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Max Evans: Lone Writer of the Hi-Lo Country

Movies: He has been crafting thoughtful, modern western stories for years. Now his 1961 novel, 'The Hi-Lo Country,' has at last been filmed.

January 01, 1999|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

ALBUQUERQUE — 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.)

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