Updated: Jul 18
Novel by Oakley Hall and Fox movie, 1959
Warlock was a Pulitzer-shortlisted novel published in 1958 which later the same year was made into a film directed by Edward Dmytryk.
The book was by Oakley Hall, “considered the dean of West Coast writers” according to Wikipedia, whose name sounds like that of a Victorian stage actor but who only died in 2008. He wrote six Western novels as well as a series of five featuring Ambrose Bierce.
The movie was reasonably but not ecstatically well received, The New York Times saying that “the major conflicts are fundamental and raw, and a first-rate cast plays them to the limit under Edward Dmytryk's practiced hand”, though the picture was ignored at the Oscars. It made $1.7m at the US box office, which sounds good until you learn that its budget had been $2.4m.
So, as far as honors and reception go, we probably have to hand it to the book more than the movie.
That’s right and proper, really. Warlock the novel definitely belongs to the tradition of literary, rather than pulp Westerns. It is stylishly written and thoughtful.
In both film and book we get a lot of gunplay and some traditional showdowns in the street and saloon. A stage hold-up too. The marshal stands down a lynch mob, Earpishly. It’s a classic Western in that regard with many of the tropes and in fact it seems to have been an attempt to comment on the Western archetype and the hollowness of the myth. It also has a whiff of end-of-the-West about it as the hero Clay Blaisedell is already a dinosaur. Civilization is coming to the frontier and there are only a few wide-open towns still to clean up. Warlock is a psychological Western which is also full of action.
In his introduction to the novel, Robert Stone, himself a Pulitzer-nominated novelist and short-story writer, says:
I remember thinking how wonderfully clear the book was. Not only clear, as I remember, but full of light.
Stone refers to Richard Slotkin’s book Gunfighter Nation (part of a work that seems longer to me than ten bibles but which I might review one day, if I ever finish it before dying of old age). Are works like Hall’s “the country in its cowboy suit”? Are they “infantile self-deception enhanced by cheap theatrics”? Ouch! I suppose he has a point. Certainly Hall’s town of Warlock is close to the fictional Tombstone of Hollywood legend. But then Stone suggests that Hall’s work is closer to the famous remark by New Mexico resident DH Lawrence:
But you have there the myth of the essential white American. All the other stuff, the love, the democracy, the floundering into lust are a sort of by play. The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic and a killer. It has never yet melted.
Can that be true, do you think? Stone says that “no one realizes this better than Oakley Hall.”
As Slotkin writes and Oakley Hall subtly demonstrates, “In American mythogenesis the founding fathers were not those eighteenth-century gentlemen who composed a nation at Philadelphia. Rather, they were those who (to paraphrase Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!), tore violently a nation from implacable and opulent wilderness – the rogues, adventurers, and land-boomers; the Indian fighters, traders, missionaries, explorers, and hunters who killed and were killed until they had mastered the wilderness.”
Yes, that’s the Wild West, real or no, that fascinates us, and that’s the West we get in Warlock.
It’s worth quoting author Hall’s own short ‘prefatory note’ in full:
This book is a novel. The town of Warlock and the territory it is located are fabrications. But any relation of the characters to real persons, living or dead, is not always coincidental, for many are composites of figures who live still on a frontier between history and legend.
The fabric of the story, too, is made up of actual events interwoven with invented ones; by combining what did happen with what might have happened, I have tried to show what should have happened. Devotees of Western legend may consequently complain that I have used familiar events to construct a fanciful design, and that I have re-arranged or ignored the accepted facts. So I will reiterate that this work is a novel. The pursuit of truth, not of facts, is the business of fiction.
Well, e-pards, I reckon we are “devotees of Western legend” and we inhabit that “frontier between history and legend”. So it’s not surprising that we find Oakley Hall’s work a cracking read.
It’s clearly an Earpish story. When the book was written and movie made The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp (1955 to 1961) was riding high in the TV ratings and in May 1957 John Sturges’s Gunfight at the Ok Corral was released and became a huge hit.
We start in 1880 with the journal of a Warlock storekeeper, Henry Holmes Goodpasture (a key commentator and narrator who, however, does not appear in the movie). We learn how the local lawman, Deputy Canning, “a good man, a decent man”, is having difficulty controlling the wild element in nearby San Pablo, the Cowboys. This of course immediately puts us in mind of the rustlers who infested the area outside Tombstone, Arizona, and their leader in the book, Abe McQuown, has more than a little of Ike Clanton about him, and his aged, bitter and violent father, Old Man Clanton. Red-bearded Abe does at least have “a certain charm” but Dad McQuown is “a mean and ugly old brute.” Cowboys hurrahing the town, and thus the population needing a tough lawman, well, that is a classic Western trope.
