Collecting Great Westerns

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Yellow_SkyMy primary goal here is to identify and remember all my favorite westerns. Because I focus on collecting, this page will be updated periodically. I also want it to be of use to others, so I’m adding links. Clicking on the year will take you to a description of the film (to Wikipedia until I can write my own reviews). Titles will link to Amazon. The letter grades represents my reaction to the film, and not a critical judgment. Many films won’t have a grade until I see them again. I’m going to also list the format of the discs I own, but that’s only useful to me. Most of these films I’ve seen once, for many, twice, and some, many times. I will eventually add television westerns.

Finally, I want to analyze why I love westerns and what makes a good western. That will happen in the future. Today, I’m just starting with a list. I’ll eventually add content after the listing. I’ll also write reviews to films and link to them when I get time.

Westerns represent a philosophy, reflected in the genre. I’m a liberal, so explaining why I love a genre that’s so conservative will take some effort. Westerns portray details about history, while revealing changing attitudes towards history. Eventually I want to rate both historical value and how well each film fits the genre. For now, I’m going to use a very simply list format to make it easy to expand and edit. In the future, I’ll convert the list to a table, add film cover images, and other annotations.

I should point out I only collect films I enjoy rewatching. There will be many omissions. That means I either don’t like the film, don’t think its fits the genre, or is set outside of the 19th century.

My Favorite Westerns:

