The Rowdy Girls

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“If Andy Sidaris directed a Western.”

rowdygirlsThe self-awareness of the film’s own silliness is clear, virtually from the start in which a singing cowboy – referred to in the credits as a minstrel – strolls through the countryside, crooning his ballad of the titular ladies. He pops up intermittently throughout to narrate, and it does a good job of setting the tone: clearly, this is not intended, in any way, to be a serious look at historical life in America. It is, very much, gyno-centric: beyond the leads, this was also written by two women, including India Allen, who was the 1988 Playmate of the Year. Not just a pretty face, then.

The three characters at the center have different stories, that all end up taking them to the same place. Velvet McKenzie (Tweed) has bailed out of her life in a bordello, with a travel-bag full of cash, and is travelling disguised as a nun. Sarah Foster (Brooks) is similarly making a break, fleeing an arranged marriage and heading for San Francisco, on the same wagon as Velvet. But in their way is Mick (Strain), member of an outlaw gang and the leader’s lover; the group rob the stagecoach, taking both Velvet and Sarah hostage. The attack is interrupted by the local sheriff, until Mick slides a knife between his ribs; that just sets his younger brother, Joe Pepper (Varga) on the trail of both the criminals and their captives.

No shortage of curvy nudity here, as you’d expect given the cast, though it certainly qualifies as being at the tasteful end of the spectrum. There is probably more of a plot than you would expect too, with loyalties and alliances shifting over the course of the 87 minutes, and despite its B-movie origins, the production values are better than certain Troma movies I could mention [though I’m not entirely sure about the credibility of some of the costumes, which appear more Victoria’s Secret than 19th-century Western America!] Strain is particularly fun to watch, not least because her 6’1″ frame towers over some of the male cast, and her attitude is equally imposing, but Tweed, well into her forties at the time, is by no means outclassed.

Sure, the makers of this have set their sights low, not appearing too interested in offering up much more than a soft-core exercise in historical inaccuracy. Adopting a tongue-in-cheek approach to the whole thing was thus likely a wise movie, effectively defusing most of the (numerous) critical arguments which could be made against it. Manage your expectations, therefore, and those expectations will be met. For as soft-core exercises in historical inaccuracy go, you could certainly do an awful lot worse. Below, courtesy of Troma, you’ll find the whole thing, so you can judge for yourself!

Dir: Steven Nevius
Star: Shannon Tweed, Julie Strain, Deanna Brooks, Richie Varga

Calamity Jane’s Revenge

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“Talk is cheap. VERY cheap…”

calamityTwo stars might actually be a bit generous, on an objective scale. But I confess to possessing a soft spot for low-budget films made with passion, even if the results fall short. The most obvious deficiency here is the location shooting. Outside of an opening scene with a few ramshackle houses, the entire film takes place in a forest. Seriously, the closest thereafter we get to seeing any other buildings, is two people leaning up against a fence… in the middle of the woods. Maybe they should have called it Calamity Jane: The Wilderness Years, and set viewer expectations appropriately.

It’s a revenge story, which we join in progress, with the husband of Jane (Ryan), no mean legend himself, Wild Bill Hickok, having already been gunned down. She’s now on the trail of the men responsible, who have split up and need to be tracked down individually. Complicating matters, one of the culprits is now accompanied by a kidnap victim, Fay (Gomez), whom Jane initially attempts to leave behind, but eventually agrees to help out. Additionally, Jane is being tracked by the new sheriff of Deadwood, along with renowned tracker, Colorado Charlie Utter (former WWE star Snow, which was an unexpected surprise). Will she be able to finish her mission of vengeance before the forces of law catch up with her?

And, more importantly, will the viewer be able to finish this movie, before unconsciousness catches up with them? Because the pacing on this leaves a great deal to be desired, without any real sense of building toward a climax. The film instead ambles its way through the trees, giving you two minutes of action, then 15 minutes of chit-chat. Rinse. Repeat. Forest. It’s not actually badly acted: Ryan has some presence, and Snow is certainly no worse than some others from the WWE who have stepped in front of the camera (looking at you, John Cena…). But the paucity of the resources available also leads to action more befitting a school playground, in which when people get shot, they fall over clutching their chest, without ever any apparent injury. Could the budget truly not stretch to a couple of bottles of fake blood?

