Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Real Pulp Fiction: ARGOSY'S dilemma, Oct. 28, 1939

In this week's Argonotes pages we find an editorial confession that bears quoting at length:

If you are running a magazine concerned solely with fellows who plunge young women into steaming cauldrons, you can be reasonably sure that all your readers have a fondness for horrors. Otherwise they wouldn't buy the magazine. So you can go right ahead increasing the temperature of the cauldron, and everybody will be happy. The editor who publishes only fiction of a special sort -- detective or Western or fantastic -- has the comforting assurance that his public likes his specialty.

But it's different with us; we are infinitely more vulnerable. One week a letter will commend us on a recent Western story and demand more of same; the next week another reader will savagely dispose of that Western and beg to know why in heaven we don't eliminate that cowboy-and-Colt stuff, so that there will be more space for stories about the Australian bushmen. We could not satisfy all our readers if every published story were a masterpiece in its field; and that's why ours is the perilous and violent life.

At the start the editor is taking a shot at the so-called "shudder pulps" that were popular then and highly valuable as collectibles now. But the challenge of publishing a general interest pulp is nothing new for the Argosy. You can read Argonotes pages throughout the 1930s in the unz.org trove and see exactly what the 1939 editor means. Yet if Argosy has a problem in 1939 -- apart from having its fortunes tied to the Munsey company's reckless "Red Star" brand expansion --  it's not so much maintaining a balance of genres as maintaining a particular style. I've seen it said that the weekly was at its peak earlier in the Thirties, and by now I've read enough from that period, both at unz and in my own slow-growing collection, I'll at least agree that the 1939 magazine isn't as good as it was four or five years earlier. This issue, for instance, was almost unrelentingly mediocre. It's noteworthy only for the conclusion of Eando Binder's dystopian serial Lords of Creation, in which our hero, awakened from suspended animation 2,000 years in the future, improbably conquers the world. Most of the other stories were boring. Many seem boring in a particular way. My hunch is that Argosy in 1939 aspired to a status somewhere between pulps and slicks. Too many of the stories read as if they might have been submitted to Collier's or the Saturday Evening Post, or else they read as if they were meant mainly as raw material for movies. The tone is different from just a few years earlier. It simply seems less like pulp. There's less blood, less thunder -- to a certain extent less fantasy, apart from the designated "fantastics" that we'd call science fiction. As I've suggested before, the world seems less wide open than it did earlier in the Thirties, as if the buildup to a new world war was closing up other options for adventure, while higher literary ambitions, perhaps, often resulted only in a flatter tone, less perilous and violent despite the editor's joke. Certain stories and serials still manage the old feeling, but they seem increasingly like the exception that prove a rule.

The point of "Real Pulp Fiction" has never been to chart pulp's decline. What I really wanted was to call readers' attention to highlights from a wild world of pulp that parallels our wild world of cinema. Since I still want to do that, I'm going to give up the 75th anniversary march as a regular feature of the blog. I'll still report on the better, wilder stories from 1939 and 1940 as I read them, but I'll also spend more time further in the past exploring what I deem more classic pulp, not just in Argosy but in other magazines. As I start showing off my personal pulp collection you'll also see some later stuff, since I have a fancy for western pulps and feel they were at their best at the very end of the pulp era, from the late Forties to mid-Fifties, parallel to the evolution of the "adult western" in movies. Instead of reviewing entire issues, I'd like to spotlight specific stories in more detail as I did with Theodore Roscoe's "That Son of a Gun Columbo" earlier this month. Look forward to more and shorter pieces from this point forward, and maybe at long last a formal spinoff into a separate blog next year. Whatever happens, the focus from now on will be on pulps I really enjoy, from guilty pleasures to little classics of action and adventure in prose. This series is definitely to be continued!

Saturday, October 25, 2014

DAY OF THE SIEGE (2012)

In the U.S. Renzo Martinelli's would-be epic has the title of a generic war film. That probably infuriated a director who opened the film with a quote from 20th century French historian (and victim of the Nazis) Marc Bloch: "Misunderstanding of the present grows fatally from ignorance of the past." In Martinelli's home country, Day of the Siege is known as 11 Settembre 1683. On that day, the siege of Vienna by the Ottoman Turks was broken by an attack by a Polish army led by King Jan Sobieski. Martinelli's Italo-Polish production credits this rescue of Christendom from the last great Islamic military assault to date to the Polish king (played by director Jerzy Skolimowski) and an Italian friar, Marco d'Aviano (F. Murray Abraham), who was the spiritual adviser to the Emperor of Austria. The Poles, presumably having less of an agenda, or more likely seeing an existential threat coming from a different direction, call this movie The Battle of Vienna. For Martinelli and his writers, however, the immediate agenda is Islamophobic, though their hackneyed commitment to the conventions of historical drama, and perhaps a degree of good taste, make the film less of a hatefest than it could have been.


