Pony Express defines American spirit
LVN Editor Emeritus
The Pony Express defined the American West with its riders, many of them in their teens or 20s and a handful in their early 40s, endured extreme weather and the dangers posed from outlaws or Indians. Before the construction of a transcontinental telegram, Pony Express riders delivered the mail over an 18-month period from April 3, 1860, to October 1861, which was described as the most direct way to deliver east-to-west communications.
This fascination with the West and the ruggedness of its characters appeals to Brian McLaughlin, the president of Ibs Productions in Bakersfield, Calif. Over the years, he has developed a love of the stories emerging from all facets of western life, specifically the history of the Pony Express, which operated a route from St. Joseph, Mo., to Sacramento, Calif., with many stops in Nevada including Churchill and Douglas counties and Carson City.
Every June, riders re-enact the Pony Express era by riding horses on the original route, exchanging a mail bag every 75-100 miles or less.
“We have our introduction to the Pony Express in elementary school or the Boy Scouts, and it ends there, which is a shame because you never learn of the adult side of it and the incredible stories it always stuck with us,” said McLaughlin, who, along with two other men, are working on a movie project about the Pony Express.
The advertisement seeking men to ride hundreds of miles before handing off the mail to another rider was direct:
“Wanted: Young, skinny, wiry fellows. Not over 18. Must be expert riders. Willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred.”
McLaughlin, his writer Jethro Compton and documentarian David Jones recently traveled through California, Nevada and Utah learning more about the Pony Express and recently stopped in Fallon ready to explore the stops in central Nevada.
McLaughlin admits, though, when as a youngster, he preferred the Star Wars movies, but over time, his interest piqued with the westerns, and specifically with the young riders who delivered the mail on horseback almost 160 years ago.
“I wanted to critically look at the western because of my love of the genre,” McLaughlin said, adding his motivation stems from the desire to put together a western on the Pony Express because no one has, as he described, talked it about it creatively.
McLaughlin said he has a writer who is beginning to work on a script and the assembly of director and cast will come together.
Growing up in New Jersey before moving to the West, McLaughlin said a story written by a University of Maryland professor about orphaned riders of the Pony Express also quenched his thirst for knowing more about the history of this early slice of Americana as did a job he had after graduating from high school. He delivered life-support systems to various cities in different states, but in the process, McLaughlin kept to a strict distribution schedule. He drew parallels between the intrepid riders of the Old West to the modern-day delivery person.
“I can relate to this because it’s a macrocosm of going to certain areas and meeting your stops,” he said.
McLaughlin, whose friend produced “Magnum P.I.” and “The Bionic Woman,” once told him he came to Hollywood 20 years too late because tastes in viewing moved away from westerns to more of the reality show concept. To make a western work in this day, however, McLaughlin said the production must seek strong actors and show the ability to attract investors willing to gamble on a western.
“Unless you’re well known and they can make an investment on a super hero or a movie like “Hangover,” you don’t’ stand a chance,” he said.
But McLaughlin, like the western characters of the late 1800s, is ready to make that gamble. He said cable television has added an additional venue for movies, and he feels buoyed by the recent success from former Fox commentator Bill O’Reilly’s historic series “Legends and Lies: The Real West,” a series of productions looking into the real-life history of western characters such as Billy the Kid, Kit Carson and others. McLaughlin knows the interest is there.
“In our time ‘Deadwood’ was the first step in the more modern western,” McLaughlin said. “(Director) Quentin Taratino stylized the western (‘Django Unchained’) in a way modern audiences reacted to. ‘Unforgiven’ — in modern times – is the best western we have ever seen on so many levels, and I like ‘3:10 to Yuma,’ which did well.”
One of the westerns that resonates well with many western Nevada audiences, though, is the 1976 production of “The Shootist,” John Wayne’s final movie where many of the scenes were shot in Carson City.
“I would love to see the western come back,” McLaughlin said. “I could see one come back every two months. There are plenty of moviemakers who want to do it.”
Compton, who recently joined McLaughlin in the project, also has a strong fascination with the American West although he grew up in southwestern England. Compton wrote the stage adaption of “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” three years ago, and since that time, it has also appeared numerous times in Canada and the United States.
“The western is a fantastic place to tell a story. You delve into ideas that are very universal,” Compton said. “I never particularly engaged in this historical aspect, but a small, rural community can tell a universal story. That means so very much to me.”
One may not think of a connection between southwestern England and the American West, but Compton has. He described the parallel of human life and how the men carried guns and had life-and-death conversations.
The group’s trip through the three-state region served as a learning experience in the car. Compton said they traveled distances in the comfort of a car, but tried to envision what traveling over the same route on a horse would entail. He said scenery constantly changes.
“I’m trying to learn,” Compton said of the old western way of life. “I am getting a real sense of the journey these boys took on their horses and being on horseback in a hostile condition. I’m looking at the true stories that took place.”
One particular story that McLaughlin has followed is the life of Billy Tate, who, as a 6-year-old survived a massacre at Mountain Meadows in southern Utah where the Utah Territorial Militia from the Iron County district murdered more than 120 pioneers —men, women and older children — from a wagon train heading west. Historical accounts state the militia members composed of southern Utah’s Mormon settlers spared 17 young children, including Tate.
McLaughlin said Tate wanted to earn money to gain revenge for the murders. He joined the Pony Express at the age of 14 and rode the Egan Canyon Station (Utah) to Dry Creek (Nevada) leg, a distance of 75 miles. According to Brian Keith Ohara’s blogspot, “Billy was riding his route when he was intercepted by 12 Paiute Braves and chased through the Ruby Valley in Nevada.” His horse arrived at the next point carrying the mail but no rider. Searches then scoured the area looking for Tate. “When they found Billy, his body was riddled with arrows. Littered around Billy’s body were the signs of a horrendous battle. Out of the 12 Braves who attacked Billy (from Paiute Sources), seven lay dead and there was evidence that some of those who escaped were wounded as well. Billy’s empty gun was found still clutched in his hand, with spent shells littering the ground around him.”
For that reason, Compton said he and many others enjoy the westerns for their conflicts.
“I adore westerns and their struggles that asked about a simple question about humanity and is able to deal with the question,” he added.
Because of this struggle, McLaughlin would like to use Tate as a protagonist in his story of conflict and survival. Additionally, McLaughlin talked to revered storyteller Ralph Burns of the Pyramid Lake Paiute reservation in Nixon, north of Wadsworth, who provided him with additional information.
“The best story scripts are character driven,” McLaughlin said.
With their preliminary travel across the three states in December behind them, both McLaughlin and Compton said their work on this film has only begun. They plan to finalize a first-draft script before finding financing. During the summer, they hope to have a cast in place and then begin their principal photography in the autumn when snow begins to hug the Sierra mountain tops.
“We’ll spend time to get glory shots as cinematically perfect as we can get them. We won’t have the resources of a large studio like Paramount or Fox,” McLaughlin said.
Much of the work will begin during summer into the fall months, he said, will depend on the director’s availability. McLaughlin said the West has an incredible history, especially in many areas of California and Nevada.
“I love the culture,” he explained. “People said the West died. I don’t think it ever did. The culture carries on out here but nothing has changed much.”
One of the areas they found intriguing was the old mining camp of Bodie, Calif., a short 13 miles southeast of Bridgeport and 67 miles west of Hawthorne. McLaughlin said Bodie didn’t want to change much, a characteristic he has found in other parts of the West. He said people who survive today on a core set of American values are still strong.
“It’s who we are as people – the fabric that makes us uniquely Americans,” McLaughlin said. “Going back to the Pony Express, to me, is a sacrifice for a greater good and community.”
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