‘High Noon” and Hollywood’s Red Scare

Glenn FrankelGlenn Frankel worked for the “Washington Post” for three decades, winning a Pulitzer Prize in the process.  Since retiring from the day-to-day news business, he’s kept an eye on social and political issues, but he’s explored them in the context of Hollywood.  His last book, “The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend,” was a best-seller and received strong critical reviews.  His latest book, “High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic,” explores Hollywood and the United States in the middle of the 20th century.  Published in the Houston Chronicle on February 26, 2017.

 

Mike Yawn: Putting aside social and cultural and political history for the moment, where does “High Noon” stand in terms of cinematic history?Gary Cooper, High Noon, Mike Yawn, Glenn Frankel, Red Scare

Glenn Frankel: “High Noon” marks the moment when Westerns grow up. It eschews the genre’s familiar trappings—beautiful scenery, exuberant cattle drives, set-piece battles between cowboys and Indians—for social drama. Although its protagonist is the iconic Gary Cooper, it portrays him as aging, vulnerable and frightened, forced to confront not only four murderous thugs but also the moral cowardice of his own community.

Mike Yawn: Describe the impact of the Red Scare on Hollywood in general and “High Noon” (released in 1952) in particular?

Glenn Frankel: Originally, Hollywood resisted the Red Scare, but by 1952—with the Korean War going on and Russia’s development of the A bomb—that changed.  The studios were fearful that groups would boycott their films, and they began requiring employee “clearances” and loyalty oaths.  Hundreds of performers, writers, and crew members were denied employment without any kind of legal proceeding. Carl Foreman, the scriptwriter for “High Noon” was one of these.

Mike Yawn: Tell us about Foreman.

Glenn Frankel: Carl came to Hollywood with dreams of becoming a great writer.  He was a progressive [he was a member of the Communist Party in the 1940s], so he had a political point of view, and he was ambitious.  He partnered with the talented Stanley Kramer and they formed their own independent company.  They were able to make high-quality films with good actors and social meaning, and Carl’s career took off.  By 1951, he was sufficiently prominent that his name came up when the House on Un-American Activities (HUAC) began their second round of hearings on “Communist infiltration in Hollywood.”  He was working on “High Noon” when he received his subpoena.  He believed his friends were avoiding him.  He felt isolated.  The people he worked with were beginning to pressure him, concerned that his testimony might taint the company and the films on which they work.  The film “High Noon” reflects some of these themes, and on a personal level, Carl had a decision to make.  The Committee didn’t just want him to “confess” to being a Communist at one time, but also to “name names.”  Refusing to do so meant the end of his career and his goals, but if he cooperated, he would violate a fundamental principle for himself.  That’s the crisis he faced, and it’s the dilemma I build the book around.

Mike Yawn: “High Noon” is a famous film, but most people think of it simply in terms of being a Western.  Can you elaborate on its metaphorical qualities?

Glenn Frankel:Well “High Noon” is about a community at risk, and it’s a metaphor for Hollywood and the United States.  Carl saw liberals shriveling in the face of a kind of anti-Communist hysteria, refusing to stand up to the HUAC.  Similarly, in “High Noon,” when the bad guys are returning to Hadleyville, Marshall Will Kane hopes he can count on the towns’ citizens and its institutions to support him, but they back away.  He’s left alone to fight these dark forces.  And, in real life, Foreman was left to face HUAC without much support.  He refused to back down, but he had to leave the United States and find work in England as a result.

Mike Yawn: How did writers cope after being blacklisted?

Glenn Frankel: Carl left the US and went to London and worked under pseudonyms. Others took similar actions.  Writers might also use a “front,” that is a person who would claim to have written the film.  The real writer and the front would then divide the money.  The advantage of using the front is that there was a real person on the script.  In the case of “The Brave One,” that film was credited to a Robert Rich, but it was actually written by Dalton Trumbo.  When “Robert Rich” won an Oscar, everyone said, “Who is this guy?”  He didn’t exist.  The writers had to make all kinds of compromises to keep working.

Mike Yawn: “High Noon” is a favorite film of US Presidents.  Why do you think this is?

Glenn Frankel: Eisenhower showed it in the White House, and according to presidential records, it’s the film most often seen in the White House.  Bill Clinton was the ultimate “High Noon” watcher—he’s seen it 20 times!  I think presidents identify with Marshall Kane, who is left alone to face the community’s problems.

Mike Yawn: In “High Noon,” the Gary Cooper character was clearly the hero.  Who are the heroes in this book about “High Noon” and the Hollywood Red Scare?Carl Foreman, Red Scare, Mike Yawn, Glenn Frankel

Glenn Frankel: My idea of a hero is an ordinary person who, when faced with a terrible dilemma, rises to the occasion.  I believe Carl Foreman did that when he refused to cooperate with HUAC, despite a large personal cost.  It was a decision similar to that of his fictional creation, Will Kane, who chooses to confront four gunmen, not because he wants to be a hero, but because he feels he has to.  There were a lot of bombastic phony heroes who appeared during the Red Scare, but real heroes are quieter, more reluctant, and more vulnerable.  The question that history asks is: if we were confronted by similar circumstances, how would we behave?

 

 

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More than Inkblots: Damion Searls’ “Inkblots” tells story of Hermann Rorschach

Article published in Houston Chronicle on February 19, 2017.

Almost 100 years after its creation, the Rorschach test remains a widely-used scientific tool in psychology and serves as a cultural catchall in the popular imagination.  Author and translator Damion Searls explores this legacy—and the life of its creator—in his latest book: “The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing,” which goes on sale February 21, 2017.

