Friday, October 06, 2006

Why and How I’m Proud to Say that I Know James Warner Bellah

Many people have been introduced to Mr. James Warner Bellah without ever realizing it.
Such was the case when, at three years old (or less), I watched John Ford’s Rio Grande with my grandpa. (If you’ve ever bought a Louis L’Amour paperback at a library booksale, Grandpa’s is the name hand-written on it.)

Rio Grande is that film many casual filmgoers may remember as “John Wayne wearing a mustache, next to a guy with an eye patch.” I watched hundreds of movies, almost exclusively western, with Grandpa during my formative years. This one stuck out above all the rest in my mind. Some of that has to do with John Wayne’s moustache and the other guy’s eye patch, some with the fact that it is probably the only western my brother did not openly mock. But certainly, a good deal of its memorability is the robust characterization present in almost every inch of celluloid and the exceptional action that appears near the end.

In 1998 or ’99, the Warner Bros. Westerns label appeared on VHS in Wal-Marts everywhere, bringing with it She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, made by John Ford the year prior to Rio Grande. Of course, I bought it. Once one manages to muscle past being distracted by the New York Times quote (“A dilly of a cavalry picture. Yeehooooo!”), there is this on the back:
John Wayne plays Brittles in this second film in Ford’s renowned cavalry trilogy (Fort Apache and Rio Grande are the others).
Something struck me quite keenly. While Wayne plays the character of Col. Kirby York in both of the other two films, I was already familiar with the character of Capt. Nathan Brittles. I was also familiar with his 1st Lieut. Flint Cohill. For mere months before, I had listened to an audio cassette of the “Escape!” (one of radio’s grandest theaters of adventure) show aired 6 December, 1949 and entitled “Command.

Wayne’s performance as Nathan Brittles, USC, is generally considered one of his finest by film buffs (I’d readily place his Tom Dunson of Red River above it), but whatever it is, it is not the true Nathan Brittles. Brittles is the aged war horse of the cavalry, about to be put out to pasture. John Wayne’s moustache is gray (yes, another moustache), his face tired, his mannerisms almost perfectly those of aching maturity. An excellent accomplishment when his years were only forty-two (his Dunson, by the way, was similarly ripened just as well several years earlier, but B&W film did aid that). But Wayne cannot help, or more likely, Ford will not let Wayne help being an affectionate old cuss, even when he spits out Brittles trademark “Never apologize. Sign of weakness.”

The Brittles we meet in “Command,” on his first patrol with the irate Flintridge Cohill, has a hardness in each of his few words. A coldness to his efficiency. A bitterness to his guardianship. “He will die a captain, in spite of his apology.” Bill Johnstone’s voice, not John Wayne’s, is all that I can hear when listening to Captain Brittles.

“Command,” Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande. There are many threads that overlap any given three of that set, but (aside from a U.S. Cavalry setting) only one thing entirely in common. Each is based on the tales of one James Warner Bellah. (If you’re interested, he also co-wrote Sergeant Rutledge—screenplay and novel—and the screenplay The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.)
Armed with this knowledge, I set out on a quest for the short cavalry works of Mr. Bellah. That universe of Nathan Brittles, Flintridge Cohill, Tyree, MacLendon Allshard, Ross Pennell, et al; that history alive with concisely reiterated departmental orders and flowing visually emotional prose.
Epochs of research and miles of microfilm brought me only one story, “Command” as originally printed in the 8 June, 1946 issue of The Saturday Evening Post.

Today, I own that cassette of “Command” as well as a pitiably optically-printed paper copy, that VHS of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, three copies of Rio Grande (a VHS from shortly before I adopted DVD, my grandpa’s well-used copy, and the DVD “Collector’s Edition”), and the newly-released DVD of Fort Apache. And . . .

My discovery of the WorldCat electronic library catalogs came very shortly before they were made publicly available on the internet, no subscription of any kind required. [Readers can now search those catlogs via the thingy direstly to the right of these words.] There were a few choice works and authors I immediately ferreted out, James Warner B. among them. What I found was Massacre, a paperback anthology of Bellah’s mounted cav named for its final story (the basis of Fort Apache). Unfortunately, not one of the three libraries holding it smiled on my local branch’s inter-library loan request.

But there was one option left! Yes, that’s it: the inner reaches of the Amazon! Now that I knew precisely what I was looking for it was a simple matter. I opened an account (yes, I’m a late adopter) and made the purchase.
While at it I snagged a few other titles that crossed my mind, but I won’t here go into them.

And, this afternoon, my little Lion Books no. 43 arrived. It is in impressive condition, clearly having spent many years pressed neatly between other volumes on someone’s shelf (the cover is crisply colored except on the spine where it has faded to yellow from light exposure).

I have already read tonight the first two stories (“Command” and “The Last Fight”), and will begin the third before retiring to bed.

I am most contented.

(Say, as of now there is one more copy available over at the Amazonian market. Just saying ... )


setnaffa said...

You, sir, are a very good man.

Anonymous said...


Just saw "SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON" on the western channel.
What a terrific movie!. I can't believe that Westerns do not generate much interest today.
Movies like these display courage, fortitude, and the human spirit.
Traits missing in so many of today's films. What a shame that, with each generation,interest in these movies just fades away!!

Jan k.

Anonymous said...

"...What a shame that, with each generation,interest in these movies just fades away!!"

There is to much truth in those old movies. And that truth has become offensive to the PC despots that control our culture.

Dave Hardy said...

You know, you can find a lot of JWB's work in PDFs of the Saturday Evening Post. If you have access to a Texas library you can download them readily from the EBSCO database.

Anonymous said...

I have a paperback at home with all of the series of short stories by JWB, published in about 1960. It was one of my favorites and I still have it. Later, when I saw Ford's cavalry trilogy, I recognised the names. The title, i recall, was "Reveille". There are about 15 short stories in the collection, including the ones mentioned above. I think the publisher is "gold medal" Will check. Strangely I only founf this site because the name "Flintridge Cohill" popped into my head a few minutes ago.

Anonymous said...

Have always been a big fan of Ford's movies, but only recently of Bellah's short stories. "Spanish Man's Grave" was my introduction. Can't recommend it highly enough!