The news that a new film version of Jack Schaefer's novel Monte Walsh will premiere this month on TNT will thrill the author's loyal fans. Most viewers, however, will not even recognize Schaefer's name, though he is the author of the classic novel Shane (1949)--which was made into a feature film in 1953, and is ranked number 69 on the American Film Institute's list of 100 Best Films. In "Jack Schaefer, Teller of Tales," published in this journal in 1996 (when it was still in print form), I noted that Monte Walsh was Schaefer's tribute to that quintessential American hero, the cowboy, and observed that Monte himself exemplified the self-sufficiency, capability, and simple human decency at the core of Schaefer's ethos. All of Schaefer's work, I argued, transcends the conventional "Western" genre. So, too, does this new television adaptation.
Any film based on a novel has two audiences--those who have read the novel and those who have not. It is a safe bet that most television viewers will know nothing of Monte Walsh, which was first published four decades ago and was reissued by the University of Nebraska Press in 1981(a new edition, tied to the film adaptation, has just been published). Few bookstores even stock the novel, though virtually all carry Shane (Schaefer's tale about a heroic gunfighter and the boy who worships him). Nor will most viewers be familiar with the deservedly obscure feature film of Monte Walsh made in 1970. They will therefore have no preconceived notions when they tune in to watch the TNT film, though many will no doubt be attracted by the presence of Tom Selleck, ideally suited to the title role, and by Isabella Rossellini, in the role of Martine--the sensitive and refined prostitute who is Monte's great love.
Like the novel, the film is episodic in character, reflecting the gritty and physical, yet often tedious existence of the cowboy. The period is the twilight of the Old West, the end of the era defined by open ranges, epic cattle drives, and the cowboys on horseback who made things work. It is a time when Monte, his best friend Chet Rollins, and the rest of the Slash Y trail crew face the dilemma of how to respond as railroads and Eastern business conglomerates threaten the core of their way of life in the name of progress. Monte and Chet, long inseparable, choose different paths: Chet, marriage and the world of business; Monte, whatever he can do, atop a horse--each true to himself while remaining true to the other. Progress takes its toll on all, however, at times with tragic consequences.
Anyone expecting a typical Western plot will be surprised by this made-for-television adaptation, for Monte Walsh is character-driven. While much of the story naturally centers on Monte's friendship with Chet, his relationship with Martine adds an unexpected layer of complexity. As in the novel, the love scenes between the two are played with restraint--no heavy breathing here--reflecting the deep and sometimes heart-breaking mixture of tenderness and respect they feel for each other. Monte is unwilling to abandon his life driving cattle and breaking wild horses, however, and it is a measure of Martine's love for him that she does not pressure him to do so.
Other elements also help to make this Monte Walsh an enjoyable film. Not least is Monte's penchant for wry humor and practical jokes. Selleck seems to relish this side of Monte's personality, with entertaining results. Then there is the setting--the spectacular Rocky mountains of Wyoming, and the sweeping beauty and unforgiving nature of the land on which the cowboys ply their trade. All this is convincingly re-created, and filmed to great advantage.
Viewers familiar with the 1970 film, which featured the ill-suited duo of Lee Marvin (as Monte) and Jack Palance (as Chet), will find the television re-make superior in every respect. Simon Wincer, who directed, deftly weaves together a rich tapestry, creating an engaging panorama of Old West cowboy culture. A wonderfully conceived prologue immediately transports the viewer into the languid atmosphere of Antelope Junction, as forsaken a town as one could imagine. Monte, already middle-aged (in contrast with the novel, which begins when he is sixteen), is found sitting, not atop his horse but on a porch, in a rocking chair, with little to do but keep an eye on the inactivity all around him and plot his next piece of mischief. The scene unfolds delightfully, moved along by Monte's wry machinations.
