The Firefly Connection


As I may have mentioned at some point before (actually I never tire of mentioning it), one of my first major reviewers summarized my first book, Beyond the Rails, as “Jules Verne meets Firefly.”  I was at first put off by this, as it felt a bit like I was being accused of something close to plagiarism.  But I have come to realize that there are a lot worse things to have your work compared to than a Joss Whedon masterpiece.  The similarities to the world’s favorite cancelled space western are unavoidable, but I have come to realize that I wasn’t trying to copy anything (well, I never set out to copy someone else’s work), I was trying to create something, and it wasn’t Firefly.  Allow me instead to present for your consideration its resemblance to 1962’s Hatari!


Hatari! was a sprawling Howard Hawks vehicle starring John Wayne, Red Buttons, and an international cast as a band of expats in Tanganyika (now Tanzania), catching wild animals for zoos and circuses.  The film was made in 1962, before Intellectual Fascism Political Correctness and Animal Rights* arrived on the scene; it couldn’t happen today.  It offers danger (which is the meaning of the title in Swahili), excitement, romance, comedy, intrigue; it’s the total package.

It entered my universe in the summer of 1963, when I was sent to Monterey, California to live with my mom for a few weeks while school was out.  Monterey was not the never-sleeping hotbed of entertainment that it is today; far from it.  It was a dying fishing village, a tough town with a tougher economy.  Adults found their escape in the bars and card rooms; for my 14 year old self, there were two movie houses that both changed their features once a week.  Hatari arrived that summer, and I bought a ticket each day and stayed for two showings.  That means I watched and enjoyed this movie fourteen times in the first week, and probably a dozen or more since.  I refuse to apologize for saying it was a great film.

The movie begins with a tight view of the whole cast waiting in a ravine for some undisclosed event to unfold as Henry Mancini’s masterful action theme begins with a few quiet, suspenseful notes presaging the Jaws theme.  The view and music quickly explode into irresistible action as most of the cast attempt to chase down and capture a rhinoceros using a truck and a Jeep, as about ten miles of the magnificent Serengeti flow under the wheels.  The attempt has to be broken off when the rhino gores the Jeep’s passenger, “the Indian” (Bruce Cabot), their safety gunner, who holds his fire because he doesn’t want to cost them their animal.  By the end of that chase, anybody with two cells in their brain that crave adventure is aboard for the ride.

Hardy Kruger, Elsa Martinelli, John Wayne, Red Buttons, Valentine de Vargas, and Michelle Girardon.

The cast has some familiar John Wayne “groupies,” but also a good number of European stars whose very unfamiliarity to American audiences of the time brought a freshness that amplified the huge and spectacular African scenery.  Wayne’s character makes the initial move in the captures, lassoing animals from a seat welded to the fender of a beat-up old Chevrolet pickup.  His driver is a former New York cabbie nicknamed Pockets (Red Buttons).  GT Circuit race driver Kurt Müller (Hardy Kruger) drives the herd car, a Jeep used to force the fleeing animals into the range of John Wayne’s lasso.  His passenger is their safety gunner, first Bruce Cabot’s “Indian,” and after his injury, “Chips” Maurey (Gerard Blain).  Mexican bullfighter Luis Francisco Garcia Lopez (Valentin de Vargas) leads the handling team, while Brandy de la Court (Michele Girardon) keeps headquarters running smoothly.  Anna Maria D’Allesandro (Elsa Martinelli) is a wildlife photographer foisted on them by the zoo that is going to buy most of their animals; they come to like her later.

The action comes largely from interactions with the animals, which are not all captured in car chases.  Seeing Red Buttons use a rocket to throw a net over a tree full of angry, panicked monkeys, and the rest of the crew collecting them while kitted up in homemade armor is worth the price of admission.  Comedic intrigue is provided by the competition between Buttons, Kruger, and Blain for Girardon’s affection, while straight comedy is the only way to describe Martinelli’s ever-growing baby elephant collection (which in itself leads to a scene in which Red Buttons tries to milk a ram!).  The serious romance is between John Wayne and Elsa Martinelli, which at 14 didn’t bother me, as they were both quite a bit older than I was.  But now, as an adult, it falls a little flat; seeing 27 year old Martinelli fall head over heels for 55 year old Wayne leaves me with a problem suspending disbelief.  Sure, he’s the Duke, but in the movie, he’s just some old guy catching animals.

There are some colorful characters in this cast.  Elsa Martinelli was an Italian runway model whose elfin beauty and “cute” accent (not to mention her undeniable similarity to a young Sophia Loren) opened the door to movies for her.  By the time of Hatari, she had starred opposite Kirk Douglas in The Indian Fighter, and had won a prestigious European award for actors while playing the lead in Mario Monicelli’s Donatella.  Hardy Kruger, who owned the ranch in Tanganyika where the movie was filmed, had been conscripted into the Hitler Youth as a young teenager, and fought briefly against American forces in the closing weeks of World War II.  It took him years to overcome that stigma, but he went on to have an illustrious career, including playing a senior German officer in A Bridge Too Far, while simultaneously serving as a technical advisor.  He was the first postwar German actor to be accepted as a protagonist by Western audiences.  Tragedy stalked Michele Girardon.  Twenty-four and full of promise when Hatari was released, her career was basically over within a decade.  She became involved with a married Spanish nobleman and notorious cad, who strung her along until he obtained a divorce, at which time he married another woman.  She committed suicide with sleeping pills at the age of 36.

