Monday, January 10, 2011
Trooper Hook - 1957
The two movies show a world that is certainly rugged, but is supremely romantic in a way we don’t usually see the Old West. These two movies feature relationships between men and women that are introspective beyond stereotype, and brave in attempting understanding beyond the usual bravery needed to face the bad guy.
Today’s film, “Trooper Hook” (1957) was based on a short story, and Thursday’s film, “Shane” (1953) was based on a novella. Both were written by the same man, Jack Schaefer, who was among the first writers to create Western literature above the usual pulp novel standards. He claimed at the time of his enormous success with “Shane” to never have read those pulp Westerns, and approached his story like a literary novel, feeling that the American West was a topic worthy of great themes and not such shoot-em-up action stories.
At the time he wrote “Shane” he had never even visited the West. It was a world both of his research and his imagination. By the time his story “Sergeant Houck” had been made into the film “Trooper Hook”, he had moved to Arizona, settling in the great West he admired. His books, though touching on the familiar themes of cattlemen versus homesteader, the gunfighter, the vanishing American Indian culture, he did not eulogize the West, nor did he intend to mythologize it. It was simply his canvas to write about men and women.
In the case of both of these two movies, “Trooper Hook” and “Shane”, it is the story of one woman and two men in a painful, and poetic, romantic triangle.
Interestingly, and perhaps the most glaring departure from lusty romance and bold adventure in a savage land, these romances are depicted without the usual trusty script convention (and real life reaction) of healthy lust or demonstrative desire. The Production Code may have required discretion back in the day, but there was still plenty of room for suggesting lust. The romance here, however, is envisioned more through tenderness and respect, as a union of soulmates.
“Trooper Hook” takes place in the Southwest, where Apache warriors, under their chief, Nanches, execute a group of cavalry soldiers on a cliff. They are subdued by another troop of soldiers, lead by Joel McCrea. The soldiers burn the Apaches’ village in revenge, and send them to a reservation. We see the cruelty of both adversaries.
We start off with what will be a litany of bigotry, racial and sexist, against Barbara Stanwyck for having borne a child by the Apache chief. Though we understand from the beginning that she was taken against her will and she had no romantic feelings for Nanches; we are made to understand she was raped; nevertheless she is treated by the white community as one who should have committed suicide before she allowed herself to submit to an Apache, or at least had the decency to kill herself after she discovered she was pregnant.
“You mean you let yourself whelp that buck’s kid? You ain’t no white woman, no more you ain’t,” one of McCrea’s soldiers says to her. With terms like “whelp”, “mongrel” and “Indian leavings” to refer to the child, we see that Stanwyck’s humiliation as a captive is going to only continue even though she is now free.
It’s a powerful way to examine a slice of America’s history of prejudice. Had there been a romance between Stanwyck and the Apache chief, the writers might be inclined to show him as noble and heroic, and make him, rather than her, the greater victim of prejudice in a star-crossed romantic tale of intolerance between races.
A few will show her kindness. The first and foremost of these is Joel McCrea, as the stoic career soldier who is assigned to escort and her child back to her husband. Quito, her poker-faced little boy, is played by Terry Lawrence. Rodolfo Acosta, who moved from Mexican cinema to American movie and TV westerns, is Nanches. He breaks free from his shackles, and wants his son back.
We get hints of his own past, and we are led to believe that he has a family somewhere, but we see another kind of family coming together in the long, arduous stagecoach ride across the open desert. Time and space is telescoped in the narrow, jostling confines of the stagecoach. Another passenger joins them, a nosy salesman who, among other things, notes that Stanwyck’s hair is “cut a might short to me.”
Later on McCrea will comfort her that it will grow out as she self-consciously brushes her hand through her fetching bob (which looks like she had a perm somewhere along the trail), and perhaps we are meant to infer that her hair was shorn to subjugate and humiliate her in the custom of degrading female prisoners and social outcasts for centuries. She spits the venomous explanation, “Lice!” at the rude man.