Hermann Rorschach, Inkblots, Damion Searls, Mike Yawn, Houston Chronicle, LEAP CenterMY: Could you describe the role that art played in Rorschach developing the test for which he is famous?

DS: Rorschach’s father was a drawing teacher, and he himself was an amateur artist, making drawings in his diaries, building and painting toys for his children, and an avid photographer. He was a visual person.  Freud was a word person: the talking cure, “Freudian slips” of the tongue, and so on.  But we’re not all word people.  Freud thought the most revealing thing was what we say or don’t say; Rorschach thought that seeing goes deeper than talking.

MY: Rorschach began his career at about the same time abstract art emerged.  Was there a connection between abstract art and Rorschach and his inkblots?

DS: Rorschach wasn’t an artist in that sense, but he was aware of modern trends and mentioned them in his work.  The main link is the new idea that art expresses something inside the artist (this is why Jackson Pollock, for example, is called an “Abstract Expressionist”).  Modern abstract art tried to give visual form to something ineffable inside, and the Rorschach test used visual images to gain access to that ineffable inner self.

MY: Even people familiar with Rorschach’s test may not know that the same ten blots that Rorschach developed 100 years ago are still being used.Hermann Rorschach, Inkblots, Damion Searls, Mike Yawn, Houston Chronicle, LEAP Center

DS: Most people think that each psychologist uses their own blots.  In fact, Hermann made ten unique images, and he put them in a specific order to choreograph the test-taking experience.  Those ten are still used today.  The blots are visually interesting, and that’s a big part of what inspired me.  Most smears look like nothing, but Rorschach’s blots really could be two waiters holding pots and bowing to each other or what have you.  They can be perceived differently, but there is a structure to them.  I could go on for hours about what makes them so rich.  Psychology aside, they’re probably the ten most analyzed paintings of the 20th century.

 

MY: In terms of usage, the high point of the tests was in the 1940s and 1950s.  What factors prompted this degree of ubiquity?

DS: The test became popular in the U.S., starting in the late 30s—after Rorschach died—when American culture was very interested in personality.  How could personality be measured in an objective way?  Here was a test that claimed to give access to that.  When WWII erupted, the field of clinical psychology took off and the Rorschach test was the center of the field.  It remained central through the 1960s, when reactions against expertise authority of all kinds brought down both Freud and the Rorschach test… but the test was reinvented in the 1970s as a numerical, objective test, and survives to this day.

MY: Professionals disagree over the validity of the test, and some researchers suggest that the Rorschach test has become a Rorschach test of its own.

DS: Professionals disagree, but much of the criticisms are out of date.  There has been a lot of research on it, and science has validated the current Rorschach test.  What people are rightly skeptical about is the pop-culture version, where the test is a magic mind reader.  The real Rorschach test doesn’t do that.  The Rorschach test is not a Rorschach test.  The cliché is that there are no wrong answers, anything means what you want it to mean.  But the real Rorschach test isn’t like that.  The blots have objective visual qualities; the test has a specific history and use. The facts matter, not just our opinions about them.

MY: Rorschach died at an early age, and not much is known about him.  For people who haven’t read the book, what would you like them to know?

DS: The people who have read the book so far are struck by the same thing I am: that Hermann Rorschach was a really solid, good person. You like spending time reading about him. He was modest, kind, hard-working (and incredibly handsome); a responsible scientist, truly anti-sexist and supportive of women; and a good and sympathetic doctor, loved by his patients and colleagues. He overcame a humble background and the early death of both his parents to create a lasting psychological test, cultural touchstone, and visionary synthesis of art and science. It’s a good story.

 

Mike Yawn is the Director of the Center for Law, Engagement, And Politics at Sam Houston State University.

 

 

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Jane Harper’s New Work, “The Dry,” Makes Waves

The Dry, by Jane Harper

Jane Harper’s first novel, “The Dry,” involves death and drought in rural Australia.  Although not yet released in the United States (it will released be this Tuesday, January 10), it has enjoyed brisk sales in the land down under and earned a flood of advance praise worldwide.  The film rights have been purchased by Pacific Standard, Reese Witherspoon’s film company; the book is set for publication in at least 20 languages; and it’s the first work in a three-book deal that Harper has signed with her US publisher, Flatiron Books. It’s an impressive string of successes, especially for a book that originated in an online writing classes less than three years ago.

Mike Yawn: Describe “The Dry.”

Jane Harper: It’s a thriller set in a rural community in Australia. The main character, Aaron Faulk, returns to his home town which he left—under a cloud of suspicion—some 20 years before.  He returns for the funeral of his childhood best friend, and he’s drawn into the circumstances of that death.  His investigation results in a confrontation not only of his friend’s death, but also the community that turned its back on him many years before.

MY: That community—the entire setting of rural Australia—becomes a leading character in your novel.

JH: The nature of the plot shaped the setting. I envisioned a community under pressure and how such a setting would impact the characters and their relationship.  The drought in this novel is the catalyst for the small community’s problems, but the problems in a small community often involve the same stresses: the overreliance on neighbors; the attachments to a place you cannot leave; people knowing too much of your business.  I think that’s a universal feeling for tight communities, and I think a lot of people can relate to the claustrophobia that can result.

MY: Tell us how “The Dry” came about.

JH: I always thought I’d like to write a novel, but I never took it seriously.  In 2014, however, I decided that if I were ever Jane Harper, author of The Drygoing to write a novel, I needed to find time to do it.  I took an online course in novel writing, and much of the writing was completed for that 12-week course.