  1. The Big Trail (1930), John Wayne, A+, [Blu-ray]
  2. Cimarron (1931), Richard Dix, Irene Dunne, B+, [DVD]
  3. The Plainsman (1936), Gary Cooper, Jean Arthur, A
  4. The Texas Rangers (1936), Fred MacMurray, Jack Oakie, B+, [DVD]
  5. Destry Rides Again (1939), James Stewart, A+, [DVD]
  6. Dodge City (1939), Errol Flynn, A+
  7. Jesse James (1939), Tyrone Power
  8. Stagecoach (1939), John Wayne, A+
  9. Union Pacific (1939), Joel McCrea, Barbara Stanwyck, A+, [DVD]
  10. Santa Fe Trail (1940), Ronald Reagan, Errol Flynn
  11. The Westerner (1940), Gary Cooper, Walter Brennan, A+, [DVD]
  12. They Died with Their Boots On (1941), Errol Flynn, B+, [DVD]
  13. Western Union (1941), Robert Young, Randolph Scott, Dean Jagger, A-, [DVD]
  14. The Outlaw (1943), Thomas Mitchell, Jane Russell, B-
  15. The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, Harry Morgan, A+
  16. Tall in the Saddle (1944), John Wayne
  17. Along Came Jones (1945), B, Gary Cooper, Loretta Young [DVD]
  18. Duel in the Sun (1946), Gregory Peck, Joseph Cotton, Jennifer Jones
  19. My Darling Clementine (1946), Henry Fonda, Victor Mature, Walter Brennan, A+, [DVD]
  20. Angel and the Badman (1947), John Wayne, Gail Russell, A+
  21. Ramrod (1947), Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake
  22. 3 Godfathers (1948), John Wayne, B+, [DVD]
  23. Blood on the Moon (1948), Robert Mitchum
  24. Fort Apache (1948), John Wayne, Henry Fonda, B+, [DVD]
  25. Four Faces West (1948), Joel McCrea
  26. Red River (1948), John Wayne, Montgomery Cliff, Walter Brennan, A+
  27. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), Humphrey Bogart, A
  28. Whispering Smith (1948), Alan Ladd, Robert Preston, A-, [DVD]
  29. Yellow Sky (1948), Gregory Peck, Anne Baxter, Richard Widmark, A+, [DVD]
  30. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), John Wayne, B+, [DVD]
  31. Broken Arrow (1950), James Stewart, B+, [DVD]
  32. The Gunfighter (1950), Gregory Peck, A, [DVD]
  33. Rio Grande (1950), John Wayne
  34. Winchester ‘73 (1950), James Stewart, Shelley Winters, A+, [DVD]
  35. Rawhide (1951), B+, Tyrone Power, Susan Hayward [DVD]
  36. Westward the Women (1951), B+, Robert Taylor
  37. Bend of the River (1952), James Stewart, B, [DVD]
  38. The Big Sky (1952), Kirk Douglas, B+
  39. High Noon (1952), Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly, Thomas Mitchell, A-
  40. Rancho Notorious (1952), Marlene Dietrich, B
  41. Man in the Saddle (1952), Randolph Scott, B
  42. Hondo (1953), John Wayne, [Blu-ray]
  43. The Naked Spur (1953), James Stewart, A-, [DVD]
  44. Shane (1953), Alan Ladd, Jean Arthur, A+, [DVD]
  45. The Far Country (1954), James Stewart, Walter Brennan, B+, [DVD]
  46. Garden of Evil (1954), A-, Gary Cooper, Susan Hayward, Richard Widmark, [DVD]
  47. Johnny Guitar (1954), Joan Crawford, B
  48. River of No Return (1954), Robert Mitchum, Marilyn Monroe, B+, [Bluray]
  49. Vera Cruz (1954), Gary Cooper, Burt Lancaster, B+
  50. A Lawless Street (1955), Randolph Scott
  51. The Far Horizons (1955), Fred MacMurray, Carlton Heston, Donna Reed, B
  52. The Man from Laramie (1955), James Stewart, B
  53. Ten Wanted Men (1955), Randolph Scott, Richard Boone
  54. The Searchers (1956), John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, A+, [DVD]
  55. Seven Men from Now (1956), Randolph Scott, Gail Russell, Lee Marvin, A-, [DVD]
  56. 3:10 to Yuma (1957), Glenn Ford, Van Heflin, A
  57. Decision at Sundown (1957), Randolph Scott, [DVD]
  58. Forty Guns (1957), Barbara Stanwyck, C+
  59. Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas,  B+
  60. Night Passage (1957), James Stewart, Audie Murphy, A, [DVD]
  61. The Tall T (1957), Randolph Scott, Richard Boone, Maureen O’Sullivan, B+, [DVD]
  62. The Tin Star (1957), Henry Fonda, Anthony Perkins, B+
  63. The Big Country (1958),  Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Carroll Baker, Charlton Heston
  64. Buchanan Rides Alone (1958), Randolph Scott, [DVD]
  65. Cowboy (1958), Glenn Ford, Jack Lemmon, B+
  66. The Law and Jake Wade (1958), Robert Taylor, Richard Widmark, A, [DVD]
  67. Man of the West (1958), Gary Cooper, [DVD]
  68. Saddle the Wind (1958), Robert Taylor, Julie London, B+
  69. Day of the Outlaw (1959), Robert Ryan
  70. The Horse Soldiers (1959), John Wayne
  71. No Name on the Bullet (1959), Audie Murphy, [DVD]
  72. Ride Lonesome (1959), Randolph Scott, [DVD]
  73. Rio Bravo (1959), John Wayne, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson, B+, [Blu-Ray]
  74. Comanche Station (1960), Randolph Scott
  75. The Magnificent Seven (1960), Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Eli Wallach, A
  76. The Unforgiven (1960), Burt Lancaster, Audrey Hepburn, Audie Murphy, A
  77. The Comancheros (1961), John Wayne
  78. One-Eyed Jacks (1961), Marlon Brando, Karl Malden
  79. Two Rode Together (1961), James Stewart, Richard Widmark, Shirley Jones, B+
  80. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), John Wayne, James Stewart, Lee Marvin, B+
  81. Ride the High Country (1962), Randolph Scott, Joel McCrea, A-, [DVD]
  82. A Fistful of Dollars (1964), Clint Eastwood
  83. For a Few Dollars More (1965), Clint Eastwood
  84. The Sons of Katie Elder (1965), John Wayne, Dean Martin
  85. El Dorado (1966), John Wayne, Dean Martin
  86. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), Clint Eastwood
  87. Nevada Smith (1966), Steve McQueen, A
  88. The Professionals (1966), Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin
  89. The Rare Breed (1966), James Stewart, Maureen O’Hara, Brian Keith, B
  90. Hombre (1967), Paul Newman, Fredric March, Richard Boone
  91. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Henry Ford, Charles Bronson, Jason Robards
  92. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Paul Newman, Robert Redford
  93. The Wild Bunch (1969), William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, [Blu-ray]
  94. Chisum (1970), John Wayne
  95. A Man Called Horse (1970), Richard Harris
  96. Little Big Man (1970), Dustin Hoffman, A+, [Bluray]
  97. McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, A-
  98. Jeremiah Johnson (1972), Robert Redford, Will Geer, A+, [DVD]
  99. Ulzana’s Raid (1972), Burt Lancaster
  100. High Plains Drifter (1973), Clint Eastwood
  101. Pat Garret and Billy the Kid (1973), James Coburn, Kris Kristofferson, B+
  102. The Missouri Breaks (1976), Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson
  103. The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), Clint Eastwood
  104. The Shootist (1976), John Wayne, Ron Howard, Lauren Bacall, A-
  105. Heaven’s Gate (1980), Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, Jeff Bridges
  106. The Long Riders (1980), David Carradine, Stacy Keach, Dennis Quaid
  107. Pale Rider (1985), Clint Eastwood
  108. Silverado (1985), Kevin Kline, Kevin Costner
  109. Lonesome Dove (1989), Robert Duval, Danny Glover, Tommy Lee Jones, A+, [Blu-ray]
  110. Dances With Wolves (1990), Kevin Costner, A, [Bluray]
  111. Unforgiven (1992), Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman,  A+
  112. Tombstone (1993), Kurt Russell, Val Kilmer, Dana Delany, A
  113. Wyatt Earp (1994), Kevin Costner, Dennis Quaid,  A, [Blu-ray]
  114. Riders of the Purple Sage (1996), Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, A-
  115. Open Range (2003), Robert Duval, Kevin Costner, A
  116. 3:10 to Yuma (2007), Russell Crowe, Christian Bale, A
  117. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), Brad Pitt, [Blu-ray]
  118. Appaloosa (2008), Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen, A+
  119. True Grit (2010), Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, A
  120. The Revenant (2015), Leonardo DiCaprio A+

