SPECIAL GUEST ARTICLE
LOUIS L’AMOUR RIDES ON
In a first for Writer Working, we’re hosting an interview by actor/writer Stephen Jared (Pictured with Burger Magnate Jack, above) with Louis L’Amour’s son, Beau, originally posted on www.stephenjared.com.
We’ve published several commentaries on Louis L’Amour’s works here in the past (see and we were happy to find Jared’s entertaining flesh-and-blood conversation with Beau, which greatly enriches our treasure of information about this literary icon.
As an actor Stephen Jared has appeared in numerous feature films and television series, as well as commercials for both radio and television. His writings, including articles and interviews, have appeared in various publications. In 2010, he self-published an adventure novel titled Jack and the Jungle Lion to much critical praise, including an honorable mention in the 2011 Hollywood Book Festival. His second novel, Ten-A-Week Steale, has been picked up by Solstice Publishing and is scheduled for release in 2012. He lives in Pasadena, California.
HERE’S THE INTERVIEW
The Adventures of Louis L’Amour and The Diamond of Jeru
As a huge fan of great adventure stories and old Hollywood, I had been enamored for some time with a movie Louis L’Amour’s son made called, The Diamond of Jeru. I didn’t know a great deal about Louis L’Amour. I knew he was one of several celebrated American authors who got started in the pulps and that he primarily wrote westerns. I had read one of his short stories, which was The Diamond of Jeru (I read Jeru after seeing the movie adaptation by his son – I get a little obsessive about these things).
So, one morning I went to Beau L’Amour’s house and he graciously spoke with me for a couple hours. I discovered a lot about Jeru; most importantly, that it is but a single rare gem in a vast treasure chest full of wonderful stories, and that all of these stories serve to colorfully illustrate an extraordinary life lived.
When tales of adventure in the American West broadened to the exotic Far East, Arabia and the South Seas, then to war-torn Europe in the first half of the 20th Century, Louis L’Amour was actually there. He was a chronicler of the people he had seen and the places he had been.
“My great-grandfather was killed by Indians up in North Dakota, and scalped. My grandfather had fought Indians, and some of the Indians my grandfather had fought, used to come around and visit him. They’d sit around and talk over the old days and drink a lot of coffee and tea, loaded half full of sugar. But after my grandfather died, they never came back. I missed them very much, always enjoyed seeing them come.” – Louis L’Amour
Born in 1908, Louis L’Amour grew up on the edge of the American West. He would listen to his grandfather’s stories of life as a soldier in both the Civil and Indian Wars. Louis would often meet cowboys as they’d pass through the Dakota Territory on the Northern Pacific Railroad. Young Louis remembered being impressed one day with the sight of Buffalo Bill Cody. As well, an uncle would tell of days spent in the Hole-in-the-Wall pass eyeing Butch Cassidy and other outlaws in the notorious hideaway.
Eventually Louis would hobo across the country on his own, hopping freight trains and sleeping in grain bins and gaps in piles of lumber. He would stuff newspapers in his clothes to keep warm. In Texas, he worked for a man who had been raised by Indians. In New Mexico, he baled hay, always absorbing the people he’d meet and the lives they lived.
“Billy the Kid and two of his pals were buried in a place right across from where we were bailing hay one day, and I commented on it, and one of the fellas said, “Well, gee, if you’re so into him, talk to old Tom over there. He used to ride with Billy.” Now, Tom wasn’t one of these guys who said he rode with Billy the Kid; Tom is on record for having rode with Billy the Kid. He’d been riding with him, wounded in gun battles with Billy, and been in jail with him. He’d been a rough boy in his day. He taught me a lot about the west, about gunfighters.” – Louis L’Amour
Traveling further west, Louis made his way to California, arriving in the port town of San Pedro. He signed up for Marine Service then waited three months for a ship that needed him. The one with the vacancy was officially called The Steel Worker, but it was known among the more experienced seamen as “Hell Ship.”
The Steel Worker’s first stop was Japan, where Louis visited Yokohama, Nagoya and Kobe, before heading south to Shanghai. The year was 1926 and long months passed with the future writer spending time in Borneo, then Java, Sumatra, Singapore, and Port Swettenham near Kuala Lumpur. Threats among the crew over rough conditions kept tensions on the ship high. Finally they climbed northwest to Egypt and Arabia. Passing through the Suez, The Steel Worker made its last stop in Port Said, before finally returning home to New York City.
