Sunday, November 16, 2014


THE HOMESMAN Press Conference

On Monday, November 10th, myself and at least a dozen other press types were ushered into the 8th floor ballroom of the Beverly Hilton to attend a press conference with HOMESMAN star Hilary Swank, and star and writer and producer and director Tommy Lee Jones.   Also on hand were several members of Swank’s family, including her proud father whom, Hilary told us, had neither read the book nor seen the movie yet.  We all agreed not to give anything crucial away.

Well, with that many reporters, you never get to ask all the questions you’d like, but most of the questions were interesting, and the answers were revealing – as you’ll see.  Although I didn’t get to talk to him about it, Tommy Lee Jones is a very accomplished director of Westerns, having helmed three – more than any other Harvard man.  In addition to THE HOMESMAN, he directed the modern-day THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA and the period THE GOOD OLD BOYS.  With GOOD OLD BOYS he co-wrote the teleplay with J.T. Allen, adapting the great Elmer Kelton’s celebrated novel.  It earned a Best Supporting Actress Emmy nomination for Tommy Lee’s COAL MINER’S DAUGHTER co-star Sissy Spacek.  Similarly, with THE HOMESMAN, Tommy Lee co-wrote the screenplay with Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley A. Oliver, adapting the classic novel by Glendon Swarthout.   

Q: The cinematography that you and (cinematographer) Rodrigo Prieto have created is a story unto itself.  What were your considerations in the visual design that you created?

TOMMY LEE: Well, it was a journey eastward, and the destination had to look a lot different than the origin.  And I got really tired of trying to figure out how we were going to make Galisteo, New Mexico look like bosky woods.  We thought of everything, and all manner of computer-generated imaging, and phony trees, and it didn’t work.  And we were very lucky to find Lumpkin, Georgia, where a man with a considerable amount of discretionary income tried to buy every 19th century home in Georgia and Alabama.   He made a little town.  It was perfectly suited to our purposes – we were very, very lucky to find that facility, because of the contrast between Nebraska and Iowa.  We wanted the end of the journey to have a very different look and feel from the beginning of the journey.  Pretty simple.

Q: How did you achieve the striking authenticity in the look of Nebraska in the 1800s?

TOMMY LEE:  The first thing I should do is mention an itinerant photographer who traveled around Nebraska in the mid 19th Century, making his living taking photographs of people and their houses.  He had a motif usually; he had a pretty wide lens, and he would feature 100% of the house, which is very useful to us in providing architectural details when we began to build these houses ourselves.  And the people lead very isolated lives; photography was not a part of their lives.  If they had a chance to have their picture taken, that was a big deal.  The whole family would get out in front of the house with their best clothes on.  And if they had a good crop of watermelons that year, they’d put a table, put watermelons on the table and cut one in half.  If they had a piano or a melodeon, they’d bring it out of the house and get that in the picture.  Granddad would be in the middle, and they’d all be there, posing with their guns – anything they were proud of.  Wonderful record of costumes, hair, make-up – very useful to us. 

HILARY:  I just want to add that my aunt, who is sitting right behind (the reporter), and my family over here, they’re from Iowa.  I was born in Nebraska; I come from a generation of farmers, too.  My dad gave me accounts of our history, where our family goes to the early 1700s in Iowa, and there is one account that is shockingly similar to the story (of THE HOMESMAN), but I only read it three days ago, that my jaw dropped.  And I just thought – wow!  (To Tommy Lee) I couldn’t wait to tell you that.  One of the things was, Indians shot one of my ancestors, John Swank, nineteen times, but he was against a rock, and he stayed upright, and they fled because they thought he was a spirit, because he didn’t fall over.

DUMB Q: But he was dead, right?

HILARY:  No, he was a spirit.  And he’s in this room right now. 

Q: Hilary, you’re playing a character with so many layers of emotion, and you’re both showcasing them and holding them back.  What toll does it take on you, physically and emotionally to play such a character?    

HILARY: The things that Mary Bee was working through are not dissimilar to what we all work through in our lives.  We all struggle to find how to be the best people we can be, and try to find love along the way.  And that’s why to me it’s not just a period piece; it really parallels everyday life for a lot of people.  And I relish the opportunity that I get to play these real slices of life, because even though it’s not based on a true story, in a lot of ways, as I was talking about in my account of my family’s history, it is real life stuff, and getting to do it alongside someone as esteemed as Tommy Lee, who has been doing it for so long, is such an honor as an artist.  To me, Mary Bee is a woman who has manners and morals and values, and she wants to do the right thing for the sake of doing the right thing.  And we, in my opinion, have really lost touch with that as a society today.  So there’s so many reasons why I love her, and so many reasons why I relate to her.  Because, I’m an independent woman myself, who people would probably call bossy.  I have a real clear idea of how I see the world, and how I want to live, and I want to see my dreams realized; I want to continue down my path.  And so finding a man to walk shoulder to shoulder with me can be challenging.  I think women today have that challenge.  There’s a lot of reasons why I love her, and love the vulnerability of her.

Q: Hilary, can you talk about working with Tommy Lee as an actor, and working with him as a director?

HILARY:  I’m not just saying it because he’s here, but he truly is extraordinary.  Tommy Lee, he comes alive in a different way when he’s in that element of doing what he loves.  With me it’s hard enough just figuring out my character, let alone wearing all the hats he wore as the co-writer and the director and the actor -- being at helm of all of those thing.  I have to tell you that I didn’t want this to be over.   I wanted it to continue going on.  TV’s not my medium, only because I like to play a character and let it go, and find the next character.   But if this could have gone into TV series I’d have been really happy.  Because I really enjoyed it in every level as an artist, and all the things I was able to sponge up from this veteran, being under his guidance.  Also when your director is also acting with you, there’s a shorthand; he knows how to say something in a few words, to get his point across.

