Book vs. Film: Red River

When someone turns a mediocre book into a great film, people forget that it ever was a book. Such is the case with Borden Chase’s decent but unexceptional novel, Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail, and the cinematic masterpiece that Howard Hawks made out of it, Red River.

imageAs I mentioned in my Red River Blu-ray review, Criterion includes a paperback copy of Chase’s novel in the package. At the time I wrote that review, I had not yet read the book. I have now.

But be warned: This article contains spoilers. You should see the film before you read any further. And if you’re really a fanatic about spoilers
–even spoilers for long-forgotten books that aren’t that good to begin with–maybe you should read the novel first, too.

No one ever agreed on what to call this novel. When it first appeared serially in the Saturday Evening Post, it was simply The Chisholm Trail. By the time it came out in hardcover, the title had grown to Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail. The film’s opening credits refer to it cryptically as "the Saturday Evening Post story." The movie’s commercial success gave the paperback edition the  title Red River. Criterion, in republishing the book as a DVD/Blu-ray extra, returned to Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail, probably because it sounds so appropriately cheesy.

Now that I’ve read it, I’m not surprised that Howard Hawks was attracted to this story. It’s about men who work a dangerous job for a living, have the professional skills needed for that job, and define their masculinity by their profession. It has one important female character, who is smart and strong and knows how to take care of herself in a man’s world. That pretty much describes half of Hawk’s work.

Hawks’ film closely follows Chase’s story, but not too closely (Chase wrote the first draft of the screenplay). Many of the characters changed from page to screen. Both Cherry Valance and Tess Millay are far less likeable and sympathetic in the book. The book’s Cherry–self-centered and cold-blooded–is probably a more realistic view of a hired gun than the one John Ireland played. But I missed the evolving, arguably homo-erotic friendship between Cherry and Matt that helps make the film so interesting.

The book’s Tess is quite willing (and skilled) at getting one man to kill another for her benefit. Cherry kills a man for her. Then, when Dunston and Cherry make their deadly confrontation, she takes steps to make sure that Dunston is the survivor.

In the novel, Groot is merely the cook; we only meet him on the cattle drive. We never get to know him. In the film, he’s Dunson’s sidekick from the start and becomes a major character. That makes his decision to join the mutineers all the more dramatic and meaningful.

Also in the book, Dunson–that paragon of western strength and reckless violence who could only have been played by John Wayne–is English. That’s right; he comes from the land of teatime and the stiff upper lip, although he never behaves like such a person. When I read his dialog on the page, I didn’t hear a British accent in my head; I heard John Wayne.

image

Both the book and the film try for an epic feel, but only the film succeeds. Chase attempts a mythic style through purple prose ("A score of years–mad, cruel, bitter years of conflict in which a nation trembled on the rim of ruin") and by inflating the story’s stakes. Matt, and Chase, keep reminding us that this cattle drive isn’t about saving Dunson’s ranch; it’s about saving Texas.

Hawks, on the other hand, created a true epic feel through Russell Harlan’s Fordian black-and-white photography, and Dimitri Tiomkin’s magnificent score. Only Tiomkin could make "Git Along, Little Doggies" sound important and dramatic.

Borden Chase hated Hawks’ happy ending, which undercuts the epic feel of the story. We’ve been set up for a fight to the death between Dunson and Matt–the surrogate father and son heroes who must inevitably become enemies. But their fight turns into reconciliation, and everyone smiles at the end.

The book sort of ends as epic tragedy. Dunson–fatally wounded from his confrontation with Cherry–is too weak to fight. Matt and Tess take him south, so that he can die in his beloved Texas.

But for real epic tragedy, Matt would have had to kill Dunson. After all, the story is really Mutiny on the Bounty seen through the lens of Oedipus Rex.

There’s something else about Hawk’s ending that’s always bothered me: Cherry’s fate. His brief confrontation with Dunson leaves the older man with a flesh wound, but Cherry falls to the ground. Men come running to help him. All this happens in the background, far from the camera. A major character, one whom we’ve grown to like, who fell trying to save the film’s most likeable hero, ends up either seriously wounded or dead. We don’t know which. The film doesn’t seem to care about him any more.

And everyone smiles at the end.

Despite these flaws, Red River is still a great movie–one of the best westerns ever made, and a study in ways to be a man. And it’s based on an entertaining but unexceptional novel.

