Comfortable and Furious

A Look Back At Kevin Costner and His Westerns

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Dances with Wolves. Welcome to Fort Sedgewick (1990)

We are introduced to Costner’s Lt. Dunbar as he lay on the surgeon’s table somewhere in Tennessee, waiting to have a foot removed before it goes the way of all gangrene.In those days amputation was the treatment for severe arterial or bone damage. A bone smashed by a Mini ball was lost, so it was the common treatment. Before the surgeon can do any sawin’ on Dunbar, he has to “coffee up”, so heads off for the closest Starbucks.

Dunbar don’t cotton to any talk of sawin’, so using a stick with a curved end he just happened to have with him, he hooks his boot off the ground and painfully pulls it on the damaged foot. Wait a gosh darn minute! The surgeon’s assistant would have cut the boot to remove it, saving the wounded man the agony to pull, pull, pull. Got it! Whew! Whens the last time you changed socks, LT?

Booted up, he saunters over to his men who are along a fence line facing the Confederate bunch known as Tucker’s Tough ‘ol Cobbs, a mere 100 or so yards away across an open field. The damn Rebs have been taunting the Blue Bellies who lack the sand to cross the100 yards and teach Johnny Reb a thing er two. Who can blame them?

This tableau is being observed by a Union general high on a hill. What? Are those three stars on his shoulder? He is a Lieutenant General! The film is set in 1863 and in 1863, there were exactly ZERO Lt. Generals in the Union Army. Grant would become the first the following year when he assumed command of all Union Armies. It seems Costner’s writer, Michael Blake, finds history a challenge beyond him.

Dunbar decides to kill two birds with one stone. Break the standoff and commit suicide. I mean like, why not? He loses the foot and he’ll never play tennis again. Match Point. He steals a horse and heads towards the Confederates . He stops short of a direct frontal assault and does not breech the Confederate line , unlike Harry Flashman at Balaclava. (Flashman and the Redskins has a much better story than this Dancing with Dingos thing).

Those Southern farm boys were noted marksmen, and even if Dunbar rode parallel to the line, with little Kentucky windage any number of them boys who fired at him would have shot him off the stolen horse. He rides with his arms spread wide, a Christ figure on horseback. He would be more in keeping with the Savior if he rode an ass, rather than look like one. Ah, there is beginning to appear Dunbar is protected by divine intervention, what Mark Twain called “Special Providence”. The commanding general upstairs seems to have further use for the young officer. He is soon to be a Man with a Mission.

However, Dunbar’s horsey ride has managed to rally the Union soldiers who mount a counterattack and take the field. Hip Hip Hip Hurrah!

Dunbar is attended to by the Lieutenant General who orders his ambulance to transport him to his personal surgeon. As it is a well known fact generals get the best doctors, so Dunbar’s foot is saved by divine intervention; awarded the horse he stole, and and a shinny new Henry sixteen shot repeater. His orders? Go West, young man. We don’t need the likes of you in our war.

Sometime later, and with no visual transition, he lopes into Ft Hays Kansas mounted on the horse Cisco all by his lonesome. It was actually named Ft Fletcher and was not established until 1865 and is yet another example of Michael Blake’s ignorance of the subject he is writing. I think I can see History of the West coffee table books as the sole research tool.

This Ft Hays only existed on film having little or no reference in fact. The fort looks more like a Mountain Man/Indian rendezvous than an army post. Troopers are loafing, playing cards, shooting craps or all three at once, and look nothing at all like the three companies of professional cavalry troopers posted there on the first day in 1865.

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Headquarters looks like a sutler’s store gone to seed. Inside he meets a fat, stupid major, clearly nuts. So heavy you wonder how the army wrangler found a mount that would carry him.

From this point on the narrative becomes an ostinato of White man, slovenly, degraded, crazy/Indians, honorable, brave, clean and reverent. “I will do my duty to the Great Spirit and my tribe.”

The major’s rant sounds like something out of Ivanhoe or Monty Python and the Holy Grail. He is ordered to the far flung outpost of the US Cavalry, the legendary Fort Sedgewick. I am sure you have heard of it.

Dunbar sets off with a mule skinner who knows the way. Timmons is the most vile, disgusting, crude and stupid white man within ten feet in any direction at Ft Hays, where all whites are vile, disgusting. They set off.

Yah mule.

Cue: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon

On the long ride to the Camelot of Kansas, Dunbar drinks in the beauty of the soon to be lost landscape, while enduring the stupid, lazy, slobbering, farting, yes, let us not be forgetting farts, yo, of the muleskinner, who has mysteriously escaped the hangman’s noose or a pistol ball through the head. I did not see a single sunflower in this the sunflower state .