Q: I am Japanese, and in Japan, everyone knows you as ‘Alien Jones’.  (Note: Tommy Lee Jones has for some years starred in a very popular series of commercials for a canned coffee drink called BOSS, from Suntory.  He plays an extraterrestrial studying Earth and humans, and is usually baffled or disappointed by everything he finds except for BOSS.  This link will take you to a ton of the ads on Youtube: )  You are really funny in that TV ad, but in movies, you are kind of grumpy-ish. Which is the real you?

TOMMY LEE: I’m not sure that I understand your question.  You’re asking about a dichotomy that I don’t see.  I really love doing those commercials in Japan.  I’m leaving in three weeks to make some new ones.  It’s the most successful campaign in the history of Japanese advertising. 

HILARY: (Clarifying the reporter’s question) Is it easier to be funny in those, or serious in your movies?

Q: (To Hilary) Thank you for translating.

TOMMY LEE:  I don’t know; comedy is deadly serious business.  It’s scary.  I love being an actor; I’m always happy to have a job. 

HILARY:  I think what’s great is that he can do both.  Because when people talk to me about Tommy Lee, they say, ‘He’s so serious and intense.’ Yet, maybe that’s what he wants to portray at that moment; you don’t have to show all the facets of yourself at one time.  And that’s the great thing about being an actor; you get to share all the different sides we have in us.  But I don’t think everyone can show all those sides, so it bespeaks of his talent that he can show all those sides and do it so well.   
TOMMY LEE: Hilary, I want you to go with me for the rest of this –

HILARY: (agreeing) Deal!

TOMMY LEE:  Deal.  Because only you can both ask and then answer the questions.  I’m sticking with you.

Q: Mr. Jones, how do you feel your experience as an actor prepared you to be a filmmaker, and how does it inform your work as a director and a writer.  And what did you learn from your last experience as a director that you were able to bring onto this film? 

TOMMY LEE: (to Hilary) What did he say? (after the laugh) My education as a filmmaker has been entirely practical.  I started working professionally in the film business in 1970.  And I’ve been at it steadily since; and I’ve paid a lot of attention.  I’ve worked with some very good directors, and some very bad ones, and I’ve learned a great deal from both.  From the bad, untalented people, you learn what not to do.  And when you work with highly talented people, you want to emulate them.  So as I said, my education has been practical, or on-the-job training.  And every day is a bigger, broader, brighter day than the day before.

Q:  And did you learn anything from the last film that you directed.

TOMMY LEE:  It gets easier to budget my time, hour by hour.  I suppose that’s a learning process.

HILARY:  You learned not to give me a horse between takes because –

TOMMY LEE: Because you’ll leave!

HILARY:  They started with a horse-wrangler, but he became a Hilary wrangler.       

TOMMY LEE:  I don’t want to talk about you as if you’re not here.  She didn’t know a lot about riding horses or driving a team of mules, or plowing with a double-shovel.  She worked at it until she could make a very convincing picture of all of those.  And between takes, or when we did a turn-around – shooting this way, and then it takes a little while to turn the camera and look the other way –

HILARY: --  I was like Yee-haw!

TOMMY LEE:  It got so I had to send a wrangler with a radio on his belt, to make sure she didn’t fall off in an arroyo somewhere, or have a wreck, or not know when to come back.

Q: So you learned to keep Hilary Swank on a short leash?

TOMMY LEE: No, I turned her completely loose, but I sent somebody with a radio.

Q: Hilary, your character has such a defining moment – I know your father hasn’t seen it yet, so no spoilers – but I wonder, when you read the script, did that change your opinion of her, and how you played her?

HILARY:  It made me realize just how truly human she was, and how vulnerable.  I say she goes where angels fear to tread.  And with all these valiant attributes to her, there’s still that underlying need for love, and she’s human.  And it made me realize I loved her all the more, not because of the choice she made, but because it’s relatable.

Q:  There were several scenes where Hilary sang.  Did you know that she sang, and was that a factor in her casting – (to Hilary) – because you sing so beautifully.

TOMMY LEE:  No.  The important thing is Mary Bee’s loneliness, and her hunger for some kind of culture.  There’s a very telling moment in the early part of the movie, when she’s playing this scenes so beautifully with John Lithgow.  She looks out the window through this beautiful light, and in this abstracted way says, “I don’t think I can live much longer without real music.”  And that becomes telling.  That’s more important -- we didn’t have any musical auditions.  The important thing was Hilary’s sensitivity to Mary Bee’s character.

Q: Hilary, you were singing live for all those shots.

HILARY:  Tommy Lee didn’t want to cut a lot.  He said ‘I’m not going to cut around this.  I’ll do two different set-ups of this, but I really want it all in one.’  I take great pride in the opportunities I get, and I didn’t want to let him down.  So I tried my hardest, but I didn’t know how I was going to sound like.

TOMMY LEE:  I think you sang that song six times, to get that scene.  The essential thing about that scene was a dolly track that moved 180 degrees from this profile, to head-on, to that profile.  We did that in two different sizes, medium and close, going in both directions.  What saved us from editing was thorough shooting.  Originally there were three verses to that song, but the movie doesn’t have time to stop and listen to all three of them.  So it was edited to one third of its length, one verse and part of a chorus.  It’s a beautiful scene.  But what makes it work is that 180 degree dolly track.  The camera’s always moving; there’s always something happening.  As the camera moves, the candle gets behind her head and backlights her hair beautifully.  You can’t take your eyes off of her in that scene.

Q: What were the elements of the story that motivated you to devote so much creativity and time to making this happen?  And how easy was it to zoom in on Hilary as the right actress to play this role?