The model for Hall's Abe McQuown. Ike Clanton in 1881. He seems to have duded himself up for the photograph. The photo was by Tombstone photographer CS Fly, whose studio overlooked the OK Corral.
It’s a silver-mining town and the miners and mine-owners will play a key part in the story, a whole strand of the narrative that will be excised in the movie version. Fair enough: the movie script is necessarily much shorter, and something had to go. The book is nearly 500 pages long. Goodpasture says that the Cowboys may be disreputable, unruly and not law-abiding but several are decent types deep down, especially Curley Burne, and “only Cade is truly bad”. Cade does indeed show himself the most evil of them all, a backshooter who will eventually… But no, you must read it! Canning has buffaloed a young cowboy, who subsequently was thrown from his horse and died. The San Pabloites blame the deputy. They run the lawman out of town (a scene done better in the film, I think). One of the Cowboys, Pony Benner, shoots the barber for nicking his cheek with a razor (another scene very powerfully staged by Dmytryk). It is this which finally prompts some of the townsfolk, including Goodpasture, to form a Citizens Committee and send for a tough gunman to clean up the town. Clay Blaidesell, from Fort James, is the one, “a tall, broad man with long arms and a way of carrying himself that was halfway between proud and arrogant.” We are told that he has “intensely blue eyes”, so of course while reading we think immediately of Henry Fonda, and indeed, it is hard not to ‘see’ Fonda and Quinn throughout in the novel when Blaisedell and Morgan appear. I suppose that’s what happens when you know a film so well before reading the book. Blaisedell shot Texas badman Big Ben Nicholson in Fort James and the writer Caleb Bane presented him with a brace of gold-handled Colt’s Frontier models. This Bane is clearly a reference to dime novelist Ned Buntline and his supposed gift of long-barreled Colt Buntline Specials to Wyatt Earp and other Dodge City peace officers.
Blaisedell’s arrival in Warlock is preceded by that of his friend, the saloon owner and professional gambler Tom Morgan, “a handsome, prematurely gray fellow of a sardonic aspect and reserved nature.” I don’t know why the film makers gave him a gammy leg and had people call him a cripple; there’s no mention of this in the book. Morgan, a very Doc Holliday-ish figure, is much less respectable than Blaisedell (as Hollywood Hollidays were by comparison with their Wyatt Earps). He sets up shop in The Glass Slipper and speedily wins a reputation as a dangerous foe and unreliable friend. He cheerfully murders several people. He will earn the dime-novelish soubriquet of the Black Rattlesnake of Warlock. Footnotes give the novel a quasi-historical feel and we learn much about the backstory of various characters from them, and indeed the origin of the name Warlock, which I was wondering about when watching the movie. It’s an odd name for a town. Doesn’t it mean some kind of male witch? Why would a Western town be named for a thaumaturge? And where is it? There are broad hints in the dialogue that we are down in the Southwest somewhere, Earpish Arizona. The movie was filmed in Utah, round Moab, and has splendid classic Western settings, with a water wagon damping down the orange dust in the town street. Most of the story happens in town, so on sound stages, but there are enough exteriors and shots of surrounding terrain to make it a classic Western, not a low-budget studio-bound affair.