In Michael Blake’s screen-treatment masquerading as a novel, Dunbar’s reaction to the Great Plains is described thus: “He was adrift. It made his heart pump is a strange and profound way.” ( A Walter Mittylike,pocketa, pocketa, pocketa) “This is religious,” a voice in his head tells him. (I am not making this up)

One of the best scenes in this sequence involves Dunbar staring up at the starry sky where he sees a shooting star. He sketches the night sky, complete with shooting star in his journal.

The selfsame journal in which he will confesses his treason later on.. How much difference is there between the night sky in the state of Kansas in 1863, and back in agricultural Tennessee?

Note to quartermaster: It is unwise to send resupply under threat of attack by Native Americans to a distant outpost in freight wagons in tandem, pulled by a few skinny mules. Since there are no roads and the wagons run over rough ground with the possibly of a broken axle (likely) or broken wheel (very likely) would it not be best to send a military escort with the wagons if for no reason than to protect the supplies? No, no no, can’t do that. Had Dunbar been with an escort, upon arrival the the Fort, he would have returned to report to his commanding officer. You know, like a real soldier.

Fort Sedgewick is Latin for, “two leaky sod huts.”

A couple of day travel brings Dunbar as his disgusting driver to the far flung fort. A couple sod huts and corral. But, no captain in command. No soldiers, no CROATIAN clue as at Roanoke. No Croatians! Dunbar concludes the only thing he can do as an officer and gentleman (by act of Congress, mind you), is to remain, alone, with no orders, and man the unmanned post. Here he begins journal entries as voice-over narration to explain the story.

The location of the fort is a curious study in military engineering. Built well below the crest of the hills, in a shallow, bowel shaped valley, centered by a large pond. The placement of the two huts that passes for the fort, leaves them unprotected from an enemy who could rain down fire on them from above. As we will learn much later, no latrines were dug either.

So, Dunbar prevails upon Timmons to unload the supplies and return to Ft Hays to inform the dead major of his decision to remain at his post for no apparent reason.

On the way back, Timmons is waylaid by the bad Indians of the piece, the Pawnee (the bad Indians of the movie of Little Big Man). As we will soon see, the Sioux are the Noble Red Man, here. Vile Timmons is shot full of arrows and then scalped for good measure. He will not be returning to spread the good news of Dunbar’s solo posting. His final words are for his beloved mules. Sniff.

Being a cavalry officer, Dunbar naturally puts his beloved horse in the corral, never bothering to unsaddle him. Cisco reminds him the next morning.

Dunbar from this point explains the story to the audience with voice over from the journal. One day he notices a wolf, his future dancing partner, hanging around the fort. He draws a beed on the poor animal with his Henry but does not pull the trigger.

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Note to prop master: The Henry has an exposed cartridge-follower on the bottom of the tubular magazine and is it easy to see when the magazine is empty. Like in this scene.

So, Costner has established our hero following special providence, the disgusting whites, and the dancing wolf. The Indians are on the call sheet.

Wardrobe and make-up did their job. The Pawnee and Sioux look like they just emerged from a painting by Karl Bodmer or Charlie Russell. They appear authentic without compromising Costner’s vision of the Nobel Savage. In contrast to the Ignoble Savageness of the Whites. The vision thing.

So, after he hooks-up with some screwy broad, a former white captive widowed and engaging in self-mutilation, he hangs with the good Indians and sees just how superior they are to the whites back home. He records him observations and feelings in the journal for later use against him at court-martial.

As they used to say in the British Army in India, he went wog. He changed sides.

He is finally missed back in Hays and a relief column is sent to the fort. Noticing he was a renegade, he is arrested. He didn’t have to worry about the journal being used against him. A trooper used the pages to wipe his ass after he shit in the pond. Yes, the drinking water. That is what a lack of latrines gets you.

The troopers escorting Dunbar back to Hays, degenerates to a man, are murdered by the good Indians and he is freed. He hooks-up with the white girl and together they compel the tribe towards the Promised Land. Like Moses, he does not enter, but goes his own way in the wilderness, along with his new girlfriend. Sniff. Sniff.

Kevin Costner wants to be The One. You see it in Waterworld. He was the Savior Who Watches over sailors in The Guardian. In The Postman he was bringing the Good News to a world in need of some. He is Moses to the Sioux in Dances with Wolves. Actually , more like Tarzan, White Chief of the African tribe, the Waziri. (Who earned the office by acclamation after doing them a solid by fending off ivory raiders, although they are the fiercest tribe in Africa).

His performance in this film is so colorless and drab and not even a buffalo hunt in Panavision and Deluxe color can bring it to life. Eastman Kodak has its limitations.

