Git ‘em up! Move ‘em out!
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In one way or another, cattle are integral to the Western. The very word cowboy suggests that. Cattle barons, trail drives, rustling, stampedes, cattlemen v. sheepmen, open range v. fences, all these and more have figured in the Western since its beginnings. The Western without bos taurus? Unthinkable.
As I was saying last time, the Texas Longhorns (who now play football) are descendants of the cattle brought to the Americas by Spanish conquistadores in the days of Christopher Columbus. Over the next two centuries, the Spaniards used the cattle in Mexico and gradually moved them north to accompany their expanding settlements, reaching the area that became known as Texas near the end of the 17th century.
Eventually, some longhorns escaped or were turned loose on the open range, where they remained mostly feral for the next two centuries. Over several generations, these beasts developed hardy characteristics that have given longhorns their reputation as livestock.
Later on, other breeds were imported and often crossed. Longhorns, though hardy, tended to be on the skinny side while such cattle as Herefords were prized for their meatiness. Movies like Monogram’s The Longhorn (1951) and its color remake by Allied Artists Canyon River (1956) show this happening. Later, The Rare Breed (1966) was pretty well a dud as a Western, due to weak writing, sloppy direction and the odd bit of very dodgy acting, but it is still quite interesting as subject matter.
In the early days, leather protection for the legs was needed in the thorn brush and chaparreras or chaps made their appearance, and because roping became essential, a pommel or saddle horn developed on saddles to which a lasso could be tied. The American cowboy was a direct descendant of the vaquero, and ‘buckaroo’ was an Americanization of that word. Sombreros morphed into Stetsons. The cowboy was born.
Many head of cattle had not been tended during the Civil War and proliferated, unbranded, in the brush country. In the 1850s, Tom Candy Ponting and Washington Malone had set up a chain of abattoirs in Chicago. Prices of cattle soared. Impoverished post-war Texans saw an opportunity.
But how to get the beasts to Chicago? After the Civil War, the nearest railhead was in Kansas.
Between 1866 and 1895, it is estimated that 10 million cattle were herded from Texas to Kansas for shipment to stockyards in Chicago and points east, an astonishing number when you think about it. Special routes were developed and followed, the earliest and Easternmost being the Shawnee or Sedalia Trail, then the Goodnight-Loving and the Chisholm Trails in the late 1860s, the Western trail (1874) and the Potter-Bacon Trail (1883).
In Western movies, this was often presented as a patriotic enterprise. The drovers were providing beef to feed a hungry nation. In one movie, Apache Ambush (1955) they even wheeled on Abraham Lincoln (James Griffith) to give his blessing to the idea; in fact I’m not sure Abe didn’t think of it first. He went straight from telling Bill Williams and his sidekick Ray Teal about it to Ford’s Theater. Bill and Ray took him up on it and drove the longhorns to Kansas, via Arizona for some odd reason, so they could fight off Apaches, though all this story seems unaccountably to have been omitted from many of the history books.
Early silent Westerns took this idea up, such as Paramount’s North of 36 (1924), in which the cattle drive was likened to other great nation-building enterprises such as the Oregon Trail wagon trains (The Covered Wagon, 1923) or the construction of a trans-continental railway (The Iron Horse, 1924) – and there were a few cattle in them too. In North of 36, Lois Wilson (also the star of The Covered Wagon) and her foreman Ernest Torrence (another Covered Wagon alumnus) drive their herd north, braving storms, a stampede, Indians and bad guys (Noah Beery, mainly) to get their cattle to market. These ingredients became staples of the cattle-drive Western. You couldn’t have one without a stampede, especially.
Once talkies came in, the cattle-herd was not forgotten. There was the odd trail-drive programmer, like Ken Maynard’s The Trail Drive and John Wayne’s King of the Pecos (our next review), both in 1936, but expense meant that studios, especially more modest ones, tended to ‘steer’ clear of the subject. Biggest and probably still best of the trail drive Westerns was Howard Hawks’s Red River, based on Borden Chase’s story The Chisholm Trail and released in 1948. In that, mighty cattle baron Tom Dunson (John Wayne) drives his herd up from Texas but as well as facing the usual hardships, as above, he also has to deal with a mutiny – it’s a sort of Western Mutiny on the Bounty. In The Encyclopedia of Westerns, Herb Fagen says, “Wayne’s Dunson emerges as the prototype of rancher-hero, a man as tough as he is stubborn, a western trailblazer consumed by blinding ambition and a near-impossible task.”
From a cattle point of view the picture was impressive. 9000 head were used for the shoot – though writer Chase grumbled that there were too many non-longhorns in with them – with 70 trained riders. The stampede was filmed by fifteen cameras in ten days and several wranglers were injured doing it. Russell Harlan’s black & white cinematography is magisterial. You can almost smell the beasts and taste the dust.
