Sun 28 Nov 2010
● FRANK GRUBER – Fort Starvation. Rinehart & Co., hardcover, 1953. Pennant P43, paperback, 1954; Bantam, pb, 1970. Filmed as Backlash: Universal International, 1956.
● BORDEN CHASE – Red River. Bantam #205, paperback, September 1948. Originally published as Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail: Random House, hardcover, 1948. Filmed under the paperback title: United Artists, 1948.
Some time back I watched a modest little western/mystery called Backlash from 1956 where Richard Widmark goes looking for the owlhoot what left his Paw to be murdered by Injuns, with surprisingly dramatic results.
Well, the credits tell us the screenplay by Borden Chase was based on a novel by Frank Gruber, but it took a lot of looking to figure out the book they were talking about is Fort Starvation (Rinehart, 1953) and it’ s interesting to see how it served as the starting-point for the movie.
Gruber was a competent screenwriter, with films like Mask of Dimitrios (1944) and Dressed to Kill (1946) to his credit, but he never rose above competence, and that’s the kind of book Fort Starvation is: adequate but nothing special.
John Slater gallops across the West sifting the ground for clues, re-checking witnesses, going undercover at one point with an outlaw band, and generally embroiling himself in a panoply of western cliches till Gruber arbitrarily decides to wrap things up with a “surprise” considerably less dramatic than that of the film.
The characters are never more colorful than the black-and-white prose, nor deeper than the thickness of pulp paper, and while I’m glad I satisfied my morbid curiosity tracking down and reading this thing, I can’t recommend it to anyone else.
After reading this, I picked up Borden Chase’s novel Red River, originally serialized in the Saturday Evening Post as “Blazing Guns on the Chisolm Trail.”
If you’ve seen the film, the basics of the story are all there in the book, but Chase’s writing is nothing like the wry, laconic scripts he wrote for films like Winchester 73, Vera Cruz and Bend of the River.
Here, the prose is overblown, straining to be poetic but barely approaching doggerel. I’ll grant it a certain fruity appeal, perhaps even an operatic intensity at times, but mostly it’s just hammy, and disappointing from a writer who put such fine work on the screen.