Whether Frank Harris was ever really a cowboy or not, his stories of his supposed adventures on the trail have an emotional truth in their depictions of the arduousness of the cowboy life and its effects on the men who lived it. I don't know whose idea it first was to adapt them for the cinema, but Dalton Trumbo and Edmund H. North are credited with the screenplay for the film Cowboy, which was released in 1958. (Trumbo's name was removed at the time because of his blacklisting, and his name still does not appear on the DVD booklet).
Harris had told his stories of being a cowboy to friends and acquaintances for years before he ever wrote them down. In 1908 the first printed version of them appeared as a serial in the magazine Vanity Fair, under the title The Odyssey of the Great Trail. Their next appearance was in the first volume of Harris's autobiography, My Life and Loves, published in 1922. Finally in 1930 The Odyssey of the Great Trail was republished in book form: in Britain as On the Trail and in America as My Reminiscences as a Cowboy.
Harris's stories cannot be taken as records of actual events. The two versions available in book form are inconsistent with one another, and, as authorities including Ramon Adams, the writer and bibliographer of Western lore, have pointed out, there are numerous inaccuracies of fact, such as in Harris's imaginative account of meeting Wild Bill Hickok. Furthermore Philippa Pullar's biography of Harris reports that Thomas Bell, who was for many years Harris's secretary, claimed that Harris had lifted several episodes from Bell's own early life on the Mexican border and used them as his own.
Though they may not have been historically truthful, Harris's stories are fairly convincing on a psychological level. His cowboys are men doing an unpleasant job, not romantic heroes; their courage arises out of the need to face ever-present danger rather than from some inner nobility; they are boastful, drunken, sometimes treacherous and they have little loyalty to one another.
It was this tough inner core to Harris's stories that North and Trumbo took as the basis of the screenplay for Cowboy. From Harris's rather episodic narrative they constructed a moral fable in which Harris, the tenderfoot on the trail, is counterpointed against the hardbitten boss, Reece. One unhappy change is that while Harris cast himself as the eager pupil willingly absorbing the hard facts of life from his seniors, in the Hollywood version both Harris and Reece rather unconvincingly have lessons to teach each another: Harris learns to be tough while Reece has his cynicism dented. Despite this touch of sentimentality Cowboy does at least attempt to be something other than a run-of-the-mill 1950s horse opera, as the central character fails to get the girl, his fellow cowboys don't conveniently divide themselves into good guys and bad guys, and death strikes randomly from an uncaring natural world rather than the barrel of a sixshooter.
Whatever the ambitions of the script, the actual film is unsatisfactory. Its direction - by the veteran Delmer Daves - and an irritatingly jaunty soundtrack by George Duning contribute to an incongruous lightness of tone, as does the presence of Jack Lemmon - not yet a big name star - as Harris, who though he tries valiantly, cannot make his supposed transformation into a hardened cowhand credible. Those shoulders are too narrow for a tough guy: Lemmon remains a tenderfoot, and when he intervenes in a fight to disarm another cowboy who pulls a knife it is frankly incredible that he does not wind up filleted.
The story itself is picaresque rather than plot-driven, which means that its interest lies in its set pieces, but in his direction Daves failed to capitalise on the opportunities it gave him for excitement and drama. There is enough movement and incident to ensure that the film is not boring, but it is in the end unmemorable.
The screenplay was also given a paperback novelisation by Clair Huffaker, a practised writer of westerns (and a man, despite his first name). Huffaker was perhaps working from an early version of the script without having seen the finished picture, as his novel differs in several respects including the complete absence of the movie's boy-doesn't-get-girl subplot - which one might therefore guess was added at the request of its producers, as such things often are. The book has a tougher tone than the film but it comes across as a rushed job, with rather sketchy characterisation and no back-story.
Harris's cowboy stories are best as told by Harris, whether in the first volume of My Life and Loves (1922) or the 1930 collection (On the Trail / My Reminiscences as a Cowboy). They have a youthfulness that belies Harris's age when he wrote them (66 and 52 respectively - assuming those in the later collection were actually written in 1908); as in the best of his writings it is the vigour of his nature that shines through.
|An embarrassed Frank Harris (played by Jack Lemmon, 2nd left) is unmasked as a writer of poetry.|