In 1683 Islam was on the march again, the Turks' ultimate goal being to turn St. Peter's in Rome into a mosque. The Sultan entrusts his grand vizier Kara Mustafa (Enrico Lo Verso) to take the Hapsburg capital. Friar Marco, first seen in Venice almost reluctantly healing the blind, goes to Vienna to stiffen Austrian resolve and convince the haughty Hapsburgs to accept the aid of the Poles and their upstart King, whom the Austrians see as a social inferior. With the Poles finally on board Sobieski insures ultimate Christian victory by defying Kara Mustafa's expectation and dragging artillery up a steep mountain to a commanding position from which he can soften up the Turkish position before scattering it with the cavalry charge of his dreaded winged hussars.

 
Above: a Muslim's nightmare vision of a Christian army.
Below: the badass reality of the winged hussars


Martinelli -- last noticed here as the auteur of the boxing biopic Carnera: The Walking Mountain -- felt it necessary to add human interest to this epic subject. He does this in two ways. First, his writers invent a sort of relationship between Friar Marco and Kara Mustafa in order to justify a meeting between his two main characters. When they were young men, Kara Mustafa while visiting Venice saved Marco's life from a falling piece of ship's cargo. As the Ottoman army nears Vienna and the two men become aware of each other's role, each grows curious to meet the other, but their fictional showdown is necessarily anticlimactic since it can't change the course of history. Meanwhile, a subplot focuses on an interfaith couple in a village Marco visits. The husband is a Muslim, the wife a Christian mute. As news of the Turkish invasion spreads, the villagers want to lynch Abul (Greek actor Yorgo Voyagis), but Marco intervenes to save him. He is repaid by Abul's flight to the Turkish lines, where he advises Kara Mustafa about the holy man on the Christian side. Later, after the invaders sack the village, Abul's wife is taken prisoner. He ignores her squawking, grunting pleas for rescue and allows her to be herded into a stockade with other women, presumably to be used for sex or sold as slaves, but he returns at night to arrange for her release. Later still, he appears at the gate of Vienna to urge the Austrians to save their bodies and souls by surrendering, converting to Islam or paying the tax required of People of the Book. Abul's story ends when, with the Turkish army in retreat, he covers Kara Mustafa's escape by putting on the vizier's armor and charging the Polish cavalry single-handedly. His pregnant wife is left weeping over his bullet-riddled corpse. This little story ends tragically, it seems, solely because Abul is a Muslim and Muslims can't change their stripes. Martinelli seems to want it both ways, catering to liberals by having Marco save Abul from a lynching, yet pandering to Islamophobia by showing that Abul couldn't be trusted after all. That's a provocatively mixed message to send to audiences in Europe, where anxiety about Muslims in their midst is much greater than it is in the U.S.


For what it's worth, the screenwriters take the position that Muslims worship a different God than Christians. This would be news to Muslims, who believe themselves the most authentic acolytes of the God of Abraham; their idea is that Islam is the default religion of that God from which Jews, despite Moses, and Christians, despite Jesus, have deviated in dangerous if not damning ways. Many Christians believe, however, that if Islam can't imagine God having a son, or if it insufficiently emphasizes loving fatherhood as a defining divine attribute, then Allah may as well be a fictional character Muhammad invented. That point aside, the script tries to score more points against Islam by having Friar Marco argue that "the one true God" does not demand submission -- which literally defines Islam -- but wants men to be free. That in turn would be news to countless people who've lived in Christian countries under the dominance of various Christian churches, but to be fair that's another story for other films. For now it's enough to note that despite some sketchy efforts to humanize the important Muslim characters (Kara Mustafa is shown as a doting father, for instance), Day of the Siege is indisputably an Islamophobic film, though not grotesquely so. You can't argue that any film showing Christians fighting Muslims is Islamophobic because I'll throw Kingdom of Heaven at you to stop that argument. What makes Day Islamophobic is its constant implication that permanent peace with Islam is impossible. There's no other way to interpret the Marc Bloch epigraph, while Kara Mustafa in the story warns Friar Marco that defeating Islam before Vienna would only be "trimming the Prophet's beard," i.e. a temporary setback. Don't get me wrong; there's plenty to object to about Islam, and more still about Islamism, but Day of the Siege strays into "all Muslims are a threat" territory, where we shouldn't really want or need to go no matter what our beefs are with specific Muslim goons today.