But Hall tells us that the town’s moniker comes from the Warlock mine which was named for a half-crazed prospector named Richelin who miraculously escaped the marauding Apaches of the region so that some said that he must have flown away, riding the handle of his shovel like a witch. Here of course we have a version of the naming of Tombstone, with Richelin taking the part of Ed Schieffelin. The character of Bud Gannon, one of McQuown’s men who is revolted by the dishonorable conduct of the San Pabloites, especially in the matter of the massacre of Mexicans they carried out (a deed attributed in Western mythology to the Clantons and their crew), has a higher profile than the part (played by Richard Widmark) in the film. In fact he is in many ways key. He stays in town, deserting San Pablo, and will eventually wear the official deputy’s star. I would say that the characters of the women - Jessie, “the Angel of Warlock”, who falls for Blaisedell, and Kate Dollar, Morgan’s ex, a “tall woman, black hair, a fair-sized nose”, who dallies with Bud Gannon – play a more important part in the story than they do in the movie. Blaisedell consorts with Jessie but does not love her, it seems, and he will eventually depart without giving her a second glance, while Kate (modeled on the Big Nose Kate of myth, Doc Holliday’s woman) only dallies with Gannon and she will leave him (she half-heartedly invites him to leave with her but he will not, for a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, etc) So the relationships are far from deep. Jessie’s great ally, especially in support of the shamefully exploited miners, is the doc, Dr Wagner, a character given much less to do in the movie (played by Don Beddoe). Judge Holloway is a great character in the book, an alcoholic depressive who is irascible as he is noble, in his way. He is “a sagging mixture of pride and shame, dread and grief”. He is only a judge “on acceptance”, as he often says, and everyone knows he pockets the fines he imposes, but he is still a force to be reckoned with in Warlock. The county seat of Bright’s City (Tucson?), which is riddled with corruption, is presided over by the gigantic and practically senile General Peach (after whom Jessie’s boarding house, where Blaisedell lodges and which becomes the headquarters of the miners’ strike, is named). Peach is a huge figure metaphorically too. The ‘hero’ of the defeat of the Apaches (Goodpasture says that he had “the capacity throughout his career for giving miserable and inexcusable fiasco the semblance of thrilling victory”), he is not persuaded that the struggle is over, and he single-mindedly seeks to hunt down and capture old Espirato, the Apache leader, who is probably dead long ago. This inexorable pursuit will eventually save the miners, in fact, and be the death of Peach. When we come to the “Fight in the Acme Corral” (no prizes for guessing the reference here) we get an almost verbatim quotation from the Earp/Holliday exchange of legend: “I am always one for a shooting match,” says Morgan. “It is none of your fight, Morg,” says Blaisedell. “That is a hell of a thing to say to me, Clay!” There are other Tombstone similarities. Curley Burne does a border roll on Deputy Carl Schroeder just as Curly Bill did on Marshal Fred White in Tombstone in October 1880. Blaisedell stands down a lynch mob as the Earps did in defense of Johnny-behind-the-deuce. Another good thing about the book is the high derringer quotient. The judge always puts a derringer and a bible on the table in front of him when presiding. Morgan’s saloon lookout Murch uses one to kill a miner who is about to beat his boss in a brutal fight. Kate Dollar has one (unsurprisingly; they were classic weapons for saloon women) and Jessie is pretty handy with one too: she even backs Blaisedell standing off the US Cavalry with one. So that’s good. Morgan himself, however, whom you might expect to have one, being a silk-vested saloon owner and all, eschews the derringer in favor of the Banker’s Special. This is a bit odd as Colt’s Banker’s Special didn’t appear until 1926. Still, perhaps Hall used it as a generic term for any very short-barreled handgun. Gamblers liked them – Luke Short had a special snub-nosed Colt .45 with a very short barrel.
The early death of Abe McQuown out at San Pablo, probably murdered by Morgan to protect Blaisedell, is perhaps a dramatic weakness of the novel. The film, which reserves McQuown’s demise for a showdown in Warlock, is a more classic Western trope. While Abe’s henchman Cade survives and presents the necessary threat, it is not quite the same thing. While the almost homoerotic subtext of the Blaisedell/Morgan relationship is less pronounced in the book than in the film, it is still clear that they are very close friends. Hall says of Morgan that “His friendship for Clay had become all that there was.” To the point where the ending, when Morgan does everything possible to be “posted” by Blaisedell, i.e. run out of town, and he eventually lays down his life to this end, seems bizarre at best. It’s a curious bond the men have, far stronger than the male friendship we are used to in Westerns, and is not easy to understand. I wonder too if Oakley Hall had not seen The Tin Star, Paramount’s Western of the year before Warlock was published, which we recently reviewed (click the link for that) because there are a couple of passages where Blaisedell seems to mentor Deputy Gannon, teaching him how to draw and how to shoot just as Morg Hickman had to the young Sheriff Ben Owens in that movie. Of course, the fact that The Tin Star’s Hickman was played by Henry Fonda may have contributed to that impression, whereas Hall was not to know that Fonda would be Blaisedell in the film version of his book.
The language of the book is saltier than in the movie, but then what you could get away with in a book for adults in 1958 was more than you could on the screen, 50s Hollywood bourgeois values and self-censorship being what they were. The whole Army/miners clash, which dominates the last part of the novel and which simply doesn’t appear in the film, is very well done. I think Warlock the book would make an excellent Deadwood-style TV series these days, which would give scope for a full treatment of the themes of the novel, as well as some very strong characters. And by the way, Ian McShane would make a great Morgan. But having canceled Deadwood so peremptorily, HBO probably won’t want to do that. Come on, Netflix, get busy! An afterword, a letter from Goodpasture to his grandson dated 1924, ties up some loose ends for us and tells us what happened to certain key characters. Dr Wagner and Jessie go to Nome (as Wyatt and Sadie Earp did). Other happenings I shall not reveal! It’s a fine book, an excellent Western novel and an excellent American novel (no wonder it was Pulitzer-shortlisted) because it deals with the myth of the American frontier in a classic way. Reader Boppa tells me that Thomas Pynchon loved it. At one point Goodpasture reads a pulp dime-novel account of the events he has been writing about in his journal and is disappointed, even angry: "Will not this cheap and fabulous account in this poor excuse for a magazine become, on its terms, a version much more acceptable than ours, the true one? It is a curious thought; how much do these legends, as they outstrip and supersede the originals, rest upon Truth, and how much upon some dark and impenetrable design within Man himself?" There, Goodpasture, and Hall, of course, encapsulate the myth of the Wild West, a world where the fiction has almost become the fact. What people ‘know’ about Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday is far more deeply-rooted and widespread than what actually happened. Luckily.
