Recently I watched the movie, The Hunt for Red October (1990). This is a real man’s movie filled with submarine warfare, geo-politics and its offspring – political brinksmanship, as well as great heaping gobs of pure testosterone. There’s no sex or romance in this tale, in fact there may not even be any speaking roles for women in the movie.

As the movie begins, we learn that the Captain of The Red October, which is the USSR’s newest and most technologically advanced nuclear powered submarine, has disobeyed his orders, and is heading for the United States. The question is – is he defecting or is he a madman who will bring about Armageddon by firing nuclear war heads at major US coastal cities?

Sean Connery portrays the Russian submarine Captain Marko Ramius whose real mission is to defect to the United States and bring with him the invaluable submarine and most of its officers. We learn this from a discussion at a dinner in the Captain’s Mess aboard the Red October.

But back on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. in the corridors of power, they’re not so sure. CIA analyst Jack Ryan, played by Alec Baldwin, is going to have to somehow figure out Ramius’s true intentions, then get aboard this submarine.

But doing so won’t be easy as the Russian naval fleet is trying to prevent Ramius from achieving his goal, and prevent the US from getting its hands on this submarine.

Onboard another Russian submarine which is trying to pinpoint Red October’s location, we meet Captain Tupelov who fully intends to sink the Red October. Or as he put it –

“We’re going to kill a friend, Yvgeni,
We’re going to kill Ramius

Fast forwarding ahead, a US submarine was able to detect and find Red October, and Jack Ryan was able to make contact with Ramius. Ryan is part of a small three-man party that will board the Russian submarine to verify Ramius’s intentions. All of this will happen below the sea’s surface. When the Americans finally board the submarine and are brought to the sub’s bridge and command center, they are face to face with Ramius and his senior officers.

Everyone, except Ramius is nervous. Ryan will ask one of the Russian sailors for a cigarette as a sign of comradeship. While Ryan puffs on the proffered cigarette, we will see that Captain Bart Mancuso, played by Scott Glenn, the senior American officer accompanying Ryan, is fast becoming more and more edgy. He had doubted Ryan’s analysis, and also distrusted the Russians. Yet somehow, here he is, right now, standing on the bridge in the Russian submarine.

At this point, noting Mancuso’s hand only inches from his holstered pistol, Captain Ramius will make a comment to his second in command, Captain Vasili Borodin, played by Sam Neill. Though it is in Russian, we clearly hear the word “buckaroo” and his statement makes Jack Ryan laugh.

Capt. Bart Mancuso to Ryan: “What’s so funny?”
Jack Ryan: “Ah, the Captain seems to think you’re some kind of cowboy.”

After it is confirmed that Ramius is indeed defecting, tensions ease. But not for long. The submarine still has to run the gauntlet and reach safe harbor in American waters.

However, there’s a rogue technician, ostensibly on board Red October to service the nuclear reactor. But he might possibly be a plant from the Russian Naval High Command, put in place to spy on Ramius. He is going try to foil everyones’ plans by sabotaging and sinking the submarine. Shots ring out, and in the close quarters, Borodin takes a shot to the chest. As he is dying, his last words are to Ramius: “I would have liked to have seen Montana.”

Later, after much heroics, and naval derring-do, The Red October has escaped from its pursuers and has safely made its way into the Penobscot River in the state of Maine. As the submarine, now surfaced, glides upriver, Ryan and Ramius are outside riding at the top of the submarine. It is night.

Captain Ramius: “…and the sea will grant each man new hope, as sleep brings dreams of home. Christopher Columbus.”
Jack Ryan: “Welcome to the New World Captain.”

And as the music rises, the film ends. I brought this film into The Arts as an introduction for this column, as a way to transition from the idea of the West that these fictional Russian submarine officers had dreamt of, a place that they had chosen to make their homes, to some actual art works which bring these concepts to you on a visual plane.

Not so long ago, America itself was the New World. Brave Europeans endured the hardships of crossing the seas to land on American shores. And still later, in quests for open lands and freedom, settlers and frontiersmen pushed their way across the heartlands of America, going further and further west. It wasn’t easy. Many failed and died en route. In addition to the hardship of the travel itself, the west was occupied by many ancient people. They were called Indians.

So the west was the scene of many fierce battles between the Cheyennes, or the Cherokees, or the Comanches, or the Apaches, or a myriad of other tribes who were fighting against the ever-increasing hordes of settlers who wanted to claim those sacred tribal lands for themselves. Hence the West came to be called The Wild West. Lawlessness was endemic. Men shot first and asked questions later. No doubt, Ramius and his men had seen many American movies which portrayed the settling of the West, or the destructive wars between the Cowboys and the Indians, which is why Ramius knew the term, “buckaroo”.

Today, the American West is still beautiful, with vast tracts of unsettled land, or land that has been set aside in perpetuity as National Parks, but the days of the Wild West are history. Yes, we still have Cowboys, but today they are known as cattlemen. Yes, we still have Indians, but today, they are called Native Americans. Now they are more apt to be artists or craftsmen, who apply paint to a canvas, or to some pottery, rather than to place war paint on their own faces.

Today if you want to look at the Old West, the best way to do so is to go to an art gallery. In this column we will look at some works of art which memorialize how it was back in the days of covered wagons, trappers, and gold prospectors. Back when men lived in and by the bounties found in the forest, when Indian warriors wore war paint and feathered war bonnets, when teepee villages or log-cabins were the norm, and all of it set amid the majestic wonder and beauty of the American West.

Let’s begin with some works by Martin Grelle. Grelle grew up in a small town in Texas and is now known as one of the finest and most recognized of western artists.