TOMMY LEE: There’s two questions.  The answer to the first one is that the book offered us the chance to make a screenplay with some originality to it.  And of course, our lives as filmmakers are a never-ending search for originality, desperately crawling for originality.  Not always readily available.  We worried about Hilary for probably two or three seconds.  We met, and it was immediately obvious to me and to Michael Fitzgerald that Hilary was absolutely perfect.  Of course I had seen all of her films before meeting her.  But I knew immediately that if we could talk her into playing Mary Bee Cuddy, half of our job would be done.

HILARY: I actually read the script and emailed Tommy Lee, and he sat down with me.  So there was no talking me into it.

Q:  Is it a whole different challenge to you to direct the actors and actresses who do a whole lot of talking, and the three actresses who do practically no talking at all?

TOMMY LEE:  No sir.  Talking is just one of the things that actors do.  Movement is another one.  There are a lot of moving parts to the job of acting.  But really, directing someone who doesn’t talk as opposed to someone who does; not a lot of difference.  What you want is to get the feelings right.  Sometimes words help.  Sometimes they don’t.

HILARY: Most of the time you’re trying to figure out what’s happening between the lines, because that’s really the reality, other than what you’re saying.


This interview took place before an eager audience during this April’s Santa Clarita Cowboy Festival, at Melody Ranch, at the huge OutWest Buckaroo Bookstore (run by the same fine folks whose ad and link are found at the top of this page!).    

HENRY: It gives me great pleasure to introduce Miles Swarthout, a very talented author whose writing about 90% of you have appreciated, even though you haven’t read it.  Because he’s a screenwriter.  This is the man who wrote the screenplay for THE SHOOTIST, John Wayne’s final film, and one of his finest.  And in scripting THE SHOOTIST, he had the rare challenge not only of adapting a great novel, but a great novel that his own father, Glendon Swarthout, had written.  Glendon wrote sixteen novels, and several became movies, including 7TH CAVALRY, starring Randolph Scott; THEY CAME TO CORDURA, starring Gary Cooper; BLESS THE BEASTS AND CHILDREN, WHERE THE BOYS ARE, and premiering this May at the Cannes Film Festival, THE HOMESMAN, directed by and starring Tommy Lee Jones, and starring Hilary Swank and Meryl Streep.  Welcome, Miles.  Can you tell us a little about THE HOMESMAN?

MILES: THE HOMESMAN was a novel that my dad wrote, and came out in 1988.  That year it swept the Western genre  awards, winning The Wrangler Award, from the Western Heritage Association, affiliated with the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City, and the WWA Spur Award for the Best Western Novel of 1988.  Paul Newman was the original director who bought the film rights to THE HOMESMAN.  I worked on the original drafts, adaptations for Paul Newman.  But Paul jumped around studios; the Writer Guild Strike intervened in 1988 for about six months, and several other screenwriters later on got attached to the project doing different drafts.  Paul became too old to play the title role any more, as the rugged frontiersman, and had different stars attached to play the lead role.  It just didn’t happen.  He sold the rights back to SONY PICTURES/COLUMBIA, when he had Bruce Willis attached to play the homesman, but it fell into what’s called ‘development Hell.’  Nothing happened to it for a number of years – they couldn’t get it financed.  Paul Newman died of cancer a few years after that.  But Tommy Lee Jones was looking around to direct and star in another Western, and he had the same talent agency (as Paul Newman), Creative Artists, that remembered this book that Paul Newman had tried a number of times to get made with different stars.  Tommy got the financing from his buddy, the French director Luc Besson, who has his own films studio outside of Paris, and his own film distribution company.  Luc also financed Tommy Lee’s last western that he directed in 2005, THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA.  That was a contemporary western shot down in Texas.  That won a couple of awards at Cannes in 2005.  Creative Artists helped Tommy put together the cast for THE HOMESMAN.  It’s fantastic: Hilary Swank, the two-time Oscar winner is Tommy’s co-star.  Tommy Lee Jones is an Oscar winner for THE FUGITIVE with Harrison Ford, Best Supporting Actor.  And they’ve got Meryl Streep in the movie – she’s got a cameo role.  And Streep’s youngest daughter, her name is Grace Gummer; she has a bigger part in the film.  John Lithgow, two-time Oscar nominee is in it.  James Spader, who’s in the NBC hit THE BLACK LIST is in the film.  They’ve got an Oscar-nominated cinematographer, and a two-time Oscar-nominated composer, Marco Beltrami, has done the music.  

HENRY:  Speaking of the cast, I understand that Barry Corbin is in the film.  Hasn’t he worked with Tommy Lee Jones before?

MILES: He was in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, playing Tommy Lee’s father in that. 

HENRY:  The premise of THE HOMESMAN is a little outrageous.  Could you give us a summary of it?

MILES:  The Homesman is a claim jumper.  It’s set in the 1850s, the Great Plains state of Nebraska.  He’s a claim jumper, and some of the local residents take offense that he’s sitting on one of their buddy’s claims, while their buddy has gone back east to find a wife.  They blast him out of this sod home that he’s roosting in, and almost hang him, and a spinster woman, Hilary Swank, comes along.  She decides to let him go, because she’s just been chosen by a lottery system by the community, in this small frontier farming town on the Great Plains, to drive back east four women who have gone insane after this very hard winter.  They’ve gone crazy, and they can’t take care of them in this remote area, so someone has to drive them across the Missouri River, the Big Muddy, and back to civilization.

HENRY: Have you run into any complaints about sexism – why do the women go crazy, and not the men?

MILES: Historically some of the men went crazy, too.  They became raving alcoholics; they couldn’t keep them in the local jails.  If they were disruptive and making people angry or uncomfortable, somebody’d just shoot them, but they wouldn’t do that to a woman.  This is a very unusual story, a female-oriented Western, a mismatched couple running this wagon east with some women who have gone insane. 

HENRY: Let’s talk about THE SHOOTIST.  What was it like to adapt a novel to a screenplay with a man, not just the author, but your father, looking over your shoulder?

