Readers of this web site know that I am a great fan of Westerns. Having seen and enjoyed the movie Monte Walsh many years ago, I was curious to read the Jack Schaefer novel on which it was based. Recently, I bought the handsome trade paperback, published in a Bison Books edition by the University of Nebraska Press.
First things first: Monte Walsh, written over a 10-year period, has been criticized as being more of a collection of short stories than a coherent novel. It’s true that Schaefer (the author of Shane) originally wrote and published many of these chapters as short stories, but, as he explains in this edition’s forward, it was always his intention to join them eventually in novel form. In any case, the argument is irrelevant, because the book works.
Framed by the first and last chapter (titled, respectively, “A Beginning” and “An Ending”), the novel introduces us to Monte Walsh at age sixteen (in 1872) and takes us through his life as a cowboy to the time of his death in 1913. Essentially, the book is about living one’s life by a certain code and the pleasure to be found in work. Most notably, it is a definitive novel of male friendship, particularly the friendship of Monte and Chet Rollins, and their relationship to the other men of the Slash Y. Be warned that not much “happens” in this novel in terms of the usual genre conventions, and some might find it slow. But the book is deliberately paced to reflect the rhythm of these men’s lives, and eventually the style invites you in. Beautifully written, carefully researched and described, this is a character study that resonates.
Apparently, I’m not alone in my admiration for this book. Monte Walsh is the kind of cult novel that is carried around in backpacks and passed on to heirs. Men have named their sons Monte and Chet after reading it. In some families, “Christmas Eve at the Slash Y,” a superb middle chapter of the book, is read aloud to children during the holidays. I think it’s an unheralded American classic.
Reading the novel drove me back to the film. I was both satisfied and disappointed. Monte Walsh, the movie (1970), was directed by the great cinematographer, William A. Fraker, and is a damn good picture if taken on its own merit. With Lee Marvin as Monte, Jack Palance as Chet, Jeanne Moreau as Martine, and an ace roster of supporting character actors (G.D. Spradlin, Jim Davis, Bo Hopkins, Mitch Ryan, Matt Clark, Billy Green Bush, Richard Farnsworth, Charles Tyner), the cast could hardly be improved upon. Marvin in particular gives one of his finest performances here. Typically, he is at his best in the sequences where there is no dialogue, giving credence to my theory that Marvin was our greatest silent-screen actor (check out his long scene with the dying child in The Big Red One) who happened to be working in the era of sound. The film itself is funny, profane, and never hits a false note, with a nice adaptation by David Zelag Goodman and Lukas Heller that manages to capture Schaefer’s vision on screen. When Monte is approached to work in a Wild West show, he agrees, but after a long look in the mirror, wearing a ridiculous fringed jacket, he declines. The pitchman asks him why he changed his mind. “I ain’t gonna spit on my whole life,” replies Monte. That, friends, is good writing.
So there is little to fault in this film. But its pleasures are inevitably diminished in light of the novel’s achievement, and there is one critical mistake. Without giving anything away, Chet Rollins’ fate in the film is much different than it is in the book. With this change, the story loses its weight, and becomes, in the last act, a simple tale of revenge. It might seem strange to complain that a Western has too much action, but, given the magnificent raw materials the filmmakers had to work with, the added chase and gunplay of the climax is both unnecessary and intrusive. Finally, a note about the music. In the era of the popular “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head,” sung by BJ Thomas in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the producers inserted an opening-credits song with vocals by Mama Cass Elliott, called “The Good Times Are Coming,” that is repeated during the film. From reading viewers comments on the net, I understand that the tune has its fans. But to me, it just blows. As for the John Barry score, it is both dynamic and stirring, but inappropriate for what is otherwise a quiet, poetic film. To put it another way, this is Monte Walsh’s movie, not James Bond’s.
Next year, TNT will air a new version of Monte Walsh, directed by Simon Wincer and starring Tom Selleck. The supporting cast looks intriguing, and Selleck makes a believable cowboy, so I’ll be there in front of my set. Until then, newcomers should watch the Lee Marvin movie first, then read the novel. Strange advice coming from me, but just this once, it makes sense.