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Wednesday, September 18, 2019

WESTERN NOVELS—THE COWBOY AND THE COSSACK

WESTERN NOVELS
THE COWBOY AND 
THE COSSACK
If I could only choose one Western novel to recommend, it would be The Cowboy and the Cossack. The traditional cattle drive formula is given a refreshing twist when fifteen Montana cowboys sail into Vladivostok, Russia, with a herd of five hundred longhorns.

The experienced wranglers are fired up to drive their herd across a thousand miles of Siberian wilderness, but are startled to find a band of Cossacks—Russia's elite horsemen and warriors—waiting to act as an unwanted escort. Very quickly, the culture clash between American six-shooters and Russian sabers detonates the action. The sequence in which the cattle are herded off the ship to the shore is one of the greatest of all novel openings.

Against the sweeping majesty of a cruel winter in the Russian wilderness, two men, Shad the leader of the Montana cowboys, and Rostov the Cossack commander come into tight focus. Respect and trust are forged in the molten fire of nature fueled by a ruthless Apache-like Tartar army and powerful men whose only motive is profit. The cowboy code and the Cossack credo measure men differently, but honor and courage rises when the Wild West rides the plains of the Russian Tsars.

Author Clair Huffaker was a legendary Western novelist and screenwriter. His screenplays include The Comancheros, Hellfighters, and The War Wagon, which starred John Wayne. His first novel, Flaming Lance, became the basis for the Elvis Presley film Flaming Star. Huffaker also wrote for TV Westerns such as Bonanza, The Rifleman, The Virginian, Rawhide and Lawman. He served in the Navy in World War II and was an experienced cowboy, a champion boxer and a part-time smuggler. His home in Los Angeles was a gathering place for actors, stuntmen, directors and writers, all of whom could regularly be found there shooting pool, playing poker and exchanging tall tales.

Huffaker's wife, Norma Lee Fink, was the first female prosecutor in Texas. Later, as a private practitioner, her clients included Sam Peckinpah, Franco Nero, Henry Farrell, Christopher Lee, Inger Stevens, Norman Baer, Ed Linn, Slim Pickens, and her husband, Clair Huffaker.

The words of Clair Huffaker's daughter, Samantha Kirkeby, perhaps explain the emotional impact of The Cowboy and the Cossack best: “As I stumbled into middle age, my fathers ability to touch people was opened up to me in a dramatic and unexpected way. I found myself reading reviews from readers all over the world. Families in Russia who considered their page worn copy of The Cowboy and the Cossack a family treasure. A wife who read the book aloud to her husband when he was ill and bedridden. An American soldier who brought me to tears when I read how The Cowboy and the Cossack was his favorite novel, and the very first thing he put into his backpack each time he left for duty. For over a decade, he carried the ragged paperback copy of The Cowboy and the Cossack he bought in a used book store to dozens of countries, reading and rereading it, passing it among his fellow soldiers to give them strength and inspiration, until the pages were frayed and worn.” 

With Huffaker's ability to get his novels not only bought by Hollywood, but to also get them produced and released, it is a mystery why The Cowboy and the Cossack (arguably his best and most popular novel) has never made it to the screen. At one time producer Lance Hool held the movie rights. He famously attempted to get the film made with Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson in the title roles, which would have been epic casting. Later, Albert R. Broccoli, the co-producer of the James Bond films, acquired the rights, but his efforts also stalled in development hell. 

Since then, the film rights to The Cowboy and the Cossack have been twisted into a Gordian knot nobody has yet found a way to unravel. This is a travesty as The Cowboy and the Cossack, in the hands of the right director and with spot on casting, is a guaranteed summer blockbuster just waiting to happen. 

2 comments:

  1. I read this last year and loved it. Wonderful plot and superb characterizations.

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  2. I absolutely concur that if you only read one Western, this is it. I had to read it many years ago for a class when I was getting my MLS in library science. I was not a Western reader other than a couple of Zane Greys but was blown away at how good the book was.

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