MILES: Well, that was my first screenplay adaptation, and you’re talking with the creative genius who made up the story in the first place, so he’s got a lot of good input.  My dad did not write screenplays.  He worked on the very first one for six months at Columbia Pictures, his best-selling novel, THEY CAME TO CORDURA.  He was out in Hollywood, and he got job offers after that, to work for Burt Lancaster’s company Hecht, Hill and Lancaster, but he turned them down.  He said no, I’m going back to Michigan State in East Lansing, to teach honors English.  And I’m going to write other books, and I don’t want people telling me how to make changes and how to write stuff.  So he gambled, and that turned out very well for him.  His second novel was WHERE THE BOYS ARE, 1960, and it was a big hit for MGM, with Connie Francis singing the theme.  But your question was about adapting THE SHOOTIST.  And of course I showed him drafts, and we discussed stuff.  I did get a screen credit on that.  They did make a lot of changes.  Don Siegel, the director, had another writer that he’d worked with before, a guy named Scott Hale, who was making changes on the set constantly, for Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne, and big stars with big egos who wanted things adjusted and changed.  So he wrote just enough of the rewritten script to get screen credit on the film.  But luckily, it turned out, even though it was a very difficult shoot, in Carson City, Nebraska, and on the backlot at Warner Brothers Studio in Burbank.  They had a lot of problems; Wayne came down with the flu and an ear infection.  And he was in the hospital for a couple of weeks.  They shut down filming, and he came back and got sick again, and they put him back in the hospital.  They didn’t know if he was going to live, and if they could even finish the movie.  So a lot of stuff had to be adjusted.  It was the last film he ever made.  His health deteriorated after that, and about two years later, John Wayne died.  But the movie, even though he was feuding all the time of the filming with this tough director, Don Siegel, turned out very well.  They had a great supporting cast.  John Wayne was playing a gunfighter who was dying of cancer in the film.  It was prostate cancer in the film.  But Wayne had lost one lung a couple of years ago to lung cancer, and he knew at the time of shooting THE SHOOTIST that his cancer had come out of remission, and he didn’t tell the doctors and he didn’t tell the filmmakers.  So he was obviously in some pain while making this movie.  He’s playing a gunfighter dying of cancer, and he’s got cancer at the same time: talk about a movie that was hand-tailored for a famous actor as his last film.  It just turned out very well.

HENRY:  It certainly did.  As you said, your father did not write for the screen, but by the time he wrote THE SHOOTIST, he was well aware that he had a real good chance of having his novels filmed.  He’d had several movies already done very successfully.  Do you think he had a movie in mind as he was writing the book?  Do you think he thought of John Wayne?

MILES:  No, he didn’t think of John Wayne.  The original guy that the two producers, Bill Self and Mike Frankovich wanted to play the Shootist, was George C. Scott.  And George C. Scott read the book and screenplay and said, “I’d love to do this.  Don’t change one word of the script.”  We thought that sounds great.  But the producers took it around to all the studios with George C. Scott attached as the shootist.  And all the studios went, ‘No, General Patton can’t be a cowboy.’  He’d already won his Oscar playing Patton, and they wouldn’t bankroll it.  But Wayne at the same time had heard about this story, and he started lobbying for the role, because he was the right age, and with Wayne attached as the shootist, they got half of the eight million dollar budget from Paramount Pictures, for the North American rights.  And they got the other half of the money from the famous Italian producer Dino de Laurentiis.  He made that big monkey movie with Jessica Lange – KING KONG, and a whole bunch of other movie.  Dino didn’t speak English very well, so he couldn’t read it; they had to tell him the story.  And he said, “John Wayne, cowboy?  Ya, he be good.”  The Duke was cast, and then a whole bunch of really good ‘name’ supporting actors – Jimmy Stewart, Lauren Bacall, Ron Howard, Hugh O’Brien, all worked at lower than their normal salaries to be in this, because word had gotten around that Wayne’s health was pretty shaky, and it might be his last picture.  Hollywood supports its own – particularly its legends like John Wayne.  So that’s how they got a great cast, and the rest is film history.   It’s now considered to be one of his five best Westerns.  It’s past the test of time.   

HENRY:  I was just reading where Harry Carey Jr. was saying that while John Wayne got his Oscar for TRUE GRIT, and deserved it, he deserved it even more for THE SHOOTIST. 


HENRY: The book is a very tight 158 pages, but still, no book reaches the screen without edits.  What sort of changes needed to be made, to make it into a movie? 

MILES:  You have to cut out some of the characters.  You have to trim it to get about a 120 page script – about a page a minutes.  The ending of the novel is different than the ending of the movie.  John Wayne dictated the ending of the movie, and there was a lot of controversy over this.  In the ending of the movie, John Wayne has this big shootout in this fancy saloon.  And he shoots Hugh O’Brien, and he shoots Richard Boone – who was a late addition.  That was a different character than the character in the book.  And John Wayne, after shooting these guys, and being wounded, and already knowing he’s dying of cancer – sort of committing suicide – the bartender comes out with a shotgun and shoots him – blows him in the back.  So he’s dying, when Ron Howard comes into the saloon, the bartender is reloading.  Ron takes Wayne’s Remington .44, and shoots the bartender, and kills the guy who shot John Wayne.  And then, as dictated by the Duke, Ron throws the gun away.  This is a kid, the Shootist is his hero, and he wants to be a gunfighter, too.  But now that he’s killed a man, he throws the gun away, renounces violence, and goes home with his mother, played by Lauren Bacall.  The problem with this ending is there’s no possible sequel.  Hollywood loves sequels.  In the book, John Wayne is dying.  The kid doesn’t shoot the bartender, but John Wayne asks Ron Howard to kill him, ‘Finish me off.’  And the Ron Howard character says ‘okay,’ and he shoots him – it’s a mercy killing, and Wayne asked for it.  And they had already made a deal in advance that Ron gets his two Remington .44 pistols.  He takes them, and walks outside of the saloon – it’s a great ending passage.  And people are asking if they can buy the guns, and what happened in there.  The Shootist has killed all the hard-cases in El Paso, and suddenly, the kid is the one who killed The Shootist.  And that’s the sequel –

HENRY: If I ever heard one!  Somebody should write it!

