Aug 20, 201310:54 AMThe Telegraph

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Appreciation: Elmore Leonard Earned His Spurs By Writing Westerns

Aug 20, 2013 - 10:54 AM
Appreciation: Elmore Leonard Earned His Spurs By Writing Westerns

Although he’s best known these days for his quirky crime fiction, author Elmore Leonard — who passed away Tuesday in Detroit at age 87 — began his writing career as a prolific author of western novels and short stories. “Most of my early stuff was for the pulps,” he told Cowboys & Indians in a 2007 interview. “All throughout the ‘50s, when they were hot. I wrote 3:10 to Yuma in 1953, when I was 27. I got $90 for it -– two cents a word for a 4,500-word story in Dime Western magazine.

“And let me tell you: In the ‘50s, that wasn’t too bad.”

Justified, the popular FX Network series based on stories and novels by Leonard, often has been referred to as a modern-day western. Executive producers Graham Yost and Michael Dinner — long-time admirers of Leonard’s work — take that description as both a welcome compliment and a fair appraisal. “If you consider that Elmore started out in westerns — and then, as he puts it, when his stories weren’t selling as much, he moved onto more straightforward crime fiction in the early ‘70s — it’s only natural that our show would have a western flavor,” Yost says. Adds Dinner: “In a way, you’ve got a weird melding of crime thriller and character piece with the feel of a western. It’s not just about the hat on [Raylan Givens, the US marshal played by Timothy Olyphant]. It’s about the rhythms of the piece, and the tone of the piece.”

Leonard’s novels and stories also have served as source material for several more traditional western features and TV movies. Back in 2007, however, he expressed profoundly mixed feelings about director James Mangold’s adaptation of 3:10 to Yuma — starring Russell Crowe and Christian Balewhich had previously been filmed in 1957. (“I sure wonder why Christian Bale gets kicked around so much,” he quipped after a preview screening. “I don’t know why he wanted to do the film.”) Earlier westerns based on his work include:

The Tall T (1957): In Budd Boetticher’s classic adaptation of a Leonard short story, ramrod-turned-rancher Pat Brennan (Randolph Scott) and copper mine heiress Doretta Mims (Maureen O'Sullivan) are held captive by a sly stagecoach bandit (Richard Boone) and his thick-witted cohorts. A nice touch: The bandit refrains from killing Brennan primarily because, after spending so much time with his oafish underlings, he's desperate for intelligent conversation. “The great thing about Richard Boone,” Leonard recalled, “is that he said his lines exactly the way I heard them in my head when I wrote the story. He did the same thing ten years later, when he appeared in the movie based on my book Hombre.”

3:10 to Yuma (1957): The first film based on Leonard’s 1953 story is a taut and intense drama starring a cast-against-type Glenn Ford as smooth-talking outlaw Ben Wade (the role claimed by Russell Crowe in the remake), and Van Heflin as the cash-strapped rancher who’s determined to place the varmint aboard a prison-bound train. Naturally, Wade’s gang of thieves and killers is a major impediment to the enterprise. Director Delmer Daves (whose other western credits include Cowboy, The Hanging Tree and Broken Arrow) generates maximum suspense by focusing on the edgy interplay between Heflin’s decent but skittish hero (played by Christian Bale in the new version) and Ford’s smugly self-confident rogue.

Hombre (1967): In one of the key roles that ignited his ‘60s superstardom, Paul Newman is an Apache-reared outcast who authoritatively takes charge when he and other stagecoach passengers are waylaid by bandits (led by a wolfish Richard Boone) seeking booty embezzled by a corrupt Indian Affairs agent (Fredric March). One of six films Newman made with director Martin Rittt -– they also teamed for The Outrage (a western based on Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon) and Hud –- Hombre got Leonard’s endorsement as a personal favorite among the movies adapted from his works.      

Valdez is Coming (1971): When Mexican-American lawman Bob Valdez (Burt Lancaster) seeks compensation from wealthy Anglo landowner Frank Tanner (Jon Cypher) for the widow of a murder suspect killed on Tanner’s behalf, the landowner orders his flunkies to brutally beat and humiliate the aging constable. This is a very big mistake. “I was surprised they were able to get away with the ending,” Leonard said of the violent Western based on his novel. “I mean, there’s no final gunfight [between Valdez and Tanner]. Even the studio couldn’t believe it. But they let [director Edwin Sherin] do it anyway.” 

Joe Kidd (1972): A hard-drinking but straight-shooting anti-hero (Clint Eastwood) has a change of heart after agreeing to help a railroad tycoon (Robert Duvall) ride roughshod over Mexican landowners. Leonard continued to re-write (and re-re-write) his original screenplay for this fair-to-middling western long after production began. “I took suggestions from [director John Sturges],” Leonard said, “but that didn’t help the film at all.” Still, he admired Duvall’s work as the villain of the piece: “I don’t think Duvall could ever give a bad performance. He always becomes the character -– and he makes it look so easy.”

Last Stand at Saber River (1997): Arguably the best of several made-for-cable westerns showcasing the charismatic Tom Selleck, this unabashedly old-fashioned and enjoyably exciting drama (based on a novel by Leonard) focuses on an ex-Confederate cavalryman who seeks a new life with his strong-willed wife (Suzy Amis) and their two children (Haley Joel Osment, Rachel Duncan) on an Arizona homestead. Unfortunately, two Union-sympathizing brothers (played by siblings Keith and David Carradine) have their own designs on the land.

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