Anyone who knows the earlier film version will not recognize this opening sequence, but familiar details soon begin to appear--scenes and bits of dialogue that seem to have been lifted directly from the older film. The original teleplay one began watching appears to be morphing into the old screenplay--in fact, it seems to actually be the old screenplay. Happily, each scene is so improved that one can settle back and enjoy the story as it plays out anew. Less happily, the television film retains two crucial earlier distortions of the novel. However skillfully re-interpreted, each does grave damage to both the letter and the spirit of Schaefer's conception of Monte's relationship with Chet and with Hattie (to call her by the name Schaefer gave her, and thereby suggest his very different conception). In the more egregious of the two instances, the filmmakers utterly re-conceived the final series of dramatic events involving Monte, and Monte and Chet, violating the integrity of Schaefer's story. Viewers unfamiliar with the novel will not feel betrayed. Yet they have been. Michael Brandman, co-executive producer (with Selleck) and co-writer of the teleplay, claims that the movie honors Schaefer in its adaptation, that he and the other writers (including the two original screenwriters) "worked extremely hard to remain faithful to Schaefer's intent." And so they did, in many telling respects, which is why the film is often very fine. Yet in the conclusion of the film, which most mattered, they did no honor to Schaefer's vision.
I must add a final word about Schaefer's Hattie (Martine). In my view, she is one of American fiction's most remarkable minor characters, but the film versions have so transformed her--both physically and psychologically-- that she is scarcely recognizable in all but superficial terms. Schaefer develops her relationship with Monte in scenes of such dramatic intensity that one wonders how the writers involved in the two film projects could have missed their cinematic possibilities, choosing instead to fashion a pale substitute.
In What Art Is, Michelle Kamhi and I examine the original screenplay Harrow Alley, by Walter Brown Newman, set in London during the Great Plague of 1664-65. A movie based on it was never made. The actor George C. Scott had purchased the screen rights in 1968, but was unable to obtain financing, as he was unwilling to alter Newman's work. "'This is a piece,'" Scott rightly insisted, "'and it's got to go like this.'" Is it really too much to wish that the writers and producers of the recent adaptation of Monte Walsh had, when it most counted, treated Schaefer's text with similar respect?
We concluded that, "given the present tenor of the film industry . . . in which [filmmakers] think nothing of tinkering with screenplays . . . the likelihood of a faithful production is slim indeed."
In spite of my many criticisms, I found much to admire and enjoy in TNT's adaptation of Monte Walsh, as I have plainly indicated. The film will certainly spark new interest in Schaefer's novel, and perhaps in his other work as well. That should please all who love and admire his work.
Credits and Running Time
Based on the novel by Jack Schaefer; written by Michael Brandman and Robert B. Parker (original prologue and epilogue), and David Z. Goodman and Lucas Heller (screenplay for the 1970 theater version); directed by Simon Wincer; director of photography, David Eggby; edited by Alan Baumgarten; music by Eric Colvin; production designer, Rick Roberts; produced by Steven Brandman; executive producers, Michael Brandman and Tom Selleck; a Turner Network Television (TNT) Original premiere. Running time: 2 ½ hours (2 hours of actual film time).
STARRING: Tom Selleck (Monte Walsh), Isabella Rossellini (Martine), Keith Carradine (Chet Rollins), and George Eads (Shorty Austin).
SHOWTIMES (All Eastern--check local TNT listings): Fri., Jan. 17, 2003, 8 p.m.; Sat., Jan. 18, 8 p.m.; Sun., Jan 19, 8 p.m.
ENCORES: Fri., Jan. 17, 10:30 p.m.; Sat., Jan 25, 2:30 p.m.& 10:30 p.m.; Sun., Jan 26, 9:30 a.m.; and Wed., Jan. 29, 9 p.m.
Recommended Reading and Viewing
The first three titles are available in bookstores, and at amazon.com, which also carries the video.
Monte Walsh, by Jack Schaefer (trade paperback, published by the University of Nebraska Press)
Shane, by Jack Schaefer (mass market paperback)
Shane: The Critical Edition (trade paperback published by the University of Nebraska Press-- includes the complete novel and numerous scholarly essays, as well as one by Schaefer)
Shane (DVD or VHS of the 1953 film starring Alan Ladd and Brandon DeWilde)
The Collected Stories of Jack Schaefer (out of print but available in libraries, and through BookFinder.com and other search services)
The Short Novels of Jack Schaefer (out of print but available in libraries, and through BookFinder.com and other search services)
"Jack Schaefer, Teller of Tales," by Louis TorresThis article was published in two special eight-page issues of Aristos in October and November 1996 (Vol. 6 No. 4 and Vol. 6 No. 5). To purchase it, use our convenient Order Form, circling 6-4 and 6-5 in the last column.The Jack Schaefer Page, edited by Louis Torres