MY: Where did you go from there?

JH: Well, during the course, I saw that the deadline for Victorian Premier’s literary award for an unpublished manuscript was about six months away.  So I wanted to use that as another deadline for myself, and I entered that competition, and I ended up winning! From there, it just snowballed.

MY: If I recall, you entered it in the competition in April 2014 and you found out you won in May 2014?

JH: Yes!

MY: And it was published in 2016?

JH: Yes!

MY: That’s unusual.  Was there someone who said, “Wow, this is good!”?

JH: I was the only one who had read the whole thing when I entered it.  My online classmates read parts of it, and that feedback wasn’t all positive. But it was key, and I think it’s important when writing a novel to listen to feedback and, if it’s valid, to accept it and use it to improve the work.

MY: Did you use a daily quota system to meet your writing deadlines?

JH: I don’t have that rigid of a system.  I work in scenes more than words. I try to move the story forward each day, and I don’t spend much time on rewrites until I finish with the main story.

MY: Did you have a full plot outline before writing?

JH: I had the main plot—the start, the end, and a few key points between.  I then think about what the characters would naturally do and what’s plausible, and that might take me from A to B.  I usually know where I’m headed, and then it’s a question of the best way to get there.

MY: How did your 13 years in journalism help you create this book?

JH: It helped in so many ways. Journalism gets you accustomed to deadlines.  It also helps you concentrate on the reader; it trains you to create something that people will be drawn into. And it helps you sit down, and not let a blank page become too daunting.  I’m not sure I could have written this novel without my years in journalism.

MY: David Baldacci offered a nice cover blurb.

JH: I have to give credit to the publishers.  I didn’t know it was happening, but I got an email from them saying, “great news, David Baldacci gave you a fantastic quote after reading the book!”  I’ve been a big fan of his for years, and to have someone like that endorse your book is a great feeling.

MY: What are other authors or books you enjoy?

JH: I like the books of Lee Child, Val McDermid, and some of the recent big bestsellers such as “Girl on a Train” and “Gone Girl.”

MY: “The Dry” was picked up by Pacific Standard, the same production company that picked up “Gone Girl,” is that right?

JH: Yes.  Reese Witherspoon and Bruna Papandrea are partners in the company.  Papandrea is from Australia, and I think that may have helped get it in front of them.

MY: It will be released next week in the US, but it has done well overseas.  When did you say, “Hey, this might become a hit?”

JH: When I got a three-book deal in Australia, the US, and the U.K.  I thought, “this might be the start of something rather than just a one-off.”

MY: How do you follow up this novel?

JH: By starting it right away.  I wanted to have it largely completed by the time “The Dry” was released in Australia (June 2016), because I knew the release would increase the pressure on me.  I wanted to do the best I could, and write it much the way I wrote the first one.

Mike Yawn is the Director of the Center for Law, Engagement, And Politics at Sam Houston State University.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Author Discusses Going “All-In” on Life’s Choices

In her new book, “The Art of Risk,” Sukel explores why some people are more comfortable with risk than others, how risk shapes our lives, and attempts to explore how we can manage risk more successfully.

Kayt Sukel, The Art of Risk

                  Kayt Sukel, Author of “The Art of Risk”

Mike Yawn: Risk means different things to different people, but you came up with a working definition of risk in your book.

Kayt Sukel: Simply put, risk is a decision that involves uncertainty with a potentially negative outcome.  It could be going “all in” in a poker game or wearing a white blouse on a rainy day. It could be all manner of things.

MY: Speaking of going “all in,” you mention in the book that your boyfriend proposed to you and you went “all in” and said, “Yes.”  Is that still accurate?

KS: Yes, I am married!  Otherwise, I would have had to make the acknowledgement section a bit different.

MY: In your book and in other studies, it’s made pretty clear that people aren’t good at predicting outcomes.

KS: Our brain tries to predict what is coming next, but given the amount of information we face, it would be overwhelmed unless we use shortcuts. Our past experiences, our learning, they help our brain hone in on the things on which we need to focus.  But sometimes those shortcuts aren’t applicable, and that’s why the book is called “The Art of Risk.”  It’s more of an art than a science.

MY: People’s acceptance of risk, as you point out in the book, is a function of both biology and environment.

KS: Two parts of the brain are very important for influencing how comfortable a person is seeking risk: the basal ganglia, which is sometimes referred to as the reptilian part of the brain; and the frontal cortex, which is the seat of executive control. The basal ganglia shouts, “Yes, I want rewards!  I want excitement—food, sex, money, prestige!”  And the frontal lobe says, “That stuff is great, but maybe this isn’t the best time” or “If you do that you’ll probably end up in jail!”  These two parts of the brain are tangling all the time and biology helps shape which of these brain regions may be more influential.  But our family environment, our peers, and the life cycle have considerable sway.

MY: You’ve previously researched stress and early childhood.  How does that connect to “The Art of Risk”?

KS: Risk is often seen negatively, but without some kind of risk, we wouldn’t be able to learn and grow.  Some freedom to take risks is important for healthy brain development in children.  Similarly, stress can motivate people.  We don’t want chaos, but a certain amount of stress helps us learn and grow.  Risk and stress in your children can be managed to an extent, but there is a big difference between a parent who permits a ten-year old to walk to school after discussing safety with them, and a parent who sends their five-year old to the store alone to fetch cigarettes for them.   It’s important for parents to know the difference so that children take part in healthy learning, growth, brain development and, ultimately, decision making.