MILES:  (laugh) My new novel is called THE LAST SHOOTIST, and it’s coming out in October from Forge Books-MacMillan in New York City.  And it’s the next six months in this kid’s life.  The Shootist is dead, but this kid has got John Wayne’s matched pistols, and he’s got to flee 1901 El Paso, because the sheriff is after him.  The sheriff wants those guns because they’re very valuable.  The kid’s on the run, and he goes through various adventures in New Mexico with a wannabe novelist, and then on to Bisbee, Arizona, which was a copper-mining boom-town at that time.  The character of the Shootist, my dad loosely based on John Wesley Hardin, who killed 44 men, and was a real gun-spinner.  Hardin in real life had a special vest made up with leather pockets, so that he could cross-draw his guns.  They tried to do that for John Wayne in the movie, made a special vest for him, but Wayne was overweight and too big, and couldn’t get the guns out easily from under his overcoat, so they had to go back to the six-guns in holsters on his waist. But I’ve changed that in my sequel.  The kid is eighteen years old and has terrific hand-eye coordination, and he is the last Shootist.  If you like the original, hopefully you’ll like my sequel.         

HENRY: Speaking of your novels, I notice you have another, THE SERGEANT’S LADY. 

MILES:  That was my first novel.  That was based on an extension of one of my dad’s short stories for the old Saturday Evening Post, and that won a Spur back in 2004 as the Best First Western Novel of the Year, from the Western Writers of America.

THE LAST SHOOTIST is now available, and if you’d like a preview, go HERE, to Miles Swarthout’s site, where you can read the end of THE SHOOTIST and the start of THE LAST SHOOTIST.


Every third Wednesday of the month, Rob Word presents ‘A Word on Westerns’ at the cafĂ© at the Autry.  A delicious repast will be followed by a discussion of the most decorated American soldier of the Second World War, who went on to be a popular Western movie star.  I don’t know who the guests will be, but Rob always gets great speakers.  It’s a free event, but you buy your own lunch, and it always is packed, so if you want a seat inside, get there early!  Lunch is officially at 12:30.  Enjoy!


Happy 86th birthday to the great Clu Gulager, who most of us Rounders remember best as Sheriff Emmett Ryker on THE VIRGINIAN, but who also starred as Billy the Kid on THE TALL MAN, and in dozens of movies and TV episodes in all imaginable genres.  I particularly enjoy him in THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, and in THE KILLERS, where he matter-of-factly introduces himself and partner Lee Marvin to Angie Dickinson, while Lee Marvin is shoving her out of a window.  As a Cherokee, and as a working cowboy before he became an actor, he brings an authenticity to Western roles as few actors can.  He’s also one of the most interesting, entertaining and insightful people I’ve ever had the pleasure of talking to.   


Peter Duel and Ben Murphy

Writer, producer and composer Glen A. Larson is best remembered for series he created in the   1980s, including KNIGHT RIDER, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, and MAGNUM P.I., but in 1971 he created the Western adventure comedy ALIAS SMITH AND JONES.  Starring Peter Duel as Hannibal Heyes and Ben Murphy as Kid Curry, notorious train-robbers, they were offered pardons if they could keep their noses clean for a year, and they adopted Smith and Jones as cover names.  



Kasha Kropinski as Ruth

Hey, I didn’t mention that HELL ON WHEELS has been renewed for one last season, and will be jumping to fourteen episodes, one more than this year, and four more than all the others.  Last night’s show was excellent, but I’m a bit heart-broken at losing Ruth.  We all know she should have ended up with Cullen, but I guess we’re lucky she lasted this long.  I remember my sister and I as kids watching BONANZA or THE BIG VALLEY.  If any of the sons got serious with a woman, we’d place bets on whether she was a con-woman, or if she’d be dead by the end of the hour – it was always one or the other.  But losing Ruth and Elam in one season is pretty cruel.  Have a great week anyway!

Happy Trails,


All Original Contents Copyright November 2014 by Henry C. Parke – All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, November 11, 2014


THE HOMESMAN – a Film Review

Tommy Lee Jones’ film of Glendon Swarthout’s novel THE HOMESMAN is a revelation.  The novel itself is a remarkable and beautiful telling of a heroic and tragic tale, and one that had never been told before; in a Western, that’s remarkable in and of itself.  The trials, tragedies and disappointments of frontier life have driven some women mad.   A successful yet lonely spinster, Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank), a victim of her too-charitable view of human nature and her strong sense of honor, finds herself -- rather than any of the husbands -- responsible for transporting three madwomen across the endless Nebraska Territory to Iowa, where a generous minister and his wife (Meryl Streep) are waiting to get them help, whether it be to take them in, or reunite them with their families back east. 

Though competent as a man with gun or horse – perhaps too competent and bossy for a woman hoping to attract a man – Mary Cuddy quickly realizes she is not physically capable of single-handedly driving the wagon and caring for three volatile women, when providence provides her hope, in the form of low-life claim jumper George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones).  She saves him from a noose only after securing his promise to help her with a difficult undertaking: she wisely doesn’t tell him what it is ahead of time.  Having cheated death by inches, he is overwhelming grateful, but dubious about the journey, and resentful of her attitude towards him.  He agrees to go, but neither of them thinks he’ll follow through to the end.  As an inducement, she arranges a reward to be waiting for him, should they reach their Iowa destination. 

