‘Destry Rides Again,’ by Max Brand

I’m the kind of buckaroo who’s interested in the books movies are based on. Even more, I’m interested in how the movies change the story, for better or worse. Recently, one of the digital broadcast channels ran both iterations of the film, Destry Rides Again. The 1939 version, a classic comedy-drama, starred James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich. It was remade in 1954, almost shot-for-shot, with Audie Murphy and some actress nobody remembers (“Hey gang! Let’s do it all over again just the same, but this time let’s make it stink!”). When I read the Wikipedia article, I noted that the movies bore almost no resemblance (except for the hero’s name, and they even changed the first part of that) to the original novel by Max Brand. That intrigued me enough to get the book for my Kindle.

They did not lie. Max Brand must have thought he was getting money for nothing when they paid him for the film rights, because very little of his work made it to the screen. (There was an earlier 1932 version with Tom Mix, which is said to have been closer to the book.)

The story of the movie, briefly, is this. The town of Bottleneck needs a new deputy sheriff, so they call in young Tom Destry, son of a legendary former sheriff. Only when he shows up, he’s a disappointment. He’s meek and quiet, and does not carry a gun. The toughs of the town, led by the local saloonkeeper, laugh at him. The saloonkeeper is behind a scheme to buy up all the properties on a strip of land that cattle drives need to cross. Then he can get rich off exorbitant watering fees. Destry employs his charm and disarming manner to defuse violence for a while, but eventually things get out of hand, and he at last straps on his pistol and meets the saloonkeeper for a showdown. There’s also a love triangle involving Marlene Dietrich’s saloon girl and a virtuous girl, both in love with Destry.

The book Destry Rides Again could hardly be more different. Harry Destry is the hero, and he’s a wild, tough, uncivilized young man, even a bit of a bully. He’s convicted of a robbery he did not commit, and comes back a changed – and darker – character. Each man on the jury had a personal grudge against him, and Harry has a plan to get revenge on each and every one of them. However, he does not guess his true enemy, a purported friend who in fact set him up and profited by it. The pure faith of the girl who loves him, and a boy who idolizes him, combine to help him begin to see the futility of his ways.

One can discern certain points where moments of the book might have suggested the film plot. When the story begins, Harry doesn’t have a gun – but that’s because he lost it in a poker game. When he returns from prison, he at first makes out to be a broken man, and appears unarmed – but that’s only a ploy. Also, there’s an idol-worshiping boy in both versions.

Otherwise they’re entirely different stories, in entirely different spirits.

What kind of a writer was Max Brand? I’ve read one of his novels before, and this one impressed me less. The term “purple prose” might have been coined for this book. Here’s a snippet:

There was no answer from Cleeves. He never again would answer any man. His lips were cold. Until Judgment Day, a thousand trumpets might blow, and Hank would never reply. He whom a hundred thousand eyes had seen now had vanished. He was gone. He was away. Deeper than the seas he was buried, and deeper than the mountains could hide him. The impalpable spirit was gone, and only the living blood remained to tell of him, dripping down into the silence of the old shack, drop by drop, softly spattering, like footsteps wonderfully light and wonderfully clear….

And it goes on. Brand originally wrote this story as a magazine serial, and here you see the unmistakable traces of an author being paid by the word.

He also helpfully provides exclamation marks at the ends of narrative sentences on frequent occasions – so we’ll know when to be excited!

Destry Rides Again was amusing to read, but only as an artifact of its time. It is simplistic, overwritten, and improbable. Cautions for the occasional racial slur, too.

2 thoughts on “‘Destry Rides Again,’ by Max Brand”

  1. When I ran out of books in the Louis L’Amour catalog and didn’t like the tone of newer western genre authors I started working my way through the old westerns by Max Brand and Zane Grey. It helps that most of them are in the public domain with free Kindle downloads available. Both of them tend to write moralistic tales of not just good guy versus bad guy but like Destry, bad guy learning it’s a bad idea to be bad when he figures out that reputation is important and there are things more valuable than money. Zane Grey also has several coming of age stories, like The Shortstop aimed at inflicting values on young men.

    I remember one scene in one of those old Westerns, (Can’t remember whether Brand or Grey) that couldn’t be written or published nowadays. there was a young lady who was proud of her fancy dress that made all the young men look at her. But after one of the rougher cowboys made a pass at her she later asked him why he did it. He responded by asking her, “How come you were advertising what you weren’t selling?” She realized he was right and decided not to wear that dress anymore.

  2. Now you mention it, the reformation of a bad man was a ubiquitous theme in old western stories, and movies too. From what I read, almost every William S Hart movie was about a gambler or bad man, called to higher things by a good woman.

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