Thursday, February 10, 2011

Wednesday's Western: The Cowboy and the Cossack by Clair Huffaker

Mulling over both Casablanca and Vertigo, in light of what Wendy Lesser pointed out:  that the audience sees more there than what is on the screen.  In a different context, this is true of Casablanca as well, for many of those in the 1942 audience must have already seen Bogart as Sam Spade in 1941's The Maltese Falcon.  So when, early on in Casablanca, Peter Lorre begins a conversation with Bogart, saying "I know you hate me," the audience isn't told what for exactly, but those who have seen The Maltese Falcon must automatically think back to Peter Lorre's lowlife character there.

These characters play to a commonly held type, wavering between a universal mythic archetype and a politically motivated and fashionable stereotype.  Audiences want their opinions verified, but every time movies are cast to type, they reinforce the fiction that such typing is always true and necessary.

Humphrey Bogart was two inches shorter than Ingrid Bergman, who said that they always had him stand on something when the two of them were to be filmed face-to-face, to give the illusion that he was the taller of the two.  Such things are done to conform to typecasting. 

The pulp westerns often fell into genre cliche relying on type, with a preponderance of thinly drawn characterizations.  As political fashions have evolved, fewer and fewer stereotypes have appeared in mainstream westerns, fiction reflecting the times.

Which brings to mind a western which is remarkable for its use of type:  Clair Huffaker's 1973 novel, The Cowboy and the Cossack.  The plot works both with cliche and alternatively very much outside of it.  The plot is a marvelous work of original imagination concerning a cattle drive across Russia.  But the main characters could have stepped out of the television show, Rawhide, or any of several books about cattle drives, for instance Benjamin Capps' The Trail to Ogallala (Texas Tradition Series) or We Pointed Them North: Recollections of a Cowpuncher.

The Spur Awards of 1973 do not mention The Cowboys and the Cossacks, either in the main category or the YA category.  Elmer Kelton's best novel, The Time It Never Rained, won that year.  Several of Clair Huffaker's westerns were made into interesting movies--including the cattle-drive movie, Cowboy, which starred Glenn Ford and Jack Lemmon, and The War Wagon starring John Wayne and Kirk Douglas--among others.    The fact is, although Clair Huffaker wrote a number of fine westerns, he never did win the Spur Award.  

I'm not sure how many people read Clair Huffaker's book in hardcover, but the first edition, illustrated by Brad Holland, is a treasure to behold.  I first read it right after it came out.  It seemed to get good reviews everywhere, and if a movie had been made from it back in 1973, it would have had just the right edge of political correctness.  Made now, it might seem too politically correct, too corny--or too YA maybe.

It is a hell of a tale, though, and the opening scene, in which the cowboys herd the cattle from ship to shore, is one of the best in western cattle-drive lit, anywhere.  It is not a deep novel, but the first-person narrator is a cowboy poet whose western voice is clean-cut and comfortable.


  1. OK, looks as if Blogger might be getting over itself at least for the moment. As I attempted to post twice before, I haven't tried CH yet, but I certainly have come across that title before...and I wonder who at CBS provided that pb blurb (maybe a bit overblown...).

  2. I read this book when I was a kid, and I totally loved it -- also read Huffaker's "Nobody Loves A Drunken Indian," made into the the not-so-good-but-still-watchable "Flap" with Anthony Quinn.

    Now, at 47, I think it's time for me to find an old hardback copy on Amazon or eBay and re-read it.

  3. Why this Book has never made it to the big screen or a miniseries is beyond me.