On the technical side, it’s has its moments, with some impressive drone (I’m guessing) shots, capturing the epic grandeur of the mountains. These do, however, seem somewhat at odd with the static approach taken for the rest of the film. Couto seems to have tried his hand at various genres over the years, from horror to family films; while I guess he’s to be commended for that, it perhaps helps explains why this feels so generic. If you’re short on budget, you need to make up for this in other, inexpensive ways, from imagination to risk-taking. Unfortunately, Couto appears more concerned with playing it safe, and there’s precious little here that will stick in the viewer’s brain past the end credits.

Dir: Henrique Couto
Star: Erin R. Ryan, Al Snow, Julia Gomez, Adam Scott Clevenger

Seven Vengeful Women

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“The good, the bad and the pretty.”

7-mujeresA wagon train on its way West to California is besieged by multiple waves of Apaches. Between attacks, the seven women among the settlers are hidden in a nearby cave, but the next assault proves terminal, and the women are left, alone and deep in enemy territory. The only hope for this band of largely unprepared women, is to strike out across a hostile landscape. They’ll need to cross 100 miles between them and the nearest settlement, Fort Lafayette, while fending off further native attacks.

This 1966 film is an early example of a “Europudding,” being a co-production between Spain, Italy, Austria and Liechtenstein(!). There are three directors credited, though Parolini’s name appears to have been simply to get Italian funding, and Pink was apparently the main man behind the camera. The results are only sporadically effective, being hampered by characters and actions which are often little more than clichés, on all sides. They actually use the line, “Never turn your back on an Indian,” and I literally LOL’d when the settlers formed their wagons into a circle, since I don’t think I’ve ever seen that done in a film, except as a parody.

The star is former Oscar-winner Baxter, who plays Mary-Anne, the de facto leader of the group, and delivers a solid performance. Though as action-heroines, I was probably more impressed with the Grimaldi Sisters, a circus act (played by Como and Adriana Ambesi) whose skills help save the group on multiple occasions – there’s a running joke about these abilities inevitably being obtained from previous sideshow boyfriends. Most of the rest don’t make much impression, and while trying to avoid spoilers, the mortality rate is so low that the Apaches don’t present much of a threat. While there are some dark hints about the women being wanted alive, this was the mid-sixties, so hints are all you’ll get, and the whole thing is rather too gentle for its own good.

That said, the women develop a harder edge over the course of proceedings. The first time they repel an Indian attack, the victim they capture is kept alive, at least until he escapes. By the end, they’re ruthlessly clubbing natives to death with their rifles, in the closest the film goes to a genuinely disturbing sequence [Look, I saw Bone Tomahawk recently. My “genuinely disturbing” scale got entirely re-calibrated, as far as the Western genre goes] Second spot likely goes to the Apache victim whose body is found, mostly for Mary-Anne’s stern instruction that nobody should look under her clothes.

But this is the kind of film where the heroines start off their hundred-mile trek in long skirts. Even for the time, that seems a stretch, and is an unfortunate precursor to the rest of the movie. It’s not a bad idea, and the leads are fine too; the problem here is a script which hasn’t aged well

Dir: Gianfranco Parolini, Rudolf Zehetgruber, Sidney W. Pink
Star: Anne Baxter, Maria Perschy, Gustavo Rojo, Rossella Como
a.k.a. The Tall Women

The Ballad of Cat Ballou, by Roy Chanslor

Literary rating: starstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2

catballouMy generation, raised on 1950s and early 60s TV, tends to think of the classic Western genre as a male preserve, where females were the gallant cowboys’ ever-so-meek love interests or damsels in distress, but where men wore the guns and did all the shooting, cow-punching and heavy work. This reflected a moment in American pop culture, post-World War II, when the cultural and socio-political elite of that day consciously cultivated a faux “traditional” cult of female home-bound domesticity and passivity (to encourage the myriads of “Rosie the Riveters” to butt out of the workforce and free up the jobs for the returning male ex-soldiers). But that state of affairs never reflected the actual reality of the Old West, a harsh and dangerous land that often demanded that both sexes step up to plate and take their share of both fighting and strenuous work. The work of earlier Western genre writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs (The Bandit of Hell’s Bend) and pulp magazine authors like Les Savage Jr. often reflected that reality; and though written in 1956, this novel by Roy Chanslor (1899-1964), with its strong heroine, stands in that older tradition.