The film's Islamophobia could be redeemed if it inspired some epic action, but Martinelli's reach exceeds the grasp of his international budget. He can compose some impressive images on a relatively intimate scale, but the battle scenes upon which the film presumably depends constantly betray limitations on budget, technology and imagination. Martinelli has to rely on CGI reinforcements to supplement his extras. Worse, he resorts to CGI explosions and musketry along with repetitive, too-familiar shots of stuntmen flinging themselves from explosions. It may be unfair to bring up Kingdom of Heaven again, but that underrated picture has perhaps the best portrayal of siege warfare ever, while the battle scenes in Day of the Siege are actually some of the dullest parts of the film. Bad acting also undermines the picture. It was reportedly shot in English, but that appears to have left everyone (who wasn't dubbed afterward, that is) except Abraham at a disadvantage. Predictably enough, he alone brings any passion or power to his role, and if anything he might have shot for over-the-top more often. Only he comes close to the intensity the whole show needed badly, and that Martinelli may have felt while shooting it but doesn't really show on screen. The Siege of Vienna should be the stuff of thrilling cinema, but for that to happen someone will have to attack the subject again another time. Marc Bloch's advice might come in handy then.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

DVR Diary: RIFFRAFF (1936)

J. Walter Ruben's M-G-M film is a Jean Harlow starring vehicle but it seems like a Spencer Tracy type of movie. Tracy was still new at M-G-M and the studio, in its effort to figure out what to do with him, seemed to imitate models from the actor's years at Fox. This working-class melodrama reminded me somewhat of Raoul Walsh's pre-Code Tracy picture Me and My Gal in its raucous spirit. 1936 is Code Enforcement time but Riffraff still feels a lot like a Pre-Code picture and we do get a shot of Harlow in her negligee. The most interesting thing about the movie is its ambivalent attitude toward the struggle between capital and labor. Tracy plays a tuna fishermen convinced by his mentor, "Brains," to halt a strike against the local cannery boss. There's no doubt that the boss is a heel, but Tracy's character is made to understand that a strike will only allow Nick Lewis (Joseph Calleia) to replace the union men with strikebreakers. Understanding this, Dutch (Tracy) tosses a labor agitator off a pier, takes over the meeting and aborts the strike. Apparently the possibility of turning away the scabs never occurs to Brains or Dutch -- or else Metro didn't want the thought to occur to the audience. In any event, his coup makes Dutch a big man, just in time for his wedding to Hattie (Harlow), a cannery worker who was stuck living with her older sister (Una Merkel) and an obnoxious nephew (Mickey Rooney, natch). But while Dutch had steered clear of conflict with Nick on the labor front, once he sees Nick as a rival for Hattie, all bets are off. Against Brains' continued advice, Dutch eventually calls a strike to prove his own dominance, with exactly the consequences Brains feared. The union finally turns against Dutch and deposes him, the insult added to the injury of losing all his installment-plan property during the strike. Again, for all his bravado Dutch never seems to think of fighting the strikebreakers. He doesn't even attempt to persuade them to take his side. Instead, he leaves Hattie and ends up in a hobo jungle where bums talk Marxist jargon without necessarily comprehending it.

To this point Tracy has dominated the picture despite Harlow's top billing. She takes over when Hattie "borrows" money from Nick to help Dutch and gets thrown in jail. She gives birth in prison and turns the baby over to her sister. Finally she joins two fellow femcons in a jailbreak inspired by Dutch; in the film's most dramatic sequence, starkly shot by Ray June, they make their break on a rainy night, but one of them dies trying. While she hides out with her sister's family, Dutch starts a slow rise from the bottom, landing a job as a night watchman. While Hattie remains a hunted fugitive, Dutch becomes a hero once more when he stops some of his radical hobo pals from burning the cannery. In a corny finish -- but I suppose there could be no other -- Dutch's having made good again inspires Hattie to turn herself in and finish her sure-to-be-extended sentence, on the understanding that Dutch and their kid will be waiting for her.

