It’s not easy for writers to be original. Considering the great Greek tragedies were written three thousand years ago, the Bible nearly two thousand years ago, and Shakespeare’s plays five hundred years ago, I suppose the difficulty of finding “new” storylines should not be a surprise. Not to mention that there are now over seven million different book titles for sale on Amazon, a number that grows daily.
That said, as an author of historical fiction, I do my writer’s due diligence to make sure I’m not inadvertently rewriting a story already well told by someone else. For the new book based on the historical 1855 Texas Ranger Expedition into Mexico to chase down marauding Apaches, I’ve googled “Captain Callahan” and “Callahan’s Expedition” and other names and key words. I’ve yet to come across anything more than a historical journal research article. No novel, no movie.
But an hour ago, lying awake in bed listening to the morning doves coo, two words struck me: Major Dundee. Dammit. Did Moses himself—Charleston Heston—and director Sam Peckinpah—The Wild Bunch--steal my thunder back in 1965?
Major Dundee is a great action film held together by three of my favorite supporting actors: Slim Pickens, Ben Johnson, and Warren Oates. Those three guys define the word “Western.” Besides Heston, there are other Hollywood big names of the ‘60’s, like Richard Harris who was King Arthur in Camelot and was A Man Called Horse, and James Coburn who was In Like Flint and one of The Magnificent Seven, and a lot more. And a couple of beautiful women and some nasty Apaches. And a company of French army mounted lancers in wonderful red, blue and brass uniforms.
Wikipedia says Major Dundee may be channeling John Wayne’s classic Western about searching for a stolen child, The Searchers, and maybe even Melville’s classic novel and film, Moby Dick. The former, for sure, the latter is a stretch for me.
Groups of armed Americans going south across the Rio Grande into a land where they aren’t supposed to go is a plot that works for Americans. We do like our irascible bad-boys-in-charge who brush off the delicacies of international borders in the interest of doing the right thing—like recovering stolen children and punishing murderous Native Americans. That’s the core plot in Major Dundee and in my novel.
The Magnificent Seven goes a step further with Yule Brenner—the bald Siamese monarch in The King and I--and his band of unlikely heroes taking on ten times their number of bad Mexican banditos to save the innocents of a Mexican village. Peckinpah’s Wild Bunch are pretty much bandits themselves, and the shoot-out with the Mexican Revolution army guys, complete with evil German advisors, is the original, blood-filled, slow motion, machine-gun film climax.
But what about Major Dundee and McBride’s book-in-progress A Different Country Entirely?
In real history in 1855, Captain Callahan led 130 mounted Texas volunteers into northern Mexico, with permission from the Texas governor, with the stated purpose of punishing marauding Lipan Apache Indians. One thing led to another, until fifteen miles south of the Rio Grande River, on a Tuesday afternoon, October 3, 1855, Captain Callahan’s Texans ran head into the Apaches they’d been searching for—Apaches with friends, waiting for them.
Bristling with Colt revolvers and muskets, the Texans charged forward against a larger combined force of Apaches and Mexican mounted volunteers, who were possibly Mexican army soldiers. The battle stretched through that day, that night, and all the next day and night. During the second night, Callahan ordered the border town of Piedras Negras torched to cover their slow ferrying of horses and men across the flooding Rio Grande River, back to the safety of Texas. The whole expedition was not the Texas Rangers' finest hour and that's likely why no film has taken on the story. But, that's the core history around which I’m building my novel.
Back to the fictional Major Dundee. His outfit winds up fighting the pursuing French cavalry in the middle of the shallow Rio Grande River. Very colorful and exciting action. And not my story. The film and Captain Callahan’s Expedition have some shared elements, but I don’t think I’m channeling Charleston and the guys.
But I’ve gotten a blog post out of it and shared a couple of great ‘60’s movie posters. Have a good weekend.