Sharp Writing

ulzanas-raid

Alan Sharp first found fame as a Scottish novelist, a working class intellectual of the classless sixties. His early promise was parlayed into a screenwriting career which resulted in the work he will probably remain best known for: westerns such as ULZANA’S RAID, the new Hollywood classics THE HIRED HAND and NIGHT MOVES, and late works ROB ROY and DEAN SPANLEY (a great movie and a true writer’s film). Sharp retained throughout this his interest in philosophy and the life of the mind — he said that even when writing westerns, he wanted his characters to be able to discuss Nietszche. He may not have gone quite that far, but he did put some fantastic words into his characters’ mouths, as in this exchange from the violent Aldrich oater ULZANA’S RAID —

“I believe General Sheridan said, “If I owned Arizona and Hell, I would live in Hell and rent out Arizona.”

“I think he said that about Texas, sir.”

“Maybe, but he meant Arizona.”

For fifty pence yesterday I picked up a copy of Sharp’s A Green Tree in Gedde, first published 1965, part of an unfinished trilogy. The opening passages show the writer’s enduring mission to render the ordinary extraordinary, to find the epic in the everyday and vice versa, to transfigure everything he sees with an investigative eye.

Greenock lies along the Clyde littoral and is built up on to the hills behind. Thus it is a long lateral town and the streets rise steeply and provide open view of the river and the Argyllshire hills. In the winter there is snow on them and in the summer their great tawny flanks are charred occasionally by heather fires. They are seen across an expanse of roofs and chimneys, the slates dull purple scales and the ridges presided by clumps of lums, cans churning and smoke pennons flying. The buildings are of sandstone block, greybuffs and occasional reds, and are erected in monolithic tenements, achieving their only rhythm in the flowing lines enforced by the land.

During the day the town channels mind and eye swiftly out to the river and the hills, constantly transcending itself by the dynamics of its construction. It is only in the evenings, and especially in the autumnal early nights that it states itself. Then the sky takes on a steely blue clarity and against this in edges of unbearable blue black the buildings inflict themselves, the simplicity of outline fantasticated by the chimney abstractions, castles, chess problems, graveside gatherings, with the smoke in slow upgoing to the enormous sky.

At this time there is a heroism in the shapes and the colours, an elemental starkness which attains archetype, a town looking across a river at hills. The river flows, the hills abide and the town ponders these images of evanescence and antiquity, while above, with the disinterest of the truly eternal, the sky endures.

I love the language — Sharp’s vocabulary makes my ears glow from within — obscurish words like “littoral,” and “pennons”; and maybe-neologisms like “greybuffs,” “fantasticated” and “upgoing.” This sophistication is undercut by an almost childlike syntax which almost brings one up short: “on to” not “onto,” and the simplicity of “In the winter there is snow on them.” It looks conversational, but read aloud it could be almost biblical. And there are lovely sounds, like the clotted phrase “clumps of lums.” LUM: Scots word for chimney. Sharp’s use of Scots dialect in BILLY TWO HATS and ROB ROY is a persistent joy — getting Gregory Peck to say “We’ve made a right midden of it,” should be enough to win a Best Original Screenplay Oscar even if the film IS an Israeli western (a matzo ball western?) and “Wheesht” is such a useful term I’m surprised Liam Neeson’s use of it didn’t spark a fad.

Underneath, what’s gorgeous is the way impressionistic visuals (a blur of changing colours and shapes, no smaller details or textures at all) is washed away by a sense of the eternal ad infinite and mythic — this feels like a writer on his way to Hollywood, or bringing the movies to a small town near Glasgow.

You can see images on 60s Greenock here, but atmospheric as they are, they don’t compare to Sharp’s evocation of the place — he was describing something only he could see or feel.

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6 Responses to “Sharp Writing”

  1. Just recently saw the striking ULZANA’S RAID It’s certainly violent, but with its grim, dark fatalism I wouldn’t call that cavalry story an ‘oater’.

  2. Tony Williams Says:

    This book is next on my reading agenda. During my Aldrich summer class I change “Arizona” to Carbondale in view of the high temperartues and the 107 heat indices we are experiencing lately. ULZANA’S RAID is not an “oater” but a meditation on issues that still affect us today whether Vietnam in Sharp’s time or Syria. That is why the “frat boys” in my Vietnam or Aldrich classes accuse me of being anti-American and running an anti-military class whenever I screen this film.

  3. It obviously touches a nerve still. There’s even a line in it about things being more complicated than they appear, because the supposedly civilized characters can be as visious as the supposedly barbaric ones.

    “Oater” isn’t meant with any disrespect — I just like the word.

    Reading Flashman and the Redskins at the moment which has a similarly mordant view of the Indian wars — everybody behaves badly, and nobody makes much of an effort to understand the other viewpoint. Nothing has changed, except that that title probably wouldn’t pass now.

  4. David Boxwell Says:

    UR: only the greatest movie ever made about the Vietnam war . . .

  5. Maybe partly because Sharp at least approached it straightforwardly as a film about the Indian wars, followed history rather than other movies, and attempted to portray the complexity and horror of the situation in a way that hadn’t been done. If you take history seriously, you’ll almost inevitably find yourself addressing the current moment.

  6. Agreed, David B. But both Sharp and Burt Lancaster saw the parallels to the Vietnam War as well as knowing the history of that period.

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