Harlow and Tracy don't have the sort of chemistry Harlow shared with Clark Gable in particular. The Code has less to do with that, I think, than does Dutch's narcissistic personality and Tracy's steamroller performance. Rather than clicking romantically, Tracy tends to blast Harlow off the screen, in part because the actress is more subdued than normal in what was hyped as a change-of-pace dramatic performance. Harlow still shows some attitude and throws some choice insults at Tracy, but she's handicapped by an essentially reactive role for the first half of the picture. The clash of somewhat mismatched stars and the script's curious attitude toward organized labor make Riffraff more an item of interest than a really good film, but at its best it's entertaining enough to justify that interest.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

CANOA (1976)

A group of young people go out to the countryside, to a place where they don't belong, where the people are suspicious -- and the terror begins. That's one of the more popular tropes of horror cinema for the last fifty years, dating back at least to Herschel Gordon Lewis's Two Thousand Maniacs. You can name plenty of films with the basic formula; change it from young people to just plain people and you can add more to the list. Felipe Cazals's Mexican film -- horrific in tone if not as a matter of genre -- has the advantage over most similar films in being absolutely positively based on real events. In September 1968 an all-male group of university students spent the night in the town of San Miguel Canoa when rain prevented them from climbing the Malinche, a nearby mountain. Political tensions ran high as the Mexico City Olympics approached amid fears of Communist protests and uprisings. Anti-communist hysteria raged in small towns like Canoa, and was magnified in Canoa itself, a community dominated by a reactionary priest (Enrique Lucerno in the film) who ruled the place like a feudal lord or machine boss. In recent sermons the priest had warned that Communist students would invade Canoa and desecrate its church by raising a red flag. Townspeople took the hapless hikers as the vanguard of that revolutionary invasion and took the law into their own hands. A mob a thousand strong lynched four of the students on a rainy night before order was restored.

 

Above: the students seek shelter from the storm.
Below: the storm.


If the subject matter is the stuff of horror, the film itself is closer to the Mondo or mockumentary genre. Cazals and screenwriter Tomas Perez Torrent claim to present events as they happens while breaking the fourth wall by having a nameless Witness  (Salvador Sanchez) make occasional comments to the camera. Sometimes the Witness corrects or subverts what purports to be official information about the local economy. Other characters sometimes address the camera, explaining who runs the town and how they exploit the poor, but the Witness always takes a more aloof, cynical tone. As the film goes on, he comes to embody all those who knew how bad things were already and how bad they'd become for the outsiders, yet did nothing about it, perhaps preferring to judge than to act.


The Witness is all talk and no action; the Priest has a mob to take action for him.


Cazals' quest for verisimilitude renders some parts of the picture almost painfully dull, especially the scenes introducing the students in all their banal innocence. Once the hikers reach Canoa, however, the film acquires a relentless momentum, aided by all the artfulness Cazals and cinematographer Alex Phillips Jr. have to work with. Canoa is sometimes described as a pseudo or semi-documentary, but Cazals never employs the gimmickry of cinema faux-vérité. Instead of shaky handheld footage identified with Paul Greengrass -- whose Bloody Sunday is an obvious point of comparison -- the location shoot is often classically composed, and the imagery, from the doom-laded rain that traps the hikers in the town to the archetypal scenes of peasants (who look more like cowboys) swarming through the streets with torches, often looks quite consciously impressionistic. It certainly conveys a mounting impression of dread as the real storm waits to break. The climax is the worst of all worlds: fear of the primitive (or the "redneck") on the scale of a zombie horde attack. When the mob finds its targets, including a townsman who tries to protect one group of students, the violence is abruptly brutal without being exploitative. I haven't watched enough horror movies this October, but Canoa goes a long way toward making up for it.