MY: How old are your two children and, as you were writing this book, did you at times think of risk through a parental lens?

KS: I have a son who is 10 as well as a nine-year old daughter. And, yes, I thought of them extensively as I was writing. It’s funny, from the time my son was a baby, I strapped him on my back, and we travelled all over the world.  He’s been to more than 40 countries, snorkeled with sharks, and has ziplined through jungles.  But last winter he busted his ankle sledding!  Of all the activities on which to get hurt, it seemed like the most mundane activity ever.  But, you know, we live in Texas where there isn’t much snow, so he doesn’t sled often.  It makes sense that this would be an activity where he hasn’t had enough experience to fully assess the risks. I can either say, “Everything is terribly dangerous, and I have to wrap my child in bubble wrap to keep him safe,” or I can say, “Let’s learn from this, take corrective action, and do our best to avoid this kind of accident on the next sledding attempt.” I want him to learn how to do cool things; sliding down a hill wicked fast is one of them.

MY: You discuss training as a way to manage risk and decision making.  You use the term “deliberate practice,” which is different than just “practice.”

KS: I think of “practice” as what my kids do at the piano each afternoon.  They plunk away without much thought, and it’s not getting them very far.  Deliberate practice is practicing at the edge of your performance ability.  Athletes, classical musicians, and artists do this all the time.  They choose a project that exceeds their abilities and they fail over and over again until they get a step ahead.  It sounds like torture, but it’s how people learn the difficult piano piece, or shave seconds off their run time, or learn a complicated play in sports.  It helps your mind assess what risks are involved and the parameters within which success can be achieved.

MY: If you were a bookseller, which shelf would you put your book on?

KS: Perhaps science or business or self-help, but whatever shelf it falls on, I hope that people see it as interesting non-fiction.  I think this book is really for anybody who wants to understand more about the way we make decisions or how to make better decisions.

MY: It has elements of a memoir.

KS: Yes.

MY: Tell us why you thought it important to include your experiences.

KS: The questions I was asking were personal questions, but I don’t think they are limited to just me.  They affect everyone, and I wanted to put context of what I have faced, and why I went on the quest to find some answers.

MY: You participated in many activities in different fields to research your book.  Was witnessing brain surgery the most interesting?

KS: Yes.  It was fascinating.  I was able to observe the surgery from a close distance.  It’s amazing to see the skull opened on a live human while doctors are cutting into really delicate tissue.  The doctor was using his brain—specifically the frontal lobe—to control his actions and mitigate the risk to the patient to successfully repair the brain of the patient.

Mike Yawn directs the Center for Law, Engagement and Politics at Sam Houston State University.

 

 

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One-on-One with Author Lisa Gardner

Lisa Gardner’s crime fiction shows off her research and writing abilities, a combination that has led her to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. Her newest novel, “Find Her,” explores a high-profile kidnapping as well as the changing nature of the government’s response to crime. She spoke at a Houston bookstore a couple of weeks after being interviewed by Mike Yawn.  The interview is below.

Gardner_Speaking_4

 

Q: You do extensive research for your novels, and you often select topical issues. Tell us how you choose the topics.

A: The research I did for my new novel, “Find Her,” was something I started with “Catch Me.” It’s related to self-defense, and I think we’re all more conscious about safety and security issues. I attended a “Writers’ Police Academy,” and we learned various self-defense tactics and also how to free yourself from handcuffs with a “universal handcuff key,” which I found online for about $15. Since then, I’ve met various law-enforcement and military personnel, and they’re like, “Yeah, we never leave home without those keys.” I think my writing involves facing deep fears. As a mom, child abduction is one of my greatest terrors, and it happens to the main character, Flora, in “Find Her.”

Q: Speaking of Flora, she spends much time locked up in a coffin in your new novel. Did you actually get into a coffin or some enclosed space to write about that?

A: I’m claustrophobic, so I didn’t actually go into a coffin. But I did force myself into position in my office as if I were in a coffin. What are the boundaries? How limited is movement? What could you do to pass the time? I read several biographies of women who were in these types of situations, and they all discussed the boredom and isolation, among other things.

Q: In “Find Her” you hint at Stockholm Syndrome, the idea that captors can build a bond with those who took them hostage.

A: The experience that resonated more with me from my research is called “Trauma Bonding.” This can happen, for example, to battered women. They endure so much, but the tormentor might come back with an “I’m sorry” or “I didn’t mean to do to that.” All the captives I read about discuss this phenomenon. Even the most evil kidnapper can only be evil so many hours of the day. Ariel Castro, for example, had movie nights for the girls he kidnapped. A “trauma bond” is created that no one outside can understand, and I think that is what Flora struggles with in “Find Her.” She hates the man who abducted her; how could she not? But at the end of the day, this might be the single most impactful relationship she’s ever had.

Q: You allocate about three months for your research, and then you begin writing. Do you have daily writing goals or quotas?

A: I have a page count each week that I like to achieve, and I break that apart a bit. I write in ten-page segments or so, and I also polish as I go.

Q: Do you outline the plot before writing?

A: No. I go where the writing leads me. Once the story is written, I work with my US and UK editors, and I do pretty extensive revision work. A lot of people think we pop books out, but writing is hard work.

Q: You’ve written more than 20 books in the crime fiction genre, and many of those are part of a series. Even if you don’t plot out individual books, do you map out your series?

A: No. My publishers are open minded about what story I bring to them. I’m definitely a character-driven author. The characters know what they’re doing and how things are going to work out.