The two travel to the three homesteads, gathering their charges, and observing a bit of what made the women what they have become.  Mary and George’s adventures begin as they cross the seemingly infinite prairie, dueling over whose view of humanity should guide their journey.  They travel, surrounded by dangers, facing their own remarkable hardships, and under each other’s influence, they both grow and change as individuals.  Jones and Swank are by turns endearing, infuriating, and ultimately heartbreaking.  Playing people who always keep a tight rein on their emotions, their performances are wonderfully restrained, yet you always know what they are thinking and feeling.  George and Mary Bee are both strongly opinionated people.  Jones’ George knows in a practical sense what must be done to survive in this savage world, moral or not, and tries hard to hide any misgivings.  He is a man of surprising dignity and pride, and when insulted is a force of the devil.  Swank’s Mary Bee aches for a kinder world, like the one she was raised in.  She so longs for culture that when she sings, she plays her accompaniment on a keyboard of needle-point; she confides that she’ll soon die without real music.  Additional Oscars may be in both of their futures.

Author Glendon Swarthout holds a hallowed place among novelists, Western and otherwise, having had previous successes, both book and film adaptations, as diverse as WHERE THE BOYS ARE, THEY CAME TO CORDURA, BLESS THE BEASTS AND CHILDREN, and the unforgettable THE SHOOTIST, which was John Wayne’s last film, and one of his finest performances.  One senses that Tommy Lee Jones sees THE HOMESMAN as his SHOOTIST, certainly not as a final film, but as the crowning achievement of a career in Westerns that has included triumphs like LONESOME DOVE and THE MISSING.  HOMESMAN is his third western as a star-writer-director, his two previous being the exceptional THE GOOD OLD BOYS and THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA.

The script adaptation by Jones, Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley A. Oliver is an excellent paring down of a story that fortunately was just about the right size to begin with.  There must always be cuts – the novel has four madwomen rather than three – but all that is crucial is retained, as is much of the novel’s dialogue, and the visuals match the novel’s descriptions impeccably.  There is an effort to cut to the heart of scenes which, in the book, had extensive build-up.  There are effective additions as well.  An early scene with Mary Bee serving dinner clarifies elements of her personality.  The three women, played by Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, and Sonja Richter, are more fleshed out than in the book, and the structure of their flashbacks is more effective than in the book.  But ironically, the women’s specific issues are often not as clear on the screen as on the page.   Most remarkable is a story-turn in the novel which is as justified as it is unexpected and daring.  I was sure it would never reach the screen, and happily, I was absolutely wrong. 

Among the effective though brief supporting performances are Barry Corbin as an honorable townsman, John Lithgow as troubled minister, James Spader as a man who will regret his unaccommodating decisions, and in one of the several very effective action scenes, Tim Blake Nelson as a freighter who tries to spirit away one of the women. 

The cinematography and shot compositions by Rodrigo Prieto are unselfconsciously beautiful, too efficient to show beauty for its own sake, instead being breathtaking while in the service of the action.   Editor Roberto Silvi brings the skills for cutting to the chase that he demonstrated collaborating with Jones in THREE BURIALS, and in TOMBSTONE.  Also from THREE BURIALS, production designer Merideth Boswell and her crew have a wonderful eye for period detail.  Early on in their journey, the audience gasps as George, who has been complaining of being cold at night, steals a buffalo skin off a corpse on an Indian burial platform.  Just for a moment we glimpse that the blanket beneath the pelt bears the design of The Hudson Bay Company.  These filmmakers know their stuff.


Tonight my wife and my niece each reached into my up-turned Stetson and pulled out a slip of paper bearing the name of someone who had correctly matched Franco Nero’s co-stars to the correct movies.  The winners, Thomas Betts of Anaheim, California, and Shawn Gordon of Bonney Lake, Washington, will soon be the lucky recipients of beautiful Blue Underground Blu-Ray editions of COMPANEROS, starring Franco Nero and Tomas Milian, and directed by the legendary Sergio Corbucci. 

Here are the correct match-ups:
1. DJANGO STRIKES AGAIN b. Donald Pleasance
2. THE MERCENARY e. Jack Palance
3. KEOMA f. Woody Strode
4. CIPOLLA COLT c. Martin Balsam
5. DON’T TURN THE OTHER CHEEK a. Lynn Redgrave

Fellow Western writer C. Courtney Joyner and I had a great time doing the audio commentary on this stunning film, and I’m grateful to the good folks at Blue Underground for providing the Blu-Rays for this giveaway.  They have a wonderful catalog of Westerns, thrillers, Gialli, zombie films, Christopher Lee - Fu Manchu movies, documentaries and more.  Check out their website HERE.  


I must admit that I did not like this movie when I originally saw it – I found the humor too broad and too unfunny.  But over the last several years, so many Indian friends have told me it is their favorite, or one of their favorite films, that I’m looking forward to giving it another chance.  Directed in 1970 by Arthur Penn, LITTLE BIG MAN stars Dustin Hoffman as a 121-year-old man reliving his adventures during an interview with a journalist – adventures that include being the only survivor of The Little Big Horn!  His co-stars include Faye Dunaway, Richard Mulligan as a demented Gen. Custer, and Chief Dan George in the role for which he was Oscar-nominated.  Scripted by the great Calder Willingham, from a novel by Thomas Berger.  Dick Smith’s aging make-up on Hoffman is fabulous. 

LITTLE BIG MAN is presented at 1:30 pm, free with museum admission, as part of the continuing monthly ‘What Is A Western?’ film series, with an introduction by Jeffrey Richardson, Gamble Curator of Western History, Popular Culture, and Firearms.  Following the movie, you can visit the Journeys Gallery and see artifacts related to The Little Big Horn. 