Henry Mancini’s score has never received the critical acclaim it deserved.  Mention Mancini, and people respond with The Pink Panther, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Days of Wine and Roses, and Peter Gunn.  All of these are justifiably great scores, but Hatari had a scope, range, and power that wasn’t present in the other works, simply because it wouldn’t have fit.  An individual song, Baby Elephant Walk, remains well-known and popular fifty years after the movie, but it deserved so much more.

The film is readily available in bargain bins from video stores to game shops, and is well worth the peanuts that they charge for a movie this old.  The plot, the action, the old-fashioned way the characters treat each other are all charming and refreshing, reminders of how life was before we all decided to embrace snatchin’ and grabbin’ as a national culture.  The scenery is so majestic, clear, and just big, that you can almost smell the fresh air.  If it looks like John Wayne and company are wrestling with the animals, and if they look stressed and worried, it’s because they are.  You couldn’t Photoshop a star’s face onto a stuntman’s body in those days, and Howard Hawks’ cornerstone was believability.  If the camera told you that John Wayne was standing between two trucks shoving on a rhino’s ass, that’s because he was.  I cannot tell you strongly enough how enjoyable this movie is on so many levels.  I cannot tell you strongly enough how glad you will be if you do get this movie, set aside the two-and-a-half hours that it runs, and immerse yourself in it.

But that isn’t why I’m doing this.  I’m here to make the case that my subconscious purpose for writing Beyond the Rails was to recreate the family that those expats created, working and playing together, looking out for one another even as their friendly rivalries played out, and always knowing beyond any shadow of a doubt that if you got yourself into dire difficulty, the others would be there to have your back.  I didn’t experience much love during childhood, and these people represented the loving family I always wanted.  So the critics can cite the obvious similarities to the newer work, and those opinions may have merit, but if I was subconsciously channeling anything, I rise to make the case that it was Hatari!  What do you think?

*I do not believe in the abuse of any living thing, human or animal, and I firmly believe that the right of animals to decent treatment is a valuable concept, but the simple fact is that if this movie were made today, it would be a hopeless mashup of CGI, green-screen, and studio work, and in all likelihood, not worth watching.

Other Voices . . .

David Lee Summers, the “Steampunk Astronomer,” attended a gathering of like-minded folks in Bisbee, Arizona last weekend, and if his report and photographs are any indication, an excellent time was had by all!  The after-action report may be viewed in all its glory on his Web Journal.

Cool San Diego Sights, Richard Schulte’s photo-blog of the southwest corner of the Lower 48, turned five on Friday, and as you might imagine, he took a retrospective look at the journey.  But there’s another aspect I want mention to the cash-strapped indie authors that I cater to:  He’s getting close to 20,000 photos on that blog, and while there are a fair number of famous San Diego landmarks, many more are of an unusual building, a fountain, a garden, a ship or boat, seashores, mountains, forests, and Richard, in his unmatched generosity, has declared that anyone may use any of his photographs for an illustration, a book cover, or any legitimate purpose, for no more than a credit to him as the photographer.  The article detailing his terms and suggestions for use is linked here.

Phoebe Darqueling, another of my steampunk-writing friends, deals with the difficult proposition of adding a subplot to an already finished novel.  I’m a believer that subplots enrich novels and make them more believable.  We all have problems, right?  And how many times do you get to focus all your attention on one thing and see it through to the end with no distractions or other problems demanding your attention?  Subplots bring these elements to an otherwise simple story, and need to be in place for the reader to really feel the stress.  Phoebe presents an excellent discussion of this oft-neglected aspect.

Karen Carlisle was recently involved in a photo shoot at Adelaide’s Largs Pier Hotel, a preserved Victorian structure of grand elegance.  She has shared her photos on her blog, and if anyone is looking for period-accurate material from that era, or just a collection of beautiful photos, look no further.

Michael May, whose Hellbent for Letterbox series on classic western movies was featured here last week, is also a big Tarzan fan, and another series, Greystoked, looks in depth at the ape-man in all his incarnations.  A big treat for fans of Burroughs’ classic creation.

I know I have some Australian readers, and if you’re a steampunk fan who will be on the south coast in two weeks, be sure to look into the Adelaide Steampunk Festival being held September 15th and 16th at the National Railways Museum.  The full lowdown is up on Facebook, so grab your goggles and book your seat on the blimp!


And speaking of Australia, this just in:  What do you know about liptember  If you’re like me, the answer is “Not much.”  Knowledge was imparted to me just this evening by long-time writing friend, Karen Carlisle, who suffers from PTSD, which afflicts women at a rate of 3 to 1 over men.  Liptember is an Aussie-based awareness event to serve and support women suffering from this debilitating malady among others.  Visit the site, expand your knowledge, and if at all possible support this most worthy cause.  The woman you save might be yourself!

Last, and almost certainly least, for anyone following along, I posted Chapter 12 of Chameleon yesterday.  Only two to go!  One of my older tales, that of a reformed IRA soldier using the skills she has acquired to serve as a paladin for the downtrodden.  If you like your adventure with an extra helping of attitude, this could be for you.  Just click Chameleon in the row of tabs above.

And that’s 30 for today, friends.  Join me Thursday for the latest roundup of interesting reads from the edge, and until we meet again, get out there and live life like you mean it!