Max Evans: Lone Writer of the Hi-Lo Country
The western is all but gone, but the West lives on.
The classic westerns of cattle drives and rustlers, saloons with swinging doors, dancing girls, a tinkling piano and high-stakes card games, of ruthless land barons and of mysterious lone strangers showing up in town bent on revenge survive in happy memory--and in reruns on the lesser channels.
Yet the real, unmythic, contemporary West of big skies and ranches, and of cowboys who these days ride pickups more often than horses, that West is still in business. And its principal chronicler is a former cowboy, hard-rock miner and painter named Max Evans.
Evans looks like a man you might have seen in a western, fleeing a posse or joining one, although his only role was in fact riding shotgun beside Slim Pickens as the stagecoach driver in Sam Peckinpah’s “The Ballad of Cable Hogue.”
A critic once called Evans “a range-land Mark Twain.” His novels and stories are often wildly funny but frequently carry an undertone of tragedy and a suggestion that the antics themselves are compensations for pains of a grueling life in unyielding country.
Evans’ first novel, “The Rounders,” was filmed in 1965 with Henry Fonda and Glenn Ford playing two tramp cowboys working for a tough ranch owner. Like nearly all of Evans’ fiction, the novel was born in the facts of his own life. Evans had started cowboying before he was a teenager, hiring out to a rancher who was very tough but significantly more scrupulous than Tom Ed, the boss in the book (played by Chill Wills in the movie).
Now his 1961 novel, “The Hi-Lo Country,” has at last been filmed. It opened in Los Angeles and New York on Wednesday for Academy Award qualification. Martin Scorsese, as urban a filmmaker as can be found, produced it; the director was Stephen Frears, the elegant Englishman whose credits include “My Beautiful Laundrette,” “Dangerous Liaisons,” “The Snapper” and “The Grifters,” his only previous exploration of contemporary Americana.
Woody Harrelson and Billy Crudup (“Without Limits”) are the cowboy pals, spiritual descendants of Fonda and Ford. Patricia Arquette plays the married woman they both love. The script was by Walon Green, who wrote Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch.”
The Hi-Lo Country can’t be found on gas station maps or in atlases. It was defined and named by Evans himself. It embraces, in his own words, “the north-eastern half of New Mexico, the far panhandle of Oklahoma, a lot of southeastern Colorado, and extends over into the far northwest of Texas.” (A souvenir map, locating the sites of various Evans stories, has been published by literary historian James R. Gober.)
It is a difficult, dry, testing land, a mix of mountains and wide plains, all wind-swept. The place names resonate with history: the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the Purgatoire, Rio Grande, and Canadian rivers, Taos and Las Vegas (New Mexico), where Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders gathered for reunions until the last of them was gone.
The town of Hi-Lo, where the movie’s action takes place, isn’t on maps, either. It is an amalgam of Des Moines, Springer and Cimarron, all small, wind-scoured hamlets in New Mexico that prosper or suffer with the price of beef or copper and other ores. The life breeds or demands men and women who work hard and (the menfolk most particularly) play hard. Evans himself still has the scarred fists and the often-struck nose to prove it. He wears city suits these days, but with Western boots and Stetsons as legacies of his earlier times.
Lots of Interest Over a Long Time
For the 74-year-old Evans, the idea of making a film from “The Hi-Lo Country” has had a long history going back more than three decades. Among the actors who wanted to be part of the film, Evans noted not long ago, were Brian Keith, Lee Marvin, Charlton Heston, Robert Culp and Slim Pickens.
The list of producers and directors similarly inclined included Saul David, David Dortort, Tom Gries, Buzz Kulick, Marvin Schwartz, William Wellman, Burt Kennedy and Peckinpah, who was the most persistent suitor.
“The trouble was that Sam wanted to make it a ‘Gone With the Wind’ of the West,” Evans says from his home in Albuquerque. “He extended it to Mexico so he could work in the Federales. His script was 160 pages long and would have run close to four hours and cost I can’t imagine how much. And with Sam, the executives never lacked for excuses for him not to direct it.”
Scorsese and his team saw, as Evans himself had come to realize, that his slim, 155-page novella, need not be an epic. The heart of the story was the intimate relationships of two best friends and the woman they both loved, which ends with one of the friends gunned down.