In celebration of Native American Heritage Month, Raindance and Whirlwind Studios are presenting a concert at the Ernest Borgnine Theater in Long Beach, featuring two-time Grammy winner Rita Coolidge, Shelley Morningsong and Fabian Fontenelle, blues artist Tracy Lee Nelson – I loved his work at the Santa Clarita Cowboy Fest, World Champion hoop dancer Lowery Begay, and traditional Native American dancers from all over the country.  The program begins at 6pm, ends at 10pm, and will include a red carpet with famous Native American actors, including many from the cast of YELLOW ROCK, and Saginaw Grant from THE LONE RANGER.  Visit these sites for more information, and to buy tickets:


I’ve got the feeling Quentin Tarantino watches INSP.  In Mike Fleming’s story in DEADLINE: HOLLYWOOD, Tarantino spoke at the American Film Market about HATEFUL 8 at a panel, surrounded by producer Harvey Weinstein, flanked by cast members Walton Goggins, Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, and Jennifer Jason Leigh, and in addition to announcing new cast members Channing Tatum and Oscar-nominated Demian Birchir, revealed his inspiration for the Western’s plot.

“It’s less inspired by one Western movie than by BONANZA, THE VIRGINIAN, HIGH CHAPARRAL.  Twice per season, those shows would have an episode where a bunch of outlaws would take the lead characters hostage. They would come to the Ponderosa and hold everybody hostage, or go to Judge Garth’s place–Lee J. Cobb played him in THE VIRGINIAN, and take hostages. There would be a guest star like David Carradine, Darren McGavin, Claude Akins, Robert Culp, Charles Bronson or James Coburn. I don’t like that storyline in a modern context, but I love it in a Western where you would pass halfway through the show to find out if they were good or bad guys, and they all had a past that was revealed. I thought, what if I did a movie starring nothing but those characters? No heroes, no Michael Landons. Just a bunch of nefarious guys in a room, all telling back stories that may or may not be true. Trap those guys together in a room with a blizzard outside, give them guns, and see what happens.”  Sounds like Quentin’s been watching SADDLE-UP SATURDAY on INSP with the rest of us.  And how about Barbara Stanwyck on THE BIG VALLEY?  Didn’t Victoria Barclay get kidnapped every third episode, usually by L.Q. Jones?


I'm just back from THE HOMESMAN Press Conference, where Tommy Lee Jones and Hilary Swank had plenty to say about the making of this outstanding Western movie.  I’ll have details in next week's Round-up.  

Happy Trails,


All Original Contents Copyright November 2014 by Henry C. Parke -- All Rights Reserved

Sunday, November 2, 2014


Updated 11-6-2014 - see HELL ON WHEELS Returns! 


As regular Round-up readers know (they may not care, but they know), I’ve had the pleasure of doing commentary tracks, along with director, screenwriter and Western novelist C. Courtney Joyner (SHOTGUN is his latest), on a number of Western movies, the most recent being the beautiful Blue Underground Blu-Ray edition of COMPANEROS, starring the wonderful Franco Nero and Tomas Milian, and directed by the legendary Sergio Corbucci.  You can read more about it HERE.  

Those kind-hearted  Blue Underground folks have offered me two of the COMPANEROS Blu-Rays to share with Round-up readers who truly deserve them, and I figure the most deserving among you are the ones who know the most about Franco Nero and his Westerns.  So, here’s what you need to do to win:  match the Franco Nero co-stars to the correct movies.  I’m giving the movies numbers, and the actors letters, so put your answers in a “1a, 2b” type format, and send it to , and put COMPANEROS in the subject line.  And make sure to include your name, phone number, and snail-mail address. On Sunday, November 9th, I’ll randomly select two winners from among all correct entries. 


a. Lynn Redgrave
b. Donald Pleasance
c. Martin Balsam
d. Anthony Quinn
e. Jack Palance
f. Woody Strode

Granted, some of these movies are known under several different titles, but who told you life was fair?  Incidentally, Blue Underground offers several Franco Nero westerns, including DJANGO; TEXAS, ADIOS; KEOMA, and Franco Nero crime thrillers including HOW TO KILL A JUDGE, STREET LAW, THE FIFTH CORD, and HITCH-HIKE.  Check out their website HERE.  


On Thursday night, October 23rd, KAUBOJI, or COWBOYS, had its second United States screening at Santa Monica’s AERO THEATRE.  KAUBOJI is based on a popular comedy stage play written by Sasa Anocic, who stars in the film.  The direction, as well as script adaptation, is by Tomislav Mrsic.
Croatia’s official submission to The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the Best Foreign Language Oscar, KAUBOJI is a clever and touching comedy that might just reach that Oscar goal. 

Set in an ugly and unwelcoming industrial town, it’s the story of Sasa Anlokovic (Sasa Anocic), a frail and defeated-looking theatre director who returns to his hometown at the invitation of his old friend, the Mayor (Niksa Butijer), to produce a play, in hopes of brightening the existences of a people who haven’t seen a stage production of any kind in decades.  Sasa is dubious, but has no better offers and one senses that, like Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) of 42ND STREET, he needs a success, and badly.  He holds an open-call for actors, and in a delightful reversal of CHORUS LINE, where the auditioners reveal their entire lives, here, out of excessive caution, fear or stupidity, the director approaches emotional collapse trying to get them to reveal anything about themselves.  What quickly becomes clear is that there is not a soul in town who is an actor, and there are only a handful of people willing to learn.  Therefore, every auditioner, no matter how clueless, is awarded a role in the show – even the girl who no one can understand, and her brother who cannot or will not speak, and whose fascination with anything electrical is a source of constant danger. 

The dubious director

A first-time meeting with the assembled cast reveals that almost none have ever seen a play.  Director Sasa quizzes them on what TV shows they like – they only watch news!  He hits pay dirt when one mentions he likes Western movies.  It turns out they all do – from STAGECOACH to RIO BRAVO, from Spaghetti Westerns to Winnetou, it’s their only common ground, and the director quickly begins fashioning a Western story for them, using every stock character and plot clichĂ© known to the genre.