A visual joke, perhaps: an alleged Communist menaced by a symbolic sickle

Some critics have suggested that the film is a partial whitewash, since it seems to single out the tyrannical priest for blame while underplaying the role of the Mexican government and establishment in whipping up the anti-student hysteria. By having government forces come to the rescue of the remaining students, Canoa supposedly isolates the town and its little despot as bad apples rather than symptoms of something systemic, when in fact a far bloodier massacre of students took place in Mexico City itself a few weeks later. An early scene jumps forward in time to an urban funeral procession for some of the students. It's intercut to appear on a collision course with a group of marching soldiers, but when the lines meet they actually curve away from one another without incident. I've seen this interpreted as a victory for peace and order, but it could just as readily be interpreted as the two groups failing to communicate or dodging an essential issue. Likewise, at the end we see a religious festival in Canoa shortly after the rampage. The camera finds our Witness, who doesn't seem to feel like talking right then. He runs up a flight of stairs to find another documentary crew filming, and runs right back down. He turns his face from our camera before shamefacedly offering some final worthless words. Canoa may not tell the full truth of the slaughter, but the filmmakers seem to acknowledge that a full reckoning with what the massacre meant was still yet to come. But leaving the politics out, audiences anywhere should recognize the pure horror of what Cazals shows us. On some level, Canoa is a kind of masterpiece that should be better known than it is worldwide -- just as the events it shows should be.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

DVR Diary: SAFARI (1956)


A white man loses a close family member to hostile natives and pursues a path of vengeance. The Searchers, right? That's the right year, at least, and it's worth remembering that while American movie buffs today may see the John Ford film as a reflection on America's exceptional history of violent settlement and native resistance, audiences in 1956 probably understood that scenes like those in Searchers were taking place in their present day. Terence Young's picture wasn't the first to address the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, and Americans could read about it in newspapers and magazines, in fact and fiction. They clearly empathized with the embattled British -- we're more likely to recognize the Mau Mau as freedom fighters not -- or projected themselves facing the tribal charge again. That's why it made sense for the British producers (including future Bond mogul Albert R. Broccoli) to make their hero an American white hunter (Victor Mature). Ken Duffield is on safari when the Mau Mau hit his farm; one of his own workers betrays the rest of the household to the insurgents, and becomes a leader after shooting down Duffield's boy. Ken is ready to go after the Mau Mau himself, but give credit to the British; they don't need a loose cannon like the American running around, so the colonial authorities revoke his hunting license, effectively excluding him from the territory where the insurgents operate.

The power of money threatens to disrupt the shaky order when Sir Vincent Brampton (Roland Culver) uses his influence to get Duffield's license restored. He wants Ken to guide him into lion country so he can take a shot at the legendary "Hatari." Ken, of course, is glad for the opportunity to do some hunting of his own on the side. He finds the arrogant Brampton and his glamorous girlfriend Linda (Janet Leigh) little more than nuisances he must tolerate to further his own mission. Both Duffield and Brampton harken back to literature's great obsessive hunter, Captain Ahab (also the subject of a 1956 film), but Brampton is a trivialized Ahab, interested in Hatari only for the prestige of killing the lion and more like the owners of the Pequod whose mercenary relationship with their captain is subverted by the skipper's too-personal agenda. This analysis can go too far, however, and make Safari seem like a better film than it is. The ingredients of a better film are there but Young and writer Anthony Veiller lose focus while throwing in too many jungle-peril cliches, though now the animals stalk in Cinemascope, while the climactic Mau Mau attacks are implausibly one-sided slaughters, the insurgents charging on foot by the dozens across open ground, armed with no better than machetes, while the whites and their native helpers -- safari workers or local police, mow them down with firearms and finally with Mature's machine gun. An inevitable romance between Mature and Leigh also dilutes the archetype, though Leigh does seem to be having fun with her role and certainly enlivens the look of the film. Finally, like Ethan Edwards, Ken Duffield is saved by having his vengeance denied, as another character takes out his treacherous houseboy. More fortunate than Edwards, he can look forward to starting a new family, complete with a surrogate son, arguably, in a friendly native boy. That's ironic given that British rule in Kenya really was near the end of the line, but Americans may not have suspected that at the time or, projecting their own frontier in the African landscape, they didn't really care. Safari's weakness is that the moral stakes never seem as high as they should be given the revenge setup. Duffield isn't written, and Mature doesn't play him as monomaniacal as he could or should have been. Nor does race hatred become an issue here, as obviously it could have, and as it does so memorably in Searchers. Duffield's profession probably makes it impossible; as a white hunter he can't refuse to have dealings with blacks or abuse those who still work for him. But that lack of rancor leaves Duffield too dispassionate a character to carry the archetypal weight he seems designed for. It may be unfair to compare Safari to Searchers, but there are enough similarities that you can't help thinking that what Searchers did right, Safari should have, too.