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Wyatt Earp. Man Seeking Legend. (1994)

Costner was attached to the film that would become, Tombstone. He didn’t like Kevin Jarre’s screenplay because Wyatt Earp was not the sole focus of the story. Too much of Doc, Curley Bill, Johnny Ringo and other guys. After he teamed up with Lawrence Kasdan (Silverado, The Big Chill) to do Wyatt Earp, he did his best to kill Tombstone, even attempting to halt distribution of the completed film. Or, so it is reported in Wikipedia.

The film opens with Wyatt having coffee with a cigar waiting for his brothers to fetch him for the OK Corral fight. Then the flashback of his life. Attempting to run off to get in the scrapping’ in the Civil War before all the fun is over. His Pa, a judge, beats him for it. At a family dinner the judge proclaims he will move the family West, to California. Wyatt will attend law school and then join the family law firm.

Reality check: although a judge, Nicholas Porter Earp was not a lawyer. Here is the first clue this film will play fast and loose with facts.

Wyatt abandons the family quest to Colton, California, and ends up reading law with an established attorney in Missouri. Meets a pretty girl, gets married, the girl dies. This sets him on the trail of lawless drunkenness. Steals a horse in Arkansas and is about to have his neck stretched with the Judge busts him out of jail.

After some false starts, from now on he will follow the trail of the righteous lawman, all the way to Tombstone. He has the CODE. The film sports the usual cast of OK Corral characters: Curley Bill Brocius, the Clantons, McLaurys, Frank Stillwell Johnny Ringo of the Cowboy gang. The corrupt Cochise County sheriff Johnny Behan, Tombstone Epitaph editor John Clum, Bat and Ed Masterson! The love of Wyatt’s life, Josie (aka Sophie) Marcus (actress and traveling prostitute). Let’s not forget the homicidal gambler and gunman, Doc Holliday, traveling dentist.

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His life story told in Stewart Lake’s biography, Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal. Number One: Wyatt Earp was never marshal of anything. He was a pimp and and gambler and became a policeman because it was easy money, even at two dollars an arrest, and did not involve heavy lifting. When he headed North in the Yukon Gold Rush, he did not plan for gold. He washed dishes in a miner’s cafe, sort of like Jimmy Stewart in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, before he shot Liberty Valance.

He was arrested three times for pandering. When he arrived in Wichita Kansas he opened a brothel. For extra money he signed on as an assistant deputy marshal at two dollars an arrest. He found fame as a lawdog in Dodge City with a reputation as a mean cop. In his memoirs an old time cowboy said the police department in Dodge was the most brutal of all the cow towns. He was known to “buffalo” his victims, pistol whipping them across the face with a heavy revolver.

At the time of the OK Corral shooting he carried a badge that read: Special Police. He used the Smith&Wesson Schofield revolver, not the so called Buntline Special. Colt has no record of any orders for a SSA Colt pistol with a 12” barrel from Buntline or anyone else for that matter.

Why do I forgive the historical errors of My Darling Clementine and Gunfight at the OK Corral and not Wyatt Earp? Costner is no Henry Fonda or Burt Lancaster. The story here is a convoluted mess, and is an hour too long. The OK Corral fight and the legendary shootout with Curley Bill Brocius and the Cowboys were poorly directed and dull. Costner’s Wyatt is dull, colorless. Unlike the flamboyant dress of the Cowboys in Tombstone, Wyatt Earp’s Cowboys are all a drab colored brown.

Kurt Russell breaths life into Wyatt Earp in Tombstone. It is a delightful picture and never dull. The Cowboys gang was much better realized in Tombstone. The characters are portrayed as the colorful people they actually were.

There is a great story involving the Earps, the Clantons and many others in Tombstone and would take a miniseries with the quality of Game of Thrones to tell it properly. Hint: Wyatt wanted to run for sheriff of Cochise County, where Tombstone located. The sheriff is the tax collector and kept a percentage of what was collected. The equivalent of several hundreds of thousands of dollars in 2019 dollars. That does not include what he could skim. The Earp’s were law and order Republicans who believed in gun control. The Cowboys were wild Texans.

At the time of his death, there was a still was warrant for his arrest for the murder of Frank Stillwell, a member of the Cowboy outlaw gang, in the Tuscon rail yard in March 1882.

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Open Range (2003) Directed by Kevin Costner

In Open Range, Costner is a simple cowpoke with a past, cut from the same bold of cloth was Owen Wister’s Virginian . His employer, Boss Spearman, in true Western fashion, doesn’t care about his past. The West was the second chance for many. Costner is Charlie Wait, who partnered up with Boss Spearman, played superbly by Robert Duvall, ten years before.

Duvall’s Spearman bears little resemblance to Captain Augustus McCrea of Lonesome Dove. The are completely different men. Like Gus, Spearman carries his pistol in a cross-draw hostler, but traded in his Walker Colt for a Remington 1875 Army Revolver. There the resembles ends ( All other characters carry a Colt Single Act Army).