Westerns I want to see:

  1. The Covered Wagon (1923)
  2. The Iron Horse (1924)
  3. Tumbleweeds (1925)
  4. Pursued (1947)
  5. Wagon Master (1950)
  6. The Shooting (1966)
  7. The Great Silence (1968)
  8. The Hired Hand (1971)
  9. The Claim (2000)
  10. Meek’s Cutoff (2010)


 

JWH

The Psychology of 1, 10, 100 and 1,000

By James Wallace Harris, Sunday, May 15, 2016

1 is a special number. We can only be in love with 1 person at a time, like ducklings imprinting on their mother. This week 2 of my friends told me The Game of Thrones was their all-time favorite TV show. We can only have 1 favorite of anything—books, friends, movies, beverages, television shows, foods, songs, photos. There must be a psychology that’s special to that number. 1 is never enough, is it? How many people can we love, how many good friends can we have? I believe there’s a practical limit to that too. It might be 10 at any one time, and maybe 100 in a lifetime. Some people claim 1,000s of friends. Really?

1 10 100 1000

Psychological researchers used to say 7 of anything is the most images people can retain in their mind at once. Newer studies claim fewer. Multitasking is a myth. We’re like old Macs, good at quick task-switching. I can picture 6 marbles in a triangle pattern of 3, 2, 1. When I add number 7 next to the group of 6, the group of six disappears. Back to 1.

This is why we make lists. You might remember to bring home 4 items from the grocery store, but probably not 10. And certainly not 100. On Spotify I’ve been building TOP 1000 playlist of my favorite songs. When the list approached 500 songs, I realized there were songs I loved way more than others. So I created a TOP 100 list. It quickly filled to 123. As I listened to that list, I realize that some of those songs didn’t belong. The list is shrinking towards 100.

If asked, what my TOP 100 favorite songs were, could I recite that playlist from memory? No, that’s doubtful. That’s why we have TOP 10 lists. Few people think in lists like I do. But if they did, there’s a psychological dynamic that works with the number 10. Maybe because we have 10 fingers, or we use a base-10 numbering. 10 is memorable, but we want more than 10. That’s why we see people listing their 12, 15 and 25 favorites. I’m guessing we have the capability to love 100, or even 1,000 things. Yet, I think 10 is the around the limit we can recall quickly. A TOP 10 list can be recited to a friend, but a TOP 100 requires writing down.

I can love a 1,000 songs, but not a 1,000 movies or books—definitely not 1,000 people. A 1,000 song playlist is manageable, but not memorable. The songs are unforgettable, but I could never recite 1,000 song titles. If I had more bookshelves, I could fit 1,000 books in this room where I write. I had over 800 before the last culling, but I’ve since pared them down to less than 400. Even that many is too many for me to handle at age 64. I’m forgetting what I own.

Sometimes 1,000 is practical. Other times 100 or 10 is workable.

When Olivia and Annie told me their all-time favorite TV show was The Game of Thrones, they asked me about mine. My immediate answer was Breaking Bad. I think it hurt their feelings I didn’t agree with them. I assured them The Game of Thrones was in my TOP 10. But I was mentally rattling off many shows I liked more. In no order, Downton Abbey, Humans, Mr. Robot, Big Love, The Man in the High Castle, Battlestar Galactica, The Sopranos, Fargo, Deadwood, came quickly to mind. Ooops, did that make The Game of Thrones number 11? Were there older shows I love more, but I just couldn’t remember them at the moment? In 1961, my list would have included The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, The Twilight Zone and Have Gun-Will Travel. Would any old favorite make it to my current TOP 10?

Time constrains the numbers we can embrace, the magnitudes we can grok. On my TOP 100 playlist is “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo” by Duke Ellington from 1926. A TOP 10 list tends to focus on the current, but a TOP 100 can span time. My TOP 100 songs span 106 years. The oldest song I love is a 1910 orchestral arrangement of “Pavane pour une infante défunte” (Pavane for a Dead Princess) by Ravel. My TOP 1000 contain choral, classical and operatic works created 100s of years ago.

My guess is TOP 10 lists focus on recent experiences, whereas TOP 100 lists will span decades, and TOP 1000 can cover centuries. The beauty of subscribing to Spotify is I have a fantastic library for building my playlists. Back in the 1970s, when I haunted record superstores, I used to wish that I owned all the albums in the store. Spotify grants that wish times 100. For the past couple years I’ve been searching out my favorite songs from a lifetime of listening. That list is at 444. I’m guessing it will get close to 1,000 by the time I finish. I know collectors can own 1,000s and even 10,000s of LPs, but physically ownership is not the same psychological awareness.

