade, all praise to Eastwood and the Kasdans, that we got Pale Rider and Silverado, both excellent, and the Western revived after its near-death experience.
Harry Tracy was one rara avis of this type, an early-80s feature Western, though a minor release, made by Sid & Marty Crofft Pictures, better known for the likes of Mutt & Stuff and All Star Rock ‘n’ Wrestling Saturday Spectacular, and released by Castle Hill Productions rather than Universal or MGM or anything.
However, I like it, for a number of reasons. One, it starred one of my favorite Western actors, Bruce Dern. Click the link for our Dernorama. Dern was of course superb as Western bad guy – hell, he even shot and killed John Wayne – and he is still to this day going strong, much in demand as loathsome character where Quentin Tarantino is concerned.
His Tracy is a classic Western outlaw, almost a goody. As written by R Lance Hill (also known as David Lee Henry), an unprolific author whose only Western this was, and directed by William A Graham, who also helmed Waterhole #3 and Cry for Me, Billy, not the highest of recommendations I must admit, Harry is basically decent and adheres strongly to the Western ‘code’, refusing to shoot people who don’t need shooting, giving them all a chance to draw first, and so on. This Harry would never ever biff an old lady, and certainly not shoot down his unarmed partner in cold blood, as Steve Brodie did.
The real Tracy (so Wikipedia tells us, so it must be true) was really Harry Severns, born 1875 (so only 26 at his death, as against Dern’s 46, but never mind). On March 1, 1898, Tracy and three accomplices engaged in a gunfight at Brown’s Park, Colorado, in which Valentine Hoy, a member of the posse, was killed. Tracy and accomplice David Lant in this gunfight were captured but they escaped from the local jail. They were recaptured and in June 1898 were locked up in Aspen. After a couple months, both Tracy and Lant escaped again.
That’s where the movie starts (though there’s no Lant), with Dern in long underwear in the snow stealing a horse and riding off. He made for the cold North-West.
There was a big hunt for him and the media made the most of it. The Seattle Daily Times, evidently not known for its restraint, reported, “In all the criminal lore of the country there is no record equal to that of Harry Tracy for cold-blooded nerve, desperation and thirst for crime. Jesse James, compared with Tracy, is a Sunday school teacher.”
There’s a thread of ‘fake news’ in the picture, with journalistic standards not of the highest, and indeed the same happened in the Stories of the Century episode, when Matt wrote a newspaper article claiming that Tracy’s partner Merrill had betrayed him, knowing Tracy would see it and the pair would fall out.
In the film, this Merrill (Michael C Gwynne) is an artist whom Tracy comes across while he is painting the snowy wastes and they team up, artist Merill also having had an inclination to go outlawin’.
He does betray Tracy, and perishes in a duel with him. In the movie, Merrill tries to cheat as they pace off by swinging round early and trying to shoot Harry in the back, but Catherine shouts a warning and it is Merrill who dies. According to Wikipedia, this is the opposite of what happened:
On June 28, 1902, an argument broke out between him and Merrill, which ended in a duel. Tracy cheated during their duel and spun around early, and Merrill was killed. His body was found on July 14.
This Western reminds me quite a bit of another one I like, The Grey Fox (released the same year, only six months later). This is for a number of reasons. Dern’s central performance was as good as Richard Farnsworth’s in Fox, both concern late outlaws in the North West, both were filmed in Canada and both writers were Canadian.
Harry Tracy also fits in with this blog’s current thread of Westerns featuring popular singers as actors. I agree Gordon Lightfoot wasn’t exactly Johnny Cash or Willie Nelson but still, he was a singer-songwriter. Fourth-billed, he plays US Marshal Morrie Nathan, on the track of the outlaw. He was rather good, I thought.
They had to invent some love interest, of course, a dame for Harry to fall for. This is a judge’s daughter, Catherine Tuttle, who takes up Tracy’s cause when he is brutally mistreated by the local lawmen (not the marshal), played by actor/director Helen Shaver. She is with him at the end.
There’s a strong ‘end of the West’ tone to the picture, understandable as we are in the twentieth century. Harry says he is the last of the old gang. “They’re all gone”. So obviously he doesn’t believe those stories about Butch and Sundance surviving. “There’s no more outlaws left,” he tells Merrill. “It’s over.” Horseless carriages rattle down the street, as in Ride the High Country or The Shootist symbolizing the new age, and how unWestern it is.
He refers to the old oath of the Wild Bunch to shoot themselves rather than be taken. Although few went through with it, he says, he’s going to. He talks about not wanting to suffer the fate of Black Jack Ketchum. Ketchum (click for our post on him) had been executed the year before, in April 1901, and they’d botched the hanging, taking his head right off, Saddam-like. Harry would rather take his own life, and duly does.
Harry has a good bit when he dons footwear with horseshoes attached to the soles, to fool pursuers by leaving tracks. Nifty.
Like the more famous members of the Wild Bunch photographed in Fort Worth, Texas in 1900, Tracy and Merrill buy fashionable suits and hats and strut about town like gentlemen.
Actually, the clothes of all the characters are very good, and indeed the whole look of the picture with its sets and buildings is authentic. These days in Westerns so many of the characters are clearly wearing costumes and look as though they are going to some historical re-enactment or playing cowboys, but in this case the whole montage is convincing.
Dennis Schwartz called the film “a quirky romanticized elegiac western” but added, “Under the unenthusiastic direction of William A. Graham, the film mostly disappoints”. Another review said, “The film is not particularly good, with some dull stretches and not much drama or suspense.” However, I like it a lot, and recommend it to you if you haven’t seen it.