Q: “Find Her” is part of what is now called the “D. D. Warren” series, but Warren was a relatively minor character in “her” first book. How did she evolve into the series’ focal point?

A: Some of that is feedback from the readers. She was a secondary Boston cop in the first novel, but the response to her was strong.   The readers said, “We would really like to hear her story.”

Q: D. D. Warren is not your typical detective protagonist. Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot are almost super-heroic. Warren is more dogged. She’s admirable, but not super-human. What do you think draws readers to her?

A: She’s human. She’s confident as a detective, but she isn’t a detective who sees things no one else can see. She has to work to get her information. She knows the system and the process, and she wants to solve the crime and she is going to keep going until she gets it right. Now she has a husband and a child, and she is juggling things, and I think people relate to that.

Q: You are sympathetic to officers in your novels.

A: I wish we offered more support for our law enforcement. It’s a difficult job. I’ve spent a lot of time interviewing officers and for them, it’s a call to serve. You don’t do this unless you are passionate about it, and you are putting your life on the line. Yes, some cops are imperfect but all of us are imperfect. They are public servants, and I wish we were more appreciative of that.

Q: What’s new in your latest novel?

A: It’s a terrific novel of psychological suspense, with an intriguing new character, Flora Danes. To bring this full circle somewhat, I also focus on a character who is a Victim Assistant with the FBI, a position that I researched before writing this novel. The nature of crime is changing today. In the classic murder mystery, you identify who did it, the case is closed, and people live happily ever after. That’s not true anymore. The Boston City Marathon bombing, for example, was a life-altering event for the victims and their families. That’s an ongoing process. Grandparents have to leave jobs because their grown child is in physical therapy or rehabilitation. What do law-enforcement agencies have to do to help ensure that needs are met? That’s the FBI Office of Victim Assistance, and I think people will be interested in learning more about a position that many people haven’t heard about.

Gardner_Speaking_5_Web

Mike Yawn directs the Center for Law, Engagement And Politics at Sam Houston State University.

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Texas Prison Officials Discuss Their Favorite Prison Films

The Great Muddy Escape, a prison-themed “fun run,” takes place this Saturday, October 26, 2013 and, with this in mind, Professor Mike Yawn spoke with various professionals associated with the prison system to discuss films involving prison life.  Yawn spoke with Wayne Scott, Jim Willett, Rick Thaler, Richard Yawn, and Brian Olsen.

Wayne Scott began working for the prison system in 1971 and retired as Executive Director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in 2001. He continues to work within the industry as a consultant.

Former TDCJ Director Wayne Scott

Former TDCJ Director Wayne Scott

Mike Yawn: What’s your favorite prison film?

Wayne Scott: “The Shawshank Redemption.”  To me, it’s the truest depiction of life behind bars for both inmates and staff.

MY: The film seems to fit the stereotype of the old-time state prison where the Warden had power that carried beyond the prison walls.

WS: I totally agree with that, Mike.  One thing you learn from the film, particularly if you’re in that profession, is that if you put inmates in positions of trust, it’s generally fine, but when it goes bad, the consequences can be devastating.

MY: This topic of movies and prisons may be particularly well suited for you.  If I recall correctly, you were in at least one movie that was filmed at a Huntsville prison.  Was that you in a longshot walking up to the gates in the beginning of “The Getaway”?

WS: Yes.

The Getaway

The Getaway

MY: Did you meet Steve McQueen, Ben Johnson, or Sam Peckinpah?

WS: I met all of them.  They were nice to the correctional officers and the inmates.  Very nice people.

MY: Did you get to see the filming of “A Perfect World,” starring Clint Eastwood and Kevin Costner, when it was shot here?

WS; Yes and, in fact, we got to eat with the cast and crew there in the back lot down on the lower yard at the Huntsville Unit.  I met both Eastwood and Costner.  Another film, “Outlaw Blues” with Peter Fonda and Susan St. James, was also shot at the Walls in 1977.

MY: Why do you think these directors chose to shoot films in Huntsville?

WS: I think the Huntsville Unit is what most people think of as a traditional prison—the high brick walls, the architecture, the cells.

The Walls in Huntsville

The Walls in Huntsville

MY: Well, speaking of tradition, you began working for the prison under an older model, when inmates were in a position of trust within the walls. That changed with the Ruiz decision.

WS: Yes it did.  The biggest operational changes involved the tremendous increase in staff.  When you took those inmates out of trust positions, you had to backfill with staff, and we did that in the mid-1980s.

MY: You also witnessed the Fred Carrasco hostage situation at the Walls in 1974.  Did you see any changes in the system after that?

WS: That’s another situation where an inmate was in a valued position there as a bookkeeper.  He was able to get some freedom of movement that an inmate shouldn’t have had.  That was tightened up after that event.

Jim Willett worked for TDCJ for 30 years, starting as a guard at the Walls Unit, working at Pack II, the Diagnostic Unit, and retiring in 2001 as Warden of the Walls Unit.  He now serves as Director of the Texas Prison Museum.

Jim Willet at the Texas Prison Museum

Jim Willet at the Texas Prison Museum

Mike Yawn: What’s your favorite film that involves prison life?

Jim Willett: You know, Mike, it’s a toss-up between “The Shawshank Redemption” and “The Green Mile,” but I’d lean toward “The Green Mile.”

The Green Mile

The Green Mile

MY: Why is it your favorite?