I wonder, and this is just from personal experience, if 1,000 is the upper limit of our comprehension? I used to own 1,001 Books To Read Before You Die. I never read it all the way through. I eventually gave it away because it overwhelmed me to think I still had another 800 books I had to read. I figure I’ve read at least 2,500 books in my life, and probably seen more than 5,000 films, but I doubt I could ever remember more than 1,000 of each, even if I starting writing titles down with the aid of Wikipedia and IMDB. I can handle a playlist of 1,000 songs, but not a bookshelf 1,000 books, or a rack of 1,000 DVDs. When I was younger, I did, but getting old is shrinking my universe.

For a while, maybe into my 70s, I’ll search out the TOP 100 books and movies I want to cherish. I expect, as the years go by, that number will dwindle. Eventually, I’ll be down to remembering my TOP 10 of everything, and finally, if I have the right kind of death, my TOP 1 of favorite people and things will pass through my thoughts as I fade away. If I can distill that number down before I die, I’ll tell my last friend to mention them at my funeral.

JWH

Movie Memories From Growing Up

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Yesterday I watched two movies I had first seen in the 3rd and 5th grades. I don’t know what spurred this bout of nostalgia, but I wondered enough to write this essay. I don’t think I’m unique in wanting to see shows again from childhood. I often read customer comments when buying DVDs on Amazon that start with phrases like “I’ve been searching for this movie for decades.” Been there, done that, more times than I can count.

Cooper and Beery - Treasure Island

The first film I watched yesterday was Treasure Island from 1934, with Jackie Cooper and Wallace Beery. I was in the third grade, and we were living in New Jersey. I believe I saw the movie first, then my mother got the book and read it to me, or with me. It’s the only memory I have of her reading to me. I also remember going to a costume party that year dressed as Long John Silver. I’ve seen this film countless times over my lifetime, and it always evokes strong wistful emotions. I don’t know if it’s the story, or memories of my own feelings from long ago. It’s funny, there’s been many versions of Treasure Island since 1934, but I’ve never seen any of them. I either feel the Wallace Beery version can’t be beat, or I’m afraid of ruining my nostalgia. For some reason my memories of black and white movies are stronger than movies in color. There were some old films that were in color, but I first saw them in B&W because we didn’t own a color TV until 1965.

The Time of Their Lives

The second movie, the one I first watched back in the 5th grade with my sister Becky, is The Time of Their Lives, an Abbott & Costello film from 1946. Lou and Marjorie Reynolds play revolutionary war ghosts, falsely condemned as traitors, cursed to haunt the Danbury estate where they were killed till the crack of doom. Bud plays a guy in the past and the present, but kind of an asshole in both eras. The neat thing about this Abbott & Costello flick, is the duo are separated. Even as a kid, I could only handle so much of their standard shtick, so The Time of Their Lives was refreshingly different. Becky and I loved the story of very old ghosts interacting with the modern world. Of course, we also love the Charlie the Tuna commercials that came on with the movie. Today, I can enjoy parts of The Time of Their Lives but it’s pretty damn silly. Mostly, it’s nostalgia that keeps me watching. The Time of Their Lives is often referred to as the Abbott & Costello film for people who don’t like Abbott & Costello.

Death Takes a Holiday

As a kid, I didn’t really like a lot of kid flicks, not even Disney films. But I did love films about pirates, folks stranded on desert islands, ghosts and angels. The first film I remember seeing, High Barbaree, I’ve written about a number of times, included a mystical island and a stranded naval pilot. Did that film start me on my road to loving fantasy, or was I born with a fantasy gene? Or is it just typical for kids to love movies about ghosts and angels? Doesn’t everyone love It’s A Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, The Bishop’s Wife, For Heaven’s Sake, Angels in the Outfield, Death Takes a Holiday, On Borrowed Time – wait, I seem to be remembering only old black and white angel movies. I do love Wings of Desire, City of Angels and Angel-A, and other modern angel movies, but not like I love the old ones.

What’s hilarious is I’m an atheist, but love angel movies. Go figure. Even as a kid I was skeptic. When I was very young I was extremely gullible that attracted torment. I was a year younger than all the kids my grade. For example, they picked on me for being the last kid to believe in Santa Claus. So I guess I turned towards fantasy in movies and books, my secret way to enjoy ghosts and angels, knowing they weren’t real, but still getting to believe in an approved way.

On Borrowed Time

I have to wonder why the movies I saw before age 13 burned deeper into my consciousness than the movies seen since? I’ve watched thousands of films, and I know intellectually that modern films are far more sophisticated, better made, better acted, and better told, than my old favorites. But it’s the old films that have glued themselves to my neurons. It’s also these films first seen in childhood, that I buy and rewatch. Is that just me, or true of everyone as we get older?