This is not, however, a novel of nonstop, slam-bang action from start to finish. On the contrary, Chanslor begins his story with his protagonist “Cat” (short for Catherine –she’s named after her mom) Ballou’s birth. (The titular folk “Ballad of Cat Ballou” that he quotes from, there and throughout the book, is completely fictional, as are the characters; but it imparts a mythic, larger-than-life quality to the narrative.) Then he goes back before that, to the days before her parents met, to help us understand the history of her family, the ill will between the Ballous and the Fields, and the nature of the world she was born into, in which the law was sometimes simply a perverted tool of the wealthy and powerful for plundering the weak, and where “outlaws” were sometimes only principled people fighting for their just rights. Our setting is Wyoming Territory; the localities of the main action are fictional, but supposedly in southern Wyoming, from clues in the text. Textual clues also suggest a date of ca. 1870 for Cat’s birth, and ca. 1886-87 for the crisis that ultimately confronts her. (The passing reference to territorial governor Ed Donaldson, however, isn’t a clue –no such name appears in the real-life roster of Wyoming’s governors!)

Chanslor uses an omniscient, third-person narrative voice, and a prose style that’s not unlike that of other Western writers of his generation –workmanlike, dignified without being stilted. He gives dialogue an authentic, colloquial feel, without resorting to heavy dialect. Not much attention is given to description of the natural world; the author’s focus is on the human world, and the thoughts, feelings and relationships of his characters. He’s also very good at creating an entire array of lifelike, nuanced characters, on both sides of the law (no simplistic “virtuous good guys in white hats and evil bad guys in black hats” here!). As in life, the storyline includes both tragedy and triumph. There’s violent death, and gun-play, in places (despite the cover art on the edition I read, Cat doesn’t wear or shoot a Colt here –but she’s as fast-shooting and as accurate with a rifle as any man); but it’s handled matter-of-factly, and as in the real world, it’s over quickly. (The results are what lingers.)

catballou2As is often the case with fiction that shows human beings involved in intense conflicts with life or death stakes, and making decisions about the use of deadly force, this novel brings to life very real questions about right and wrong, the relative primacy of law and order vs. justice, the moral obligations of humans to each other, the possibly conflicting claims of justice and mercy, the merits of being “fenced in” vs. freedom (and what exactly constitutes “freedom”), and what constitutes honorable behavior in difficult situations. Chanslor tends to point up right and wrong behavior by example rather than by exposition, though he does at times use Old Doc, Cat’s maternal grandfather, and Martha Babcock as mouthpieces for his opinions. In general, though, it’s clear that his own moral orientation is basically that of the traditional Code of the West, with a high value on respect for others’ rights, fair play, fidelity to one’s word, courage, and loyalty to family and friends. His attitude toward religion is aloof (Old Doc advocates reading Scripture “for the sound, not the sense”), but he’s respectful toward his preacher character, who’s definitely one of the good guys.

Romantic love plays a strong role in the tales of both Cat’s parents and her own story. In both cases, we’re dealing with situations of what could be disparaged as “insta-love.” As I’ve noted in other reviews, in pre-modern settings, what we think of as unrealistic “insta-love” could very often be true to life; men and women who didn’t expect to “date,” and who wanted matrimony rather than being afraid of it, learned to size each other up pretty quickly. Frankie and Catherine Ballou’s marriage, IMO, fits that pattern. Cat and her man’s union, though, strains the bounds of probability even for 19th-century attractions; and some of Cat’s attitudes and actions are those of a hormone-driven teen (she’s 16-17 at the time of her main story), not a responsible adult. I also felt Chanslor’s attitude was too cavalier in blithely excusing one character’s adultery when his wife was recovering from a miscarriage –I can understand the psychology of sexual deprivation, and don’t discount the value of forgiveness where penitence is genuine, but I don’t feel it’s “just being a normal male.” These points were what cost the book a star. In the main, though, the messages of the book promote sexual respect for women and glorify committed love in faithful marriage. Parts of the novel have an undercurrent of frank sensuality; but it’s monogamous sensuality that it celebrates.

I found the book a gripping read; there are moments of extreme suspense, and concern for the fate of characters you care about, and toward the end I read for longer than normal because I had to finish it! In some respects, this would actually make a great book for discussion groups to read together, because it can pose a lot to think about and discuss.

Note: Readers should be warned that the book has some d- and h-word bad language, and a fair amount of misuse of Divine names as well.