Louis would spend years drawing from these experiences exotic tales cast with seamen, soldiers of fortune and the gangsters he encountered in such remote places. He began to make a name for himself in publications like Thrilling Adventures, Sky Fighters, and American Eagles.
“My dad would say that, before World War II, if you told someone in a bar that you’d been to Borneo they’d call you a liar, and you’d end up in a fight. Even though there were people doing that …most weren’t.” – Beau L’Amour
In his mid-thirties, the world was at war again and Louis L’Amour entered the United States Army. He was sent to England first then Europe where he served as a second lieutenant before being promoted to first lieutenant. He commanded a platoon in Germany and France.
Once the war finally ended, he returned to the United States. The market for adventure stories had gone. And so, an editor friend, while in Manhattan, suggested to Louis that he do some writing based on the tales he’d been reciting about the Old West.
Louis would go on to earn numerous awards for his western prose. Movies and audio dramas were adapted from his stories. Such talents as John Wayne, Natalie Wood, Sophia Loren, Sean Connery, and Tom Selleck have brought his characters to life in films. Eventually, Louis L’Amour became one of the most popular American fiction writers ever, selling over three hundred million books.
Since his father’s passing in 1988, Beau L’Amour has done a remarkable job keeping Louis L’Amour’s stories alive. One third of all Louis’ books have sold since the late 1980’s. Four million copies of audio dramas have sold through Random House Audio Publishing, with Beau working as supervising producer, writer and director. Many have been recorded in an “old time radio theater” style with multiple actors, music and sound effects (www.sonofawantedman.com). And, in 2001, Beau returned to the exotic tales and enthusiasms of his father’s pre-War days by adapting to film an old jungle adventure story written for the pulps.
The Diamond of Jeru, starring Billy Zane, Keith Carradine and Paris Jefferson, contains many classic elements of adventure, reminding audiences of films like King Solomon’s Mines, The African Queen and Casablanca. Set in 1955, it follows a war-scarred American, down on his luck in Borneo. He is hired by a wealthy couple to find a large diamond in a jungle full of dangerous natives.
The screenplay by Beau reveals the sophistication of one who has written many, as there are subtle moments throughout that have a rippling effect expanding the depth of time, place and people.
Beau speaks with tremendous authority and pride in his father’s work, and I did not take lightly the privilege of spending a little time with him.
Stephen Jared: What did your dad think of Hollywood? Did he like movies?
Beau L’Amour: He wasn’t particularly pleased with any of the versions of his movies. He was pleased with Hondo. But later felt it was a good movie for its time, but wasn’t timeless. In general, he liked movies. He continually hoped that a good film would be made from one of his. He was somewhat unhappy that it didn’t happen.
SJ: Tell me again the story of you and your dad seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark.
BL We went to the noon performance the first day it opened in Westwood. We had a great time. We got to the part where Indiana Jones is with the snakes in the Well of the Souls and my dad leaned over and said, “I wrote this,” and a few minutes later there was the fight around the plane with the big guy, and dad said, “I think I wrote this too.” Truly, there is a scene that is fantastically similar to the snake scene in a story of his called South of Suez. In Wings Over Brazil there is a scene not quite so similar to the fight around the plane. But he wasn’t suggesting plagiarism just that –
SJ: He was an influence –
BL Yeah, maybe –
SJ: Did he miss writing adventure stories, once he committed himself to westerns?
BL: Yeah. He really enjoyed writing the westerns, but I think in the late ’70’s he started to feel a little stifled. He started making forays into writing other things and had a hard time selling them. He wrote The Walking Drum in the early ’60’s, which was an adventure set in the 11th century. It wasn’t received with enthusiasm, although when he finally sold it in the 1980’s, it became a New York Times bestseller. He also wrote The Last of the Breed about a pilot shot down over Russia who has to escape. The character was a Native American and so he has to recreate the migration out of Central Russia to Alaska. That was written in ’84-’85. He was planning on two sequels to Walking Drum when he passed. He was agonizing over how to write his autobiography, which would have included many adventure-esque elements.
SJ: How did The Diamond of Jeru come to be made into a film?
BL: It started as a partially finished short story that my dad had abandoned, probably in the late ’40’s. It was sitting in a box that was left behind after he died. He left a room that was hip-high in loose paper, except for this trail that was about eighteen inches wide that went from the doorway to his desk – tons of material in there. Articles he’d clipped from magazines, his own writing, piled up books, artifacts buried. There were piles of manuscript pages in no order. The website (www.louislamour.com) now has a section called Louis L’Amour’s Lost Treasures full of compiled things left over.