JW: I thought that the film depicted what I actually saw in the prison system.  The inmates were like the inmates I was around, and the correctional officers were like the correctional officers I was around.  When I was there, most of the people in the system, whether in white or grey, were trying to do the right thing within the institution.  Of course, you had some bad apples…

MY: You also mentioned “The Shawshank Redemption.”  I don’t know if you realize that both “The Green Mile” and “The Shawshank Redemption” were novels written by Stephen King.

JW: I was not aware of that but, yes, I enjoyed “Shawshank,” some great acting in there, and also a movie that depicted what the system could be like.

MY: That film depicted an escape.  How many serious escape attempts did you have while you worked for the prison?

JW: I guess about eight to ten. We had one at Pack II who got away and on a train.  He wasn’t caught for several days, by which time he had made it to Trinity.

MY: But no one made it to a tropical island, like Andy Dufresne in “Shawshank?”

Shawshank Escape

Final Scence from Shawshank

JW: Not during my time.

Rick Thaler began his career as a Correctional Officer in 1980 at the Walls Unit and progressed through the security ranks before retiring this year as the Director of the Correctional Institutions Division for TDCJ after 33 years.  He has two degrees from Sam Houston and is now the Associate Director of Graduate Programs at the College of Business Administration at SHSU.

Rick Thaler

Rick Thaler

MY: What’s your favorite film involving a prison?

RT: For entertainment value, I’d go with “The Longest Yard.”  Of course I am also a sports fan, so that adds value to the movie.  For substantive value, I’d say “The Shawshank Redemption.”  It was an entertaining and a realistic portrayal of that time in the evolution of prisons.

MY: “Shawshank” seems to be a lot of people’s favorite.  What is so appealing about that film?

RT: I think the concept of never losing hope is important. Even in a prison, some of the characters in “Shawshank” were hopeful about the future.  It’s important, wherever you are, to value life and maintain goals and aspirations.

The Shawshank Redemption

The Shawshank Redemption

MY: What’s the biggest misconception for people who don’t have up-close familiarity with the prison system?

RT: It may have been different long ago, but correctional systems are largely forward thinking in today’s society, and there are opportunities for individuals in our systems to turn their lives around.  Violence within the institutions is rare.  Our classification system separates the extremely abusive offenders from those who are actually trying to help themselves, and that’s different than earlier years in the correctional system.  I’d say most of the films portray the older model of prison reality.  That’s not to say we don’t have incidents today, but it’s more of the exception than the rule.

Richard Yawn worked for the Windham School District for more than thirty years, beginning as a teacher and retiring in 2005 as the Director for Operational Support.  He currently works for Lee College, teaching American Government on various prison units.

Richard Yawn

Richard Yawn

Mike Yawn: What’s your favorite prison film?

Richard Yawn: Right now, I’d go with Clint Eastwood’s “Escape from Alcatraz,” which is about Frank Morris who, along with two others, escaped from Alcatraz in 1962. We were just in San Francisco this summer, so that helped nudge the film to the top.

Escape From Alcatraz

Escape From Alcatraz

MY: And did you go to Alcatraz Island?

RY: Yes, we toured it, and saw some of the movie locations.

MY: Do you think Morris got away?

RY: That’s one of the interesting aspects to the film.  The ending is ambiguous and can be interpreted either way.  In real life, you could think about it two ways, too.  If they drowned, you would have thought a body or other remains would have been found.  On the other hand, if they survived, you would think that one of the survivors would have given a death-bed confession.

MY: You mention Alcatraz, have you seen, “The Rock?” That movie also takes place on the island, albeit after it was no longer used as a prison.

RY: Yes, that’s with Sean Connery, Nicolas Cage, and Ed Harris.  It was a fine action film, but I liked “Escape from Alcatraz” better.

MY: How about some other favorites?

RY: “Cool Hand Luke.”  I liked Paul Newman in that.

MY: Do you happen to remember how many eggs he eats in the bet?

RY: The bet was whether he could 50 eggs, which he does.  You kind of suffer along with him as he eats those.

MY: What else?

RY: Well, Steve McQueen was one of my favorite actors, and he was involved in several prison movies that I liked.  “The Great Escape,” “The Getaway,” “Papillon,” and “Nevada Smith,” the latter being a film in which he actually commits a crime so that he can get into prison to exact revenge on one of the inmates.  But out of all of those, I’d still have to go with Eastwood and “Escape from Alcatraz.”

Brian Olsen is the Executive Director of AFSCME, the Correctional Employees Council in Texas.  He has been involved in the security field for more than thirty years and is a life-long movie fan.

Olsen_Web

Mike Yawn: What’s your favorite prison film?

Brian Olsen: “The Great Escape.”  I was about eight years old when that came out.  We had a little small-town theater on Main Street in West Des Moines, Iowa.  It was mostly a poor railroad community, a bit rough, but we loved the old-fashioned theater that had a balcony.  We’d go in there on a Saturday and, if we played things right, we could stay for more than one movie.

The_Great_Escape

MY: Who’s your favorite actor from the great cast in “The Great Escape?” You’ve got Steve McQueen, James Garner, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, David McCallum.

BO: I like McQueen and Garner of course, but I also liked Richard Attenborough.

MY: Attenborough was an interesting character actor, but he was also a fine director.  He did “Gandhi.”

BO: I think he was also in some of the “Jurassic Park” movies.

MY: What other prison films do you like?

BO: “Papillon,” with Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman, both of whom are imprisoned on Devil’s Island.  McQueen’s character tries to escape nine times or so.  He eventually gets out, but he has to endure a pretty horrible place. I also liked “Birdman of Alcatraz.”  It stars Burt Lancaster, another of my favorites.  He was in prison, and he adopted birds and other pets that gave him a reason for living.  In the film, he gained the respect of the correctional officers, being compassionate and empathetic, adjectives that don’t typically come to mind when you think of inmates.