Author: Roy Chanslor
Publisher: New American Library, available through Amazon, currently only as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

The Paleface

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“Starring the two and only Jane Russell.”

palefaceOr, to steal another line from Mr. Hope, “Culture is the ability to describe Jane Russell without moving your hands”. It’s surprisingly advanced for its 1948 era, with Russell playing Calamity Jane, who is busted out of prison to go undercover and infiltrate an arms ring guilty of the heinous crime of selling weapons to Indians. [Because, from a liberal 2015 perspective, god forbid anyone try to even the playing field on that particular genocide…] She’s set up with a cover husband, but when he turns up dead, she’s forced to improvise and settles on ‘Painless’ Peter Potter (Hope), an itinerant dentist, as the patsy for the role, as they join a wagon train heading West. Needless to say, he’s delighted, and the legend of his own mind only grows after he fends off an attack by Indians – unaware, all the sharpshooting was entirely Jane’s doing. For her aim is to set him up as some kind of heroic Federal agent, provoking the gang into tipping their hand with retaliation.

It’s impressively even in tone, with Jane clearly the smarter, braver and more talented one of the pairing, running rings around Peter as she manipulates him into being the unwitting stalking horse for her mission. It’s only right at the end, when they both have (somewhat inexplicably) been captured by the Indians, that he rises above his humble origins and skills, doing his part in a rousing finale involving some brisk horse stunts. Russell’s performance was the subject of some mockery, Life magazine saying at the time, in a feature called Jane Russell’s Gamut of Emotions, “she demonstrates how to express a great variety of emotions, without twitching a facial muscle.” However, I think it has perhaps stood the test of time better than Hope’s comic mugging, playing into the cold and calculating killing machine trope – she would rather whack Potter into unconsciousness than kiss him. Certainly, it has lasted better than Bob’s rendition of Buttons & Bows, which inexplicably won the Academy Award that year for best original song.

To be honest, the comedic aspects also seem rather out of keeping with the body count, though it’s hard to tell how much of this may be parody of the genre – certainly, the site of Potter standing beside a literal pile of native American corpses is more likely to provoke embarrassed silence these days, than mirthful chuckles. The film is on much less questionable grounds concentrating on the nicely reversed dynamic between the two leads; even if this collapses into the obligatory and entirely expected fluffy ending, the final sight gag did actually make me laugh out loud, and that’s not easy to do.

Dir: Norman Z. McLeod
Star: Bob Hope, Jane Russell, Robert Armstrong, Iris Adrian

Texas Lady

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“The Queen of Hearts”

texasladyThe start here is absolutely fascinating. Riverboat gambler Chris Mooney (Sullivan) is getting his ass kicked by an unknown amateur – and, worse yet, it’s a woman. Certain it’s just bad luck, he borrows $30,000… and loses that too. The woman, Prudence Webb (Colbert), takes the money and gives it to a bank. Her father, who had a gambling problem, had embezzled cash, lost it to Mooney, and subsequently committed suicide. To gain revenge, she had learned to play poker, studied his tactics quietly and, when she felt assured of victory, put her plan into action. Talk about best served cold. With the balance of the cash, she buys a newspaper in a small Texas town, Fort Ralston. Why? Why not. But on arriving there, she finds the local land barons, in particular Micah Ralston (Collins), after whom the town is named, less receptive to her new-fangled ways, though his hired gun Foley (Walcott) takes a rather creepy shine to Webb.

Intent on recovering his reputation as much as the cash, Mooney has followed Webb to Fort Ralston, where Foley resents the new arrival, seeing him as a rival for Prudence’s affection. Meanwhile, roused by her newspaper’s editorial stance, promoting developments such as the railroad, the town is beginning to stand up against their landlord. Ralston retaliates by fabricating a claim of unpaid back taxes on the newspaper, for which Webb is deemed liable. When that fails to get rid of her, and the residents revolt by electing their own mayor, sheriff and judge, replacing Ralston’s cronies, he blockades the town, citing his ownership of the land all around it. Will Prudence and Chris prevail, in their efforts to bring the town into the modern era [or, at least, the late 19th century?]

Colbert is an interesting choice. She won an Oscar almost two decades earlier, for It Happened One Night, and was among Hollywood’s biggest stars at the end of the thirties. The romantic aspects here are, at first sight, implausible, since she is in her fifties (easily old enough to be Walcott’s mother, for example) and not what you’d describe as classically “pretty.” But screen presence and personality make up for a lot of that gap, with the strength of Webb’s character well ahead of its time. I almost wish they had made the entire movie about the initial plot to get revenge for her father; it would have made for a unique and fascinating tale in itself. Instead, the film more or less collapses into standard Western shenanigans with Mooney’s arrival in town, the film becoming mostly about his struggle against Ralston, with Webb largely taking a back seat in her own movie. This is much less interesting, unfortunately: Sullivan isn’t as good an actor, and his character is largely a stock white-hat. Collins’ portrayal of the villain isn’t bad; you do appreciate he has something of a legitimate beef, having sacrificed his life to the town and its people, which is more motivation than you usually get.

