Walsh at the typewriter
In 1969 or ’70, when Raoul Walsh was in his early eighties, he hadn’t made a Western or indeed a feature at all since 1964 and seems to have felt himself cast on the scrapheap, though he was as mentally and physically active as ever. He decided to write a novel. It was perhaps not surprising that it would be a Western novel.
Walsh had come across an article in the Los Angeles Times which praised the stories of Louis L’Amour and he underlined various passages in it, such as And lately, it seems, modern readers are finding Old West novels more appealing than ever, as well as Readers want to be entertained and they are curious about how other people solved their problems … A good Western does both.
Walsh first called it Days of Wrath but changed it to The Wrath of the Just Ones. The original manuscript, now in a private collection, was apparently dedicated to “Duke Wayne – a man as big as all outdoors, and the last living legend”. But the book never found a US publisher, surprisingly, I think, because Walsh’s name was still high enough profile to sell books and the style and tone of the novel – it was quite sexy in fact – fitted the zeitgeist of the early 70s.
But the French loved American cinema, especially hard-boiled crime and Western genres, and they fêted former Hollywood giants, like Walsh, at a time when their careers were on the wane of frankly over. Parisian director/writer/producer Pierre Rissient, for example, was a great admirer and indeed friend of Walsh and Rissient was a highly influential figure in the European film world.
Rissient helped find a French publisher, and later said of the book that it was “very impressive in terms of what happens in events and character … very Raoul Walsh. It’s written with force as a great Raoul Walsh film. Of course Walsh would have liked it to become a script and a film. I don’t think he was really thinking of directing at that time, because of his age and also because he probably realized that no one would finance a picture of that magnitude directed by him. It was a big film. [The book] was very revealing of his feelings at the time. Walsh was very happy to write it.”
So in 1972 La Colère des Justes came out, published by Pierre Belfond, and it is this I have just read, and can recommend to any Westernistas who read French. I thought that maybe those who don’t might anyway like to know a bit about it; hence today’s post.
The tale has three heroes, in fact, and you get the impression that they were modeled on some of Walsh’s screen heroes, Breck Coleman from The Big Trail, for example, or Dan Kehoe from The King and Four Queens, even Custer, with a dash of John Wayne, Clark Gable and Errol Flynn for good measure, and even a touch of Walsh himself, or would-be Walsh. Walsh said that his three uncles are in there, men who, at least in Walsh’s imagination, set out dashingly to make their fortune on arriving from Ireland.
The trio consists of Johnny, a champion amateur boxer from San Francisco, given $900 by his father to purchase mules in Texas in 1861 but getting caught up in the war, running through the mule money on wine, women and song (especially women) and joining the Confederate side instead; his pal Jeb, from Kentucky, who studied law and is the shrewd one; and, in a way their leader, an English aristocrat, Lord Wesley Connaught St George (curiously spelt Connaght throughout in the French version, which must have been an error) but who goes by the moniker Pretty Boy because all that lord business is too much of a mouthful, and he’s very handsome. There is in fact a touch of snobbery about this character. Certainly many people in the book do a good deal of bowing and scraping when they meet the nobleman and you even get the impression that Walsh himself was proud to have a wealthy English scion of the nobility as a lead character.
Anyway, these three are sympathetic young fellows, basically decent, and when at the war’s end they decide to go together to Kansas, to stay with Pretty Boy’s rich uncle, who has huge ranch there, they have multiple adventures, get into trouble, rob a bank, blow up a train, are pursued by the Pinkertons and become pretty fair outlaws, but always retain their charm, vim and Robin Hood-like do-goodery.
The plot is a pretty classic anti-railroad one. The railway company is a wicked corporate giant cheating honest folk out of their land and ruthlessly stamping on honest Americans’ rights and freedoms. The chief villain, Harrington, is the railroad company boss, and he of course has henchmen to do his nefarious bidding, including ‘Robert’ Pinkerton (I’m not sure why not Allan). Pinkertons, as we know, were often useful bad guys in Westerns. Harrington also has an appallingly snobbish wife and a tarty gold-digger daughter, Barbara. Pretty Boy looks down on the Harringtons as nouveaux riches (though I say better nouveau than not riche at all) and in fact he is pretty cynical in pretending to court Barbara, whom he actually despises. He really wants revenge on the Harringtons for doing in his uncle.
Because yes, they discover that Pretty Boy’s uncle has been killed and cheated out of his land by the railroad, and in retaliation they blow up a locomotive with dynamite. Westerns loved dynamite, we know, even though the stuff wasn’t even patented till 1866 in Europe and didn’t come into the US till well after; this story is set in late 1865 or early ’66 so I don’t know where they got so much dynamite from but never mind, we must not be historically picky: it makes an exciting episode.
Another anachronism appears later when someone jumps out of a balloon with a parachute. Although, apparently, it wasn’t till 1887 that Park van Tassel and Thomas Scott Baldwin invented a parachute in San Francisco, California, with Baldwin making the first successful parachute jump in the western United States, the device was used well before that elsewhere, so it could have happened, I guess.
The story then becomes a ‘journey’ plot as the three scapegraces wander though Colorado down towards Santa Fe, with many an adventure, aiming for refuge in Mexico (Walsh loved Mexico) where they intend to buy a ranch with their ill-gotten loot.
On the way they meet many colorful ladies, usually prostitutes, with whom they dally. Walsh liked these parts, you can tell, and the tone of the book is what you would call raunchy. You can imagine it on a 1970s silver screen.
As a writer, Walsh made a great filmmaker, to be honest. The novel is largely a succession of simple sentences, at least in the French (I imagine in the original too, though I don’t know) of the type Johnny shook his hand. He went into the saloon. There he saw a poker game. He decided to join in. Sophisticated it ain’t. There are also too many superlatives. Every meal they have is “the best they ever ate” and every explosion “the loudest they had ever heard” and so on. A reader gets the impression that the story was written by an enthusiastic youngster a fifth of Walsh’s age.
But that’s OK. We’re really looking at a Western movie on the page more than a work of literature.
Some of the characterization is a bit old-fashioned stereotypical too. African-Americans are either brutish louts or amiable darkies, you know the type, and merchants and shopkeepers tend to be canny Jews. Walsh was perhaps a bit out of kilter with the times on that score.
But I liked the way he called the cranky old liveryman Brennan. Mark Twain makes an appearance too.
Down In New Mexico they cause the head-on collision of two locomotives which makes me think that Walsh had enjoyed the 1953 movie Denver & Rio Grande, understandably if so because it’s a great Western.
Well, it all leads up to a very dramatic ending, I can tell you.