National Velvet

Which reminds me, I also loved old movies about dogs and horses, especially National Velvet and Lassie Come Home, or maybe as a kid I just had a crush on the young Elizabeth Taylor. During that time I used to love reading books by Jack London and Albert Payson Terhune.  And don’t forget Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan flicks, and shows about monsters like King Kong and Frankenstein. But by the time I was in the sixth grade, I had developed a passion for 1930s movies, especially for MGM and Warner Brother pictures. I didn’t know anything about the studios back then, I just loved black and white movies from the 1930s. That’s what showed on TV growing up, so I was conditioned by them. Films like Manhattan Melodrama and Grand Hotel seemed otherworldly to me then, and maybe now too.

manhattan-melodrama

Maybe one reason why those old films are so well buried in my brain is I used to stay up late watching them. During the summer vacations my parents would let Becky and I watch the all-night movies. I realize now my mother probably allowed this because we’d sleep until noon, and this would give her some private time before she had to be at work at 2pm. Anyway, maybe I love these films more because I watched them instead of getting my REM sleep. To me, one of the most powerful forms of nostalgia is watching old black and white movies late at night in a darken room. I love the flicker of movie light being the only illumination of reality. Hell, I had VR sixty years ago.

JWH

The Fiction at the Bottom of Our Souls

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, March 17, 2016

  • Can we trust who we think we are?
  • Can we assume our convictions are correct?
  • Why are we so passionately convinced our version of reality is the right one?
  • Is fiction truer than memory?
  • How does fiction consumed in childhood affect the way we perceive reality?

Of your earliest memories, which do you favor: remembered events or stories? I can dredge up some exceeding vague memories from when I was three, but lately I’ve been reading about scientists studying memory that makes me doubt what I recall. I know what I think of as actual events might not be recordings of reality, but memories of memories of memories. Every time we replay an old memory, science now thinks, we record over the original memory with the impressions of remembering that memory. (Watch “Memory Hackers” on PBS NOVA or The Brain with David Eagleman.)

Treasure Island

There is nothing in my memory bank as vivid as the photo above.

Mixed in with all my memories of reality are memories of fiction. I was born in 1951, but my earliest memories of television come from 1954-55. A few years later, are memories of seeing my first movie on TV, High Barbaree. I’m sure I saw others, but its the one I remember. My late 1950s memories are filled with black-and-white science fiction films and Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan flicks.  Around 1959 I encountered Treasury Island, the first book I remember reading.

I have many memories of external reality growing up in the 1950s, but I also have more memories from television. Because I’ve seen those TV shows & old movies repeatedly over the years and decades, and often reread my favorite books, those fictional memories have gain vividness, while my real life memories fade. Is it any wonder that Turner Classic Movies has become so meaningful to the social security set?

I once returned to the house I lived in when I was four. I think of age four as the beginning of my personality.  When I stood on that sidewalk in front of that house, I felt like I was at the Big Bang beginning of my existence. From 1955 till today, I have two kinds of memory. What happened in my life and what happened in stories. In terms of deciding which programmed my soul more, I’m undecided.

Robert Silverberg has a wonderful essay, “Writing Under the Influence” in the March 2016 Asimov’s Science Fiction about how a favorite fantasy story he discovered in childhood influenced two novels he wrote as an adult (Son of Man, Lord of Darkness). The story, The Three Mulla-Mulgars, by Walter de la Mare, from 1919, is one I’ve never heard of before. Folks at GoodReads gush about how delightful this forgotten fairytale is to read. I snagged a free Kindle edition from Amazon and hope to read it soon.

I highly recommend reading Silverberg’s essay. I love people’s reading histories. Unfortunately the link to read the essay online will quit working when the next issue comes out. You can get Asimov’s at your newsstand, or from Amazon as a Kindle ebook.

dorothy-lathrop-three-royal-monkeys

Here’s one of the original Dorothy P. Lathrop illustrations from The Three Mulla-Mulgars, from a collection of them at 50 Watts.

Partly why Silverberg’s essay resonates so deeply with me is because he describes how an earlier true-life African explorer narrative, The Strange Adventures of Andrew Battell of Leigh, in Angola and the Adjoining Regions figured in The Three Mulla-Mulgars. I’m fascinated by how stories inspire stories. Or how writers are inspired by authors from earlier generations. The memories of authors are encapsulated into their stories, and we share their memories by reading, and their memories as passed on through us. And if we write stories, using older memories from those we’ve read, those memories are rerecorded for another generation, much like brain memories, and just as distorted.

High BarbareeHigh Barbaree Movie

I’ve often fantasized about writing a story based on my memory of my first encounter with fiction. My earliest memory of seeing a movie is waking up in the middle of the night, and watching the all-night movies with my dad. This was before I went to school, and I didn’t comprehend movies, acting or fiction. All I can remember is a scene of two kids who were friends being separated, when the girl and her family moved away. Even at that young age, that had already happened to me more than once, because my father was in the Air Force. It was a strong fictional emotion bonding with my own remembered emotions.

