Friday, 15 April 2011

Anderthon: Far Away in the Mountains in Good Old Western Times...

Four Feather Falls
episodes 27-33

Bandits Abroad

Pedro and Fernando are looking at a new wanted poster, for a bandit called Pancho Gomez. For once, Pedro isn’t too upset about another bandit having a higher price on his head – because he can see a way to make money out of the situation. He realizes that, give or take a bit of facial hair, Pancho Gomez is a dead ringer for Fernando. This leads to a splendidly silly moment when Pedro looks at Fernando, and sees him turn into a large sack of gold. The plan is simple: Fernando dresses up as Gomez, Pedro takes him in and claims the reward, then later he breaks Fernando out of jail. (It’s more or less the same plan he used in the episode Jail Break – it didn’t work then… Will these men never learn?) This time, things go well. Pedro hands “Gomez” over to Tex, gets the reward – then bursts in while Tex is cleaning his guns – even magic guns are no use whilst they’re unloaded. Pedro has a bandana covering his face, and speaks with a squeaky voice, so Tex will never know it was him! The bandits tie Tex up and then split up to make their escape. Unfortunately for Pedro, he meets the real Pancho Gomez on the road, and naturally thinks it’s Fernando. He ends up tied up himself, and Gomez makes off with the reward money (which seems fair really, since it was on his head…) By now, Tex has got free. He captures Gomez, and subsequently catches up with Pedro and Fernando. So the jail contains one Pedro and two Panchos – both of whom are now claiming to be Fernando.

Just when you think it can’t get any dafter, Fernando wakes up – the whole thing was a dream he was having. Now, I’ve already expressed my dislike of the “it was all a dream” episodes that litter the Anderson series. I think probably this is because I prefer drama to feature characters and situations that develop and grow, to acknowledge changes and deal with the consequences of them. And of course, most tv shows have a continuing narrative which allows this to happen. The sort of film series the Andersons were making were the opposite, designed to have no “story arcs” as we now call them, for episodes to be self-contained and largely interchangeable – which meant you had to return to the status quo at the end of each instalment. By implication, anything really game-changing (such as major characters dying) would have to turn out to be a dream. I can almost accept that argument – but what niggles me is that often the dream ending just seems to be unnecessary, and therefore disappointing for the viewer – sometimes it’s just a lazy conclusion when a little bit of inventiveness of the part of the writer might have produced something more satisfactory. This episode is a real case in point. Four Feather Falls is a crazy enough series that this particular narrative could have easily been played as real. Nothing that happens here seems far-fetched or silly compared to many of Pedro’s previous plans – so having it all being a dream seems completely superfluous. (Unlike for instance the episode where Jake becomes sheriff.)

Safe As Houses

A trader called Missouri Mike turns up in town. For some reason, Tex doesn’t like the look of him, but he seems friendly enough. After ingratiating himself with the folks in the saloon, Mike goes to his room to freshen up. A few moments later, a masked man starts to shoot up the windows of the bank – but makes off when Tex turns up on the street. The masked man is so clearly Missouri Mike wearing a bandana over his face, that even a child could spot it. It’s quite refreshing then that they don’t try to drag any mystery out of this – instead, Tex tells Mike he knows it was him at the first opportunity. What Mike’s trying to do is make the bank appear vulnerable, because what he’s selling are small household safes. Despite Mr Jackson’s assurances that Tex has recovered all money ever stolen from the bank (eventually!) the townsfolk are swayed by the argument. Everyone buys a safe and takes their money out of the bank to keep it at home. Even Tex buys a safe for the jailhouse. In a twist I saw coming miles off, Missouri Mike has a duplicate key to all the safes he’s sold, and that night he goes around robbing the townsfolk of their money and valuables. (I wonder if any kids watching at the time would have worked it out. I’d like to think so. It’s nicely signposted without being too obvious.) What Mike hasn’t bargained on is that Tex has wired for information on him, and knows that Mike has pulled this scam in several towns. So Tex pretends to be asleep when Mike tries to open the jailhouse safe - inside he finds not money but the magic guns. They keep him covered as the mock-sleepy Tex orders Mike to lock himself in the cell!