She also gives him a look that seems to say, “Yeah, and my hair’s gray, too. You want to make something of it?”
The hairdo was more likely an affectation of 1950s feminine coiffure, and we could also comment on Jean Arthur’s similar short hairstyle in “Shane”. In her case, her hair might have still been growing out from her successful Broadway gig as “Peter Pan” months before “Shane” began shooting (see our reference on that here in our discussion of her co-star, Boris Karloff, also here); her character in the novel is described as having her hair piled on her head.
McCrea soon banishes the talkative salesman to the driver’s box, because really, can you imagine traveling through the hot desert in a bone-shaking conveyance with a guy who just won’t shut up?
He understands. In a scene moving for its frank honesty as well as its simplicity, McCrea recalls his experience as a young soldier during the Civil War, when he was imprisoned at Andersonville. For those unfamiliar, this Confederate prison had the infamous reputation of being one of the worse hell-holes imaginable, where overcrowding led to men lying on the ground out in the open in the mud and their own filth, being barely kept alive on small rations of putrid food.
He got down on his hands and knees, pretending to be this feverish man’s submissive, loyal pet, letting the man feed him. “For a whole month I was a dog.”
Then his master died of the fever.
McCrea goes beyond sympathizing with her humiliation by sharing his own, and the practical lengths he had gone to survive.
The stagecoach trip resumes and the new passenger is a young Earl Holliman, a hung over but still pretty happy-go-lucky cowboy with nothing but his saddle to his name. They ride through the night, and we are given a sublime picture that seems to sum up the movie in a cozy image. Holliman hunkers on his bench in the stagecoach, with McCrea’s outstretched leg extending across and bolstering up the sleeping Holliman with his boot to keep him falling.
Nanches is free and stalks the stagecoach.
Tex Ritter sings another verse.
It buys them time, and they arrive in the settlement where Miss Stanwyck’s husband awaits. He has been notified of her arrival, but not told about the boy. He is horrified.
“What about other people? What do I tell them? How do I even face them?” He tells Stanwyck she should have left Quito with “his own kind”.
Sergeant McCrea stays for supper. One could make a comparison with the scene in “Shane” where Shane is the stranger for supper at the homesteader’s cabin of Van Heflin and Jean Arthur, with their boy. But McCrea and Alan Ladd as guests with a lonely and troubled past is the only similarity. Heflin’s and Arthur’s relationship is close, and their boy is openhearted and happy.
Actually, there is another similarity and that is the niggling romantic triangle that grows so quietly that we may not notice it among greater passions until there is nothing left to do but have a showdown.
McCrea, now that his duty is done, tries to be on his way, but first has a man-to-man talk with the angry husband. “The boy gave her a reason to live, and she’s lived through an awful lot.”
“I was ready to forgive you about the Indian,” he says.
“Forgive me?!” Stanwyck finally opens her eyes, and gives free rein to her anger.
“What kind of man do you think I am?” he fires back.
Yes, we were wondering that ourselves, for in both these films we cover this week there is a subtitle, something along the lines of “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.”
McCrea, no marriage counselor, decides mother and child are unsafe here, and helps them to escape. Dehner follows with his gun, but then, right about this time Nanches shows up. One angry man wants the woman, but not the boy. The other angry man wants the boy but could care less about the woman. Both have guns, so there’s little room for compromise and the result is a too-convenient ending.
Still, there is time for one more confession, and one more act of love. As McCrea and Stanwyck, and Quito, ride off into the sunset on a buckboard, McCrea remarks, “I’m 47. Nearly 30 of that in the Army makes a man rough. Got four months ‘til the end of my last hitch.”
It is a marriage proposal, in case you missed it, and she questions about the family she thought he already had. He confesses he was never married and only lets people think that.
Come back Thursday for another Western romance with what has been called one of the best Westerns ever made: “Shane”.
(Sorry the screen captures are so poor. I was working off a VHS tape that had seen better days.)