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Going to the Source

by Leonard Maltin
July 11, 2013 12:00 AM
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Here is an original hardcover with its dust jacket

It’s no secret that John Ford’s 1939 Western classic Stagecoach was based on a magazine story by Ernest Haycox called “Stage to Lordsburg.” Until this month I’d never read any fiction by that author, but a friend recommended Bugles in the Afternoon, which inspired a mediocre 1952 movie starring Ray Milland and directed by Roy Rowland. The story takes place ten years after the Civil War and deals with a man who enlists in the U.S. Cavalry at a remote outpost in North Dakota, little dreaming that he will be a participant in the battle of Little Big Horn. He is deliberately quiet about his past, including a blood feud that drove him out of the Army a decade ago and soured him on women.

There’s nothing much to recommend about the movie, a standard-issue Warner Bros. production with a capable cast, credited to two experienced screenwriters: Geoffrey Homes (a pseudonym for Daniel Mainwaring) and Harry Brown. But the book is a revelation.

Not only does Haycox understand the disposition of career soldiers and the mundane but revealing details of life at a dusty fort: he knows the West, from its appearance to its smells, from sun-up to sundown. He is a keen observer of human nature, to boot. One wouldn’t seek out a “Western writer” for nuanced prose about the looks that pass between a man and woman—what they tell, and what they withhold—but Haycox is a masterful weaver of words.

Here’s how his book opens, with a chapter titled “That Bright Day—That Far Land:" "The town had a name but no shape, no street, no core. It was simply five buildings, flung without thought upon the dusty prairie at the eastern edge of Dakota, and these stood gaunt and hard-angled against the last of day’s streaming sunlight. The railroad, which gave the town a single pulse beat once a day, came as a black ribbon out of emptiness, touched this Corapolis with hurried indifference, and moved away into equal emptiness. The five buildings were alone in a gray-yellow space which ran outward in all directions, so empty that the tiring eye never saw where earth ended and sky began. There were no trees in this world, no accents, no relieving interruptions; nothing but the gray soil rolling on and a short brown grass turned crisp and now ready to fade when winter temperatures touched it.”

An early paperback edition...

It’s at this remote weigh station that we’re introduced to the hero and heroine who happen to be traveling West on the same stagecoach.  

I enjoyed the book so much I dove into another of his novels right away: Canyon Passage became a movie in 1946 starring Dana Andrews, Susan Hayward and Brian Donlevy, adapted by Ernest Pascal and directed by Jacques Tourneur. I haven’t seen it in many years; I remember it being good, but I doubt that it can compare to the feast that Haycox provides on the printed page. His characters soar with life and never fall into the realm of stereotype; they are a mass of contradictions, for this man truly understands human nature.

 Another friend who shares my passion for old-time radio suggested I read Frederic Wakeman’s best-seller The Hucksters, which MGM adapted in 1947. Having revisited the film just months ago (thanks to a recent release by Warner Archive), I was keen to see how the book differed. The story takes place in the waning days of World War Two, and its protagonist, who’s just returned to civilian life after working for the Office of War Information, has no use for rationing and other such annoyances. For instance, he expects his secretary to do whatever is necessary to book him the proper accommodations for his trip to the West Coast.

The narrator explains, “Now that airplanes were impossible to ride without priorities, it was again fashionable to ride the Twentieth Century Limited and the Santa Fe Chief or Super Chief for the trip between coasts. All the radio and movie people spent a lot of time, thought, and bribe money finagling space on those deluxe trains. One of the reasons was that you traveled with your own kind. Especially on the Super Chief, which was a sort of exclusive club for the Hollywood-New York commuters. It was one of the symbols of the entertainment fraternity, like gold Dunhill lighters, glossy women and hand-painted neckties.”

Another original hardcover edition

Naturally, the novel is much more frank about sexual matters and even deals briefly with anti-Semitism. But I was pleasantly surprised to see how skillfully Luther Davis, Edward Chodorov and George Wells maintained the thrust of the novel in their screenplay, while devising a new and (to my mind) improved love story to replace the lackluster one in the book.