In the end, the production lives or dies with Colbert. When focusing on her, it’s thoroughly entertaining and innovative. Unfortunately, the second half largely shifts its attention off Webb, and significantly weakens the overall quality of the movie.

Dir: Tim Whelan
Star: Claudette Colbert, Barry Sullivan, Gregory Walcott, Ray Collins

New Adventures of Senorita Scorpion, edited by Percival Constantine

Literary rating: starstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: Variable

senoritaPulp Western writer Les Savage, Jr. (1922-1958) was short-lived, dying at 35; but he began writing at the age of 17, and managed to produce over 20 books, as well as a substantial body of short fiction. Though he’s not well-known today, genre critics who have taken note of his work agree that he was more enlightened in his view of women and of ethnic minorities than most pulp writers (and editors/readers) of his day. An example of his trail-blazing in both areas is his series heroine Elgera Douglas, a.k.a. Senorita Scorpion, who stars in a body of stories set in the mountainous Texas-Mexico border country west of the Pecos River. In 2012, through their Altus Press imprint, modern pulp publisher Pro Se Press have brought all these stories back into print in the two-volume collection The Complete Adventures of Senorita Scorpion. I’ve already reviewed that collection for this site.

Perhaps to whet interest for the originals, in 2013 Pro Se also brought out this short collection of three modern Senorita Scorpion pastiches, written specifically for this book by three authors who’ve published other work with Pro Se previously: Nancy A. Hansen, Aussie writer Brad Mengle, and Andrea Judy. I actually read this anthology (which I received as a review copy from Pro Se, with no strings attached) before I read the originals, but chose to wait until I’d reviewed those here before reviewing this spin-off. This was my first exposure to the work of any of these three.

All of the stories, in relation to the original corpus, take place before Savage’s second story, “The Brand of Senorita Scorpion.” Both Hansen’s “The Bells of St. Ferdinand” and “Wanted: Senorita Scorpion” by Mengel are excellent stories, that would earn five stars from me in their own right. They’re well plotted and constructed, with capably drawn characters, realistic dialogue and credible motivations, nice evocation of suspense, Western action that’s not too over the top to be believable, just the right level of detail, and (in one of the stories) a satisfying note of low-key romance. Each of the two authors has his/her own style; but both portray Elgera and her situation in a way that’s basically consistent with the original stories, as a good pastiche should be –though Elgera’s skill with using a whip as a weapon, which Hansen depicts, isn’t a feature of any of the original stories. (Chisos Owens, who in the originals sometimes threatens to eclipse Elgera, is mentioned here but doesn’t actually appear in person.) Both writers avoid use of bad language, with which Savage himself was restrained as well. Elgera comes across in these stories as the sort of “outlaw” the law-abiding can respect and admire: brave, caring, and sparing with lethal force.

Though having only three stories here is regrettable, it’s also understandable; Senorita Scorpion isn’t as well-known as some other classic pulp characters, so not many modern writers were lining up to want to write about her. That makes it doubly disappointing, though, that one of the three, Andrea Judy’s “A Woman’s Touch,” simply comes nowhere near the standard of the other two. It starts with an implausible premise and throws in a couple more, hangs its plot on an improbable coincidence, offers action scenes so over the top they read like parodies (for instance, no real human beings, no matter how athletic they are, jump in and out of a shot-out window when there’s a door right next to it!), is predictable from start to finish, and never generates any emotional response except irritation. Worse, the portrayal of Elgera and her situation here is markedly “off,” compared to the original stories: there, she’s fully in touch with social reality around her, whereas here, she and her dependents are practically totally ignorant of the outside world beyond their mine; here, she’s quite blase’ about shooting people, (except in the one case where she’s obviously foolish not to!), and here she uses “ain’t” where in both the other stories she speaks proper English. (Judy is also the only writer of the three that uses bad language –but that fails to make her dialog very lifelike.) I would seriously doubt that this author ever actually read the original stories.)

In my overall rating, I deducted a star for the one weak story, but I still felt the other two were strong enough to merit four stars for the book. I’d read more by both authors; and I’d even try more by Judy. She’s apparently the youngest and least experienced writer of the three, and I don’t think tried her best here. With more aggressive editing that demanded her best, her tale might have been much better. (Constantine’s role as editor here, I’m guessing, was just to compile the stories and to draft the short author bios at the end of the book –not to impose any quality control.)