I had a moment of recognition when I watched Safari. The theme song, "We're On Safari" rang a bell deep in my memory, reminding me that I had seen the movie several time before when I was a child. I should say that the movie was on TV in my house, since I was usually preoccupied with homework or casual reading, but I remembered that song distinctly and felt the slightest pang of nostalgia on hearing it again. I wish I could put a sound clip up, but I couldn't find it on the internet. You'll have to search it out yourselves.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

DVR Diary: DUEL FOR GOLD (1971)

It's so uncommon to see a Chinese martial arts picture without any sympathetic characters -- one in which all the principal characters are rats -- that it's still shocking to find one, for me at least. And here's a Shaw Bros. production directed by Chu Yuan that seems heavily inspired by westerns -- not just contemporary spaghetti westerns, as you might expect, but the darker American "adult" westerns of the 1940s and 1950s. Duel For Gold reminded me of Duel in the Sun, not just for the title but also with its spoken prologue foredooming all the characters and its no-survivors climax, and it reminded me of the less well-known Lust For Gold, possibly the most amoral American western of its era. Whoever gave the film its English title (if it isn't a literal translation of "huo bing") may have had exactly those films in mind. There's a little bit of caper movie in it, too, if your idea of a caper is for a protagonist to massacre all his or her accomplices. The general idea seems to be that people are evil, and martial arts make them worse.

It opens playfully enough with a sister act giving an open-air show of their martial prowess. The ladies have incredible balance and superhuman strength; one can hold the whole weight of her sister's body, upside down and sword out, on the point of her own sword. The crowd's wonder turns to horror as the girls inexcusably fail to clear the prop blocks they chopped to show off their swords' sharpness out of their way as they tumble. One of the sisters manages to fall on her own sword and is taken to the local treasury for first aid. However, security guard Wen (Chun Chen) finds this accident suspicious. In China's martial world these security guards are like freelance marshals of the Old West, tough men entrusted with the wealth and property of others. Wen quickly exposes the sisters' trick; they'd staged the accident in order to case the place, where they most likely know a big stash of gold will be waiting for a big merchant. It's a good thing Wen's around, because his small army of assistants is useless against the sisters' fighting skills, while he seems capable of handling both of them at once. He drives them away, but they're only the start of his problems. Lurking in town is Teng Chi Yan, the "Long Shadow" (Lo Lieh), who simply radiates menace. Meanwhile, the sisters have help for whatever their plan may be, but they have to keep an eye on the interloper Teng Chi Yan as well.

The crooks manage to lure Wen into another fight and to injure him enough that he's out of action while the big merchant paints the town red. The merchant turns out to be an impostor, however, and one of the gang. Invited to tour the mint by obsequious officials, the impostor takes out a bunch of guards, signalling an all-out attack by the crooks' own small army of all-too expendable minions. Those the guards don't kill, the lead thieves eliminate themselves. The fewer to share the loot, the better; that principle is carried out mercilessly until lovers and sisters -- not to mention one unexpected contestant -- fight a round-robin battle in a cemetery, each fighter in turn offering a deal to his or her antagonist,only to have it rejected. And of course, we've already been told how it all turns out, though there is one blackly ironic twist left for the narrator to relate.

The final fight is a brutal affair in the "kill 'em all" fashion then prevailing around the world, and the carnage effects seem less cartoonish, more bluntly brutal, than they often appear in more heroic fare. That's some sort of tribute to Chu Yuan and the overall production design. The action is well directed and choreographed. In one impressive shot, one of the sister knocks a guard out of the frame to the right, but the camera follows his tumble and catches the other sister routing more foes. The actors are as good as English dubbing permits -- I saw this on the El Rey network -- while Lo Lieh is effortlessly good as the threatening mystery man regardless of his surrogate voice. Duel For Gold might be best described as a slapstick black comedy. Like much slapstick, it revels in transgression but makes sure to punish the transgressors at the end, lest the audience regret their thrills. It may think itself dark, but it's really fun to watch if you don't judge the characters too harshly, as fate already has.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Real Pulp Fiction: Theodore Roscoe, "That Son of a Gun Columbo," ARGOSY, Sept. 22, 1934

Let's observe Columbus Day with what might be the most representative sample from the pen of prolific pulpster Theodore Roscoe. The title is the title or lyric of a popular song, as is the case in Roscoe's small town-gothic Four Corners stories. It has a narrator daring his audience to disbelieve his tale, as in the Thibaut Corday series of Foreign Legion fantasies. And it has a hint of the undead, as Roscoe made a specialty of hinting at, teasing us with the prospect of Columbus as a zombie.