The film, directed by Edward Dmytryk, used Robert Alan Aurthur (1922–1978) to adapt Hall’s novel for the screen. I must say, though Aurthur eliminated whole strands of the plot – necessarily – and wrote no other Westerns, he did respect the integrity of the book and managed to transfer Hall’s characters of Blaisedell and Morgan (Henry Fonda and Anthony Quinn) marvelously well. In both book and movie the spirit of the classic (i.e. mythological) West shines through. There is a real Western ‘tone’ to the picture and there are some great lines. It was 1959 and the dreaded revisionism was only round the corner but this was still a ‘straight’ and un-self-questioning Western of the old school.
The picture was in CinemaScope and Color De Luxe. The man behind the camera was the excellent Joe MacDonald, who had started photographing our noble genre on Western Union with Fritz Lang and had been DP for John Ford on the visually splendid (and splendid in other ways too) Earp legend My Darling Clementine in 1946. He had gone on to do Yellow Sky, Broken Lance and The True Story of Jesse James (all for Fox), and even The Fiend Who Walked the West, a much finer film than the lurid title might suggest. He would work with director Edward Dmytryk again on Alvarez Kelly in ’66. A great Western cinematographer.
Director Dmytryk was Canadian born but grew up in San Francisco, the son of Ukrainian immigrants. A lifelong political leftist who had been a Communist Party member briefly during World War II, Dmytryk was one of the so-called "Hollywood Ten" who refused to cooperate with HUAC and had their careers disrupted or ruined as a result, though he later seemed to recant and work again. He did few Westerns, probably the ‘biggest’ being Broken Lance. His last was a picture that some are rude about though I quite like, Shalako. He handles Warlock very well, I think, building the tension and giving us interesting character development.
The headline stars were 1. Richard Widmark, 2. Henry Fonda and 3. Anthony Quinn. Of course top billing goers to actors for other reasons than the importance of their roles in the plot. It’s Fonda’s character, Clay Blaisedell, who is the principal figure, an unofficial marshal, what became known as a town tamer. This was not the first or last use of this Western plot device. A recent Western, Appaloosa, for example, is so close in theme that you could almost argue it's a remake. A community is dominated by a ruthless boss/arrogant local rancher and his henchmen, and the citizens call on the services of a tough gunman and sidekick to clean up the town.
Quinn plays an effete character with a strong male friendship of his partner Blaisedell (though Dmytryk denied there was any gay subtext). This is said to be a departure for Quinn, who usually played pretty macho roles in oaters, but actually he was capable of a variety of subtle parts. I’ve always liked Quinn in Westerns. In 1953 there was a slight foreshadowing of Warlock when as Mexican bandit Esqueda he seemed almost to be competing with Ava Gardner for the affections of Robert Taylor in Ride, Vaquero! The casting in Warlock was also a bit off-the-wall because the chief badman, the ruthless rancher Abe McQuown, was played by Tom Drake, usually a mild-mannered goody – he was the wholesome boy next door that Judy Garland sang about in Meet Me in St Louis. He’s actually good, though, as the nasty, thuggish and arrogant man who thinks he owns the town and ought to.
Widmark is Johnny Gannon, who is disgusted by his boss’s loathsome dealings and cowardly back-shooting, and goes over to the other side, taking the job as sheriff’s deputy, thus finding himself in conflict with both his former employer and the gunslinger ‘marshal’ hired to restore law and order to the place. Widmark was memorable and powerful, and on a Western roll. Warlock came after Yellow Sky, Garden of Evil, Broken Lance, Backlash, The Last Wagon and The Law and Jake Wade, and in all of these he was very good. Some of the choices of Western roles Widmark made later on were, shall we say, regrettable. Still, overall his Western record s a very good one. In Warlock, Widmark is strong. Gannon seems guilty and remorseful for his earlier crimes, and actually afraid of both Blaisedell and McQuown, but he shows that true courage which is not fearlessness but rather being afraid and doing it anyway. The film actually has much to say about fear.