Leonard Maltin’s 2013 Movie Guide

Is this book even necessary? That’s the question I wanted to answer when I agreed to accept a review copy of Leonard Maltin’s 2013 Movie Guide: The Modern Era. Once an indispensible reference for every cinephile, Maltin’s annual reference seems quant today. After all, if there’s anything that the Internet can do better than paper, it’s reference.

Maltin himself suggests so in his introduction. "I suppose it seems strange…that anyone would be publishing such a book in the Internet age, but my colleagues and I still think what we do is relevant…"

I’m not so sure. For $15 on Amazon ($10 for the ebook), you get a 1,640-page leonard_maltinpaperback (how long before that falls apart) containing a fraction of what you’d find on the Internet Movie Database. You’ll get the director, stars, and running time, but not the screenwriter, complete cast, or who wrote the music.

On the other hand, in place of the multiple and often badly-written descriptions on IMDB, the Guide offers pithy and intelligent micro-reviews by Maltin and his staff. For instance, the book describes Fred Willard’s character in A Mighty Wind as "a showbiz promoter and ‘idea man’ whose ideas could sink a continent." If there are spoilers here, I haven’t found them. These descriptions are the best (and pretty much the only) reason to buy this book. It’s fun to browse through, just to find comments written and edited by professionals.

Physical books, even those running more than 1,600 pages, have limited capacity. That’s why Maltin’s reference is now split into two volumes; the other one being the Classic Movie Guide. Most of the films made prior to 1966 land there, yet this Modern Era edition is hardly classic-free. Most of the old movies I thought of can be found in these pages, including several that I would just as happily forget (Caligula, anyone?).

In some ways, the book seems almost intentionally out-of-date. For instance, it uses three simple icons to tell you if a title was released on video cassette, Laserdisc, and DVD. But there’s no indication of its availability on Blu-ray. I imagine that that would interest far more people today than Laserdisc.

I hate to say it, but Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide is a bit like a Laserdisc. It was great in its time, but that time has gone.

The book becomes available next week.

Pandora’s Digital Box: David Bordwell’s Book on Films, Files, and the Future of Movies

Even cinephiles who embrace the look of digital projection (and I count myself among them) have plenty to worry about. The current digital transition threatens independent theaters, independent distributors, the accessibility of older movies (especially those outside the canon), and the long-term survival of yesterday’s, today’s, and tomorrow’s motion pictures.

No one has contributed to the discussion of this transition as well, or as thoroughly, pandoras_digital_box_coveras university professor/film blogger David Bordwell. In the last few months, Bordwell has written several long, extensive blog posts about every facet of the digital transition. Now he’s gathered up these posts, reorganized them, added new material, and released them as a self-published e-book called Pandora’s Digital Box: Films, Files, and the Future of Movies. The book costs only $4 and comes as an unprotected, read-anywhere .pdf. It’s only 238 pages, and worth every penny.

Bordwell touches lightly on esthetic issues, giving arguments for both sides and noting correctly that unlike sound and widescreen, digital barely alters the movie-going experience–at least not directly. But he shows the grievous effects the transition has on the industry.

Six major production/distribution companies dominate today’s movie industry: Disney, Twentieth Century-Fox, Paramount Pictures, Warner Brothers, Columbia, and Universal. These companies will significantly benefit from the transition. Major theater chains like AMC will probably come out about even. Everyone else will lose.

Just one example of the problems: Small theater chains and independent theaters can’t afford the expensive digital projectors and the servers needed to control them. Many will go under because of this. Others will upgrade via a financing schemed called Virtual Price Fee (VPF). Here, a third party finances most of a theater’s conversion cost. Every time a film is booked into that theater, the distributor pays a fee–usually about $800–which is a little more than half of what the distributor saves by not making a 35mm print.

This works for the big studios, because their pre-digital business model comes pretty close to one print, one booking. Instead of spending about $1,500 to make a print that will only screen in that theater, they send a hard drive and pay a $800 VPF. But small, independent distributors make a handful of prints that move from one theater to another. They’ll have to pay multiple VPFs for every print they don’t make.

What’s more, the financier may prefer to deal only with companies with whom they already have a relationship.

Bordwell also discusses the stifling copy protection rules built into the Digital Cinema Package (DCP) standard used for theatrical projection. A theater needs permission to move a picture from one auditorium to another in the same multiplex, and the distributor can control how often a film is screened and at what times.

I wish Bordwell had covered a few topics that he doesn’t touch on. I would have liked his opinion on to what degree 4K improves on 2K; I’ve heard conflicting reports, and my only true 4K experience was inconclusive. Nor did he cover the environmental issues–one area where I assume that digital has the advantage.