The film was remade as a TV movie in 1988 with James Arness as Dunson, but well, probably the less said the better. But after Hawks’s picture the theme was taken up time and again, all though the 1950s, 60s and 70s – though without a really big budget some of them looked a bit skimpy. The Longhorn, for example, in which Bill Elliott drives a herd of Herefords from Oregon back to his ranch in Wyoming (you might have thought it would have been simpler just to buy a Hereford bull for his longhorn cows) intercut much stock footage of cattle from other movies because the budget wouldn’t stretch to the picture’s own herd. MGM’s Vengeance Valley the same year, a bigger picture, was a proper round-up/cattle-drive film, and all through the 1950s others popped up. The theme was popular.
Joel McCrea rode the cattle trail quite a bit. He was young Dean Stockwell’s mentor in Cattle Drive (1951 again, a vintage year for cattle Westerns) and seven years later he had been promoted to tough trail boss in Cattle Empire (he drives his men as hard as the beasts). On that one, they even have Wishbone on the chuck-wagon, so that’s cattle-drive aristocracy – though in fact Rawhide wouldn’t start till the following year so I guess Paul Brinegar was just rehearsing. Cattle Empire (1958) was well done. The Lone Pine locations were nicely shot in Color Deluxe and it’s in CinemaScope (hard to get all those cattle in otherwise).
The earlier Cattle Drive is a children’s Western, really, or perhaps, rather, a boy’s one. The title says it all and it’s a straight tale of a cattle drive somewhere in the South-West but it’s the one about the spoilt brat (child actor Dean Stockwell, 16) who is taken in by a trail drive and grows up. It’s a sort of Cowboy for kids, or a Western Captains Courageous.
To jump ahead a bit, I suppose the key ‘children in a cattle drive’ picture was the John Wayne vehicle The Cowboys in 1972. Wayne, in his best performance between True Grit and The Shootist (it is said that he had to ask for the part, which was originally slated for George C Scott) plays Wil Andersen, a grizzled sixty-year-old cattleman with a beer gut and an unlikely toupee (he was actually 65) whose cowhands desert him to look for gold. He has to get his 12,000 head to the railroad through “400 miles of the meanest country of the West” and has no drovers to do it. Saloon-owner Slim Pickens, in a tragically short role, suggests that Andersen draft the male contingent of the schoolroom, and it’s the story of how these young boys try to prove their manliness to Andersen and grow up in the process.
Apart from the excellent location photography, by the great Robert Surtees, there is also a fine score composed and directed by John Williams, definitely one of the better Western soundtracks. Furthermore, there are authentic cattle and roping scenes, great costumes (and haircuts) and enjoyable general Western ambience. The picture really has a lot going for it.
But back in the 1950s, Anthony Mann’s The Far Country in ‘54 was a quite cattle-drivey Western in a way, in the sense that Jimmy Stewart drove cattle up north, but there were many oaters which contained a cattle drive but which weren’t really ‘cattle-drive Westerns’ – just as Red River might be called a wagon-train Western – if you only saw the first reel – but was actually a cattle-drive one. So I’m not dealing with The Far Country and its like, just concentrating on the ones with a cattle drive at the center of the plot. Or take Paramount’s rather plodding The Texans (1938), which in fact re-used a lot of footage from North of 36: that cattle drive got distracted by all sorts of shenanigans like the railroads and the KKK. I’m also kinda ruling out modern and non-American pictures, such as The Overlanders (1946), in which at the start of World War 2 in Australia the Japanese are getting close, people are evacuating and burning everything in a scorched earth policy but rather than kill all their cattle, a motley group decides to drive their cows overland to safety.
In Raoul Walsh’s The Tall Men (1955), a filming of the Clay Fisher novel, there are plenty of non-cattle-drive bits but I think it qualifies because ex-Rebs Clark Gable and Cameron Mitchell drive a herd from Texas to Montana, running into raiding Jayhawkers, angry Sioux, rough terrain, bad weather and Jane Russell. This is very far from my favorite Western, let it be said, though many people do like it. There were some quite impressive trail drive scenes, in CinemaScope, and Fox clearly threw budget at it.
In Warners’ Gordon Douglas-directed The Big Land in 1957, based on the Frank Gruber story Buffalo Grass, Alan Ladd (the picture was made by his Jaguar company) is Chad Morgan, an ex-CSA trail boss after the Civil War, driving up one of the first herds from Texas to the railhead in Missouri. We naturally get the inevitable line, “The East needs beef.” The Los Angeles Times said the film “is about as plodding as a western can get and still be called one.” Still, it was another cattle-drive Western so you can’t knock it too much.