Gold is Where You Find It

The camera is tracking down Main Street (supposedly representing the viewer’s point of view) when Martha stops it. “I know Twink usually tells you the story,” she says, which seems odd since Grandpa hasn’t done that for weeks now. Anyway, Martha’s going to relate this week’s tale, as Twink is involved in it and is probably embarrassed by it! The tale starts with Pedro and Fernando worrying what they’re going to do with their land at Yellow Gulch. (Which unusually for a film series is a neat bit of continuity going all the way back to episode 2.) Pedro’s got a new plan for disposing of the land at a vast profit. He coats a large rock with gold, and then takes it in to the saloon, where he fools many of the townsfolk into believing it is a huge lump of gold ore he dug up at Yellow Gulch. With this incentive, he offers strips of the land for sale – Twink is one of the first to buy, and soon everyone is following suit. The next day, Ma Jones has sold out of picks and shovels as everyone is setting off for Yellow Gulch – there’s a gold rush on! Tex is suspicious, but he can’t actually arrest Pedro for selling his own land to folks gullible enough to buy it. So he has Martha “accidentally” let slip to Pedro that a telegraph message has come in from the assay office, confirming that there really is a rich seam of gold in Yellow Gulch. Falling for the trick, Pedro asks Tex to help him get his land back, on some spurious pretext that his grandmother has died, and his family tradition insists she needs to be buried in his land. Tex is happy enough to go along and give Pedro a taste of his own medicine – he organizes an auction of the various strips of land, forcing Pedro to buy it all back at grossly inflated prices.

Gold Diggers

Pedro and Fernando are repairing the roof of their shack, which was damaged back when Pedro set fire to it. (Which is another nice piece of continuity, going back to episode 13. It’s nice to see the writers actually remember these things – mind you, I’ve got to wonder why the bandits have put up with this state of disrepair for so long.) The beams collapse, and Fernando falls through the roof – but in the wreckage he finds a treasure map. (Wonder who left it there?) It shows where some gold is buried in the land where Four Feather Falls now stands. With a real sense of inevitability, the gold is now underneath the jailhouse! (I say inevitability, because the buried loot that’s had a police station built on top of it is an idea I’ve seen more than once before: the Sid James movie The Big Job is the most obvious, but then the same thing happened in an episode of Hustle this year. Of course, this episode of Four Feather Falls predates both those examples.) Dusty overhears the bandits plotting and warns Tex, but the sheriff is prepared to let them get on with it – the jailhouse needs a new floor, and he’s happy for Pedro to do the excavation work for him! So Pedro gets himself arrested, Fernando passes him tools through the bars of the cell window, and Pedro gets to work. This all coincides with Mr Jackson breaking the key to the bank vault, meaning he can’t get out the gold which needs to be taken to one of the big ranches to pay the cowboys – the sort of men who are likely to cause trouble if they don’t get paid on time. A locksmith has been sent for, but he won’t arrive in time. So when Pedro starts pulling sacks of gold out of the hole in the cell floor, Tex realizes that the bandit has somehow managed to tunnel under the street and into the bank vault without realizing it. He passes the sacks out through the window bars, unaware that Fernando has fallen asleep and that Tex is the one collecting the gold from him. Mr Jackson is able to load it up on his buggy to take to the ranchers. So thanks to Pedro, problem solved!