MY: Now, these movies you are mentioning are from the late 1950s and 1960s, which coincides with your childhood.  What do you think it is about your childhood or that time period that made films so magical?

BO: I was a movie nut as a young kid.  I went to the movies every Saturday, watching movies like “The Blob” or “The Curse of Frankenstein” or “The Great Escape.”  Spielberg and Scorsese grew up then, too, and they were influenced by these films and it spurred them to make more magical movies.  It was a Golden Age.  You had movies like “To Kill a Mockingbird” or “Lawrence of Arabia.”  I was a grubby little kid, a “little rascal,” but the movies were a chance to escape and to see what some consider great art.  It was a good era in which to grow up, and it was a good era in my life.

For those who would like to participate in their own “prison escape,” the Great Muddy Escape offers a chance for a dash of fun while raising money for a good cause.  Courses include a 5K, 2K, and a shorter “family run.”  All include obstacles worthy of a prison escape.  The Great Muddy Escape will be held Saturday, October 26, 2013.  For more information, visit www.thegreatmuddyescape.com.

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Local Football Coaches Discuss Favorite Sports Films

With football season underway, Professor Mike Yawn spoke with some current and former football coaches in Huntsville to uncover their favorite films about the nation’s pigskin pastime. Shane Martin, Gordon Brown, and Willie Fritz identified football films that mixed comedy, drama, and inspiration, while Ron Randleman called an audible, and discussed the basketball film “Hoosiers.”

Coach Shane Martin Interview

Coach Shane Martin grew up in Texas and Louisiana, but came to SHSU for his college degree. He is, as he says, “a proud Bearkat.” He’s been coaching and teaching full-time for 20 years and has spent twelve years with Huntsville Independent School District. He is now the head coach for the Huntsville Hornet football team.

Mike Yawn: Coach Martin, what is your favorite football-related film?
Shane Martin: “Brian’s Song” (1972). I watched it as a kid, and it made me a Chicago Bears fan. The film is realistic, about football and life. It’s an inspirational story of Brian Piccolo’s fight with cancer, which took his life.

Brian's Song

Brian’s Song

MY: Even without diseases such as cancer football careers are short and are a fraught with the risk of injury. Is that something you worry about with your players?
SM: I have a 16-year old who has had ACL surgery twice. Injuries can happen to anyone, whether on the field or crossing the street. With football, you’re taking your chances, but with anything you do, there’s the possibility of something going wrong.

MY: The movie was based on a book by Gale Sayers (played by Billy Dee Williams), whose brilliant career was ended by a knee blowout.
SM: Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo were both running backs who came in as Bears’ rookies at the same time. Sayers was coping with his knee injury at the same time Piccolo was fighting cancer, and these challenges offer lessons. We tell people to live each day as though it were their last, and that’s true for some people, not just athletes. I encourage my players to give it their all, not just on the football field, but also in the classroom.

MY: The film has interesting actors: James Caan as Piccolo; Jack Warden played George Halas; and Dick Butkus and some of the Bears played themselves.
SM: Yes, Butkus played himself, and he and a lot of those other old players were some tough old goats, just like Halas.

MY: Any other films related to football that you have enjoyed?
SM: A lot of coaches will say, “Remember the Titans.” Again, you’re taking the game of football and addressing the larger society, segregation and the like. I used this film when teaching my health classes, to teach my students to deal with peer pressure, hatred, and racism. I think there are life lessons in a lot of the football games that we play or coach.

Remember the Titans

Remember the Titans

MY: You’re teaching life lessons and football. What larger lessons do sports teach?
SM: Young people, like all of us, need to better understand dedication is a big part of what it takes to be successful at something that requires skills. Football is now becoming more and more of a year-round sport. The relationships you build and cultivate through dedication, should be there throughout life. I had the model of my defensive coordinator at Yoakum High School, Jimmy Yeager, who meant a lot to me. He was a coach and a father figure to me. Role models as well as life experiences teach young people right from wrong, so that they take more away from football than a won-loss record.

Coach Gordon Brown Interview

Gordon Brown came to SHSU in 1948, played football for three years, and graduated in 1951. He went on to coach at Conroe, Katy, Deer Park, and [he whispers this] Stephen F. Austin, before moving into administration at Conroe and Katy. Despite his many roles in many schools, he says, “My heart is always with SHSU.”

Mike Yawn: Coach Brown, what’s your favorite film about football?
Gordon Brown: There are a lot of them, but I’d say “The Blind Side” is my favorite.

MY: That’s an interesting film. Of course, most people know Sandra Bullock was in it, but the director, John Lee Hancock, also directed “The Rookie,” another real-life sports story. Also, “The Blind Side” was based on a book by Michael Lewis, who also wrote “Moneyball.” So the movie has a lot of sports and film connections.
GB: Absolutely right, and while I like the sports, I also relate to this movie because of the way I grew up. We were happy, but the work was hard. For the most part, we worked in the fields, although later I got a job paying 50 cents an hour at a filling station. My plan was to go to Baylor, but Coach Kenny Wilson from SHSU came into my filling station and said, “Can you help me find Gordon Brown?” I told him that was me, and he said, “We’ve been watching you play football, and we want you to come to SHSU. We’ll give you room, board, tuition, and $7 a month laundry.”

I said, “Where do I sign?”

That’s why I relate to the character in “The Blind Side.” I didn’t have the magnitude of problems Michael Oher [the main character in “The Blind Side”], but there were enough similarities to get my vote.