A few years after we had gone through this archeological project, piecing all the manuscripts together, we started publishing collections of short stories. We published eight or nine books in all, and those books were all stories that had been uncollected, and at least half of which unpublished before that time. Some were intended for the magazine market that existed in the ’50’s; some were old pulp stories. So, we started editing these stories, and I’d sit down and work out exactly what mixture of stories would be put into these collections. The way I worked was to try to make sure a story worked with the least amount of my editorial impact. However, occasionally there was a story that needed a lot of work. The Diamond of Jeru was one of those. We originally weren’t going to publish it at all. Then our editor at Bantam Books called me and said this one collection was short. He asked if I could find something to bump it up a little. So, I looked at The Diamond of Jeru again. I worked on it myself and stretched the story from about fifteen pages to eighty. As a result of pretty much writing it myself, it became a story I knew very well.
Flash forward a year or two. A friend was working with a woman from the USA Network cable TV channel, and she mentioned to him they were looking to do a classic adventure movie. They were experimenting with various genres and wanted this old-fashioned type adventure film. So, my friend told her that he knew of someone who could get something like that to her. So, he called and described what they were looking for and roughly what the budget would be. The Diamond of Jeru seemed to fit the bill. They looked at it for just a couple days and purchased it.
It was a great opportunity. My friend, Mike Joyce, wanted me to come on as a producer, which was terrific. I had produced a couple movies before, but by then had pretty much left the business. I wrote the first draft of the script in three weeks. I had written scripts before and had trouble selling them. In fact, when I spent the three weeks writing The Diamond of Jeru script we were editing our audio drama, Son of a Wanted Man, which was based on an unproduced screenplay of mine.
SJ: How much did The Diamond of Jeru cost?
BL We shot in Australia with a four million dollar budget. The value of the dollar was greater there. Had we shot in America it would have cost seven to eight million. So, we got a lot of beautiful stuff for the money. We manufactured pretty much everything in the movie. Here in Los Angeles, when you need something, there’s a rental house where you can get it, not in Queensland. We manufactured canoes, native costumes, European costumes. We had this giant factory-like space. It was like an experience from early Hollywood. It was fantastic to be, not only in a foreign country, but to be working there, and with a couple hundred interesting people. Twenty years earlier, there was a TV series shot there based on a story of my dad’s called Five Mile Creek. Our director’s wife had been an editor on Five Mile Creek, and the actor, Peter Carroll, who played Vandover in Jeru had been on the show. So, I was running into people who I had tangential old relationships with.
SJ: Some of my favorite adventure movies have been ones made for television: King Solomon’s Mines with Patrick Swayze, Around the World in Eighty Days with Pierce Brosnan, which goes back a bit; the relatively recent Arabian Nights, is another example. Is it easier to get a good adventure movie made on TV these days, rather than in the multiplexes?
BL In the late 1990’s/early 2000’s, USA Network had this wonderful, fresh idea to try new things, which almost never happens in Hollywood. Their idea seemed to be to do a whole series of films, each in a different genre. It was great to be a part of that. One of the things I’ve learned is that in order to sell something, there has to be a pre-existing need for that product. Had I taken The Diamond of Jeru to any other outlet, there’s no question that every single person would have turned me down. It just happened that these people already had in mind doing something like this. My friend, Mike, knew exactly the size of the film they wanted to make and so, when we sat down to talk about it, we were specific, even to the point where we set it in the ’50s. Originally, I think they would have preferred something set in the thirties – they were mining Raiders of the Lost Ark territory – but we knew setting it in the ’20’s or ’30’s would up the price on it significantly.
SJ: Getting back to your dad for a bit, he considered himself a storyteller, not a western genre author –
SJ: Why, after World War II, did adventure stories go out of style?
BL It was a trend in the late ’40’s – the population had a little too much adventure. In the broader picture, in the early days of American fiction, westerns were not anachronistic. They were contemporary adventure stories. They were stories of current conditions taking place in the American West. As the West was settled, the unsettled territory, where things were chaotic enough to be dramatically interesting, became other places in the world.
For writers of other nationalities, the settings for their stories already were other places in the world. Just after the western period, you have suddenly H. Rider Haggard, Arthur Conan Doyle, Talbot Mundy, among others.