This was when I was too young to remember the title of movies. Years later I saw the movie again, and that’s when I memorized its name, High Barbaree, with Van Johnson and June Allyson. I was in the sixth grade. I used to trust my memories from that age, but I don’t anymore. I caught High Barbaree again in my twenties, after I got married. This time it occurred to me that it might be based on a book. I wasn’t able to find the book until the internet age, and AbeBooks.com. It was then I discovered the book was written the same guys who wrote Mutiny on the Bounty, Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, and they also have a fascinating history. I was also able to track down a biography of those two writers at that time too, In Search of Paradise by Paul L. Briand, Jr.

Between the original novel, and the biography, I learned High Barbaree was about memory, and a fictionalized autobiography of sorts for James Norman Hall. Hall was writing about how our souls are formed by early memory and fiction. He was remembering the writers who influenced him. His memories became my memories, and if I could ever write a novel, their memories would get passed down, along with some of mine. I guess I am a believer in the collective unconscious.

It’s now possible to buy High Barbaree on DVD, but I’m not sure I can recommend it. It’s slight, sometimes silly, and very sentimental. The book is more serious, and fits the memories I have of seeing the story as a child. Or at least, that’s how I remember it now. I know my original impressions, however vaguely they were recorded by my brain, have been lost to rewriting by all the times I’ve recalled that memory. Each time I’ve watched that film again, dwelled on those memories, reread the book, or written about all of this, I’ve recolored those deep original memories with newer philosophical musings.

I used to believe we could discover the truth of history. I used to think memories were real and trustworthy. Now I doubt the reliability of neural recordings, and any collective knowledge we have about actual history. We constantly rewrite our own memories, and we constantly rewrite history. For example, the new book by Bart Ehrman, Jesus Before the Gospels, has more than convinced me that it’s absolutely impossible to know anything about Jesus as a real person in history. Ehrman’s analysis of history and memory applies to recent historical figures as well, where we have solid documentation, like for Abraham Lincoln or Albert Einstein. All these revisiting and new recordings have written over any real history that happened.

rashomon

The best nonfiction is still fiction. I’ve taken classes and workshops in creative nonfiction, and I know from experience I can’t write the absolute truth.  Memories are just stories we tell ourselves about fleeting impressions of the past poorly etched in our brains. Our minds are not DVRs. And even if they were, how often have you seen a video in the news where people argue over what actually happened? Realty was never our version of events—it’s always the Rashomon effect.  Even if we average out all the eyewitnesses, we can never definitively say what happened.

All during 2016, we hear folks wanting to be president tell stories they swear are true. And we’ll vote for the candidate whose stories match our own stories the best. All of those stories were shaped by the fiction everyone encountered growing up. Remember how Ronald Reagan used to blend movie scenes into his recollections? I used to think he was a doddering old man, but now I wonder if he wasn’t wiser than he appeared. We’re all going to look like silly old fools someday, dwelling on fleeting memories of our past, poorly remembered. But that doesn’t mean the stories we tell ourselves and others don’t have a kind of elegant logic. It won’t be the truth, but if we could only get our stories to work together, it might be true enough.

My reality is colored by stories I encountered in my early years, like High Barbaree. Just like Robert Silverberg’s reality was colored by The Three Mulla-Mulgars, which he discovered when he was young. We might think the fiction at the bottom of our souls are merely stories, but I’m not so sure anymore. Those early tales had a butterfly effect on shaping who we became. We can’t understand reality in black and white certainty. But we do make sense of our external existence by storytelling, and so we need to understand the truth of that.

JWH

How Popular is Reading Science Fiction?

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, January 19, 2016

What I’d really like to know is how popular is reading science fiction? It’s almost impossible to separate books, movies and television shows when discussing science fiction. Science fiction movies are certainly less popular than sex or sports, but they might give apple pie a run for its money. Trying to figure out the popular appeal of SF books is a complete riddle.

I have a life-long interest in science fiction, both as a consumer, and as a topic of philosophical study. Why did fascination with science fiction blossom in the mid-20th century, and spread like kudzu in popular culture ever since? I’ve been thinking about writing a book about science fiction literature, but I’m not sure how many people read about the history and nature of the genre. One of the best books I’ve read on this subject is The World Beyond The Hill: Science Fiction and the Quest for Transcendence by Alexei and Cory Panshin. Have you even heard of it? Probably not. It won the Hugo in 1990, for Best Non-Fiction Book.

The World Beyond The Hill - Panshin

Over the decades I’ve read a number of books about science fiction, but other than the people who write about science fiction, I don’t know anyone personally who buys such books. My guess is hundreds of millions of people love to watch science fiction at the theater or on television, and several hundred thousand love to read science fiction, but I’d guess only few thousand humans in this whole world like to read about science fiction.

