There can be few devotees of Johns Ford and Wayne who do not bless the name of Edward Buscombe, editor of The BFI Companion to the Western. Now he has produced a more compact volume, in which each of the 100 selected movies receives individual and judicious attention. To celebrate its publication, the NFT put on a season of classics, Tales from the Big Country. Buscombe introduced many of them, including Stagecoach, The Searchers, and Unforgiven. One he didn't introduce is Delmer Daves's 3.10 to Yuma. That honour went to Elmore Leonard, author of the short story upon which it is based. All of Leonard's Western stories have now been collected in a single volume for the first time. He took the opportunity to talk about those, too.
Why had he settled upon that genre? Because when he decided to be a writer - at the start of the 1950s - it seemed to be the most lucrative. But how to do it well? Not a native Westerner, Leonard's knowledge was derived from the cinema, and from the pioneers of hard-boiled prose. The best movies, and the best writing (he noted), belonged to a specific place and time, so he staked out a corner of south-west Arizona as his own. In the 1880s (his chosen time), it was populated by Mescalero Apaches, US Cavalry (including black Buffalo Soldiers), Mexicans, ranchers, rustlers, rapists, mail-order brides, outlaws and Wyatt Earp. So he had his cast of characters.
Details about guns, saddles, flora and fauna, topography and local history were culled from specialist books and journals and stored in ledgers. That done, he set to work. The first fruit was published in 1951. During the next decade, 27 further stories appeared between the lurid covers of pulp magazines.
How do they read now? In the earliest tales the book-learning shows, but gradually Leonard sheds his tenderfoot status. You begin to feel that he knows the land as well as the indigenous Apache, and the laconic scouts who must outwit them in order to survive. The transition is announced (quietly) in "Law of the Hunted Ones". A hostile featured therein goes by the curious name of Two Cents, which happened to be the amount that Leonard was paid per word.
At first it seems that this Two Cents - who knows every trick in the Apache war manual - is certain to kill rather than be killed, but in the end he is dispatched with surprising ease. This is because Two Cents is not only a Mescalero, but also a metaphor. What else is writing but the eternal struggle between feral words and the writer whose job it is to domesticate them?
Having conquered the written word, Leonard's next goal was to attract the attention of the movie-makers who had inspired him. That happened in 1953, when 3.10 to Yuma was optioned, though it was not actually filmed until 1957. The story is spare; a deputy brings a convicted stage-robber to Contention to await the eponymous train. They hole up in a hotel, while the baddie's gang reconvenes in the street. The train arrives on time, as does the showdown. To borrow Leonard's own adjective, the story is "relentless". It's law vs outlaw, duty vs charisma. No comic relief, and no stuff like kissing.
In the movie version - scripted by Halsted Welles - the deputy becomes a dirt-poor farmer, conscripted by need rather than duty, while the outlaw becomes more murderous and more attractive. And there is kissing. Leonard was still learning, and owes as much to Welles as to Dudley Nichols (who scripted Ford's Stagecoach).
Both 3.10 to Yuma and Stagecoach portray the West as a place where natural and civic justice were more or less in accord. This is also the basic assumption of all Leonard's Western stories (bar one). It is made explicit in "The Rustlers", a reworking of the notorious scene in Owen Wister's The Virginian, where the hero hangs his best friend for stealing horses (with the author's approval). Leonard does not approve of such extra-judicial sentencing, however, and intervenes at the last minute (via his first-person narrator) to stop Emmett Ryan from lynching his own brother.
The exception is "Only Good Ones", the last Western story Leonard wrote (save for two late whimsies). Its title is derived from General Phil Sheridan's infamous remark: "The only good Indians I ever saw were dead." And its contents sadly concede that cynicism - and racism - rather than idealism and justice was the West's true modus vivendi. With that story Leonard graduated, and was ready to enter the real world, where crime pays.
Clive Sinclair's 'Back in the Saddle Again' is due from Picador next yearReuse content