Thursday, August 27, 2015

Those Darn Revolvers Just Bug Me!

I don't expect most Westerns to be historically accurate. I know most of them are set in the mythic Wild West that grew out of dime novels, not the real-life Old West.  And I know that, as a consequence, there will be some inaccuracies. I'm not bothered if a character is using a particular rifle in a movie set a few years before that rifle was actually invented. (And, to be honest, I would not always have detailed enough knowledge to recognize something like that.)

But there are limits to this--moments in which the historical inaccuracy jumps the film over that amorphous line where the Suspension of Disbelief ends.

Let's look at the 1953 film The Man from the Alamo. Glenn Ford is a man named John Stroud, who is part of the garrison at the Alamo in 1836. He and four other men learn that some Texas renegades on Santa Anna's payroll are killing and looting near their home town. They draw lots to decide who will go to protect their families. Stroud "wins."

So when Colonel Travis learns that no reinforcements are coming and asks for volunteers to stay, Stroud is the only one who does not step forward. (The story is a little weak here--there was no reason for Stroud NOT to explain why he was leaving, since Travis had effectively given him permission to do so. His failure to explain is why he's branded as a coward for the rest of the film.)

Well, he's too late to help the families and the Alamo falls before he can get back. So now pretty much everyone in Texas thinks he's a traitor. But that's the least of his problems. His primary task is to bring the renegades who killed his family to justice--and save a wagon train full of women and children in the bargain.

It's a really good movie. Like all Westerns directed by Budd Boetticher, it looks great and the action scenes are exciting. The final battle, with Stroud, a one-armed old man and a half-score of women battling the renegades, is fantastic.

The story has a four-act structure. Act 1 is the Alamo; Act 2 is Stroud discovering his family is dead and that everyone in Texas is ready to lynch him for his perceived cowardice; Act 3 involves him pretending to join the renegades; the final Act has him joining and then eventually leading the wagon train. Events lead Stroud from one act to the next in a smooth and logical manner.

Along the way, the theme of duty vs. family is revisited--we can honestly debate whether Stroud was right in leaving the Alamo, or whether another character is right in his decision when faced with a similar dilemma late in the film. Stroud himself claims he was wrong to leave, but someone else jumps to his defense. It's an interesting and sincerely delivered debate on moral responsibilities.

The cast is superb. Ford gives an understated performance as Stroud, showing emotion without allowing the emotions to leak over into melodrama. Victor Jory and Neville Brand are the primary bad guys--and any movie with either of those two playing bad guys immediately jumps up a few notches in quality.

Because it tells such a great story, I'm not at all bothered by most of the historical inaccuracies in the film. The incorrect layout of the Alamo or Travis' age (the actor playing him is 25 years too old) are all beside the point in this case. This is a mythic Wild West version of the Texas War, so it doesn't have to be accurate to history in most ways.

I'm even okay with the fact that everyone is dressed like a cowboy from the 1870s or 1880s. Heck, it's Texas in the Old West. They're supposed to dress like that and the heck with what history says!

But, by golly, the revolvers that everyone carries bug me to no end. The rifles are okay--they are muzzle-loading flintlocks that would have been common in 1836. But the pistols also should have been flintlocks, with perhaps a few percussion cap weapons mixed in. There would not have been any six-shooters. But everyone in this movie who uses a handgun uses a six-shooter.

For me, this is just one step too far over that Suspension of Disbelief line. It bothers me the way it would bother me if a King Arthur movie armed the Knights of the Round Table with tommy guns.

On the other hand, I'm not bothered by most King Arthur stories tossing in castles, plate armor and codes of chivalry that are several centuries too early to have been around in Arthur's time. Because that's what the Days of King Arthur are supposed to look like and the heck with what history says!

So I fully realize I'm being inconsistent in what I do or do not find acceptable. The Man from The Alamo is an excellent Western in every respect except those revolvers--and whether or not the revolvers bother you is a completely subjective thing. They do indeed bug me, but they might not bug you at all.

You know--come to think of it---Arthurian knights wielding submachine guns. That actually sounds kinda cool, doesn't it?

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