To get some idea of science fiction’s popularity I used the Alexa site, an Amazon company that tracks web stats. If you study the numbers and sites, you’ll probably notice that interest in media SF drives most of the higher rankings. It’s very hard to gauge interest in just printed science fiction. I do know that decades ago some SF digest magazines had over 100,000 subscribers, and now they are all around the 10,000 mark. But far fewer people read science fiction short stories compared to novels. Science fiction novels don’t dominate the best seller lists like Sci-Fi does at the box office. Most fans prefer to see SF than read it.

Site U.S. Rank Global Rank
io9.com 36,961 1,675
starwars.com 1,343 3,928
tor.com 6,459 21,874
startrek.com 9,893 28,465
sciencefiction.com 36,977 105,387
scifinow.co.uk 113,513 122,368
sfsignal.com 49,097 210,023
locusmag.com 73,260 263,078
strangehorizons.com 72,413 278,212
sffworld.com 137,467 309,193
bestsciencefictionbooks.com 89,148 312,016
dailysciencefiction.com 99,167 383,305
lightspeedmagazine.com 130,384 417,852
sf-encyclopedia.com 170,106 454,412
clarkesworldmagazine.com 126,308 485,754
worldswithoutend.com 145,960 540,963
asimovs.com 256,251 856,963
escapepod.org 265,635 1,048,438
analogsf.com 643,265 1,147,547

You can look at Alexa’s Top 500 sites to get an idea of how well-known web sites rank. All the SF sites with short stories rank 99,000 and below in the U.S. So reading science fiction short stories is not very popular at all. In comparison, The New Yorker comes in at 491 for the U.S., and 1,582 for the world. The Atlantic rank 324/866. The super-intellectual New York Review of Books comes in at 8,100/20,016. For a more common read, People Magazine is ranked 151/549.

I guess I’m fascinated by a topic that has little interest to most people.

Essay #999 – Table of Contents

Are Historical Movies An Insult to History?

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, September 14, 2015

Last night I watched Belle Starr, an old 1941 western with Gene Tierney and Randolph Scott. I didn’t know anything about Belle Starr before the movie, other than her famous name. So after the show I looked her up on Wikipedia. The movie was complete bullshit. Now this is a particularly bad example to ask this question: Should we avoid movies that claim to be based on history?

THE IMITATION GAME

In the past year I’ve seen films about Alan Turing, Stephen Hawking and J. M. W. Turner. All three films won awards and received much critical praise. In each case I felt like I was looking at detailed recreations of the past. Yet, when I read “A Poor Imitation of Alan Turing” by Christian Caryl, I was troubled that I might have gotten a very wrong impression about Alan Turing. I now wonder about my history lessons on Hawking and Turner. Watching those films let me feel I was getting to know those men. Now the more I read, the more I doubt, the more I feel confused, and even misled.

Movies make a far greater impact on our brains than reading black and white words on paper. Even documentaries can give the wrong impression, so we must be extra cautious with historical fiction. Should we assume any fictional account of history is only fiction? That’s really hard for me to do. I can’t turn off my sense that I’m learning history when I’m watching a film, or reading a historical novel. If I know some of its real, then all of it feels real, especially if the storytelling is good. Fiction can be very convincing.

We have all kinds of ways of learning about history. History books, journals and courses are the most respected sources, but there is also museums, paintings, photographs, archival film, newsreels, sound recordings, transcribed interviews, letters, diaries and even archeological artifacts. If you’ve ever seen a Ken Burns documentary, you know how powerful such evidence can be. Yet, when we watch a movie, it feels like we’re reliving history. It’s very hard not to let Hollywood teach us about the past.

stephenandjane

I must wonder, did The Imitation Game treat Alan Turing fairly? Would Alan Turing have been flattered to see himself on the big screen as a cinematic hero? In a way, it was vindication for being mistreated in life. In another way, it was an insult, because they still got him wrong. I’m pretty sure the real Belle Starr would have laughed her ass off at seeing Gene Tierney’s version of herself. Stephen Hawking has been very kind in his praise for The Theory of Everything, saying it was broadly true, and at times it felt like he was seeing himself on the screen. However, Slate magazine compares film and history in “How Accurate Is The Theory of Everything?” and again, I’m disappointed by how I’ve been tricked. How disconcerting must it be for a real person to compare what they see on the big screen to real memories?

Our approach to history has always been fast and loose. Often shows on The History Channel are an abomination. Remember, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and the quote, “When the legend becomes fact… print the legend.” Of course, that’s the movie’s side of things. Quite often when I see clips from Fox News, I get the feeling their sense of reality was learned from Ronald Reagan’s screenplay tinted view of history. We often remember the facts the way we need them remembered.

I’m starting to wonder if I should avoid any film or television show that claims to be based on truth, because movies are so powerful, that once I see them, that’s how I see history.

