Growing up, everyone burns a few bridges. Sometimes the fire’s deliberate, sometimes it’s not. The wrong gesture, the words said or unsaid, the letter never mailed, the kiss taken or refused. If we’re standing on solid ground, we can watch those bridges burn with a deep sense of satisfaction, or relief, or nothing more, perhaps, than a twinge of regret at what might have been. The Whole Wide World (1996) is the true story of an extraordinary young man who created worlds in his head, yet couldn’t stop himself from setting fire to the very bridges he was standing on.
In 1933, Robert E. Howard might very well have laid claim to being “the greatest pulp fiction writer in the whole wide world.” He was all of 27 years old. He’d sold his first story to Weird Tales at the age of 18. Never really leaving the small Texas town in which he was raised, staying with his parents until his death, Howard lived to write. Barbarians. Pirates. Cowboys. Puritans. Demons. Amazons. Pugilists. Robert Howard roamed the centuries and the continents in the company of Conan of Cimmeria, Solomon Kane, Kull the Conqueror, and Bran Mak Morn. All for 1/2 cent a word. Seventy bucks a year. Sitting at his typewriter, he wrote the way Conan entered a room: voice loud, kicking down the doors, striding in. Like Edgar Allen Poe, he seemed possessed of “an instinctive erudition about everything;” Odin rubbed shoulders with Celtic slaves of the Vikings, djinn, Texas Rangers, “hideously ancient” Yogis, Lie-Lip Canool, Lovecraftian horrors, and the “kerns and gallaglachs” of Macbeth.
There were probably easier ways of making a living. Certainly more lucrative ones. But as Vincent D’Onofrio, who plays Howard, says early in The Whole Wide World, “I had lots of jobs [but] I decided that the only way I could keep from working was to start writing. I get to stay at home. I’m the boss. The typewriter’s the employee. No arguments….I stretch my yarns. That’s easy for me–I’m verbose. I got plenty of words.”
Yarns. There’s a key word. Not short stories. Not fiction. There’s an awful lot of dialogue about writing in this movie. That’s the way it should be. Both of the main characters in The Whole Wide World are passionate about writing. The film is based on Novalyne Price Ellis’s autobiographical One Who Walks Alone. Novalyne had come to Howard’s hometown of Cross Plains, Texas, as a young schoolteacher with a secret dream of breaking into the Saturday Evening Post and Cosmopolitan markets. The dream was not going well. She was an excellent teacher, but a lousy writer. Aware of Howard’s growing success in the pulp market, Novelyne was determined to learn the secrets of the trade firsthand. A spirited, independent-minded young woman, she was not at all daunted by the prospect of spending time with the creator of Conan, “the damndest bastard there ever was.”
It turned out that the savage barbarian was actually an awkward Texas farm boy whose body seemed caught in a restless struggle between the imagination that tied him to his typewriter and the kinetic energy that would rather have seen him duking it out in the ring or discovering lost cities in the remotest of jungles. D’Onofrio’s performance is superb. The way he carries his body at one moment infuses his words with deepest conviction while, at another, highlights all the insecurities lurking behind the bravado.
Renée Zellweger plays Novalyne as the perfect foil for Howard. There’s a tough, practical streak in her that would give Conan himself pause. Howard’s biggest handicap is that his personal shortcomings blind him to the fact that this woman who loves him possesses many of the strengths he admires in his fictional characters. In one of the movie’s best exchanges, in a wheat field at night, Howard first pours forth his soul in a description of Conan: “He’s got a long black mane of hair, crystal blue eyes. He’s a fighter, born on the battlefield. Combat’s a way of life. It’s all he’s known, all he ever wants to know. He’s no soldier who was taught to fight. To him, it’s instinct. Believe me, he don’t take it from nobody. He’ll fight man, beast, devil, or god.” A while later, Howard ask Novalyne if any kids give her trouble at school. She answers with, “I don’t take it from nobody–man, beast, devil, or student” and you know she’s only half kidding. (The real Novalyne Price retired from teaching at the age of seventy-six!)