Wakeman was one of the 1940s “Mad Men” who decided to expose the advertising game and with it the inner workings of network radio, which was under the control of ad agencies back then. Much of this is maintained in the film, including the portrayal of an outrageously despotic soap manufacturer played by Sydney Greenstreet—and based on American Tobacco’s notorious George Washington Hill. (MGM was not inclined to replicate another character plainly inspired by MCA’s Jules Stein, however.) The film is well-cast up and down the line, with perfect parts for two leading ladies, Deborah Kerr and Ava Gardner. Reading the novel, I couldn’t help but picture Adolphe Menjou as Clark Gable’s business partner; that’s how perfectly suited he is to that character.

This is a rare instance where Hollywood was forced to sanitize a candid and racy book but managed to maintain its cynical tone.

Nowadays, if I know that film rights have been optioned for a novel, I usually avoid reading it. I don’t want to be forced to make comparisons; I’d rather form an independent opinion of the movie. But dipping back into the past and making those comparisons has proven to be a refreshing and rewarding experience.

Incidentally, if you don’t have a used-book dealer you already patronize, it’s never been easier to find older books: you can try eBay,, or go to or



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  • Jim Beaver | July 23, 2013 5:55 AMReply

    Interesting stuff, Leonard. The film version of BUGLES IN THE AFTERNOON was always of interest to me primarily for two reasons: it's one of the few movies George Reeves got to make after becoming TV's Superman, and it's one of the few movies I can think of that feature Custer's Last Stand but only as a peripheral event. I wonder if the book covers the Custer stuff more thoroughly. Would love to read Haycox's take on that.

  • Norm | July 13, 2013 9:43 PMReply

    Fascinating reading, er viewing, er both...nicely done from all view points...Maybe Hollywood will do their homework...or not...We sure could use more apocalyptic films...

  • Mike P | July 12, 2013 10:05 AMReply

    I must differ with Leonard's evaluation of the movie version of "Bugles in the Afternoon". This is a tremendously entertaining western that has perhaps one of the screen's most evil and cunning villains in Hugh Marlowe. Normally laid-back Ray Milland gives arguably his most athletic performance in an action film. Ray and Hugh's climatic fist fight during an all out Indian attack was/is one of my favorite all time western set pieces. It also has Forrest Tucker with an Irish accent and a wonderfully exciting score by Dimitri Tiomkin. "Canyon Passage" is also one of my very favorite celluloid westerns. Would love to see a proper DVD release of "Bugles". I believe Olive may have the current rights.

  • terry bigham | July 12, 2013 8:58 AMReply

    The late great John Huston made his rep as a adapter of novels and stories, from the hard-boiled tales of Hammett and Burnett to the classics of Melville, Kipling, Lowry, B.Traven and Joyce. And William Wellman is renowned for two pairs of popular fiction adapations, by James Street ("Nothing Sacred" and "Goodbye, My Lady") and Walter Van Tilburg Clark ("The Ox-Bow Incident" and "Tarack of the Cat")

  • Kristine | July 12, 2013 4:59 AMReply

    Two other movies based on books, "Son of Fury:Benjamin Blake" by Edison or Edson Marshall,which was made into a movie starring Tyrone Power and "Where The Boys Are", book written by Glendon Swarthout, was made as movie "Where The Boys Are", starring Dolores Hart(now a nun, Mother Dolores Hart, whose autobiography, "The Ear Of The Heart" is out)and Connie Francis(her film debut in 1960). I always like reading your website.

  • evan jeffrey williams | July 11, 2013 4:46 PMReply

    I love your excitement of discovery in this article. That's what film fans have with a new film but even better that you also read-as I do. Haycox's descriptions are as evocative as a John Ford film. THE HUCKSTERS is one of my favorite films also and it has more layers and cynicism than most MGM movies of the period. Gosh, why didn't Lux Radio Theater do a broadcast version? Ahem.

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