Editor: Percival Constantine
Publisher: Pro Se Press, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Jane Got a Gun

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“The sixties called. They want their Western back.”

janegotagunThere have been no shortage of revisionist spins on the Western over the last few years, looking to drag the genre into the 21st century after it seemed all but dead. Just in the last four months, I’ve seen Bone Tomahawk, The Hateful Eight and The Salvation, and while their approaches have been radically different – as have the degree of their success – they are, at least, trying to bring something new to the party. Jane Got a Gun? Not so much, to the point that viewers may feel the urge to check they haven’t fallen through some kind of wormhole, back to the era of Bonanza and The Virginian.

The rural farming life of Jane Hammond (Portman) and her husband, Bill (Emmerich), is thrown into turmoil, when he comes home, shot multiple times. Turns out, he had a battle with notorious outlaws, the Bishop Boys, which ended with several dead on their side, and Bill severely injured. Worse follows in the wake, as John Bishop (McGregor) is on the trail, seeking revenge for his men. With Bill in no state to defend himself and Jane, she turns to former boyfriend Dan Frost (Edgerton, also co-writer on the screenplay), who reluctantly agrees to help Jane stand against the Bishops.

The results are so overwhelmingly bland, one suspects they’re a great deal interesting than the disastrous production, which saw original director Lynne Ramsay literally not show up on the set for the first day of shooting. It took almost three further years for the movie to be released – and they probably shouldn’t have bothered, since it was the lowest grossing wide opening weekend ever for the Weinstein company, then posted the worst second weekend drop ever for a 1,000-plus screen release. Though you can see why it flopped, it’s not a bad movie, just an utterly forgettable one, without a single particularly memorable character to be found. Portman – also a producer, which may explain some things – perhaps comes out best, although her performance consists mostly of setting her jaw and exuding steely resolve. It’s not complemented by the flashback structure used in the story, which is clunky at best, and results in a severe lack of narrative flow. What was the hot-air balloon about, for instance?

It’s even fairly retro in the way Jane leaves most of the fighting to Dan, at least until the very end, and the movie simply feels astonishingly safe, as if O’Connor was reluctant to take any risks at all, for fear of jeopardizing a production which had already gone very badly wrong before his arrival. But sometimes (and Apocalypse Now is likely the best example), film-makers just need to say, “Screw it”, and plunge on regardless towards realizing their vision. If the results may or may not be great, they’ll probably be less forgettable than here, and considering how long it took to arrive, it wasn’t worth the wait.

Dir: Gavin O’Connor
Star: Natalie Portman, Joel Edgerton, Noah Emmerich, Ewan McGregor

Strange Empire

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“Strangely appealing.”

strangemepireThis Canadian TV series ran for 13 episodes, but was not renewed at the end of the first series, leaving the double shock which occurred at the end of the final episode, with no hope of resolution. That’s a shame, since there was a lot to like about its grubby portrayal of 1869 life, just north of the border between Canada and Montana. It begins when a wagon train of settlers, passing near the mining settlement of Janestown, is attacked and almost all the men are killed or driven away, leaving the women to fend for themselves. In particular, there is Kat Loving (Gee), a half-Indian sharpshooter who seeks the truth about her husband’s fate, and Rebecca Blithely (Farman), a female medical researcher, something almost unheard of at the time. But they are up against John Slotter (Poole), who runs Janestown as his own personal fiefdom, and whose wife Isabelle (Jones) is a match for the new arrivals in terms of her wits, and likely surpasses them when it comes to crafting of intrigues.

It’s the characters – the three women, and let’s not forget John, who eventually becomes the glue that binds them together in common cause – which drive this. Kat is certainly the most conventionally “heroic,” becoming the town’s sheriff, a position which brings her into direct conflict with Slotter; yet, she also has a murky past, being a wanted woman for the murder of a surveyor. Rebecca is the most difficult to get a handle on; while possessing a brilliant mind, she has a near-total lack of “people skills”, to the point of near-sociopathy. Finally, Isabelle possesses no scruples and is prepared to do absolutely whatever may be necessary to achieve her goals and escape her low-born upbringing – including seducing her husband’s father, when access to his money becomes necessary. They make a fascinating trio, well-drawn and well-portrayed by the actresses concerned.