JWH

The Way We Were and The Way We Are

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, September 9, 2015

One of the few positive aspects of getting older is living long enough to see great changes in society. Although, a savvy young person should be able to observe the same changes by watching old movies. It’s not the same thing as living through those changes, but it’s good enough for intellectual chitchat. I’ve been watching a lot of old movies from the 1950s, especially ones from 1951, the year I was born, and struggling to understand why I like them so much now that I’m 63. It’s amazing how much different America is today than it was then. What’s far more important, is seeing how we’ve stayed the same. That takes a discerning heart, and it’s easy to overlook how we haven’t changed because all the new stuff overwhelms our senses.

To get the easy stuff out of the way quickly, in the 1950s there were no smartphones, internet, personal computers or social apps. White males dominated society, people of color were barely visible on screen. Women usually wore dresses, stayed at home defining themselves as wives and mothers. There was a double standard for sexuality back then, and women were considered tainted if they had sex outside of marriage. There wasn’t much of a youth culture. Watching these old films its easy enough to spot obvious differences between then and now, like how men wore hats and suits all the time, and cars looked like those we see in Cuba today.

There are less obvious differences that are more subtle to spot. Movies in the 1950s feel like they are made for adults, while many movies today seem to be made for adolescents or the adolescent in us. There were some science fiction and fantasy films back then, but they weren’t the norm. And even then, their science fiction and fantasy had a foundation of realism that modern genre films lacks. Partly that’s due back then because fewer movies were completely escapist, and they didn’t have CGI to make the unreal real—which tends to make the real unreal.

Like I said, it takes more work to study how we’re the same. The reason why we can still enjoy the plays of Shakespeare is not because we enjoy people talking funny and wearing weird clothes, but because how we see ourselves in those people who talk funny and wear weird clothes.

detective-story-1951

Last night I watched Detective Story (1951) about a morally rigid cop Jim McLeod (Kirk Douglas) learning his wife Mary (Eleanor Parker) had an abortion before they met. Detective McLeod was raised by a criminal father that McLeod despised. McLeod upbringing contra-conditioned him to demand that everyone fit an exacting black and white categorization. McLeod judged everyone that came into the precinct as righteous or evil, with no room for compassion, or understanding. I see that kind of rigid morality all the time on the nightly news, and sadly in some people I know. McLeod’s thinking was no different from members of ISIS, people living in Old Testament times or Donald Trump’s political persona.

Ace in the Hole - 1951

A more complicated example of sameness is Ace in the Hole (1951) which also starred Kirk Douglas, as Chuck Tatum, a cynical reporter capable of great compassion or cruelty depending on his personal needs. Chuck Tatum used his psychological skills to manipulate people and orchestrate sensational news stories. Tatum reminded me of Steve Jobs, because he believed it was good to push people into doing more.

The Big Heat

Many young people think terrorism is something new since 9/11. It’s always existed in human society. The Big Heat (1953) has Det. Sgt. Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) fighting terrorists who control the police force and corrupts the government. Small minded men with big guns kill Bannion’s wife with a car bomb. They kill witnesses and anyone who tries to help Bannion. Makes me think of the news from Mexico, but corruption using violence to rule is common throughout the world.

And it’s not just seeing that the bad people then are just like the bad people today. The good people then are like the good people today. Det. Lou Brody (William Bendix) in Detective Story  tries very hard to get Jim McLeod to bend and see shades of gray in the folks they arrest. In fact, if you look at every character in this film, to see what motivates them, you can find parallel characters in today’s movies and real life.

This reminds me of something I learned from anthropology. Neanderthals were a species that lived unchanging lives for hundreds of thousands of years, making the same tools in the same old way all their long species’ lifetime. Our species, Homo sapiens, have changed a lot over the millennia, yet, there are other traits that don’t change, and like the Neanderthals and their stone tools, we keep constructing similar personality traits over and over again, with the same routineness that our cousins flaked out stone scrapers.

For most of my life, the 1950s was my least favorite movie decade, but in recent months, it’s become my favorite. That will change. It always does. I stay up late watching shows that I once thought dreary and depressing, and now I find fascinating and inspiring. I remember the 1950s, just barely, since I was born in 1951, and these movies little resemble the memories I do have of those times. The closest they overlap are of a trip to New York City in 1959.

Living in Kidland in the 1950s was much different from Hollywoodland. I didn’t know any cops, mobsters, B-girls, reporters, or small-time hustlers. My world looked like those old home movies that The Center For Home Movies work to preserve. And I’d bet lots of family home movies taken today have strange similarities with home movies taken back in the 1940s and 1950s. I live in a house and neighborhood that was built in the 1950s, and sometimes on my morning walks I pretend I’m seeing the neighborhood like it was long ago. Since most people park their cars behind their homes it helps with the illusion. I see women coming out in their robes to pick up the paper, and they look like the women I saw when I delivered papers in the 1960s. I’ve read a lot of books written in the 19th century, and on the surface people appear very different, but if you look closer they don’t. Just read The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope. It’s much harder, but I can even find overlap with tales as old as The Bible, Homer, Plato, or Lucretius.

Even with smartphones, Ecclesiastes was right.

JWH