Charlie Waite carries a Colt Cavalry Model with a 71/2 ” barrel.

Memo to prop department: In the period this is set, 1882, a Colt Peacemaker, the Single Action Army Colt, sold new for thirty dollars, a small fortune for most people and a months’s pay for a cowboy. There were plenty of earlier Colt models available; 1851 Colt Navy .36 caliber (Wild Bill’s weapon of choice), .44 caliber Walker and Dragoon Colts, 1860 Army Colts, many converted form cap and ball to metallic cartridges. Remington and Smith&Wesson both made fine single action revolvers. By 1882 double action revolvers like the Colt Thunderer (Billy the Kid’s preferred pistol) were common.

The only rifles seen are the Winchester Models ’66 and ’73, but no Henry rifles which were essentially a ’66 Winchester with a loading port and closed magazine. There should have been Sharps breach-loaders, their accuracy made them highly prized, and army trapdoor Springfield .45-70 breechloaders, the standard army issue. I know for a fact those guns are available at movie prop houses. Winchester’s, like Colt revolvers, were expensive.

But I am just being picky.

Boss Spearman, Charlie Waite, along with Mose, a gentle giant (Abraham Benrubi) and a young man they rescued from torment and starvation, Button (Diego Luna) drive a small herd of cattle following the grass across the American west. No ranch house, no barn, their only home is a wagon. Boss owns no land. Established ranchers consider them interlopers, taking the grass on public lands they consider their own. A slight variation on farmers vs cattlemen theme.

After they cross into what appears to be Montana (it was shot in Alberta, New Mexico in the novel by prolific Wester novelist, Lauran Paine), they run afoul of a local cattle baron, Denton Baxter, an Irish immigrant played by Michael Gambon. He thinks the public grassland his, along with the town of Harmonville are his property. He keeps the citizens in line with his gang of brutal cowhands, and the town marshal who owes him his job.

Boss sends Mose into Harmonville for supplies, about a day’s ride. When he has not returned at the end of the next day, Boss and Charlie saddle up and ride into town, where the owner of the livery stable, Percy (played by Michael Jeter in his final film) tells them they will find Mose beaten and jailed after finishing a fight started by Baxter’s cowboys. The marshal brained him and tossed him in the hoosegow.

Baxter awaits them in the marshal’s office, warning Boss and Charlie free grazers are hated worse than Indians, and should take their cows out of the territory if they know what’s good for them. Just the sort of advice that will stick in Boss Spearman’s craw.

They take Mose to the town’s doctor where they meet a very attractive woman, Sue (Annette Bening), they take to be the doc’s wife. With Mose patched up as best can be, the three ride back to the wagon. Next day the herd is scouted from a distance by Barter’s man, and that evening Boss and Charlie surround the four villeins at their camp some distance from the herd, disarm them, and assure they ride shanks mare on the way home. They made sure Baxter’s men suffer painful memories of the encounter.

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While they are on this errand, there has been mischief afoot at the wagon. Mose was shot through the head and Button and is near death, by another bad bunch of Baxter’s men. They even shot Charlie’s dog, thus signing their death warrants.

Back at the Doc’s place with Button, Charlie learns Sue is not the Doc’s wife, but his sister who came west with him. Now, Charlie is allowed to fall in love. The doctor is still at Baxter’s place, patching up the boys still suffering from Charlie and Boss’s handy work. They leave the boy with Sue and head into town for a meal at the cafe.

Charles saves a townie’s dog from drowning, thereby earning his gratitude. The locals do not like Baxter anymore than they do, but can’t afford to get into conflict with the tyrant.

The gunfight we knew was coming is near. Baxter’s gang, against Charlie, and Boss with help from Percy. Charlie and Sue declare their feelings. Charlie confesses to Boss his days as renegade ranger during with Civil War, without revealing which side he fought for. It didn’t matter anyway. His experiences as a guerrilla fighter helps to even up the odds.

What follows is one of the better western gunfights ever put on the screen. It is realistic in that more shots missed that hit the target. Lasting several minutes all over the small town, Charlie and Boss along with Percy whittle down the villeins until the townies step in the help finish the job liberating themselves from Dexter’s tyranny. Sic semper tyrannis!

Charlie and Sue reach an understanding that marriage is on the close horizon. Boss gives up his wondering ways. Barb wire is snaking its way cross the West, after all. The saloon is for sale. The owner a casualty of the shootout.

Button will learn a trade wether he wants to or not, and you get the feeling Charlie will support his new wife with his salary as town marshal.

Three Westerns. Two suffering with poor stories. Open Range has a story by a seasoned teller of Western yarns. A classic Western story. No matter how attractive the images and politically correct the concept, no film can overcome a bad story.

Finally, in Open Range, Costner did not play a Messiah, or a Legend, but a man acting in the strong tradition of the West.



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