The past year has seen a number of new takes on the Western genre, from Bone Tomahawk and The Hateful Eight to The RevenantEmpire does, perhaps, try somewhat too hard to be subversively revisionist, not least in the gratuitously transgender “cowboy”, who seems to have been added to the story for no reason than to appeal to trendy modern sensibilities. It’s much better when not attempting to pander to those, sticking with the Slotters’ efforts to keep their teetering mine business afloat, along with its probably more profitable brothel sideline, by any means necessary. This is balanced with Kat’s refusal to let John act like some kind of medieval baron, and insistence that he face the consequences of his murderous actions, which are becoming increasingly more frequent – if she can’t get justice for the massacre of the male settlers, perhaps there are other crimes that can be pinned on him.

While there are a number of side-threads (the strong role of Chinese businessman Ling is also very interesting), it’s this which drives the plot forward, and I was kept watching in the fervent hope of seeing Slotter get what he deserves. It’s to the show’s credit, with its unwillingness to collapse into a simple “black hat/white hat” mentality, that the outcome remained in doubt until almost the last few minutes of the final episode.

Created by: Laurie Finstad-Knizhnik
Star: Cara Gee, Melissa Farman, Tattiawna Jones, Aaron Poole

The Complete Adventures of Senorita Scorpion, by Les Savage, Jr.

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstarhalf
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2

scorpion1Action adventure fiction, in the pulp era, tended to be a male-dominated field; the writers and readers were overwhelmingly male, and the protagonists having the adventures and engaging in the derring-do tended to be correspondingly male. The culture of that day had deep-rooted stereotypes about the unfitness of the “weaker sex” for strenuous physical challenges, and about the inappropriateness of combat as a role for females who were supposed to be naturally gentle and demure. But there were writings that bucked these assumptions, particularly in the Western genre. Senorita Scorpion, the creation of Les Savage, Jr. (1922-1958), wasn’t actually the first pistol-packing cowgirl to be featured in the Western pulps of the 30s and 40s; but she proved to be the most popular, one of the most unique, and probably the subject of the longest running and thickest corpus of material of any of these fictional ladies: seven stories, originally published in Action Stories from 1944-49. Through its Altus Press imprint, (CreateSpace is just the printing service) Pro Se Press seeks to bring the best fiction of the early modern pulp magazine era back into print, in book form now, for a new generation of fans. These stories (plus one by Emmett McDowell, which used the Senorita Scorpion name for an entirely different character) were a felicitous choice for one of their first projects, in two volumes.

The stories included here are: “Senorita Scorpion” (1944); “The Brand of Senorita Scorpion” (1944); “Secret of Santiago” (1944); “The Curse of Montezuma” (1945); “Brand of the Gallows-Ghost” (1945); “Lash of the Six-Gun Queen” (1947); “Gun Witch of Hoodoo Range” by McDowell (1948); and “The Sting of Senorita Scorpion” (1949). For purposes of this review, the McDowell story is considered separately; the main body of the comments below refer just to the stories by Savage.

Our setting here is Brewster County, Texas in the 1890s. This is a real county, located in the Big Bend area west of the Pecos and north of the Rio Grande, and the geography of the area as depicted by Savage is real, including the inhospitable Dead Horse Mountains. When we first meet protagonist Elgera Douglas, a.k.a. “Senorita Scorpion,” she’s a girl outlaw pulling off a daring robbery, but she’s not an outlaw who wants to prey on others in order to live without working; her motivations are considerably different. They’re rooted in the background of the story series, which is gradually disclosed in the first tale; but it won’t be an undue spoiler to explain it here.

In 1681, a grandee of New Spain, Don Simeon Santiago, discovered a gold mine in the Dead Horse Mountains, originally worked by the local Indians. He built a house and ranch there, in the only valley in the range with enough water to support humans and cattle, and sent several fantastically rich shipments of gold south to Mexico. Soon, however, the ranch was attacked by raiding Comanche, who killed everyone they could find and, when they left, sealed off entrance or egress to the valley by caving in the mine tunnel which served for that purpose. The only survivors were George Douglas, a British-born slave originally captured from an English ship in the Caribbean, and a Mexican Indian slave woman. From these two, over the next two centuries an inbred Douglas clan of mixed Anglo-Indian ancestry and culture grew up in the valley. In 1876, they finally succeeded in digging through the mine and re-uniting with the rest of the world, though they kept the location of their valley secret.