Nor did I agree with Bordwell on everything. As someone who follows digital technology for a living, I doubt that obsolescence will be as much of a problem as Bordwell and others predict. Yes, Moore’s Law marches on, seemingly unstoppable, but market forces rule its effect on the real world.

True, filmmakers like James Cameron are already pushing for projector upgrades, but they don’t have the final word. The big six do. Right now, the major studios have a strong incentive to force theaters to go digital–it saves them money. They won’t have a similar incentive to push them to 4K or 8K, and they don’t want to have to pay VPFs forever. Consider, nearly 20 years after the introduction of digital sound, today’s 35mm prints still come with backward-compatible analog soundtracks. The studios will have no trouble sending out 2K DCPs for a very long time to come.

I suspect that the newer, fancier digital projectors will serve the function of full orchestras in the 1920s and 70mm in more recent decades. They will give the larger, better financed theaters a competitive edge without knocking out the smaller ones..

Despite my disagreements with some of Bordwell’s conclusions, I came away from Pandora’s Digital Box with far more knowledge and appreciation of digital projection’s strengths and problems than I had before–and I had already read his blog posts and have written on the topic myself. If you’re interested in the business or technology of motion pictures, this is $4 well spent.

Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood

By early 1968, Hollywood was finally beginning to realize that nothing would ever be the same again. “Warren Beatty, who looked like a movie star, had become a producer. Dustin Hoffman, who looked like a producer, had become a movie star. And Sidney Poitier, who looked like no other movie star had ever looked, had become the biggest box office attraction in an industry that still had no idea what to do with, or about, his popularity.”

You can think of Mark Harris’ fascinating book, Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies thegraduateand the Birth of the New Hollywood, as a prequel to Peter Biskind’s far-better known Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood. But Harris has a tighter focus. He reveals Hollywood in the mid-1960s by concentrating on the five movies nominated for Best Picture of 1967.

And what a five they were. Two of them, The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde, were revolutionary in their technique, in their use of censorable material, and in the youth audience that made them surprise hits (The Graduate, which was turned down by every major studio before it found bonnieclydeindependent financing, was for a time the third highest-grossing film in history). Another two, In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, were more conventionally made, but dealt with race issues generally avoided in commercial genre pictures. Then there was Dr. Dolittle, a big, expensive, old-fashioned musical that cost more than twice the other four films combined, yet bombed with both critics and audiences.

I never heard of this book, published in 2008, until I stumbled upon it at the overstock table in Pegasus Books. I’m so glad I did.

Harris tells the five stories chronologically, cutting back and forth between them (funny how I casually used a film term, cutting, to describe a literary technique). He starts in inheatofnight1963 (most of these films took a long time to gestate) with two Esquire employees, David Newman and Robert Benton, starting to work on a screenplay about a couple of bank robbers from the 1930s. Then he starts following the career choices of a new pretty-boy movie star, Warren Beatty, and how he considered taking on the starring role in The Graduate. Then on to executives at 20th Century Fox, considering a big musical based on the Dr. Dolittle books.

Harris paints a picture of a Hollywood torn between two conflicting generations, but guesswhoscomingnevertheless surprisingly insular and interconnected. Not only was Beatty, the star and producer of Bonnie and Clyde, considered for the The Graduate, but Poitier, the star of two of the films, almost had a supporting role in Dolittle. Years before he directed The Graduate, Mike Nichols enjoyed his first success as a performer in a stage show directed by future Bonnie and Clyde director Arthur Penn. And so on, and so forth.

All of these pictures’ backstage stories make good reading, but the Dr. Dolittle sections have the fascination of a slow-motion train wreck. Movies thatdrdolittle depend on animals almost always go over budget. This one had hundreds of animals, a temperamental star (Rex Harrison—the closest thing to in a villain in the book), and producers who neglected to consult a meteorologist before picking a date to shoot location work in England. What’s more, like a lot of other big-budget musicals made in the wake of The Sound of Music, it mistook production value for quality, and came out just as audiences were tiring of big movies.

On one level, the 1967 Best Picture nominees were not that different from what get nominated today. You had two independently-minded films that really pushed the envelope, two low-budget, conventional films with their heart in the right place (including the winner, In the Heat of the Night), and a big production intended to be a blockbuster. The difference is that the big “blockbuster” flopped, while the four inexpensive and daring (or sort of daring; Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was really very timid) pictures were all huge box office successes.

We need another 1967.

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