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Posts Tagged ‘The Great Train Robbery’

(The theme of  Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid is) times are changing, and you have to change with them—if you want to survive.”
William Goldman
Adventures in the Screen Trade


“I don’t know if you saw the parting of the Red Sea with the chariots on the horses, I did stuff like that.”
Richard Farnswort
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After I posted the above Goldman comment yesterday on the post titled Writing “Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid” it jogged my memory of another story about a career transition—both fictional and real life. The Grey Fox was released in 1982 about a decade after Butch Cassidy, but there are some similarities, mostly the concept of change in the Old West.

Richard Farnsworth plays a former stagecoach robber who is released from San Quintin after serving 33 years for his crimes. When he gets out in 1903 it’s a new world—the stagescoaches are out and movies are in. His character, Bill Miner, goes to see The Great Train Robbery and is inspired to take up his old ways yet with a new fresh angle.

It’s been many years since I’ve seen the film so I’ll rely on Rodger Ebert’s account to bring us all up to speed:

“(The Great Train Robbery.) That famous movie is only eleven minutes long, but long enough to make everything absolutely clear to Miner, who realizes he has a new calling in life, as a train robber. All of this could, of course, be an innocuous Disney movie, but it’s well-written and directed, and what gives it zest and joy is the performance by Richard Farnsworth, who plays Miner. Maybe you’ll recognize Farnsworth when you see him on the screen. Maybe not. His life has been one of those careers that makes you realize Hollywood is a company town, where you can make a living for years and never be a star. Farnsworth has been in more than three hundred movies.”
Roget Ebert
Chicago Sun-Times, The Grey Fox
January 1. 1982

Though Farnsworth had been in more than 300 films, they were mostly as a stuntman. He doubled for some of Hollywood’s most well-known actors; Roy Rogers, Gary Cooper, Kirk Douglas, Henry Ford, Montgomery Clift, and Steve McQueen. You think he might have picked up a thing or two about acting from those fellows because after 30 years as a stuntman he began acting.

And he did it well enough to receive a Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination in 1979 for his role in Comes a Horseman and another Oscar nomination for Lead Actor in David Lynch’s The Straight Story (that was filmed right here in Iowa). He was 79 at the time of the nomination making him the oldest actor to ever receive a best actor nomination.

You may also remember his roles in The Natural, The Two Jakes, and Misery. I had the good fortune to meet Richard Farnsworth at a movie theater in Burbank some time in the 80s. Nothing exciting, he was just standing in front of me waiting to buy popcorn or whatever.

“Are you Richard Farnsworth?”
“Yes, I am.”
“I appreciate your work.”
“Thank You.”

He smiled and we shook hands. This was in the days before IMDB so I didn’t know in that simple exchange I was shaking hands with a man who was a real life Forrest Gump in the film industry having been in some legendary Hollywood productions;   Gone with the Wind, Gunga Din, The Ten Commandments, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Roots, Bonanza, The Wild One,  Blazing Saddles, Spartacus and many others.

That means to one degree or another he worked with John Wayne, Clark Gable, Marlon Brando, Mel Brooks, Howard Hawks,  Jack Nicholson, Robert Redford, Clint Eastwood and Cecil B. DeMille.

I don’t know how long stuntman work on a regular basis in Hollywood, but it has to take its toll on your body.  Farnsworth’s last credit as a stuntman was 1975 when he would have been 55. He was almost 60 when his acting career took off. He changed with the times.

By the way, the screenwriter of The Grey Fox, John Hunter,  was no spring chicken himself and was 71 when the movie was released.

Oh yeah, Farnsworth did stunts in Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, too.

Scott W. Smith


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“I don’t know if any studio would make Butch Cassidy today.”
William Goldman

When I was a kid there was a place in Florida called Six Gun Territory that was an old west theme park near Ocala. They had a rail road, a saloon complete with can-can dancers, old-time photo studio, and most importantly they staged bank robberies and shootouts in the street. I still remember being around 9-years-old and the feel and the sound of walking on the gravel streets wearing cowboy boots.

I have many fond memories of that place and even shot my first 16mm film there. I remember ending that film paying homage to The Great Train Robbery by ending with a shot of a gunfighter shooting into the camera for no other reason than I thought it looked cool.

Every time I watch the opening scene of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid I think of Six Gun Territory. I don’t know if that was the first movie I ever saw set in the old west but I know it’s the one I go back to the most. It’s also the second highest rated western (after High Noon) on AFI’s top 100 films (1997) joining just a handful of other  Westerns that  made the list (Shane, Stagecoach, The Wild Bunch, Unforgiven).

Paul Newman and Robert Redford speaking screenwriter William Goldman’s words—that’s great stuff.  It took Goldman eight years to write the script which paid him a record fee up to that date of $400,000.  He also took home the Oscar for the 1970 film.

I sometimes watch favorite films with the sound off to get a different perspective. The movie holds up well without the great banter (“Think you used enough dynamite there Butch?”) With the sound off you follow the story easily and it plays as a visually stunning action film. (Though personally I could do without the trendy zoom lens shots.)

On this viewing I also realized that it perfectly matches Goldman’s “stay with the money” theory. Studios pay actors a lot of money, because audiences pay money to see stars. How many scenes do you think there are in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid that don’t include Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) and/or the Sundance Kid (Robert Redford)? The grand total is…zero. In fact, there is one scene where the town’s men talk about what to do about these bank robbers, and it’s more humorous by having Butch and Sundance listening to the discussion from a hotel balcony. Stay with the money.

“The essential opening labor a screenwriter must execute is, of course, deciding what the proper structure should be for the particular screenplay you are writing. And to do that, you have to know what is absolutely crucial in the telling of your story—what is its spine? Whatever it is, you must protect it to the death…(The theme of  Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid is) times are changing, and you have to change with them—if you want to survive.”
William Goldman 

Adventures in the Screen Trade

If I recall my philosophy class correctly, it was Heraclitus who said a long, long time ago that “you can’t step in the same river twice.” I think the times are always changing and that’s a good thing to realize. It was true of the old west, and it’s true of the new west, the Midwest, Key West—wherever you live. “The times they are a-changin’.”

By the way, Six Gun Territory pre-dated Disney World but closed in 1984. The land where it sat is now a strip mall. If you want to survive….

Scott W. Smith

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