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Bolt from the Blue

by Mike Nevins, Saint Louis University School of Law (December 1997)

Only a small number of the countless Western feature films made since the dawn of talkies dealt centrally with legal themes, but one that left an enduring mark on other Western features and on Western TV series was THE OX-BOW INCIDENT (20th Century-Fox, 1943), the anti-lynching classic directed by William Wellman and starring Henry Fonda. In the thirty years between OX-BOW and the more recent classic DIRTY HARRY (1971; directed by Don Siegel and starring Clint Eastwood) it was an axiom in Westerns, questioned about as often as the existence of God is questioned within the four walls of a church, that due process of law is sacred; that taking the law into one's own hands via lynch mob or vigilante organization or by any other means was never justified no matter what the situation or provocation.

One of the unique aspects of the television series MAVERICK (starring James Garner as Bret Maverick) was its delight in parodying other Western features and TV series, and perhaps its finest hour in this vein is Bolt from the Blue (November 27, 1960; written and directed by Robert Altman), in which the satiric target is OX-BOW itself. In this episode, Beauregard Maverick (Roger Moore) catches a sly old man named Eben Bolt (Tim Graham) trying to horsenap his mighty stallion Gumlegs but then they're both captured by a mob of ranchers and townsmen chasing Bolt and his elusive partner Benson January, who have "dehorsed the countryside." Starky (Charles Fredericks) and the rest of the mob take Maverick to be January and are about to lynch both men on the spot when the party is interrupted by a bumptious youth (Will Hutchins) who never gives his name but can only be Tom Brewster from SUGARFOOT.

Lawyer: "Who's their counsel?"

Starky: "There ain't gonna be no counsel. We caught 'em, we're gonna hang 'em."

Lawyer: "Without a trial?"

Starky: "....They're horse thieves and that's trial enough for me."

Lawyer: "Now look, Starky, I am a lawyer and I know the law and the law says...."

Starky: "We didn't come here to listen to no speeches, young man."

Lawyer: "They're entitled to a trial even if they're guilty."

Starky: "Who says?"

Lawyer: "The law of the land. You seem to forget I am a lawyer."

Starky: "Nobody can forget you bein' a lawyer. You've been runnin' around town for months tryin' to stir up a case for yourself."

When mob member Bradley (Percy Helton) begins to get queasy about lynching the prisoners, Starky decides to resolve the issue democratically.

Starky: "All right, boys, looks like it goes to a vote. All in favor of hangin' say Aye."

Everyone in the mob except Bradley: "Aye!"

Starky: "All in favor of a trial...."

Maverick and Bolt (at the top of their lungs): "AYE!"

Lawyer: "The second bunch of ayes have it."

But before the circuit judge can be sent for there has to be a conference between attorney and client.

Maverick: "....Just convince them they've got the wrong man, will you?"

Lawyer (hands over ears): "Tuttuttuttuttut! It isn't ethical for me to listen to evidence until I'm hired."

Maverick: "Oh. All right, well, you're hired."

Lawyer: "That'll be one hundred dollars in advance and another hundred if I get you off."

Bolt (who earlier had noticed that Maverick was carrying a roll of bills): "It's a deal! The money's in the saddlebag."

Lawyer: "I'm only going to take a hundred, Mr. January. If you don't hang I'll trust you for the rest."

Bolt: "Mr. Lawyer, I ain't trying to tell you how to run your case, but if you want to win this one for sure, just cut these ropes and let us git!"

Lawyer: "You'll get a proper trial, old man. You too, Mr. January."

Maverick: "I'm not January!"

Lawyer: "Mr. January, let me decide the proper line of defense. I'm the lawyer."

After the defender of legality has ridden off to find the circuit judge, Maverick takes aside the youngest member of the lynch mob (Arnold Merritt).

Maverick: "Hey, Junior. That lawyer. Is he any good?"

Junior: "Hasn't lost a case yet."

Bolt: "That's encouragin'."

Junior: "Hasn't had a case yet. You'll be the first."

But when we get to meet Judge Hookstratten (Richard Hale), who's just finishing up another trial in town, we wonder whether Maverick might not do better without him. "It is the duty of the law to protect as well as to prosecute. It's our function to work for the accused, look after his interests as well as convict him. Now with these values firmly in mind, I now pronounce the defendant---GUILTY! HANG HIM!" The young lawyer rides into town soon after Hookstratten has left but in time to meet Angelica Garland (Fay Spain), who has just gotten off the stagecoach and has been hunting for the man who had left her waiting at the altar in St. Louis---Benson January. The two catch up with Hookstratten on the trail.

Lawyer: "Your Honor, I am a lawyer and there is a trial you are needed for...."

Hookstratten: "What kind?"

Lawyer: "Horse stealing."

Hookstratten (smacking his lips): "That's a hanging crime!"

They arrive just in time to stop the impatient lynch mob from hanging Maverick and Bolt and Altman's version of a "proper trial" gets underway, with no one sworn in, no one cross-examined, and Angelica not only identifying Maverick as Benson January but trying to shoot him where he stands. The mob serves as jury and deliberates for roughly a nanosecond.

Starky (as jury foreman): "Your Honor, we figger we made a mistake about that nice old fella. But January, he's guilty as sin."

Hookstratten: "You're acquitted, old man. January, you're sentenced to hang. That'll be twenty-five dollars."

Bolt, "out of gratitude and due respect for the law," pays the judge's fee out of Maverick's bankroll and, preparing to ride off, happens to mention that it's Sunday.

Maverick: "Sunday! It's Sunday? Why, you can't hang a man on Sunday!"

Starky: "You just watch us."

Lawyer: "He's right....According to law you can't hang a man on Sunday."

Hookstratten (who hanged his last defendant a few hours ago): "By golly, Counselor is right! You have to wait till after midnight....That's the law, you've got to wait till then. Not a minute before."

Starky: "All right, tie him up, boys, and break out the bottles."

We are still only about halfway through the film, and Altman continues to pile twist upon comic twist and character upon bizarre character much as he would do on the big screen a decade later in M*A*S*H (1970), leaving us with perhaps the only TV Western episode that uses legal themes as the basis for anarchic farce.

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