Sometimes the shoe’s on the other foot. When Novelyne teases Howard about his subject matter, telling him she’s never exactly seen any giant snakes or big-busted women frolicking in the Texas hills, Howard turns to her and says, “Oh, but I have. You look more closely next time.” And you know he’s not kidding at all..
But back to those burning bridges. The first one that goes down is Robert’s ties to his community. He doesn’t write for respectable magazines, and he’s sure people in Cross Plains see him as nothing more than a pervert who’s too lazy to do any real work. He returns the favor. He’ll have nothing to do with “tea drinkin’ cookie pushers.” Robert tells Novelyne why he can’t write about “real life”: “I can’t write about men who toil long on a farm, get drunk, beat up a wife who can’t fight back. You’ve lived a sheltered life. You don’t know these people out here. I do.”
The second bridge represented his ties to his time in history. For him the world was in decline, “maggots of corruption” were all around, men had allowed themselves to become “demonic and depraved.” The very popularity of some of his “yarns” was itself proof of the world’s defilement. The same man who penned lusty “bodice rippers” saw sex is an “infestation.” He was a high priest feeding a new Moloch. Or like a modern gladiator, he was providing decadent spectacles for the decline & fall of the new Roman Empire. Near the end, he tells Novelyne, when they’ve been talking of her mission as a teacher, “You’ve got a great cause. To make life worth living, a man or a woman’s gotta have a great love or a great cause. I have neither.”
He was wrong. The last bridge he burned was his own heart. Robert Howard’s ailing mother was the one great love of his life. Novelyne offered him another. Fatally, he couldn’t let go of the former, and the latter couldn’t quite reach him through the layers of literary machismo he’d wrapped around himself: “I’m the kind of man that needs to be free. I can’t be tied down. The road I walk I walk alone.” Yeah, sure. This from the same man who said, “Work ain’t worth a damn unless you do it for somebody you love.” Novelyne left Cross Plains to pursue her teaching career at Louisiana State University. Three weeks later, having just been told that his mother was dying, Robert E. Howard walked out to his car and took his own life. Left on his typewriter were four lines of farewell:
All fled, all done
So lift me on the pyre;
The feast is over
The lamps expire
The Whole Wide World is not a tragedy. It’s a tribute to a writer’s passion and a young girl’s love. Howard’s last words may haunt us, but I prefer those on the postcard from Mexico: “Dear Novelyne: The weather is good, the beer is lousy. Hoping you are the same. Bob.”
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
I’m not sure why, but it has been literally decades since I’ve read any Robert E. Howard stories. That hasn’t been the case with either H.P. Lovecraft or Clark Ashton Smith. My neglect of Howard is strange, given that he was one of my lifelines at university. I’d immerse myself in his worlds whenever the stresses of exams and term papers piled up. Twenty of his paperback collections have sat on my library shelves in all the years since, untouched. Only now, rereading the Conan novel The Hour of the Dragon and David C. Smith’s fine Robert E. Howard: A Literary Biography, do I realize what I’ve been missing. Here’s another reason I’m grateful for Dan Ireland’s The Whole Wide World. Had I not watched the film again to prepare for this column, too many more years might have gone by without infusions of Howard’s propulsive & often haunting storytelling.
After having just watched Renée Zellweger in her Oscar-winning turn in Judy, it’s also a happy coincidence that I get to reacquaint myself with one of the best early performances of her career. Zellweger and Vincent D’Onofrio are perfectly cast in Ireland’s film. In her speech at her first Oscar win, for Cold Mountain, Zellweger thanked D’Onofrio for teaching her how to act during the shooting of The Whole Wide World.
In any movie that touches upon the death by suicide of a main character, one would hope that the film would do two things: firstly, honor the life of that character; secondly, help the viewer gain some understanding of how she or he could have chosen death over life. The Whole Wide World succeeds admirably on both counts. Most importantly, it reveals how Howard’s life as a writer both enriched and undermined his life as a young man in rural Texas. The movie will undoubtedly draw many viewers to check out Robert Howard’s books and look further into his life, even in cases such as mine where he was once much more a part of my imaginative landscape.
