A lot changes in the course of shaping a novel.
Early in the writing of “The Ben-Hur Murders,” I put more emphasis on the ex-cavalry soldier, Buddy Ardale. He had ridden with the Rough Riders in Cuba, but by the time World War I started, he wanted no part of the modern world’s idea of warfare.
So he had signed up with a Wild West show and ended up a stunt cowboy in early Hollywood. By then the younger men in that new industry town viewed him as something of an anachronism.
At one point I had tied Buddy’s story to the early history of the movies. It was intended to be part of a preface, and then it became part of an afterword. But neither of them made it into the final novel.
I still would have liked to use it somewhere. So I’m putting it here. Maybe you will like it.
“Nobody remembers nothin’,” the old horse soldier Buddy Ardale said during a break in the shooting that day. Squeaks, the Irishman, had been pumping him for a story about his military days.
“Why’d you ever quit, Buddy?” he asked. “You might’ve been a colonel by now.”
“Ah, it ain’t what it was. There’s nothing noble about it any more. They have iron horses, and long-range cannons and airplanes. The cavalry — that’s just something they send out to get a fix on the enemy’s strength. It’s not worth the life of a good horse. And what’s the point of it, anyway? Nobody remembers nothin’.”
He said the last so casually, almost under his breath, that maybe no one heard it but me. But I can still see how he looked as he said it — like a man about to crumple up a telegram and toss it in the fireplace.
Twenty years before he had served with Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders in Cuba. But a world war had come along since then, and it left some thirty-five million dead or crippled. By the time I met Buddy, the little hill at “Saint Johnny” was just a dot on some maps, and only a handful of souls remained who could tell you why Spanish and American sons had given up their lives there.
As for old Teddy Roosevelt, he was just a sketchy figure in the funny papers with a bushy grin and a private collection of shrunken heads. So I figured Buddy Ardale had every right to speak with bitterness about the past.
But the truth is, Buddy was wrong. Even back when he was sporting a cavalry coat, there were people busy setting down a record of what had been. They were using a brand new language known as moving pictures to fix a human face on history. The movies hadn’t learned to speak, but their voices still rang out loud and clear when the week’s bill changed down at the Bijou.
Mistakes happened along the way, and many a sacrifice was made that might appear foolish to us now. But when it came to conquering the unknown and astonishing the world, who could have said back then what the limits were?
Both the art and the business of making movies had to go through an evolutionary process.
Eventually the world moved on, and that meant putting aside its silent movies. It stashed away the evidence of its wild youth in attics and garages along with all its stained baby buggies and stringless ukuleles. No one gave them another thought until one sealed inside a can somewhere lost its patience and burst into a rage. Then people came from all around to watch as laddered trucks gathered outside some old clapboard home and firemen fought with hose and ax to save it from paying the ultimate price of forgetting.
(c) 2015 John W. Harding
Read “The Ben-Hur Murders: Inside the 1925 ‘Hollywood Games'” from Mindright Publishing. It is available at Amazon.com as a paperback and Kindle download, and exclusively in hardcover at Lulu Press.
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