And in 1958 we got a key example of the sub-genre, appropriately titled Cowboy, a Delmer Daves Western starring Glenn Ford and Jack Lemmon, based on Frank Harris’s My Reminiscences as a Cowboy. This anti-heroic, almost comic picture did away with much of the romance, as an early exchange between the lead characters makes immediately clear:
Frank Harris, hotel clerk (Lemmon): I’d like to live in the open. You know what I mean?
Tom Reese, hard-bitten trail boss (Ford): Oh, yeah, I know what you mean. You mean lying out there under the stars listening to the boys singing around the campfire. And your faithful old horse standing there grazing at the grass by your side. You do much riding?
Harris: Yes, sir!
Reese: Yeah, I thought so. Well, you’re an idiot! You’re a dreaming idiot, and that’s the worst kind. You know what the trail is really like? Dust storms all day, cloudbursts all night. A man has got to be a fool to want that kind of life.
After the obvious stuff about a tenderfoot in the West (sore backside and so forth) there is an interesting development of character as Lemmon in fact becomes Ford: at first cattleman Ford is too hard and lacks human feeling while Lemmon is compassionate. Gradually the positions change and Lemmon learns only too well. He becomes a heartless son of a bitch (excuse my French) and Ford is the one with the human decency. It’s an interesting film anyway.
Actually, although cowboy film is pretty well synonymous with Western and ‘cowboys’ are often thought to be romantic types, the word cowboy was rarely used for those who herded cattle. They preferred to be called drovers. In the nineteenth century the term cowboy had rather negative connotations, much as the phrase cowboy builder does today.
Anyway, the 1950s sure produced a lot of cattle drives.
In one of those moo-cow-movies, Cattle Queen of Montana (1954), an effort by producer Benedict Bogeaus and vet director Allan Dwan, Barbara Stanwyck and her husband drive a herd to Montana all the way from Texas (they were pioneers as they did this the year before The Tall Men did), but then there’s a cry of “Stampede!” (there always was) and she’s left with no husband, no cows and only sidekick Nat (Chubby Johnson). Then they have to combat Blackfoot Indians. It’s all go. The whole things was rather predictable and unremarkable, I fear, but it did at least introduce us to the notion of the cattle baroness, and such ladies began to figure prominently in our genre, notably portrayed by Barbara herself, who had already been the power behind cattleman Joel McCrea in The Great Man’s Lady in 1941, ruled over a huge spread in The Furies in 1950, fallen for cattle herder/rustler Fred MacMurray in The Moonlighter in 1953, and after Cattle Queen of Montana would marry cattle baron Edward G Robinson in The Violent Men in 1955, go on to boss people (and cows) about in Samuel Fuller’s trashy Forty Guns (1957) and eventually lord it (or lady it anyway) over The Big Valley on TV. Barbara sure did cattle baroness.
She wasn’t the only one though. Mercedes McCambridge in Johnny Guitar, Jeanne Crain in Man Without a Star, Veronica Lake in Ramrod, Peggie Castle in The Oklahoma Woman (yet to be reviewed), there were plenty.
Cattle barons, though, were rather different from trail bosses. They could overlap but you could also be a static cattle baron. If you were, you usually were over-mighty and ruthless. Perhaps years ago you had carved your empire out of the virgin land, battling Indians, and now you deeply resent sodbusters coming in and stringing wire on ‘your’ open range. Some of the interlopers even run sheep – ugh! We can all think of such men (and women, though usually men) in Westerns. Alexander Knox in Man in the Saddle, Anthony Quinn in Last Train from Gun Hill, John McIntire in Stranger on Horseback, James Gregory in Gun Glory, the Denbows in Untamed Frontier, the Devereaux in Broken Lance, Charles Bickford in The Big Country, and so it goes on. And of course Rufe Ryker in Shane. Rich and powerful, these guys seemed to think they owned the whole territory. Cattle barons were especially over-mighty and dictatorial in 1890s Wyoming stories, the Johnson County War and such. One thinks first maybe of Heaven’s Gate (1980), a film which we have reviewed but the article on that seems to have got lost so I’ll have to re-do it. Back in 1947, however, Wild Bill Elliott again (four years before The Longhorn) was this time a sympathetic cattle baron in Republic’s Wyoming.
But usually there were ruthless rancher types. Actually, real cattle barons like John Chisum didn’t appear that often in Westerns. Shanghai Pierce got a cameo in Gunfight at the OK Corral (played by Ted de Corsia) and Charlie Goodnight pops up a bit in Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove cycle, but generally cattle barons in Westerns were fictional, and villains.
In the 1960s the sub-genre did manage a few examples. In 1961, in the Robert Aldrich-directed The Last Sunset, Rock Hudson and Kirk Douglas, in an uneasy alliance, drive Joseph Cotten’s cattle from Mexico into Texas (with Dorothy Malone complicating things). This film, though, was more of a pot-boiler romance than a true cattle-drive Western. The cattle drive seems incidental, somehow.