As for Henry Fonda, he is, of course, magisterial. To me, Fonda ranks with Gregory Peck, Joel McCrea, James Stewart and the like, right up there with the greats of the genre. Frank James in Jesse James and The Return of Frank James, superb as the decent cowpoke in The Ox-Bow Incident, unforgettable as Wyatt Earp in Ford’s splendid My Darling Clementine, perfect again for Ford as the martinet Colonel Thursday in Fort Apache, utterly authoritative and convincing as the bounty hunter in Anthony Mann’s The Tin Star, it’s hard to say which Western he was best in. True, some of the later pictures he did were pretty dire (I am thinking of such trash as There Was a Crooked Man and My Name is Nobody) but that is true of all big Western stars. Even the greatest of them all, Gary Cooper, had to do those stodgy Warners Westerns of the early 50s like Dallas, Distant Drums andSpringfield Rifle. In Warlock Fonda’s Blaisedell is melancholy, disillusioned and unsatisfied. When he rocks back on a chair you can’t help thinking of that scene in Clementine, and of course as we have said, this Blaisedell is very Earpish.
The two female leads are taken by Dorothy Malone (a particular favorite of mine) and Dolores Michaels. However, in such a male story they get to do little. Blaisedell dallies a little with Jessie (Michaels) and they even get engaged, but it becomes clear that he is never going to settle down with a woman (Quinn’s jealousy when Fonda announces his engagement to her is palpable and furious). The love of his life is Tom Morgan, even after he dies. Blaisedell: “I suppose I figured Morgan and I…” Jessie: “I’m not Morgan.” Blaisedell: “Maybe I’ll have to find another Morgan.” Lily (Malone) arrives on the stage with vengeance in her heart, wanting to have Blaisedell shot down, and she develops something of a relationship with Deputy Gannon, but Gannon is, relatively, a minor character and there is little time (even in a movie at 2 hours +) to build this love interest into much. Ms Michaels only did three big-screen Westerns, about the best being her part as the poor, abused May in The Fiend Who Walked the West. Malone was a much more experienced Western star and one thinks in particular of her Julie in Colorado Territory with McCrea, her Karen with Randolph Scott in The Nevadan, and her splendid derringer-wielding Virginia in Jack Slade. She co-starred with Fred MacMurray twice (At Gunpoint and Quantez) and ended Westerns hovering between Kirk Douglas and Rock Hudson in The Last Sunset. She was a fine actress and very beautiful.
Another good thing about Warlock is the plethora of old-friend character actors lower down the cast list. There’s Wallace Ford as the irascible Judge Holloway on crutches, DeForest Kelley as a McQuown henchman who sees the light, and the likes of Regis Toomey, Vaughan Taylor and Whit Bissell as townsmen. You can even spot Don ‘Red’ Barry and LQ Jones in bit parts.
We get a lot of gunplay and some traditional showdowns in the street and saloon. A stage hold-up too. There’s a slight tinge of the dime-novel Western here and there. The flashy gold-handled Colts of Blaisedell, for example (in various languages the movie got its title from them, Der Mann mit den goldenen Colts, L'homme aux colts d'or, El hombre de las pistolas de oro, and so on).
There are other dime-novel references.
Fonda and Quinn look rather good in their fancy frock coats and they spare little expense on the amenities of life, doing up their saloon into the fancy, even decadent French Palace and importing rich drapes and Chinese silk sheets from San Francisco. Widmark, though, sticks to his trademark jeans jacket – except when he goes to dinner with Dorothy. DeForest Kelley told an anecdote about the shooting of this movie while on the Star Trek convention circuit, about the time Princess Sofia of Greece was visiting the set and Kelley flubbed a scene by falling over a chair onto his backside and saying "Oh, shit," in front of the princess. Fonda told him the following Monday not to worry about it because he had danced with the princess over the weekend and ascertained that she had no idea what "shit" meant. This did not stop Kelley from getting a standing ovation at the commissary when the cast and crew broke for lunch.
Dmytryk tells in his biography that Hank Fonda was such a fast draw with his Colt that the director and editor had to slow up the action so the audience could savor it properly. Everything leads up to the rancher/gunslinger/deputy clash we know must come. There will be the quick-draw showdown in the main street at sun-up. There has to be, and there is. Dymtryk choreographed the finale meticulously. The gunmen approach each other, grim-faced. The camera goes to their hands and their holsters. And then… Well, you’ll have to watch it.
Read the book or watch the film, preferably both, and you are guaranteed enjoyment.