"You've got the part!"

Reminiscent in tone and humor and subject-matter to films like BILLY ELLIOT and THE FULL MONTY, where desperate people find hope in the theatre, KAUBOJI takes it one step farther, because the Western genre that unites all of these odd strangers is based on the struggles of right vs. wrong, good vs. evil, and the triumph of the individual.  These poor shlubs seem never to have had a triumph in their lives.  But all of them, from the pathetic Momma’s boy, to the hypochondriac, to the cowardly lackey of the mobster-deodorant king, grow themselves a pair, looking out for themselves and for each other.  Their bonding comes not over whiskey and poker and campfires, as in their play, but over bowling and weed – but it gets them there, and they manage to create something that gives them great pride, and makes them better people, better men -- and one better woman -- for the experience.   

The Mysterious Stranger

While some of the comedy is broad, and a little coarse, it is based in reality, and there is also a fair amount of wistfulness and sadness, and plenty of heart.  It ends leaving you as much touched as amused.  I strongly recommend it.

The saloon

KAUBOJI is part of the 14th year of the Kino Croatia: New Film series of the American Cinematheque, a program run by filmmaker Matko Malinger.  The movie was followed by a musical performance, on a saloon set, by Croatian and Czech singers and musicians who did a dynamite version of the Bon Jovi classic DEAD OR ALIVE, and a spirited pseudo-western song called WHISKEY, which I’m guessing was in Croatian or Russian. 

The funeral

This led to a reception in the lobby which featured a tasty selection Croatian pastry, Croatian beer, Croatian wine, and even Croatian bottled water for those with a long drive ahead of them.  I found myself chatting with the talented guitarist from the musical performance, Milan Skorjanec, who surprised me by telling me he’d only had a couple of days to learn the songs.  An immigrant from Croatia, he’s an electrical engineer by trade, but still a musician by compulsion, and he grew up with many of the same Westerns as we in the States did.  And as he reminded me, Croatia has its own history and heritage with the Western movie.  Fans of the Winnetou films of the 1960s, starring Pierre Brice as the Apache chief, Lex Barker as Old Shatterhand, and Stewart Granger as Old Surehand, know they were based on German author Karl May’s stories, and made by German companies.  They may assume that the films were shot in Germany, but they were in fact lensed in Yugoslavia, is what once was, and is once again, Croatia.  Milan tells me they’re now shooting much of GAME OF THRONES in the same locations. 

Guitarist Milan Skorjanec


The 24th Annual American Indian Marketplace will be held at the Autry next Saturday and Sunday, showcasing more than two hundred artists representing more than forty tribes.  I attend this event every year, and am always astounded by the range of art on display.  Whether your interests run to silver, beadwork, leather, painting, pottery, drums, jewelry – you’ll find it here, in a 25,000-square foot tent.  Best of all, you’ll find the artists, who are happy to talk about their work.  It’s free to members, $12 for non-members, and less for students and children.  There are a number of other events involved, beginning on Friday night.  For more information, go HERE.


From noon ‘til 4 you can time-travel to the days of the great Spanish ranchos as you stroll the grounds of Rancho Camulos, the very location that inspired Helen Hunt Jackson to write RAMONA, one of the most beloved romances in the history of California, and the subject of the annual Ramona Pageant (more about the pageant from an earlier Round-up HERE).

There will be costumed re-enactors, children’s activities, a book store, gift shop, food trucks, and best of all, a wonderful historical atmosphere in which to lose yourself!  I’ve attended this event several times and loved it.  HERE is a link to a write-up from one of my previous visits.    


Considered ‘lost’ for decades, the silent 1928 version of Helen Hunt Jackson’s RAMONA, starring the luminously beautiful Dolores del Rio, was recently discovered in the film archives of the Czech Republic!  I can imagine no more perfect place to see it – Helen Hunt Jackson’s brief visit to Rancho Camulos, in Piru, California, inspired the story, and provided its setting – and D. W. Griffith even shot the first film version at the Rancho, starring Mary Pickford.  Following tapas and wine, the film will screen in the Rancho’s 1930 schoolhouse, to a live musical accompaniment, and will be followed by a panel discussion of RAMONA experts, led by film historian Hugh Munro Neely.  The price is $50 per person, and you may learn more, and purchase tickets, by going HERE.


Following a maddening one-month hiatus, HELL ON WHEELS returns to AMC Saturday night, November 8th with BLEEDING KANSAS.  I just saw it last night, and it is very good – but in what is often a very tough show, it is the most sanguineous episode I can recall.  You’ll learn what happened after Church-lady Ruth fired on Sid.  You’ll find out why Thomas Durant is nicknamed ‘Doc’.  You’ll see what happens when Mickey McGinnes’ friends from the New York’s Dead Rabbits gang come to Cheyenne.   Like I said, it’s a tough one, so you might want to have a stiff drink first.  Or bite a bullet.  After this one, just two more episodes left for season four!

If you need to a catch up, HERE is a link that’ll show you several ways to do so. 


Tommy Lee Jones and Hillary Swank in THE HOMESMAN

Hope you had a great Halloween, and enjoy the week ahead.  I saw THE HOMESMAN this week and loved it, and I’ll be reviewing it next week!  THE HOMESMAN was first a wonderful novel by Glendon Swarthout, and I hope to have with my review, my interview with Glendon’s son, novelist Miles Swarthout, who adapted to the screen Glendon’s previous novel, THE SHOOTIST, and who has just published a SHOOTIST sequel novel, THE LAST SHOOTIST.

Happy Trails,


All Original Contents Copyright November 2014 by Henry C. Parke – All Rights Reserved