Tuesday, August 27, 2013


Jack Crabb:
After my religion period, I took up with a swindler:
Allardyce Merriwhether.
After Mrs. Pendrake, his honesty was downright refreshing. 

I've always been a big fan of Westerns, but mostly of the TV brand.  And even then, I was more keen on those Westerns that had a twist to them - 'Maverick', 'Alias Smith And Jones', 'Legend', and most especially, 'The Wild, Wild West'.

But I've seen my fair share of movie Westerns and consider many of them to be classics in American Cinema - "Stagecoach", "The Wild Bunch", "Rio Bravo", "The Shootist" (a particular fave), "High Noon", and "The Magnificent Seven".  Even the humorous films like "Cat Ballou" and especially "Blazing Saddles" would be included in a list of the greatest movie Westerns.

To my mind, the greatest movie Western of all would be "The Searchers".  I can never understand it when "The Searchers" doesn't rank as Number One in somebody's "Best Of" list for Westerns.

So "The Searchers" is my choice for the Greatest.  But it's not my favorite movie Western.

That "honor" goes to "Little Big Man".

This is mostly due to the narrative framework.  As a fan of mythology and legend, "Little Big Man" is a great example of the Tall Tale.  The account of his life told by Jack Crabbe could be true - maybe he really did meet Wild Bill Hickock and General Custer - but that doesn't mean it wasn't flavored with some whoppers to embellish his story.

Roger Ebert, of the Chicago Sun-Times, described "Little Big Man" as "an endlessly entertaining attempt to spin an epic in the form of yarn."  And he gave it four out of four stars.

And that yarn is filled with all of the archetypes to  be found in the Western legend - gunslingers, Indians, Cavalry soldiers, saloon girls.  And then there's the one man who personified America even if we don't really want to admit it - 

Allardyce T. Meriweather, snake oil salesman, as played by Martin Balsam.  (I'll bet you were wondering when I'd get around to mentioning Mr. Balsam on his special day!)

Jack Crabbe:
Meriweather was one of the smartest men I ever knowed, 
but he tended to lose parts of himself.  
When I joined him, his left hand and his left ear were already gone. 
During my years with Meriweather, 
he lost an eye as a result of a fifth ace dropping out his sleeve in a poker game.

It didn't faze him, though.  
Deception was his life's blood, 
even if it caused him to get whittled down kind of gradual like.

Like I said, Americans probably don't want to admit it, but a con man like Allardyce T. Meriweather is what propelled America forward to eventually become the greatest nation on Earth.

A few years ago, a book was published recounting the history of America and how it was built by con men.  And they'll always be with us, with their own variations on Sid Stone's classic line "Tell ya what I'm going to do!".  You find them operating on the lower rungs as three card monte dealers on the street to used car salesmen, working in cyberspace - "Click on this link!" - and a few find their calling as televangelists.  (And the truly successful ones found their niche in politics.  Even today, on both sides of the aisle, they're selling us a bill of goods that won't benefit us, just themselves.  I'll get off my soapbox now.)

Some of the more (in)famous con men in History were Frank Abagnale (got a movie made about him!), Charles Ponzi, Soapy Smith, and Clifford Irving.  I'm not saying they should be admired or emulated, but they certainly made life more colorful.

As with any mythological tale of the Joseph Campbell stripe, "Little Big Man" has its mentors to the hero.  Mr. Meriweather serves as the Trickster/Mentor, weaving in and out of the story in order to guide Jack Crabbe forward in his development, even if it doesn't always feel like he's doing any good for Jack.

Like when they get tarred and feathered.....

Jack Crabb: 
You don't know when you're licked!

Allardyce T. Meriweather: 
Licked? I'm not licked. 
I'm tarred and feathered, that's all.

The American West was too long idealized in the movies - look how long it took before the image Custer as Hero was finally put to rest.  But the Medicine Show Man is probably still seen as just the "snake-oil salesman": a venal, larcenous individual always up to no good.  But they were the ones who inspired the dreams in their marks - er, customers, and if those people were burned by some get rich quick scheme, maybe it made them more determined to better their situation on their own.

Allardyce T. Meriweather:
Life contains a particle of risk.

That's the role Allardyce T. Meriweather played in Jack Crabbe's life.
Allardyce T. Meriweather:
[Old Lodge Skins] gave you a vision of moral order in the universe, 
and there isn't any.  
Those stars twinkle in a void, dear boy, 
and the two-legged creature schemes and dreams beneath them, all in vain.

Men will believe anything, 
the more preposterous the better:
Whales speak French at the bottom of the sea.  
The horses of Arabia have silver wings.
Pygmies mate with elephants in darkest Africa.
I have sold all those propositions.

As an actor, Balsam was more of an urban Everyman on either side of the Law, even when he was playing military characters or foreigners.  He made few Westerns, and most of those were a handful of appearances in TV oaters.  As far as I can tell, the only other major Western movies he did were "Hombre" and "The Good Guys And The Bad Guys".  But I could be wrong.  I wouldn't be surprised.  I usually am.

But I think that even though he didn't have the flashiest role in "Little Big Man" (I think Richard Mulligan nabbed that title for himself), nor is he the one you come away with being most impressed by their character (Chief Dan George, perhaps?), I think in the long run it's Allardyce T. Meriweather who sums up the quintessential figure of Americana.

Most of my regular readers know that I usually focus on what I call Toobworld - that alternate reality in which everything that happens on TV actually happens.  And that's another reason I wanted to write about Allardyce T. Meriweather on the day that TCM is celebrating the movie career of Martin Balsam.

I think "Little Big Man", like "M*A*S*H", could have been transformed from book to movie to TV series.  And the focus should have been on the relationship between Jack Crabbe and Allardyce T. Meriweather as they travel the Western frontier in search of adventure... and new marks to swindle.

And I think at that point in his career, Martin Balsam could have been approached to continue the role of Meriweather (although "O'Bviously" a new young actor would have to assume the role of Jack Crabbe.  I think Hoffman was going to be busy for a while....)

Even today, I think the book would be a wonderful candidate for a television remake, although sadly not with Mr. Balsam's involvement.


This post was written as part of the TCM Summer Under The Stars blogathon.  Click on the banner at the top to learn more......

1 comment:

Jill said...

It's been a long time since I've seen this movie, but your post is making me want to revisit it very soon. The performances are incredible.

Thanks for a great contribution to the blogathon.