The identity of the shooter is the movie’s surprising twist, but it is true to historical fact. The basic story stemmed from an episode in Evans’ life. The victim was Wylie “Big Boy” Hittson, Evans’ oldest, closest friend, who is called Big Boy Matson in the novel and the film.)
“Twice Big Boy put his life on the line for me,” Evans says. “We gambled together, fist-fought together, chased women and drank whiskey and all the damned fun things young idiots do. We also worked like hell out on that land.” When a new horse threw Evans, he gave the animal to Big Boy, who tamed it to become “one of the most beautiful horses you ever saw. I just wasn’t cowboy enough to ride him.” The incident commences the film.
Evans was living in Taos when a phone call came saying that Big Boy had been shot and was being buried that afternoon. “They didn’t tell me earlier because they were sure I’d come over the mountain and kill the killer,” Evans says. “They were wrong, those people. Big Boy’s mother and grandmother had both lost their husbands to gun violence. They’d been through hell all their lives, working like damned slaves. Big Boy had had to take over their hardscrabble ranch, literally, when he was 11.” Evans wanted to spare the women any more violence.
‘I’ve Got to Tell the Story of the Land’
When Evans reached the church, the mourners were just filing out. The Marine Hymn was being played as a recessional, because Big Boy had been in the corps. The afternoon, the music and the denouement are faithfully reproduced in the film. The killer, who could claim self-defense, was never charged. The story is not least a shift from the revenge motif of many classic westerns.
“I really dreaded writing the story,” Evans says, “but I knew I had to some day. I couldn’t resist it. And I thought, if I’m going to tell the story of this guy, I’ve got to tell the story of the land or it’s never going to be understood. You don’t know how people can be like this unless you understand the harshness, and sometimes the beauty, of the land.”
How a film comes into being is sometimes mysterious and often serendipitous. A friend of Evans, actor L.Q. Jones, had worked for Scorsese on “Casino,” and asked the legendary director why he had never done a western. Scorsese told him he wanted to, but never found the right story.
Jones described “The Hi-Lo Country” and not so incidentally mentioned Peckinpah’s long interest in it. Scorsese had always admired Peckinpah’s work and was instrumental in getting “The Wild Bunch” re-released with some key footage restored.
He called Evans and asked for a copy of the novel and a few days later called again to begin discussions on a deal.
Scorsese, who produced “The Grifters,” recruited Frears, and sent him a list of possible writers. Frears in turn admired Walon Green, who had adapted “The Grifters,” and so the project took shape.
Green says he read the first 40 pages, which set the milieu in a series of lively vignettes, and saw that Evans was developing three story lines: the friendship, the love story and the disenfranchisement of the GIs returning after the war to find they were being squeezed out (as Evans found on his own ranch).
“What you left out was as important as what you left in,” Green says. “Everything had to contribute to those themes.” He made several trips to the Hi-Lo locations, including a visit to Big Boy’s grave. He and Evans have become good friends.
After many critically positive but dollar-tight years, Evans is now enjoying the widest and most satisfying recognition he’s ever had. “The Hi-Lo Country,” a dream long deferred, is at hand and, in his view--and to his relief--is well-done and and well-acted.
A movie tie-in paperback edition of the novel is being published by Berkley/Jove. Texas Tech University Press is bringing out “Hi-Lo to Hollywood: A Max Evans Reader,” including 10 short stories, five of his novels, seven of his essays and some magazine pieces.
Due out from Forge in January is his first historical novel, “Faraway Blues,” dramatizing two real figures from the New Mexico past, a buffalo soldier named Moses Williams and an Apache chief named Nana, whom Evans believes was one of the greatest warrior-strategists of any time.
If the fates look kindly upon him, there is a good deal more to come. In the works are his memoir of Peckinpah; a book titled “King of Taos,” involving what the tourists may well not see or know; and a memoir he calls “a spiritual autobiography"--take it or leave it accounts of empirically inexplicable experiences he, Peckinpah, Brian Keith and other friends have had.
But Evans adds that beyond these projects, “I’d like to have 18 months to try to paint the vastness of the Hi-Lo Country. And I’ve still got about a thousand short stories in my head, and I sure would love to have time to get about 25 or 30 of them down. I’m just not ready to sit around with my boots off.”