Edgar Rice Burroughs, incidentally, wrote a couple westerns, The War Chief and Apache Devil. In the 1890’s, Burroughs, whose father fought in the Civil War, went to Idaho and lived like a cowboy. He rode the range, herded cattle, spent time in what was still a volatile part of the country. After that, he joined the 7th Cavalry in the Arizona Territory, which was General Custer’s old regiment.
So, eventually the West, the place where adventure stories were often set, became the Far East. And eventually, by the end of World War II, these exotic locations, which had been the settings for all these stories were now considered to be less attractive, and much better known, because of the returning soldiers. So, you’d have a hard time selling an adventure story to a guy who’d been to these places and had suffered there. There was a romance to these places that writers had injected into their work, and all that was, at least to some degree, lost during such a costly war. So, after World War II, the western now offered a chance for readers to feel nostalgic.
SJ: Given how much smaller the world is today, and with stories that hope to appeal across the globe, and with at least a small degree of xenophobia perhaps being an essential ingredient to adventure stories, do you think the classic adventure genre is dead?
BL Well, I don’t know how possible this is to do in Hollywood but if you can accurately portray the time period, the setting for the story, then some things can be more easily forgiven. Helen, for example, in The Diamond of Jeru, is clearly a smart, tough woman, and yet she’s treated at times by her husband in a somewhat misogynistic manner, and she tolerates it in a way that a character like that set in modern day wouldn’t. If you add enough human complexity to the characters you can make the whole piece more relatable and more easily understood. My favorite adventure movie, hands down, is The Wind and The Lion. The hero is a noble, Islamic Moroccan, and it’s acceptable and wonderful.
SJ: The Wind and the Lion and The Man Who Would Be King both came out in 1975. What a year for Sean Connery. I’ve said for a long time that 1975 to 1985 was as good a ten year period as any of Hollywood’s previous great decades.
BL I agree. It was also a period when series TV was pushed to look much better and then in the ’90’s the writing caught up with the quality levels of the production values, and now series TV is probably where all the great performance writing has been in the entertainment business. It would be great to lure those writers back to films so we could have less homogenized work in theatres.
SJ: Do you think westerns will ever make a comeback?
BL No. Every ten years you might have something, but essentially it comes down to this: the type of person who is a creative executive is not someone who likes westerns. They seem, from my experience, to be embarrassed to be even talking about making a western, and it’s definitely not something they can go to lunch with their peers and brag about. And that’s the key. Is it something that is socially acceptable within the pool of people in Hollywood who make films? Westerns are socially acceptable for directors to talk about – they love it. Actors love it. Creative executives don’t.
In television it’s different. Television never goes too many years without experimenting with a western. I get into arguments with people about something like Deadwood. I won’t say I’m a big Deadwood fan, but if you want westerns to go on, you can’t regulate them to basically being this one particular kind of thing. You have to let them be Deadwood. Otherwise you strangle the genre until there’s nothing left. A lot of western fans want all westerns to be like old westerns. They don’t want anything new. You don’t have to like a show that has someone pissing in a corner every half hour, but they do have to be open to people trying things like that.
SJ: You’re returning to The Diamond of Jeru now with an audio drama. Why Jeru again?
BL We started doing this radio drama style book-on-tape in the mid-’80’s. That business turned more to single actor readings, and so we steered away from it for a while, but then when we put the website together, Paul O’Dell and I thought it a great opportunity to go back to it. So, we took my unproduced script, Son of a Wanted Man, and made it as an audio drama. When we finished Wanted Man, we asked the people at Random House Audio if they were up for another, and they were. These shows are expensive but they get a lot of press, so they felt it was worth it.
So, all together, since 1986, The Diamond of Jeru might be our 70th audio drama and, out of those, only one other was not a western, and I did not want to do another western. It was just getting old to record horse-hooves and squeaking leather and all that, so I wanted to do something different. When I considered what to do, it occurred to me that The Diamond of Jeru still had stuff to say. In this new Jeru, the characters, for example, are considerably more vulnerable. Also, the publishers require a certain length, which is much longer than the length of a movie. It’s taken us in some new and different directions.
SJ: And, I understand you’re working on a biography project of your father?
BL Yes. It might stretch over three books. I’m looking forward to it. We’ll be getting more into that in the new year.
For a more thorough read of Louis L’Amour’s around the globe adventures, visit www.louislamourgreatadventure.com
For the original interview and a lot more about Stephen himself, visit the website. Once again, that’s www.stephenjared.com.