Thursday, July 26, 2007

Movie: Waterhole Number Three (1967)

Here’s actor Bruce Dern on Waterhole Number Three, from his memoir Things I’ve Said But Probably Shouldn’t Have. A book which, you may remember, I enjoyed.

I do a movie with as funny a script as I’ve ever read, called WATERHOLE NUMBER THREE. The writer and director, Joe Steck, a funny wunderkind, had written a movie called THE PRESIDENT’S ANALYST, which Jim Coburn was also in. WATERHOLE NUMBER THREE, a western, starts out with Coburn in a card game where he loses everything he’s got ... He walks outside, pulls his gun out, and kills his horse. Now he’s got nothing. He looks into the lens and says, “So blame me. So what? I want to start from scratch, okay? Is that okay with you? Can we go on now?” He’s saying this to the audience. I thought, shit, this works. It’s funny. He goes into another saloon, and an old miner’s there having a drink. The old miner has an attack. As he dies, he gives Coburn a napkin containing a map to waterhole number three, where there sits a fortune. He spends the rest of the movie trying to find it. Unbeknownst to him, there’s a bunch of people also looking for waterhole number three: Timothy Carey; Strother Martin, Maggie Blye ... Jack Elam, and the guy who James Arness kills at the beginning of GUNSMOKE every week, Bob Welke. Tim Carey, the guy in Kubrick’s movie THE KILLING who kills the horse, is in it. Carroll O’Connor is the sheriff, and I’m the sheriff’s deputy. We’re looking for the guys who are looking for waterhole number three. L. Q. Jones is another one. Warren Oates. They all found waterhole number three one after the other, except for Coburn, who has the real map. It’s a MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD with horses instead of cars. And it works.

Sounds like a hoot, no? I rented it for the horse gag alone, even though I knew that Joe Steck isn’t credited as the writer of The President’s Analyst – a funny movie – and my Leonard Maltin guide lists William Graham as Waterhole Number Three’s director.

Guess what? The horse gag isn’t there. Neither is Coburn addressing the camera. Or the miner. The map is in the possession of another gambler Coburn guns down in the street.

Also not in the movie: Strother Martin, Jack Elam, Bob Welke (actually Wilke), L. Q. Jones, and Warren Oates. Roger Miller narrates the whole thing in song, but Dern doesn’t mention him.

In the interests of completion, I should point out another error. The movie doesn’t work. At all. I gave up on it after half an hour. (So yes, technically, all those actors could turn up in the portion I skipped. Maybe in disguise, a la The List of Adrian Messenger. If that’s the case, no one in recorded history has spilled the secret.)

Certainly there’s some poor copy editing here. Someone should have caught the misspelling of Wilke’s name. And cut one of the Timothy Carey references. And maybe even, you know, watched the movie. Or at least verified the cast list.

And perhaps Dern isn’t wrong. The opening he describes could easily have been in an early draft of the script, while the missing actors’ scenes wound up on the cutting room floor. It seems more likely, though, that this is a concrete example of the treachery of memory. What’s in your head isn’t necessarily what actually happened.

I just wish I could see the movie Bruce Dern remembers. It has to be better than the one that exists.