As I implied, this is an old-school indirect narrative, in that Roscoe doesn't drop us directly into the main story, but instead introduces his narrator as a character facing the skepticism of his hearers. In this case one McCord, an American engineer working in Haiti, tells his colleagues that the wreck of the Santa Maria can be found upriver, and then describes his personal encounter with Columbus himself. Back in 1913, when he was just starting out in Haiti, McCord met a Professor Upchurch, who wanted to go upriver to find the Santa Maria. Upchurch has a theory that Columbus died in Haiti, abandoned by his colleague/rival Martin Pinzon, who then delivered an impostor to be imprisoned in Spain and die the death assigned to Columbus by history. Upchurch, and Roscoe, have no romantic illusions about the great explorer.

The poor, meek Indians, they were harmless as pigeons, you know. They thought the white men had come from heaven, but they soon found out differently. My, yes! The Spanish didn't have any use for them and set about exterminating them most thoroughly. So thoroughly that there wasn't a handful left alive a hundred years later, and today they're extinct. The poor Indians were taken as slaves and their women were meek and good looking -- it isn't the chapter on Columbus they like to teach in public schools.

 

Thus Theodore Roscoe, revisionist. Moving on, Upchurch offers McCord $1,000 -- multiply that by something like twenty to get the value today -- to guide him upriver. Their trek is complicated by the reported presence in the jungle of a fugitive from the U.S., someone with the same theory about Columbus as Upchurch, but also convinced that the Santa Maria carried gold to be salvaged. Soon enough, this "Blackbeard" is on our protagonists' trail, which leads to strange places. At the end of the trail waits a "living mummy," the supposed last of the Arawack tribe -- the people doomed by their encounter with Columbus. "Your average Indian is about as wordy as his twin in front of a cigar store," McCord narrates, "but this fellow wasn't the ordinary five-cent brand. Not by a jugful! That blind mummy was the Grand Kleagle of storytellers, and he held us like flies in the moon-spun web of his yarn."

Guacanagri tells of the coming long ago of "two great sea birds [with] wings that shut out the sun, and shiny men on their backs to fold those wings." The shiny men kidnap the king's daughter and torture her for knowledge of gold, of which the Arawacks had none. Divine intervention drives the invaders to wander to their deaths in search of gold, but Guacanagri relates, in McCord's words, that "they had to keep going even after they were dead. Dead men must find graves, and those dead strangers couldn't find a cemetery."

For a professor, Upchurch is slow on the uptake. It's not until Guacanagri identifies the leader of the shiny men as "Don Cristoval" that the academic realizes that the "mummy" means Columbus and seems to be confirming his own hypothesis. McCord finds the whole thing hard to believe, but out of no where appears a man in a 15th century Spanish uniform.


"This Spaniard was from the day before yesterday," McCord narrates, "From just about five hundred years before!" The old boy bolts at the sight of our moderns, and a hysterical Upchurch leads McCord on a mad chase climaxing with their discovery of the Santa Maria, complete with crew, captive princess, and Admiral of the Ocean Sea. Implausibly moved by Guacanagri's tale of oppression, Upchurch goes berserk at what looks like a ghostly reenactment of Columbus's atrocities. Finally, McCord must confront the great man one-on-one, horrified at the thought of fighting someone already dead....

Could this be true? Of course not! It's all just a story -- but in the story, could it have happened as McCord says? I'll leave you with this link to find out for yourselves. "That Son of a Gun" is Roscoe in fine form, engaged in hard-boiled spookifying. It's a pretty sweeping adventure in 26 pages and gives some sense of the fun of pulp, even if you have to hold your nose at some racist lines, even as Roscoe takes what looks like today's "politically correct" line on Columbus. Just as he refuses to sugarcoat the Columbus story, so we should take Roscoe and his fellow pulpsters straight, the better to understand how they and their readers saw the world in their time.