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February 1, 2016 BOOKLIST
Find more Reading the Screen
Westerns may own only a tiny piece of today’s publishing landscape, but patron demand in libraries remains steady, both for reprints and for new books by authors who can write ’em just as good as the old hands. Leisure Books’ Classic Film Collection offers a fresh look at the books that inspired some of Hollywood’s most memorable westerns—and a chance to compare both versions. In some cases, the movies we remember were markedly different from their source material; in others, they are remarkably similar. These latest two releases illustrate both phenomena.
Blood on the Moon, Luke Short’s 1941 novel, is a tightly plotted story of loyalty and deception. Jim Garry gets a letter from a friend, Tate Riling, offering him job. When it turns out that the job involves an elaborate scheme to cheat a landowner out of his rightful property, Jim switches sides, taking up the cause of the landowner and orchestrating his own double cross of Riling.
The 1948 film version is often referred to as a noir western. It stars Robert Mitchum, who was building his career on noir crime films such as Out of the Past (1947). But it was director Robert Wise and his cinematographer, Nicholas Musuraca (who also shot Out of the Past), who gave the film its distinctive look. There is hardly a scene in the movie that isn’t bathed in shadow, hardly a close-up that doesn’t frame a character’s face in hard lines and pools of darkness. Wise and Musuraca approached this western story as though they were making a crime drama, which is what Short’s novel, stripped of its genre trappings, really is: a story of a con man beaten at his own game.
The movie follows the book very closely. Alterations are minor: the demotion of several supporting characters to more minor roles and a light reshuffling of some events, changing their chronological sequence to streamline the story. The dialogue is very close to the novel’s, and in many cases, it’s nearly verbatim. Mitchum is perfect as Garry, a good man put into an untenable position by the duplicity of Riling (splendidly played by Robert Preston). Although it’s widely considered a classic western film, Blood on the Moon isn’t easy to find. Perhaps the republication of the novel, which, inexplicably, has been out of print for far too long, will lead to a resurgence for this long-neglected movie.
In The Outlaw Josey Wales, based on Forrest Carter’s 1973 novel, screenwriters Philip Kaufman and Sonia Chernus made substantial alterations to the source material. The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) is a fine movie, but it veers sharply from the book. Kaufman was replaced as the film’s director by its star, Clint Eastwood, after production was underway.
The novel tells the story of a farmer who, after his wife and son are murdered by Union militia, joins up with a band of Confederate guerrillas. At the end of the Civil War, having refused to sign an amnesty, Josey turns outlaw. When a botched bank robbery leads to the wounding of a young boy, Josey, pursued by Union soldiers, takes the boy into the Indian Nations, where he can be treated. Heading for Mexico in the company of an old Cherokee called Lone Watie, Josey soon acquires a handful of ride-alongs, including a family of settlers, and he discovers that, without really meaning to, he’s found himself a new kind of life.
Eastwood plays Josey Wales the way he’s written in the book: quietly, as a man who has had the life beat out of him. The novel’s central question is also the movie’s: Can a man who has lost everything rebuild himself? But screenwriters Kaufman and Chernus made some curious alterations.
In the book, Wales’ pursuers are rarely seen; they’re a faceless presence lurking in the background, a reminder that Josey is running from more than his tragic past. In the movie, the pursuers are given faces. Two of them, at least: the Union captain, Terrill, and the bounty hunter, Fletcher. But you can’t add new characters to a story without giving them something to do, and several new scenes bulk up Carter’s lean, efficient story and pull the focus away from Josey Wales. (And about the carpetbagger character, who seems to have been added for comic relief, the less said the better.)
There is another fairly substantial alteration. In the book, Jamie, the boy, is wounded during a bank holdup. In the movie, he’s shot during a double cross: Union soldiers open fire on Confederate guerrillas who have agreed to sign the amnesty, and Josey rescues the boy. Perhaps Eastwood felt his audience wouldn’t sympathize with Wales if he were a bank robber; if so, he was wrong. In the movie’s opening moments, after Wales’ family is murdered, Eastwood cries—sobs, really—in close-up. This daring moment of vulnerability puts us firmly on Wales’ side.
The Outlaw Josey Wales is a solid movie, taken on its own terms: dramatic, beautiful to look at, with a strong and compelling central character. But it’s also a good example of the dangers of stepping too far away from the source material. Eastwood distracts us with unnecessary secondary characters and truncates Josey’s personal story by starting him closer to the finish line. In the book, Josey Wales becomes a hero; in the movie, he starts out as one.
David Pitt is a regular contributor to Booklist.
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