First Train Through

It’s a big day – the Canyon Railroad company has built a line to Four Feather Falls. Tex predictably sings the Rick-Rackety Train song, and we’re treated to something significant: probably the first proper miniature effects in an Anderson series, as a rather fine model train puffs its way through a model landscape. That night there’s a huge storm and a landslide buries the track. Tex finds some frayed rope at the top of the hill, and begins to suspect that the rocks were shifted by human agency. It turns out that the track foreman and his men are secretly in the employ of the rival Overland Railroad company, their mission to drive the Canyon Railroad out of business. When the day comes for the first train to arrive at Four Feather Falls, Tex discovers that the track has been damaged where it goes over a ravine and the train is headed for disaster. And just to make it personal, Twink is on board. The whole runaway train motif is a familiar one from Westerns, and is excitingly played out here. Tex has to ride Rocky hard to catch up with the train, then keep pace alongside as he shouts warnings across to Twink. (Yes, a horse that can outpace a train – well, I suppose early steam trains were slower than what we’re used to today…) Once the alarm is raised, it’s a tense and nerve-racking sequence as the brakes are applied and the train agonizingly slows as the gap comes nearer and nearer. (It is, I suppose, a precursor of the jeopardy that will become the stock in trade of Thunderbirds.) With the train safe, Tex exposes the crooked foreman and his men, and the future of rail travel is assured.

A Bad Name

Big Ben is being pursued into town by a rancher called Joe “Lucky” Chance, and his ranch foreman Matt Aimes. They’re accusing him of rustling their cattle. Ben begs help from Tex, swearing that he didn’t do it. Lucky Chance has a reputation for taking the law into his own hands, and wants to string Ben up. He tells Tex that Matt Aimes saw Ben and Red Scalp stealing the cattle with his own eyes (although Red Scalp was able to escape.) Tex warns Lucky off, telling him the law can deal with any alleged rustlers. With Ben locked up, he decides to find Red Scalp and find out what’s really going on. But he’s aware that Lucky might try to come back and have another go at Ben, so he sends Dusty to fetch Twink and Doc Haggerty. (It’s all very well sending Dusty off on an errand when you can talk to him, but I’d like to see how exactly the dog was able to pass Tex’s massage along – he can only talk to Tex, remember…) Tex asks Doc and Twink to stay in the jail and guard Ben until he gets back. On the prairie, Tex finds Red Scalp in possession of some branding irons, such as might be used to change the identification on stolen cattle – and he demands that the Indian tell him what’s been going on. Meanwhile, Lucky and Matt Aimes have returned to town and demand that Big Ben be given up. When Twink and Doc refuse, a gunfight ensues. It’s a great sequence that neatly uses many of the traditional Western shoot-out tropes: Doc and Twink firing from the windows, mirrors and pictures breaking or being shot off the walls, and so on. Tex gets back with Red Scalp, and the truth comes out. The Indian had been hired by Matt Aimes to help with the disposition of the stolen cattle – the foreman was ripping off his employer. As for Big Ben, he really is an innocent scapegoat – Aimes trading on Ben’s bad name to make his involvement seem plausible. Tex once again demonstrates that he gives a fair chance to everyone, regardless of their reputation, if they haven’t actually done wrong.


Strangely, Twink is back to telling the story this week. Even more strangely, he starts by recapping the tale of how Tex got his magic feathers, complete with brief flashbacks to episode 1. (I wasn’t really sure why this was felt necessary. 33 episodes in, if the audience haven’t grasped the backstory yet, there really is no hope.) However, this week’s story is all about the time that Chief Kalamakooya needed white man’s medicine. Which kinds of flies in the face of the Chief’s assertion a few weeks ago that medicine men served Indians whilst doctors served the needs of the white man. But this week, Makooya is sick, so perhaps in his desperation, the chief will try anything and his belief in his own cultural traditions is wavering a bit. Even though he’s still got very real magical powers and can teleport himself into Tex’s jailhouse to ask for help. Unfortunately, Tex is unable to locate Doc Haggerty because he’s just been kidnapped by Pedro and Fernando. It’s their latest money-making scheme. Instead of robbing the bank, they plan to take someone the town needs and demand a ransom. Luckily, Dusty saw Doc leaving with Fernando, so Tex is able to go and rescue him, then take him to Makooya. (Who’s still a little boy, despite it being said that Tex encountered him in the wilderness “all those years ago” – you know, that really has irritated me, because it seems to have ignored something really obvious. I wonder if the child audience of the day noticed.) Anyway, Doc is able to cure Makooya of whatever’s wrong, and then Kalamakooya, his grandson and even their tent fade away, leaving Tex and Doc alone in the wilderness.

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