Film Reviews: Thursday, April 21, 2004
MIsprint the Legend

A new book on the movies and Texas outlaws skimps on the movies.

By Kristian Lin

Mona D. Sizer is a Harlingen-based author and is known for books on popular history such as Texas Justice: Bought and Paid For, Texas Politicians: Good ’n’ Bad, and Texas Money: All the Law Allows. (Sense a pattern here?) Her latest, Texas Bandits: Real to Reel, is another entry in the literature on Texas outlaws, with chapters on those who made their reputations in this state and those who only passed through. What makes this book different is that it critiques Hollywood movies based on the lives of those outlaws, using this as a thread to weave the narrative together. That thread turns out to be very weak.

Texas Bandits is primarily given over to the history and includes some fascinating details. The section on Pancho Villa chronicles his deals with moviemaking companies to film his battles for public display. There are informative sidebars on how robbing trains and stagecoaches was frequently easier and less dramatic than depicted in the movies.

Sadly, Sizer’s credibility suffers from several editing errors that have crept into the text — when she identifies the early-20th-century Mexican revolutionary leader as “Emiliano Zapato,” it’s enough to set alarm bells ringing in your head.

Occasionally, Sizer’s decision to fill in the backstory after telling the main story backfires on her. The book is also padded with fabricated “Wanted” posters for the outlaws, even for Sam Bass, of whom Sizer admits there are no existing photographs. Since she frequently criticizes Hollywood for taking liberties with the truth, this seems somewhat hypocritical. Sizer should have included more historical documents, such as the traveling tips published by the Omaha Herald in 1877.

The worst shortcomings, though, are when it comes to the movies. One wonders why they were included at all, given that (with the exception of Bonnie and Clyde) none of the films she discusses have any standing as works of art. Do we really need a rundown of the historical inaccuracies in American Outlaws, a western made three years ago and forgotten already, not to mention much older movies that have deservedly suffered the same fate? One of them, Calamity Jane and Sam Bass (1949), can’t even be seen at all, since no prints are known to exist. Sizer also mentions a rather good film on the James gang, Walter Hill’s The Long Riders (1980), but then ignores it.

Her judgments on the movies can be bewildering, too. Having spent most of her review of the 1934 biopic Viva Villa! bashing it for its casting and fictionalizations, she then winds up with, “By and large, it’s a great flick.” The same thing happens with Badman’s Territory, in which she portrays Randolph Scott (fairly) as a one-dimensional actor and then concludes with “For more than a quarter of a century, the world was a better place because Randolph Scott showed the young boys of America heroism, redemption, and honor.” There are so many things wrong with that sentence — not least the fact that it comes out of nowhere, without reference to anything written before it. Texas Bandits is an easy read at just over 200 pages, but there are too many books on western films that are more enlightening.

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