In 1961 Larry McMurtry's debut, HORSEMAN, PASS BY, would revitalize the image of the cowboy in literature. With the release of the movie HUD (starring Paul Newman, Melvyn Douglas and Patricia Neal) two years later, it would be the first of many McMurtry stories to be adapted to film.
HUD was a big success: Melvyn Douglas and Patricia Neal both won Oscars, while Paul Newman's performance in the title role is considered to be one of his finest. Over the years the novel has unfortunately become somewhat obscure, being searched for mostly by those who are fans of the film. But, as is usually the case, book and movie differ significantly in a variety of ways.
Exemplified in the antagonism between the stoic and hardworking Homer Bannon and the arrogant and amoral Scott "Hud" Bannon, HORSEMAN, PASS BY and HUD both present a stark and unsentimental account of the Old West losing ground to the modern world. Nevertheless, McMurtry's novel is less willing to compromise with its message that there are those of us who are simply bad people.
While the movie naturally focuses on its namesake-character, utilizing a handsome and charming Paul Newman to portray him as a deeply flawed but ultimately misunderstood antihero, McMurty's book reads from the perspective of Homer's 17 years old grandson, Lonnie, who witnesses the demise of his grandfather's life and everything the old man spent 80 years of hard work and patience to build. Despite a teenaged boy's likely envy for the older man's independence and easy way with women, Lonnie is mature enough to see little good in Hud. He shows Hud for the swaggering, self-serving, mean-spirited bully that he is. Lonnie knows Hud despises Homer, and realizing that their isn't much he can do about it. So, while Hud spends his time beating up on smaller and weaker men or bedding down married women, Lonnie works hard with his grandfather and a ranch hand named Jesse, admiring and learning from their life experiences. Except for these men, Lonnie's only regular company was the Bannons' young black housekeeper, Halmea.
One important aspect of this book was the situation for blacks--and especially young black women--in 1950s Texas. HUD conveniently sidestepped this issue by turning the black woman Halmea into the hillbilly Alma who was played by Patricia Neal. HORSEMAN'S Halmea is as upfront and outspoken as HUD's Alma. But there the similarities mostly end. Where Alma is middle-aged, hard bitten and tired of men's ways, Halmea is younger, vivacious and attractive. She and Lonnie are relatively close, having whatever friendship the Texas of that time would allow to a white teenager and his family's black housekeeper. While it's obvious that Lonnie is sexually attracted to Halmea, his youth and inexperience as much as her candor with such matters keeps him in check. Unfortunately--and tragically, the same can't be said for Hud. The movie might brim with sexual tension between Hud and Alma, but McMurtry's Halmea despises the man. Hud's evil and debased character is confirmed on the night he beats both Jesse and Lonnie into the ground and rapes Halmea. Afterwards, as he is zipping up, unable to resist any opportunity to further humiliate, he tells to expect this kind of treatment from now on. Halmea knows what's her only option and quits to leaves town the next day. As she explains to the cut and bruised Lonnie...What can she do? She can't stay, because Hud will only do it again. And she can't go to the police, because they will most likely arrest her saying a white man raped her.
No way was this storyline going to be made into a western-oriented motion picture in 1963 America.
Unlikely though it may be, I still would like to see HORSEMAN, PASS BY brought to the big screen once again, this time remaining true to McMurtry's original story. It is a marvelous book, deserving recognition that's equal with McMurtry's later work.