In 1966 it got a bit more bovine when, in Edward Dmytryk’s Alvarez Kelly, during the Civil War, Mexican cattleman Kelly (William Holden) supplies the Union with beef until the hungry men of Confederate Colonel Tom Rossiter (Richard Widmark) force Kelly to change his customers.
In the 1970s, the same year as The Cowboys, in fact, 1972, there was another movie about youth growing to manhood on a cattle drive, though in a different vein, The Culpepper Cattle Company, set in 1866. Gary Grimes is a young idealist doomed to be disillusioned. Life on the trail is boring, dirty and uncomfortable and not in the least romantic, and the other drovers are pretty well swine. Though visually attractive, the picture seems to me slow and uneventful to the point of being turgid, and the characters are hardly developed at all, but still. Brian Garfield called it “A pastiche of predictable trail-drive set pieces and occasional raw jokes and shock-value brutality”, adding that “the film strives for documentary realism but achieves mainly ennui.” Never mind, it’s a cattle-drive Western.
As the Hollywood years passed, it got harder to make a proper cattle-drive Western. Of course that cattle drive on TV went on for years. Gil and Rowdy must have criss-crossed the whole Wild West several times. Rawhide aired from January 1959 through December 1965. The directors and DPs became masters of not actually showing any cows. There was a lot of off-set mooing to be heard but that was it.
Every conceivable adventure happened (the characters often went off into the nearest town) but showing a large herd was a no-no. Rowdy was a bit impetuous but Gil was one of those strong-but-fair types (producer and sometime director Charles Warren, who had helmed Cattle Empire, called on the diary written in 1866 by trail boss George C. Duffield, written during a cattle drive from San Antonio to Sedalia in 1866, to shape the character of Favor). It was supposed to be set in the 1860s, though you wouldn’t know it from the hats and guns. Anyway, I was a complete addict.
Other cattle ranch stories on TV also tended (for practical and budgetary reasons) to play down the actual herds of cattle bit. We know that those who owned and worked the huge ranches in such shows as Bonanza, The Virginian, The High Chaparral and so on were cattlemen. That’s how they became so rich and powerful. But an actual cow is rarely spotted.
By the time of Lonesome Dove, TV was paradoxically where you could get budget, and Call and Gus drove that herd (once they’d stolen it from Mexico) many miles northward. No that we saw that many cows, mind. In fact, Dove shared something with Red River in a way: they were quite epic as Westerns but the actual drive was really not the making of the principals. They were already ‘made’, and the drive was late in life, almost an epilogue. When Call gets to Montana and decides to take Gus’s body back to Texas, it almost negates the whole point of the drive.
By the time we get to the twenty-first century and Open Range (2003), Robert Duvall and Kevin Costner appear to be driving three cows and a chuck-wagon. The writers of Lonesome Dove were even asked to excise the cattle altogether from the story. As this was about Texas cowboys driving a herd to Montana, that would have been slightly difficult…
Another thing. Why is it that although sturdy homesteaders and decent farmers are the salt of the earth in Westerns, solidly good guys with their stout wives who often stand up to those durned cattle barons, they are still not suitable material for Western heroes? Because they aren’t, you know. Starrett may be admirable in Shane but he’s not the hero. Shane is the hero of Shane. And Shane doesn’t farm. He may help out briefly, with that stump, but not for him the daily grind of agricultural labor. Similarly, Josey Wales is first seen sweating at the plow, and that signals that he’s a good guy, but immediately those horrid Redlegs descend on his farm and commit unspeakable acts, he abandons all that tilling the soil business and becomes the Western hero, roamin’ around with shootin’ irons and such. So, no, farming is not for film stars.
Running cattle, though, that’s acceptable for a proper Westerner. That’s different. Maybe it’s because he can roam more with cattle. Reader Jean-Marie quotes the late Henry Kissinger, who may have had a smattering of knowledge of geopolitics, I guess, but he sure understood the Western (after all, he canceled a boring program of patriotic American songs for Leonid Breshnev’s visit to Camp David in 1973 in favor of a screening of True Grit). “Americans like the cowboy who leads the wagon train by riding ahead alone on his horse, the cowboy who rides all alone into the town, the village, with his horse and nothing else.” When you run cattle, especially when you drive them on the trail, you are ridin’ the range, a gun on your hip, not stuck on some farm. When you are riding herd, you are ready for Indians or rustlers or whatever else.
It may be, though, that the days of the cattle-drive Western are numbered, what with those budget constraints and all, not to mention the problem of sourcing enough longhorns. Oh well, we’ve had a nice lot.
Next time we’ll mooo-ve on to another subject.