By 1891, clan leader and official landholder John Douglas, Elgera’s father, lies in a coma, and the Santiago lands are under the covetous eye of ruthless cattle baron Anse Hawkman, who owns everything in the area worth owning and has used legal chicanery to force the smaller landholders off their claims. Elgera (“El Gera” is Spanish for “the blonde one”) is one of three children, the only girl, and not the oldest; but with her father disabled she’s the undisputed leader of the family. Savage never actually explains why; we’re left to infer that it’s because of her strong, born-leader personality –which is definitely evidenced– and the respect commanded, in a situation where fighting is a necessity, by her formidable gun skills, which considerably surpass those of most men. She’s become an outlaw, as the law defines it, in order to strike back at Hawkman and his interests.

scorpion2From this beginning, the first four stories proceed in a chronological arc; each is self contained, but the following ones build on the preceding ones in terms of character and situational development, so that what we have is a genuine story cycle. In the later three stories, the chronological relationship to the rest of the corpus isn’t as clear, except that they all take place after the events of the first story, and that “Lash of the Six-Gun Queen” is set near the end of the decade. Savage makes statements inconsistent in details with what he wrote earlier in one story, and another tale also gives some evidence of forgetfulness on his part. The rest of the Douglas clan simply disappears in the later stories, and their unique sociological circumstances aren’t explored at all, while the Santiago Ranch functions about like a set or a piece of furniture; there’s not much attention to its fortunes or the practicalities of running it. Elgera’s supposedly well-known skill at cards is only brought out in “Brand of the Gallows-Ghost,” and never mentioned elsewhere.

The major characters are well-developed, and several appear in more than one of the stories. (Chisos Owens tends to play as large a role in most of the stories as Elgera does, and actually does more of the fighting.) Savage develops his plots with considerable originality and artistry, and the stories benefit from his trademark serious research to ground his work in actual Western history. (The fraudulent so-called “History of Montezuma,” for instance, really was produced in 1846 under the conditions he describes in “The Curse of Montezuma;” and while I haven’t been able to check his details about 17th-century Native American and Spanish mining/smelting practices in “Secret of Santiago,” they have a ring of truth.) He writes action scenes well; he’s an excellent prose stylist, and has a good sense of pacing, and the stories employ elements of mystery which are very effective in adding to the suspense he conjures. Elgera’s a likable character, as are the various good guys who assist her; and the villains are the sort you love to root against. A half-Indian heroine is as much of a trail-blazing feature, in this period, as a combat-capable one, and Savage’s treatment of Hispanic and Indian characters isn’t racist; some are villains, but others are treated very positively.

Critics might complain that some plot elements are a bit exotic (such as a character who’s a Satanist, or the premise of a peyote-based cult in one story), or that there’s some reliance on coincidence in places. But peyote use really is historically a feature of Southwestern Indian religion, and coincidence IS at times a feature of real life, too. There’s not much bad language in the stories (McDowell uses more of it than Savage does), and what there is isn’t particularly rough.

In terms of her action chops, we’re told much more often about Elgera’s gun skills than we’re shown them –but we are shown them occasionally. She uses lethal force sparingly (and only in defense of herself or others), though when she has to, she takes it calmly in stride. (Bad guys who take her on hand to hand –and she’s no slouch at that type of fighting, either!– usually wind up killing themselves accidentally; but as a group, they’re too stupid to recognize that pattern and avoid it. :-) )

Will Murray contributes introductions to both volumes; the second one deals mostly with the genesis and publication of the stories, but the first one regrettably concentrates mostly on the sex appeal of the pulp cowgirl characters in general and the more salacious aspects of the cover art. To be sure, many males then and now were, and are, culturally conditioned to view both real and fictional women only, or primarily, as sexual commodities. But that’s not, IMO, the most helpful lens here for viewing the character –nor the primary one that Savage invites us to use. Yes, he depicts Elgera as powerfully attractive to most of his male characters (and she tends to be fickle in her own romantic attractions –one of my primary quibbles with his portrayal of the character). But the stories certainly aren’t about sex, Elgera and her male admirers never do anything more than kiss, and her sexuality is just an ancillary part –not the be-all-and-end-all– of who her character is.

A brief word will suffice about McDowell’s story. My wife considered it out of place, and a detriment to the book; it’s included because Savage’s publishers, when he was too busy working on a novel at the time, enlisted McDowell to write a Senorita Scorpion story, and this is what they got. He used the name, but makes the woman’s character and circumstances totally different from Savage’s Elgera, and changes the setting to Arizona in the early 1880s to boot. Essentially, it’s a story about a completely different woman with the same nickname. Taken on its own terms, though, it’s actually a solid story with an excellent twist, and one of my favorites in the book.

Author: Les Savage, Jr.
Publisher: Altus Press, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as printed books: Volume 1 and Volume 2

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.