Westerns move toward the mythic, but they end up simply formulaic unless they’re peopled by living, breathing characters.
Initially, the mythic underpinning of western films and books was good guys versus bad guys — white hats versus black hats, Us versus Them, Good versus Evil.
Then, starting in the 1950s and accelerating in the 1960s, the trend was toward a muddier moral landscape. We’re as bad as them. The good guys were as bad as the bad guys — or, as in the Wild Bunch, they were the bad guys, just bad guys who weren’t as bad as the really bad guys.
Related to this shift was another trend. It arose during the Civil Rights Movement, especially in the 1960s, when men and women on the margins — African-Americans, Hispanics, prostitutes, for instance — took center stage. These movies bet that mainstream audiences, overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly middle class, could identify with such heroes, and, generally, they did. (After all, Native American boys had long identified with the cowboys in movie westerns.)
The story of Valdez in movie and book brought these trends together, and populated the mythic structure with real people.
The movie Valdez Is Coming
In 1971, Burt Lancaster starred in the Edwin Sherin-directed western Valdez Is Coming. It told the story of Valdez, no first name, a Mexican-American who works as the town constable because he’s able to get along with everyone and gives the impression that he knows how to take orders.
Through circumstance, Valdez kills an innocent black man.
Those circumstances involve Frank Tanner, an intense, short-tempered rancher and employer of a couple dozen hired guns. The victim is killed in a shoot-out that occurs because Tanner has identified the man as the Army deserter who is wanted for the murder of a sutler name Erin. But, then, after the shoot-out, Tanner looks at the body and says, no, that’s not the guy.
Valdez feels responsibility, and, to make life easier for the victim’s pregnant Indian wife, he decides that the dozens of men involved in the shoot-out should raise $500 for her. But no one will kick in unless Tanner does.
When Valdez asks Tanner, the rancher treats him like dirt, and his hired guns tie a cross of wood onto his back and neck so that he can only move by walking bent over. Trying to get home like this, he nearly dies.
What Tanner doesn’t know is that seemingly mousy constable was once an Army scout who survived many years of tracking and attacking Apaches, In a moving scene, Valdez takes out his old scouting clothes and weapons, and essentially “girds his loins” to take on Tanner and his dozens of gunmen.
Returning to Tanner’s ranch, Valdez kidnaps Gay Erin, Tanner’s woman, sending him a message that he will return her in exchange for the $500 for the black man’s widow. (Gay herself is the widow of the murdered sutler.)
The chase is on although often it’s Valdez who is chasing and ambushing Tanner’s mob. The film, which began with the shoot-out that left the innocent black man killed, ends with a face-off between Valdez and Tanner.
The movie, although not well-reviewed initially, has gained respect over the past four decades. As much as he tries, Lancaster is no Mexican-American. Yet, he does a good job of portraying subservience while also hinting at an unknown something under the surface. When he puts on his old gear, the change in him isn’t really a change — just a shift from one aspect of his personality to another.
The book Valdez Is Coming
Those personality aspects are much more explicit in the 1970 book by Elmore Leonard upon which the film is closely based. He writes:
A man can be in two different places and he will be two different men….This is one Bob Valdez. The forty-year-old town constable and stage-line shotgun rider. A good, hardworking man. And hard looking, with a dark hard face that was crease and leathery; but don’t go by looks, they said, Bob Valdez was kindly and respectful. One of the good ones…
Another Bob Valdez inside the Bob Valdez in the willows that evening had worked for the Army at one time and had been a contract guide when General Crook chased Geronimo down into the Madres….
Unlike the movie, this insight into Valdez comes early in the book. And, at various points, Leonard adds a few more brush strokes, as in a scene in which Inez, the local brothel owner, is showing Valdez her scrapbooks, one of which contains a photo of him from 1884:
Bob Valdez with a Sharps .50 cradled in one arm and a long-barreled Walker Colt on his leg. He was wearing a hat, with a bandana beneath it that covered half his forehead, a belt of cartridges for the Sharps, and knee-length Apache moccasins. The caption beneath the picture described Roberto Valdez as chief of scouts with Major General George Crook….
This is the clothing and these are the weapons that, in the film, Lancaster puts one when this other aspect of his personality comes front and center.
Whereas the Valdez whom Lancaster portrayed had no first name, there is an intricate dance of meaning in Leonard’s use of “Bob” and “Roberto.” That’s on display about two-thirds of the way through the book:
Remember, there is a Bob Valdez who knew his place, and the one looking for a normal life and a home and a family.
Now this one is inside the one at the high camp above the mountain meadow at the edge of the timber. Bob and Roberto are both there, both of them looking at the woman across the firelight, but Roberto doing the thinking now…
In the movie, the actors give substance and reality to their characters. They aren’t stereotypical — not just Valdez, but also Tanner, Gay Erin and several other relatively minor players in the drama.
The book is even richer in this way. Tanner isn’t simply a mindless, bigoted tyrant, but a man who has labored, albeit illegally, to get what he has today and who, in prison, dreamed one day of having a beautiful blonde in his bed.
Gay isn’t just a plot point as women often are in westerns. As Leonard shows bit by bit, she’s someone who’s always had a man to tell her what to do — her father, then her drunk husband and Tanner. Now, in a late scene, she looks across the campfire to Valdez for a signal of how she should act.
There is the mythic aspect to Leonard’s book as there is to the movie — a wronged man rebels against power.
Yet, this myth is only the skeleton. The characters — with their uncertainties, their fears, their search for something like respect and love — give the story its soul. The movie accomplishes this, and the book does it even better.
There is an arc to the story. There is a plot. But it’s the people who are the most memorable.
A final note
I got a copy of Leonard’s Valdez Is Coming after reading his 2007 novel Up in Honey’s Room. (I’d seen the movie a few months ago.) In my review of the more recent book, I mentioned that it wasn’t as good as Leonard’s best stuff, but added that even so-so Leonard was pretty good. Indeed, it was so interesting despite its failings that it led me to order the Valdez book. That’s a pretty good compliment to a so-so book.
And here’s another compliment: Valdez Is Coming is Leonard at his best.
Patrick T. Reardon