The Blind Side

The Blind Side

MY: Tell us specific things you liked about the movie?
GB: The country has many youth like Oher who can be productive and happy if given opportunities. We have other youth who have a different set of problems. They may be affluent but undisciplined, and when someone comes in and shows an interest in them, it gives them hope, even when they haven’t been the citizen they may have liked to have been.

Michael Oher

Michael Oher

I have a background as a coach and a school administrator. I know many children might not have the resources, encouragement, and love to guide them and help them develop realistic dreams. But those who teach them to reach upward are models for these students.

So the movie “The Blind Side” helps me better understand what encouragement and opportunity can do for students. It should help all of us be responsible to see that the environment is such that all students can be successful. This is a timely film, a reminder that we are in this together, and we need to work together to help others and to make a contribution to our country.

Coach Willie Fritz

Coach Willie Fritz graduated from Pittsburg State University before embarking on a coaching career that took him to Sam Houston State University, Blinn College, University of Central Missouri, and back to SHSU, where he has led the Bearkats to two straight National Championship games.

Mike Yawn: What’s your favorite football film?
Willie Fritz: I’ve got a few of them. My favorite is the original “The Longest Yard,” with Burt Reynolds…

MY: …and Eddie Albert…
WF: Albert was the Warden. The film combines comedy and drama, with a bad-guy kind of a hero.

The Longest Yard (Burt Reynolds)

The Longest Yard (Burt Reynolds)

MY: What are some of your other favorite films about football?
WF: For comedy, the one I like is “The Best of Times,” with Kurt Russell and Robin Williams. It’s hilarious. The main character, played by Robin Williams, dropped a touchdown pass in the 1972 championship game, and he’s never gotten over it. He keeps reliving the game, and he finally convinces the town to replay the game. The QB is played by Kurt Russell, whose character probably has the greatest football name of all time: Reno Hightower. It’s a very funny movie.

Best_of_Times

The Best of Times (Robin Williams & Kurt Russell)

The other movie I’ll mention is “The Little Giants.” I have three children of my own with whom I watched the movie. They’re grown now, but we still repeat lines from that movie.

The Little Giants

The Little Giants

MY: Anything inspirational from the football world?
WF: “The Junction Boys.” A good friend of mine was the QB on whom one of the characters was based. In the movie, his name is Skeet Keeler, but in real life his name is Elwood Kettler. He and I coached together here at SHSU back in the early 1990s. He lives in Trinity. I enjoyed it, I think, because I had a special connection with that movie.

MY: That’s about Bear Bryant’s coaching days when he was at Texas A&M?
WF: Yes, Paul “Bear” Bryant took the boys out to Junction, Texas for pre-season camp. I heard so many stories from Kettler, and the film shows how these guys fought through harsh conditions. The ones who survived were highly successful in their careers, and they ended up going undefeated a year or two later.

The Junction Boys

The Junction Boys

MY: What is it about football that is useful to all your players, irrespective of whether they play professionally or go in another direction?
WF: I think you learn more in the sport of football than in any other sport. Football is not easy. Putting full equipment on when it is 100 degrees, lining up and running into somebody across from you is tough work. Structure and teamwork are required. Eleven people have to be on the same page. You learn sacrifice, helping your buddy, determination, and toughness.

MY: Speaking of toughness, this is the toughest question. What’s your prediction for the Bearkats this year?
WF: Our goal is to win the National Championship. We are practicing every day to do that.

Coach Ron Randleman

Coach Ron Randleman began his coaching career in Iowa in 1965, coaching football, basketball and track. He coached for forty years, including more than two decades at SHSU, where he was Conference Coach of the Year four times and remains the winningest coach in SHSU history.

Mike Yawn: We’ve heard a lot about football films. Would you like to tell us what your favorite sports film is, football or otherwise?
Ron Randleman: I would have to say “Hoosiers.”

Hoosiers

Hoosiers

MY: That’s from 1986, starring Gene Hackman and Dennis Hopper. What is it about that film that you enjoy so much?
RR: Many things. I like the setting. I’m originally from Iowa. I started out coaching and recruiting in Iowa, going to hundreds of schools in the area. I also like Gene Hackman, and he was very good in the movie. Finally, I had many friends who played basketball in Indiana, and I know that basketball is to Indianans what football is to Texans.
I played basketball in high school, and my first two years in coaching, I coached both football and basketball. Back then, everyone played in the tournament, and it was just one class. In the 1950s, the school Roland had about 50 people, and they played Davenport Central, which had about 4,000. It was one of the smallest schools in Iowa against one of the biggest, but Roland had a player named Gary Thompson, who went on to be an All-American at Iowa State. Roland won that game, something that occasionally happened in the one-class system. And that’s sort of the story line of “Hoosiers.”
Those were some of the things that caught my interest in this film.

MY: “Hoosiers” is about redemption, the idea that there is a champion in everyone. I know that’s about basketball, but you must have seen that as a football coach.
RR: So often in athletics people come through in crucial situations. It’s not necessarily the star. It can be anybody who has a big moment. Team events are special for that reason. Every person who is on the team is an important part of the process, and you never know when someone is going to have an opportunity to step up and do something significant. It’s one of the great things about team sports.

Pep Talk

MY: You’ve had a lot of success with team sports, and for the past five or six years, you’ve been teaching at SHSU. Will you still be teaching?
RR: No, not this year. Right now, I’m going to be a fan and enjoy the success that Willie and his guys will have this fall.

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