Howard was as much a poet as he was a short story writer. He was raised on poetry, and wrote it all of his life. That poetic strain is there in the stories of Conan and Solomon Kane and Bran Mak Morn, along with both Lovecraft’s sense of elder, darker forces and doomed civilizations, and George R.R. Martin’s grim historical tapestries. We will never know what we have lost by this young man’s untimely death. He thought he could write the great novel of the pioneer days of Texas. He was probably right.
Claudio Rocha’s cinematography is impressive from the first shot of a bright red Model T Ford moving across the Texas plains. This Mexican cinematographer has done a lot of documentary work in recent years. Interestingly, Imdb has absolutely no biographical information for Rocha. An odd lacuna for a talented craftsman with over 60 credited works.
The evocative music score is by veteran Hollywood composer Harry Gregson-Williams. Although Gregson-Williams now has over a hundred credits on Imdb, The Whole Wide World was only his second feature film project. Another veteran composer, Hans Zimmer, was also involved with this project as a music consultant.
A taste of Robert E. Howard’s The Hour of the Dragon:
“I am no longer a priest of Mithra,” answered Orastes. “I was cast forth from my order because of my delving in black magic. But for Amalric there I might have been burned as a magician.
“But that left me free to pursue my studies. I journeyed in Zamora, in Vendhya, in Stygia, and among the haunted jungles of Khitai. I read the iron-bound books of Skelos, and talked with unseen creatures in deep wells, and faceless shapesi n black reeking jungles. I obtained glimpses of your sarcophagus in the demon-haunted crypts below the black giant-walled temple of Set in the hinterlands of Stygia, and I learned the arts that would bring back life to your shriveled corpse. From moldering manuscripts I learned of the Heart of Ahriman. Then for a year I sought its hiding-place, and at last I found it.”
“Give me that bow!” [Conan] gritted, indicating a longbow and quiver that hung from a tent-pole.
“But Your Majesty!” cried the squire in great perturbation. “The battle is lost! It were the part of majesty to yield with the dignity becoming one of royal blood!”
“I have no royal blood,” ground Conan. “I am a barbarian and the son of a blacksmith.”
Wrenching wawa the bow and an arrow he staggered toward the opening of the pavilion. So formidable was his appearance, naked but for short leather breeks and sleeveless shirt, open to reveal his great, hairy chest, with his huge limbs and his blue eyes blazing under his tangled black mane, that the squire shrank back, more afraid of his king than of the whole Nemedian host.
Conan glared at [Xaltotun] unspeaking, feeling a chill along his spine. Wizards and sorcerers abounded in his barbaric mythology, and any fool could tell that this was no common man. Conan sensed an inexplicable something about him that set him apart—an alien aura of Time and Space, a sense of tremendous and sinister antiquity. But his stubborn spirit refused to flinch.
A glance back, before the heavy, gold-bound teak door was closed, showed [Conan] Xaltotun leaning back in his throne-like chair, his arms folded, while a thin wisp of smoke curled up from the brazier. Conan’s scalp prickled. In Stygia, that ancient and evil kingdom that lay far to the south, he had seen such black dust before. It was the pollen of the black lotus, which creates death-like sleep and monstrous dreams; and he knew that only the grisly wizards of the Black Ring, which is the nadir of evil, voluntarily seek the scarlet nightmares of the black lotus, to revive their necromantic powers.
The Black Ring was a fable and a lie to most folk of the western world, but Conan knew of its ghastly reality, and its grim votaries who practise their abominable sorceries amid the black vaults of Stygia and the nighted domes of accursed Sabataea.
One can see why Lovecraft would have wished to initiate a correspondence with Robert Howard, and why their letters would fill a couple of volumes. Thanks to Kindle, amazingly affordable editions of most of Howard’s work are available online. The letters, however, are only available in hardcover.