In the summer of 2008, his painting called Trappers In the Wind River (below) sold for $406,000. Look how much detail there is. Astounding, and an excellent example of Classic Realism.

Trappers In the Wind River by Martin Grelle

Apsaalooka Horse Hunters by Martin Grelle

Next, the above painting is called Apsaalooka Horse Hunters, and isn’t it spectacular. Look at the detail of the grasslands, the shadows, and the colors of the of the lead rider’s coat and blanket. Note the soaring mountains in the hazy background. Below we have the similar Last of the Pemmican. Note the hovering storm clouds above the trees on the mountainsides, and note how the horses look tired. Just superb.

Last of the Pemmican by Martin Grelle

Our last Grelle painting (below) is called Valley Guardian. Here we have a tired scout on his solitary duty to watch the entrance to the valley. Notice the details: the colors of his clothes and gear, the breath from the horse’s nostrils, as well as the angle of the sun and the horse’s shadows. Just wonderful.

Valley Guardian by Martin Grelle

Grelle has said: I have always been drawn to the mountains because of their grandeur. Whenever I paint people in a mountain or wilderness setting, I try to convey the larger-than-life effect that the landscape must have had on those individuals.

Just from looking at these four paintings, and measuring my own reactions, there’s no doubt of the impact.

Our next artist is Alfredo Rodriguez. His strength is in the portrayals of the people who inhabited the rich lands of the west rather than the lands themselves. Let’s have a look. Below is The Search Is On. These men are just a few of the thousands who were caught up in the California Gold Rush. Yes, the search is on, not only for the few gold nuggets that might be among the stones and pebbles of the creek bed that is being panned, but also for that night’s dinner which will have to be hunted down as well.

The Search is On by Alfredo Rodriguez

Rodriguez’s attention to detail is amazing. Check out the tufts of hair on the donkey’s head, the sheen on the cup hanging from the front prospector’s belt, as well as the light and shadow of each of their beards.

Hunting by the Gunnison River by Alfredo Rodriguez

Hunting By The Gunnison River is above. This is an old hunter who looks both fierce and gentle. He has won his battle that day with the two wild geese. His red coat might help other hunters avoid shooting him. Also note the amazing blue shirt beneath his coat, the color of the dead tree he is sitting on, his red bandana, and the effect of the sunlight coming from behind him. This is an amazing painting, The more you look at it, the more rich detail you can see.

Running Out of Time by Alfredo Rodriguez

Rodriguez offers us another old-timer in Running Out of Time (above). With his face in the sunlight, we can see how the many years of struggle have long since aged him. His shirt is worn through at his left elbow. He’s likely to not have shaved in two years or more. But his face is still dignified. His strong hand grips the handle of the shovel. And if he can just stand in the sun for a bit longer, he’ll be fine. Isn’t this a magnificent painting by Rodriguez?

Aspen Flower by Alfredo Rodriguez

Lest you think Rodriguez is only good at painting grizzled, old men, how about this beauty above. Rodriguez calls this one Aspen Flower. I see the aspen trees but the flower must be the beautiful woman wrapped in the bearskin. Not only is the detail of the bearskin remarkable, but the snow on the ground, and the leafless trees tell us it is winter, yet the painting is filled with warmth.

It is easy to see why Rodriguez is a successful artist. His paintings convey all we need to know about the dignity of the human spirit. His paintings are filled with majesty of the west and its occupants. Bravo!

Our last artist is Howard Terpning. He is one of the most honored and best-loved of all the western painters. His works can be found in the homes of discerning collectors as well as museums. Let’s begin with Thunder Speaks (below). This small troop of Indian braves are about to face a fierce enemy, Mother Nature. The dark brooding storm clouds are indeed ominous. But notice the smaller details like the flowers amid the grasses, the bedrolls behind the riders, and the twin feathers of the leader’s headpiece.

Thunder Speaks by Howard Terpning

The Lonely Sentinel (below) tells a different story. Notice how his feather atop his head leans in the same direction as windblown grasses at the horse’s feet. His blanket looks like it might be slipping. You can imagine how it must be to ride with one hand holding the reins, and the other gripping his rifle in the coldness of the winter. And one last detail – his horse’s hide is long and shaggy, no doubt as protection from the cold.

The Lonely Sentinel by Howard Terpning

Crossing the Ford (below) is also rich in details. Note how the river bank has been eroded by high waters in the spring. That soil has been washed away to who knows where. Yet the details include individual blades of grass in the foreground. I also see the ripples and eddies of the river itself. And in one impressive bit of imagination, note that the left backleg hoof of the trailing rider’s horse is raised as he is about to take another step into the stream.

Crossing the Ford by Howard Terpning

Our last Terpning painting (below) is called Chased by the Devil. Look how two riders are riding with just one hand on the reins, how all three riders wear bandannas on their heads, and how all three horses have those white blazes on their foreheads. The dust behind them may have been caused by what we now call thermals, but for those Indian riders back then, to them it was the devil that stirred the air.

Chased by the Devil by Howard Terpning

Howard Terpning has this to say about his art that fills his voluminous portfolio,

“The American Indian fascinates me;I could paint two lifetimes without running out of subject matter. I think it is important to tell the story of the Plains Indians because their history is our history…part of our heritage. The history of the West is the only history America has that is uniquely our own.”

And that ends our short discourse on some of the best painters of the American West. Sorry for such a small sample. But you must admit, these paintings are indeed rich in the flavors and feelings of those bygone times. And we have been enriched by looking back in time through these works of art. And speaking of looking back in time, Christopher Columbus sailed to the New World more than 500 years ago. Though I am nearly a month late, this article was to have been published on October 12th, the birthday of Christopher Columbus. Thanks for coming by.